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      F I E L D  T R I P S

AUGUST 2 , 2001

July 23, 2001: Los Angeles Dodgers at Milwaukee Brewers, Miller Park
Miller Time

Having recently returned from a four-day trip to Milwaukee, I'm happy to report that they're making no effort to hide their brand-new ballpark. Miller Park dominates the skyline of this low-lying city. The distinctively scaffolded arches of its retractable roof rise above nearly every other building in town, and the dearth of tall buildings in its vicinity make it visible for miles around. Likewise, the park seems to dominate the psychic landscape of the city's low-laying populace. Whether it's the optimistic buzz of citizens eager to embrace a symbol of resurgent civic pride, or merely the omnipresent Miller Park ads saturating every corner of public space, there's no escaping the fact that the new home of the Milwaukee Brewers is the biggest story in town.

My visit to Milwaukee had a dual purpose: to meet the parents of my girlfriend Andra, and to visit the new ballpark. Fortunately these two purposes were not mutually exclusive; Andra comes from a family of dyed-in-the-wool Brewers fans, and her parents graciously treated us to some first-class tickets for a game between the Brewers and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Brewers history is deeply ingrained in the Hardt family's time in Milwaukee, and it's on display all over the Hardt home. There's a 1980 Christmas card, taken shortly after the family had moved from Illinois, showing their three children (Aaron, Adam, and Andra) decked out in Brewers regalia. Autographed balls of the Brewers' two members of the 3000 Hit Club, Robin Yount and Paul Molitor, sit on a bookshelf in Adam's old bedroom. A photo of Adam wearing the Bernie Brewer costume while standing in their house is prominently displayed on the living-room wall (Adam once worked for the Brewers, and got to be Bernie Brewer for a day). The video collection includes a series of entertaining promotional videos featuring Phil Garner, Jeremy Burnitz, and Bob Uecker, which Andra helped to produce a few years ago. And the anecdotes offered by Andra's parents and older brother Aaron ranged from stories of face-painting to celebrate the Brewers' trip to the World Series in 1982 to the closing of Milwaukee County Stadium last fall and Miller Park's opening game this season. There's even a batting cage about two minutes from their house, run by former Brewer Mike Hegan (we took an afternoon adventure there which you can read about here).

We arrived at the ballpark shortly before six o'clock; Andra's parents wanted to be sure I got a full tour of the grounds before the game. We stood and admired the bronze statues of Hank Aaron and Robin Yount outside the stadium, then entered and circled around the field level seats, dividing our time equally between the view of the playing field and the stadium's various amenities. Miller Park is definitely a "mallpark," featuring wide concourses, several different types of food stands (including two sit-down restaurants from where one can watch the game), multiple gift shops, and a children's playground. "State of the art for consumers and for players," is how Andra described it.

After one lap around the field, we headed to the 400 level to enjoy a hot dog while checking out the Uecker seats—$1 tickets with a semi-obstructed view in the upper deck behind home plate, sold only on the day of the game. The seats are a reference to those old Miller Lite ads where Bob Uecker is evicted from his seat, exclaiming "I must be in the front row," before being ushered to the hinterlands of the ballpark (Uecker still serves as the Brewers' radio announcer, and we spotted the white-haired comedian with the .200 career batting average once the game began).

At this point the park's retractable roof was still closed due to afternoon thundershowers, but by the time we made our way to our 12th-row field-level seats behind home plate, the roof had opened—so quickly and quietly that we hadn't even noticed. We watched a pregame ceremony to unveil the logo for next year's All-Star Game, to be played at Miller Park. The ceremony featured ancient Milwaukee Braves shortstop Johnny Logan and former Brewers slugger Gorman Thomas (who has his own grill, Gorman's Corner, in right field). The logo, like all of the graphic designs associated with Miller Park, plays up the stadium's distinctive roof.

Following the ceremony, Andra and Aaron went to score some bratwursts. Meanwhile, I made my way to the front row to take close-up pictures of Brewers manager Davey Lopes, a favorite of mine from his days with the Dodgers. I snapped a few as the Cub Scouts (whose day at the park it apparently was) presented Lopes with some mementos. But I got a stern lecture from an elderly usher as I climbed over a seat to get next to the Brewers dugout. Apparently, what passes for custom in Yankee Stadium offends in Miller Park. "I'm gonna throw you out of here before the game even starts, you punk!" was how the geezer put it to me.

