You've just been traded to the Milwaukee Brewers. What's the
first thought that comes to mind? As word-association games go
in baseball, Brewers is as close to a stumper as you can get.
Milwaukee hasn't had a winning season, an elected All-Star
starter, a 17-game winner or a top 10 MVP finisher since 1992,
when Brewers legends Paul Molitor and Robin Yount were playing.
You know a team has an identity crisis when two of the highest
profiles in the organization belong to mascots, one of them a
chubby guy in lederhosen and the other an eight-foot-tall
sausage--the beloved brat--in tights. The Brewers? The wurst.
Last July 28, upon being summoned to the office of his manager,
Charlie Manuel of the Cleveland Indians, Richie Sexson had to
play that parlor game for real. Manuel told Sexson, a 6'7" first
baseman-outfielder, to have a seat. He then informed Sexson that
he was going to baseball's gulag. The Indians had traded him to
The first thing that flashed through Sexson's mind was County
Stadium, the 47-year-old park with all the ambience of a dungeon.
The place was so waterlogged that Brewers outfielders often
changed wet socks and shoes between innings. The clubhouse carpet
reeked of mildew, and the weight room was dotted with buckets to
catch water dripping from the ceiling. Man, Sexson thought, it's
going to be tough to motivate myself to play there.
After Sexson arrived in Milwaukee, however, he quickly found
reasons to smile. For one, he had a steady job--hitting fourth and
playing first base--for the first time in his brief career. For
another, there was a clubhouse full of easy marks who weren't hip
to his arsenal of pranks. The Brewers haven't been the same since
Sexson arrived. They played winning baseball after the trade
(30-28 following a 43-61 start), laughed more than they had in
years and took their last whiff of rotting carpet. County Stadium
was demolished after last season, replaced by Miller Park, a
retractable-dome stadium that opens on April 6.
"The difference he made in our team was immediate--as soon as he
put the uniform on," says Milwaukee manager Davey Lopes. "He's a
great young talent who hasn't touched what he's capable of doing.
This deal will go down in history next to those for [Lou] Brock
and [Jeff] Bagwell. Taking nothing away from the guys we traded,
but Richie is going to have the kind of career that will make
people forget whom he was traded for."
Desperate for seasoned pitching in what would be a vain push for
a playoff spot, Cleveland obtained pitchers Jason Bere, Bob
Wickman and Steve Woodard. Milwaukee received pitchers Kane Davis
and Paul Rigdon and infielder Marcos Scutaro with Sexson.
Sexson and leftfielder Geoff Jenkins, 26, Sexson's friend and
partner in pranks who's five months older and bats ahead of
Sexson in a suddenly fertile lineup, give Milwaukee its best pair
of young players since Molitor joined Yount in 1978--not to
mention its best comedic duo since Laverne and Shirley. With
rightfielder Jeromy Burnitz, 31, following Jenkins and Sexson in
the lineup, the Brewers are one of only two National League teams
with three players who hit 30 home runs last year. (The Houston
Astros are the other.) "The middle of their lineup can be as
scary as anybody else's in our league," Arizona Diamondbacks
lefthander Brian Anderson says. "You know if you make a mistake,
those guys can hit the ball 500 feet. The Brewers remind me of
Cleveland from a few years ago. They have a good, young team that
could be good for the next six, seven, eight years."
Jenkins, Sexson and Burnitz have more in common than power. The
Blond Bombers all were rejected by other organizations, take
ferocious cuts (their 415 whiffs last year be damned), signed
contracts worth a combined $55.5 million within four days of one
another this spring, sport whiskers on their chins and are
partial to peroxide in small (Jenkins), medium (Sexson) and large
(Burnitz) doses. The bleach boys are giving the Brewers a good
name. "I told them we're going to go as far as they carry us,"
says Lopes, whose 2000 team ranked last and third to last in the
National League in on-base and slugging percentages,
respectively. "I expect a lot from them. People better anticipate
we'll be a lot more dangerous offensively."
