It’s almost 15 years from the day that the return of baseball to Washington, D.C. was announced. Now we’re awaiting the Nationals first play-in game and 5th postseason appearance since then (8th overall for the District). It’s also the 48th anniversary of the last American League baseball game in D.C. – the infamous Senators forfeit to the Yankees. Back then the Milwaukee Brewers were in the AL too.
In addition to those milestones, Nats fans of a certain demographic may remember one of the early (though not the earliest, whether singularly focused or otherwise) blogs to pop up supporting the new Washington nine, Capitol Punishment! Wait, that’s no what I’m talking about — I’m referring to the enigma wrapped in a riddle that was known as…
…Ball-Wonk: Baseball inside the Beltway. The clever amongst you can find it, though without the original, short-lived logo, I’m afraid.
A certain mystique grew around it and it’s creator. Years later, running into each other figuratively in the Uni Watch comment section, we crossed paths in the meatspace at a Uni Watch happy hour. By then a guest prognosticator post had published with Ball-Wonk (alternately known as Arr Scott in some circles) about his American League team, the Minnesota Twins. Actually, that might have come later.
Several years have passed and Ball-Wonk has moved to the America’s Dairyland and adopted the state’s baseball team, the Milwaukee Brewers. In observance of the 2019 NL Play-In Game, he joins us to update us on Bob Uecker’s large adult sons and his take on the first important Wild Card game in baseball history.
WFY: Christian Yelich goes out to injury and BAM!, Brewers go 18-2. Clearly, he was holding the team back. What is carrying The Good Land to the doorstep of a division title and a visit to the play-in game?
BW: For the first couple of games after Yelli’s injury, teammate Ryan Braun wore Christian’s jersey under his own. Thanks to differing sleeve lengths, this gave Braun the appearance of having two gold stripes on his sleeves, which is halfway to the four gold captain’s stripes the Brewers wore in 1970 when their inaugural uniforms were repurposed Seattle Pilots rags. (The Brewers need to embrace that powerful mojo and put more stripes on their sleeves!)
Also, the Crew played an amazing season through July, seemingly proving that their surprising 2018 breakout was not a fluke. But then things went off the rails in August, so it feels like the team faced September with a lot to prove. For much of the season, Milwaukee looked like it might be in control of the NL Central, but after a couple of rough weeks, the Crew was gazing up from third place and well back of even the Wild Card. It was as thorough a choke job as any infamous recent examples, but because it happened in August instead of after Labor Day, the team had the opportunity to recover. Individually too; injuries and slumps had given a lot of guys who weren’t on the Opening Day lineup a chance to play, and we saw impressive turns from a lot of our second string.
WFY: What does the pitching look like for the Wild Card? Is our old friend Gio Gonzalez going to take the mound at all or have they reviewed the tape? Is Craig Counsell a better manager than Davey Martinez?
BW: Rooting for Gio! has been a highlight of the Brewers season for this longtime Nats fan. Craig Counsell has taken some we-don’t-need-no-stinkin-starter gambles this year, and they’ve mostly paid off. Gio! has been a vital part of Counsell’s arsenal, and I don’t expect starter Woodruff to go deep. The Brewers don’t have an individual answer to Sherzer – who does? – so it’s gotta be a committee effort Tuesday. Will Gio! take the mound? I doubt it, unless the Brewers middle relief gets knocked around badly.
Craig Counsell is absolutely the best manager in baseball the last three seasons. The Crew won 89 games with a meager +3 run differential! That’s 7 games above their Pythagorean projection, and that’s all Counsell. Back in his playing days, Counsell was my favorite player. I thought of him as the Batman of big-leaguers. Where the rest of his peers had superpowers or mutant abilities, Counsell was just really smart and worked harder than anybody, and you see the same quiet, keen intelligence and grit from him as a manager.
WFY: What’s the Brewer fan perception of the Nats? I could understand indifference given the lack of any historical meaningful competition between the two cities.
BW: To paraphrase the greatest Cubs TV ad of all time, “What the heck’s a ‘Nat’?” True story: In 2005 I attended a Nats game at Miller Park – I was visiting family in the Midwest – and wore my Nationals jersey, glorious monument-style type with gold bevels and everything. Nats won. (Remember, they spent much of the season leading the NL East that year.) Walking out of the ballpark, a Milwaukee fan heckled me. “I bet you didn’t root for the Expos!” Of course not! The Expos didn’t play in Washington, DC! But really there’s not much sense of rivalry or anything with the Nats in Milwaukee, just as the average Nats fan’s response to the Brewers is something like “Milwa-who?” For either team, the Wild Card might as well be against the Padres. But big games make rivalries! If Tuesday’s game is a rout either way, meh, it’ll still be Padresville between the two teams. But if it’s close, or goes extra innings, or there’s a controversial play or call, and if Milwaukee and Washington continue to be divisional contenders for the next couple of seasons, we could see the start of a beautiful enemyship.
I just hope it doesn’t wind up like the Twins-Yankees rivalry, where the stymieing of their playoff hopes year after year leaves Twins fans hating the Yankees with a real passion, but Yankees fans don’t seem to notice.
WFY: In the Madison area, where do the Brewers fall in the sports hierarchy? Have you been there long enough to get a baseline on Brewer enthusiasm to measure against the past two seasons?
