Chronicling the Brewers On Deck Experience

By Nathan Petrashek

A while back, Disciples of Uecker writer Steve Garczynski and I had a healthy debate about attending the Brewers annual fanfest, On Deck.  His position was that the event is (or should be) primarily for kids, where they can meet players and the like, and Steve lamented the fact that many adults have seemingly co-opted the event as a blatant autograph grab.

Steve and I are largely on the same page there (although, as you’ll see, I do get autographs), and that’s not a unique criticism I hear.  So I thought it might be interesting to run a sort of journal of my experiences this year (which I didn’t find to be really uncommon from past years I’ve attended), and perhaps that will help others decide if this is an event for them in the future.  This will also preserve some of Mark Attanasio’s and Doug Melvin’s comments about the organization, which I’ve shared on Twitter, in a more permanent form.

Departure – 9:00 AM

We leave for On Deck, which starts officially at 10.  In the past, we’ve left much earlier, but the Brewers have done a good job of staggering events throughout the day instead of trying to pack everything in the morning.  So we didn’t really feel any time pressure.

Arrival – 10:00 AM

Rollie Fingers in deep thought before his autograph session

Rollie Fingers in deep thought before his autograph session

If you’ve been at On Deck before, you know all the standing around is thirst-inducing.  This year, the new policy is not to allow any outside beverages, which snags a couple of my friend’s Coke Zeros and what was apparently a really expensive bottle of green tea that he doesn’t want to give up.  I persuade him to hand over the beverages and we’re on our way upstairs.

Everyone entering is given a coupon to enter the lottery for a “premiere” signatory.  This year, there are six: Ryan Braun, Bob Uecker, Yovani Gallardo, Robin Yount, Rollie Fingers, and Jonathan Lucroy.  My friend enters the lottery for Lucroy and doesn’t win, while my girlfriend wins a Braun autograph.  More on that later.

Yovani Gallardo – 10:30 AM

I entered the lottery for Gallardo, which basically turned out to be “show up and you get one.”  Not enough people even requested an autograph, which is pretty unusual … maybe a combination of the drunk driving offense and a down year.  I had him sign one of his bobbleheads from 2012.  Gallardo didn’t seem really interested in being there, which I’ve found is pretty consistent with his general demeanor.

The event is sparsely attended right now, which is a bit of a surprise.  I pretty much expected the free admission this year to draw out masses of humanity, but it’s very pleasant and there’s plenty of room to move around.  Lines are not packed and there’s space aplenty for sitting.  Incidentally, the team looks to have dramatically expanded seating areas this year.

Merch booths – 11:00 AM

I almost pulled the trigger on this Bud Selig baseball just for the accompanying picture

I almost pulled the trigger on this Bud Selig baseball just for the accompanying picture

One of my favorite activities at On Deck is browsing the merchandise booths, with vendors bringing in all kinds of memorabilia and autographs.  Lately, I haven’t bought much, but a few years ago I found Willie Mays and Willie McCovey signed balls for an absolute steal.  Anyway, these stands will basically have anything you can imagine, from a game-used Stan Musial jersey to Milwaukee Braves scorecards from the ’50s.  The cool, old school stuff usually carries a pretty hefty price tag; for example, this year I saw a 1959 Milwaukee Braves pennant for $225, and a bat signed by the entire ’57 Braves team for $700.  But there are some absolute steals, too; my friend Jason bought a Nolan Ryan ball for $50.  Usually there are stands selling autographed balls by current Brewers for between $10 and $20; by the time you factor in cost of a baseball ($32! at the Brewers team store … always bring your own) and time standing in line, you’re way better off picking up one of these if you don’t much value the (sometimes nonexistent) fan interaction.

