Dozens of times, the phone rang. And dozens of times, he slept through it.
When Brent Suter finally woke up that August day in 2016, he intended to get going on his game day routine. The left-hander was scheduled to be the Colorado Springs Sky Sox starting pitcher for that night’s game against the visiting Chihuahuas from El Paso. He noticed all those missed calls from his manager, Rick Sweet. So he called him back on FaceTime. “Where have you been?” asked the 60-something Sweet. “Asleep,” Suter replied. “My phone was under my laptop. I’m an idiot.”
“Well, you’re not pitching for me today,” Sweet said. “You’re pitching against the Seattle Mariners tomorrow night. Get your stuff packed. Your flight leaves in four hours.”
The call ended. The bedlam began.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God. What?’” he says. “My wife was right there in the room, too, and she just starts instantly crying. I called my parents, her parents, everybody. I just remember getting flooded with text messages, like crazy.”
Suter was 10 days shy of his 27th birthday. In his four seasons in the minor leagues, he’d played for the Helena Brewers in Montana, the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers in Appleton, the Brevard County Manatees in Florida, the Huntsville Stars in Alabama, the Biloxi Shuckers in Mississippi and finally the Sky Sox.
Now, he’d be a Milwaukee Brewer. The big leagues. The Show.
ENTER OUR HOME & DESIGN AWARDS
We want to see your best work. Architects, interior designers, renovation experts and landscapers: Enter your residential projects in Milwaukee Magazine’s new design competition.
Thus began a storybook journey that continues today. It features a pitcher whose face is creased in a permanent smile, whose antics compete for attention with his relentless, happy-warrior breed of environmental activism in a sport not exactly known for progressive policies. Suter’s goofy demeanor and offbeat personality call to mind another Brewers legend, Bob Uecker. Except that, in Suter’s case, he’s actually good at professional baseball.
He got his big call ahead of another Sky Sox farmhand, a long-haired flamethrower named Josh Hader. While Hader was tagged as the top pitching prospect in the Crew’s system (and has since lived up to that billing), Suter was a mysterious character from Harvard whose relatively slow velocity didn’t seem to fit into today’s game of power pitching.
“A lot of people in that organization kind of, you know, wrote him off,” says Tyler Wagner, who played with Suter in the minor leagues and became a close friend. “You know, ‘You’re never going to be a big leaguer.’”
This was the conventional wisdom on a soft-tossing pitcher like Suter, whose fastball averages a glacially slow 86 mph – well below the league average of 93 mph. To get outs, he keeps hitters off-balance with a lightning-fast pace – taking barely any time between pitches – and puts a mix of pitches right where he wants them. And the conventional wisdom said that, despite Suter getting the job done at all those stops on the minor league circuit, the lack of major league velocity would catch up to him at the highest level.
Now that skepticism would be put to the ultimate test. Suter was headed to the bigs.
Things got more surreal when David Stearns, then the Brewers’ general manager, called Suter to say congrats. And manager Craig Counsell praised him in the press.
He packed his bags – one duffel bag, one suitcase that he always left packed for just this moment.
Twenty-four hours later, the travel-weary lefty took the mound under the lights at Safeco Field as the Brewers’ starting pitcher. Looking out, he saw 30,000 fans in the seats, by far the biggest crowd that had ever watched him pitch. It included his parents, his wife’s parents and some aunts and uncles who caught last-minute flights to Seattle from Cincinnati to see his debut.
“It was like, ‘Oh, Mylanta, here we go,’” he says.
The Mariners were good that year and had plenty of dangerous batsmen. But the rookie started out fine. He walked a few guys early, but gave up no hits, or runs, through three innings. In the fourth inning, he hung an 0-1 curveball to Kyle Seager, who launched a solo home run to right field. The next inning, eight-time All-Star Robinson Canó cracked a line drive over the right field fence for another dinger, scoring two.
“It was one of the hardest-hit balls I’d ever seen,” says Suter.
FUN FACT: Suter met his wife, Erin, in second grade. They didn’t start dating until college, though. (He went to Harvard, she went to Miami of Ohio.)
He recorded 13 outs in his debut, surrendering seven hits and four runs. His ERA stood at a ghastly 8.31. “It wasn’t great,” says Suter. “But I’ve had worse.”
He finished out that 2016 season with the big-league team. He began 2017 in Colorado Springs but was summoned to Milwaukee on the second day of the season. A few weeks later, he gave up four runs to the Chicago Cubs in one inning.
