Thursday, November 18, 2010
The 1982 Brewers and I: a love affair
Not about attempted murder, but about my big bro moving back in to share a room with me. He was back and unexpectedly brought a passion with him.
The Milwaukee Brewers.
As we watched ballgames together on a tiny Admiral black and white, he explained the strike zone, runs, hits, errors, and the science of the game I never really played or understood. As that 1982 season progressed, I became enthralled with America's pasttime and the Brew Crew. The players individually became heroes, almost as big as my brother, Dan.
Having never attended a game at legendary Milwaukee County Stadium, I had to hope for those 50-odd games on the road each season that were televised by local independent station WVTV-18 to be aired on the weekends brought to you live by husky white-haired play-by-play man Steve Shannon and former Brewer first baseman Mike Hegan (Rest his soul). It was more fulfilling to listen to the radiomen, Wisconsin mainstay and current legend, Bob Uecker, "Mr. Baseball" himself, and his partner, Dwayne Moseley (The Nose and the Mose). However, having the ability to see what I normally merely heard was something special. It allowed me to be able to put faces to the names.
On that immensely exciting '82 Brewers squad, there were rookies, vets, speedsters, power hitters galore, and something that set them apart from a lot of other classic baseball teams
Manager Harvey Kuenn, the Wisconsin-bred West Allis boy who hit .300 for his career and had over 2000 hits was the top character of the big list. Leaking tobacco and ambling out to the mound on his wooden leg (he had it surgically amputated due to circulation problems) he looked every bit the pirate born to command a ship of baseball buccaneers while taking the ball from some exhausted pitcher, and pointing to the bullpen for relief.
There was the young stud, Robin "the Kid" Yount, who had come up under the mental tutelage of the great one, Henry Aaron. The youthful eventual 3000 hit hall-of-famer consistently hit for average, in the clutch, and fielded shortstop like it was his own personal domain. Gorman Thomas, the oafish Bob Stinson-like power-hitting centerfielder, smashed almost as many outfield walls crashing into them hunting down flyballs, as he did fastballs out of the park.
He once accidentally dyed his hair orange.
Another Brewer star that would ultimately lay claim to 3000 hits and the hall of fame was Paul Molitor, nicknamed "The Ignitor" for his uncanny ability to start late inning rallies with base hits and stolen bases, despite overcoming an intense cocaine addiction in 1980.
The team had the third base/DH tandem of Don Money, longtime crowd favorite and Brewer mainstay since the mid 70's, and pesky spray hitter, Roy Howell. Charlie Moore, who was a former light hitting catcher, stalked right field with arguably the strongest cannon in the A.L., who regularly gunned down cocky baserunners that underestimated his right handed shotgun. (Including Reggie Jackson, in the ALCS, who according to legend, popped up out of his slide to salute Moore.)
Who could forget the diminutive second baseman Jim Gantner of Eden, Wisconsin? A malcontent on the field, his temperment was legendary, and he combined with Yount to be 1982's best double play combination.
Lastly, but certainly not least, were this duo: cool cucumber Cecil Cooper, who hit well over .300 (and would have won the batting title the year prior had it not been for George Brett's flirtation with .400) and drove in runs with clockwork regularity. Besides Coop's offense, his glove was the envy of first sackers around the league.
Let's not forget wiry, whip-swinging power lefty, Ben Oglivie, who had some production left in the tank after a deal with the Tigers that brought him to Milwaukee to be the left fielder a couple years earlier. Coop and "The O" both also spent significant 70's time with the Boston Red Sox.
From Molitor down to Howell, the Brewers were a modern day "Murderer's Row" (a moniker given to the 1927 New York Yankees) for their ability to pound pitching over the fence from the top to the bottom of the lineup. For this talent, they were also given the nickname "Harvey's Wallbangers", as they were the power source of major league baseball (and the joke not lost on a state known for it's drinking prowess).
My family was drawn together a bit that late September into October by the Brewers successes, as wins were delayed a bit after a lackluster start dimmed the optimism of their playoff appearance in the strike-shortened previous season. Then they fired manager Bob "Buck" Rodgers and the fortunes almost immediately changed when Kuenn, the hitting instructor, took the reins.
