Sunday, October 29, 2017

Last Call for Harvey's Wallbangers: The 1982 Brewers

When St. Louis met Milwaukee

IN THE END it came down to Gorman Thomas.

Of course it did.

By the time the Milwaukee Brewers slugger strode to the plate with two outs in the top of the ninth inning of the last game of the 1982 World Series, he was the walking embodiment of the franchise, its original building block and a last link to the team's origin as the Seattle Pilots.

The Brewers would live or die on what he did next. It was a moment 14 seasons in the making.

Thomas was the Pilots' first pick, taken 21st overall in Major League Baseball's June 1969 amateur draft. But, as he started his pro career with the Billings, Montana, Mustangs, the parent club's first and only season in Seattle was turning into a disaster.

They entered June in third place at 20-24, then slowly sank to the bottom of the AL West. Total attendance at worn-out Sicks Stadium, a minor league park meant as a temporary home during construction of a new domed stadium, was just 677,944. The Pilots were lost in a sea of red ink.

Efforts to sell them to local investors failed. Lenders called a $4 million loan. Soon they were officially bankrupt and, near the end of Spring Training 1970, gaveled to Milwaukee car salesman Allan H. "Bud" Selig, who re-named them the Brewers.

Though maligned as baseball commissioner for the World Series-killing 1994 work stoppage and then for the steroids era, Selig slowly, patiently, accrued the pieces of a contender. Maybe too slowly. Perhaps too patiently.

The joy of 1981. The expectations of 1982.
With their 1970 move to Milwaukee and the Washington Senators' relocation to Dallas-Fort Worth two years later, the Brewers shifted into the highly competitive American League East, the toughest division of its era, an era when making the playoffs required a first-place finish. Getting there meant overtaking perennial powers like the Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.

Thomas made the show in 1973. The next year, 18-year-old shortstop Robin Yount arrived. Slugging first baseman Cecil Cooper was acquired in a trade. Hard hitting outfielder Ben Oglivie too.

Sparkplug Paul Molitor came in 1978, finishing second in Rookie of the Year balloting. That same year Thomas slammed 32 homers and designated hitter Larry Hisle hit 34. Lefty Mike Caldwell won 22 games, finishing runner-up for the A.L. Cy Young Award and the Brewers won 93 games.

With all that, the team dubbed "Bambi's Bombers" in honor of manager George Bamberger, finished only third, 6.5 games behind the Yankees in a season remembered mostly for New York overtaking Boston for the A.L. East title after trailing by 14 games.

In 1979, Milwaukee moved up to second, winning 95 contests but finishing eight behind the pennant-winning Orioles. They slipped to third the following season, during which Bambi resigned due to heart trouble and was replaced by Bob "Buck" Rodgers. In 1981 they rebounded with the division's best overall record, but just half a title to show for it. They lost the first ever A.L. Division Series to the Yankees, three games to two.

The Seattle Pilots' only first-round draft pick.
(from the Brewers' 1982 yearbook).
Still, starter Pete Vuckovich had lead the league in wins and reliever Rollie Fingers' 28 saves earned him both the Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards. Both men had been acquired, along with catcher Ted Simmons, for four lesser players in a December 1980 deal with the St. Louis Cardinals.

That was supposed to be the big trade that put them over the top. Now they were back in "wait 'til next year" mode. And next year started badly.

With the team wallowing at 23-24, Rodgers was fired on June 1. His replacement was long-time coach and 1959 A.L. batting champ Harvey Kuenn who, though just 51, was bedeviled by health problems. Two years earlier, a blot clot had forced doctors to amputate the lower portion of his right leg.

His leadership ignited the team, inevitably nicknamed "Harvey's Wallbangers," who went 72-43 the rest of the way. They finished in first, but so did the Orioles, who'd taken three in a row from Milwaukee over the season's final weekend to pull even. For the second year in a row, the Brewers had to play a division rival for the right to play on. This time they won, 10-2.

And so it was off to Anaheim to play the California Angels in the A.L. Championship Series, but without Fingers. A month earlier, the incumbent MVP had torn a muscle in his pitching arm, ending his season. His replacement was a rookie, Pete Ladd. They promptly lost the series' first two contests, despite starting Caldwell and Vuckovich, before rallying to win the last three.

Ladd saved two of those games, including the clincher, and the Milwaukee Brewers had their first pennant and a date with the National League champion Cardinals.