Jim Gantner signs for a fan

Jim Gantner signs for a fan

Khrush, Stormin’ Gorman, and breaking news – 12:00 PM

While my girlfriend offers to grab a Khris Davis autograph, Jason and I try to snag Jim Gantner.  Gantner is scheduled at noon, but he’s late to the event and Gorman Thomas (who I also wanted) starts signing in his stead.    The guy immediately in front of me is carrying a portfolio of poster-sized photos, and he pulls out three with other signatures from the ’82 team already on them for Thomas to sign.  After Thomas signs them all, he gets back in line and racks Thomas for autographs a second time.  Unfortunately, that isn’t all that unusual; you see lots of obvious dealer-types milking autograph system.  I get one of Thomas’s old bobbleheads signed, then head over by Khris Davis.

After Davis wraps up his signing, we split up again; I head over to snag Jim Gantner, now arrived, and the others get in line early for Segura, who doesn’t start until 2:30.  There are already 30 or so people in line for Segura when they get there at 12:45.

 The Brewers annually do a large interview session at the main stage, with Bob Uecker emceeing a dialogue among Mark Attanasio, Doug Melvin, Craig Counsell, and a handful of others.  This event begins as I wait in line for Gantner.  Soon after the front office folks take the stage, news ripples through the crowd that they’ve made the long-delayed Garza signing official.  It will be 4 years and $50-some million.  This gets folks excited.  Including, as I look in front of me about 30 people, Portfolio Man, who is now at the front of the line for Gantner.

Q & A with the front office staff – 1:00 PM

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Jerry Augustine led instructionals for kids throughout the day

After I finish up with Gantner (another bobblehead), I head over to watch the Attanasio/Melvin/Counsell session.  They’re joined by Gord Ash and two new Brewers, 1B Mark Reynolds and LHP Will Smith.  The first audience question I catch is about payroll, in response to which Attanasio quips, “I haven’t counted.”  Attanasio declines to say whether they’d be willing to push the payroll further after Garza, but does say they’ll be opportunistic, citing Garza and last year’s Lohse deal.  Earlier, Roenicke indicated he plans to factor Rickie Weeks into the plans at second base, and the next question asks what they’ll do for flexibility since most position players are one-trick ponies (i.e. Khrush, Scooter/Weeks/Ramirez/Segura).  Counsell gives a PR-ish response, but does cite Logan Schafer and Reynolds as examples of versatility (Reynolds can also play 3B, albeit poorly) and suggests that positional flexibility will be key in competition for final roster spots.

Robin Yount signs for a young fan

Robin Yount signs for a young fan

Then come a flurry of questions about the generally poor state of the farm system.  Attanasio says the Brewers don’t lobby for their players like other teams do (he prefers his front office guys be focusing on their jobs, he says).  According to Attanasio, there’s a large marketing component to prospect rankings and the Brewers don’t hype their guys.  Attanasio cites Scooter and Khrush as guys that had success but didn’t appear on most prospect lists.

Doug Melvin picks up on this theme, indicating that organizations that publish prospect rankings can become echo chambers for other lists, overlooking good players that don’t have the a hype machine or premiere pedigree.  Melvin doesn’t seem to put much stock in outside assessments of the farm system, noting that some teams with what others consider remarkable farm systems still spend hundreds of millions on their big-league clubs.  He’s basically saying that if your system is supposedly so good, you shouldn’t need to spend all that money.

Final questions revolve around the newly signed Matt Garza and the delays.  Attanasio mentions there are multiple layers of approval, including MLB and MLBPA.  Both Attanasio and Melvin dismiss the timing of the announcement as coincidence, with Melvin even remarking that if it had been planned, Garza would have been at On Deck.

The prodigal son returns – 2:45 PM

After the Q & A session ends, I chat with some folks and then head back to the Segura line to reunite with my party.  We soon learn that my girlfriend was selected for the Braun autograph sessions, so we head over to the other end of the convention center.

The crowd around Braun, after it has died down a bit

The crowd around Braun, after it has died down a bit

Remember when I mentioned attendance was pretty sparse?  Not anymore.  The center has been steadily filling throughout the day, what will turn out to be a record-setting attendance of more than 14,000 people.  The line for Braun is already forming when we arrive shortly after the announcement, and as the time gets closer it becomes an absolute circus.  The media has nearly encircled the area where Braun will eventually be signing, adding to the huge crowd that has come to see him make one of his only public appearances since the suspension.  The entire area is jam-packed, and will remain that way for 45 minutes until Braun appears.

