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SI FOR KIDS
Hard work and "quality people" won't be enough for this talent-thin club
By David Fleming
Watching Jeromy Burnitz's morning routine in spring training is perhaps the best way to understand why the Brewers' power-hitting rightfielder is successful. On his second day in Phoenix, Burnitz, who led all lefthanded hitters in the National League in homers and RBIs last season, is in the batting cage so early that there's a rooster crowing in the field behind him. Then, after belting a few buckets of balls, he heads into the clubhouse to view game tapes so he can study his swing.
Manager Phil Garner has studied that swing too. "Jeromy looks like a big storm up there at the plate," says Garner. "He's always taking big, aggressive swings, and sometimes he gets fooled and looks a little silly, but he gets right back in there swinging the same way the next time."
Burnitz, 29, is iron-willed and independent-minded, the type of individual Garner likens to an Ayn Rand character. Body? He's pure Bluto. Honesty? He's totally brutal. "It's obvious that our talent level is never gonna be unbelievable," says Burnitz, a green marshmallow clover from the Lucky Charms cereal he's eating hanging from his chin. "We always have high-quality people who work hard, but the bottom line is simple: It's not enough, not in this era when you need great players to win. Hey, a lot of teams in baseball can't compete for a playoff spot."
Cirillo and Burnitz bat two-three in the order. The leadoff hitter is second baseman Fernando Viña, who topped the team in hits (198), runs (101) and trade rumors. (He was so convinced he'd be moved for a starting pitcher this spring that he scanned newspaper clips during batting practice, looking for signs of a deal.) The cleanup batter will be Sean Berry, a platoon third baseman with the Astros last season who was signed as a free agent and shifted to first base because the Brewers are desperate for a righty power bat. (He hit only 13 homers in '98 though.) Berry's acquisition allows Dave Nilsson to return to his natural position behind the plate, a move the team hopes will light a fire under the underachieving Aussie. Another concern is the health of 31-year-old centerfielder Marquis Grissom, who was hampered by a pulled hamstring for much of the second half last year.
The Brewers' pitching has even bigger question marks. Milwaukee starters had a 5.01 ERA in 1998, the third highest in the National League. Don't expect that number to improve dramatically this season. Leading the rotation is lefthander Scott Karl, who was the only Brewers hurler to make 30 starts last year. The team's other 10-game winner, 23-year-old junkball righthander Steve Woodard, reported to camp almost 30 pounds lighter than last season (243). "He looks anorexic," says 235-pound closer Bob Wickman.
Unfortunately, the rest of the staff looks a little thin, too. After Karl and Woodard, the team will rely largely on untested pitchers or retreads. Lefty Bill Pulsipher has been slowed by recent back surgery, and righty Cal Eldred is recovering from off-season surgery on the elbow of his pitching arm. The team is counting on Jim Abbott, who retired in 1997 but made a successful comeback late last season (he went 5-0 with the White Sox in September), to continue his winning ways. Lefty Rafael Roque, 25, also hopes to keep rolling after an impressive call-up in September. Roque wears number 52 but would be better suited to wearing 64, since he gave up homer number 64 to both Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.
With Milwaukee's starters getting hammered often last season, the Brewers' bullpen got lots of work. Wickman had 25 saves, but he was overused (telling stat: his second half ERA was 6.68, compared with 1.80 in the first half) and lost zip on his fastball as the year progressed. The setup men are righthander Chad Fox (64 strikeouts in 57 innings) and lefty Mike Myers, who, like Wickman, had a terrific first half (0.58 ERA) but a horrendous second half (6.16).
In that case, it looks as if the Brewers' only postseason trip will be a short one -- right across the street to their new home in Miller Park.
Issue date: March 29, 1999
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