Word association number 2: venison jerky. Miller Park delicacy or
the name for Jenkins's spectacular hack? With a bat in his hands
Jenkins, a lefthanded hitter, is one gear beyond John Daly.
Before he settles into his stance, he waggles his bat with the
barrel pointed at the pitcher. Then he lifts his right knee
nearly belt-high and unleashes a quick swing with such force from
his thick legs that his body bends backward. Jenkins crushed 34
homers last year, a number that would have been higher if he
hadn't missed three weeks with a broken finger. He hurt himself
swinging, of course.
"He gets more torque from his legs than any hitter I've seen,"
says Brewers vice president of player personnel Dave Wilder. "But
if you think his swing is violent now, it's nothing compared with
what it was in high school. I scouted him then [for the Atlanta
Braves]. Now that was violent. Whoa! Every pitch, he'd swing as
hard as he could. He'd fall down sometimes. I liked him, but the
scouting director wrote up a report that said his swing was much
too violent, and that he would never learn to control it. He
didn't think he was worth drafting."
Jenkins was a 24th-round pick out of Cordova Senior High in
Rancho Cordova, Calif., by the San Diego Padres in the 1992
draft, but he followed his older brother and Wiffle ball rival
Brett to USC. "We grew up playing in the front yard just about
every day, and a lot of days ended with us fighting," Geoff says.
"Then the next day we'd be right back out there." Geoff chose to
attend college because he knew his stroke needed taming, and he'd
acquired a respect for schooling from his father, Jack, an
educator for the past 30 years.
Three years later Milwaukee selected Jenkins with the ninth pick
of the draft. He reached the big leagues in 1998, homering off
Orel Hershiser in his first game. Since then he has become a fan
favorite, in part because of his facial resemblance to Wisconsin
hero Brett Favre and in part because of that hellacious home run
stroke. Fans started calling him Clipper or Clip after someone
hung a banner saluting their number 5 as THE MILWAUKEE CLIPPER,
though his swing might have made the graceful DiMaggio, who
rarely whiffed, cringe. "My dad taught me very early that you can
always learn to dial back your swing," Geoff says, "but that it's
a lot harder to teach somebody to be aggressive."
Says Jack, "He had a mantra growing up: Don't get cheated. I'm
proud of him. What I'm most proud of is when people tell me what
a great human being he is. When I saw in the Brewers media guide
that he had listed me as his role model, I got very emotional. I
teared up." Three weeks after Geoff signed a four-year, $18
million contract on Feb. 24, he tossed the keys to his Lincoln
Navigator to Jack and said, "Here, Dad. It's yours."
Word association number 3: explosiveness. Sexson's bat or his
trick pen? Less than two weeks after being traded to Milwaukee,
Sexson handed Marquis Grissom, a teammate at the time, a
retractable ballpoint pen and a baseball and asked for an
autograph. When Grissom clicked the top of the pen, it blew up.
Sexson also packs a trick soda can and a trick pen that emit
shocks. Jenkins, his partner in mischief, packs a remote control
flatulence noisemaker--much to the consternation of flight
attendants on Brewers charters. "We have a lot of fun in this
clubhouse," says Jenkins. "Guys aren't afraid to get on each
other in a fun way, like if you're quoted in the papers saying
something dumb or if you color your hair wrong."
"Frick and Frack," Lopes calls Sexson and Jenkins, who golf,
cruise malls and lunch together regularly. "They're like
brothers, as close as their own shadows. If you see one, the
other's right next to him." In February, Milwaukee was about to
announce a four-year, $17.5 million deal with Sexson when Jenkins
asked general manager Dean Taylor to hold off. "Let's do it
together," he said. Twelve hours later Jenkins's contract was
done. In nearly the same number of career at bats (1,201 for
Sexson, 1,221 for Jenkins), Sexson has slightly more home runs
(72 to 64) and RBIs (242 to 204), while Jenkins has hit for a
higher average (.291 to .271).