After the game, he was called to Counsell’s office and told he’d been “optioned,” a word that came to define his life. “I knew I’d let the team down,” he says. “That was a pretty low feeling.”
He went back and forth between the minors and bigs five times that season. “I have a big-league suitcase with all I need,” he said at the time. “Big league pants, ‘good enough’ underwear, ‘good enough’ socks. I’m never unpacking it.”
He finally stuck with the Brewers in 2018, becoming one of the team’s most reliable pitchers, swinging between roles as a starter and a multi-inning contributor in Counsell’s unorthodox corps of relievers. On one of his hottest streaks, during the Brewers’ September 2019 playoff chase, he gave up just 10 hits over nine appearances, winning the National League Reliever of the Month honor. Through last season, he pitched in 81 games with the Crew, tallying a 19-11 record and a now respectable 3.57 ERA. He’s been solid this season, pitching to a 2.87 ERA in 11 games and 15-2/3 innings through May 3.
In 2020 the team signed Suter to a contract that paid $900,000 last season and is worth $1.55 million this season. At 31 years old, he’s still playing with the team that drafted him, a rarity in any professional sport, and is one of only two survivors of his 2012 Brewers draft class.
HARVARD HAS PRODUCED eight of the 46 U.S. presidents but just 19 of the 20,000-odd Major League Baseball players. Suter entered Harvard as the rare student-athlete who was coveted as much or more for his intellect – he finished No. 2 in his class at the prestigious Archbishop Moeller High School in Cincinnati – than for his on-field prowess. He left Harvard in 2012 after a sterling but not legendary career there.
The Brewers took him in the 31st round of the draft. Only a tiny fraction of draftees ever climb the ranks, and Suter was starting out as the 965th-most coveted prospect that year. He wasn’t sure he’d be drafted at all, and had been hired for a classroom job with Teach for America in central-city Indianapolis before getting the call from the Brewers. “Professional baseball was certainly a dream,” he says, “but that it’s all happened, that’s crazy.”
Wagner, Suter’s minor league teammate, didn’t know what to make of him at his first pro ball stop in Helena. The food was bad. The bus rides were long. The pay was next to nothing. Yet his new teammate greeted each new day like a kid at Chuck E. Cheese. “He was just the happiest person ever,” Wagner says. “Every day, he’d be like, ‘Guys, we’ve got our meals provided for us and we’re playing baseball for a job.’”
Suter would break into a one-man band shtick in the locker room, beatboxing and playing drums against his chest in a burst of wild exuberance. He’d do a raptor shuffle run out to warm-ups – crouched forward, granny style, legs moving in a waddle, fingers wiggling in front of his body, caboose protruding behind – leaving even the coaches busting a gut.
Coming out of Harvard, he’d also interviewed for jobs in investment banking, and many of his friends ended up in the field. “I would hear horror stories of guys working 16-hour days, every day, and not seeing much else besides spreadsheets,” he says. He wasn’t going to grumble about getting paid to play the national pastime in the great outdoors.
FUN FACT: In lieu of a catcher, Suter throws at a mattress. He’s been firing at one adorned with floral patterns in his parents’ basement since high school. Now, he also uses a couch cushion at his house, propped against the wall.
Amid the giggles and good vibes, that first summer in Helena also brought a shot of devastation. His Harvard coach, Joe Walsh, died suddenly of a heart attack in New Hampshire at age 58.
Walsh was the only Division I baseball coach who offered Suter a chance. Despite learning from world-renowned professors at the legendary university, Suter says Walsh taught him as much as anyone. “He was a very important figure in my life,” he says. “He was just a great guy, and an old-school baseball guy. I loved talking with him. I remember we got swept by Columbia one day and he just lingered in the dugout for hours, heartbroken. He cared so much for us and for the program.”
Suter wasn’t used to grief, and the process was difficult.
“The night I heard the news, I was trying to play it off a little bit or just say, ‘Hey, it’s OK,’” he says. “Then I remember just fully breaking down the next night. That was a tough, tough stretch. I was in Helena, so I had no chance of getting back for the funeral. But I wish I could have been there. It was just a sad, sad time.”
GROWING UP, Suter looked up to plenty of heroes. His parents provided a stable, loving home, plus an athletic pedigree. His mother, Shirley, won a state swimming championship in high school and lettered in the sport all four years at Penn State. His father, Mike, won a national football championship at Moeller High School then a collegiate national championship with Penn State in 1982. Suter also admired Ken Griffey Jr., the Hall of Fame slugger who graduated from Moeller High School. He came to study lefty pitchers such as Randy Johnson, Andy Pettite and Cli Lee.
