Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

Post-Playoff Hangover

It would be disingenuous to say that the Brewers loss in Game 7 of the NLCS on Saturday night wasn’t disappointing, but at the same time, it can hardly be categorized as heartbreaking.  As my friend said to me in the middle of September when the Brewers were embarking on a great run toward the playoffs, “We’re playing with house money.”  No one expected the Brewers to play as well as they did in September, and few thought that a division title and advancing to the World Series was within the Crew’s grasp.  It’s hard to be too upset when the team so overwhelmingly defied expectations.

And the playoffs led to such great times, too.  I got to see a game with my old buddy from way back in grade school, I flew to California to attend one game with my daughter, drove up to Milwaukee to attend another with my son, and my wife and I gathered at my friend’s house for an evening of drinks, snacks and baseball on glorious high def.  I got to hang out with my sister’s family several times, and I even got to see Christian Yelich hit for his second cycle in September with a couple of buddies.  Not too shabby.  

But all of this has led to a bit of a post-playoff hangover for me.  Baseball had become such a glorious time-suck, that now suddenly, after weeks of having every bit of free time filled, the onus is on me to fill my time productively.  No more evenings watching the game on TV, mornings reading about the same game on-line, and afternoons texting like-minded friends about strategy and predictions.  No more restless nights with visions of the first World Series appearance in thirty-six years.  No more games to look forward to.  Now, instead of relying on others to entertain me, I have to entertain myself, which means tackling a basement project that I started last spring just as the 2018 baseball season was budding.  It’s back to reality, and it’s not necessarily a reality I want to face.

Still, I have another baseball season to look forward to, when I’ll once again set aside my personal aspirations in favor of the aspirations of others, and go along for the ride.  As disheartening as the end of this year’s playoffs was for the Brewers – being literally one good bullpen outing and one hit away from actually sweeping the Dodgers in four games – less disheartening is the core of players that are sure to return next year, and how that core might evolve.  Brewers owner Mark Attanasio commented on Saturday that the end of 2018 feels different than in 2011, when the Brewers lost the NLCS in six games.  That year felt like the end of something, where this year feels like it’s just the beginning.

My unmotivated self can’t wait.

The Tale of Two Fan Bases

The tale of two fan bases: my daughter purchased tickets for Game 4 of the NLCS at Dodger Stadium for $78 - for actual seats, not standing room only.  By contrast, tickets for Game 1 of the NLCS at Miller Park are going for $120 for standing room only.  The population of metropolitan Los Angeles is 13 million.  The population for metropolitan Milwaukee is 1.5 million.  And while total MLB attendance dropped by 4% this year, the Brewers attendance increased by just shy of 8%, drawing the tenth largest attendance in the league, at 2,850,875.  Not too shabby for the smallest market of thirty MLB teams.  To be fair, the Dodgers have the highest attendance in the entire league, but this is due not only to the size of the city, but to the size of Dodger Stadium (56,000 vs. 42,000 for Miller Park).

But regarding demand for playoff games, the larger issue is undoubtedly past success. 

It was fun last week listening to Cubs fans complain about losing the division tie-breaker and instead making the playoffs as a lowly wild card, when just four short years ago they would have been thrilled to have been in the hunt.  Now that Cubs fans have tasted success, nothing short of domination is deemed acceptable.  I’ve experienced similar feelings with the Packers.  After winning Super Bowl XLV, it was assumed that Green Bay would be back the next year and the year after that.  No such luck; the subsequent years ended in bitter disappointment.  Only Patriots fans know the boredom that comes with continuous success.

Brewer fans have no such worries.  In nearly fifty years as a franchise, 2018 is only the Brewers’ third league championship.  For many Brewer fans, no matter what happens in the NLCS, this year has been a success, a terrific run, unexpected and a total blast.

But you would think Dodger fans would have similar feelings.  Sure, they were in the World Series last year, but they haven’t won it all since 1988, and they came oh so achingly close to winning it all last year, falling just one game short, that you would think fans would be chomping at the bit, desperate to witness their first world championship in thirty years. 

No doubt, each playoff game from here on out will be a tough ticket, whether basking in the sun of Los Angeles or getting ready for winter in Milwaukee.  But as a Brewers fan, it’s hard not to be thrilled not only with the team’s performance, but with the fans who are making my attempts to buy tickets a royal pain in the ass (and a jolt to my bank account).

I couldn’t be prouder.

Looking Up (Literally)

Anyone who has children or owns a dog knows the monotony that can come with walking the same familiar streets for years on end.  When my kids attended grade school there were times when I walked the same four blocks back and forth four times a day.  The same houses.  The same trees.  The same cars.  Sure, sometimes these walks led to a little mind-wandering that was good for the soul, but often I viewed the strolls merely as chores to do, not unlike tackling another load of laundry.  If you live in the mountains you may be spared this plight, but residing in the Chicago suburbs doesn’t lend itself to particularly interesting landscapes – people don’t call Illinoisans flatlanders for nothing. 

