Milwaukee Brewers: Middle Child of the Midwest


What are the Milwaukee Brewers?

About a month ago, my colleague Patrick Dubuque was working on the Milwaukee Brewers installment of his Ironic Jersey Omnibus series over at NotGraphs. In support of the piece, he asked me, “What are the Brewers?” Here’s most of my response to Patrick’s inquiry, from which he quoted for his piece:

One thing that I think of when I think of the Brewers — or at least of Brewers fans — is a nostalgia for any time that isn’t now. Even though the team has had some success in recent years, there remains a fondness for the shitty ’90s and early ’00s. At opening day this year, for instance, I saw a Geoff Jenkins jersey. Jenkins was a decent player, to be sure (he had a few 4+ WAR seasons), but he was the Brewers’ best player for a long time, and I think that says a lot about those teams. But people seem to remember those times with a sort of reverence that is completely undue. It probably wouldn’t be too difficult to find people that would rather have the Jenkins/Jeromy Burnitz 3-4 combo over the Braun/Fielder combo of the recent teams. The uniforms in the ’90s were especially shitty.

It goes without saying that people love the 1982 AL Championship team that featured Yount and Molitor, amongst others, but lots of fans in Milwaukee can’t get over the Braves leaving, though most of those people are older, I’m sure. People are even big fans of Seattle Pilots gear, probably because it’s somewhat obscure, and makes them seem unique.

All of this speaks, IMO, to a sort of midwestern complex: we are at once embarrassed of who we are, and apologists for our pasts. There’s a statue of Bud Selig outside of Miller Park that was just erected last year, for crissake: the man who brought baseball back to Milwaukee, yes, but also the man who undermined their success for nearly two decades by insisting that small-market Milwaukee could never compete, allowing the team to throw their hands in the air and sign players like Jeffrey Hammonds as a half-assed effort to field a team that wouldn’t finish last. There are a number of reasons why Major League was filmed in Milwaukee…

The week before Patrick’s post, I had explored the results of the Brewers’ offseason contest in which fans were asked to submit designs for a spring training uniform. Both of these pieces, along with Patrick’s intial inquiry about the essence of the Brewers franchise/fan base, got me thinking more deeply — and for many days thereafter — about what the Milwaukee Brewers were, indeed. Why, to outsiders such as Patrick, does “Milwaukee’s baseballing history [seem] as flat as the cornfields that non-Midwesterners associate with its name”?

After many miles walked while considering this, I came up with a weak metaphor: that the history of the Milwaukee Brewers organization — and the accompanying psychology of the fan base — resembles the life of a middle child growing up in the midwestern United States, one confused about his/her identity who seeks refuge in nostalgia or stories from another time; one who fails to match the achievements of an older sibling and becomes crippled by self-imagined mediocrity; one who, somehow, overcomes that enough to find a smidgen of happiness and confidence in his/her middle-age only to abandon it for nostalgia again.

The Brewers were born sort of a bastard child. Bud Selig bought the Seattle Pilots one year into their existence, and it wasn’t a smooth transaction. The purchase was originally rejected by MLB owners in favor of finding local [to Seattle] options, but those prospective buyers fell through, which led to Pilots owner Dewey Soriano filing for bankruptcy, which led to an eventual approval of the sale to Selig and the move to Milwaukee. In a much circulated anecdote (and it’s true!), a truck with the team’s equipment had stopped in Utah, awaiting word on whether to head to Milwaukee or Seattle. The sale of the team was approved so late in the spring of 1970 that the truck barely delivered the goods on time, and the newly formed Brewers franchise didn’t have time to design and order new uniforms, instead having to play that first season in recycled Pilots uniforms with the old logo still visible on the jerseys — like an oft-ignored middle child hastily clothed in hand-me-downs.

And the new Milwaukee Brewers, of course, were not moving into a stadium built for them, but rather one that had been built for (though never occupied by) the minor league Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association, and used primarily by the Milwaukee Braves until 1965, when the Braves relocated to Atlanta. Of course, there was no need to build a new stadium for the new Brewers of the American League, as Milwaukee County Stadium was still in good enough condition. But the ghost of the Braves would haunt the place until it was demolished in 2000.

Herein lies one of my pet peeves with some contemporary “Brewers fans”: the donning of Milwaukee Braves apparel is still prevalent, even among those who were born long after the departure of the Braves. More than a few entries in the aforementioned Brewers’ “Design a YOUniform” contest from this past winter speak to this lingering Braves fetish. The Braves won a World Series in Milwaukee; Hank Aaron played for them (well, he played for the Brewers, too, but…); they were the city’s first MLB team — I get all that. But I sort of resent the fact that they created a cloud that has yet to lift over the only Milwaukee team that I — and that most “active” Brewers fans — have ever experienced first hand. When fans my age are nostalgic for a past that wasn’t theirs, it makes me wonder if it stifled the development of the Brewers’ organizational identity like an overachieving older sibling. Here is a team (i.e. the Brewers) that is, by my tastes, the best-named professional franchise in American sports — named after a working-class occupation, situated in a working-class neighborhood: the perfect basis for a midwestern sports franchise. They provided a chance to start fresh, to let go of the pain of losing the Braves. But for some baseball fans in Milwaukee, the Brewers have never and will never replace the Braves, even after fifty years. And that, I suppose, is very midwestern: the refusal to acknowledge the value of change; the propensity to punish yourself by longing for moments past while nitpicking the present.

