By Drew Olson Special to OnMilwaukee.com Published May 02, 2006 at 5:43 AM Photography: Eron Laber of Front Room Photography

Ask most major-leaguers to name their favorite baseball movie and they will stop for a moment to ponder whether they should pick "Field of Dreams," "The Natural" or "Bull Durham."

Jeff Cirillo is different.

"The Bad News Bears," no question," the Milwaukee Brewers infielder said before a recent game. "It's got to be the original, though. Not the remake."

The 1976 classic, which was set in the San Fernando Valley near where Cirillo learned the game as a kid, seems like a logical choice. While he still approaches his job with the enthusiasm of a little leaguer, Cirillo finds that his current situation more closely resembles a character from a different baseball comedy.

"I'm like Jake Taylor," Cirillo said, referring to the grizzled Cleveland catcher played by Tom Berenger in "Major League." "That's because we're both back from the Mexican League."

With his confidence shaken after unsuccessful stints with Seattle and San Diego, Cirillo traveled to Mexico after the 2004 season and rediscovered his hitting stroke and his desire to play. That stint, which was followed by a steady stream of phone calls, convinced Brewers general manager Doug Melvin to give Cirillo an invitation to spring training.

Though he was considered a long shot to make the roster, Cirillo won a backup job by displaying the same tenacity and offensive skill that made him a Brewers mainstay during the mid-to-late 1990s. A fractured finger cost put him on the disabled list for two months last summer, but the Brewers' all-time leader in batting average returned for the final month and is back again this year as a pinch-hit specialist, spot starter and mentor to some of the promising young players on the team.

After a recent afternoon game at Miller Park, Cirillo settled into a massage chair -- a luxury on loan from Corey Koskie in the Brewers clubhouse -- for a Milwaukee Talks interview about his relationship with Wisconsin fans, changes in the Brewers organization, steroids and religion in baseball and his hatred of slow infields.

OMC: Every time your name is introduced at Miller Park, whether it's opening day or the eighth inning of a lopsided game, you get a pretty big ovation. Have you noticed that?

Jeff Cirillo: I totally notice that the fans are behind me.

OMC: Why do you think that bond exists?

Cirillo: I think there are a couple of reasons. First of all, I just wore it on my sleeve. I was very emotional as far as playing. When I wasn't doing good, I took it hard. I took the losses hard. The other thing is that I didn't want to get traded (after the 1999 season). I think I was pretty public about the fact that I didn't want to get traded out of Milwaukee.

OMC: What did you think when you were traded?

Cirillo: I got blindsided. I think the fans were blindsided, too. I called Wendy Selig-Prieb (then the club president) two days before I got traded and I said "Wendy, what is the deal here? Am I getting traded?" She said "Jeff, I'm going to tell you right now, emphatically, there is no way you're getting traded." She called me three days later and she said "I know I told you probably weren't going to be traded." I said "Well, actually, you said I wasn't (going anywhere)." In the end, I told her I was grateful they didn't send me to Montreal, which was the other team that had shown interest."

OMC: Things worked out pretty well for you in Colorado. You made an all-star team and signed a big multi-year contract. How do you think the deal worked out for the Brewers and what do you think would have happened in your career had you stayed in Milwaukee?

Cirillo: The trade didn't work out that well for the Brewers. The guys that they got didn't do as well as they hoped. I think if I hadn't been traded (that winter), I would have been traded eventually, anyway. Davey Lopes would have seen me as another Mark Loretta -- a guy that isn't flashy and isn't going to steal bases. From what I've heard, I'm glad I didn't play for Davey Lopes.

OMC: Yeah, you missed some pretty dark days here during that period. What do you think about the organization now?

Cirillo: It's pretty solid. I'll give you a perfect example with (general manager) Doug Melvin. Name me one other team in baseball that would have stayed with J.J. Hardy last year. Not one team would have. He just stuck to his plan. They saw it wasn't affecting J.J. defensively. Even watching it from where I was, I was thinking "Oh, man. That's tough." But, they stuck with him. It was impressive.

OMC: You went through some struggles when you first came up, too. I remember when you got sent back to the minors at one point and you almost seemed relieved.

Cirillo: I was. But, I wasn't the starter, though, so it was different with J.J.. I wasn't playing at all. They threw me in there a few times and it was like "Get me out of here."

OMC: In what other ways has the organization changed?

Cirillo: With Ned (Yost, the manager), he brings a credibility because he came from Atlanta and he knows what the formula is to be successful. From what I've seen, guys that don't fit the mold or right kind of guy (are gone). I'm not talking about a five-tool talent guy. I'm just talking a baseball player as far as out on the field and in this clubhouse. Ricky Bottalico (a relief pitcher released last season) is a perfect example. They don't say anything. They're just like "Thank you, sir. Thank you for your service. Take care." There was no blasting him. They're just not here anymore.

