Who are these guys? As a team, they play better on the road than at home. One of their power hitters is a shortstop. Another is a 170-pounder with a comic-strip nickname. A third is a balding, bearded fellow who looks as if he's about to fall apart when he stands in at the plate.
Who are these guys? They're the Milwaukee Brewers—a.k.a. Harvey's Wallbangers, the scourge of the American League East.
Last month the Brewers simply destroyed their division, going 20-7 while hitting 47 home runs, with most of the wins coming against Detroit, Boston, Baltimore and New York, no less. July had started out the same way. At week's end, after winning two of three games from both the stumbling Yankees and the Red Sox, Milwaukee, which had dug itself a deep early-season hole, stood a game behind first-place Boston, with a 44-33 record. "If they keep it up," says Red Sox Pitcher Bruce Hurst, "we might as well just concede the championship and go home."
For opposing pitchers, the word on the Brewers is: Keep it away from them and pray. But that hasn't worked. The Brewers have been homering on outside pitches, off-speed pitches, pitchers' pitches, even waste pitches. A couple of weeks ago Milwaukee Leftfielder Ben Oglivie swung at a pitch that was about to bounce in the batter's box and blasted it over the fence. Asked what he thought when the bullpen phone rang during one of last week's games with the Brewers, New York's intimidating Goose Gossage covered his ears with his hands and shouted, "No! No!" Added Gossage, an 11-year veteran, "There isn't a lineup I've ever faced that's better."
To Brewer pitchers, the order of the day is just to throw the ball over the plate and have a few laughs. "When you get down two or three runs early in the game, you don't worry," lefthander Bob McClure said last Friday night after the Brewers overcame a 4-2 deficit to beat the Red Sox 14-5. "I thank the good Lord that He made up the roster that put me on the Brewers."
And that roster is loaded with real sweethearts, who need to be left alone. Under Bob Rodgers, who was accused of overmanaging and poor communication, Milwaukee was a fifth-place team with a 23-24 record. From June 2, when lowkey Harvey Kuenn took over, through Sunday, Milwaukee won 21 of 30 and averaged 6.5 runs a game. Hence, Harvey's Wallbangers.
"When Harvey opened his first and only team meeting, he said, 'We're going to go up to the plate, hit the ball in the seats and have some fun,' " says Center-fielder Gorman Thomas. "We were like birds in a cage," says Oglivie. "He opened it and—freedom!"
Kuenn takes about 15 seconds to explain his philosophy, saying, "Stay within yourself, and play sound fundamental baseball. The less you have to worry about, the better you do." For his part, Kuenn acts as if he hasn't a worry in the world—no small feat for a man who has had stomach surgery, a heart bypass operation and a leg amputation below the right knee. "That," says one of his players, "is inspirational."
Of course, the Brewers were expected to play well. This is virtually the same team that had the league's best record last year, won the second-half divisional title, extended the Yankees to the full five games in the mini-playoffs and was widely picked to be the American League's World Series representative in 1982.
They just weren't expected to play this well. At the end of last week, Milwaukee had five home-run hitters in double figures: Thomas (21), Oglivie (19), First Baseman Cecil Cooper (19), Shortstop Robin Yount (12) and Catcher Ted Simmons (11). Two others, part-time DH Don Money (9) and Third Baseman Paul Molitor (8), were on their way to that plateau. At their present pace of 113 homers in 78 games, the Brewers have a good shot at the season record of 240 set by the 1961 Yankees.
Molitor (.298 through Sunday) and Yount (.318) are the most productive leadoff and No. 2 hitter combo in baseball. By getting on so often, they're helping the Brewers lead both leagues in runs and runs batted in as well as homers and slugging. Furthermore, on a trip through Milwaukee's Murderers' Maze, you won't find a single player who consciously swings for homers.
Rockin' Robin—Yount, 26, is a nine-year veteran who got his 1,000th hit at about as early an age, 24 years, 11 months, as anyone in baseball history. After Sunday he had 1,246. Yount led the majors in 1980 with 49 doubles and 82 extra-base hits, and through last weekend he was among the league's top five in hits (93), total bases (164) and triples (8). Yount has a closed stance and a lumberjack-like line-drive cut, but he has also become a home-run threat the last three seasons by building massive shoulders via Nautilus workouts. "People forget that I'm at the age where I'm bound to mature physically," he says.
