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.
THE FIRST day of a series is always the busiest. By 12:15 p.m. on Tuesday—six hours and 55 minutes before the first pitch—every Milwaukee coach was in the visitors' clubhouse at Dolphin Stadium. Manager Ned Yost sat at a locker with bench coach Ted Simmons, reflecting one more time on the final at bat in Houston and whether the Brewers should have pitched around Pence. Using laptops, pitching coach Mike Maddux reviewed video with Gagné and worked on the closer's release point, and batting coach Jim Skaalen studied Marlins lefthander Scott Olsen, the opposing starter that night. Skaalen had already written down every pitch that Olsen had ever thrown to Brewers hitters, looking for trends and tendencies. For instance, he noticed that Olsen always started Weeks with a fastball away. "I have to make sure I remind Rickie about that before the game," Skaalen said.
Skaalen also had an important message for all of his hitters: Relax. "Coming out of spring training, they were trying to do too much," the coach said. "They all wanted to get on the pace they had last year, and they started overswinging. I want to tell them, 'Quit the expectations. Stay under control. Stay soft. Just see the stinkin' ball.'"
When Cameron, a 14-year veteran who had just returned from his suspension, walked into the clubhouse, he was greeted by a stuffed parrot hanging from his locker with a bandage over one eye, a cigarette dangling from its mouth and a miniature Padres hat on its head. Cameron, who played for San Diego last season, blurted out, "What the hell is that?" The stuffed parrot responded, "What the hell is that?" Cameron looked at the parrot sideways. It was repeating every word he said. The Padres, who were in Florida right before the Brewers, had left the parrot so Cameron would have someone to keep him company on the rest of the trip. "I don't think I want it," Cameron said.
After stashing the parrot in Fielder's locker, Cameron pulled out a black case containing five pairs of Oakley sunglasses, each one designed for different sun conditions—dark shades for bright days, lighter shades for overcast days. Given the glaring South Florida sun, Cameron settled on the darkest ones. Tony Migliaccio oversees all of the players' equipment, from sunglasses to stirrups. When Fielder felt as though his jersey was constricting his swing a few weeks ago, Migliaccio ordered one with wider sleeves. When Braun got a few hits with a new bat from Louisville Slugger, Migliaccio ordered a half dozen.
The new bats were of no help that night, however. Milwaukee mustered only two hits and was shut out 3--0. As much pressure as the young players were under to produce, there was substantially more pressure on Yost to lead. He was ejected in the third inning for arguing a called third strike and watched the rest of the game on a small television in the visiting manager's office. Every time he wanted to plan a pitching change, he sent a clubhouse attendant to fetch Maddux in the dugout. Maddux then hustled back to the clubhouse between innings to talk strategy. "The umpires think they're kicking you out of the game," Yost said, "but they're not. They're just sending you to the locker room."