Braun is delayed even more as he signs autographs and stops to talk to fans on his way to the stage.  As he appears, there is a huge chorus of cheers and it’s pretty apparent he’s going to have a friendly crowd.  Nonetheless, the numbers have prompted plenty of additional security, who surround the stage and keep everyone without an autograph ticket at least seven or eight feet away.

Braun was more than willing to take photos with fans

Braun was more than willing to take photos with fans

To their credit, neither the Brewers nor Braun’s folks ask fans with tickets to refrain from discussing his suspension.  If a fan does broach the subject with Braun, I don’t see him visibly react, and in general he’s what you’d expect: smiling, gracious, polite.  He’s shaking hands and getting names, talking things up with the fans he meets.  Whereas most players simply sign the autograph, Braun seems to take a minute or so with every fan, prompting an event staff member behind me to say his session will go twice as long as it’s supposed to.  “It’s okay,” another responds.  “He needs this.”

As the session wears on, the media lose interest and begin to wander off.  We finish up at about 4:15, when Braun was supposed to end his session, with a huge line still behind us, and make a break for the exit.

The Numbers Game: 3rd Times a (Bad Luck) Charm

Gorman Thomasby Kevin Kimmes

In my third installment of The Numbers Game, I’ll be looking at those players who have worn the number 3 over the years for The Pilots/Brewers organization. Today’s entry is much shorter than previous installments, primarily due to the fact that no one wore the number 3 on their jersey  for 17 consecutive seasons. As if that didn’t bode ominous enough, we also get a look at Yuniesky Betancourt. Scared yet? Let’s get started.

Seattle Pilots:

No player was assigned the number 3 in the Pilots organization in 1969.

Milwaukee Brewers:

No player was assigned the number 3 during the 1970 and ’71 seasons.

Joe Lahoud – 1972-73: Our first entrant on today’s list, Lahoud played 2 seasons with Milwaukee in the early 1970s. As Milwaukee’s primary right fielder in 1972, Lahoud was .237/.331/.399 in 111 games. His 1972 campaign ranks as the second best statistical season of his 11 year career.

Deron Johnson – 1974: One of the shortest tenured Brewers, Johnson opened 1974 as an Oakland A before being released on waivers to Milwaukee on June 24, 1974. He would change teams one more time during the season, eventually being sold to the Red Sox on September 7th.

Gorman Thomas – 1975-76: While best known for wearing number 20, “Stormin’ Gorman” did wear number 3 for two years with Milwaukee. It should be noted that Gorman wore a different number in his first two years with Milwaukee, 44. This number was given to some busher named Aaron who the Brewers acquired in 1975 at the twilight of his career. Huh, wonder what ever became of that guy?

Ed “Spanky” Kirkpatrick – 1977: One of the only former Brewers with a shorter tenure than the above mention Deron Johnson, Kirkpatrick played in 29 games for Milwaukee in 1977. Earlier in the season he had also been a Pirate and a Ranger. 1977 would be the final year of Kirkpatrick’s 16 year career, despite hitting .273/.364/.325 in his short tenure with Milwaukee.

No player was assigned the number 3 from 1978 to 1985

Juan Castillo – 1986-89: Castillo played the entirety of his major league career with just one team, The Milwaukee Brewers. Drafted as an amateur free agent in 1979, Castillo was .215 with 3 homeruns and 38 RBI in 4 major league seasons.

No player was assigned the number 3 in 1990 and 1991

Dante Bichette – 1991: An average producer in his two seasons with Milwaukee (he switched to number 8 in 1992), Bichette was traded to the Colorado Rockies for Kevin Reimer. Bichette is best known for hitting the first homerun in Colorado Rockies history off of New York Met Brett Saberhagen on April 7th, 1993. He also holds the distinction of  being the last Brewer to wear number 3 in the American League.