It was probably for the best that I didn't get too close to the haggard-looking Lopes. His team, which had been playing above .500 for the first three months of the season, had lost nine straight entering this game and 21 out of 26 overall, dealing a huge blow to any postseason fantasies the Brewers may have entertained. The Dodgers, on the other hand, were riding an escalator going the opposite direction, having closed to within 1.5 games of the NL West-leading Arizona Diamondbacks. Manager Jim Tracy has done an amazing job of improvising through some serious injuries; nearly everybody who is anybody on the Dodgers has spent time on the DL, including ace Kevin Brown (3 stints), starters Darren Dreifort and Andy Ashby (both done for the season), catcher Paul Lo Duca, first baseman Eric Karros, second baseman Mark Grudzielanek, third baseman Adrian Beltre (for a botched appendectomy!), and outfielder Garry Sheffield.

As a somewhat-lapsed Dodgers fan, I had mixed emotions when it came to my rooting interests. I wore my Brooklyn Dodgers cap (the Yankees one doesn't play well outside of New York, though I do love wearing it to Massachusetts), but couldn't bring myself to cheer for them overtly—it's impolite to root against the team of your hosts, especially when they're mired in a losing streak.

The Brewers struck first against Chan Ho Park, the Dodgers' Korean pitching savior. Back-to-back first-inning singles by Ron Belliard and Jeremy Burnitz plus a sacrifice fly by Richie Sexson got them on the scoreboard. But Park settled down and retired the next eleven Brewers, while the Dodgers gained him the lead against Allen Levrault (the one Brewer in the starting lineup whose name I didn't recognize at all). Adrian Beltre lined a solo home run to right field in the second, McKay Christensen drove home Alex Cora with another run in the third, and Shawn Green blasted another solo home run in the sixth. Still, Levrault acquitted himself fairly well, allowing seven hits but no walks in six innings.

But the Brewers could not reward his solid outing. They had a couple of opportunities to get themselves back in the ballgame, but Devon White killed their hopes both times. He popped out with two on and two out in the fifth, and grounded out with the bases loaded in the seventh. These days, scoring two runs is a monumental task for the Brewers, and looking at their lineup, it's not hard to see why. They simply do not get on base enough (their .317 OBP is second-to-last in the league), strike out too often (they're on pace to break the 1996 Detroit Tigers' major league record for most strikeouts in a season, and two players, first baseman Richie Sexson and third Baseman Jose Hernandez, both have a shot at the individual record) and have too few weapons off the bench. With two on and two outs in the seventh, Lopes' choice to pinch-hit for the pitcher was Luis Lopez, a dreaded futility infielder with a .220 average, 1 home run, and a 540 OPS. Lopez took one for the team, getting hit by a pitch—the extent of his offensive prowess. (Those of you in need of a field guide to Futility Infielders will note that this is not the same Luis Lopez who toils for the Toronto Blue Jays, but it may well have been one of the other light-hitting Luises—Ordaz, Alicea, Sojo—in an out-of-body pinch-hitting appearance).

Other than the Sausage Race (which had even the Dodgers laughing hysterically as they leaned out of their dugout to watch people costumed as a giant bratwurst, a Polish sausage, an Italian sausage, and a hot dog race from foul pole to foul pole), the highlight of the game, for most Brewers fans, seemed to be the opportunity to boo Gary Sheffield, the Dodgers' slugger who once played for the Brewers. Sheffield is a fearsome hitter; when he wags his bat in setting up for a pitch, it's like the twitching tail of a tiger waiting to pounce. But Sheffield is a grade-A malcontent who wears out his welcome at every stop. This season he caused a controversy in spring training over his contract, the details of which aren't worth getting into here.

But it was his conduct as a Brewer for which he's booed. Sheffield, who entered the bigs as a Brewer in 1988, admitted to striking out and making errors on purpose in order to force them to trade him in 1991. Ten years on, Brewers fans have not forgiven him. During his final at-bat in the 9th inning, a portly fan charged down the aisle to a spot only about 30 feet from home plate, cupping his hands and shouting at Sheffield all the way. After he vented his spleen for about a minute, an usher waved him away from the front row. The fan backpedaled, still berating Sheffield through the at-bat. He didn't act drunk, and he wasn't obscene, making his rage seem all the more pure: "You suck, Sheffield! You're a bum! You cheated the fans when you were here! You're a disgrace to the game of baseball..." He didn't stop until Sheffield struck out for the third time of the game, after which he calmly returned to his seat, accompanied by a minor ovation for his efforts as spokesman.

Following the game, we were among several hundred fans who stayed to watch the retractable roof close. The Brewers have made this something of an event, opening or closing the signature feature of their $400 million ballpark to the tune of "Also Sprach Zarathustra" (a.k.a. the 2001: A Space Odyssey theme). At least the Brewers faithful have something to look forward to every time they go to the ballpark.

Final score: Dodgers 3, Brewers 1. One soda, one hot dog, one bratwurst, one frozen lemonade, half a bag of gummi bears, a roll and a half of film (pictures to come), and one great time in Milwaukee, thanks to the Hardt family. BOX SCORE