You've just been traded to the Milwaukee Brewers. What's the first thought that comes to mind? As word-association games go in baseball, Brewers is as close to a stumper as you can get. Milwaukee hasn't had a winning season, an elected All-Star starter, a 17-game winner or a top 10 MVP finisher since 1992, when Brewers legends Paul Molitor and Robin Yount were playing. You know a team has an identity crisis when two of the highest profiles in the organization belong to mascots, one of them a chubby guy in lederhosen and the other an eight-foot-tall sausage—the beloved brat—in tights. The Brewers? The wurst.
Last July 28, upon being summoned to the office of his manager, Charlie Manuel of the Cleveland Indians, Richie Sexson had to play that parlor game for real. Manuel told Sexson, a 6'7" first baseman-outfielder, to have a seat. He then informed Sexson that he was going to baseball's gulag. The Indians had traded him to Milwaukee.
The first thing that flashed through Sexson's mind was County Stadium, the 47-year-old park with all the ambience of a dungeon. The place was so waterlogged that Brewers outfielders often changed wet socks and shoes between innings. The clubhouse carpet reeked of mildew, and the weight room was dotted with buckets to catch water dripping from the ceiling. Man, Sexson thought, it's going to be tough to motivate myself to play there.
After Sexson arrived in Milwaukee, however, he quickly found reasons to smile. For one, he had a steady job—hitting fourth and playing first base—for the first time in his brief career. For another, there was a clubhouse full of easy marks who weren't hip to his arsenal of pranks. The Brewers haven't been the same since Sexson arrived. They played winning baseball after the trade (30-28 following a 43-61 start), laughed more than they had in years and took their last whiff of rotting carpet. County Stadium was demolished after last season, replaced by Miller Park, a retractable-dome stadium that opens on April 6.
"The difference he made in our team was immediate—as soon as he put the uniform on," says Milwaukee manager Davey Lopes. "He's a great young talent who hasn't touched what he's capable of doing. This deal will go down in history next to those for [Lou] Brock and [Jeff] Bagwell. Taking nothing away from the guys we traded, but Richie is going to have the kind of career that will make people forget whom he was traded for."
Desperate for seasoned pitching in what would be a vain push for a playoff spot, Cleveland obtained pitchers Jason Bere, Bob Wickman and Steve Woodard. Milwaukee received pitchers Kane Davis and Paul Rigdon and infielder Marcos Scutaro with Sexson.
Sexson and leftfielder Geoff Jenkins, 26, Sexson's friend and partner in pranks who's five months older and bats ahead of Sexson in a suddenly fertile lineup, give Milwaukee its best pair of young players since Molitor joined Yount in 1978—not to mention its best comedic duo since Laverne and Shirley. With rightfielder Jeromy Burnitz, 31, following Jenkins and Sexson in the lineup, the Brewers are one of only two National League teams with three players who hit 30 home runs last year. (The Houston Astros are the other.) "The middle of their lineup can be as scary as anybody else's in our league," Arizona Diamondbacks lefthander Brian Anderson says. "You know if you make a mistake, those guys can hit the ball 500 feet. The Brewers remind me of Cleveland from a few years ago. They have a good, young team that could be good for the next six, seven, eight years."
Jenkins, Sexson and Burnitz have more in common than power. The Blond Bombers all were rejected by other organizations, take ferocious cuts (their 415 whiffs last year be damned), signed contracts worth a combined $55.5 million within four days of one another this spring, sport whiskers on their chins and are partial to peroxide in small ( Jenkins), medium (Sexson) and large (Burnitz) doses. The bleach boys are giving the Brewers a good name. "I told them we're going to go as far as they carry us," says Lopes, whose 2000 team ranked last and third to last in the National League in on-base and slugging percentages, respectively. "I expect a lot from them. People better anticipate we'll be a lot more dangerous offensively."
Word association number 2: venison jerky. Miller Park delicacy or the name for Jenkins's spectacular hack? With a bat in his hands Jenkins, a lefthanded hitter, is one gear beyond John Daly. Before he settles into his stance, he waggles his bat with the barrel pointed at the pitcher. Then he lifts his right knee nearly belt-high and unleashes a quick swing with such force from his thick legs that his body bends backward. Jenkins crushed 34 homers last year, a number that would have been higher if he hadn't missed three weeks with a broken finger. He hurt himself swinging, of course.
"He gets more torque from his legs than any hitter I've seen," says Brewers vice president of player personnel Dave Wilder. "But if you think his swing is violent now, it's nothing compared with what it was in high school. I scouted him then [for the Atlanta Braves]. Now that was violent. Whoa! Every pitch, he'd swing as hard as he could. He'd fall down sometimes. I liked him, but the scouting director wrote up a report that said his swing was much too violent, and that he would never learn to control it. He didn't think he was worth drafting."