Derek Jeter and the Yankees are coming to Milwaukee for the first time since 2005, and while 40,000-plus fans will fill Miller Park for all three games, one former player says there's no way this series will have the same juice as Yankees-Brewers games of old.
"It was always big when we played the Yankees," said Milwaukee's former scrappy second baseman Jim Gantner, who always seemed to be in the middle of the action when those old Brewers brawled. "The atmosphere was just different when they came to town."
In the five-year span from 1978-82, only the Orioles won more regular-season games (445) than the Brewers (431) and Yankees (430). When the Brewers made their first postseason appearance in the strike-interrupted 1981 season, it was the Yankees who denied the Brewers a chance to play for their first American League pennant.
There was no love lost between the teams. Gorman Thomas, the bushy-haired former Brewers center fielder, has said he remembers Yankees catcher Thurman Munson throwing pebbles at his shoes while Thomas tried to settle into the batter's box, just to break Thomas' concentration.
Gantner chuckled while telling of the time Yankees slugger Reggie Jackson, frustrated by his long personal struggles against Brewers left-handed ace Mike Caldwell, threw his bat halfway to the mound after a foul popup. Caldwell picked up the cracked bat, snapped it in half and sparked a brawl.
"Caldwell got back to the mound and Reggie came from first and just tackled him," Gantner said. "I think we had three fights with them that weekend."
In the third game, Gantner fielded a throw at third base and tagged out Lou Piniella, who delivered an elbow to Gantner's jaw. The two tussled, with Yankees third-base coach Mike Ferraro joining the action.
"Lou apologized the next day," Gantner said. "We had great games against them. It was always a packed house when they came for a game. You could feel the electricity right when batting practice started. It was a lot of fun.
"To this day, I've never seen anyone swing and miss and get standing ovations -- on the road -- like Reggie Jackson. It was such a pretty miss, you know what I mean?"
At least two Yankees can count on standing ovations this time. Jeter is playing the last of his 20 seasons with the Yankees and will be honored in a pregame ceremony on Sunday. CC Sabathia will get his due on Saturday, when he makes his first regular-season start at Miller Park since his complete-game effort in the finale of 2008. Coupled with Ryan Braun's home run, it sent the Brewers to the postseason for the first time since the 1982 team reached the seventh game of the World Series.
The pitching matchup in the opener is just as intriguing: Yankees newcomer Masahiro Tanaka against Brewers Opening Day starter Yovani Gallardo. Neither pitcher has ever faced Friday's opponent.
Yankees: Tanaka riding long winning streak
The right-hander is undefeated in his six big league starts, and has not lost since Aug. 19, 2012, in Japan. Tanaka won his final 28 decisions in Japan before signing with the Yankees this winter, and he's yet to allow more than three earned runs against a Major League club.
"He's a top-of-the-rotation starter, and that's what you expect from guys like him," Yankees catcher Brian McCann said. "It's hard to believe he's only 25 years old. I feel like I keep saying that, but this guy's got some poise. He competes every time he's on the mound and gives us everything he's got."
Brewers: Praise for Jeter
The Brewers have not announced any specific plans but intend to recognize Jeter's contributions to the game during a pregame ceremony on Sunday. Gantner, who played all 17 of his Major League seasons for one team, is a big fan of Jeter, and he's not alone.
Brewers manager Ron Roenicke and third baseman Aramis Ramirez were among those expressing admiration this week for the Yankees captain, who announced during the winter that this season would be his last.
"All the games he played, the way he played, nothing fancy," Gantner said. "I love his instincts. I love the way he just does his job."
Roenicke saw it for all 11 years he spent on Mike Scioscia's coaching staff in Anaheim. Ramirez saw it in the occasional Interleague series, and in All-Star Games.
"I saw him for a long time, and he prepares himself well and plays the right way," Roenicke said. "A great leader on their team. It seems like I've been watching him forever."
"I never played in the American League before, but I know what kind of player he is," Ramirez said. "He's just a great player and a great guy."
• The Brewers are planning for a full house in the visitor's clubhouse and in the press box this weekend. The Yankees' traveling party includes three translators, multiple strength and conditioning coordinators, a massage therapist and their own security officials. The media contingent includes about 35 reporters from Japan.
• The Yankees own the all-time series between the teams, 211-182-1, and have won the last four meetings including a sweep at Yankee Stadium in 2011. The Brewers won two of three games the last time the teams met at Miller Park.