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Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2011

The Brewers' Best Season Ever

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Amid all the unseemly trashing from "what have you done for us lately?" self-proclaimed baseball experts, it's easy to forget that we've just had the pleasure of experiencing perhaps the best Milwaukee Brewers season ever.

Yeah. I know. The team didn't go as far as the 1982 Brewers that took those same dreaded St. Louis Cardinals to seven games in the World Series with Hall of Famers Robin Yount, Paul Molitor and late scratch from the series Rollie Fingers.

That was the year that made me a born-again baseball fan, and I haven't looked back.

Without taking anything away from that memorable season for those of us who can remember it, a strong case can be made that this year was even better.

Truly rare elements came together for the Brewers this year that won't be replicated anytime soon, if ever.

The biggest one has to be the last season for one of the greatest one-two punches in baseball history: Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder.

What's almost certainly their last year together turned out to be what both call the best year of their young careers. If there could be co-MVPs, they certainly qualify. Instead, just one is expected to get it.

Their greatest year is all the sweeter because a lot of big talkers didn't want it to happen. Some even criticized the Brewers for drafting Prince because he looked too heavy to be a baseball player.

Then, as Prince began putting up amazing numbers, sports-talk radio began sounding off every year that Fielder should be traded for as much as the Brewers could possibly get because the team would never be able to sign such a power-hitting superstar to a long-term contract.

Instead, owner Mark Attanasio and General Manager Doug Melvin let Milwaukee enjoy Fielder for as many years as possible, allowing him to take this year's team into the playoffs before becoming a free agent.

Sheer Joy

The second rare element that will be difficult to recapture is the sheer joy and fun-loving playfulness of this year's team. That, too, is tied directly to Fielder.

Even casual fans now know about the Brewers going into "beast mode" by raising their arms in mock ferocity when they are on a hitting tear or make a tough play.

Not everyone realizes it all started because Prince wanted to delight his two little boys by copying the gesture made by the animated characters in their favorite movie, Monsters, Inc.

Prince, famously estranged from his own father, former major leaguer Cecil Fielder, is a gentle giant whose devotion to his family and upbeat sense of childlike fun have created an unusually positive atmosphere of mutual support in the Brewers' clubhouse.

Mix in outfielder Nyjer Morgan, whose irrepressible spirit and multiple personalities drive old-school baseball stuffed shirts crazy.

Fielder has helped transform Milwaukee from a conservative baseball town whose teams baseball guru Bill James once said seemed inordinately fond of mediocre white players into a huge fan club for Tony Plush and all of Morgan's other outrageous identities.

Finally, it is difficult to imagine any future Brewers team having any better combination of starting and relief pitching.

Next year all five starters—Yovani Gallardo, Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum, Randy Wolf and Chris Narveson—could and should be back.

Shallow sniping about the starting pitchers in the postseason was absurd. Without the performance of those five starters all year long, the Brewers wouldn't have been in the postseason.

Sure, everyone wanted Marcum to pitch better in the playoffs. But there were stretches during the season when Marcum was the steadiest, most reliable pitcher of this impressive rotation.

The only thing more impressive than the starting pitching was the Brewers' bullpen. After the invaluable addition of Francisco Rodriguez, who probably won't be back next year to set up closer John Axford, the automatic assumption was the Brewers would win when they were ahead after the sixth inning.

Okay, so if it was such a great season with all that power, ebullient spirit and terrific pitching, why aren't the Brewers playing in the World Series?

Pretty simple, really. They got beat.

They got beat by the St. Louis Cardinals, the hottest team going into the postseason.

The Cardinals' extraordinary play first dispatched the Philadelphia Phillies, the team with the league's best record and odds-on favorite to win the World Series.

Then they proceeded to beat the Brewers, the team with the second best record in the National League.

Now the Cardinals have home field advantage in the World Series—thanks to Fielder's three-run homer in the All-Star Game—to make it three-for-three.

It's called baseball—and there's every reason to celebrate a truly memorable season by a team we'll never see again that played it so wonderfully well.

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