The final evaluations of the 2014 Milwaukee Brewers season began before the calendar officially deemed it over, with outgoing Major League Baseball commissioner sitting to the right of Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio at Miller Park on the last Friday of the season.
Selig, in town on his farewell tour, was asked if he could empathize with Attanasio as the Brewers were packing moving boxes in that final series against Chicago instead of chilling champagne.
"I can," Selig said. "We obviously communicate a lot. And I said before, I’ll say it again – my friend (and former commissioner) Bart Giamatti had it right. He wrote the brilliant ode on baseball. It breaks your heart. It’s designed to break your heart. And you have to understand that when you get in this sport that you’re going to have years like that and you just have to learn to adjust to that."
Selig recalled the 1983 season in which the Brewers had played themselves into first place on Aug. 25 at 73-53 – only to finish the year in a 14-21 skid and end up in fifth place in the American League East, 11 games behind the Baltimore Orioles.
He remembered being in New York in the midst of a 10-game losing streak that essentially ended that season, taking the ribbing from George Steinbrenner and having his mother-in-law wondering just how cruel a game could be tolerated.
The 2014 Brewers were eerily similar. On Aug. 25, the Brewers were 73-58 and in first place, but ended the year 9-22 to finish in third place in the NL Central, eight games behind the St. Louis Cardinals.
It seems like Attanasio will have his own memories.
"On Aug. 25 I was in San Diego," he told assorted media on Saturday. "We won the game, 10-1. The clubhouse was buoyant; the team had an unmistakable swagger on the field. So much so that the Padres owners were coming by and saying, ‘You guys are so big, so strong. Everybody can hit the ball out of the park. How did you guys put this team together?’ From that day, we’ve kind of gone backwards.
"It’s a mystery in sports."
In reality, though, the fall from the top began much sooner. After reaching 19 games over .500 and leading the division by 6 ½ games on June 28, the Brewers went 31-48 thereafter.
Pick an on-field disaster, and the Brewers experienced it. Drop a routine pop up. Ground into an ill-timed double play. Make a base running blunder. Forget the outs in an inning.
"Frankly, even into mid-September I believed in this team and thought they were going to turn it around," Attanasio said. "They just didn’t. And, so, you can pick the adjectives – frustrated, disappointed, catatonic. Very disappointed.
"In fact, I’m disappointed in the team, disappointed in the guys. They’re better than this and they didn’t show it."
In the disastrous final 79 games of the year, every regular position player saw his batting average and on base percentage plummet – not only from career averages, but from where they were after the game on June 28. Only third baseman Aramis Ramirez hit over .270 in that stretch.
Mark Reynolds (.161), Khris Davis (.221), Ryan Braun (.246) and Jean Segura (.248) couldn’t clear .250. Jonathan Lucroy’s average plummeted 70 points and Carlos Gomez’s fell 55.
And not only didn’t the team hit, they didn’t hit for power. Ramirez and Braun – the heart of the order – combined for 13 home runs and 62 runs batted in in those final 79 games.
The lineup was so bad that the newly acquired Gerardo Parra’s .268 average, three homers and 18 RBI in 46 games looked impactful.
"We’re going to take a good look and analyze our ballclub," Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said on Saturday while alongside Attanasio. "Offense is down in all of baseball, but I know I just felt when we were successful we had an offensive swagger to us. We hit a lot of home runs. This is the fewest home runs we’ve hit since 2004." (The team hit 150.)
Melvin continued: "Home runs are down in baseball, but we had an offensive swagger and teams would come in here and hate to play us in our ballpark. Then people like to do different things, ‘We’ve got to run more and all this stuff,’ and we got away from, ‘We only win games when we hit home runs.’ Well, that’s a nice thing. ‘We only win games when we hit home runs.’ I’d like to do that again, ‘We only win games when we hit home runs.’ That’s something that we haven’t done in the last two years. We’re giving up more home runs than we hit."
Melvin and Attanasio will take time to evaluate the fate of manager Ron Roenicke and his coaching staff and what roster changes need to be made – including whether or not to pick up their half of the $14 million mutual option on Ramirez, who will turn 37 next summer.
That will be an interesting decision, as Ramirez bounced back with an all-star season after missing 70 games last year. But, in the 225 games he has played the last two years, he’s hit 27 homers, 41 doubles and driven in 115 – numbers a cleanup hitter should reach in just one full season.
As for Braun, the former MVP is scheduled to have surgery today in Los Angeles to hopefully repair nerve damage in his right thumb, an issue that has plagued him the last two years – the worst offensive campaigns of his career.
First base remains a concern, as well as the regression of Segura at the plate, as well as Davis’s lack of consistency and Scooter Gennett’s ability to hit left-handers.
The pitching staff is a little more settled. All seven players who started games and turned in 103 quality starts are under club control, including the top four in the rotation.
The bullpen will need work, as always. Tyler Thornburg and Jim Henderson missed most of the season with arm injuries, and Brandon Kintzler will be undergoing knee surgery this offseason.
All-Star closer Francisco Rodriguez, who had 44 saves, is a free agent, but may be headed out the door as the Jonathan Broxton has closing experience and is slated to make $9 million next season. Left-hander Zach Duke (2.45 earned run average) is also a free agent.
The Brewers were in first place for 150 days, but there are no easy answers as to why – or how – the team fell from its perch.
"So we’ve got to take a hard look at the kind of club you want to be," Melvin said. "And that can change. Your personnel forces you to change sometimes. Your philosophy sometimes might force you to change it."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.