The first time I ever saw a baseball game in Milwaukee was on August 9th, 1988. Also the date of the first "official" night game at Wrigley Field. I was 14 years old, and my friend Jarrett Gable had traveled with my mother and I, an ex-nun, who lived as Sister Velma in Milwaukee for a decade teaching, cloistered in a convent. She was to attend some convention, or a nun reunion or something that I don't remember, and Jarrett and I were given our own room at the convent, and total 14 year old freedom while my Mom did ex-nun stuff all day.
The game was actually 'games', because the Brewers, at the time, members of the AL East, played a double header against the Boston Red Sox. I remember little about the games except that Jarrett called the Red Sox catcher in game 1, Rick Cer-on-ey, while his name is actually Cer-one. We made up a song about him to the tune of Mony Mony. "Here he comes now, it's Rick Ceroney, coming round third and heading homey!" are the only lyrics I recall. Also, hilariously, in the cheap seats where we were sitting, there was one step right next to us that must have been a little higher than the other, because we watched people fall all day and into the night on this step, and by the end of the double dip, there were nachos, popcorn, spilled beer and soda all over our general vicinity. Of course, we warned no one as to the oblong step, and laughed and laughed as fan after fan fell over, spilling their overpriced concessions all over our section. I'd probably do the same today, not warn anyone, as I believe my sense of humor stopped developing around the end of junior high.
The thing I remember most about that night though, was when the game let out, we waited for a bus that never came, and after all the fans were gone, we were just standing there with only bus fare, and there wasn't a phone in my mom's convent room to call for help anyway. So we started walking. I have no idea how far our "convent room" was, but it took a couple of hours to walk it, and people kept warning us on the streets that "two white boys" didn't belong there. This was probably true, but being 14 years old, free and fearless, was exciting and new. Of course when we finally got back, my Mom was in our room worried sick, but bid us goodnight, and headed straight back to her room to sleep. Jarrett and I made ourselves Bologna and Musturd sandwiches and went to sleep ourselves, having spent the greatest day ever in our short lives, with one of our first tastes of freedom before Freshman year of high school. Of course, it could have all gone horribly wrong. Jeffery Dahmer could have killed and eaten us! He might have killed and eaten us that very night! Instead, it was thrilling.
So what would I find there if I went back? To a new stadium built in the parking lot of the old. Could I recapture that feeling of freedom 25 years later? Well, in June of this year, I drove up to Milwaukee to find out.
Most people reading this know that Milwaukee is close to Chicago distance wise, but most Chicagoans simply view Milwaukee as an afterthought. Beer, Laverne and Shirley, Dahmer, The Brewers, and Cheeseheads. Chicagoans look down on Milwaukeeans as if they are our backwater cousins, unrefined and uncultured. Our drunken blue collar northern neighbors. In many respects, our prejudices are based on stereotypes, and like most stereotypes, they come from an element of truth, but that of course is not the only story to be told. Don't take my word for it. Here are some local Wisconsinites acting out the scene from Waynes World where Alice Cooper explains the origins of Milwaukee.
Yes, bad acting, little charm, but flagrantly honest in it's approach. They are realistic in their lack of talent. Why try to look good, or be good, when you'll look like a fool and probably fail anyway? Is that what Milwaukeeans are? Failures? Chicago rejects? Never able to make it in a bigger city? That's certainly the attitude of many Chicagoans have, but I don't know.... All big cities have a little brother we pick on. New York has Philly and Boston. New Jersey is NYC's national joke! Minneapolis has St. Paul, Los Angeles has the Valley. And Chicago has Milwaukee. The Cheeseheads. Which strangely enough is where the word Yankees comes from. The Dutch, which owned Manhattan at the time called the English Jan Kaas. Or John Cheese. Or Cheese Heads. The British turned around and called the Colonists, "Yankees" as they didn't understand the dutch accent. It's all the same thing, and "cheesehead" has probably been used as a slur for the dummies that "live over there", since cheese was invented!
Let's find out who these cheeseheads really are. My plan of action? Become one of them. Live like they do in their natural habitat. Find out what makes em tick from the insiders perspective.
