The best time of the year.

You can always tell who’s a baseball fan in late September. It’s the guy who shows up at work rather bleary-eyed from staying up late the night before to watch a game on TV. It’s the woman checking her phone throughout the afternoon to see an updated score. It’s a guy or a gal who really doesn’t care that much about football, except as a pleasant way to pass the time on Sundays between the end of the World Series and the start of spring training.

If you’re a fan of teams like the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox or St. Louis Cardinals, September is the time when your team is almost always in “the hunt for October,” as Major League Baseball’s latest marketing slogan calls the pennant race. Only very rarely–as with the Cardinals this season–is this not your favorite time of the year. For fans of teams like the San Diego Padres or Miami Marlins or Houston Astros, this could be a time when you are excited almost beyond belief, if this is one of those rare years when your team is finally in the hunt. (And Houston, in fact, has won the AL West and could very well wind up winning the first World Series in the team’s 56-year history.)

For us Milwaukee Brewers fans, we’re definitely in that latter category.

 

The hunt for October, Milwaukee-style.

Brewers fans are a long-suffering bunch. Since our team’s first season, 1970, our lads have qualified for post-season play only four times. Only once, in 1982, has the team advanced as far as the World Series, and that was a seven-game loss to our most bitter rivals, the Cardinals. (More about that rivalry later.) There have been only two playoff appearances since, in 2008 and ’11.

 

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The ’82 Brewers were a hirsute, swashbuckling bunch, with slugging outfielder Gorman Thomas leading the way with 39 home runs.

 

Milwaukee first hosted a major league team in 1901, the first season of the American League. Those ancient Brewers moved to St. Louis after the season and became the Browns, who would turn out to be one of the sorriest franchises in baseball history. Since their move to Baltimore in 1954, when they were renamed the Orioles, they have been much more successful. Milwaukee hosted minor league teams for half a century after that until the Boston Braves came west in 1953 and took up residence in newly-constructed County Stadium. The Braves were an immediate hit, winning National League pennants in 1957 and ’58, capping the first of those campaigns with a World Series triumph over the mighty Yankees.

 

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The ’57 world champion Braves included a young Henry Aaron (2nd from L), who would become Baseball’s all-time home run king 17 years later.

 

But the Braves left for Atlanta after the ’65 season, taken to Dixie by an owner hungry for the revenue a larger TV market would produce. It would be up to a young local auto dealer magnate, Allen “Bud” Selig, to bring Major League Baseball back to town by purchasing the bankrupt Seattle Pilots during spring training of 1970 and moving them east, renaming the team after the city’s old minor-league franchise. I remember listening to their very first game on the radio, with veteran announcer Merle Harmon calling the action; my seventh-grade teacher, Mrs. Millman, had given us some time off that afternoon for the historic event.

Thus began a long road that is about to complete its 48th season. Only a few times, as noted above, has my team rewarded us long-suffering fans with playoff baseball. There have been a few other years when the team flirted with post-season possibilities, only to fade down the stretch. Most recently, the 2014 team led its division for most of the season only to collapse in September. The nosedive continued in the early months of the 2015 campaign, leading to the wholesale house-cleaning that produced this year’s surprising bunch.

And what a bunch they’ve been. The Brewers led their division, the NL Central, for a good portion of the season before being overtaken by the defending champion Chicago Cubs in July. But rather than fading away, the Brewers have hung in there, and as of today still have a shot at the second NL wild-card playoff berth. To get it, they must hold on to beat the Cardinals today–they’re leading, 6-4, at the moment–and hope the Colorado Rockies lose at home tonight to the Dodgers. Then the same outcomes have to happen tomorrow, which would force a play-in game between the Brewers and Rockies in Denver on Monday night. The winner of that game would move on to the wild-card playoff game against the Arizona Diamondbacks in Phoenix two nights later.

 

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Outfielder Domingo Santana, scoring a run in last night’s win over the Cardinals, has been one of the team’s breakout stars this year. His home run today was his 30th, a career high.

 

The MLB season is the toughest grind in sports. The 162-game regular-season schedule tests the physical and mental endurance of even the game’s best athletes. The pressure of the pennant race is almost unparalleled; the Brewers have been playing virtual must-win games since Labor Day. Every game, every at-bat, every pitch is intense. And if you’re good enough, and fortunate enough, to make the playoffs, you could play as many as 20 more games, against increasingly tougher competition, to claim the championship.

It’s tough on the players and coaches, and it’s not that easy on the fans, either. Many are just casual fans, of course, attending a handful of games per season if they live in or near a team’s city, maybe watching a few innings on TV or listening on the radio now and then. But for us serious fans, there’s none of that lolly-gagging around; we’re there for every game. Today is the Brewers’ 161st game of the season, and I would estimate that I have missed maybe five or six, and those were weekday afternoon games when the most I could do was sneak a look at my phone’s scoreboard app every few minutes. Even when we were on vacation in Peru in June, I spent time every evening with a play-by-play app on my tablet, watching the game virtually. Otherwise, I’ve been able to catch every game on TV or radio, for at least five or six innings of play. But that’s nothing compared to this guy, who is, without doubt, the ultimate Brewers fan: The ultimate Brewers fan.

