By Andy Tarnoff Publisher Published Apr 05, 2006 at 5:46 AM

SURPRISE, ARIZ. -- It may be the surest sign of spring that baseball is upon us for real when we run our annual Milwaukee Talks with Milwaukee Brewers broadcaster Jim Powell.

This year, we caught up Powell in the final week of Spring Training, in the middle innings of a game between the Brewers and the Royals. As he enters his 11th season alongside Hall of Famer Bob Uecker, he's as excited as ever for the team's prospects -- and even more so.

Enjoy this annual rite of spring as brings you yet another Milwaukee Talks with Jim Powell.

OMC: I think I ask you this every March, but is this the year to watch the Brewers? Should we be excited?

Jim Powell: You know, for the first time since I've been here, I think can honestly tell you: Yes, you should be excited. Based on the way the team looked on paper this off-season, everyone came to camp pretty optimistic. If anything, watching the team perform in Spring Training has only made everybody more optimistic.

There really weren't that many questions about the team coming into Spring Training. I'd say there are fewer at this point. The way Dave Bush has stepped up and seized that fifth starter spot -- that was one of the few areas of concern. He pitched more like a number two in Spring Training. The offense has been good; everybody's healthy. Ben Sheets will start on the DL, but he's throwing well. He should be ready in early to mid April. When you look at the rest of the NL Central, the Cardinals have maybe taken a half-step back to the pack. The Astros don't look really strong. I don't see another team in the Central that's as good as the Brewers or those two other teams. But believe it or not, they will actually play the games, despite what you and I decide right here.

OMC: Did Doug Melvin swing another great trade in dealing Lyle Overbay to Toronto, or was he just clearing the path for Prince Fielder?

JP: I think he swung a great trade, and I feel good about it, just based on the way Dave Bush has pitched. If you could tell me that you could get a starting pitcher of that caliber for a first baseman, I'd be inclined to make the deal right there. And throw in a nice left-handed pitching prospect in Zack Jackson, a good role player and bench player in Gabe Gross. I think it was a really nice trade.

OMC: How about the addition of Corey Koskie at third base? Was that highway robbery?

JP: That's payback, Andy. For all the years that the Brewers and their fans were kicked in the teeth for the Sean Berrys and Jose Hernandezes, for having to watch Izzy Alcantara and Ryan Thompson. They say those things even out and we never believe that, but maybe now they do.

OMC: Can Bill Hall remain a utility guy?

JP: Right now, everyone is worried where Bill will get his at bats. My guess is that at the end of September, he'll have as many at bats as he would have otherwise. He's gonna play a lot. And there are gonna be injuries. No matter who gets injured on this team, Bill Hall will take his spot. He's such a good utility player. He's proven he can play the outfield spots. I'm not too worried about Bill Hall.

OMC: Is there more depth in this Brewers lineup than you've ever seen?

JP: There's more depth in the starting lineup, but there's a tremendous amount on the bench. As you know, Bill Hall would have been the poster boy for the media guide and the three-hole hitter after the year he put up last year. Instead, he will be coming off the bench. Either he or Koskie will be available every night, barring injury. And Gabe Gross is an upgrade over who the Brewers previously had on the bench. Jeff Cirillo is one of the better utility men that the Brewers have had since I've been around. I want to mention Corey Hart, as well. There were Brewers teams in the past where Hart would have been penciled in for 500 at bats as a starting player. This year, the Brewers can have a normal amount of injuries, sustain them and not lose much.

OMC: Can we expect the Brewers to finish over .500?

JP: I would be very disappointed if the team didn't play .500 ball, I'll put it that way.

OMC: You're now on your 11th season as a Brewers broadcaster. Where does that put you, in terms of tenure, compared to your peers?

JP: I don't know. I haven't really studied that. It's a pretty good long time, but 10 years have blinked by really quickly. It seems like just yesterday I was in Chandler then flew across the country for the birth of my daughter, who just turned 10 last week. But I've never been this excited about a Brewers team. Even my first year, it didn't excite me like this. I'm doing this because I love baseball, and I want to watch good baseball. I want to call the games for good teams, for games that matter. Nothing close to that has ever happened.

OMC: Are you still negotiating your new contract?

JP: It's still ongoing.

OMC: Can we expect that you'll be in Milwaukee for a while?

JP: I hope so. I'm talking with WTMJ, and both sides want a contract extension, and I fully expect that one will get worked out, hopefully quickly. I'm hoping to be in Milwaukee my whole career.

OMC: How do you change from season to season? Is there anyway to make your job even better?

JP: I think it comes back to what's on the field, to be honest with you. The most difficult job in sportscasting is calling the play-by-play on radio for a bad team. I'm not complaining, but for the last 10 years, it has been a real challenge. I look at my partner (Bob Uecker), and I have a great deal of admiration for how he's suffered through a great deal of losing seasons. We both want to see the team do well. We know the players, the manager, the coaches, the front office people. They're all our friends. When they lose, we lose, and we feel it just like they do. But when they win, we also get that same feeling of exhilaration. When the team is doing poorly, we have to talk about minor league prospects and funny stories and other games, and talk about everybody except your team. I'm really hoping we can spend 162 games just talking about this team.

OMC: How was your off season?

JP: I coached a little basketball. Being 4 feet 2 inches, you wouldn't think I'd know anything about basketball, but that was actually my best sport as a kid. Unfortunately, I was vertically challenged. This was my oldest daughter Allie's team -- third and fourth grade basketball. I've been coaching for a while now. It's a lot of fun, and all three of my girls are playing.

OMC: Did you play fantasy football again this winter?

JP: I had great teams, and I was in four leagues. I had three number-one seeds going into the playoffs and a number two, and I won zero championships. What are you gonna do? I love watching the NFL -- it's a nice way to enjoy sports as a fan.

OMC: Are you ready to start the season?

JP: Absolutely. This is my first year with the Brewers where we start the season at home.

OMC: Can Milwaukeeans really get behind this team?

JP: I think word has seeped out that it's time to get back on board. Even fans who stayed away because the strike are back now. I think it's for two reasons: Because the team looks better, and everyone likes a winner. But two, it's the way this team is constructed.

These are home-grown guys. The fans have hearing about Rickie Weeks and Prince Fielder and JJ Hardy and Corey Hart for years. This is not a mercenary team like you'd get in New York or Boston. But for a market size like Milwaukee, seeing the homegrown guys come up and be that talented and turn around the fortunes of this team, I think that's why the fans are captivated by the group. Everyone is going to enjoy the rebirth of baseball in Wisconsin this year.

Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.

Before launching in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.

Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.