MILWAUKEE – When it was done, long after it was done, CC Sabathia stood on the roof of the home dugout, a Milwaukee Brewers flag slung over his shoulder. He drenched the locals with a fruity spray, and touched their hands, and signed their soaked shirts.
They'd never really looked like winners before.
Dale Sveum, not the interim manager but the acting manager, which sounds more like the guy who holds the lineup card after the real manager is ejected, pretended it was the champagne that reddened his old soul's eyes. In reality, it was this team, this moment, these last 12 days.
The Brewers had won games before, but not enough games or the right ones. They'd never really felt like winners before, not like this.
Ryan Church of the New York Mets flied out to the warning track in Flushing, N.Y., and a pack of Brewers charged into the tunnel leading to the field where a full ballpark waited. "Public intoxication!" one shouted. "I can't wait!"
They'd never really been allowed to act like winners before either. Not like this, begoggled and bemused, tearing around the ballpark in the wake of their 300-pound left-hander, Robin Yount among them, bridging 26 years of hardball futility.
Yes, on a cool afternoon that hinted at fall, Milwaukee had its first good laugh and its first good cry at a ballpark in more than a quarter of a century.
The Brewers beat the Chicago Cubs 3-1 behind nine more innings and 122 more pitches from Sabathia, behind one huge eighth-inning home run from Ryan Braun. They'd killed 30 minutes watching the Mets bleed out. Then they became wild-card wild cards, the team with the stud at the top of its rotation and the puncher's chance for sudden glory. They'll play the Philadelphia Phillies starting Wednesday, the organization's first postseason game since Oct. 20, 1982.
Owner Mark Attanasio fired Ned Yost as manager in mid-September. It looked rash and panicky and, of course, completely necessary. The ballclub won seven times in 12 games under Sveum, not exactly dominant, but enough by one. Two weeks later, from behind glasses foggy and sticky, Attanasio praised Yost, but hugged the players and the coaching staff that remained.
"I felt what I could do is set a tone and provide leadership," he said, at the end of his fourth season. "We needed to establish a winning culture. After being beaten down for so long, there was a culture of losing. Ned Yost was a big part of developing this culture. He got us to a point."
Sveum kicked it the rest of the way. He gave the ball to Sabathia four times in 13 days. In a 1-1 game Sunday, Sabathia, at 107 pitches, led off the eighth inning and swung like he believed he'd have to win the game on offense too. Three batters later, Braun hit a fastball over the left-field fence, and he dashed around the bases and literally danced into the dugout.
When Sabathia had Derrek Lee ground into a game-ending double play – make that an era-ending double play – he did it with one batter to spare. Sveum said later he would have given Sabathia one more batter. Pinch-hitter (and left-handed hitter) Jim Edmonds was on deck. The game never got to Edmonds, who returned to the dugout as Sabathia puffed up and balled his hands into fists, concluding two phenomenal weeks.
Perhaps risking his arm on the eve of free agency, Sabathia threw 434 pitches in those 13 days. When Sveum offered the ball, he took it, every time. When Sveum raised his eyebrows deep in games, silently asking, "You done?", Sabathia looked away, every time. Between Cleveland and Milwaukee, Sabathia went 253 innings. Lately, there wasn't an easy one.
"I don't know if anybody could have done better," said GM Doug Melvin, whose early July acquisition of Sabathia was the preemptive strike of the trading period. "We really carried the competitive spirit of CC. These two weeks were one of the most unselfish things an athlete has done."
He ticked through the major sports and concluded, "It's the most unselfish thing an athlete has done in the history of sports."
Well, then, Ronnie Lott would like his pinkie back.
Asked if there was any chance Sabathia would be back next season, Melvin turned away and muttered, "I gotta get some champagne."
There was plenty to be had, and most of the toasts mentioned CC.
"Coming to a new team, pitching the way he did, going on short rest, throwing a hundred pitches every time out," Prince Fielder documented. "That's unheard of. That's old school. It's like watching a superstar at work."
Braun, fittingly, wore a black T-shirt with white writing that read, "Living the Dream."
"Without CC, there's no chance we're at this point," he said. "That's the most unselfish thing I've ever seen a baseball player do. He should be the highest paid player in the history of baseball. He deserves it."
Pardon Doug Melvin as he finds another bottle.
Weary, but smiling, Sabathia stood on the mound with his teammates. They drank and they laughed and they turned and watched a replay of the final two outs, Ray Durham to J.J. Hardy to Prince Fielder. He lifted a giant fist and they all cheered together.
"It's our time," he said. "Now we just go out and have fun and see what happens."
The city would agree. It had been waiting on someone like CC for 26 years, for it to be time again.
"For a lot of people," Braun said, "it's been a lifetime."
Yeah, the Brewers were winners again, and they looked it, felt like it, acted like it.
- Dale Sveum