The scene last Saturday night was hauntingly reminiscent of the World Series the Brewers played in not so very long ago. There was a huge chanting and screaming crowd of 52,795 in Milwaukee County Stadium, and the home nine had its back to the wall again. The Brewers were leading the White Sox 8-7 with two out in the ninth inning of the third game of a taut four-game series between the lakeshore rivals, but the Sox had the tying run on second and the potential winning run on first with Tom Paciorek, who had earlier tripled in a run, at bat. Chicago's Carlton Fisk had just hit a run-scoring single off Tom Tellmann that had propelled Milwaukee Manager Harvey Kuenn into action.
Tellmann had enjoyed a glorious eighth inning, having struck out sluggers Greg Luzinski and Ron Kittle in succession with tantalizing breaking pitches, and Charlie Moore had provided him with an insurance run with a leadoff homer in the bottom of the eighth. Now, after two hits and a walk, Tellmann had come a cropper in the ninth, and Kuenn wanted the mammoth Peter (Big Foot) Ladd to face Paciorek. A few months ago, bringing in Ladd to face anyone more threatening than Richard Simmons would have been tantamount to dousing a forest fire with gasoline, but Kuenn now had cause to believe that this was the stout Ladd of a season ago.
Ladd, all 6'3", 240 pounds of him, completed his warmup tosses and then looked to rookie Catcher Bill Schroeder for the sign. Ladd fired a fastball, and Paciorek got not quite all of it, backing Leftfielder Ben Oglivie to the warning track, but no further. Game over.
On Sunday the Brewers continued their resolute march from near oblivion and shame to what they are convinced will be another American League pennant and, this time, a World Series triumph. In another improbable one-run seat-grabber, Milwaukee came from five runs behind to score seven times in the fifth, only to have the White Sox tie it up with two runs in the eighth. Then, in their half of the eighth, the Brewers, renowned for their power, scored the winning run when Jim Gantner squeezed Oglivie home from third. Oglivie had gotten that far after walking and advancing on Rick Manning's soft ground single to right.
The Brewers finished the weekend in fifth place in the American League East, but they were only two games out of first and 11 games over .500, with 12 wins in their last 14 games and 14 in their last 18. Since June 22, when their dismal early play had dropped them into last place, they had won 22 of 28. They had also won 15 of their last 21 one-run games.
Milwaukee's weekend opponents, the Chisox, have been only slightly less resurgent. Since May 26, they had won 32 of 54 games, the best record for the last two months in the American League West and one good enough to make them first in an airtight division race.
Hardhearted observers might withhold sympathy from a Milwaukee team that won 95 games and a pennant in 1982, but to do so would ignore the devastation inflicted on a pitching staff that even at full strength was considered a weak link. The Brewers began the season missing not one but two righthanded Cy Young Award winners, Rollie Fingers, the class of '81, and Pete Vuckovich, '82. Fingers, who has 301 career saves, was first stricken last September with a torn muscle in his pitching forearm that kept him out of the playoffs and the World Series. The Brewers hoped he'd be their saving grace this year, but he developed elbow problems in the spring and had to have bone chips surgically removed on June 10. He hasn't thrown a ball in competition all year. Neither has Vuckovich, victim in spring training of the dread rotator-cuff muscle tear that generally does not merely interrupt a career but ends it. Take away Vuckovich's 18 wins and Fingers' 29 saves in 1982, and what's left of a careworn and undermanned pitching staff? Not much, said most experts.
The Brewers never agreed. To replace Fingers they had Ladd, who, with two saves against the Angels in the playoffs, had given notice that he could handle pressure, despite his subsequent failure in the World Series. To replace Vuckovich, they were counting on 38-year-old Don Sutton, winner of 265 major league games, whom they'd acquired from Houston during last year's pennant-stretch run. Sutton had pitched in only seven games for Milwaukee in '82, but his 4-1 performance had helped put the Brewers over the top. He and they felt that in a full season he could win close to Vuckovich's 18 big ones.
