After the Rockies got off to a slow start in the opening week of the season, losing two of three to the commonly-agreed-upon worst- team-in-baseball, my attention drifted to the local teams while touring the ballparks of the Midwest.
Part 1 of this stage of the tour recapped an entertaining and educational opening day at the friendly confines on Chicago’s north side, and with the south side Sox out of town, we simply drove past US Cellular Field, seeing the 2005 World Series Champions flag blowing in the wind.
So our next stop on the tour de beisból brought us to Milwaukee to see the Brewers take on the defending champion Cardinals of St. Louis. The ballpark and atmosphere were decidedly different. While Wrigley fans wandered the corridors from one beer vendor to the next, the majority of the fans in Milwaukee stayed seated in the family-friendly confines for the duration of the game. And a good game it would be…
Another highly anticipated pitching match-up awaited us: Wainwright vs. Greinke. And although the great Matt Holliday was the only notable ex-Rockie on either roster, Colorado’s historical connection to the Brewers is what interested me most.
As a kid, going to Denver Zephyrs games at Mile High between 1987-1992 meant rooting for guys who might one day play for the major league affiliate Milwaukee Brewers.
The Zephyrs won the American Association title in 1987 and took home the pennant in 1991, so there were a lot of successful players moving up to Milwaukee who we continued to follow in the box scores (most notably, Greg Vaughn, who ended up back in Colorado in 2003 to finish his career).
But there’s a more recent connection between Denver baseball fans and the Milwaukee Brewers which we should never forget…
The year was 2007, and with only three games remaining in the regular season the Rockies’ miracle run of 11 straight victories came to an end with a 4-2 loss at home to Arizona and the mighty Brandon Webb. To dull our playoff dreams even more, the great Greg Maddux got the win in Milwaukee that day, giving the Padres an 89-71 record to our 87-73, with only two games to go. The Rox had to win both games and the Pads had to lose both in order for Colorado to have any chance at their first post-season appearance in 12 years.
With nothing to play for, except foolish pride and a latent desire to help their sister club in Denver, the Brewers could’ve packed it in and let the scrubs get some game time.
They did not.
In a tight game, down 3-2 in the bottom of the ninth against HOF closer Trevor Hoffman, the impossible happened.
Check out the Win Probability Chart to see another baseball miracle captured in a graph chart. Prince struck out to start the inning, then Corey Hart doubled, then Laynce Nix struck out. With two strikes, two down, and a runner on second, the diminutive son of my favorite all-time player came up and ripped an RBI triple to tie the game and keep the Rockies’ season alive
The most intriguing at-bat of 2007, Tony Gwynn Jr.’s hit off of his adopted uncle gave the Brewers the confidence and momentum to win the game in the 11th inning and to win the next game as well. And with the Rockies taking care of business at home against Arizona in the final two games, both the Padres and Rockies ended the regular season at 89-73 to force that famous play-in game, where Holliday and the boys slid chin-first into the playoffs.
And these good memories of the past suddenly bring us full circle to the good-natured heckling in the present: our left-field section of Brewers fans jeering playfully at Matt Holliday as he paces impatiently in Cardinal colors, while the home team puts up three runs in the 6th to force Wainwright off the field.
Miller Park opened in 2001 (replacing the Brewers’ former home field in Milwaukee County Stadium where the Packers also played half of their home games), thanks to $290 million of taxpayer money in 1996. The increase in sales tax, planned for a twenty year period, was very controversial in Wisconsin — in large part because public funds were being used to fund a privately owned sports team. This scheme was in direct opposition to the way in which the community owned Packers operated, and still do today.
Further controversy came during construction of the stadium when a crane collapsed while trying to move a 400-ton section of the roof, killing three workers, delaying the opening of the ballpark for another year. Just trying to imagine how the unique, convertible-style retractable roof was completed made us dizzy.
Local Brewers’ fan David Marten from Stevens Point Wisconsin, described the place perfectly, calling it a “cathedral ballpark”, as gigantic panes of glass cast glorious rays of light and shadows onto the natural grass field, which is still able to grow when the roof is closed in this stadium sanctuary. Even on a sunny, relatively warm spring day like this one, they closed the roof — perhaps to create the ideal conditions under which Greinke’s curveball could baffle the Cardinal hitters, exemplified in his final pitch: a 64 mph slow hook to catch Yadier Molina looking. Greinke’s final line: 7 IP / 3H / 0R / 0BB / 7K
With Bob Uecker back in the booth a day after his son tragically died on opening day, the atmosphere was hopeful, laid-back, and fun. The Milwaukee baseball rituals, for instance, were hysterical: the sausage race, fried cheese curds in the mini plastic helmet, Bernie Brewer going down the yellow slide after every home run, and the singing of “Roll Out the Barrel” (in addition to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”) during the seventh inning stretch — instead of that antiquated, superfluous and personally disagreeable song added unilaterally across the league after 9/11.
Although fans here aren’t forced into buying expensive tickets for some cheap grace, the family-friendly atmosphere inside this baseball cathedral is mitigated somewhat by the dynamic pricing scheme (also known as demand-based pricing), which basically prohibits low-income families from seeing quality match-ups.
Fitting into the family-friendly theme, however, is the Little League park — Helfaer Field — located directly next to the big league cathedral, built on the old infield of Milwaukee County Stadium. And the tailgating scene in the parking lots before the game are the largest I’ve ever seen at a baseball stadium, with everybody grilling meat, drinking beer, and tossing the baseball around.
After the home team’s 6-0 shutout victory over the defending champs, hoards of fans piled into the Brewers Team Store to buy some exorbitantly expensive merchandise — including my girlfriend, who felt compelled to buy a Brewers t-shirt for 30 bones, or clams, or whatever you call them.
Cleverly contrived marketing by the Milwaukee franchise, or just a fun and memorable day at a uniquely comfortable ballpark…I’m not sure. Doesn’t seem like I’ve ever seen anything like that at Coors Field after a Rockies victory.
But then again, a winning team always seems to have a more attractive bandwagon to jump on. Which is why my next post, from Seattle, will probably make most Mariners fans weep for the future — and make us Rockies fans feel relatively grateful for our above-average team.
For the first five weeks of the season, Kevin Kroh will be traveling across the country — from big city stadiums, to small town sandlots — chattering with baseball fans all over the nation on everything from the cold, hard facts of the stat sheet, to the utopian fantasies of community ownership models. With his trusty audio recorder and baseball-loving girlfriend at his side, he’ll be posting unique perspectives from around the horn, and bringing it all back home to the Rockies in this year’s “Pro Baseball Partnership Tour: cross-country conversations in the Year of the Fan.”