By the bottom of the ninth inning at County Stadium last Sunday afternoon, it seemed that the inevitable had finally arrived. Milwaukee had opened the 1987 season with 11 consecutive wins, tying them with the 1981 Oakland A's for the best start in American League history, but now they trailed Texas 4-1. As the Brewers came off the field to the dugout for their final turn at bat, the Easter crowd of 29,357 began to rise and cheer.
This is an article from the April 27, 1987 issue
The applause had a valedictory feel at first, a certain sadness that the streak was about to come to an end. But then the cheering began to swell into something more until, with two men on and one man out, leftfielder Rob Deer strode to the plate. "It was just a feeling of 'Here it comes,' " Deer said later. "You just knew it was going to happen."
Deer, who had hit his sixth homer of the season in the fifth inning, turned on reliever Greg Harris's second pitch, propelling it 445 feet into the leftfield seats, against a strong wind. Tie score. Suddenly, winning seemed inevitable. With two outs, a man on and facing a full count, shortstop Dale Sveum lofted a towering home run into the rightfield bleachers. "It felt like we just won the World Series," said Deer, and indeed, for 15 minutes after the players left the field, people stood in the stands, cheering and stomping their feet. It was only April 19, but they were waiting for an even bigger miracle in Milwaukee.
Monday night the streak continued, as the Brewers defeated the White Sox 5-4, to tie the major league record set by the 1982 Atlanta Braves.
Pinch-me time for Milwaukee really began last Wednesday night when Juan Nieves pitched the first no-hitter in Brewer history. On the flight back from Baltimore after the game, Nieves kept leaning out into the aisle of the airplane and watching, as if he were expecting a flight attendant to come up and tell him he was in a dream. Occasionally he would say something in Spanish to pitcher Teddy Higuera, and they would laugh, or they would touch the tips of their fingers together. Then Nieves would lean out of his seat and look again, but no one was coming. As the plane settled through a heavy blanket of fog and alighted on the ground in Milwaukee, one of Nieves's teammates looked out the window and cried, "Look, it's the cheeseheads!"
Cheeseheads is the more or less affectionate term by which some Brewers refer to the good people of America's Dairyland. And at that moment about 300 of them were standing on an otherwise empty runway at nearly one o'clock in the morning waiting to welcome the then 9-0 Brewers back to Cheeseville. Nieves left the plane first to a huge cheer, then the other players followed a bit uncertainly. When the fans circled the team bus, and it appeared for a moment that they weren't going to let it leave, one player suggested "we give them Juan," so the rest could slip away.
Slipping away was precisely what the Brewers seemed to be doing from the rest of the American League East. Milwaukee's spectacular start would have been more than enough to turn Cheeseville into a bubbling Brewer fondue, but Nieves's no-hitter against the Orioles made it clear that anything is now possible. "People probably think this is a joke," Nieves said, "but it's not. It's a taste of what's to come the rest of the way. We're back. No mercy."
Wednesday night had been cold and drizzly, not ideal conditions for Nieves, who is from Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico. "I was really uncomfortable, and my stuff was awful," he said later. "I felt like a pregnant lady. I couldn't throw a slider for a strike, and everything was hanging the first few innings." Eddie Murray hit a sinking liner to left while Nieves was still struggling in the second inning, but leftfielder Jim Paciorek made a diving catch just above the grass.
In the fourth and fifth innings, Milwaukee third baseman Paul Molitor speared a couple of line drives to preserve the no-hitter. But as the game went along, Nieves, who was the captain of his baseball, basketball and crosscountry teams at Avon Old Farms School in Avon, Conn., began to assume full command. In the ninth inning, Ken Gerhart grounded out and Rick Burleson lined out to Molitor, but then Nieves walked Cal Ripken on four pitches. Murray was the next batter, and he pounced on the first pitch, hitting a drive deep to right center. At the crack of the bat, centerfielder Robin Yount moved swiftly to his left. "When it was first hit, I thought, 'No way,' " said catcher Bill Schroeder. "But he just kept gaining ground on it." Yount waited until the last instant, then extended his body fully in the air and made the catch. Poetry in motion.
The Brewers may not be quite so poetic all season long, but they have set a merry dance before a town that loves to polka. Most people in Milwaukee didn't realize until about a week ago, though, that the tune was being played by something called a Trebelhorn.
Shortly before Opening Day, The Milwaukee Journal conducted a telephone survey of Wisconsin residents and found that 74% of them had no idea who the Brewers manager was. It definitely wasn't George Bamberger, who had resigned last September with only nine games remaining in the season—in sixth place, 20½ games out—but if not he, who? The Brewers had tried on several occasions to persuade Sal Bando, one of their most popular ex-players, to take the job, but Bando didn't want it. Suddenly finding themselves in a bind, the Brewers turned to third base coach Tom Trebelhorn, who was scheduled to start last season managing at Helena, Mont., in the Pioneer League.
Hanging the word "interim" on a major league manager's job description is usually the same thing as hanging a bull's-eye from his neck. Fortunately for Trebelhorn, he had already held the only other job in the world that could have prepared him to be an interim manager. He was, yes, a substitute schoolteacher.
"I know when they hired Treb as interim manager they had no intention of bringing him back," says veteran outfielder Rick Manning. "But I think when they saw the way we played behind him for those last nine games, they decided to give him a chance. And now I think they're real glad they did." The Brewers won three of Trebelhorn's first four games, and after G.M. Harry Dalton made the appointment permanent, the Brewers closed the season with three victories in a row.