Ah, the best laid plans.... Poor Ladd couldn't get anyone out at the start of this season. "My pitching mechanics were wacky," he acknowledges. "My fastball wasn't like it had been the previous year. I was doing everything wrong a pitcher could." On May 20, he was sent to the Brewers' Class AAA farm team in Vancouver to work out whatever it was that was making him such a pitiful giant. The demotion, said Ladd most appropriately, "was a relief." His departure left Milwaukee without a tested late-inning fireman, and as Brewer front office executive Sal Bando says, "You can't win in the big leagues without a guy who can finish a game for you." Bando should know. He played with Fingers on the superb Oakland teams of the early '70s. The Brewers tried all their other relievers in the late spot, and while some did well enough, none was consistent. They even gave the once mighty Mike Marshall, attempting a comeback at age 40, a tryout, but found him wanting, too.
For his part, Sutton started the season as if to make Vuckovich look like just another craggy face. Sutton won four of his first five starts and had a 1.85 ERA through May 1. But he didn't win again from then until June 24, starting eight times and losing three games.
As if this weren't enough, the Brewers weren't even Harvey's Wallbangers anymore. Cecil Cooper started slowly. Paul Molitor, playing with a sore wrist, was hitting 35 percentage points below his .297 career average at the All-Star break. Oglivie, plagued with heel and shoulder aches, wasn't hitting homers. And then, on June 6, Milwaukee traded slugger Gorman Thomas, its most popular player, to Cleveland for the light-hitting Manning, who, entering 1983, hadn't had as many homers in his eight-year career (35) as Thomas had last season (39).
The turning point, Brewer-watchers agree, came on the night of June 21, when Milwaukee, then in sixth place, beat Detroit 10-3 behind the pitching of Moose Haas. Ladd also returned from Vancouver on that fateful date, confident that he had rekindled his lost smoke. "I got better with each game in Vancouver," he says. "I had to go there and get taught how to pitch again"—principally by Vancouver Pitching Coach Eli Grba. Ladd certainly learned his lessons well, because since his return he had saved seven games, including last Saturday's, and won three, including Sunday's thriller, which he entered in the eighth inning in place of Middle Reliever Jim Slaton.
Ladd got the third out himself in the Chisox' eighth by retiring Greg Walker at first on Gantner's brilliant catch and throw of a hard shot to the right side. Ladd reached the bag ahead of the runner and held onto Gantner's throw after Walker crashed into him and sent him sprawling. In the ninth Ladd set the Sox down in order, sending the fans home happy for the second game in a row. Ladd's return effectively put the bullpen back in order, defining the roles of Tellmann (long man), Slaton (long man), Jerry Augustine (swingman) and Bob Gibson (swingman). And there's no shame in long relief on the Brewers. Slaton leads the staff with eight wins.
Tellmann is happy to be playing as any kind of man. He spent seven years in the San Diego minor league system and, facing his 29th birthday, decided last fall to accept a non-baseball job as a products distributor in Guam. Despite the urgings of his 1982 manager in Hawaii, Doug Rader, who's now the Texas Rangers' skipper, Tellmann was convinced he was finished. "Doug kept me motivated. He told me not to let my dauber get down," says Tellmann, "but I was so frustrated when no one wanted me after last season that I didn't even want to see a baseball again." Then Brewer General Manager Harry Dalton traded two minor league pitchers to the Padres for him and told him he'd have a shot at a spot in the ravaged Milwaukee bullpen. Tellmann made it there, and big. By week's end, he had seven victories and six saves in 27 appearances.
Then Sutton started to win again. After his no-decision on Sunday, he was 7-6 for the year with a 3.58 ERA. Sutton was convinced that he and the other Brewer starters—Haas, Bob McClure, Chuck Porter, who had 11 strikeouts Friday in a 2-1 loss to Chicago, and Mike Caldwell—were all cruelly underrated, because they had been 7-3 with four complete games since the All-Star break, while the bullpen had been 7-1 with nine saves. "There are no movie stars or nuclear scientists on our staff," said the imaginative Sutton. "We are just a collection of mechanics. But good ones. I see my role as getting the defense off the field so we can play offense."