A singular event in Milwaukee Brewers history
Game 1 in St. Louis saw Molitor's five hits -- a record -- pace the Brewers 17-hit assault. The final: Wallbangers 10, Red Birds 0. The Cardinals regrouped, rallying late from a 4-2 deficit to take the second game 5-4. Two nights later St. Louis won even more decisively, 6-2, in Milwaukee. The Brewers bounced back to win games 4 and 5, sending the series back to the Gateway City, needing just a single win for their first crown.

They never got it.

Avenging their game 1 drubbing, the Cards decked the Brewers, 13-1 in game 6, setting up a winner-take-all climax.

St. Louis posted a run in the bottom of the fourth. Milwaukee came back with one in the fifth and two in the sixth to lead 3-1. From there, the Cardinals took over, scoring three in the bottom of that frame to take a 4-3 lead they'd never relinquish.  The Brewers would notch just one more hit, an infield single, over the final three innings, while the Cards would add two more runs in the eighth.

Simmons and Oglivie grounded out in the ninth, bringing Gorman Thomas to the plate to face the N.L.'s best reliever, Bruce Sutter. Thomas' 39 homers had led the A.L. in 1982. It was the second time he'd done so. The Pilots pick also drove in 112 runs while batting .245.

He worked the count to 3 balls, two strikes, fouling off three straight pitched before swinging over the top of the last. Joy in St. Louis echoed as heartbreak in Milwaukee. For five seasons, the Brewers ranked as bonafide contenders in baseball's the toughest division, only to finish first runner-up.

Manager Harvey Kuenn, seated second row center, surrounded by his Wallbangers
(from the Brewers' 1983 yearbook)
Yount, who hit .331 with 29 homers and 114 runs batted in, won the 1982 A.L. Most Valuable Player award. He'd do it again in 1989, eventually accrue 3,142 hits and make the Baseball Hall of Fame. Molitor too would make the hall after racking up 3,319 hits with the Brewers and later, the Toronto Blue Jays and Minnesota Twins. Vuckovich won the 1982 A.L. Cy Young Award.

Fingers too was later enshrined in Cooperstown as was his Cardinals counterpart, Sutter. St. Louis would win the N.L. pennant again in 1985 and in '87.* But for that era's Brewers, the championship window had closed.

Milwaukee backslid to 87-75 in 1983, costing Kuenn his job at season's end. They'd endure more than a decade as an A.L. also-ran before moving to the N.L. in 1998 and wouldn't make the post season until 2008. Three years later, they played the Cardinals for the National League pennant, losing 4 games to 2.

Kuenn died in 1988. He was just 57.

In 2013, the Brewers gave away a Gorman Thomas-as-Seattle Pilot bobblehead.

* An earlier version of this post had credited the Cards with just an '87 division title. The actually went to the series that year, losing to the Minnesota Twins in seven games.

 -- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Miami Diary: When J-E-T-S Spells P.T.S.D.

JOSH McCOWN STAMPED his right foot once, signaling the snap from center.

His New York Jets, having surrendered a 14 point lead to the Miami Dolphins, had the ball again with the score still tied 28-28, but buried at their 15 yard line with just 47 seconds left in regulation time.

My cousin, who grew up not far from the home of the 'phins, leaned over to me and predicted the Jets and McCown would run the ball once, perhaps twice, kill the clock and take their chances with overtime.

I concurred and as the Hard Rock Stadium crowd roared, watched McCown take the snap, then scramble toward the left sideline searching for an open receiver...

In my mind's eye, suddenly it was December 21 1997. Jets' ball, first and goal to go on the Detroit Lions' 9-yard line. A field goal would tie the game 13-13 with more than seven minutes to play. A win would send the Bill Parcells-era Jets to the playoffs for the first time.

QB Neil O'Donnell took the snap, handed the ball to rookie running back Leon Johnson, who scampered toward the right sideline then stopped abruptly before turning upfield and cocked his arm to heave the ball toward the end zone...

"Oh no, he's going to throw it..."

Thought coalesced, mouth agape, eyes wide with horror, all I could do was watch.

Two Jets games, 20 years apart and that exact same reaction, that exact same result: an interception followed minutes later by a loss.

Then it was an errant pass to Lions defensive back Bryant Westbrook. Today it was Dolphin Bobby McCain.

Does it really matter?

The Parcells Era came and went, as did the Al Groh Interval, the Herman Edwards Epoch, the Man-Genius seasons and Blustersaurus Rex. To no avail.

Now we are in year three of Bowles, Todd and year 47 of Super Bowls, none.

Traumatized, shell-shocked, we persist in the hope of a different outcome.

What is the definition of insanity?

