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Welcome Back, Baseball: A Love Letter

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Justin Lehr or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Myself

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I was a strange, awkward boy entering my freshman year of college in 2005. I had come out of a high school where I was mostly known as a large idiot who made weird noises in in AP US History, played Magic: The Gathering during band practice and very obviously had never smooched with a girl. I wasn't voted most likely to do or become anything but if I had been, it would have been like Most Likely to Injure Himself Trying to Jump Over Like a Dumpster or Something. That fall, I started my undergraduate studies at UW-Whitewater, a school I picked over UW-Madison not because I couldn't get in, but because I was friends with three people who were going to college that year, and two of them were heading to Whitewater. I did not make friends quickly, and I was not expecting that to change any time soon.

And so it was on the evening of September 14, about three weeks into my first year in college, that I found myself sitting on my bed in the dorm  with my roommate, Matt, with whom I averaged maybe 10-15 words exchanged per day. As far as I knew at the time, it was entirely possible that we had a lot in common, but it was also equally likely that we shared no interests. I was not in any position to find out, because my ability to strike up conversation was roughly equal to that of the duck: even when I did my very best, it mostly just resulted in people throwing food at me. I was spending most of my time at that point in my life researching how to modify Nerf guns so that they'd fire further and allow me to better destroy my many enemies, a goal upon which I was singularly focused. The only thing that could distract me from this pursuit was our national pastime.

September of 2005 was a very exciting Brewers month for me. After four straight years of 90+ losses, the Brewers were 72-72 and entered play on the 14th 10.5 games back of the Wild Card-leading Braves, and 20 games behind the division leading Cardinals.

72-72.

It was the first time during my life as a sports fan that that first number was as big as that second number so late in the year and after 17 straight losing seasons, that was enough for me. I needed this win bad. I needed that streak to end. I wanted so badly to have a team that was mediocre.

The game in Phoenix against the home-standing Diamondbacks started just after 9:00 pm, and it was boring as heck. Matt, an avid fan of baseball and sports in general, and I watched together and chatted as Doug Davis and Brandon Webb each scattered five hits and allowed a run on five strikeouts over seven and eight innings, respectively, and the teams headed into extra innings tied at one just before midnight. It was Wednesday, and each of us had class in the morning, but we had committed to this one. It is at this point that I remind y’all that I was a mega-nerd who was able to answer honestly when my parents asked me if I had ever experimented with drugs or alcohol, so being awake past midnight was not really a thing. I was tired, but this was important, damnit.

The D'backs and Brewers exchanged a pair of quiet innings to open up the extra frames. Kane Davis (yeah no, I don't remember him either) pitched a pair of scoreless frames for the Brewers, allowing just one two-out walk in the 10th. The Brewers put a little something together in the top of 11th when a bunt put Carlos Lee on second with one out, igniting our watch party on the 4th floor of Knilans Hall. However, Billy Hall struck out and Rickie Weeks sent a foul pop to the first base side to end the threat. At this point, our feelings toward this game had begun to turn hostile: we needed it to end now, and we needed it to end correctly.

Feeling that he had perhaps gotten all he was going to get from Davis, Ned Yost brought in Justin Lehr to handle the 12th. There are three people who remember when Justin Lehr pitched for the Brewers: Matt, myself, and Justin Lehr.

After getting Craig Counsell (he's somehow involved in every dang Brewers story you can think of) on a 5-3 grounder, Lehr loaded the bases with two outs on a single and a pair of walks for Alex Cintron, who was getting his third at bat after coming on as a pinch hitter in the 8th. Just one strike away from escaping the inning, Lehr served up a 1-2 meatball that Cintron blasted to the right field fence for a walk off single.

The name Justin Lehr became a curse word then and there. And out of a shared love of the Brewers, and a shared hatred for an anonymous bullpen arm, a friendship grew. We texted each other every time Lehr's name came up for any reason, and shared a hearty laugh when Lehr got a start against Milwaukee four years later with the Reds. Lehr beat the Brewers, striking out seven over 7.2 innings, because of course he did. It was his career high for strikeouts, because of course it was. Jay Bruce didn't play that game -- I don't think I could have handled losing to them both.

