Saturday, October 8, 2016

Upstart Brewers Take the Yankees to the Brink - Remembering the First A.L. East Division Series

THEY RODE IN FROM THE MIDLANDS, unshaven, unkempt and unproven. Upstarts who'd never before appeared in the post season, the Milwaukee Brewers came to challenge the coiffed, corporate, pinstriped enterprise known as the New York Yankees.

One hundred Octobers after Ike Clanton's cowboys faced off against Marshal Wyatt Earp, his brothers and Doc Holliday at Tombstone, AZ's OK Corral, a new gang of have-nots arose to challenge an established order. The setting for this showdown was Yankee Stadium, a place hallowed not by tombstones, but monuments.

The once-in-a-lifetime intra-division playoff
Each faction had pushed the other to the edge.

It was the fifth and deciding game of the American League Eastern Division Series, a one-of-a-kind play-off round necessitated by a work stoppage that gutted the middle of the 1981 Major League Baseball season.

The strike had forced the Powers That Be to conjure a plan to rekindle pennant races in a season with too few games left to allow most teams to make up necessary ground.

It would be a split season. Those in first when play stopped -- including the defending division champ Yankees -- would be credited with winning half of that title. Whomever sat atop the same pile in October, got the other half.

Possession of the divisional crowns would be decided in best-of-five series played out across the quadrants of baseball.

Oct. 11, 1981
The Yankees had won the AL East four times in the previous five years, but knocking at the penthouse door since '78, the Brewers were poised to barge in and evict their overlords. The Bombers won the' first two games, in Milwaukee. The Brewers fought back, winning the next pair in New York.

Their leader, fireman Rollie Fingers, would win the '81 Cy Young award as the AL's best pitcher plus its Most Valuable Player award and -- ultimately -- election to baseball's Hall of Fame. Behind him, unkempt 6'4" starter Pete Vuckovich won 14 games to lead the league. Behind them: scruffy, slugging centerfielder Gorman Thomas, future two-time MVP Robin Yount, plus hit-machine Paul Molitor -- both of them future 3,000-hit-club members and Hall inductees -- and perennial .300 hitter Cecil Cooper.

The Yankees boasted several stars of their own. Outfielders Reggie Jackson, a/k/a "Mr. October" and Dave Winfield were Hall-bound, as was reliever Rich "Goose" Gossage. Bolstering them: three-time 20-game winner Tommy John, eventual '81 Rookie of the Year Dave Righetti and that night's starter, '78 Cy Young winner Ron Guidry, a/k/a "Louisiana Lightening," a/a/k/a "Gator."

Moose Haas, a/k/a "Moose Haas" took the mound for Milwaukee.

From that night's program, a look at the man
behind baseball's most famous mustache..
Before a crowd of 47,505, Thomas opened the scoring with a homer off Guidry in the second. Cooper drove home a run in the third. Clantons 2, Earps 0.

The lawmen retaliated in the bottom of the fourth. Yankee shortstop Larry Milbourne singled. Haas then retired Winfield on a fly ball to right. It was the last out he'd get. Jackson homered to tie the score. Designated hitter Oscar Gamble did too, giving New York the lead.

The Moose was cooked. For the second time in the series, he'd not escape the fourth inning. Mike Caldwell, ordinarily a starter, came on in relief, but the man known as The Yankee Killer for his success against the Bronx Bombers, had none, yielding two more hits and a run before being lifted too.

Establishment 4, Upstarts 2.

Guidry gave way to Righetti in the fifth. He held the Brewers scoreless until the seventh when, with two outs, Yount tripled. Cooper's single drove him home. 4-3. Catcher Rick Cerone's homer in the bottom half restored the Yankees' cushion, 5-3.

Milwaukee threatened in the eighth, coaxing two walks from Gossage but could not plate a run. It was their last rally of the season.

In the bottom of the frame, Milbourne -- the Yankees' least famous starter -- led off with his third hit of the game, a single. Winfield, who team owner George Steinbrenner would later deride as "Mr. May", flied to center completing an 0-4 night. Mr. October singled, then pinch hitter Lou Piniella's double cleared the bases. New York 7, Milwaukee 3.

The game as scored.
Molitor and Yount who collectively amassed 6,461 hits during their careers, could not muster one against Gossage in the ninth. Then Cooper, who'd driven in two of the three Brewer runs, popped out to Yankee third-baseman Graig Nettles.

Game over. Series over.

The Yankees would dispose of the Oakland A's, led by their once-and-future skipper Billy Martin, in the AL Championship Series, and then lose to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series.

Era over.

The Bombers had a losing record in 1982 and didn't return to the post-season until 1995.

The Brewers would bounce back with aplomb. Sparked by Yount's MVP season, a Cy Young-award-winning year from Vuckovich, and an inspiring one-legged manager, Harvey Kuenn, the team nicknamed "Harvey's Wallbangers" won the '82 AL flag, but lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in a 7-game World Series.

To date, it's the only pennant they've won.

The Brewers moved to the National League in 1998.

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