BW: Badgers, Packers, Brewers. The biggest change the last couple of seasons has not been on behalf of the Brewers; it’s been the growing Bucks bandwagon. Which I suspect is not solely about the Bucks suddenly getting good, but also their new colors and logos making fan merch much more attractive to wear. Madison has a pretty significant fifth column of Chicago fans, though, so you see a lot of those damned white W flags and Blackhawks merch and, a couple of doors down from me, a chainsaw sculpture of a bear in a Bears uniform, fully painted in blue and orange. For the most part, though, if you see a ballcap in Madison, odds are high it will be red for the Badgers or blue for the Brewers. That said, it’s happened to me several times around town where I’ve been wearing a royal blue Brewers cap and people who don’t see the front assume I’m wearing a Cubs cap. For that reason, I mostly only wear my navy Brewers caps these days.
WFY: Am I remembering correctly, you submitted some uniform designs to UniWatch for the Brewers at one point? Is the ball-in-glove the people’s choice in terms of merch or does it vary? Why don’t they have Milwaukee on the roadies?
BW: Brewers fans _loooooove_ the Ball-in-Glove. There’s also an undercurrent of nostalgia for the old Milwaukee Braves and original Brewers block M. But, visually, the Brewers are a hot mess, with three active color schemes, and merch and fan attire reflects this. Last time I was at Miller Park, their last win before going on their sucking streak, the team shop stocked versions of basically every cap and jersey the team has ever worn, so there was royal blue, navy blue, powder blue, forest green, yellow, Vegas gold, and every imaginable combination among them. So any given group of random Brewers fans will be sort of vaguely blueish and vaguely goldish. You’ll see more Ball-in-Glove than any other logo, but it could be royal and yellow, or navy and gold, or navy and yellow, or powder blue and white, or …
My preferred Brewers cap logo is attached, in two versions, one based on the Braves/Brewers block M and another on their turn-of-the-century “Motre Bame” Germanic M.
WFY: Has Ryan Braun recovered from his PED scandal in the hearts and minds of Brewers fans?
BW: This is the Midwest. We don’t do coastal-style veneration of villainy, but we also don’t feel comfortable coming down too hard on anybody. So Milwaukee fans haven’t embraced post-PED Braun like Giants fans went all-in on Barry Bonds like Kylo Ren fanboying over Darth Vader. But neither have Milwaukee fans turned against him like so many “Bruce who?” Nats fans have turned on Harper. Braun was on track to be one of Wisconsin’s sports giants, like a modern-day Paul Molitor or maybe a second-rank Favre/Rodgers figure. After the PED scandal, it’s more like he’s a dude who plays baseball nearby. The arrival of Christian Yelich – or perhaps it should be, the capital-A Arrival of Christian Yelich – turned the page on the Braun era for many. Guy’s still on the team, we’ll still root for him as long as he’s wearing our team’s pajamas and not being suspended, but he’s no longer The Guy. He’s just a guy. Fans get way more into mooing for Moustakas than cheering for Braun these days.
WFY: You said you didn’t want to pick sides since you were a Nationals fan (and blogger!) from the rebirth of DC baseball in 2004. Given that you were/are also a former Minnesota Twins fan I gather, you root for the home team which is “Nixonian” in the nicest sense of the word, I suppose. Was adopting the Brewers weird because of the old AL days when the Twins and Brewers were seemingly rivals?
BW: I’ve always been a homer. First team I rooted for was the Royals, because the best ballplayer my Iowa hometown ever produced, John Wathan, played for KC. I even had Wathan’s autograph on my first little-league glove! Then we moved to Philadelphia for a few years, and I went all-in for the then-World Champion Phillies. (To this day, Mike Schmidt is my beau ideal of a ballplayer.) Then we moved to Minnesota in time for the ’83 season, where my dad was a broadcaster for the station that carried Twins games, and I’ve been a diehard Twinkies fan since. Twins fandom kept me from really embracing the Orioles when I came to DC for college and stayed to start my career. When the Nats came to town, part of my excitement was that there were a National League team. Partly because NL ball is a better game (death to the DH!), but mostly because it didn’t feel like “cheating” on the Twins to adopt an NL team. And, for inexplicable reasons, the Nats and Twins play each other less often than just about any pair of interleague teams. The Nats just came to Target Field for the first time in 2019! Crazy, but a blessing for me not having to choose between them.
As to the Brewers, growing up, the Crew were like the Twins’ fun rivals. The Bitch Socks or the F’n A’s were more hardcore rivals in the old AL West. Whereas the Brewers were rarely good enough to be a threat to the Twins, when they were good the Twins weren’t, and they had fun uniforms and players like Rollie Fingers and Molly. So I always had a soft spot for the Crew. Once Milwaukee realigned to the NL, I took up an active rooting interest in them out of Upper Midwest solidarity. Plus I really, really liked their current uniforms when they debuted at the start of this century. So it wasn’t so much that I picked up the Brewers when I made Wisconsin my home; I just turned my Crew-rooting dial up from 7 to 11.
WFY: Time take a guess on the winner – I’m think it’ll be Milwaukee because DC hasn’t won an elimination game since 1924.
BW: I’d bet on the Nationals because of Max Sherzer and his dreamy, sled-dog eyes. Plus Zook is exactly the kind of guy who’s gotten to the Brewers’ bullpen, when the pen has been gotten to. Frankly, the Brewers have disappointed me this season. For the Nats, winning the Wild Card is an achievement. For the Crew, it’s a consolation. As a dedicated fan of both teams, I’m mainly rooting for a good game, and I’ll be 8,000% rooting for the winner going forward into the playoffs. I’m maybe cheering 51-49 for the Brewers, but I expect the Nationals to break their elimination curse and book their tickets to LA. I’m expecting either a 3-1 Sherzer/Strasburg masterpiece or a 7-2 romp by Milwaukee’s longball boppers.
Cheers and may the better team win!