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August 29, 2011
Naked golf, baby oil rubdowns, party rockin' in the house every night—Nyjer Morgan, T-Plush and the rest of Milwaukee's best team in nearly 30 years are taking their city for a ride
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August 29, 2011

Strange Brew (but It's Working)

Naked golf, baby oil rubdowns, party rockin' in the house every night—Nyjer Morgan, T-Plush and the rest of Milwaukee's best team in nearly 30 years are taking their city for a ride

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Like Morgan, the Brewers have at times felt repressed. They were scolded by the Cardinals in 2008 for untucking their jerseys in postgame celebrations, by the Giants in '09 for falling down around Fielder after a walk-off homer and by their own managers for violating various codes of conduct. They deteriorated in each of the past two years under Ken Macha, bottoming out with 85 losses last season. When Roenicke, who had been an Angels coach for 10 years, was hired last November, he asked himself, "Is it better to hold them under a lot of rules or let them go and make mistakes and learn?" He flew to Milwaukee, watched video of the players, quizzed executives and made his choice.

"Ron embraced the youthfulness and craziness of this team," says Axford, 28. "We're not like most people. You have to cut us loose and let us go." As Axford speaks, he twirls handlebars on the ends of his Fu Manchu mustache, so long that he refers to them as "choppers." Rollie Fingers, the Brewers' closer in '82, would beam. Axford is a former cellphone salesman and bartender who used to spend off-season nights mixing drinks at a tavern in Hamilton, Ont. Now he has a streak of 34 consecutive saves and a total of 37 in 39 chances this season, to go with a 2.28 ERA and 72 strikeouts in 59 1/3 innings. When the indie band The National swung through town for a concert in April, they decorated their speakers with Axford bobbleheads.

Happy hour in the Brewers' clubhouse starts early, with Morgan flexing in two coats of baby oil, Axford scanning the room for the putters used in naked golf, and the team listening to a head-rattling mash-up of music ranging from Marilyn Manson to Lil Wayne. In the dugout the starting pitchers recline in their personal cushioned chairs, including one they claim has supernatural powers to improve changeups. Batters commemorate hits by raising their claws and growling like beasts from the movie Monsters, Inc. They celebrate walk-off wins by punching one another in the kidneys. All teams have customized handshakes ... but the Brewers have customized handshakes with their security guards.

The Brewers irritate some traditionalists—or as Morgan calls them, "plain-Jane wonderbreads." This year St. Louis manager Tony La Russa has accused the Brewers of everything from throwing at Albert Pujols to stealing signs to changing the lighting at Miller Park depending on which team is at the plate. (Major League Baseball dismissed a formal complaint about the latter). Last week catcher Jonathan Lucroy flipped his bat after a home run, and a couple of Dodgers recoiled. "As long as I can remember, that's how they were," says L.A. outfielder Tony Gwynn Jr., who came up through the Brewers' organization. "Everybody had fun. Everybody showed emotion. It was a relaxed environment. You add Nyjer to that mix, and he is the ingredient that makes it all bubble over."

The rich teams usually win the World Series. Sometimes the nutty ones do: the 2004 Red Sox, the '05 White Sox, the '10 Giants, all delightfully unstable. "The Giants have Brian Wilson," says Melvin. "We've got Nyjer." Morgan is 6 feet, 175 pounds, with seven stolen bases, yet on the field he claims he is 6'6", 240 and as fast as Usain Bolt. He pulls back an imaginary bow and arrow to imitate Bolt's prerace routine. After a walk-off hit in June against the Mets, Morgan kept running because he thought it was still the eighth inning. After a walk-off sacrifice fly against the Pirates on Aug. 14, Morgan didn't run at all, standing at home plate as if he had swatted a second-deck grand slam. This is all part of Plush-mania, along with the T signs he makes with his hands at big moments and the television interviews he ends suddenly with the call: "Gotta go!" In San Francisco, fans saw Morgan signaling outs with his violent cross-armed motion and accused him of flipping them off.

Morgan is not among Milwaukee's five most accomplished players, yet two of his jersey T-shirts are among the Brewers' top five sellers, with Plush ranked first. Many athletes have capitalized on the marketability of their nicknames, but Plush is no Prime Time. "It's not an act," says Hawkins. "It's really him. If we weren't winning, I don't think it would go over too well. But if it keeps him playing well and running around with a smile on his face, we'll go along." Still, Hawkins reminds Morgan to read tweets three times before sending them. Roenicke meets with him regularly to clarify rules. The team does have rules.

According to Hawkins there is no discernible difference between Morgan and Plush. According to Trina Perry, who technically brought them both into the world, the contrast is subtle but significant. She can hear the transformation in her son's voice, the way it heightens and quickens. Both characters are outgoing, but Plush is outrageous. "He uses Plush as a way to release pressure," says Perry. "When things get too tense, he can go there and keep it fun and light. It helps him relax."

Morgan thanks Braun and Fielder for allowing both him to fit in, but they are just as grateful. The main story line in Milwaukee this season could have easily been Fielder's potential departure as a free agent this winter, and the juxtaposition between him and Braun, who in April signed an extension to stay with the Brewers through 2020. Fielder may look like an Ewok, but he is not always cuddly, and Morgan has shielded him from unwanted attention. "Prince is the most intense person I know," says Gwynn Jr., the godfather of Fielder's two children. "I have never seen him smile as much as this season."

Realistically the Brewers cannot expect Fielder to re-sign, yet they refuse to think of themselves as part of baseball's Northeast feeder program. When Los Angeles investment banker Mark Attanasio bought the club in 2005, the payroll was $27.7 million. The Brewers had the smallest television market in the major leagues, and the most fans they had ever drawn was 2.8 million, when Miller Park opened in '01. But Attanasio despised the small-market label and urged employees to stop using it.

The Brewers still have the smallest TV market in the majors, but their attendance is in the top 10 (they drew over 3 million in 2008 and '09 and are on pace for just under 3 million this year), their ratings are even higher and their payroll has risen more than 200% since 2004. They have been bold about taking on more salary, as they were in '08, when they obtained CC Sabathia for the stretch run, they have not been shy about taking on salary. They acquired closer turned setup man Francisco Rodriguez from the Mets in July and watched Greinke heal from the cracked rib that forced him to miss the season's first month; he has a 1.52 ERA since the All-Star break. Last week, when Attanasio spoke to the Milwaukee Jewish Federation at the Pfister Hotel, they gave him a standing ovation.

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