Being a hardcore fan puts you in a position to get to know these players in an odd sort of way. You never meet them personally, of course, and maybe only see them play in person a handful of times–I’ve been to one game this year, at Miller Park in Milwaukee back in April–but you read about them every day in the newspaper, hear the stories told by the announcers during the games, and hear the occasional player himself in post-game interviews. We know, for instance, that first baseman Eric Thames, he of the fierce black beard and team-leading 31 homers, played the last three seasons in Korea; that rookie centerfielder Brett Phillips, who has one of the best arms I’ve ever seen, has a hilarious horse laugh; that bespectacled infielder Eric Sogard, obtained earlier this year from Oakland, has a delightfully-cute daughter who cried after her dad’s team lost in San Diego, captured on a video by her mother that quickly went viral: Sogard’s daughter.

The Brewers’ win over the Cardinals last night was their 10th of the year against St. Louis, guaranteeing Milwaukee a victory in the season series. This is the first year since 2010 that the Brewers have done that against the Cardinals, who ousted our lads in the ’82 World Series and also in the 2011 NL Championship Series. So even if the Brewers don’t overhaul the Rockies this weekend, if they can close the campaign with a sweep of this series in St. Louis, there will be at least some satisfaction for us fans in that accomplishment.

 

Hope, and then… defeat.

In today’s game, the Brewers raced out to an early 6-0 lead. In Denver, the Rockies were waiting to face the Dodgers in their game later in the evening. With Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw on the mound, the odds were more than even that the Brewers would be able to take the race down to the last day. Then, anything could happen. On the final day of the season, MLB starts all of its games at the same time. There would be plenty of scoreboard-watching going on in St. Louis and Denver. If the Brewers could build a lead in Game 162, the Rockies would face enormous pressure to win their own game and avoid Game 163.

But before you can win tomorrow, you have to win today, and today’s lead was short-lived. The Cardinals came back quickly to within 6-4, and then in the bottom of the eighth scored three runs to take a 7-6 lead. Every game has dozens of critical plays, but this game’s most important was in the Cardinal 8th. Stephen Piscotty drove in the tying runs, but was called out at second as he tried to stretch his single into a double. The umpire appeared to rule that the out was caused by interference on the part of the Cardinal runner going into third base, from which the throw to second had come. But the Cardinals challenged the call, and upon replay review, the crew chief ruled that Piscotty was safe. Minutes later he came home with the lead run on another base hit.

In the top of the 9th, with their season now on the line, the Brewers tried to strike back. Santana led off with a line shot that appeared to be headed toward the gap in right center, but it was speared by the leaping second baseman. One out later, Orlando Arcia, the Brewers’ sparkling young shortstop, stroked a single. He was replaced by pinch-runner Quintin Berry, the fastest guy on the team, who promptly stole second. That left it up to Phillips. Anything that would be hit through the infield would almost surely score Berry, tying the game. It was a chance for the young rookie with the horsey laugh to be a hero.

But Phillips struck out. The game was over, and so was the Brewers’ improbable quest for the post-season.

 

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Piscotty, given new life on the basepaths by an overturned call, scores the winning run for the Cardinals. It was a game full of cheap hits and questionable calls, all of which seemed to favor the Cardinals, as so often is the case when these two teams meet.

 

So, that’s it. One game left, and both teams will likely be clearing the benches tomorrow. The Brewers had scheduled their ace, young Zach Davies, who has won 17 games this season, but manager Craig Counsell announced after the game today that Davies would sit it out in favor of rookie Aaron Wilkerson. There won’t be any scoreboard-watching. In Denver, the Rockies will likely be resting their starters, too, as they prepare for their showdown game Wednesday at Arizona. MLB instituted the second wild-card berth in 2012, creating the win-or-go-home wild-card game. Purists decried it at first, but the fans love it. When I first started following baseball as a kid, there were 10 teams in each league, and only the champion made it to the playoffs, which consisted solely of the best-of-seven World Series. (In the event of a tie for the league title, there would be a playoff, which rarely happened.) Each league now has 15 teams, with five in each moving on. I think that’s about the limit; now, the World Series typically reaches November, and with a good percentage of teams, November baseball means bad weather. So capping the field at 10 is fine with me, even if it means my team won’t make it this year. Only one-third of MLB teams get to play beyond Game 162, and I don’t want it to be like the NBA, where 16 of 30 teams get to the playoffs.

I will be following the baseball playoffs this year, as I usually do. Every year I pick one team out of the field, the one I think is most deserving, typically being the team that has gone longest without winning. This year that would be the Cleveland Indians, who haven’t won the World Series since 1948. Last year they lost to the Cubs in the 10th inning of Game 7, which is just about the toughest way you can possibly lose. They could very well make it back this year and good luck to them. And if they wind up facing the Cubs in the Series again and this time come out on top, that will be fine indeed for Brewers fans. Our rivalry with the Cubs is almost as heated as the one with the Cardinals, and Cubs fans, flush with their championship last year that ended a 108-year drought, have become almost as insufferable as those in St. Louis.

 

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Cleveland fans think this is finally their year. I hope it will be.

 

One more game, and then my interest in baseball will wane, slightly, for another few months. But hey, spring training isn’t that far away, is it? Maybe next year will be our year, at long last. Go Brew Crew!

 

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