Throwing Baseball a Curve

You know you're watching a National League game when your team has runners on first and second and one out - and the pitcher gets up to bat.

He lays down a bad bunt. The catcher throws the runner out at third. Oooooh, the crowd groans, deflating like a hot-air balloon that's just hit the ground.

Last year, this couldn't have happened to the Milwaukee Brewers. In 1997, they were in the American League, where pitchers just get to pitch and muscle-bound designated hitters get to bat for them - with a greater likelihood of batting those runners home than Milwaukee pitcher Jeff Juden had.

Boy, those Brewers fans must be awfully burned up, switching to the other league like that after 28 years in the American, I thought as I sat back in my lower grandstand seat at Milwaukee County Stadium. But then, I'm a lifelong American Leaguer - a Bostonian transplanted to Washington, where the team of choice is the Baltimore Orioles.

If someone had ordered the Red Sox or the Orioles to change leagues, just imagine the outcry. It would be like having to change from the Republican to the Democratic Party or from writing right-handed to being a southpaw. It would mean having to root for the enemy during the All-Star Game.

The Brewers, of course, weren't forced to switch. Their owner, acting baseball commissioner Bud Selig, made the offer when it became clear that the expansion of major league baseball would require one team to change - the first such switch this century. Besides, a Brewers spokesman pointed out, no other team was interested. And, according to Mr. Selig, "extensive local research" showed Milwaukee fans approved the move.

So I set out to see what Milwaukee fans really thought. Did they believe all that hype from the Brewers front office, about how exciting it would be to play with all those new players? Would the slogans plastered all over the city - "We're Taking This Thing National" - really convince people this was a great development, not a devastating blow to Milwaukee's identity?

Matt, a program salesman, had no doubts. "We were more a National League team anyway," he declared. "The American League has the power hitters, in the National, you have more bunting and strategy." Besides, he added, team manager Phil Garner spent most of his playing career in the National League, so this fits his style better.

For the older fans, including the old-time ushers, switching to the Nationals is actually a return home. When Milwaukee got its first major league team, in 1953, it was the Braves, a National League team formerly of Boston, now of Atlanta.

"It's about time we went back," said Gene Marefka, an usher here for 15 years. "Now I don't have to go to St. Louis to see real baseball."

George Lewko, an 11-year ushering veteran, agreed: "It's no ballgame when you have a designated hitter."

Mike Schmackle, from the east side of Milwaukee, had a more tangible reason to be in favor of the switch: "Now we're in an easier division," he says. "I think we'll make the playoffs."

Craig Z. was excited about seeing National League players come through here for a change. "I think this is the first time the Mets have ever played here," he said.

Natalie Anastaso, a souvenir vendor here for 25 years, didn't really care which league the Brewers played in - as long as people kept buying T-shirts and banners. "I love basketball," she said. "I'm a big Celtics fan, even own stock in them. The dividends are pretty good."

Even the local press seemed pretty pleased about the Brewers' switch: Something new to write about. And quicker games, said a photographer who looked forward to shorter work nights. "National League umps must be better at moving things along," he surmised.

Wasn't anybody disturbed by this change of identity? Before the final pitch was thrown, I was determined to find at least one disgruntled fan. Certainly, among the 10,330 souls who turned out on a chilly Good Friday, there must be someone who thinks changing leagues is an outrage.

Finally, it hit me: A kid. Someone whose whole life as a Brewers fan has been spent in the American League. At the top of the ninth inning, deep in the concourse behind the stands, I found him. Eleven-year-old John Zech, clutching his program and a pen, a look of childlike earnestness deep in his eyes.

I asked him what he thought, betraying no prejudice. A flash of disappointment crossed his face. "Well, I guess I'm kinda mad," he admitted. "There's all these American League players I like - like Alex Rodriguez from Seattle - and I won't get to see them anymore."

That is, unless they meet in the World Series.

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