Some teammates call Sexson Splinter, though the Spanish-speaking
ones favor Flaco, meaning skinny. Sexson had planned to play
baseball and basketball at the University of Portland--until he
attended an elite basketball camp after graduating from Prairie
High in Brush Prairie, Wash., in 1993. "I played against guys
like Jason Kidd and Chris Webber," he says. "I found out I wasn't
going to have much of a career in basketball."
He signed with Cleveland as a 24th-round draft pick that summer,
reporting to the Burlington (N.C.) Indians in the Appalachian
League. When he arrived, a team-issued plain gray T-shirt awaited
him in his locker. He hit .186 in 40 games that year. In 1999,
his only full season with the Indians, Sexson hit 31 home runs
and drove in 116 runs. His manager at the time, Mike Hargrove,
compared his power with that of a young Mark McGwire. Sexson was
about halfway to similar numbers when the Indians traded him
midseason. (He ended the year with 30 homers and 91 RBIs.) "Any
other team would have appreciated what I was doing, but the
Indians thought I should be hitting 40 home runs and driving in
140," he says. "They were disappointed in me."
Sexson, as he has done every game since 1993, still wears that
gray T-shirt under his uniform. The shirt is threadbare and
ripped in several spots, as if someone had slashed it with a
knife. "I wear it as a reminder of where I came from," he says.
Word association number 4: Bernie Brewer. Is he the Bavarian
mascot who popped out of his County Stadium chalet to slide into
a giant beer stein in celebration of a Milwaukee home run or the
big-swinging rightfielder likely to send him into the suds?
Burnitz, or Burnie to his teammates, uses his bat like a sword--he
finishes each swing with a swashbuckling one-handed hoist of it
over his head. Burnitz hit only .232 last season while fretting
about his contract, but he still had 31 homers and 98 RBIs.
Having already been traded by the New York Mets and the Indians,
Burnitz was headed to the Padres this winter until the Padres
could not agree with him about a contract extension, which was a
condition of the trade. "Then out of nowhere, the Brewers got it
done," he says, referring to his two-year, $20 million extension.
Coupled with the three-year, $21 million contract the club gave
free-agent outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds (.335, 20 homers, 106 RBIs
with the Colorado Rockies last year), Milwaukee made sure its
3-4-5-6 hitters will be together at least through 2003--as will
Bernie Brewer and the brat that engages in wildly popular
footraces against club employees and the occasional visiting
player dressed like other kinds of sausages.
"The attitude is totally different here now," Burnitz says. "It's
time for us to make some noise. I'm not saying we'll win the
World Series, but we need to show people we can contend, and we
have to start right now."
The opening of a sparkling--and dry--park should help. The
Brewers, who have drawn 2 million fans only once in their
32-year history, already have sold more than 1.7 million tickets
and expect to push 3 million by the time the season is over. The
park is sure to delight Clipper, Splinter and Burnie, as well,
because the power alleys are closer in both left and right than
they were at County Stadium. "Plus no more cold wind blowing
in," says Jenkins, "and no more at bats when you have no feeling
in your hands because they're frozen."
That's not all. Sexson, who folded most of his body onto Bernie's
slide for a ride before a game last year ("I had to stick my feet
out to the sides to slow myself down," he says), has another
reason to look forward to the new digs. "Dude, have you seen
pictures of Bernie's new slide?" he says. "It's awesome. It's got
a bunch of twists and turns. I can't wait to try it out."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY RONALD C. MODRA Meat of the order Milwaukee sluggers (from left) Burnitz, Sexson and Jenkins each belted at least 30 home runs last season.
COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE Style points Burnitz, who had 98 RBIs in 2000 despite hitting .232, has a unique follow-through.
COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA Free swingin' Jenkins, dismissed by one scout as having poor control of his swing, doesn't believe in being cheated at the plate.
Sexson and Jenkins give the Brewers their best pair of young
players since Molitor joined Yount in '78.