So with a plan and a 7-11 coffee, I was off!
Just over the Wisconsin border, in Pleasant Prairie, WI, easily reachable in under an hour from Wrigley Field, I saw a sign for the Jelly Belly factory tour. Always up for a quirky road side attraction, and a fan of the multi flavored beans, I decided to make the stop and see how the confections were conceived and manufactured. The tour is free, and after taking it, I know why...
This is the only "illegal" shot I got on the tour as they don't allow pictures. Why?! Beats me. Because it's not a factory at all, but rather, a warehouse. You basically ride around on this stupid train in a dumb looking paper hat, and look at candy stacked on shelves, while they show you how Jelly Bellies and Caramel Corn are made on videos that you could watch on Youtube or the company site. There are also crappy little figurine scenes on the side that look like a ghetto mall's Easter Bunny setup. Complete with fake grass, little picket fences and stuffed animals. And of course, inflatable Jelly Belly characters hanging from the ceiling. What it all has to do with Jelly Bellies is beyond me, and it's pretty lame. But I guess you can't complain too much when you didn't pay, and they give you free Jelly Beans at the end. But so far, so bad Wisconsin! You haven't shown me anything that would dispel the rumor that you're a bunch of cheeseheads with this unimaginative tour. On the plus side, I bought a giant bag of "Belly Flops", which are rejected, irregularly shaped Jelly Bellies, and some "Bean Boozled" beans which have flavors such as vomit, diaper, and worm, to play tricks on my sister's kids. Hey, I said earlier my sense of humor stopped developing at 14.
Yes, George Bush is made of Jelly Bellies! In real life too I think....
I don't like the looks of that guy.....
Chicago in da Hizzy!!!
I bought one bag. I live alone people.
One place I didn't expect to be today.
Sugared up and ready to roll, I hopped back into my untrustworthy 2005 VW Beetle convertible, and before I knew it, I was in NW Milwaukee at the La Quinta Inn. Note to all reading this. Don't stay here if you want to go to a Brewers game, drink, and get the free shuttle. It's farther than it looks on a map, and you're going to have to drive. Much better for a drunk, but more expensive to stay near the ballpark, or up on Bluemound rd., where Bar/Restaurants like Kelly's Bleachers or Burkes Irish Castle will take you to and from the game just like a real live drunk Milwaukeean. I would suggest the Ramada or the Best Western Woods View Inn.
Unfortunately, it was LaQuinta and a 20 minute drive for me. No drinking. At least not to excess as I like to do at ballgames. Good thing my buddy Loren was coming up for game 2 and could drive my drunk butt around. After what happened to me in St. Louis, it probably would be best to not get drunk on my first night anyway. You can read all about that "sordid travel" at the link above.
Time to transform myself!!
Before the mustache became hipster sheik, it was worn throughout the 1980's as a symbol of sexiness. Keith Hernandez, Burt Reynolds, and of course, ex Brewer and Current Cub manager, ours truly, Dale Sveum, donned the lip carpet unforgettably on baseball cards and promo photos.
My plan? To split the difference between a Cub and Brewer and try for Dale Sveum's late 80's look.
Unfortunately, I ended up looking more like Gorman Thomas than svelte Dale.
OK. Step 1 complete. Unironic midwest mustache. Check. Eat your heart out hipsters. This is what authenticity looks like when you're faking it! Now to find a Brewers shirt for the game tonight. Now, there's no way I'm going to pay full price for an opposing team's shirt, so I headed off to the local thrift store, which just happened to be a thrift store benefiting the American Council for the Blind. Judging by the "fashion" items donated, I would say this is a perfect place for a blind person to shop. After bypassing a 4XL Zach Greinke jersey, I settled on a George Webb promotional shirt that says, "George Webb, the only one who predicts our Brewers will win 12 straight games". Apparently, George Webb is a local restauranteur, known for his crazy slogans such as "Free Rabbit Lunch Tomorrow" and "Pay 10$ for 1893 Pennies". Webb's Brewers slogan is equally nonsensical, as they currently battle our Chicago Cubs for the basement of the NL Central. Even with suspended Ryan Braun's steroid infused brawn, the Brewers couldn't win for 2 weeks straight in AA ball, let alone the majors. Unfortunately, neither could this year's Cubs team.