No player was assigned the number 3 from 1992 through 2008.

17  seasons is a long time for a number not to be used, especially a single digit which are normally popular with players. Had the number 3 built up a stigma of suffering and woe? Did this time on the shelf cause a bitterness in the digit, like something out of a Stephen King novel? Well, if this wasn’t what actually happened, the number 3 sure was about to make a case for it.

Felipe Lopez – 2009: The first player to wear number 3 for the Brewers in the National League (where they had been since 1998) is Felipe Lopez. Lopez tied for the major league lead in errors by a second baseman in 2009, despite making a promising debut with Milwaukee in which he went 4 for 4.

Lopez would wear uniform number 7 when he made his second stint with the Brewers in 2011. It wouldn’t prove to be lucky for him either as he was designated for assignment on August 21st after hitting .182 in 51 plate appearances.

No player (mercifully) was assigned number 3 in 2010.

Yuniesky Betancourt – 2011: Next to feel the wrath of number 3 was Yuniesky Betancourt. Oh Yuni B, the things I want to say are probably just best summed up in a song. Maestro!

Cesar Izturis – 2012: It’s never a good sign when your starting shortstop goes down to a season ending injury. It’s an even worse sign when his injury is the 4th major injury of a relatively young campaign. Enter Cesar and his amazing .235 batting average. To no ones surprise, he was allowed to clear waivers on August 6, 2012 and became a Washington National.

Yorvit Torrealba – 2012: Yorvit appeared in 5 games for Milwaukee recording 5 plate appearances. The results? No hits, 1 walk, 2 strike outs and a batting average of .000.

So there you have it, the most hard luck number so far, the number 3. With any luck the 2013 squad will not see some unfortunate soul fall under it’s spell. I’ll be back tomorrow to look at our first retired number, 4.

Kevin Kimmes is a regular contributor to creamcitycables.com and an applicant for the 2013 MLB Fan Cave. You can follow him on Twitter at @kevinkimmes.

Walk of Fame Quickly Becoming Shameful

The Miller Park Walk of Fame is literally that; a series of granite slabs surrounding Miller Park, each inscribed with the name of a legendary Brewers or Braves player, manager, or executive.  You can probably guess most of its membership; names like Hank Aaron, Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, Rollie Fingers, and, when the ballot was opened up to Milwaukee Braves in 2007, Eddie Mathews and Warren Spahn.  It took Lew Burdette three tries to finally get in, despite 2 All-Star appearances and a near-miss for the Cy Young in 1958 when he was a 20-game winner.

Despite winning a Cy Young in 1982 and pitching the Brewers to their first World Series, you won’t find Pete Vuckovich on the Walk, though.  Nor will you find Mike Caldwell, another 1982 staple who pitched over 1600 innings of 3.74 ERA baseball over 8 years for the Crew.  No Ben Oglivie, a 9-year veteran and 3-time All-Star who slashed .277/.345/.461 during his time in Milwaukee.  No Ted Simmons, Geoff Jenkins, Teddy Higuera, or Dan Plesac, either.

And if you want to talk Braves, Johnny Logan (38.1 career WAR as a Brave), Joe Adcock (31.5), and Del Crandall (33.2) are all missing.

Consider it the curse of being a great, but not elite, Brewer or Brave; unless you can make it into Cooperstown, you’re not likely to make it into the local hall, either.

I was shocked last year when none of the guys listed above managed to garner the required 75% of votes to get in.  I’m shocked again this year.  What possible case can be made against Vukovich or Caldwell?  What about Johnny Logan?

Though the selection process is similar, the local Walk of Fame is not to be confused with Cooperstown. Like the baseball hall of fame, retired players have to garner 75% of the vote for induction, with any candidates who receive fewer than 5% of the vote in any year becoming ineligible.  But unlike the national hall of fame, the local Walk begins with a much smaller pool of candidates to begin with.  These are just the greatest players in Milwaukee Brewers and Braves history, so our standards for inclusion should obviously be much lower than that of Cooperstown.  Even if great baseball talent is distributed evenly among teams (ignoring, for a moment, spending disparities), only a sliver of all great players will have found themselves in a Brewers or Braves uniform during their career.  Some non-Cooperstown players already adorn the Walk, including Cecil Cooper, Jim Gantner, and Gorman Thomas.  There’s really no justification for a restrictive view of our local hall.

