MILWAUKEE — The last time the Milwaukee Brewers made the World Series was 1982, back when they were led by Paul Molitor, Robin Yount and Cecil Cooper, back when Craig Counsell was a 12-year-old kid growing up in Whitefish Bay, Wis., dreaming of one day bringing a championship to Milwaukee.
The Brewers played at County Stadium, in the parking lot of what is now Miller Park, and Counsell attended every game because his father worked in community relations for the team. Well, almost every game. He once stayed home because he thought he was bad luck. He was superstitious like that. When he was there, and the Brewers were not scoring, he’d walk to a quiet ramp behind the right field upper-deck and pace back and forth until the offense turned it around. It worked, or at least he thought it did, enough for the team to finish one game short of a title, closer than any other in franchise history.
And enough for those Brewers, champions or not, to be embraced by the city forever.
“I don’t think players always understand or always kind of relate to the legacy part of things,” Counsell, now the Brewers 48-year-old manager, said Saturday evening as he remembered the past and thought ahead to the future, all to explain what his 2018 team could not know until it reflects on its season with fresh eyes. “We know we’re doing something that’s cool and this has been fun, and we want it to continue. But how it’s going to look when people look back on it, it’s hard to think about that right now.”
The Brewers' season finished a few hours later in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series, far deeper into the calendar than anyone would have thought when this team started playing back in the spring. So now the Brewers' legacy can be hashed out, as a group that could not beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in seven games, but as one that can be remembered for what it did do rather than for what it didn’t.
They were less talented than the Dodgers — and the Chicago Cubs, the World Series favorites they beat out in the NL Central — and Counsell hedged any disadvantages with innovation. The Brewers did not shy away from unconventional decisions with their pitching staff. They brought “bullpenning” to baseball’s biggest stage, using relievers to begin games instead of a traditional starting pitcher. And it worked -- they won 96 regular season games and captured the NL’s most-competitive division. They swept the Colorado Rockies in the NL Division Series, and went the distance with a Dodgers team that has now won back-to-back pennants.
“Well, if anything, I give our guys a tremendous amount of credit for the openness they’ve shown to some different things that we have tried and thought to do to give ourselves a chance to win,” Counsell said. “They’ve been completely on board. They’ve enjoyed it. And I think now they’ve owned it. And like it. So that’s a cool thing. I think it has been part of this season for us.”
“We did a couple of things that were quite different, but in general I don’t think we’ve been radically different,” the manager continued. “And like I said, the whole point is to use our guys and our talent in the best way we can to win baseball games. And I think there have been . . . like I said, I applaud them for how they’ve handled all those situations.”
There will be time to dissect what went wrong, to go through all the games, to look in the mirror before addressing their offseason needs at catcher and rotation depth. Some blame could trace to MVP front-runner Christian Yelich, who showed up with a first-inning home run in Game 7 but came into it hitting .179 (5 for 28) in the series. Some of it could go back to the cracks in an otherwise dominant bullpen, the go-ahead home run Jeremy Jeffress gave up to Justin Turner in Game 2, or the game-sealing homer he yielded to Yasiel Puig on Saturday night. A lot of it can rest on the offense, a deep group of bats that went dead across Games 4 and 5, scoring just two runs when the Brewers had a chance to seize control of the series.
But if that is all put aside, for just a moment, the improbability of the Brewers' run can come into focus. They were five games back in the NL Central at the start of September. Their ace, if they would even designate one, was 30-year-old journeyman Jhoulys Chacin. They won 12 games in a row, from the end of the regular season to Game 1 of the NLCS, to capture the imagination of Milwaukee and make it seem possible, even likely, that they could advance to the World Series.
And they did it their way.
In Game 5 of the NLCS, Counsell started Wade Miley for one hitter before he hooked him for reliever Brandon Woodruff. The move was designed to force Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts into stacking his lineup with righties who would not have the matchup advantage against the right-handed Woodruff. There were a lot of moves like that, if not as extreme, as Counsell went to any pitcher at any time, called all of his arms “out-getters,” and did not let labels like “starter” or “closer” confine him to a certain plan.
“I guess we don’t really do things normal,” said Josh Hader, the Brewers' dominant lefty reliever who threw three scoreless innings in the Game 7 defeat. “But we find ways to get it done, and I think that’s the biggest thing about this group.”
Their clubhouse was quiet late Saturday night, save for the constant sound of back slaps, players hugging it out one last time, saying goodbye for the winter. Some guys walked around with eyes swelled red by tears. Others huddled by a corner locker and poured wine into small plastic cups, unlike in the visitors clubhouse down the hall, where the Dodgers were spraying champagne and beer all over the floors and plastic-lined walls.
Ryan Braun stood at the center of it, looking around at his teammates, taking the last bits of it in. Braun, a 12-year veteran, the face of the Brewers for all that time, had seen this before. He remembered an even quieter clubhouse when the Brewers lost in Game 6 of the NLCS in 2011, when they were losing star first baseman Prince Fielder to free agency, when elimination felt like the end for more than just that season.
This did not feel that way for Braun. This, for a player who has been on many teams, across many seasons, and has found that there are many ways to win and lose baseball games, felt much more like a beginning.