Christian Yelich was a late arrival to the Milwaukee Brewers’ annual winter fan festival. Considering the reason, his tardiness was more than understandable.
Yelich spent Saturday night in New York, where he was presented with his 2018 National League Most Valuable Player Award trophy. He then flew back to Milwaukee on Sunday on the private jet of team owner Mark Attanasio.
It’s quite a difference from a year ago, when Yelich had flown on the very same plane to Milwaukee just days after he was acquired in a blockbuster trade with the Miami Marlins. Joining him on that flight were Hall of Famers Robin Yount and Bob Uecker, as well as Ryan Braun, who had been the last Brewers player to earn MVP honors.
“You are on this flight with Brewers royalty and you kind of feel out of place at the time,” Yelich recalled Sunday.
Now, after one of the most prolific seasons in franchise history, Yelich is part of that echelon. His No. 22 jersey was among the most popular among in the sold-out crowd at the Wisconsin Center in downtown Milwaukee and his line for autographs was easily the day’s longest — even more so than those for franchise icons Yount and Uecker.
“He’s a superstar,” said manager Craig Counsell, who presented Yelich at Saturday night’s awards banquet. “We had people chasing our car down last night down the streets in New York.”
“But I think from his perspective, he’s really looking forward to playing baseball again. And then it’s a little bit more business as usual,” he said.
Business as usual has taken on a new meaning in Milwaukee after Yelich and the Brewers burst back onto the national scene last season, storming into the postseason before finishing a game short of the franchise’s first World Series berth since 1982.
Yelich played a key role in that run. Acquired to add a more consistent left-handed bat for the top of a lineup that struggled to produce in 2017, Yelich got off to a good start and earned his first career All-Star nod by hitting .292 with 11 home runs and 43 RBIs in the first half.
That turned out to be nothing more than a prelude of what was to come.
After hitting in three straight games heading into the All-Star Break, Yelich stretched his streak to 15 games to open the second half and had raised his average to .317 after closing out August with a 2-for-4 showing in a 4-1 victory at Washington.
His best work came over the final month as he batted .352 (31 for 88) with 10 home runs, 33 RBIs and a 1.307 OPS. He went 3 for 4 in a tiebreaker win over the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field that gave the Brewers the NL Central crown. The Brewers, who had been out of the playoffs since 2011, swept Colorado in the NL Division Series before losing to the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 7 of the NL Championship Series at Miller Park.
Topping that final-month performance is a tall order, especially over the course of an entire season. But Counsell was confident that Yelich, just entering his prime at age 27, was more than capable of handling the pressure and expectations that come with an historic season that fell just short of the ultimate goal.
“Christian and I actually had a conversation about it last night,” Counsell said. “Christian has a huge challenge in front of him. I think he’s looking forward to that. He wants to get better and he feels like he can get better. That’s what’s on his plate and that’s what you want on his plate.”
Yelich insists he’s still the same player — the same person, too. And while he acknowledges setting the bar high last season, he’s hoping to use the one-game difference as a motivator for another magical year.
“Life has changed a little bit, but I’m taking it all in stride and learning along the way,” Yelich said. “I’m just really excited to getting back to playing baseball and picking up where we left off as a team and seeing if we can make that next step.”