Long before the Milwaukee Brewers begin their daily barrage of batting practice homers, the Blue Crew gathers behind the cage to form its Flip Circle.
There, in the privacy of an almost empty stadium, the emerging powerhouse managed by George Bamberger shows its character, its youthful zest for an old-fashioned game.
A score of Bambi's Bombers congregate for the ancient warmup game called Flip-a version of Hot Potato-where players swat or flip the ball at each other with their gloved hands.
The Brewers, laughing and tittering like children, stumble and fall over each other, diving on the cinder track to keep from being eliminated from the Circle.
Furious mock arguments erupt as complex clubhouse rules are invoked to determine who will be kicked out of the Circle each time the precious baseball falls to earth.
No Brewer, once eliminated, would dream of wandering away from the raucous scene until the day's Flip Champ has been crowned and goodnaturedly vilified.
Once, this sort of innocent ritual of baseball camaraderie was taken for granted as part of the game's elan. The old St. Louis Cardinal Gas House Gang was famous for its flamboyant "pepper" games with the ball in constant motion.
"Pepper is almost a lost art in the big leagues," says Milwaukee General Manager Harry Dalton, watching his Brewers cavort. "Everybody's afraid some million-dollar player will get spiked. Then who gets the blame for it?
"George (Maberger) and I aren't exactly thrilled about this Circle. They get very competitive. I kind of close my eyes while they're at it," said Dalton. "But so much of the communal feeling of the game had been lost, so much of the pure fun. I have mixed emotions."
Few fans shoare Dalton's ambivalence. Baseball has enough teams, like the world champion New York Yankees, whose players read the financial page on the bench.
"Hey, Luis," bellowed Baltimore skipper Earl Weaver Sarcastically to millionaire free-agent Yankee Luis Tiant a week ago, "What's IBM (stock) today?"
"Eeees up," answered Tiant, taking the question seriously.
The Brewers, by contrast, seen like some band of bush-league desperadoes from the Pacific Coast League of the '50s-full of spitballs and illegal corked bats, larceny and laughs.
That is Bamberger's delightful influence. For 18 years he was one of the last of a now-extinct breed-the minor league pitching great. From Vancouver to Ottawa to Oakland, Bamberger took his spitter-"my Staten Island sinker"-and carried on his love affair with the traditions and rituals of the game.
"Bamberger has the Brewers cheating," says Baltimore coach Jim Frey needling the former O's coach. "You gotta watch George. He's got that Mike Caldwell throwing the same funny pitch that he taught Ross Grimsley. And I think those Brewers' bats would float with all the cork in 'em. You know, George's only bad year in the minors was when he had a religious manager who wouldn't let him throw his spitter."
"Me cheat?" asks Bamberger, his grandfatherly eyes getting big and hurt. "They say I've got Bernie Brewer, the team mascot in the scoreboard, stealing signals. Would I do that?"
Obviously, Bamberger would be delighted if the world thought he was a sharpster. "Tell Weaver and Frey that it takes a cheat to catch a cheat," said Bamberger. "My boys don't need corked bats. They hit some 'landmarkers' without 'em. And Caldwell don't throw a spitter . . . that's just the Staten Island sinker I thought him."
Under Bamberger, the Brewers have become a sort of reverse image of the Yankees-a team rich in free agents that seems built on almost total harmony.
"I call this the Happy Club." says Cecil Cooper, perhaps the team's most overlooked star after hitting .300 and .312 the last two years. "No hassles whatsoever. Right now, I don't think there's one guy who actively dislikes anybody else on the team.
"It's true we're under-publicized in Milwaukee, but I kind of like that. It makes everything more pleasant."
The Brewers were baseball's shockteam of '78 as they leaped 26 1/2 games in the standings, winning 93 games to finish just 6 1/2 lenghts behind the Yankees. No one in the AL East thinks they were flukes.
"In this game, a club doesn't have many chances to win," said Dalton. "You can't build gradually. You have to grab for the brass ring when the chance comes. You go for it, or get left behind. Stand-pat teams never win . . . look at the Cubs."
