By Steve Keating
MILWAUKEE (Reuters) - For years, the only September race that held any interest for Milwaukee Brewers fans was a sprint between the team's famous sausage mascots before the bottom of the sixth inning of every home game.
The sausages provided some comic relief for fans weary from a string of dreary losing seasons but this Fall they are once again playing big games in Major League Baseball's smallest market with the Brewers back in the playoffs for just the second time since 1982.
Normally in October, the Green Bay Packers, Milwaukee's gridiron neighbors 115 miles to the north, would have the Wisconsin spotlight all to themselves but this year the Super Bowl champions are sharing it with the Brewers, who are hosting the Arizona Diamondbacks in the first two games of their National League division series.
Known as "America's Dairyland", Wisconsin could soon be hailed as the "State of Champions" if the Brewers can follow the Packers lead and bring home their first World Series since the 1957 when the team was known as the Milwaukee Braves and Hank Aaron was slugging homeruns.
Indeed, a Brewers World Series title would complete a unique double play in American sport with the two smallest markets holding the United States two biggest sporting crowns.
While Brewers play in baseball's smallest market, they are definitely not small time with a player payroll nudging toward $100 million.
For the third time in four years the Brewers drew more than three million fans setting a single season franchise attendance record of 3,071,373 while merchandise sales, sponsorships and television ratings soared.
"The team performance proves that if you are in first place and winning you're going to get attention," Rick Schlesinger, the Brewers chief operating officer and vice-president of business operations told Reuters. "We are the smallest market in baseball but we have national footprint, we're drawing three million fans, our merchandise sales are very high compared to other teams and other markets.
"If you look at all of the objective measurements we are at or near records.
"It's deserved and we're having fun with it.
"The sausages are a fan favorite and celebrities in their own right. It's nice to have famous mascots but it's nicer to have famous players."
In sport, nothing sells better than success and a 96-66 regular season record (the third best in the major leagues) and some captivating personalities combined to make the Brewers a winner on the field and at the cash register.
Like the Packers, the Brewers small market charm and little team that could determination has caught the imagination of baseball fans beyond the Wisconsin borders, who have scooped up the team's merchandise.
Most importantly, the Brewers have assembled a very good baseball team.
Outfielder Ryan Braun and slugging first baseman Prince Fielder, who crushed a team best 38 homers this season, are both worthy of most valuable player consideration.
The squat and powerful Fielder hardly looks like an ironman but the slugger was the only player to play in all 162 games this season making him a popular figure among Milwaukee's blue-collar fans.
Braun's jersey is among the MLB's 15 top selling jerseys while quirky outfielder Nyjer Morgan and his alter ego "Tony Plush" have been a marketing dream.
Plush, who often speaks for Morgan, has developed a large cult following among Brewers fans, his T-shirt and other merchandise the hottest selling items at Miller Park.
"He (Morgan) is backing up his antics with some excellent play," said Schlesinger. "Prince and Ryan are MVP candidates.
"John Axford (a franchise record 46 saves) is a potential Rolaids Relief Man of the Year candidate and our manager Ron Roenicke could be Manager of the Year and Doug Melvin could be Executive of the Year.
"We knew we had to fix our pitching staff. We knew we had the hitters, our core group of good hitters but our pitching was less than acceptable last year.
"So when we acquired Zack Greinke (16-6), acquired Shaun Marcum (13-7) and we built a strong pitching staff.
"While these guys may joke around when they are out on the field they are deadly serious and play with a lot of passion.
"We've got talent and blue collar effort."