By Doug Russell Special to Published Aug 15, 2012 at 4:35 PM Photography: David Bernacchi

The journey is always sweeter than the destination.

Case in point: Last year we were all enraptured by the local nine and their return to October after two seasons of abject mediocrity. After 26 years of total futility, in the span of just four seasons, an entire franchise's playoff appearances doubled and once again the Brewers were the toast of the town.

Last year, our expectations were raised to a level not seen in a generation. In 2008 there was a sense of just being happy to finally be playing in October. But when the final out was made at Miller Park last Oct. 16, it felt as if the air had been let out of Milwaukee's tires. So close, yet still so far away.

The funny thing about baseball is its fickle nature. One day you can win by 10 runs, the next, against the very same team, you can get shut out on two hits. It is just how the game is played. Nothing more, nothing less.

Unfortunately for us, it is also our baseball reality year in and year out.

Last year was a magical ride that unfortunately ran out of gas in the National League Championship Series' final two games. And while many were outraged that this playoff indignity was at the hands of the hated St. Louis Cardinals, others were assuaged by the very fact that the Brewers simply ran into a buzzsaw that forgot how to lose when August turned over its calendar page.

And while no one should just accept falling short of stated goals, long-suffering Brewers fans have to be pragmatic, as counter-intuitive as that may be.

Baseball's revenue disparity problems have not been solved. One only has to look at the Yankees' $198 million doled out to player personnel this season as compared to the Padres' mere $55 million payroll to see that.

But, this season's 358 percent disparity, while massive, is actually the lowest percentage difference between the top and bottom clubs in Major League Baseball since 1994.

If we take a trip back in time, despite the ugly players strike that wiped out the World Series and nearly brought the sport to its knees, baseball was a much simpler business 18 years ago. The Yankees' total team payroll was a relatively paltry $45 million. Baseball's highest paid player was Pittsburgh's Bobby Bonilla at $6.3 million.

After 1994, a growing problem only got worse. Whereas markets like Pittsburgh could have the highest paid player in the game, the next generation of the National Pastime made that a laughable proposition, particularly when George Steinbrenner started spending money like a crazed lunatic.

Most years the disparity between the highest payroll club (each year since 1994 has been the Yankees) and the lowest hovered between 550 percent and 800 percent. The largest disparity was 2006 when the Yankees ($194,663,079) spent a whopping 1,298 percent of what the Marlins did ($14,998,500).

For all of the 1990s, Milwaukee was at or near the bottom of the payroll rung. The team was bad, the farm system was barren, whatever good players the Brewers could develop were shipped out, County Stadium was a ghost town, and a general malaise settled over the entire franchise like a persistent black cloud of doom and despair.

The fight to build Miller Park was ugly and protracted and nearly killed off the franchise once and for all. But while the new ballpark gave the Brewers a chance, good baseball decisions still had to be made.

When Doug Melvin arrived as general manager after the nightmarish 2002 season, he had to wonder just exactly he was getting himself into. Melvin inherited a team that wanted fans to believe that Ruben Quevedo, Jayson Durocher, and Ben Diggins were legitimate big leaguers and had drafted first round stiffs Chad Green, J.M. Gold, Antone Williamson, Dave Krynzel, and Mike Jones in recent years.

This trip down memory lane shows that while the failures of the 2012 Brewers are maddening, just a decade ago they were embarrassing themselves as a franchise. The ten years prior to that, baseball had its darkest hour and the Brewers nearly died in Milwaukee altogether.

In retrospect, yeah, their bullpen can't get anyone out right now. Their futility in that area as a team has cost them this season. The reality is, however, when you live in baseball's smallest market, these things are going to happen.

Last season the Brewers came within two games of the World Series. In order for that to have happened they needed stellar pitching and MVP-caliber seasons out of multiple players. They needed to steer clear of the injury bug and had get contributions from non-traditional sources. Tony Plush, wherever you are now, I'm looking at you.

Last season the Brewers bullpen was unhittable. How they have gone from best to worst is anyone's guess, but it didn't have anything to do with the recently-departed Stan Kyles as bullpen coach. He was merely a scapegoat; a sacrificial lamb.

