MILWAUKEE – The first time a baseball player went into beast mode, it had a different name: the high five. Some like to say Glenn Burke, the former Dodgers outfielder, invented the gesture. It blew up into a cultural phenomenon and about a decade later begat a son: the forearm bash, which featured the steroidal arms of Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco. Later came elaborate high-five sequences, dances really, and as long as those weren't too much embellishment, the Texas Rangers last season figured it perfectly acceptable to hold their hands over their heads like antlers, which proved that evolution isn't always for the better.
All of that leads here, where the Milwaukee Brewers' spin on celebration is rankling the baseball establishment, perhaps best personified by the St. Louis Cardinals, whom they happen to be facing in the National League Championship Series that starts Sunday at 4 p.m. ET. The Brewers celebrate nearly every hit by staring at the dugout, extending their arms and waving them in and out – beast mode, outfielder Nyjer Morgan(notes), the team's enfant terrible, likes to call it. The Brewers are loud. They speak their minds. They wear their personality. Even their most reserved player, Zack Greinke(notes), who has suffered from social-anxiety disorder, spent his news conference Saturday afternoon talking about how "no one really likes" Cardinals pitcher Chris Carpenter because he has "a phony attitude."
It is, as are most things Greinke deigns to say, a salient point. Over the next week, as this series between NL Central rivals plays out, there will be much made of how these teams are different. How the Brewers typify the bombastic new school and the Cardinals represent the hard-boiled, old-school values on which baseball built itself and, in holding onto them, lost its place atop the sporting pecking order. How Morgan, who called superstar Albert Pujols(notes) "Alberta" on Twitter earlier this season, embodies what is wrong with the modern athlete while Pujols, ever stoic, epitomizes all that is right.
Greinke put into words a feeling shared across most of the NL: The Cardinals' public reputation is shined and polished a little too well compared to reality. They feed off manager Tony La Russa, who has a mystical way of bending a clubhouse to his will, his feelings and his thoughts – many of which unnecessarily demonize an opponent. So the brand of baseball played by the Cardinals, though fundamentally sound, is patently aggressive, too, bordering sometimes on unpalatable for those who face them. The best teams in the Central always seem to harbor a lingering beef with the Cardinals, be it Milwaukee this year, Cincinnati last year, the Chicago Cubs before that and the Houston Astros prior to them.
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Lance Berkman(notes) played on those Astros teams, whose issues with the Cardinals weren't as much philosophical as they were competitive. The Cardinals, Berkman said, were like the Central's big brother, whom the Astros desperately wanted to beat, even if that meant clawing or scratching, punching or kicking. Because of the perception of La Russa, and because opponents latch that on to Cardinals players, they bring out the best in others.
Which, for the Cardinals, makes their treks all the more difficult. They took back roads to get here anyway: losing their ace, Adam Wainwright(notes), to Tommy John surgery; falling behind the Brewers during the summer; sneaking into the playoffs at the last second, the backdoor cutter of teams; and ousting the heavily favored Philadelphia Phillies with a thrilling 1-0 victory in Game 5, during which Carpenter was at his finest.
Even though he won't pitch until Game 3 of the NLCS, Carpenter spends much of his time on the mound in personal beast mode. He stares down hitters. He yells. He harrumphs. To those on the field, with close proximity, he is every bit as demonstrative as the Brewers. At age 36, he has earned that right: The proof seems to be the absence of pitches thrown at him when he bats. Still, when the Cardinals' dislike of the Brewers stems from the same tendencies Carpenter tries to hide, a double standard presents itself.
"He's not always quiet on the mound," Brewers veteran Craig Counsell(notes) said. "But that's who he is when he pitches. That's who he has to be to be his best. He probably rubs some people the wrong way, too, when he pitches.
"A lot more of it goes on than we talk about. But for some reason, our guys capture the attention. There are a lot of guys doing it."
Carpenter did not engage publicly when asked about the Brewers' personalities. Neither did Pujols. Nor Matt Holliday(notes). The closest thing came from Berkman, who made sure to say he intended no disrespect nor was he trying to rile up his opponent. The core of the Brewers, Berkman said, arrived together young and immediately became the team's locus of personality. Rather than be shaped by veteran stars, as Berkman was with Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio in Houston, the Brewers were like Lord of the Flies, left to fend for themselves.
"The most important thing in baseball," Berkman said, "is to have respect for the game and respect for your opponent, and I think anything that detracts from those two sort of foundation rules is not acceptable. And they have a way of working themselves out in the course of a game.
"Most of the guys do. They've learned that. Some of the guys have learned it."
He didn't say Morgan, whose words continue to catalyze the rivalry. How a pipsqueak center fielder usurped Braun and Fielder as the face of this franchise nationally is a lesson in guerrilla self-marketing. Morgan quoted Jay-Z on Saturday when he said: "I'm not a businessman. I'm a business, man." Which came moments after he said: "I think Bud [Selig] should, like, bless me with a raise."
Two Cardinals called Morgan a "clown," something with which Morgan might not disagree. His own teammate Greinke said, "every now and then he talks too much for me and gets annoying."
Baseball isn't exactly disavowing Morgan, his split personality or his antics, F-bombs on TBS included. The Brewers are an exciting, interesting team in the game's smallest market with one of the rowdiest fan bases. That they come loaded with personality makes the package all the better. It's a team for this century rather than the one La Russa likes to breed.
"I suppose if you want to get really deep, society is moving toward showing more emotion," Counsell said. "I don't think you should hide from it. Because I don't think there's anything wrong with showing emotion. And guys who thrive on showing emotion, why should we try to change them?"
Nobody has tried, not since the Brewers adopted this ethos and started winning. The Cardinals don't like it. No puritanical baseball devotee would. Which is why the TV broadcast and the rest of the media will cast this with a black-and-white, good-and-bad narrative.
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The reality is far less juicy: These are two teams that dislike each other, yes, but not because of the others' antics. There are plenty of stooges around the game who act the fool and don't receive a moment of others' thoughts. They care not for one another because they know the other side stands between them and the World Series, and they're going to fight like mad to win the clash.
Along the way, we'll see beasts in Brewers uniforms and screams from Carpenter. Maybe Pujols glancing just a little too long at a home run or Francisco Rodriguez sashaying his way off the mound. More than anything, there should be tight games between evenly matched teams, which is exactly what MLB needs. These playoffs have been superlative so far, tight games and interesting storylines, and the emergence of new names and characters should make it prime viewing.
Tune in for the people. Stay for the baseball.
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