The Brewers have grabbed with both hands. For three straight years, Milwaukee has heisted big-bucks free agents: Sal Bando in '77, Larry Hisle in '78 and now Jim Slaton, who won 17 for Detroit last year.
Brewer traders and reclamation projects have been bonanzas, while the farm system has blossomed.
Dealing fat George Scott to Boston for sweet-strokig Cooper looks like almost as big a steal as acquiring Caldwell (then washed up, now a 22-game winner) for minor-league castoffs.
Cooper aspires to be a Rod Carew clone-only more powerful. "The Hitting Instructor (Carew) has taught me to use all corners of the field . . . even to bunt," says Cooper. "My goal is to takw away all the pitcher's options."
Caldwell, by contrast, wishes to be the world's grouchiest man. "I hate everyone in baseball except you guys," Caldwell tells his teammates, "and if I get traded I'll hate all of you."
Caldwell, who was 13-25 in San Diego and 8-20 in San Francisco, has tasted baseball's dregs. If it takes an attitude of universal malice, plus a Staten Island sinker, to be Cy Young candidate, then Caldwell is being the whole package.
The Brewers' biggest theft in trade was getting unheralded Ben Oglivie (.303) from Detroit for Slaton in '78. Now, just a year later, the Brewers have Slaton back for mere money.
Above all, Breher bambinos are the heart of the team's emergence. The swift keystone combo of Robin Yount, 23, and Paul Molitor, 22, can do everything, including hit and steal bases. Both play like Veterans-Young, in his fifth full year, already is.
The outfield has two power products from the Brewer farms-Sixto Lezcano and Gorman Thomas. Mildmannered Lezcano, 25, improves every year and packs a gun arm (18 assists). Lezcano seems to hover just short of becoming a true star.
Thomas, is however, was once thought too flakey to survive. Stormin' Gorman would perch atop his locker, reading magazines, or would imitate Fonzie. When he tried to dye his brown hair blond, the result was orange.
Last year, given the center field job, Thomas showed good defensive range and swung for the fences on every pitch-the resulting 32 homers and 133 strikeouts satisfied the Brewers just fine.
"They're a great group," beams Bamberger. "Not a problem child among'em. My job's ridiculously easy. The toughest thing I do is make out the lineup card. Where do I play all this talent?
"Yount, Molitor and Don Money (.293) can play almost any position. I figure I have two catchers, five first basemen, four second basemen, four shortstops, five third basemen and six good outfielders."
Actually, Bamberger has 11 rotating regulars, not nine. "My players," he says proudly, "are not platooned. They are just being rested."
The Brewers have only three doubts: their modest defense, their deep but untested bullpen and their ability under pressure.
"Last year when we got to the edge of the pennant race, we seemed to have the knack of losing the next game," admitted Dalton. "But, on the other hand, when we slumped a little, we'd bounce right back and get in it.
"When I saw our schedule this year-with out first 15 games against New York, Boston and Baltimore-George and I both said, 'Great, let's find out what the hell we're made out of,'" said Dalton.
So far, the Brewers are 7-6, with plenty of power (21 homers) and victories over four 20-game winners. Ace starters Caldwell and Larry Sorensen (18-12) have looked like valid stoppers. But the rest of Milwaukee pitching has been spotty. The jury on hurling remains out.
"If we can make that 15-game turn over .500, we'll know we're for real," said Bando. "This'll be the toughest stretch of our whole season."
By a scheduling blunder that may loom ever larger during the season, the Brewers do not play an AL East opponent after August 12-a ludicrous mismanagement of league affairs.
For Bambi's Throwback Bombers, who already have survived the most potentially confidence-eroding period of their season, that promise of a pennant race without a single head-to-head confrontation seems delicious.
"The big boys better get ahead of us now," chuckles captain Bando, "because if we get in front, we could be tough to catch."
For a team that came into being just 10 years ago as the expansion Seattle Pilots, and which never had a record better than 76-86 until Dalton and Bamberger arrived before last season, those are brave words.
Nonetheless, in sport that has lost its taste for pepper, the young Milwaukee Brewers could be this season's enlivening salt.