So why do we exclude former Brewers and Braves who clearly deserve the honor?  According to the Brewers, the Walk of Fame is selected “by a committee of approximately 100 Wisconsin media members and Brewers officials.”  Last year, 57 ballots were returned; a record, according to Tom Haudricourt.  This year, the committee returned only 39 ballots.  Not even Haudricourt, who agrees that the system is flawed, filled out his ballot (albeit because of a family matter).

Missing ballots don’t entirely explain why the 39 voters didn’t induct a single player, unless it’s disproportionately stupid voters that returned their ballots.  But the low return does suggest that the process is, at best, unimportant to most of those on the committee.  And that, in turn, might speak to the amount of thought voters who did return their ballot put into it.

So we don’t have to change the process to honor deserving former players. Those voters who hold the Walk of Fame in the same regard as Cooperstown can live up to their own expectations by taking their ballots a little more seriously.  By, you know, actually filling them out, and maybe looking up a few player stats while they’re at it.

*Edit:* Not everyone who returned their ballots is to blame, and I want to be fair in my criticisms.  Higuera and Jenkins did receive nearly 50% of the vote.  Caldwell and Vuckovich each garnered just shy of 40%.  Oglivie, Simmons, and Plesac all tied with 12 votes at 30.8%.  Of the Braves, only Logan cracked 60%, while Adcock barely missed 50%, and Crandall garnered only 8 votes.  Kudos to those of you who did the right thing.

Bad Manners and Lucky Breaks

Sometimes when you go to a ball game, you wind up sitting near that one guy whose devotion to his team knows so few limits that he feels he must constantly remind others of his superiority to all other fans of his team.  He’ll be loud and decked out in team apparel, and will make sure that you know whenever something happens on the field.  And you’ll know what he thinks about it, too.  You may even see him heckling opposing players; I once listened to a guy in outfield seats repeatedly shout “SALLY DAAAAY!” at Matt Holliday each time he came to bat.

Today, it was a Mets fan clad in an ill-fitting jersey who raised his hands in triumph at every ball thrown by a Brewer pitcher or strike taken by a batter.  He clapped-I’m not lying-clapped on a safe call following a pickoff attempt at first base, simply because Brewer fans were booing.

Needless to say, it was especially irritating to watch his antics after the Mets knocked around Kameron Loe to the tune of five runs in the eighth.  Loe wasted a beautiful outing by Randy Wolf, who threw 6.2 innings of 1-run ball.  By the end of Loe’s performance, the Mets led 6-2, and it looked like the Brewers would drop the series.  And the Mets fan danced and danced.

I gave him a little taste of his own medicine in the bottom of the inning when Braun doubled, knocking in Morgan and Weeks to cut the deficit to 2.  And then I kindly reminded him that Prince was coming up and was going to knock one out just for him.  “Fine, we’ll still be up a run,” was the reply.  Apparently Mets fans aren’t very good at counting.

And I’ll be damned if Prince didn’t hit career home run number 209, tying the game and putting Fielder ahead of Gorman Thomas (208)  for third on the franchise home run list.  Prince won’t top Yount’s 251 before he leaves in free agency this year, but man, what a season Fielder is having.  The shot was Prince’s second of the night, in fact, and his ninth in the last seven games.  I am going to miss that man.

It was Tony Plush who sent me out into the rain with a walk off double in the bottom of the ninth.  He might not have recognized the significance of his hit (he said later he thought it was the bottom of the eighth), but everyone else in the stadium did.  Morgan’s ho-hum line this year (he’s only on base at a .387 clip and slugging .557) has me really excited that as a first-time arbitration player next year, he could be around for a while.