Boy. All that sitting on the phone and apologizing to fans has really not been good for Ryan Braun's physique. Shoulda stuck with the juice.
And now, off to the local mall for a hat!
Am I the only one that thinks this mall kinda looks like Miller Park?
I walked into the local Lids which was running a sale. Buy one Get One Half Off. So, I bought an authentic On-Field Cub's hat at full price, which I've been eyeing for a while, and a Brewers Visor. I figured a visor would be more, I don't know, lame. And yes. That's a judgment I'm making on who I believe Milwaukeans to be, based upon my limited, and highly prejudiced knowledge. But a chance at wearing a lame visor AND a lame mustache?! Yes Please!
Ball game time!
What better place to park my car for a Brewers/Cubs game than at the cemetery?
Across the street from the cemetary, stands Burkes Irish Castle. A pregaming Brewer's bar. There are a ton of em on this strip off of Bluemound Road, the most famous being Kelly's Bleachers. They all have free shuttles to and from the game, there is a parking lot (if you buy something), and street parking otherwise. Being a Tuesday night, and a meaningless ballgame standings-wise, even for June, the Burkes' crowd was subdued. I saddled myself up to the bar, next to some weirdo who kept talking to himself, and ordered a local adult beverage. While perusing the menu, my hungry eyes stopped at the corned beef covered cheese fries. 9$. I assumed they were for sharing, so I asked the bartender if they would do a half order for me? Success!!
Staring in disbelief at the giant size of this "half order", I exclaimed sarcastically "THIS is a half order?!" The bartender looked confused, said "Yes" and walked away. About a minute later, the manager came up to me while I stuffed my face full of salty beef, and fried, cheese covered potatoes and asked me if I had a problem with my order. I said "No, everything's great!". He said, "Oh, well the bartender thought you might have had a problem with it." I said, "My only problem with it, is that it's too big, and I couldn't believe this was just a half order!". He shrugged and walked away. Lesson learned. Milwaukee is a friendly, but completely unsarcastic place. Expect to be taken at your word. I guess it's kinda like the mustache thing. In Bucktown, Chicago you look like a hipster in a stache, but in Milwaukee you look stuck in the 80's. Same mustache, completely different style.
The Brewer's look...especially the beer prop.
Miller Park is one of those newer retractable roof stadiums, built in 2001. I applaud them for having grass, a better beer selection than Wrigley, a plethora of different sausages to choose from, and fried cheese curds. But it misses the mark in many ways too. I find it dark inside. Concrete. Municiple. And though a nice looking structure from the outside. It lacks charm on the inside. There's a playground for the kids, a slide for Bernie The Brewer to slide down after home runs, and the organist basically plays the entire time. It'll be the first inning, a 2 and 1 count, and the damned organist is playing the Mexican Hat Dance for no apparent reason! At least, when they play the Violent Femmes "Blister in the Sun" riff, they get the "clap" rhythm correct, unlike the Cubs' Gary Pressey who rushes the rhythm. Hey, I'm a musician! I notice these things!
Awesomely enough, they were handing out Aoki heads for some bank promotion. Had a fair amount of fun with the thing, until it ended up here...
Now, after the novelty of pretending to be a Brewers fan had worn off, I was just bored. I couldn't really drink because I had booked a distant hotel, and now I'm just here in Miller Park looking like a cross between Dale Sveum and Gorman Thomas. I don't know what I expected to happen, but I was hoping for a little more action than this, and that's when I saw him. The Rally Banana. A section away from me, I see this heavyset young man in a banana costume. Now THIS is why I came to Milwaukee! I followed him towards the concourse. I would have followed that banana to hell and back, but luckily, he just was going to the bathroom.