But there’s an old adage I once read somewhere that went something like this: if you want to discover something new, walk down a familiar path.  A year ago I took this tidbit to heart and decided to change my mindset by doing something very simple: looking up.  I began to notice the trees of the neighborhood, and I recognized that with a few exceptions I couldn’t name them beyond the most rudimentary level, like asking a three-year-old what those large green things are in the front yard.  “Those are trees.”  Aside from obvious maples and oaks, there’s little I could tell you. 

I purchased a copy of Peterson Field Guides Eastern Trees, watched a few videos on YouTube, and began to challenge myself by learning how to identify the multitude of trees lining the parkways and front yards of Elmhurst, Illinois, attempting to add a few varieties every week or two.  I’m not very good at it – it’s incredible how many species of trees there are and how darn similar they can be to each other – but little by little I’m expanding my knowledge base, and my walks have been enriched greatly as a result.  Now when I walk familiar streets, my mind is focused on something other than whether my dog has peed or pooed.

Trees are varied enough and intricate enough that I could probably spend the next decade on this endeavor alone, but there are other ways to open up your world when taking walks if trees aren’t your thing.  A friend of mine who walks far more than I do has a background in architecture, and for her the suburban streets are the source of endless variations of home styles.  When engaged in conversation with her, she’ll sometimes say something like, “You know that red tudor on the corner of Grace Street?”

No.  No I don’t.

It reminds me of something my buddy Don said to me back in grad school when he purchased flowers for his girlfriend.  I asked him what kind, and he answered, “Purple ones.”

The point is that the world around you is much bigger and interesting than you might realize, and all it takes is a little initiative to tap into your surroundings in new, profound ways.  If trees ever lose their luster, you could start identifying house styles, or makes and models of cars, or types of flowers or birds or the names of colors.  I’m terrible at describing the color of objects, and I’d love to add shades like mauve, chartreuse, azure and fuchsia to my immediate lexicon.  There’s no shortage of ways to mentally challenge yourself as you do your daily strolls.

But for my next challenge, I’m focused on getting our dog to pee on command so that four walks a day aren’t a necessity come wintertime. Here’s hoping.

The Brewers' Home Stretch

When I last wrote about the Brewers on May 31, the Crew was in first place, and I wondered about the lack of starting pitching and whether the relief staff would be able to be effective throughout the long season.  The next three months were no picnic for Brewers fans, as they finished just one game over .500 from June 1 through August 31, slipping out of first place to the Cubs by the end of July and slipping out of second by the end of August. But unlike years past, the Brewers have managed to bend but not break.

For me the season’s nadir was a 9-1 defeat against the Pirates on August 25.  I texted a fellow Brewer fan, “I think that’s the end of the road for the Crew.”  Here we are less than three weeks later, and the Brewers are on a seven-series winning streak, having won 16 of the last 22 games, including 4 of 6 against the division-leading Chicago Cubs, and culminating in an exciting 5-1 victory last night to pull to within one game of first place.  With fifteen games left to play, the Brewers, at 84-63, have matched the number of victories I predicted they would win at the beginning of the year.  I couldn’t be happier for having been wrong.

So what happened?  Why has this year’s team been able to hang in there?  I think there are a few reasons:

1)     Mid-season pickups:  general manager David Stearns didn’t find the solid starting pitcher he’d been hoping for, but he did manage to pick up three players before each trading deadline, finding just enough talent to help bolster a tired team.  Prior to August 1, he traded for relief pitcher Joakim Soria, and infielders Mike Moustakas and Jonathan Schoop.  Soria helped bolster the bullpen just as the unit that had been so incredible for the first half of the season was starting to show signs of fatigue, and while Schoop has been a disappointment thus far, Moustakas has given the Crew a solid bat, allowing manager Craig Counsell to adjust the lineup based on matchups.  Then, prior to September 1, Stearns once again picked up three players: relief pitcher Xavier Cedeno, starter Gio Gonzales and outfielder Curtis Granderson, the hero of last night’s game.  Time will tell how these three contribute, but there’s no question that having Gonzalez as another starting option in lieu of the struggling Junior Guerra and Freddy Peralta is a plus, and Granderson gives the Brewers another option in the outfield where Eric Thames has been an absolute bust, both offensively and defensively. 

2)     September call-ups arrived just in time.  The relief staff had endured injuries and sub-par performances from Matt Albers, Corey Knebel and Dan Jennings, and even Josh Hader and Jeremy Jeffress showed signed of wear during the dog days of August.  With September call-ups, Counsell can now give relievers the time off they need and pull starters at the first sign of trouble.  Case in point: last night starting pitcher Chase Anderson left the game after four innings of shutout ball.  Why?  Well, he’d gotten hit pretty hard during those four innings, and the Brewers have an excellent relief staff with a day off today, so there was no reason not to throw everything at the Cubs.  Unlike so many of Counsell’s predecessors, he’s willing to treat today like there’s no tomorrow.  This bodes well for a team that still might end up making the playoffs as a wild card, a game that can and should be treated like the seventh game of the World Series.