The Brewers may play offense and defense better than anyone. Slow starter Cooper has been on a tear that raised his average to .296, his homers to 21 and his RBIs to a league-leading 77 through last Sunday. He had hit .400 for his last 14 games. Shortstop Robin Yount, last year's Most Valuable Player—"Em-vee-pee!" the fans still chant at the sight of him—was, of course, among the leaders in most offensive and defensive departments, and Second Baseman Gantner had hit an astonishing nine homers and driven in an even more astonishing 53 runs. "Every time I hit a homer I surprise myself," Gantner says.
Molitor had his average up to .285 and, settled finally at third base, he had cut back his throwing errors and was fielding brilliantly. "You could fire a rifle through our infield," says Sutton, "and somebody would get a glove on the bullet." Not the least of these staunch defenders is Utilityman Ed Romero, who filled in at shortstop last week when Yount was forced into pinch- and designated-hitting duty because of a sore back. Romero singled in the final run in that busy fifth inning on Sunday and did well on defense. So far this season he'd played left- and rightfield and every infield position except first base, and at week's end he was hitting a lusty .340 in 53 at bats.
With Manning in center, flanked by Oglivie and Moore, the Brewers are equally adept in the outfield. Manning had hit only .235 through Sunday since becoming a Brewer, but he had stolen eight bases in eight attempts in those 43 games. And he robbed the Orioles' John Shelby of a home run on the very first ball hit to him in a Milwaukee uniform, on June 7 in Baltimore. Says Manning, "Well, they brought me up for defense and they got it. They tested me right away."
Manning, a handsome and even-tempered man, was nervously aware that he was replacing a folk hero in the Milwaukee outfield, and he simply started out trying too hard to make good at the plate. "What it boils down to is that I was trying to make people forget Gorman," he says. "Harvey finally just told me to go out and play defense and steal some bases. I felt a lot better after that. You can't make fans forget one player or accept another in a few weeks. That takes years." Maybe, but Manning has been playing some of the best centerfield in baseball, and at week's end he was hitting a cumulative (Indians and Brewers) .258 to Thomas' .197.
It was Manning's one-out homer on Sunday that ignited the furious fifth-inning rally, and his single in the eighth that set up the game-winning squeeze. There even seems to be a revisionist view in Milwaukee of the once revered Thomas. In last Sunday's Milwaukee Journal, Sports Editor Jim Cohen quotes coaches and teammates alike as deploring Thomas' inattention to conditioning and his sulking. Dalton, as might be expected, expresses no regrets over what once was considered an infamous trade. "We have gained four years [Manning is 28 to Thomas' 32] in age and improved defense," he says. "Gorman gave us five exciting years, but the ultimate requirement is putting a balanced team on the field and winning ball games. Manning has played extremely well."
One thing the Brewers don't do well is throw out stealing base runners. Through Sunday's game, Milwaukee catchers had cut down only 22 of 118 would-be thieves, a woeful 18.6%. In compensation, No. 1 Catcher Ted Simmons is having his finest American League season at bat. In 1981, his first after 11 seasons as a career .298 hitter with the National League Cardinals, Simmons hit an embarrassing .216 in the abbreviated season. He ran that up to .269 last year with 97 runs batted in. He has been sizzling this year, hitting .305 at week's end with 58 RBIs. "They tell you when you change leagues you'll have trouble, but when you've been successful, you say you won't have difficulty," explains Simmons. "Those who say you will are right." Playing as a DH, as he is increasingly required to do, is merely "a paid vacation. As a catcher I have no trouble staying with the game. I'm sitting there calling all the pitches with whoever is catching, so I'm always involved. Other DHs don't visualize a game the way catchers do. The only thing I'm missing is the physical part of catching. It's like a vacation." As a DH, Simmons was .333 (51 for 153) through Sunday.
The old blue Brew Crew may indeed be back. And the future is looking up, too. Hours before the Saturday win over the White Sox a large, hairy and disheveled-looking player, his belly peeking from beneath his sweat shirt, sweltered in the summer heat throwing to a batting-practice catcher under the watchful gaze of Kuenn and Pitching Coach Pat Dobson. The pitches were coming harder and harder, when, surprisingly, a fluttering knuckleball crossed the plate. The anxious crowd around the cage was impressed. "Nice going, Vuke," someone shouted. And when the pitcher walked off the mound Kuenn called after him, "Peter, that was very, very good." Indeed, who can tell what might happen in September? Or October?