Nine brewers appeared on the ballot for last month's All-Star Game, and those nine players combined couldn't muster as many votes as Tony Fernandez, a part-time infielder for the Indians. Brewers catcher Mike Matheny and second baseman Fernando Vina each finished dead last at his position. Jeff Cirillo, the team's token All-Star invitee, was 11th in the voting at third base. "If I had my way, I'd have nine Ken Griffeys, five Roger Clemenses and a bunch of $3 million players from Japan," says Milwaukee manager Phil Garner. "But we've collected the best talent we can at our salary level, and these no-names can play."
Indeed, these no-names have been baseball's hottest team recently, having run off nine straight wins—Milwaukee's longest streak since 1988—before losing to the Mariners last Saturday night. In a span of just 30 hours on July 28 and 29, the Brewers executed a triple play; helped pitcher Steve Woodard win his major league debut with a 12-strikeout performance against Clemens and the Blue Jays; and swept back-to-back, doubleheaders against Toronto to gain 3½ games on division-leading Cleveland in the American League Central. At week's end Milwaukee was in second place, 3½ games back.
Brewmeister Garner has molded a team in his own image: scrap iron. The Brewers were winning even though they have scored the second-fewest runs in the league. The team has very little power—outfielder Jeromy Burnitz leads the team with 19 homers—and not a single .300 hitter. To Garner's surprise, pitching has been his club's salvation. The staff had a 1.88 ERA during the winning streak, despite the loss of ace Ben McDonald to a season-ending rotator-cuff injury on July 17 and of closer Doug Jones (who had converted 23 of 24 save opportunities) to a lower-back strain that had sidelined him for 19 games before he returned on Sunday. (Jones himself was a replacement for Mike Fetters, last season's closer, who missed the first month with a strained left hamstring.)
Injuries have decimated the team's offense as well. First baseman John Jaha, the top RBI producer last season, hasn't played since May 31 and is out for the year after undergoing shoulder surgery, and outfielder Marc Newfield played in only 50 games before being shelved for the season with a shoulder injury of his own. Vina and shortstop Jose Valentin have also missed long stretches.
All this carnage leaves the team with an active-roster payroll of about $12 million, only slightly higher than that of the Pirates, baseball's bargain-basement darlings. "This team has really got nothing to lose," says Milwaukee first baseman—designated hitter Dave Nilsson, who at week's end had hit 10 homers since the All-Star break. "We're playing hard and hungry."
Considering the Brewers' 54-54 record through Sunday, Milwaukee fans exhibit a healthy Midwestern skepticism about the playoff prospects of a team that hasn't reached the postseason since losing the World Series in '82. That's the longest drought in the American League. The next two weeks are critical: Milwaukee, which is last in the league in road victories, will make a tough nine-game West Coast road trek through Anaheim, Oakland and Seattle.
For now, though, these are heady times for the Brewers, who have endured four straight losing seasons, in which they finished a combined 95½ games out of first place—a dismal period that caused a frustrated Garner to consider leaving the team. "Some philosopher said, 'There can be no passion without pain,' " Garner says. "Or to put it in less existential terms, we've had a hell of a lot of damage done to us lately. It's about time we became the dider and not the didee."
It's a baseball tale that strikes fear into any major league general manager who is about to trade young prospects for an established player. On Aug. 31, 1990, Boston general manager Lou Gorman, desperate for bullpen help in a pennant drive, acquired Houston middle reliever Larry Andersen in exchange for an anonymous Double A third baseman who had hit only four home runs in 136 games that season. Four years later that third baseman, Jeff Bagwell, would be a Gold Glove first baseman and win the National League MVP award.
A lot of prospects changed teams in trade-deadline deals last week, and what follows is a scouting report on the players whose departures are most likely to haunt their former employers in the future.