Lou Whitaker flailed away at a fastball, and Rollie Fingers punched the air once, twice, and then turned to see all 205 pounds of Ted Simmons, his catcher, rushing toward him, ready to pounce. "I hope he's not as heavy as he looks," Fingers thought.
"He danced me around like a child," said Simmons. "Like a little child. And all the time he kept saying in my ear, 'I love you, I love you.' " Before Simmons had a chance to return the compliment, the rest of the Brewers had wrapped themselves around him and Fingers.
Ted Simmons loves you, Rollie Fingers. All the Brewers love you. Harry Dalton loves you, Bud Selig loves you, Milwaukee loves you. They love you because you danced all of them around like a child. When Whitaker flailed at that fastball, away went the years of frustration, the pain of the strike and the Tigers of Detroit. Said Centerfielder Gorman Thomas, "At that moment, it was like being able to watch a flower pop open."
The Brewers defeated the Tigers 2-1 last Saturday to clinch the so-called second-season title in the American League East and send them into the quarterfinal playoff of this strange year. When the Brewers scored two runs in their half of the eighth to go ahead, Milwaukee County Stadium organist Frank Charles played the "Yanks are coming" refrain from Over There, the Yankees being Milwaukee's opponent in this week's best-of-five intradivision series. Charles wasn't being brash because Fingers had already entered the game to get the last out in the Tigers' eighth. In the top of the ninth, he induced Rick Leach to fly out to left and then struck out pinch hitter Champ Summers as well as Whitaker.
County Stadium became a bananas republic. The True Blue Brew Crew rushed out onto the field from the leftfield bleachers, while the rest of the 28,330 fans, also ignoring a plea in Friday's Milwaukee Journal to boycott the game, gave the team several curtain calls. In some quarters, the second-season championship rates Champale, but the Brewer clubhouse was awash in champagne for the first time in 12 years.
This was a very happy ending for a city that earlier in the week had raised the question: What if they gave a tight division race and nobody came? A crucial three-game series with the Boston Red Sox had drawn a grand total of 35,460. In the meantime, the fans in Detroit were coming out strong for the Tigers' three games with Baltimore: 73,958.
The teams, however, gave performances in contrast to those of their fans. The Tigers lost two of three to the Orioles. The Brewers won two of three from the Red Sox to effectively eliminate both Boston and Baltimore, and they faced the Tigers with a half-game lead.
On Friday, the evening Journal ran an editorial by Assistant Sports Editor Pete Etzel calling for the boycott in protest of the recent strike. "Now is not the time for disgruntled baseball fans to give in," wrote Etzel. "Now is not the time to return to County Stadium. Now is the time, more than ever, to boycott major league baseball."
The editorial was a big topic of conversation at the stadium Friday evening. "I was very disappointed when I read that," said Selig, the Brewer president. "I remember the five years of despair and loneliness when we didn't have a team and I was in every hotel lobby in America trying to get one back."
Selig succeeded, though for a long time it hardly seemed worth the effort. Between their debut in Milwaukee, in 1970, and 1978, the Brewers finished an average of 28 games out of first place. Dalton arrived as the general manager on Nov. 20, 1977, and in that off-season he acquired Ben Oglivie from the Tigers and reacquired Gorman Thomas from the Rangers. They now comprise one of the best power tandems in baseball.
Still, there were a few pieces missing, like a relief pitcher. So last winter Dalton gambled away some of the Brewers' future to get his man. From St. Louis he acquired Fingers, Simmons and Righthander Pete Vuckovich, and in the 2-1 victory that gave Milwaukee the half-pennant, they were all heroes. Vuckovich, the starting pitcher, held the Tigers to one run in 6⅖ innings, Simmons drove in the tying run, and Fingers got his sixth win of the year to go with his 28 saves.
Fingers was truly amazing in this, the 10th season of his handlebar mustache and the 13th of his big league career. He won or saved 55% of the Brewers' victories, and in the second half he was involved in an amazing 21 of their 31 wins and 13 of their last 15. His ERA in the second season was 0.72; it was 1.04 for the year.
Fingers himself is a little taken aback by his success. "This is the best year of my career, but I should have been doing this when I was 25, not 35," he says. "Maybe I get better with age. Maybe I'll be better next year. I doubt it."
Two years ago with San Diego, Fingers started experimenting with a forkball, but it wasn't until this season that he mastered it. The ball breaks down and in toward righthanders, down and away from lefthanders. He throws it about 33% of the time, mixing it in with his estimable slider and fastball.
Vuckovich and Simmons weren't too shabby, either. Cool Hand Vuke was 14-4; Simmons batted a disappointing .216, but he hit 14 homers and drove in a healthy 61 runs.
A crowd of 23,540 braved the 44° temperature on Friday night to cheer the Brewers. The Tigers knew they were in for a rough time when their bus broke down on the way to the ball park. In the second inning Oglivie drove a Dan Petry fastball deep into the rightfield stands to give the Brewers a 2-0 lead. Meanwhile, starter Moose Haas, who didn't give up a hit until the fifth, had the Tigers under control. Haas, a licensed locksmith, found a new key a few weeks ago when he started using a split-fingered fastball. He allowed only five hits and two runs and struck out eight as the Brewers took the opener 8-2. More important, he gave Fingers the night off. With Vuckovich and Jack Morris pitching on Saturday, the wind blowing in and the shadows creeping between the mound and the plate, there wasn't going to be much scoring. The Tigers struck first in the sixth. Kirk Gibson singled, advanced to second on a ground ball, to third on an infield single and home on another grounder.
Just as it seemed the Brewers would have to try again on Sunday, they loaded the bases on a walk and two botched bunts in the eighth. Simmons then hit into a force that tied the game at 1-1 and moved the runners up. Thomas followed with a sacrifice fly to right center to put the Brewers ahead. They had hardly touched Morris, but they beat him.
"As soon as Fingers struck out Whitaker, I wept like a baby," said Selig. "I tried to stand up, but my legs were shaking so much, I fell down. When the players came out of the dugout and waved at me, I wept again."
Inside the clubhouse, the Brewers, never having done it before, decided to overdo the celebration. Vuckovich and Simmons carried Selig through the clubhouse and dumped him in the whirlpool. Thomas made sure nobody was dry. The air was sprayed with champagne, shaving cream and spare-rib bones. Everybody had a cigar and a bottle.
"I've had wedding champagne, baby champagne, birthday champagne, but this is the best," said Simmons, taking a swig from a bottle of Taylor's New York State Extra Dry. "I've waited a long time for this kind of action, and I like it."