New season is league apart for Brewers



PHOENIX -- The Milwaukee Brewers may come from the home of the Braves, but in their first season as a National League club, they are strangers in a strange land.

"It's a big adjustment," said manager Phil Garner. "There are a lot of unknowns."

Like where the Brewers fit into the pecking order in the six-team NL Central and how they will adapt to the National League style of play. The only thing that's certain is that club owner and interim baseball commissioner Bud Selig was right. Brewers fans were ready for a change.

Ticket sales are on the rise, though it is impossible to determine how much of the increase is based on enthusiasm for the league switch and how much is the result of excitement over the new ballpark that is going up next to Milwaukee County Stadium.

"I'm a little surprised, though I shouldn't be," Garner said. "People tell me it's a National League city. Maybe they were telling me the truth, because of the ticket sales. There's a lot of excitement about the move."

Tradition runs deep in a parochial city such as Milwaukee. Fans still wax nostalgic over the Braves, some 33 years after they moved to Atlanta. Now they'll have the best of all worlds - the Braves coming back to town a couple times a year and the popular Chicago Cubs just 70 miles away.

The only thing left to do is put a competitive team on the field, which is no small trick.

The Brewers have struggled all spring. The pitching staff is in disarray and the starting lineup has not been particularly productive. It's only spring, but Garner clearly is concerned about the club's readiness to compete in the National League.

"We're not pitching well; we're not swinging well; we better shape up," he said. "We have a tough road to go."

Tougher than any other club in the league, because the Brewers have to get up to speed on 15 other clubs. The other NL teams only have to adjust to one.

"We won't do anything more than we have done," Garner said. "All that stuff we do anyway. We're just going to do it without so much an eye on making a deal and putting an emphasis on playing against them."

Former Orioles catcher Bob Melvin is playing an important part in that effort, scouting the teams that train in Arizona.

"It's a whole new league for us," Melvin said. "We're playing teams we have never played before. I'm not that far removed [from his playing career], so I know a lot of the big-league guys, but the young guys are tough. It's the guys who don't play every day and the prospects that you really have to keep your eye on."

Garner isn't concerned about a lack of scouting data. He'll have reams of information on his 15 new rivals by Opening Day. The trick is deciding just how much of it the club can synthesize.

"We will have a lot of information," he said. "Normally, when a new pitcher comes into the league, every team gets a report on that guy. When you have a whole league, you don't want to get so much information that it leads to paralysis. Our biggest problem is trying to figure out what the right amount of information is."

Wrongs of spring

The idyllic attraction of spring training apparently is fading. Exhibition attendance is in decline for all but a few teams with national appeal, and there is no shortage of possible causes.

Factor No. 1: The arrival of major-league franchises in both Florida and Arizona has diverted interest away from other major-league clubs training in those areas and, undoubtedly, caused local baseball fans in the Miami and Tampa areas to hold onto their wallets until the regular season.

Factor No. 2: The consolidation of training sites into relatively small geographical areas has increased competition among teams for both local fans and tourists.

Factor No. 3: The folksy, small-town appeal of spring training has been lost in the new mega-training facilities that some communities have built for their major-league teams.

Factor No. 4: E1 Nino. The unseasonably warm winter in the Northeast apparently kept some baseball fans at home this spring.

Factor No. 5: The weather in Florida was cold and rainy for much of spring training. It also was unseasonably cool in Arizona early in the exhibition season.

Need proof of the cumulative effect of all those factors? The Tampa Bay Devil Rays played the Florida Marlins in their first game against another major-league club four weeks ago and didn't come close to selling out 7,227-seat Al Lang Stadium.

Harnisch on dip

Pete Harnisch took more than a passing interest in the news that former Orioles teammate Curt Schilling recently had to quit smokeless tobacco. Harnisch's battle to kick the habit preceded a long bout with anxiety and chronic depression last season.

"It's dangerous stuff," said Harnisch, who dipped for 13 years before quitting last season. "It's hard for me to say how difficult it is to stop, because not everything I went through was a result of that. It was a contributing factor, but it wasn't everything. Quitting wasn't really that hard. I took it as a challenge."

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