MILWAUKEE -- Sept. 26, 2008, was the best day of Seth McClung's baseball life. It was the night a hard-throwing right-hander -- who had struggled for years to live up to lofty potential -- fired fastballs past the Cubs and a few choice words at his manager in a victory the Brewers absolutely had to have.
Or maybe the best day was two days later, when the Brewers clinched the National League Wild Card and McClung ascended the stands at Miller Park with a champagne bottle in one hand and the other in the air, high-fiving fans as a city and a franchise celebrated the end of a 26-year postseason drought.
And then there’s the day after that, when McClung stood off to the side as more prominent teammates spoke during a pep rally at Milwaukee’s lakefront festival grounds as the fans chanted, “Big Red! Big Red!” until McClung took the microphone. That might have been the best day.
For one of the most memorable cult heroes in Brewers history, it’s hard to pick a favorite.
“I really gave myself to Milwaukee. I was all-in,” McClung said. “I was so happy to get out of a situation in Tampa and come to Milwaukee and be a part of that season, and to have the fans embrace me. The best time of my career was in Milwaukee.”
McClung arrived in a change-of-scenery trade in July 2007 that sent reliever Grant Balfour to Tampa Bay, where McClung had logged a 6.27 ERA over parts of three frustrating seasons. In St. Petersburg, McClung said, “I was a science experiment.” The Rays tinkered with his role and his mechanics in an effort to find more consistency with a repertoire that included 100 mph fastballs. After the trade, McClung remembers one of his first discussions with pitching coach Mike Maddux.
“On Day 2 [in Milwaukee], I was working on something with my mechanics, and Mike said, ‘Well, why are you doing that?’” said McClung, who explained it was because that’s what the Rays had instructed him to do.
“You know what?” Maddux replied. “You’re pretty good. Why don’t you just be pretty good?”
So that’s what McClung tried to do. Buoyed by the confidence of Maddux and catcher Jason Kendall, McClung was solid over 14 appearances during the final two months of that season and made the Opening Day roster in 2008. In late May, a few weeks after promising 22-year-old Yovani Gallardo had gone down with a knee injury, McClung shifted to the rotation. He held his own with a 4.33 ERA over a string of 11 starts that played an underappreciated part in keeping the Brewers competitive long enough to convince then-general manager Doug Melvin to push the chips all-in with a trade for Cleveland’s CC Sabathia.
As Sabathia began his magical run with Milwaukee, McClung shifted to a tandem with Dave Bush, with McClung pitching at home and Bush on the road to take advantage of each pitcher’s splits. In early August, Bush claimed the starting role and McClung went back to the bullpen.
“I started games, I finished games, I cleaned up games,” McClung said. “I called myself ‘The Janitor.’ I did all the dirty work. It was a very thankless role, but the Milwaukee fans, it’s like they got it. I always showed my emotions out there. I busted my butt every time I got on the field. I think the fans saw that, even though there were so many other big stories with what CC was doing, what some of the position players were doing. I was always grateful that what I was doing didn’t get lost in the shuffle.”
In the end, the change of scenery was a good thing for both. Balfour posted a 1.42 ERA in 50 appearances out of Tampa Bay’s bullpen by the time Sept. 26, 2008, rolled around. McClung lowered his ERA to 4.02 that night in his 25th relief appearance of the season.
It was only four innings, but it was the performance of his life.
The Brewers’ bullpen had been hard-worked going into that night, with Salomón Torres and Eric Gagne each having worked three straight games, and Guillermo Mota in two of the last three. Beyond that, the entire team’s collective nerves were frayed. The Brewers had dismissed manager Ned Yost with 12 games to go and their postseason hopes slipping away -- and now they were in the final regular-season series jockeying with the Mets for the final berth. After Jeff Suppan fought through five innings of a game that was tied at 1, interim manager Dale Sveum called for McClung.
“I was out of my mind on the mound that day,” McClung said. “There were only a handful of times when I have been that locked-in. Nobody was going to hit me.”
Sveum found that out firsthand. Corey Hart delivered a go-ahead hit in the bottom of the sixth, Rickie Weeks Jr. blasted a three-run homer in the seventh with McClung on base and McClung was on the verge of closing out a huge win when he walked Cubs infielder Ryan Theriot with two outs in the ninth. McClung had thrown 55 pitches to that point, almost all fastballs.
Sveum walked to the mound and asked McClung, “You good?”
“Remember, Dale is a player’s manager, and he’s not a man of many words. I thought he was coming out to get me,” McClung said. “He came out and I wasn’t looking at him. I was looking right at ‘Kid’ -- Kendall -- right in the eyes. I was not letting anyone take the ball out of my hands.”
Without breaking Kendall’s gaze, McClung said, “I’m good.”
Here’s how McClung remembers the rest of the conversation, with a slew of four-letter words removed.
Mac, you good?
“I looked at him and I go, ‘I’m good!’”
Then get this [guy] out.
“I go, ‘Dale, if you get the [bleep] off my mound I’ll do my job!’” McClung said.
McClung loves watching the highlight because it shows the infielders, including first baseman Prince Fielder, covering their faces with their gloves to hide their laughter while they walked away.
Sveum retreated to the dugout, McClung struck out Daryle Ward on four pitches and the Brewers had a 5-1 win in which McClung delivered four scoreless innings with one hit, one walk and six strikeouts. Immediately after the game, he went to the manager’s office to apologize.
“He’s just smiling,” McClung said. “I go, 'Dale, I’m sorry. I don’t know who I was out there tonight.' And he goes, ‘Mac, that Seth McClung can show up any time he wants.'”
In his gaggle with reporters that night, Sveum heaped praise on his 6-foot-6 right-hander.
“You could almost vote him to be our MVP, especially if we get into the playoffs,” Sveum said. “That guy has stepped into the starting role when Gallardo went down and did a heck of a job. He’s done everything we asked of him.”
After the clincher on the final day of the regular season and the spirited rally at the Summerfest grounds the next day, McClung pitched once in the postseason, working two scoreless innings in the Brewers’ 5-2 loss in Game 2 of the National League Division Series in Philadelphia. He hoped the 2008 season would prove a springboard, but it did not. McClung pitched 41 times for the Brewers in '09 under new manager Ken Macha, but Macha deployed him mostly in low-leverage situations, and McClung missed two months with an injured elbow. He bounced around the Minor Leagues after that, including stints in Mexico and Taiwan, and one last Spring Training shot with the Pirates in '14.
Today, McClung runs the Big Red Baseball Academy in St. Petersburg, and he runs a travel ball team called the Florida Gulf Coast Prospects. McClung says since he retired, he has helped local kids secure more than 220 scholarship offers to play college baseball.
And without dwelling on it too much, McClung thinks about the waning weeks of 2008 a fair amount. There is a video on his phone that includes the strikeout of Ward.
“I put it on my TV so my 8- and 10-year-old can look at it, and they say, ‘There’s daddy!’” McClung said. “I say, ‘You don’t understand. This is a great moment for your dad. I hold on to that very, very dearly. It’s my individual success, but it was also the whole city, the whole team. That group invented baseball swagger.
“All of those days together were my best in baseball. I think it validated my career. It cemented my little place in Milwaukee lore.”