I just think they're classy. Coming from a place where I was in Seattle, I had a manager (Lou Piniella) who would show you up if you do something wrong. You're not going to get that from Ned, no matter what you do. If you strike out with the bases loaded, two outs -- he knows that the camera is on him. He might be steaming inside. It could be killing him. But, he won't show it. Guys respect that. He might bring it up in the clubhouse, but we're taught in little league that you don't show up your teammates. I respect that.

OMC: Do you see parallels between Ned Yost and Phil Garner?

Cirillo: Yes and no. Garner gets mad. Garner would blow up at you. He'd air you out. Ned isn't like that, but he still has the fire. Garner was more active with it. (Garner) was my first manager and I loved him, even though I never hit 20 homers for him. He always said "I want my third baseman to hit 20 homers," and I never did. I loved him. I thought he was great. You had to earn your stripes with him. The first year, he didn't really talk to you. When you showed you'd earn the right to be there, he'd ask you a few more questions and talk to you more.

OMC: Speaking of earning your stripes, your first couple years in the majors it seemed like Kevin Seitzer was a mentor to you. Now, you've been cast into that role. What impact did Seitzer have on you?

Cirillo: Seitzer was great. He was a big brother, but he was a big brother that says "Hey, you need to stay in line." I'm more a positive-type guy. I remember Seitzer telling me "Jeff, I've had a lot of guys that have tried to take my job. You're going to be the guy that does it. There were five third basemen in Kansas City supposed to take my job. You're going to be the guy who does." Words like that go a long way when you are a young player. That was huge. It was unbelievable."

OMC: Seitzer was one of a number of Brewers players during that period who were deeply religious. A lot of fans remember the "prayer circle" on the foul line before games. Although there are still a number of born-again players in baseball, and even in this clubhouse, the whole religion thing seems to be less overt that it did 10 years ago. Do you agree?

Cirillo: Yes. There is a lot less of that. I just think it's kind of like good clubhouse bad clubhouse. Look at our team: if Chad Moeller (who is very religious) was Carlos (Lee) and Gabe Gross was (Geoff) Jenkins, it would be emphasized more. With those teams (in the '90s), we had Seitzer, Cal Eldred, Bill Wegman and Sal (Bando), the general manager.

OMC: Given the atmosphere, did you ever feel pressure to be a follower during that period?

Cirillo: A little, yes. That was just kind of the line you had to walk. As a rookie, you want to stick around. I never got caught up in that stuff. I go to chapel on Sunday, that's just my church. But I'm not really going to go to the Bible study. I did it one year, in about 1997. I really bought into it and it was almost like I was not doing enough and I was miserable. The next spring I thought, "I'm just going to relax and enjoy this."

OMC: As religion has been deemphasized, has there been an increase in guys who go out and party hard?

Cirillo: Not really. But, that's always been kind of covered up, too.

OMC: At your advancing age, can you still hang with the younger guys in that department?

Cirillo: I'll still go out with them, but I bail at midnight. I tell the guys "Even if I sit here and drink water until 2:00 in the morning, I'll feel like crap in the morning." I have to get my sleep, or it kills me.

OMC: What other concessions have you made to age?

Cirillo: It's harder. They say it's a kid's game for a reason. Age comes into play. I keep myself in good shape. I'm probably as limber as anyone on this team. One thing is that I have to make sure I sweat. I have to get a sweat going before I go out on the field. The body needs some joint fuel. I've got to sweat. I do some post (-exercise) stretching. I get a lot of massages. Last year, I was getting two or three massages a week. I'd come down the steps after scoring a run and I'd feel like I was going to fall. I was shaky.

Not playing every day probably helps me. Don't get me wrong. I want to play. You want to play enough to be part of it. But, I think that where I'm at now I can help more when I'm not playing. I can talk to the younger guys and help them out. When I'm playing, I've got to worry about myself and the game. When I'm not playing, I can still help. I like that.

OMC: You've been in the big leagues a long time and played with a lot of guys. Who were your three favorite teammates?

Cirillo: Mike Cameron -- his smile was infectious. Every day was fun. I just love him. Mike Matheny -- he's the greatest person I've ever met. And then I'd say (Geoff) Jenkins because he's here (laughs) and we've got a lot of history together. (Editor's note: Jenkins and Cirillo both played college baseball at USC, and Cirillo was teammates with Jenkins' older brother, Brett.)

OMC: Would you care to name your three least favorite teammates?

Cirillo: Probably Jeff Juden, Phil Nevin and Juan Acevedo.

OMC: Do you care to elaborate?

Cirillo: Not really.

OMC: OK, we'll move onto another topic that might be sensitive. You've played virtually your entire career during what will be forever known as "the steroid era." How do you feel about that?