Of course, this Braves fetishism was much more justified in the mid-1980s through the mid-2000s, when the teams were mostly awful and the majority of players were forgettable scrubs. Still, I never attached to the idea of the Great-and-Incomparable Milwaukee Braves as a child, though I suppose some of the kids I knew did. Frankly, it never even occurred to me: I watched the Brewers; I knew only the Brewers. The Brewers, though they’ve been shitty for most of my life, were exhilarating enough for me in my early years of fanaticism. Baseball itself was exhilarating enough, but I came to know baseball through the Brewers, and that instilled a sense of gratitude which, ever since, has allowed me to forgive all manner of disappointment on their part. That’s probably why any of us root for the “home team” even when the home team is nothing to special — because of nostalgia, yes, but also because of the gratitude we feel toward that team for bringing a diverse set of emotions and sensory experiences into one’s life, to which one becomes, well, sort of addicted.

After a several years of losing, the Brewers became contenders in the late ’70s, finally made the playoffs in 1981, then went to the World Series in 1982 on the back of a combination of young, homegrown stars and crafty veterans. But they lost the ’82 Series, and the very next year began a string of mediocrity that would last for nearly 25 years (just five winning seasons from 1983-2006, with zero playoff appearances). Bud Selig — the parent, I suppose, in this ever-weakening metaphor — failed to nurture the precociousness of those 1981-1982 teams, instead becoming obsessed with the rising cost of fielding a competitive team, saying he couldn’t afford it, and ultimately having to relinquish control of the team. (In this way, selfishly, I am glad that Selig was sucked into the commissioner’s role, because I am not sure that the family would have sold the Brewers as soon as they did otherwise.)

Then, at upon turning 35, the Brewers found a mentor of sorts in new principal owner Mark Attanasio, who led the team of investors that purchased the team prior to the 2005 season. Attanasio wanted to own a winning team, and made available ample resources (he increased player payroll, yes, but also gave Doug Melvin the okay to make bold trades for guys like CC Sabathia and Zack Greinke) to transform the Brewers from perennial also-rans into semi-regular contenders. By most accounts, the team has improved. They’ve made two playoff appearances in the last four seasons, including making it to the NLCS in 2011. They have one of the most prolific hitters of his generation — a true superstar — in Ryan Braun, who is under contract through at least 2020 and has invested himself in the city of Milwaukee. Part and parcel, their attendance has routinely been in the top third of the League despite having the smallest market size of all thirty MLB teams. Yet the team continues to have trouble developing young pitchers, and even with recent teams they’ve not been able to do much more than put a bandage over the gaping holes in the rotation and bullpen.

So what are Brewers fans, as an extension of the team, to do as they approach “middle age”? They’re presently mired in a precarious position, what, having tasted success and been made to believe they have what it takes to compete in an “unfair game”, but also being faced with grim prospects for 2013 and the near future. Before Brewers fans even could fully embrace a winning culture, before we ever really believed that our team could and would win, we have fallen back to nostalgia. The great ball-and-glove logo (adopted in 1978 and used through 1993) and still used on certain Friday night home games, outsells the current logo on hats and jerseys. Granted, it’s one of the awesomest logos in pro sports history, but the association with decades of embarrassing teams have, for me, disallowed purchase of any of the “throwback” garb. For some it evokes Yount, Molitor, etc., and I love those guys, too. But choosing to focus on those players as the basis of one’s present fandom seems counter productive to a “winning culture” — because, largely, those players didn’t win. Focusing on that era, even through one’s merchandise choices, perpetuates the feeling that the Milwaukee Brewers will always be losers and that we, as Brewers fans, will be okay with that, as long as there is something — even if it’s only an awesome logo — to attach to.

The midwest is easy. The cost of living is low relative to the coasts. The people are nice; the landscape, docile and, in parts, subtly beautiful. In the cities there is generous culture. Rich foodstuffs abound. We enjoy great big pillows on our beds and couches, backyard bonfires, and custard. So when our sports teams lose, we can easily find solace in other things. When they are not successful on a national level, that’s par for the course. When they lose, we might take it personally, but we also probably feel like it’s our fault, or at least that we deserve it.

These are very broad generalizations about the midwest and its people, to be sure, and like any such generalization, they do a disservice to individuality, and especially to the wildly successful among us (myself not included, it goes without saying). But I think it’s an accurate enough summary of my experience of the “Milwaukee Brewers Baseball” and certainly how I feel about it, personally.

Am I embarrassed of the Brewers or their fan base? No. I mean, it’s not like the fans in a “winning culture” are any more admirable. Am I proud of the same? Also, no. But I do dearly love Milwaukee and the midwest, and often ferociously defend it on many accounts. And I do identify with the arch of the Brewers franchise, for better or worse. And in that my first memories of my favorite game revolve around the Brewers, my allegiance to them isn’t going anywhere.

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