"Treb" might not be in Milwaukee at all had it not been for a gas explosion at the Brewers' spring training facility in Chandler, Ariz., last year that seriously injured the third base coach, Tony Muser. Trebelhorn was called up from the minors to fill in for the ailing Muser, just as he had been called hundreds of times as a substitute teacher in the Portland, Ore., school system. Trebelhorn had started out as a premed student in college, decided to try for a career in baseball and wound up teaching in the off-season to support himself. "My intention was to get to the big leagues," he says, but he never made it, languishing for five seasons in such baseball backwaters as Bend and Walla Walla.
Trebelhorn taught full-time for five years—history, economics and a class in leadership—but by early 1983 he decided to return to subbing so he could manage Pittsburgh's Triple A team in Hawaii. When the Brewers gave him his chance at the end of last season, Trebelhorn began preparing his lesson plans for this spring. "He ran the best training camp I've ever seen," says Dalton. "One of the real curses of spring training is idle time, but he had everybody working every minute. He's organized right down to a T, and the players sensed that right away." Trebelhorn had long ago learned the first rule of all substitute teachers: Keep them too busy to even think about getting away with murder.
Trebelhorn bounces around a ball yard, running laps in the upper deck, throwing batting practice, swatting fun-goes and talking, talking, talking. Still, his greatest value to the Brewers has been his ability to make the young players believe in themselves. "He's just so positive about everything," says Dan Plesac, the lefthanded, baby-faced assassin who Saturday saved his fourth game of the season. "He believes in us, and now we believe in ourselves."
It was the Brewers' youth that made it so difficult for others to believe in them, the same youth that now makes them seem so irrepressible. They began the season with 14 players with a year or less experience in the big leagues, and the five-man starting rotation had a combined four seasons in the majors. Higuera, who beat Texas 10-2 on Friday to bring his record to 3-0, accounts for two of those years himself. "On this team you're either an 8-to-10-year veteran or a rookie," Manning says. "There's no in-between here."
Only four players remain from the Brewer team that won the American League pennant just five years ago. Their steadiness and the emergence of the dazzling crop of young players account for the heady start. The streak began with a three-game sweep at home against Boston and another at Texas. Their closest call before Sunday came in the sixth game, when rookie catcher B.J. Surhoff stroked a two-run single to beat the Rangers 7-5 in the 12th inning. It was the second game-winning hit of the week for Surhoff, whose father, Dick, played for the New York Knicks. Surhoff is 22 and utterly fearless, although he did concede last week that he was afraid to change his underwear as long as the Brewers were winning. "There are hits in those underpants," Surhoff said, putting them on one leg at a time.
When the Brewers went to 7-0 by defeating the Orioles 6-3, Trebelhorn celebrated by playing a medley of standards on the piano in the hotel lobby for half an hour. Earlier that night, Glenn Braggs had pounded out some impressive music of his own, hitting a ball so hard that Orioles second baseman Rick Burleson, standing 130 feet from the plate, was unable to get his glove down before the ball hit him on the ankle. The next night, Braggs turned a pitch by Baltimore's Ken Dixon around so fast that the ball actually struck the pitcher on the foot while he was still in his follow-through. "I don't think he realizes how strong he is," says Manning of the 24-year-old Braggs. "He's going to hurt somebody out there." He hurt the Rangers in Saturday's 4-3 win with a two-run double and a sacrifice fly.
The Brewers' biggest bopper, though, is Deer, who may already be one of the great sluggers in baseball even though no one outside of Milwaukee seems to have heard of him. He somehow languished in San Francisco's farm system for seven years before the Giants finally shipped him to Milwaukee in 1985. Last year he led the club with 33 homers and 86 RBIs. "I wanted to show them they hadn't made a mistake," says the Deer that made Milwaukee famous.
Perhaps the best example of Trebelhorn's steadying influence has been the performance of Sveum, who last season made 30 errors in 91 games. This year he has been flawless, and one night in Baltimore he made an astonishing play on a ball Alan Wiggins hit deep into the hole, throwing out the speedy Wiggins from one knee. "When I make a good play this year," says Sveum, 23, "I'm proving that the people who were so down on me last year were wrong."
Sveum is a Norwegian name pronounced Swaim. Sveum says his family name was originally Olson, but in McLeod, N. Dak., there were so many Olsons—all of them related—that part of the family decided to change to Sveum. And what does Sveum mean? "It means a lot of people mispronounce your name," says Sveum, who has learned the wisdom of forgiving errors.
The Brewers' young starters pitched admirably all week—along with Nieves and Higuera, 24-year-old Bill Wegman and 25-year-old Mark Ciardi won their starts—and when they faltered, Plesac was there. Plesac and Mark Clear were the stoppers last year in a bullpen that was 59-2 when Milwaukee took a lead into the eighth inning. "I was kind of thrown to the wolves," says Plesac.
Plesac, whose name is Croatian and was probably Olson somewhere along the line, has to wear braces on his teeth for the next two seasons. "I told my orthodontist I didn't care if he straightened my teeth as long as he didn't straighten out my curveball," Plesac says. By the time either of those things happens, the Brewers will have lost maybe a couple of games. But right now the pitchers are ahead of the orthodontists, and anything is possible.