After snapping this glorious shot. Possibly the best picture I've taken all year. I felt like the banana was on to me watching him, and when he zipped up and turned around, I felt the need to say something. I'm sure I said something idiotic, but the banana didn't care and being a good natured banana, posed for a couple of bathroom shots as well. I've done a lot of crazy things in my life, and met a ton of eccentrically unique people over the years, but I have never taken a picture of a man in a banana costume peeing before. This was even a first for me!
Turns out his name's Teddy. He attends as many Brewer's home games as possible, and he is the unofficial Brewers mascot, and might I add a ton more fun than the silent and aloof Bernie the Brewer. We were fast friends, and he obliged me for an interview. Keep in mind, he thought I was a Brewers fan the entire time.
After a few beers, I let slip that I was actually a Cubs fan undercover in Brewers gear. I figured a fellow showman would appreciate my antics. We were both costumed for the evening after all. But he seemed disappointed. I had forgotten the whole "sarcasm unappreciated" thing so quickly. I did continue to root for the Brewers out loud, and the Cubs secretly in my brain, and it was a good thing too. The Brewers won 9-3.
After a pleasantly sober sleep at La Quinta Inn, I decided to don the costume once again and do a little sightseeing.
When you enter International Exports, AKA "The Safe House", there is no discernible way to actually enter the dining area. You press some button in the foyer, and a voice comes through a speaker and asks you for the password. I didn't know the password of course, so I guessed incorrectly 3 times until they made me hop around like a bunny to gain entry. Of course you're on camera the entire time, and anyone sitting at the bar can watch you do what ever embarrassing action they demand of you. It's a great joke. It was a super fun time watching other patrons dance and hop their way into the restaurant on closed circuit TV.
The bartender was a big friendly character. The food inexpensive for a theme restaurant, and after I told the guy I was writing a blog, which I always do in hopes of getting a free beer, he took me on a tour of the place.
This poster hangs in the women's bathroom. If a woman dares lift the heart, sirens go off alerting everyone that there's a pervert in the ladies john. Also hilarious.
The history of the place is that in the 60's, this lawyer who loved detective themed TV shows and movies, decided to open a spy restaurant and do that instead. There are secret tables, and the worlds' largest mechanical puzzle (whatever that means), and next door is the Milwaukee Press Club, which is full of famous people's autographs. The Press Club was closed, but the bartender took me in there anyway. See, being a blogger does have its privileges!
What was I to make of all this? I'm undercover as a Brewers' fan, eating at spy restaurants, and hanging out with banana's trying to recapture some nebulous freedom I felt 25 years ago. I needed a break. So, where can a manic drunk find a good time on a Wednesday afternoon? The Casino!!!
Most "manufacturing decimated" midwestern cities have invested in revenue generating vice as a way to balance the books. Milwaukee is no exception. Potawatomi Bingo Casino is right downtown, I'd been there before on a weekend, and found it expensive, as I only play 5$ Craps and Blackjack, and sit down at the occasional slot machine. Luckily, on a weekday afternoon, most of the tables are cheaper. In this case, the craps table was only 5$ minimum, so I stood and played for a bit. Amazingly, I won 80$ in about 25 minutes. This old tall black guy couldn't miss!!! After he rolled a 7 and the shooter shifted, I figured, that's a good days work, and got outta there. I had to meet my friend Loren back at the motel in a half hour anyway for game 2. Beer money! Thanks Milwaukee's decimated Indian tribe!!
My divorce was just finalized September 3rd, but my friend Loren's breakup is recent and is a much fresher wound. For selfish reasons, I'm kinda glad it happened. Gives me a partner in crime for my exploits. When he was married, he might have had to drive her to fertility treatments or something else equally as asinine, instead of coming to the ballgame with me in Milwaukee. We had special club seats that evening, which gave us access to "The Stadium Club". Club seats are a devilishly brilliant way to get people to pay more money to sit in crappy seats. As in the left field corner. At least there's waitress service, but once again, I found myself bored sitting there drinking beer, while Loren sat there trying to manically replace his wife by texting 5 different girls on OK Cupid throughout the game. For those of you that don't know, OK Cupid is a free dating site. I saw Johann Santana Pitch a No Hitter at Citi Field in NYC on an OK Cupid date after my marriage broke up. My excitement at watching the No-no was dampened greatly however, because the girl laughed like that cartoon dog, Muttley.
