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Milwaukee's young talent is coming of age
MILWAUKEE -- The most likely candidate to compare this year's surprising Milwaukee Brewers to the mustachioed blue-collar crew that took the team to its only World Series appearance 25 years ago isn't playing along.
Brewers manager Ned Yost was a backup catcher on the 1982 team that fell short of winning the title, yet captured the city's imagination.
These days, Yost isn't entertaining theories that his Brewers are the reincarnation of that '82 team. And he's not embracing the national spotlight after a torrid April that is carrying over into May -- leaving the Brewers with the best record in the National League.
"Don't really care, to be honest with you," said Yost, whose team had just completed a 9-1 homestand, a franchise best for 15 years. "We're just playing baseball. We're not here, there or anywhere. We're in May. We've got a long way to go before we get somewhere. We just keep our nose to the grindstone and keep playing like we're playing, and we'll be OK."
The numbers seem to be lining up for the Brewers, including the most simple statistic of them all: Every 25 years, a team from Milwaukee reaches the World Series. The Braves won it in 1957 with 23-year-old MVP slugger Hank Aaron, and the Brewers nearly won it all in '82.
Despite that happy coincidence, there's really no magic formula, pill or potion that explains why the Brewers are among the league's elite teams early this season. They've benefited from patience, shrewd front-office moves and an infusion of cash.
"It's not the magical sports story that you want to write," said Craig Counsell, who signed as a free agent in the offseason. "It's about talent, that's the main thing. It's hard for people to believe, but that's how it works."
General manager Doug Melvin acknowledges the similarities to the 1982 team, even though those Brewers didn't catch fire until Harvey Kuenn took over a mediocre team, known as "Harvey's Wallbangers," and led it to a 72-43 record down the stretch behind future Hall of Famers Paul Molitor and AL MVP Robin Yount.
Melvin said the top two guys in the current rotation -- right-hander Ben Sheets and lefty Chris Capuano -- throw a lot like Cy Young winner Pete Vuckovich and Mike Caldwell. The Brewers' closer, Francisco Cordero, who just tied a major league record with saves on five consecutive days, is the 21st century version of Rollie Fingers.
The teams both featured switch-hitting catchers (Johnny Estrada now, Ted Simmons then), left-handed hitting first basemen with power (Prince Fielder, Cecil Cooper) and center fielders known for pop, not speed, in Bill Hall (35 homers last year) and Gorman Thomas (39 in '82).
Could the double-play combination of J.J. Hardy and Rickie Weeks be the next Yount and Jim Gantner?
"There are a lot of fun comparisons," Melvin said. "But we're still building this team to take a run at it for a few years. It's not a one-year deal."
Yost said it's not appropriate to compare Hardy, who recently had a 19-game hitting streak, to anybody.
"Don't think that he hasn't carried us to this hot streak, him and Prince. Absolutely. And you need that, you need guys getting hot like that," Yost said. "But to start comparing him to Hall of Fame guys is ridiculous right now."
Since 1992, the Brewers have not had a winning season, much less a playoff run.
Geoff Jenkins knows that better than any current Brewer. As a young prospect thrown into the fire in 1998, the left fielder experienced most of the 820 losses by the Brewers from 1998 to 2006.
"In the past we've had some just horrible teams, you come to the ballpark, it's July and you're already out of the race," Jenkins said. "This is a different year, different team, different set of guys and we're just going out there and having fun."
Jenkins had a chance to leave through free agency, but stayed after the organization told him to be patient and wait for upcoming prospects -- first-round picks Hardy (2001), Fielder (2002) and Weeks (2003).
At his first spring training, Fielder said Jenkins told the youngsters why he had stayed.
"He told us, 'You guys are going to be the addition, I'm just going to be here just to be the glue to keep us together,"' Fielder said. "It was pretty funny, and we just stuck with it."
Seven of the Brewers' nine opening day starters came up through the farm system, including Sheets. Add in a third-year owner, investment banker Mark Attanasio, who provided another $15 million to help sign Hall to an extension and add starter Jeff Suppan, and the Brewers' payroll is now $72 million. No team that spent less than $60 million last year had a winning record.
Former All-Star closer and current setup man Derrick Turnbow said it's about more than money, a measure in which Milwaukee never will compete against some of the other major league teams.
"If it was strictly based on payroll and superstars, the Yankees would be winning it every year. That's just not the way it works out. Every team has a chance to win it," Turnbow said.
Melvin's track record for trades has been outstanding. He acquired starters Capuano, Dave Bush and Claudio Vargas in offseason deals, and obtained Cordero from Texas for Carlos Lee.
Yost acknowledges he loves the famous "ball and glove" caps donned back in 1982, and again this season on retro Fridays. But he prefers to look forward instead of back a quarter-century.
"There's a part of me that wants to take our current logo and do something special with that, too," he said.