As summer faded to fall, the leaves browned and the sun dipped beyond the horizon sooner in the day, we'd gather around to watch the ever more important late season games wondering if this could be the first year the Brewers, since their move here from Seattle in 1970, could make a serious run at the World Series. My Mom and eventual stepdad would spend a fair share of time at taverns, and the talk of the bars and nightspots was the Milwaukee Brewers. It was often on these evening drinking expeditions that little bits and pieces of memorabilia would make their way home to me thanks to my parents remembering to bring them home for their Brewtown-baseball obsessed kid. All kinds of little junk from evenings out with the Brewer logo on it would be laid claim to by my small hands.
I never imagined my mother, a life-long Packers fan, would become embroiled in baseball, but she did. It was fun to watch her chew her nails during those tight one-run affairs where Rolaids relief man Rollie Fingers would have to be called in yet again to put out another team's fire. It was completely reminiscent of her moaning and groaning over tight-knit Packer battles with the hated Chicago Bears, as the Brewers attempt to clamp down the A.L. East came down to a four game series against the Baltimore Orioles. Only needing to win one, the crew lost the first three, and the title came down to a one game playoff.
My Dad and I would play a game wherein we would try to outguess each other as to what the next hitter would do, and what would happen next. Even my 16 year old sister got in on the act, developing a major crush on the face of the franchise, Robin Yount, with his shoulder length hair and sly grin. Yount won my sister over for more than just his ability on the grass. In that cathartic last game against Baltimore on October 3rd, Yount hit two homers to lead the crew over the Orioles and their ace Jim Palmer, 10-2.
On to the famous come from behind ALCS victory, and eventually, the Series loss in 7.
This team claimed a hold on my imagination, most importantly. I would often go out into the backyard with my black weather-beaten Louisville Slugger and pretend to be the Brewers lineup. I had mastered the art of imitating each and every one of their batting stances. Yount's wide-open pose with his back almost facing the pitcher. Catcher Ted Simmons' stoic and motionless knee-bender. I'd even switch around to the left side to mime Coop's way-back lean (wondering the whole time how he never fell down), and "The O", Ben Oglivie's stick straight stance, bat waving in the air as if the wiry Panamanian was attempting to swat flies above his head with the lumber.
Incidentally, it was this odd attempt at mocking Cooper, Oglivie, switch-hitting legend Ted Simmons, and Jim Gantner that actually led to my ability to be able to hit left-handed. I had inadvertently taught myself to switch hit. My physical baseball abilities initiated upon me from the tutelage of my brothers, Dan and Tim, were brought to another level all by my lonesome reenactments.
For each of these "plate appearances", I'd toss the ball up into the air and swing my damndest to simulate the Brewers hitters in an effort to forecast the crew's performance against an upcoming opponent. Narrating to myself the whole time in my best Uecker baritone, I'd give myself the challenge of facing the other teams, if only portraying my heroes in doing so. Nightly, my imaginary Brewers would vanquish the likes of Jim Palmer, Ron Guidry, Dave Stieb, and Jack Morris.
It was a thrill, if only a small one, to get a hold of one, especially lefty, and watch it sail over my parents chain-link fence from under the backyard porch light, perfectly mounted on the middle of the house, right where "home plate" was. I then would do a victorious homerun trot around the bases, (Frisbees in this case) before ending the joyous tour back under the light, where the grass had been flattened by hours of my mimicry. I would then bask in the imagined admiration of 50,000 strong County Stadium faithful. Ben Oglivie had just taken Steve Trout off the right field foul pole to end the game and thwart the dreaded Chicago White Sox again, and I had made it happen. Then I would trudge out to the field beyond the fence to undergo the crime scene investigation of trying to find the baseball I had just crushed.
Ah, yes, the innocence of the young baseball fan, and the purity of his admiration for the sport. The pungent smells of summer with humidity hanging in the air, Uecker's perfect musings juxtaposed with the crackle of the crowd on the radio, all amongst the calming hum of our central air conditioning unit. The sounds of baseball. The sounds of summer.
The sound of my childhood.
Before sexual angst, teenage frustrations, systemic anger, punk rock, and rebellion set in to flatten it all.
Baseball, youth, and Wisconsin. Forever intertwined.