NEW YORK - Back in February, before the Brewers' first full-squad workout in Maryvale Baseball Park in Phoenix, manager Ned Yost held the traditional team meeting. On these occasions, the message is normally pretty bland. Always hustle. Be on time. The usual blah-blah-blah.
Not this time. This time Yost, beginning his fifth season on the job, grabbed the attention of the assembled players by talking about winning. Winning the division. Winning the pennant. Winning the World Series, for crying out loud.
Some listeners might have wondered what the skipper had put in his coffee that morning. This, after all, was the Milwaukee Brewers. Which is to say, a team that this season is celebrating the silver anniversary of its 1982 World Series appearance . . . which is also its last trip to the postseason. Heck, the Brew Crew hadn't even finished above .500 in 15 years.
The Brewers - who begin a four-game series tonight at Citizens Bank Park - won't catch anybody napping now. With the regular season approaching the quarter pole, Milwaukee is 25-12. That just happens to be the best record in the National League.
Sitting in the tiny visiting manager's office at Shea Stadium before a game against the Mets this weekend, Yost insisted his spring training challenge wasn't that much of a leap of faith.
"We've been striving for years to play .500 baseball," he said. "But you look at our team and, for me, that wasn't a bona fide goal anymore. I thought to shoot for the division championship and go to the World Series and win it was a bona fide goal for us."
Because, he explained, it was time for young players like first baseman Prince Fielder (23 years old), shortstop J.J. Hardy (24) and second baseman Ricky Weeks (24) to come into their own. In fact, on that subject, his voice soars and his eyes flash and his voice takes on the rhythms of a tent revival preacher.
"You go through two stages with young kids and a team," he began. "The first stage is that they get here. They all think they can play here. But they've got to get it in their heart. They've got to know it in their heart that they can play here. And we accomplished that last year.
"The next step is they think they can win. But until it gets ingrained in their heart and they know in their heart every single day that they can win . . .
"Now all of a sudden it's starting to get ingrained in their heart. They walk through that clubhouse door every day knowing that they've got a chance of winning this ballgame. And it's confidence and they feel real good about it. And that's when you start to take off. When you know in your heart, which is different than knowing in your head."
Said Fielder, with a smile: "Ned has brainwashed us into believing in ourselves and it's starting to pay off."
Fielder is batting .292 with 31 RBI. Casual fans might recognize the name because his father, Cecil, hit 319 career homers. He was a first-round draft choice in 2002 who got some attention as a rookie of the year candidate last season. He also stands out because, at 6-0, 262 pounds he doesn't look particularly athletic until he uncoils his swing and the ball jumps off his bat.
Hardy has an even lower profile despite a .325 average, 34 RBI and being tied with Fielder for the league lead with 11 homers.
"This is a totally different attitude in the clubhouse than the last 2 seasons and I can't necessarily explain why," he said. "You learn to win. It's that feeling you get when you're playing that you don't expect to lose, no matter what the score is, no matter what inning it is, you think you're going to win the ballgame."
General manager Doug Melvin shrewdly added some experience to the mix over the winter. He got catcher Johnny Estrada and righthanders Claudio Vargas and Greg Aquino from the Diamondbacks (for lefthanders Doug Davis and Dana Eveland plus outfielder Dave Krynzel). He signed righthander Jeff Suppan and infielder Craig Counsell as free agents.
It's worth noting that Estrada has been to the playoffs (with the Braves in 2003, 2004 and 2005), Counsell owns two World Series rings (1997 Marlins, 2001 Diamondbacks) and Suppan has made numerous postseason appearances with the Red Sox and Cardinals, including a world championship last year in St. Louis.
"I'm sure [when Yost started talking about winning the World Series] that some of these young guys were like, whoa. Kind of taken back a little bit," Estrada said. "But bringing in a guy like Craig Counsell and signing [Jeff Suppan] and trading for me, we got guys in here that know what it's like to be champions. That know what it takes to win a division. And that kind of attitude has just spread through this clubhouse, along with the energy that the young guys bring every day."
Leftfielder Geoff Jenkins (.323-8-19) provides the institutional memory, having been around since the middle of the 1998 season.
Since the Brewers already had potential ace starters in Ben Sheets and Chris Capuano and what Yost likes to call dual closers in Francisco Cordero (0.54 ERA, 15 saves in 15 opportunities) and Derrick Turnbow (1.76) who have combined for 46 strikeouts in 32 innings, the Brewers were a chic pick this spring to be this year's Cinderella, the team that followed in the footsteps of the 2005 White Sox or the 2006 Tigers.
This didn't include the national networks, however. The Brewers' original schedule didn't include a single Saturday afternoon game on FOX or Sunday night game on ESPN.
At any rate, nobody would have predicted this sort of start. After all, this is a franchise that hadn't had back-to-back winning months since 2001.
And, to be honest, there are still doubters. They will point to the fact, for example, that Milwaukee has played only two teams - Dodgers and Mets - that have a winning record.
"We know we haven't done anything yet," Yost said, leaning back in his chair. "It's the middle of May. It's a nice start. And we've got to sustain it.
"But these kids all have the ability to stay grounded and stay focused and that's very important. That's why they're special. I don't know if you can teach that kind of makeup. Makeup is an intangible. Some kids have it and some don't."
Mix in some veterans with a winning background and look what happens. Yost religiously observes the play-them-one-at-a-time credo, but can't completely hide his excitement over what the future may hold.
"I've seen this before. I've seen this model before," he said, leaning forward once again. "Nineteen-ninety-one. The beginning of 1991. The Atlanta Braves had been in dead last place forever, to the point where they were drawing 850,000 fans [a year]."
That was Yost's first season as the Braves bullpen coach for Bobby Cox. "But all of a sudden they had young kids that had a year under their belts in the big leagues that nobody had ever heard of," he continued. "Kids named David Justice, Ronnie Gant, Mark Lemke, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Steve Avery, you know? And all of a sudden with the addition of a couple free agents - Terry Pendleton, Sid Bream, Rafael Belliard - there they go. They win their division 14 straight years."
Nobody's predicting the Brewers are going to match that streak, of course.
Then again, how many people thought they would get off to the kind of start that they have? *