May Days (cont.)
On May 12 of last year Milwaukee was 25-11, eight games up in the National League Central. Fielder was on his way to 50 home runs. Hardy was on his way to the All-Star Game. Leftfielder Ryan Braun, the eventual NL Rookie of the Year, had not even been called up yet. When the Brewers ultimately failed to make the playoffs, their fade was attributed to inexperience. None of the core players -- Fielder, Hardy, Braun, Weeks and rightfielder Corey Hart -- were older than 25. None had been in the majors for more than two years. Their time would come. Perhaps as soon as this year.
"I was standing with Prince on the field at the World Series last year," said Mark Attanasio, the Brewers' principal owner, of the day Fielder received the Hank Aaron Award. "I told him, 'We could be here.' "
Major leaguers travel in a fashion that makes losses easier to stomach. The team bus snaked through the dusk of downtown Houston to Hobby Airport to an executive terminal aptly named Million Air. At Million Air no one is subjected to the indignity of a metal detector. The bus pulled right onto the tarmac, and players boarded a Midwest Air MD-80, with seat backs bearing the Brewers' logo. Dinner options, printed on a menu, included assorted cheeses, beef enchiladas, tarts and warm cookies served with cold milk. Fielder, who gave up meat in the off-season, was served the vegetarian option.
For a young team, many of the Brewers have been together a long time. Fielder, Weeks and Tony Gwynn Jr. were playing together five years ago at Class A Beloit (Wis.), where the road trips were not quite as deluxe. "I remember one bus ride in the middle of the summer from Beloit to Dayton, and about four hours in, the air conditioning broke," Gwynn said. "Guys were sweating and taking off their shirts and just sitting around in their boxers. We opened the ventilation on the roof, but then it started raining so everyone got wet, and we had to shut it. It smelled so bad in there. And now -- we're flying charter with DVD players and plenty of air conditioning that never breaks."
Players used to treat team planes like clubhouses in the sky, surfing food trays down the center aisle. Now trips are not quite as fun. Per dress code, the Brewers wear suits or sport coats, usually accessorized with the biggest headphones they can find. By the time their plane had risen over the Louisiana bayou, most players were watching movies, listening to music or fast asleep. Five of them -- Hall, Craig Counsell, Gabe Kapler, Guillermo Mota and Mike Rivera -- had resumed the regular game of Texas hold 'em that they play on every flight. "Just for chips," Kapler clarified.
For the 32-year-old Kapler every game counts. He retired in 2006 and spent last year managing Class A Greenville (S.C.) in the Red Sox organization, part of his 10-year plan to become a major league manager. There was one problem: Kapler found that he desperately wanted to play again. So last winter Milwaukee signed him as a backup centerfielder, and while Mike Cameron served a 25-game suspension to start the season for taking a banned stimulant, Kapler filled in and hit four home runs in his first 23 at bats. He will not be managing again anytime soon.
When the Brewers landed in Fort Lauderdale at 10:30 p.m., two buses and a stretch limousine were waiting for them. The limo was for Gagné. What timing. He had just blown a save -- he was in fact a week away from losing the closer job -- and now he was going to parade down Ocean Drive? Gagné, in fact, had ordered a town car, not a limo. And his trip was not to South Beach but to Vero Beach, a sleepy retirement community two hours north where the Dodgers held spring training. Gagné, who spent 12 years in the Dodgers' organization, was headed to see friends in Vero. It was Braun who was headed to South Beach, to meet up with some old University of Miami buddies for a late dinner at his favorite restaurant, Prime 112.
The players could afford to stay out late because they were off on Monday. The ones who did not sleep until noon reported early to the main pool at the Hyatt Regency Bonaventure in Weston, Fla., a resort designed to look like a rain forest. "I just want to sit by this pool and do nothing," Hardy declared. Then he saw the Ping-Pong table next to one of the tiki huts, and he couldn't sit still anymore. Hardy, who hosts an annual team tournament during spring training at his house in Tempe, Ariz., challenged Hart to a match. Before long, about a third of the Brewers' roster was playing either Ping-Pong or underwater basketball. Among the spectators was team announcer Bob Uecker, finally in the front row.