During his high school time, another hero emerged, this one outside sports: Al Gore.
“I saw An Inconvenient Truth right when it came out. I watched it with my mom and I was like, ‘What is going on here?’ I had no idea, so I looked into it more and more. After that, it was in my heart to study [environmental science] in college and try to do something about it. It’s one of my big-time passions.”
Anyone can proclaim himself a “tree hugger” in their Twitter profile, as Suter does, and major in environmental science and public policy, as he did. But his whole life Suter has backed up the label and the major with progressively more ambitious actions. In high school, he was the guy organizing litter cleanups while urging everyone to carpool, cut their shower time and turn off the lights.
Once he got to the pros, he kicked his activism into gear. He was mildly appalled at the waste produced by the daily team meals, with styrofoam plates and plasticware. Suter’s then girlfriend, now wife, Erin, got him collapsible, reusable food containers for Christmas that he’s kept in his bag for easy access on team meals. He acknowledges that Major League clubhouses may not seem a welcoming place for an environmentalist, but it’s essential to put issues important to him before as broad an audience as possible, including skeptics.
“I’ve had many spirited conversations with my teammates on climate change,” he wrote in a blog post for Madison-based environmental group Outrider Foundation, “and the debates are always respectful. However, I’ve found that having a doomsday approach turns guys off. It’s better to take a hopeful tone and urge my teammates to think about helping build a brighter future for their kids and grandkids. Also, like in any situation, I find it effective to communicate by action and not just words.”
FUN FACT: Suter wrote the children’s book The Legend of the Binky Bandit for his 2-year-old son, Liam. It tells the story of the family’s dog, who ritually shredded every pacifier, always in secret, leaving a trail of paci remains.
Teammates have been overwhelmingly supportive, although they do love to razz their environmentally conscious teammate. “They would tease me coming out of the shower, just look at me and turn on two showerheads and laugh,” he says. “I had one guy even look at me and throw a couple napkins away on purpose. But besides that, they’ve been very, very supportive. And even those guys were supportive, just giving me some crap.”
Wagner, his minor-league teammate and close friend, noticed Suter’s obvious passion for the cause as soon as they met and notes that he’s commanded respect in the clubhouse due to his steady, engaging manner. “He’s not afraid of being judged,” he says. “He’s not afraid of, you know, people forming opinions about him. That’s one of the greatest things about Suter. He’s determined to make a change.”
Suter noticed that the team was going through 20 cases a day of bottled water at spring training in Arizona. He campaigned, teammate to teammate, to encourage a new commitment to glass, reusable water bottles. About 100 people in the organization pledged support.
Suter has used two long breaks in his career – first, a 13-month rehab from elbow surgery in 2018-19, then the long-delayed start of the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 – to kickstart new and more ambitious initiatives. He aims to transform major league ballparks into green zones, where fans bring their own drinking containers instead of using plastic cups from concessions, where only compostable plates and utensils are used, where compost bins sit next to every garbage and recycling station, and where all stadium lights are LED.
The Brewers put Suter out front of a campaign to recycle plastic stadium cups into household cleaner bottles. They also became one of only two professional sports teams – the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks are the other – to commit to Sidelining Carbon, a program spearheaded by Suter and environmental groups to offset all the travel done by professional sports teams by purchasing carbon credits.
“Ideally we would love to have the offsets pay for beautifying the communities of the teams themselves,” Suter says, “like setting up a program where they go to underserved communities, take abandoned lots and start planting a bunch of trees and flowers.”
Last September, the Brewers announced Suter as the team’s nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award, baseball’s highest honor recognizing character and good citizenship. “Even in this strangest of seasons, baseball’s greenest player is considering ways to help the planet,” the team said in a press release.
MAY 8, 2018. The Brewers were playing the Cleveland Indians at Miller Park. Wade Miley, the Brewers’ starter, had to leave the game due to injury in the first inning. Enter Suter.
In the second inning, Suter was in a jam: runners at second and third base, with just one out. The Indians batter turned to bunt in an effort to squeeze the runner on third home.
He popped the bunt straight ahead, toward the pitcher’s mound. Suter showed remarkable quickness, lunging head first, snaring the ball in his glove for the out. Still seated on the grass, he tossed the ball to second for the inning-ending force-out, sending his teammates and the crowd into bedlam. But that was just the appetizer.
The next inning, Suter came up to bat. Plate appearances by pitchers like Suter are usually predictable – a strikeout or weak groundout – especially against a pitcher like the Tribe’s that day, reigning Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber.