The fact of the matter is that there is no easy answer as to why the Brewers have struggled so badly in an area thought to be one of their biggest strengths. Last weekend in Houston, the genial Ron Roenicke finally snapped. Asked as to why the combination of Rodriguez-to-Axford was continuing to be his final innings modus operandi, he fired back to reporters in his postgame news conference, "Give me some options. You harp on me about this, but you don't have any options for me."

Small market baseball presents challenges fans in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Dallas do not have to put up with. Not only do those cities never have to say goodbye to the likes of Prince Fielder and Zack Greinke, they have the luxury of margin of error. If one player goes down, they can still add pieces. The Brewers did that last year with Rodriguez and in 2008 with CC Sabathia. But those additions can only be made when the perfect storm of a bountiful farm system and a playoff berth are in play.

As Cincinnati found out last year, this does not happen every year. Even the Red Sox and Phillies are cycling through personnel in 2012. Last year's NLDS Brewers combatants, the Arizona Diamondbacks, are treading water and almost certainly are not headed back to the postseason. Cleveland, Kansas City, Seattle, Minnesota, and even Tampa Bay are already thinking about next year as well.

What we all have to come to terms with is this is how baseball works. The Gods of the Game giveth, and, well, you know the rest. Small market teams just don't compete every year. Sometimes it is the injury bug; sometimes the starting pitching falters; this year in Milwaukee, the bullpen can't stop hemorrhaging leads, but they aren't the sole reason the club has struggled.

Fielder and Greinke are gone. Chris Narveson, Mat Gamel and Alex Gonzalez are lost for the season. Randy Wolf has been terrible. Yovani Gallardo has been pedestrian. Shaun Marcum and Jonathan Lucroy have both missed significant time. Rickie Weeks has been bafflingly bad. Tony Plush is nowhere to be found and in his place, Nyjer Morgan is little more than a bit player.

It's been a tough summer out at the old ballyard. But if you compare it to the embarrassment of a franchise the Brewers were just a decade ago, things suddenly look a little bit better in the overall scheme of things. A decade ago our team was the laughingstock of baseball. Last season we saw a tidal wave sweep our city into the national limelight. This season, that tsunami hit landfall, wiping out everything in its path.

A decade ago we wouldn't have even noticed because the previous decade was a never-ending monsoon. Today, despite 2012s struggles, our local team is nationally respected. Today, our team is looked at as a model small-market franchise. The very notion of that a decade ago was ludicrous.

But while 2002 forced us to endure the sight of our hometown club mired in a 106-loss season, that summer did bring one watershed moment. This was the year Prince Fielder was drafted. And while the Pirates, Devil Rays, Reds, Orioles, Expos, and Royals all passed on the portly youngster of a portly journeyman, the Brewers pounced.

Sometimes the small baby steps no one notices at first are the ones that lay the foundation for greatness. What that step is in 2012 remains to be seen. Make no mistake about it, though, the Brewers, for all of the struggles we have seen this season, are in far, far better shape than they have been in their not-so-distant past.

Now, if someone can just get these guys out in the ninth...

Doug Russell Special to

Doug Russell has been covering Milwaukee and Wisconsin sports for over 20 years on radio, television, magazines, and now at

Over the course of his career, the Edward R. Murrow Award winner and Emmy nominee has covered the Packers in Super Bowls XXXI, XXXII and XLV, traveled to Pasadena with the Badgers for Rose Bowls, been to the Final Four with Marquette, and saw first-hand the entire Brewers playoff runs in 2008 and 2011. Doug has also covered The Masters, several PGA Championships, MLB All-Star Games, and Kentucky Derbys; the Davis Cup, the U.S. Open, and the Sugar Bowl, along with NCAA football and basketball conference championships, and for that matter just about anything else that involves a field (or court, or rink) of play.

Doug was a sports reporter and host at WTMJ-AM radio from 1996-2000, before taking his radio skills to national syndication at Sporting News Radio from 2000-2007. From 2007-2011, he hosted his own morning radio sports show back here in Milwaukee, before returning to the national scene at Yahoo! Sports Radio last July. Doug's written work has also been featured in The Sporting News, Milwaukee Magazine, Inside Wisconsin Sports, and Brewers GameDay.

Doug and his wife, Erika, split their time between their residences in Pewaukee and Houston, TX.