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Despite suffering from a lack of star power (the plague of many small-market teams) plus the playoff drought, Milwaukee narrowly gained the public funding needed for the new stadium. As they were preparing to break ground for the ballpark, the Brewers began to adopt a plan similar to the one used by Indians general manager John Hart in the early '90s, signing most of their core players to long-term contracts in anticipation of the revenue boost that will be generated by Miller Park. The soul of the teaminfielders Jeff Cirillo, Dave Nilsson, Jose Valentin and Fernando Vina; pitchers Cal Eldred and Scott Karl; and outfielders Jeromy Burnitz and Marquis Grissomis signed through 2000. Despite losing $6 million last season, the club increased its '98 payroll by 60%, from $22 million to $35 million. "For years it seemed like this team was just trying to survive from one year to the next," says Eldred, who has spent seven years in Milwaukee. "Now it's like we have an actual future."
Part of the franchise's optimism stems from its off-season move to the National League, a migration engineered by Brewers owner and acting-commissioner-for-life Bud Selig, who appears to be indulging in his own radical interpretation of interleague play. The switch creates a natural rivalry with the nearby Cubs and with the Braves, who abandoned Milwaukee in '66. The novelty of a new league has sparked season-ticket sales, which are running about 25% ahead of last year. The club record of 8,994, set in '93, will almost certainly be broken.
That manager Phil Garner spent 12 of his 16 years as a player in the National League should facilitate his team's adjustment. Alas, the Brewers are still a team without a superstar. "All our signings have improved our reputation," G.M. Sal Bando says. "But at best we've gone from a flyweight to a lightweight. We're still asked to beat the heavyweights, so we have to bob and weave and hope to win split decisions."
The Brewers' strength in recent years has been their pitching, but shoulder injuries to Ben McDonald (who was traded to Cleveland in December, only to be sent back last week for healthy lefty Mark Watson) and Jeff D'Amico leave them with only three healthy returning starters, Eldred, Karl and Jose Mercedes, none of whom had a winning record in 1997. While they have good hitters in Burnitz, Cirillo, Grissom, Nilsson and John Jaha, the Brewers finished 13th in the American League in runs because they lack a quality leadoff man and power, shortcomings they hope won't be as costly in the lower-scoring senior circuit.
If Milwaukee can hang in the race in baseball's weakest division, the NL Central, the most important player may become Grissom, who was acquired in the vexed deal involving McDonald. Grissom, who appeared in the last three World Series, could provide valuable experience down the stretch for a team that last season trailed the Indians by just 21Ú2 games on Sept. 2 but wilted, dropping 16 of its last 24 games.
Garner, who has the rare distinction of having managed the same team through five consecutive losing seasons, likes to point out that everybody in his Opening Day lineup except Grissom, a nine-year veteran, has between four and six years of major league experience. "That's when a player feels like he really belongs in the big leagues," Garner says. "We've been struggling with youth for years. Now is our window of opportunity to succeed, and so we're left to wonder, how much more time will it take?"
How many more days? A frequent question in Milwaukee. But when it comes to winning a pennant, there is no way to be sure if that countdown has really begun.
by Tim Crothers
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