MILWAUKEE – In front of Ned Yost rested a paper plate with a bratwurst and a puddle of yellow mustard. To his left, hanging on the wall, was a clock shaped like the state of Wisconsin. If the Wisconsin Department of Tourism needs a cover boy for its guide on the finest in cheese curds and other activities vital to clogging arteries, look no further than the manager's office at Miller Park.
Yost is a no-nonsense (and no-carb, as he eschewed the brat's bun) guy in a situation that has gone from miserable to enviable: After years of drudgery, the Milwaukee Brewers are a good team. Good. Not great. Not yet.
"We have the talent to be," Yost said. "It's just the experience and consistency. And to get those, you just play."
For all of the effort general managers put forth to procure talent, sometimes it's the easy part. Talent is raw and talent is unpredictable and the Brewers have the talent to win the National League Central for years to come. Without consistency, though, talent is nothing more than an M-80 without a fuse.
So before anointing the Brewers, Yost wants to know what he can expect, and right now that's not exactly apparent. The Brewers won five consecutive games to start the season. Then they lost three. They beat the Reds 11-0 one day. Then they lost 11-0 the next. Now they're on another jag, sweeping Atlanta and outscoring the Chicago Cubs 25-2 in the final two games of their series.
At 14-11, the Brewers would be in first place in the American League East and West. It's only good for fourth in baseball's best division thus far, the Central, though the Brewers aren't panicking. Small steps. They've gone from 106 losses in 2002 to 94 in each of Yost's first two years to an 81-81 record last season, the Brewers' first at .500 since 1992.
And to now: Make the playoffs.
"Why wait until next year?" second baseman Rickie Weeks said. "Honestly, some guys get into the playoffs early in their career, and before they know it, they're retired and they've never made it back. I want it now."
At the beginning of spring training, Yost stood in front of the Brewers and asked for two more wins a month. That would mean 93 victories, and even with Cincinnati, St. Louis and Houston's superlative starts, that would probably mean a playoff spot.
Yost doesn't want to put it in those words, exactly. The 50-year-old was a backup catcher with Milwaukee, Texas and Montreal during his six-year big-league career. He petered out in the minors with Atlanta, which gave him a low-A managing job before bringing him to the big-league club for 12 years as a coach. As the Braves taught him, winning happens first, then becomes endemic.
Much like the Braves, the Brewers' success began with young pitching, then spread to its everyday lineup. When healthy, right-hander Ben Sheets is among baseball's best pitchers, and left-hander Chris Capuano, acquired in the Richie Sexson trade, is ninth in the NL with a 2.36 ERA. Closer Derrick Turnbow is eight for eight in save opportunities.
Add the core that advanced through Milwaukee's system together and they may have something. First baseman Prince Fielder, 21, is the best of the bunch. He finished April with numbers better than every NL first baseman not named Pujols or Berkman. Weeks, 23, continued to struggle with his fielding but wields such an incendiary bat that the Brewers will wait for his glove to catch up. Shortstop J.J. Hardy, 23, rebounded after an abysmal first half last season and has gotten to more balls in the field than every shortstop except Jack Wilson and Jhonny Peralta.
Together, the three have 334 games of big-league experience, and on the days Bill Hall plays third base, the number jumps to around 700, a pittance compared to the Yankees' everyday lineup.
"It takes time, especially when guys are 22, 23 years old," said Damian Miller, the veteran catcher with 849 games played. "You have to learn how to be successful. It's runners in scoring position with two outs. It's pitchers in tough situations making tough pitches."
It's also managing expectations, which have soared since investment banker Mark Attanasio bought the Brewers from commissioner Bud Selig two years ago. Young and enthusiastic, the bespectacled Attanasio infuses energy into an organization that's already teeming with it.
"We expect to win," Turnbow said, "instead of hoping to win."
It's evident in Yost's office more than anywhere. On his corkboard hangs a sign that reads:
OK, so it's not going to make the Acronym Hall of Fame. Still, it says something about Yost's work ethic.
Forget the Staples Easy Button he's got on his desk. Transforming a .500 team into a contender is anything but.
"I felt like this year was going to be the start of something," Yost said. "It happens when it happens. I'm not saying this isn't the year it will.
"But I like what we're doing. I like our talent. I just like it here."
With good reason.
- Ned Yost