I was bored by my "laugh wheezing" OK Cupid date, and now, I'm bored again by my incessantly texting friend.
You may have to zoom waaaaaayyyyy in, but that yellow spec under the Journal Sentinel sign is the Rally Banana! I said "Loren! Screw these Club seats! The Rally Banana is right over there! Let's go hang with him!!" Loren begrudgingly agreed, probably because they have better beer in the Club seats and he's a beer snob, but he was a sport and we ended up in Bananaland!
Thank God for this Banana! The battle for 4th place is, well, not really a battle at all. And even though I love me some Cubs baseball, the only, and I mean only, thing that made these games fun, was Teddy the Rally Banana. We gambled on at bats and strikes and balls (I won the double or nothing at the end of it all. Good gambling day). We sang. Please note. I only sang "Root Root Root For the Brewers" because I lost that bet....
I had such a great time with the Rally Banana, that I'm sure my friend Loren wondered why he drove all the way up to Milwaukee to hang out with me, and all I wanted to do was hang out with the Brewer's unofficial mascot, a banana. Well, in fairness all he wanted to do was flirt online with strangers. We have both been in rare form since our divorces I suppose.
I penned a fun joke article about the rally banana the next day after the Cubs squeaked out a win 5-4. The above sentence is a link to it....
The night ended...I don't know how...but it did...Loren drove, and it was my night to drink. I think we hung out at Kelly's Bleachers and ate crappy food while Loren flirted with waitresses half our age. Even though Kelly's is the most popular joint on the stretch. Most famous anyway. For my money, I still dream about those corned beef covered waffle cheese fries at Burkes Irish Castle. But Kelly's does have 'this guy' who drives the shuttle.
Either way you win, and you don't have to pay to park at Miller...although sometimes parking at Miller is the best move....you're in tailgating country!
The next day I woke up, Loren left, and my hangover had me in a morose mood. I had learned precious little about these people who call Milwaukee home. Why did I buy factory reject jelly beans? Why giant half sized corned beef cheese fries? Why does George Webb predict the Brewers will win 12 straight games? Why a rally banana? Why did Loren and my marriages break up? Why did I go on a date with a woman who laughs like a cartoon dog? Why did that lawyer open a spy restaurant? Why does the mall look kinda like the ballpark? Why Why why? I had more questions than answers, but there was no time for any of it. I had a 1pm game and only a few hours to meet my brother in law and his friends for some pregaming. They had a parking pass, and planned on tailgating. But I had other plans for the moment.
When I was in high school, I was at a Speech team meet when they announced over the loudspeaker that Jeffery Dahmer had been shivved in prison. People cheered. I'm not sure why, A. They announced it to a bunch of teenagers from the Chicago suburbs. Or B. Why people cheered. But that's what happened. A friend and I traveled to Milwaukee after senior year to go and see where Dahmer lived. Just to creep ourselves out. Not certain if we found the right place, but we were definitely in the vicinity. This was pre-internet. and this kind of information could only be gleaned word of mouth , from waitresses and gas station attendants. All of whom would look at you sideways when you asked them "Could you tell me where Jeffery Dahmer lived?", and they'd say a street and give you a general idea where, but we never knew if we found the damned place or not. But this time....post internet... 924 N. 25th st. Milwaukee Wi.
It's a vacant lot now and someone planted flowers...
Yes. More questions than answers. Why would Dahmer try and make Zombie love slaves in Milwaukee of all places? And when they ended up dying, why did he eat them? I didn't feel as though I was going to find many answers as to what makes Milwaukee tick here, and I was as thoroughly creeped out as I was in high school. This time, maybe more. The series was tied 1-1. I had tailgating to do. Off to the ballpark.
I took the Kelly's Bleachers shuttle over and met up with my Brother in law, Rob, his neighbor Paul, and some other guy. They were drinking Belgian beers in the figurative shadow of Miller Park. Which looks like a cross between a mall and an airplane hanger, while I look like a young George Wendt.
