The Omnibus flees the state of Florida and heads north on Interstate 75 to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, home of the Brewers. I will confess, dear reader, that I was glad to have the Marlins of Miami in my rear-view mirror. It was all too much: the orange, the stadium, the Loria. But if the Marlins are an overdose in irony, the Brewers may very well be its opposite.
I tabulated the statistics, collated the names, sifted through the history. Afterward, I found myself at a loss. I had no idea, I realized, who the Milwaukee Brewers were, or who they were trying to be. Confounded, I turned to the wisdom of my esteemed colleague Robert J. Baumann, who resides ‘round thereabouts. His response:
“All of this speaks to a sort of Midwestern complex: we are at once embarrassed of who we are, and apologists for our pasts. There’s a statue of Bud Selig outside of Miller Park that was just erected last year, for crissake: the man who brought baseball back to Milwaukee, yes, but also the man who undermined their success for nearly two decades by insisting that small-market Milwaukee could never compete, allowing the team to throw their hands in the air and sign players like Jeffrey Hammonds as a half-assed effort to field a team that wouldn’t finish last. There are a number of reasons why Major League was filmed in Milwaukee…”
Milwaukee’s baseballing history is as flat as the cornfields that non-Midwesterners associate with its name. While most franchises are garnished with surprising veteran appearances and loud rookie implosions, the Brewers have few of either: Selig rarely paid for name recognition, and even Pat Listach hung around five seasons with the team. What’s left is apologetic mediocrity, celebrated and familiar. Even the names on the backs of the jerseys are vanilla: Thomas, Scott, Cooper, Harper.
It’s not easy to find irony in the Great State of Wisconsin. But from my vantage point, you can look for it in three different, equally viable sources, based on each of the three distinct historical eras of the franchise before its modern iteration (or, the Rickie Weeks era):
The seventies, which like the real seventies lasted until 1982. Leafing through the years in Baseball Reference, it strikes me how slowly and inexorably the Brewers built toward their World Series appearance, accumulating young and exciting talent, adding complementary veterans like Ted Simmons and Don Sutton, building around a foundation of a pair of Hall of Famers in Yount and Molitor. Jerseys that celebrate this era: Mike Caldwell, representative of that reliable and featureless rotation, or the stoic Sal Bando. But for my money, it’s hard to resist a Brewers jersey with “Porter” on the back.
(Author’s Note: it came to my attention minutes before this post went up that the Brewers didn’t have names on the back of their jerseys until 1994. 1994! This leaves you with a serious decision: limit yourself to later jerseys, or have a name added to an old one. It looks weird to have a name on a Yankees jersey, but it doesn’t seem that terrible for the Brewers. Do you think anyone will notice your historical inaccuracy? Will you care? I leave this ethical dilemma to you, dear reader.)
The eighties, which continued through 1992. This is the team of middle-age: having seen their tragic peak, the team maintained their two stars (no longer quite as spry, but still excellent) but struggled to surround them with talent. The immortal Ted Higuera alone saved them from wretchedness during this decade, and that alone makes him a worthy jersey choice. But if there’s a theme to those years, it’s one thing: the Legacy of Gorman Thomas. The team seemed to conjure up neo-Gormans left and right after his departure, each a little more Gormany than the last. Rob Deer, Billy Jo Robidoux and Joey Meyer all strained the jerseys that covered their oversized hearts and spare tires.
The nineties, the twilight era: one of resignation and defeat, when Bud Selig had given up on the concept of spending money to make money. It begins with the controversial Gary Sheffield, who dogged his way out of town in protest of management; we continue with his successor, the immortal Pat Listach, and then wade through the barren wastelands of Glendon Rusch and Jamie Navarro. These are bleak times, and bleak jerseys: the logo and colors of the 1994-1999 years were some of the worst in sports. Perhaps the best symbol from this era is Jeromy Burnitz, the Star who Wasn’t, a perfect encapsulation of Sinclair Lewis’ scathing attack on small town America.
As this is NotGraphs, I can without hesitation endorse Rob Deer as the Brewers’ ironic jersey of choice. Deer flaunted contemporary scouts and statisticians alike: his acumen was so unlikely that neither eyes nor numbers could measure it. He was truly before his time. And if it allows you to don a cap with one of the greatest logos in the history of baseball, the mitt, that can only add to the rapture.
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