3)     The return of Zach Davies.  The starting pitching has been just good enough this year, which is pretty remarkable when you consider that seven starters have spent time on the DL this year, including a total season loss of Jimmy Nelson, a first half loss of Wade Miley and a second half loss (and all of next year) of Brent Suter.  These are not run-of-the-mill DL stints, yet somehow the Brewers starters have kept it together.  Davies’s return came just in time, and if Gio Gonzalez manages to pitch well for his three remaining starts, the Brewers should be in good shape until playoff time.  After that, all bets are off.

4) Lorenzo Cain and Chistian Yelich. Enough said.

Winning a wild-card berth is cold comfort these days in the MLB; a one-game playoff is a cruel reward, and I love that the Brewers at least have a chance to win the division.  It’s important to note that National League parody has allowed teams like the Brewers to stay in the hunt this year – the Brewers’ .571 winning percentage would place them in a distant third place in two of the three American League divisions.  But unlike the AL, the NL doesn’t have any doormats in the league; there’s no Baltimore Orioles or Kansas City Royals to beat up on (even the Miami Marlins and San Diego Padres have shown signs of life).  But the NL Central is eminently competitive.  Think the Cincinnati Reds blow?  Tell that to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who finally beat the Reds last night to finish the season series 1-6.  The Boston Red Sox may have an incredible team, but 20 percent of their 100 wins have come against two teams: the Orioles and Royals.  It’s entirely possible that Boston isn’t as unstoppable as some claim. 

Then again, this year’s World Series might play second fiddle to the Main Event of the ALCS.  We shall see, but I’m hoping against hope that the Brewers will be a part of it somehow.  No matter what happens, it’s been a fun 2018.

ELO in Chicago

An early morning email from a friend opened the door for me to attend Jeff Lynne’s ELO concert at the Allstate Arena in Chicago on Wednesday night, a show I’d toyed with going to until I saw the ticket prices, but leapt at the opportunity to attend last-minute for a more reasonable price.  ELO's music was a significant part of my childhood, and while I kept up with the band through the early 80s, I certainly can’t be labeled as anything other than a casual fan, unlike many of the thousands who attended last night’s show, which ran a little over an hour and a half.  The number of recognizable songs performed in such a short span was amazing.  Just when I thought, “I think that about covers it,” the band would break into yet another gem from the mid-70s.

Dressed in dark pants, a black shirt and grey blazer, 70-year-old Lynne masked his age with a beard, curly hair and sunglasses, and while his mid-range voice sounded strong and pure, he wisely relegated much of the higher vocals to his stellar backup singers, who added the animation that Lynne lacked and enabled the band to stick to the original keys for most (if not all?) the songs.  Twelve musicians joined Lynne on stage, including three string players and three keyboardists, one of whom spent the entire show doubling the string parts, allowing the arrangements to cut through the mix and sound much fuller than three strings could accomplish as a trio. 

The nineteen-song set strayed none-too-far from ELO’s first greatest hits album, including nine of the eleven tracks from that LP and only one song post-1980, “When I was a Boy,” a 2015 recording whose strong melody and nostalgic lyrics fit in nicely among the evening’s other songs.  There were a few other surprises, including the debut song off the band’s first album, “10538 Overture,” and “Wild West Hero,” among my favorite tracks from Out of the Blue and one that I played incessantly thirty years ago.  One song that was surprisingly absent was "Fire on High," which surely would have brought the house down and to me would have been a far better opener than "Standin' in the Rain."

Lynne didn’t engage his audience with storytelling the way James Taylor, Jackson Browne and other aging rockers do, but he still gave off an appreciative vibe for the audience, thanking them several times in a way that appeared heartfelt.  Lynne's music director, Mike Stevens, took the reins to introduce the large cast of musicians.

During the performance of “Handle with Care” from the Traveling Wilburys, the crowd cheered during the second verse, and while I couldn’t see the screen from my vantage point, I knew that they were most likely reacting to a photo or video of the departed members of that band.  The last time I saw this song performed live was at the Vic Theatre in 2003, when Tom Petty dedicated it to those who had gone.  Though Roy Orbison had died a long while back, it had only been a year and half since the death of George Harrison and a still-raw two months since Petty’s long-time bass player, Howie Epstein, succumbed to heroin addiction.  Here we are a decade and a half later, and it’s comforting to see Lynne and Bob Dylan still standing and still playing music.

As fans of aging rockers, we need to embrace these moments while they last.  Last night at the Allstate Arena, the fans of ELO surely did.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved