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

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