Cirillo: History is history. Baseball is no different than life. People are always cutting corners, looking for the edge. You can't tell me there aren't some powerful people in this country, politicians included, who haven't done things that were wrong because they were trying to get ahead.

OMC: In hindsight, it seems just about everyone involved dropped the ball on the steroids issue: the owners, the players, the media. Do you regret the fact that players who weren't cheating didn't take a more active role in asking for testing?

Cirillo: There was talk. There was always talk. The response I always received is that it's something we should govern as a players association. It was viewed like a concession. People said, "We shouldn't just give it to them. What if you have a guaranteed contract and they slip something and they now have control over you?"

OMC: Did you ever find yourself tempted to keep steroids, just to keep up?

Cirillo: Yes.

OMC: Would you have considered that cheating? There were probably a lot of players who were less talented than you who put up big home-run numbers than you did. Do you ever feel jealous? Do you hold grudges?

Cirillo: Sure, I hold grudges. But, honestly, I think sometimes people lose the aspect that this is our career. When I say career, the earning capacity -- the window of opportunity in this game -- is really small and you need to take advantage of it. If you don't, there is another guy there waiting. The numbers stay, they just change the name on the back of the uniform. You have the opportunity to take care of your family and all that stuff. People are going to say people are cheating the game. Yes, it is a game. But, it's also our livelihood. It's our lives.

OMC: Other than the steroid implications, what are the big changes you've seen in the game over the past decade?

Cirillo: I'll give you one: the infields are way slower now. They used to never water the front area on the field. When I was here and all through the league, we were taught "line drive down." Now, those aren't hits. The infields are slow. I guess they think they've got to be able to maintain something. It's like they're keeping guys off the base, because there are going to be home runs. That's a big change. Guys used to be told "line drive down, line drive down." I remember I told Mark Grace that in 2000. I said "This is a joke. It's not line drive down any more. It's line drive up."

I know I struggled a lot, but my career would have been a lot different if I could have played in the Kindgome in Seattle instead of Safeco (Field). I have no doubt about that. The Kingdome was turf. My line drives to the gap still go out there. At Safeco, they didn't go anywhere.

OMC: What do you think about your new home park, Miller Park?

Cirillo: I look at April a lot differently than I used to. Oh, my God. The difference is huge. This ballpark has so many benefits. There are so many amenities. Look at the clubhouse, with the two (big screen) TVs. You've got the weight room and the (batting) cage right here. You've got the Swim-Ex (hydrotherapy machine) in the training room.

The biggest thing is just knowing that you're going to play a game every night. Think of all the rain delays we had at County Stadium. You knew it was going to be cold in April and September. It could get miserable. We'd have hour-long rain delays. God forbid if it was a Friday night, we were playing. We'd sit there all night.

OMC: Those nights definitely put a crimp on the nightlife, especially for writers. Speaking of nightlife, how did Milwaukee change in the years that you were gone? You used to have a home in Whitefish Bay. Now, you have a place in Bay View. What do you do you think of that and what do you do with your free time?

Cirillo: Bay View is awesome. I really like it. The place I'm in is so much better than the one I had last year. Last year, I was on the East Side at a place off Prospect Avenue. It was a dark place and it was brutal. But, I got it because I didn't really know how long I was going to be here. The place I'm in this year is a lot better.

As far as free time, I still go to Elsa's and the Velvet Room and I go to Mayfair Mall a lot. I go to movies with Jenkins and J.J. (Hardy) and some of the other guys. But, that's only when my family is not here. When the family is in town, it's a different story.

OMC: That brings me to the final question. How has being a father changed the way you approach the game? I imagine it's easier to forget a bad day at the park and harder to go on long road trips.

Cirillo: It gets harder. My wife has done a lot of work and it's at a point where she wants me to be done. The kids probably want me to done, too. Having kids does change things a lot. When I played for Seattle, I was struggling. It was bad. You're getting booed in your home state, you've got a manager that's all over you. It was really tough. But, I made a point to not bring that home. I wanted my kids to see the same guy. Was it killing me inside? Yes. But, I didn't want them to see that.

The kids are to the point where they're coming on the road now a little bit. That's another sacrifice my wife is making. Having them on the road is great, but it's not easy. Even though you're staying in a nice hotel, you're pretty much always in the city. There is no grass. There isn't a lot for them to do. It can be tough, but I like having them around.

Drew Olson Special to OnMilwaukee.com

Host of “The Drew Olson Show,” which airs 1-3 p.m. weekdays on The Big 902. Sidekick on “The Mike Heller Show,” airing weekdays on The Big 920 and a statewide network including stations in Madison, Appleton and Wausau. Co-author of Bill Schroeder’s “If These Walls Could Talk: Milwaukee Brewers” on Triumph Books. Co-host of “Big 12 Sports Saturday,” which airs Saturdays during football season on WISN-12. Former senior editor at OnMilwaukee.com. Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.