Easy—The balding, bearded fellow, Cooper, plays baseball as if he were a marionette. His arms hang loosely when he's in the field. At the plate he crouches at the rear inside corner of the batter's box, stance open, right foot toeing forward like a ballet dancer's, bat dangling so freely it almost rests on his back. But this is no lackadaisical player: At the week's end Cooper was in contention for the Triple Crown with a .325 average and 64 runs batted in to go with his 19 dingers. It's hard to refute Kuenn's claim that Cooper may be the best all-around hitter in the American League. Over the past three years he was the only player to rank among the top three in average (.328), hits (534) and RBIs (288).
Cooper resents the suggestion that he became an elite hitter by adopting Rod Carew's batting stance. "It's not Rod Carew, it's me," he says. "I have about half a dozen different variations. If a pitcher gets me to ground out on a breaking ball away, I might close the stance next time up. I might change the front foot, come out of the crouch. I try to flow with the game. If there's a man on second and two outs, I'll try to drive him in with a hit. If there are two outs in the bottom of the ninth and we're down a run, I'll take a couple of shots at a homer."
How does a player with a line-drive swing hit so many home runs? "I have strong wrists and forearms," he says. "In the off-season I do curls and fingertip exercises for strength and hang by my arms to increase my flexibility."
A thoughtful man, Cooper coined the term Harvey's Wallbangers and writes a column, "Coop's Corner," for the Brewer fan magazine. "As individuals," he wrote in the June issue, "most professional athletes generally try to leave those thoughts of 'winning is everything' out of their minds when the game begins.... It can be extremely difficult to maintain a peak performance constantly with such desperate thoughts clouding the issue." Cooper's a winner because he doesn't press. He's Easy.
Simba—So named because he once had a shoulder-length mane, Ted Simmons came to the Brewers last year after batting .298 in 13 years in St. Louis. He proceeded to hit .216. Simmons was booed, which is rare for a hometown player in Milwaukee. He also took his lumps from Rodgers, who knocked Simmons' catching and implied that he and Pitcher Mike Caldwell were "cancers on the club." Now Simmons has begun to eat away at American League hurlers. They had been jamming him with inside pitches, but Kuenn moved Simmons back from the plate. Through Sunday, Simba had roared back with five homers and 22 RBIs.
Spidey—As muscled and sinewy as the webbed wonder, Oglivie, a lefthanded hitter, stands almost on top of the plate, furiously wagging his bat, and takes one of baseball's hardest rips. "When Benjie's swinging best, he's almost falling down," says Molitor. "I don't think power is in weight," says Oglivie. "It's in timing and speed. If I get good bat extension and make good contact, with my bat speed there's no way I won't hit it out.
"But I don't want to be known as someone who goes for homers. Do that and you get into bad habits—looking up, hitting pop-ups or slow grounders. In Boston I drove in a run with a double off the leftfield wall against a righthanded pitcher. That gave me a real high—doing what no one expected me to.
"The style is the man. When I'm up there I'm very nervous, moving around. But I'm thinking, 'Wait for the right pitch and adjust to it.' I'll also adjust to my moods. If I've had a bad game the day before, I won't give up an at bat. I'll go for the ball right away. If I've had a good game, I'll be more patient."
Stormin' Gorman—Thomas is the only Brewer hitter who looks as if he chews glass. But, like many a mean slugger, he takes a short, compact stroke. "I used to have a golf swing—take it way back, loop it, all kinds of stuff," he says. "I finally got it through my thick head that you don't have to swing hard to hit a homer. With two outs and a man on second, I'll spread out my stance, shorten my swing even more and just try to make contact. I got this way a couple of years ago. I was hitting about .200 at the All-Star break, and I spoke with Harvey, who was our hitting instructor then. He said, 'Why don't you spread out your legs a little and hit the ball at second base?' That's his approach. He doesn't say, 'This is the way it's done.' He makes a suggestion. I got a couple of hits the next game."
Thomas used to be hotheaded, but he showed off his new discipline one night last week in Yankee Stadium. A year earlier, New York Reliever Dave LaRoche had humiliated Thomas by striking him out with his notorious blooper pitch, called LaLob. The frustrated Thomas cracked a batting helmet with his bat. Last week LaRoche threw not one but seven LaLobs to Thomas. Thomas fouled off five, took one for a ball and hit the seventh to left for a single. Safely at first, he stuck his tongue out at the home dugout, breaking up the Yankees. "I loved the whole thing," Thomas said the next day. "Both dugouts were cracking up and the fans were going crazy. The LaLob's good for baseball." The LaBomb is, too. Thomas won the game with a two-run homer in the 12th.
