LOS ANGELES – The gentleman with the gray beard and the decades in the game looked over at the dugout where the Milwaukee Brewers would spend the night. He smiled.
“The season will tell you everything you want to know about yourself,” he said. “And a lot of things you don’t.”
The notion would not be specific to the Brewers necessarily. Here they were, however, the team that had spent 69 days in front of the NL Central, and the last 29 days not, a reversal that would be widely viewed – if not in their own dugout – as inevitable. And so the gentleman’s observation seemed to fit the Brewers especially well in this time and place, initially as a first-place team few believed in, then as a second-place team that seemed somewhat reasonable, and now, well, what?
There are other seasons going on all around them, and other teams and other men learning about themselves. They too will be pleased or be heartbroken, sometimes by the day or the hour, which is a lot to keep track of, which is why there’s little sense in adding it up until the end.
Run down and overtaken by the Chicago Cubs, but with still a chance …
A few games out of the wild card, but with still a chance …
Riding an offense of home runs, strikeouts and stolen bases, which is interesting and has gone flat in the second half (though they’re still striking out and stealing bases), but with still a chance …
Pitching sometimes, but with still a chance …
“It’s going to take a run to get to the playoffs,” manager Craig Counsell said, before pausing and adding, “another one.”
Eric Thames sat in the visitor’s clubhouse. Country music was on the stereo. He popped in his ear buds. After a time he nodded his head to a beat only he could hear. He lifted a red, white and blue bat by its neck, waggled it, tested it, stared at it, as though asking it what lay within, what it would be tonight, was it friend or foe. He set it down.
An April of 11 home runs and a .345 batting average, a May of asking himself to stay with the likes of Aaron Judge and Ryan Zimmerman and Khris Davis, have led him here. Some days great. Some not. The rest sorting itself out. The smile has stayed big, as has the personality that won’t allow this season to be anything but a success. It took him too much to get here.
He is, in a lot of ways, what the Brewers are. We didn’t see him coming. Maybe he didn’t either. But he can play, turns out. He certainly can hit. That makes him dangerous. If a month like April is in him, then so too can it be in him in September. And if the Cubs get too sleepy (again), or the Arizona Diamondbacks or Colorado Rockies do, then what is to become of these Brewers, who have seven games coming against the Cubs? What is to come of Thames, a little more than a month from completing his first full big-league season, at 30 years old?
Then they’ll know what they wanted to know, and what they didn’t.
“It’s really just dealing with adversity,” Thames said.
He recalled realizing a little late he’d become a guy pitchers “were trying to get out,” but also trying to avoid. So what had come relatively easy for a good month became games upon games when, he said, “I didn’t get anything to hit at all.” He kept swinging. Then he was trying to cover for a rough month. So he kept swinging.
“Definitely learned from that,” he said.
An accommodating guy, he stood still for every interview. He nodded and laughed and told his story, the one that took him from Pepperdine to Toronto to Seattle to Baltimore to the waiver wire to Houston to the waiver wire again to Korea and then, three years later, to Milwaukee, where he surprised everyone, just like the team he played for.
“In Korea,” he said, “I was always alone.”
He liked that, turned out. So a few months back he retreated to his music and his video games. He’d sit in a quiet place, close his eyes and listen to the silence. After, the noise didn’t seem quite so loud. Quite so distracting. It didn’t always make his at-bats go better, but it did remind him of the journey.
“I’m definitely a lot better mentally now,” Thames said. “We’re all human. You have to constantly remind yourself what your goals are. What your mission is. Everybody talks about results and you get caught in that instead of focusing on the passage.”
He’s an interesting guy on an interesting team. The Brewers, for example, travel with their own carpet. It’s more like a rug, actually, blue with the team logo on it, maybe three feet by 2 ½ feet. And they throw it right down in the middle of the visitor’s clubhouse, a little touch of home. They hang a couple friendly banners in the hallway. Then they go out and swing hard, and win a little more often than they lose, and try not to think about the 5 ½-game lead that is gone or the three-game deficit that remains of it.
The run-away hardly anyone believed in has become the schlep everyone expected, that nearly all teams schlep, which is good and fine, because as the T-shirt Eric Thames was wearing tried to explain, “It’s all part of it.”