Do I really hate Justin Lehr? Of course not. He was a front of the bullpen arm that threw 50 innings over two years for a couple of Brewers teams that went nowhere. And yet, I do. Of course I do. Because our jokey hatred for Justin Lehr brought my roommate and I together, and that in turn helped me come out of my shell. Perhaps, if not for Lehr's implosion that night, I might never have done so, and that would really be a shame for y'all because I probably wouldn't be out here breaking the latest "Hank" rumors. So yes, I do hate you, Justin Lehr.

And that's what you can get out of this baseball season, even if it's probably not going to be one that ends with a lot of victories for the Brew Crew. Winning is always more fun than losing, but this is a game, and we aren't even playing it. This is supposed to be fun, and if you find that it's not, then what are you doing this for? Everyone gets a little upset in the wake of a loss, but never forget that baseball is here for you to enjoy. Go to the ballpark. Have some beers and have some fun. Strengthen your current friendships, rekindle old ones, and start new ones. There's nothing easier to bond over than cheering for your team, no matter how bad they tell us they'll be.

And yes, there are naysayers, and they'll tell you that the Brewers aren't any good, that they can't make any noise this year, and that it's going to get worse before it gets better. They'll ask you why you're showing up to watch a team that has no chance, no hope. They're wrong. Today, the standings are still filled with zeroes, and everyone is tied for first.

Baseball is family. It's big family outings with my parents, sister, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins when we bought our half-price tickets to the cheap seats at County Stadium and had free reign of the entire left side of the upper deck. It's sitting on the couch laughing before Easter dinner as my grandma fumed over Jonathan Lucroy, who was inexplicably the only Brewer she ever hated. It's taking my father to his first game at Wrigley Field, and beginning to return the favor for all the ballgames he treated me to.

Baseball is hope. Ours is a game that is really defined by it in a way no other major American sport is. You always, always have a chance. When your team is down by four scores in any other sport with 5 seconds left, that game is effectively over. But in baseball, there is no running out of clocks or playing out of strings. If you're down by four scores in the bottom of the ninth with two outs, you can change that with a little luck and a single sweet swing.

Can Matt Garza, Ryan Braun and Aaron Hill reclaim their 2012 forms? Of course they can. They're in their early 30s; they aren't dying. Can it all click for Garin Cecchini to regain the form that made him one of the league’s top prospects just a couple of short seasons ago, and can Brewers fans delight as he battles Orlando Arcia for National League Rookie of the Year honors? Of course it can. The tools are still there. Can Jonathan Lucroy pick up where he left off in 2014 and reestablish himself as a legitimate MVP candidate? Of course he can. 2015 may have just been an injury-riddled bump in the road. Can the rest of the squad play just a little bit above their abilities for a little while and be a decent supporting cast? Of course they can.

And if all that happens, if every little damn thing goes just right, who's to say the Brewers can't win 95 games? No one. No one can tell you that they can't, because they still have to play. Is all or even any of it likely to happen? Maybe not. But the scoreboards still say 0-0 this morning, and you just don't know until they play it out on the field.

So raise a glass with me, dear friends. Here's to our mothers and fathers, our aunts and uncles, and our grandparents, some of whom are no longer with us, that taught us how to love the game. Here's to the sweet sound of the crack of the bat, and the unbridled joy of a dinger for the home team. Here's to RBI and pitcher wins, wRC+ and xFIP, and enjoying the game however you see fit. Here's to the seventh inning stretch; to popcorn, peanuts and Cracker Jacks; and to Rolling Out the Barrel. Here's to sunshine, warm nights, and cold beers. Here's to hope, and to baseball. And here's to Justin Lehr, who retired in 2010 when Matt and I graduated college and went our separate ways.

Play ball.