Kluber threw a first-pitch fastball. And … Suter launched it into orbit. It cleared the centerfield fence easily, clocking in at 433 feet. It is the fifth-longest home run ever by a major league pitcher. It’s the only homer Kluber’s ever given up to a pitcher, and it was hit by a guy who hadn’t even expected to play that day and last homered in high school.
“I see [Kluber] pitch on TV all the time, because he’s kind of must-see TV,” Suter said at the time. “So I went up there, saw the ball up a little bit, kind of put the bat on the ball, and after that, it was just cloud nine, like Angels in the Outfield. It was fun. Man, it was a good time.”
FUN FACT: During a game last September, Suter caught a cleat during his elongated windup, stumbling into a backward somersault, off the mound, the the amusement of his teammates. Gymnastics legend Simone Biles retweeted a side-by-side video of Suter’s tumble and her twirling, stuck-the-landing floor routine. Suter stuck the landing too.
Jordan Young happened to be in an open area past the centerfield fence with her mother, Jennifer. The fifth-grader at Divine Redeemer Lutheran School in Delafield was about to start a stint as junior announcer when Suter’s home run ball dropped serendipitously into her hands.
“I’m not really that big into baseball, so I didn’t understand how big of a deal it was,” she says. But she knew she definitely wanted to keep the ball. A stadium employee approached her, though, and said the man who hit it would appreciate getting the ball back. She was escorted to an area near the locker room. Suter was waiting for her. He thanked her for the ball and gave her a different baseball signed by him, plus a signed hat. They talked for a while, about Harvard and God and religion. Suter told her of the importance of his Christian faith and asked if he could visit her school sometime. They took a picture together and went their separate ways.
About two weeks later, Suter showed up at Divine Redeemer.
Young’s parents had swapped numbers with him at the game and organized the surprise visit. The principal called Jordan out of class to see her Brewers pal.
“Her eyes just about fell out of her head when she saw him standing in the school lobby,” Jennifer Young said at the time.
They figured the meet and greet would be it. And that would have been plenty. “I think you kind of expect a professional athlete to show up and kind of hang around for 20 minutes and then leave,” says Jim Young, Jordan’s father. But Suter said he had at least a few hours and wanted to play baseball with the kids. One problem: they didn’t have any equipment.
Parents dashed to the nearest store to get bats, balls and gloves. In the meantime, Suter went classroom to classroom, visiting every fifth-, sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade class, talking about his faith and answering their questions about going to Harvard and being a Brewer.
Suter was in his element. His wife taught fifth-grade math until their son, Liam, was born in 2018. Suter himself was all set to teach before diverting those plans to play pro baseball. Still, he spent his first four minor league off seasons as a substitute teacher in Cincinnati – Mr. Suter. “That was a great offseason job,” he says.
Before departing Divine Redeemer, the 6-foot-4 Suter showed off his dunking skills at the outdoor basketball hoop, and joined all comers in a baseball game, serving as all-time pitcher.
Jennifer Young has kept in touch with Suter in the years since, acting as a sounding board for his questions about Milwaukee and about raising Liam.
“He’s just a very genuine person, and a great representative of the Brewers’ organization,” says Jim Young.
THE SUTER FILE: A SCOUTING REPORT
Weight: 215 pounds
Pump-up music: “Castle on the Hill” by Ed Sheeran
Twitter handle: @bruter24 (Get it? Sent Bruter)
Parody Twitter handle: @BrewersRaptor (Brent Suter’s Actual Raptor)
Favorite breakfast cereal: Kix
Favorite baseball hat (other than the Brewers): Brevard County Manatees
What’s in his smoothie: Banana, chia seeds, flaxseed, plus microgreens clipped from his basement hydroponics farm
Impersonations: Gollum from Lord of the Rings, Elmo from “Sesame Street,” Forrest Gump, Ron Burgundy. But Suter’s rendition of Lloyd Christmas, Jim Carrey’s character from Dumb and Dumber, in a team video in 2018 made him a social media star.
Favorite part of teaching: The special education kids. “They were so innocent and great,” Suter says. “They loved having fun, and so did I.”
Milwaukee heroes: Ken Leinbach, executive director of the Urban Ecology Center, and the Milwaukee Bucks. “They’ve been very courageous with all the social justice stuff, especially in the last year,” Suter says. “And they’ve really inspired us to push our comfort level and be better.”
TWINS FAN AND FREQUENT CONTRIBUTOR DAN SIMMONS WROTE “THE MAN BY THE RIVER” IN THE MAY 2020 ISSUE.