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Saturday, October 7, 2017

Perdition on Ice: The Rocky Start of Jersey's Devils

MY MACHINE SHE'S A DUD, out stuck in the mud somewhere in the swamps of Jersey.

Bruce Springsteen penned those lyrics in 1973, part of the 7:04 love song-turned-concert jam fest Rosalita (Come Out Tonight). Nine years later, with a little bit of metaphorical foresight, those words could have applied to the Garden State's first National Hockey League team, the New Jersey Devils, who debuted 35 years ago.

Strangers in a swamp land.
Far from a random appellation, the Devils got their name from the legendary Leeds devil, rejected spawn of Mrs. Deborah (Smith) Leeds of Galloway Township, a mother of 12 who wanted nothing to do with a 13th. "Let this one be a devil," she reportedly said.* And so it was that said child, once born, fled into the Pine Barrens from which it periodically emerges to terrorize the locals.

Its namesake hockey team too was rejected, twice. Born in 1974 as the Kansas City Scouts, the franchise lasted just two years in western Missouri before relocating to Denver as the Colorado Rockies. There they languished for six more seasons before being shipped east by John McMullen, owner of Major League Baseball's Houston Astros.

Ensconced in the brand new Brendan Byrne Arena at the Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford, the Devils were comprised almost entirely of players other teams didn't want, a kind of icy purgatory if not exactly hell.

Their primary benefactor was the reigning Stanley Cup champion New York Islanders, whose castoffs New Jersey general manager and coach Billy MacMillan readily acquired, despite having been voted off the Island himself as a player six years earlier.

Among the luminaries stocking the original Devils roster:
  • ex-Islanders goalie Glenn Resch, former NYI forwards Dave Cameron, Hector Marini, Steve Tambellini and Yvan Vautour, plus ex-Isles defenseman Bob Lorimer**;
  • ex-New York Rangers defenseman Carol Vadnais;
  • future three-time Stanley Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville
  • World Hockey Association survivor Mike Antonovich;
  • struggling former first-round pick Paul Gagne;
  • reluctant Finnish defenseman Tapio Levo
  • team captain Don Lever;
  • U.S. Olympic hockey star Neal Broten's brother, Aaron
  • and MacMillan's brother, Bob.
They were a talent-poor squad crashing a metropolitan area that featured an Original Six franchise and, arguably, the best team in the world. The Rangers lost the Stanley Cup finals in 1979. The Islanders won the chalice in 1980, 81 and 82. The Rockies had been to the playoffs. Once. In 1978.

Homesick Finn Tapio Levo, the team's best defenseman and
forward Hector Marini, whose solid first half made him the Devils first all star

If there was any chance of alchemy by proximity to their Long Island progenitors, that likely vanished just days into the season when MacMillan dealt center Merlin Malinowski to the Hartford Whalers for still another ex-Islander, enforcer Garry Howatt, and speedy forward Rick Meagher.

Clad in red, white and green sweaters emblazoned with a stylized red NJ crest, those first edition Devils finished Hades in the NHL's Patrick Division with a record of 17-49-14.***

For a time, their breakout star appeared to be Marini, an energetic forward unable to break into the Islanders talented lineup. He started the season strong and was New Jersey's lone delegate to the All Star Game at Long Island's Nassau Coliseum. Marini even assisted on one of three goals scored by the Prince of Wales Conference in a 9-3 Campbell Conference blowout. Wayne Gretzky scored four times for the winners. It was downhill from there.

The inaugural season ticket pitch. It wasn't entirely hyperbole.
Though Marini soon faded, MacMillan assembled the Kid Line, featuring Broten, 22, flanked by 20-year-olds Gagne and Jeff Larmer, an early-season call-up who potted 21 goals and 45 points in 65 games. Broten lead the Devils in scoring with 16 goals, 39 assists and 55 points.

Their top-scoring defenseman, Tapio Levo, posted seven goals and a team-best 40 assists, but he didn't want to be there. Coaxed to rejoin the team in October, at season's end he left for home, never to return.

It was not all for naught. Their lousy finish enabled them to take forward John MacLean sixth overall in the 1983 NHL draft. He lasted 14 years, scoring 701 points, second in franchise history. Already in the pipeline, defenseman Ken Daneyko, their all-time games leader, whose sweater number 3 is retired, and high scoring forward Pat Verbeek.

Those three men would team with Broten and the yet-to-be-drafted Kirk Muller to lead the team to the playoffs in 1987-88. Though the road was long, the Devils finally won Lord Stanley's cup in 1995 and again in 2000 and 2003.