Rob, my brother in law has been married to my little sister for a long time. He's an engineer, he builds stuff, and has a nice house and 3 kids. We're family, but live completely different lifestyles. We do however share a love of beer and the Cubs. His neighbor, Paul is the best and worst next door neighbor you could ever have. The kinda guy who knocks on your back door window at 11pm, holding a half a bottle of whiskey for sharing. Usually drunk, always fun to hang out with. A salt of the earth kinda guy. The other guy and I didn't talk.
Let me let you in on an age old ballpark secret. If you know people, such as these 3 gentlemen pictured above and below, who have box seats, all you have to do is buy a scalped 10$ ticket in the parking lot, and have one of the guys meet you on the concourse with 2 of the box seats tickets after the other guys are seated down front. You then just show the box seat ticket to the usher, and you're in 100 level. Easy peasy! This only works if it isn't packed. And as most battles for the basement, it wasn't.
As famed Brewer player and announcer Bob Eucker famously quipped after being kicked out of his seat in that 80's Miller Lite commercial, "I must be in the front row!".
Hey! I just noticed that jerk I'm with is wearing a Cardinals hat! No wonder I didn't talk to him!!!
The Racing Sausages exited up my aisle!!!! The Cubs won the game 7-2, and the series 2-1!!
The Rally Banana was not at this game unfortunately. It would have been tough to sneak him down to the first row anyway. Everyone at Miller Park knows him, and knows he doesn't have Box Seats.
So what the hell just happened to me? I went up north looking for what Milwaukee is all about and to find a preadolescent freedom. Did I find it? In the Banana? In the mall? In the corned beef fries? At Dahmer's vacant lot? In the moustache? Or is this just another pathetic midlife crisis?
Damn, I'm way too analytical, always looking for meaning in the smallest action or turn of events. I don't have the human where-with-all to just relax, have a beer, cheer on a racing sausage, or sit in a lawn chair at a tailgate party. Like a real Milwaukeean. Like when I was a 14 year old boy, entertained simply by a Rick Cerone song, an oblong trip step covered in nacho cheese, or a long walk home through the ghetto. Our little brothers to the north take it all in stride. They don't try to be too much, or too excitable like we are down in Chicago. They do however, try to be as drunk as possible, and root their Brew Crew to victory. Unlike the other teams in our division, I kinda like these guys. As a Cubs fan, I always appreciate an underdog. And Milwaukee is the quintessential underdog.
The Brewers, like the Astros this year, were recently moved to another league. No conversation. No warning. Just, "no one cares about you, your team is an afterthought, you're moving." Imagine if they did that to us Cubs fans! We'd throw a hissy fit!!! But Brewers fans just took it in stride and said,"Ok, I guess the pitchers bat now." I can dress like a Brewers fan, drink with them, eat like them. But I can't ever be one of them. It's not that I'm too cool for it, it's that I'm too anxiety ridden and high strung for it.
Thank you Milwaukee! Thanks for your authenticity, your friendliness, your beer, your lucrative casino, your corned beef cheese fries, and your folksy unpretentious charm.
As I write this article, the Cubs are currently playing in Milwaukee for 4 games. And yes, we are still fighting for 4th place. The Cubs are unfortunately losing the battle, having lost the first 2. It doesn't matter though. I'm going up there tomorrow. Milwaukee is a place I'll always go. Maybe I can learn to relax and just be myself. Just like real Milwaukeean. (except Dahmer).
If I were a cop, I'd assume this guy was drunk and pull him over...
3 construction workers died making Miller Park.
Not sure why this snake is talking to this Cubs fan...but just go with it...
Me and Bernie!
Rainbow over the smokers patio
Me and Mr. Banana
Attempting a box seat sneak in...fail....
It's tiring rooting for the wrong team...
Brewer fan power!
OK. If you're in your 50's and still bring a mitt to the ballpark, you may have undealt with childhood issues.
Grabbing Hank's package
Respect the stache!
Club seat bathrooms!
A Cubs Brewers love affair waiting to happen.
This close and still no foul ball!
Me and the Bro in Law
Eat like the locals!
On my way home!