Five of the first six hitters in Milwaukee's lineup have been starting together since 1978, which happens to have been their first winning season. Not coincidentally, it was also George Bamberger's first year as field manager and Harry Dalton's first as general manager.
"When I got here in November of 1977 there were already some good young players coming out of the farm system, most notably Molitor and Yount," says Dalton. But Dalton made the team considerably better by reacquiring Thomas, who had been traded to Texas, and by picking up Simmons, Starter Pete Vuckovich and Reliever Rollie Fingers in a massive trade with St. Louis before last season. Vuckovich and L.A.'s Fernando Valenzuela have won more games (24) than any pitcher in baseball the past two years, and Fingers, who had 16 saves by week's end, has given the Brewers the bullpen stopper they had always lacked. "It hasn't been just a question of starting players," says Dalton, "but of deepening the club at every position." Like second base, where Ed Romero has ably filled in since June 18 for the injured Jim Gantner.
Dalton's most recent stroke of genius was replacing Rodgers with Kuenn. "I guess I'm cliché-ing the word, but it was a question of chemistry," he says. "I kept waiting for things to turn around, but they never did. You just have to be in the right frame of mind to play."
Overseeing the whole operation is owner Bud Selig, a gabby, excitable man who can sweat so much during a game he'll look as if he has caught nine innings. "We've gotten some talented people, but that's a given," he says. "But back when we were an expansion team we had no character, no purpose. We were aimless. These days we don't have one leader. We have a diversity of styles, and that's healthy." Selig's no-star system extends to Bernie Brewer, the mascot who slides into a giant beer mug after Milwaukee homers. Bernie isn't one man; he's three rotating groundskeepers.
Despite their talent, diligence and selflessness, the Brewers haven't drawn well in Milwaukee, a community where the work ethic is an organized religion. Going into last weekend's showdown with the Red Sox, the Brewers had averaged 17,800 at home and 22,400 on the road. Explanations vary, from the city's long memory—Milwaukee had a particularly virulent reaction to last year's strike—to miserable weather this spring. There's also the fact that the Brewers had been as dismal at home (15-17) as they had been devastating on the road (27-15). "We're the big bullies on the road," says Thomas. "People boo us and that cranks us up. We get home, they're cheering for us and maybe we try too hard."
If so, last weekend was surely a turnaround. For last Friday night's country-music promo, a crowd of 28,957 showed up at County Stadium, but the fans weren't there merely to hear the Bellamy Brothers sing If I Said You Had a Beautiful Body Would You Hold It Against Me? They wanted the road show to come home, and the Brewers didn't disappoint them. Laughing off Boston's early lead, Milwaukee bombed the Bosox for 17 hits and won 14-5. Thomas hit two homers, Simmons one and Cooper a grand slam, and Yount went 5 for 5. "Coop!" the crowd whooped, and organist Frank Charles played Rockin' Robin and Fly, Robin, Fly.
Milwaukee wasn't to play again until Saturday night, but by 8:15 the next morning hundreds of fans were lined up outside the ticket office. By 5 p.m. traffic was stacked up half a mile outside the stadium, and the smell of broiling bratwurst was wafting through the parking lot. It was Bat Night, and 55,716 fans—the largest crowd in Milwaukee history—watched the Brewers move into a tie for first. The game? Strictly routine. Molitor and Cooper homered on 1-2 pitches in the first, Yount added a three-run job in the fourth, Cooper had a 400-foot shot in the sixth and Vuckovich (10-3), who wears unmatching baseball shoes and glares cross-eyed at enemy hitters, switched to a no-windup delivery and set the Red Sox down 7-0 on three singles.
That win put the Brewers in first place, but on Sunday their bats were uncharacteristically silent and they lost both the game 4-1 and the division lead. Thus has the Ball Four team—author Jim Bouton pitched for this franchise when it was based in Seattle for a year, 1969—become the latest Boys of Summer. It's somehow fitting that former Manager Rodgers has been exiled to a California glue factory (not as horseflesh but as a salesman). The Brewers are off to the (pennant) races.