*Though accounts of her fateful utterance sometimes differ.
** With the Devils' first first-round pick, in the 1982 draft MacMillan took Rocky Trottier, whose older brother Bryan already starred for the Islanders.
*** That's ties, not overtime losses, which weren't introduced until 2005-06.

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Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Discovery's Long Journey Through Time and Space

LISTEN. Starship Discovery has come unstuck in time.

A 1979 fanzine celebrates ST's return
Blame it on a highly localized distortion in the space-time continuum, a Kerr Loop formed from superstring material, the slingshot effect or the Guardian of Forever.

Blame it on Q.

Call the Temporal Integrity Commission or just call it fate, the U.S.S. Discovery, NCC-1301, took flight Sunday night, 40 years after it was designed by Ralph McQuarrie, the artistic visionary who gave Star Wars its retro-futuristic aesthetic.

McQuarrie's concept was created for a never-made first Star Trek movie, variously titled Planet of Titans and Planet of the Titans. That project was scrapped in favor of a never-made TV series, Star Trek Phase II which later morphed into Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Thirty-nine years ago this month, McQuarrie's work on Star Wars, Star Trek and the original Battlestar Galactica were the subject of a feature article in uber-geeky Starlog magazine, but there his reimagined starship Enterprise seemed destined to remain. The project for which it had been commissioned, dead and gone.

Starship Discovery's primordial ancestor, the McQuarrie-drawn Enterprise as seen in Starlog 17, October 1978.
The next Enterprise we all saw was the instantly recognizable big-screen version of the original NCC-1701 (no bloody "A," "B," "C," or "D"), not McQuarrie's radical departure. Still fresh in mind, that triangular-hulled ship got a cursory hat tip in a 1979 fanzine celebrating the franchise's revival before fading from view. Or so it seemed.

From the 1979 "Fandom Triumphs" fanzine
There's an ecological efficiency to the Trek universe, the ability to recapture and recycle concepts once they're made a part the canon and even when they're not.

James T. Kirk got his middle name -- Tiberius -- from an animated series episode. Stories commissioned for Phase II were rewritten for The Next Generation. The Enterprise self-destruct sequence in ST III, The Search for Spock was first uttered in the TOS outing Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.

Megalomaniac Khan Noonien Singh got his start back in 1967's Space Seed, returned in ST II, the Wrath of Khan and was sill menacing as of 2013's Star Trek Into Darkness.

True to his name, Kahless the Unforgettable has not been forgotten. From his first appearance in 1969's The Savage Curtain, the Klingon Empire's progenitor remains a motivating force for Klingons in Star Trek Discovery.

So it is that McQuarrie's starship finally got a series of its own after languishing in the shadows for years as a study model and spare part.

A space-faring Flying Dutchman, the McQuarrie mock-up drifted through the Trek universe for decades. It was a dim shape hidden in the shadows of the vast space dock in 1984's Search for Spock. Six years later it was allegedly among those ships wrecked in the Battle of Wolf 359 in TNG"s Best of Both Worlds before appearing again in NextGen's Unification.

Ralph McQuarrie's circa '77 sketch, published in Starlog, became the basis for last year's Discovery flight teaser.
Then, 14 months ago, one of his illustrations came to life in a Discovery teaser video: an angular starship hidden within an asteroid that takes flight to a pulsating, hammering soundtrack. Its shape and its lineage were both unmistakeable and controversial. It was a Federation starship unlike any other and it was 39 years old.

The video drew more than 2.3 million views and more than 4,600 comments, among them, "ugh," "hideous" and "USS Cheese Wedge."

To be sure, McQuarrie's ship evolved over its four decades of phasing in and out of the Star Trek universe. The original drawing featured a ship with small, cylindrical nacelles and a solid saucer section. The Discovery test flight version's saucer was ribbed, it's nacelles squared off. The ship as finally seen in episode three of the new series, Context is for Kings, features a never-before-seen saucer of concentric rings.

It's not exactly Ralph McQuarrie's starship, but it's not your father's either. Sadly, the illustrator didn't live to see his vision come to life. He died in 2012 at the age of 82.

Owning it

Last week in this space, I questioned the need for a new Star Trek series, what with six predecessors and 13 feature films. More Trek seemed, well, excessive. Still, I watched the broadcast debut, and then episodes two and three on CBS All Access.

I confess, I'm hooked on its good, evolving story line. It's unlike any Star Trek outing before and that raises a some questions: is it true to Gene Roddenberry's vision? Is it Star Trek in name only? A colleague said Fox's send-up, The Orville, is a better Trek than Discovery.

Heresy?

Not saying I'm not watching. I'm just not sure. Feel free to vent in the comments box below.

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