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'Brewers at 50' excerpt: Fond memories of '82

@AdamMcCalvy
June 1, 2020

The following is adapted from "The Milwaukee Brewers at 50," by Adam McCalvy, and is presented with permission from Triumph Books. For more information or to order a copy, please visit triumphbooks.com/brewersat50. Two months into the Brewers’ 1982 season, it was impossible to envision the year ending with a parade.

The following is adapted from "The Milwaukee Brewers at 50," by Adam McCalvy, and is presented with permission from Triumph Books. For more information or to order a copy, please visit triumphbooks.com/brewersat50.

Two months into the Brewers’ 1982 season, it was impossible to envision the year ending with a parade.

A pair of walk-off losses at the end of May dropped the Brewers to 22-24, and despite a win over the Mariners to start the month of June, Buck Rodgers’ time had run out as manager. Owner Bud Selig and GM Harry Dalton made a change to Harvey Kuenn, the hometown hitting coach who had been with the Brewers since 1972, through a number of health scares including open heart surgery in ‘76 and a blood clot in ‘80 that forced the amputation of his right leg below the knee. Kuenn got around on a wooden leg after that -- both at the ballpark and behind the bar down the street at Cesar's Inn, the joint he ran with his wife, Audrey.

Once Kuenn took over, Harvey’s Wallbangers took off. “Harvey was the right guy at the right time,” said veteran captain Sal Bando.

“This is the only thing I’m going to say about Harvey,” said catcher Ted Simmons. “He made the greatest speech for a manager’s first night ever, and I’ve seen a lot of managers. We’re all sitting in there, and he’s peg-legging his way out of his office to the center of the room.”

Simmons bangs on the table methodically for effect.

“He says, ‘OK, boys. I’m going to tell you one thing, and this is the only thing I want you to know: I hate meetings. And this meeting is over.’”

Simmons laughs and bangs on the table again to simulate Kuenn’s retreat.

“That’s the only thing you need to know about Harvey,” Simmons said.

The 1982 Brewers wound up leading the Major Leagues with 216 home runs. They banged their way to a 20-7 record in June and finished the month of July with a win over the Indians that pushed Milwaukee into first place for good. At the end of August, a good team got better with the addition of veteran right-hander Don Sutton in a trade with the Astros. Sutton went 4-1 with a 3.29 ERA in seven regular-season starts for the Brewers down the stretch. But his arrival happened to coincide with a costly injury; Rollie Fingers, the Brewers’ closer and reigning AL MVP Award winner and Cy Young Award winner, felt a pop near his right elbow while pitching in the ninth inning of the first game of a doubleheader against the Indians on Sept. 2 -- the day Sutton made his Brewers debut in Game 2. Fingers wouldn’t pitch again until '84.

Tied with the powerhouse Orioles entering the final game of the regular season, the division came down to Sutton versus Jim Palmer in a Sunday matchup of future Hall of Famers. Palmer blinked first. Robin Yount hit a solo home run in the first and third innings as the Brewers built leads of 3-0 and 5-1 before blowing the game open with five runs in the ninth. Ben Oglivie made the defensive play of the day in left field to quiet a budding Baltimore rally in the eighth inning against Sutton, who delivered just the sort of performance for which the Brewers had acquired him a month earlier. The victory clinched the first division title in franchise history.

“That was Robin’s day, Don Sutton’s day, Ben Oglivie’s day,” said Paul Molitor. “We found a way to advance. It was draining. I think it took a toll on us.”

Perhaps that was evident days later on the other side of the country, where, seemingly before they got the smell of champagne out of their uniforms, the Brewers found themselves in a two-games-to-none deficit against the Angels in the best-of-five American League Championship Series. That sent the series back to County Stadium, where the Brewers, who had lost six of their past seven games at that point, would need to win three in a row.

So that’s what they did. Sutton delivered again in Game 3 by pitching into the eighth inning, and Molitor hit a two-run home run in the seventh that proved the difference in a 5-3 win. In Game 4, seldom-used outfielder Mark Brouhard went 3-for-4 with four runs scored and three RBIs in the game of his life in place of an injured Oglivie.

Exactly one week after the Brewers played a must-win game in Baltimore for the division, they would do it again against the Angels for a trip to the World Series.

And this time, they were at home.

Besides the day he got the call that Milwaukee had landed the Brewers, Selig calls it the best day of his baseball life. For Cecil Cooper, it was the biggest at-bat of his life. And for the 54,968 fans at County Stadium, it was cause to rush the field. After a 4-3 win that turned on Cooper’s go-ahead, two-run single in the seventh inning, the Brewers were going to the World Series.

“The game’s over,” said Selig, recounting his strongest memory of that day. “My wife has gone home with the family, and by the time I get home, she’s sleeping, worn out by the day. I turned on a little radio that I had, and CBS Radio opens the news with, ‘It’s the 79th World Series between the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals. And I broke down and cried. Just hearing that -- the Milwaukee Brewers. We had been through so much heartache. It was a great day.”

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Against the Cardinals, the Brewers got a Series-record five hits from Molitor in Game 1 and a pair of four-hit games from Yount on the way to a three-games-to-two advantage before the Series shifted back to St. Louis. Yount is the only player in history with multiple four-hit games in the World Series, let alone the same Series.

But this time, Yount & Co. couldn’t close things out. After a rain-delayed blowout loss in Game 6, the Brewers had a 3-1 lead in Game 7 with 12 outs to go. Pete Vuckovich -- pitching with a bum shoulder after an 18-win, 223 2/3-inning regular season that would win him the 1982 AL Cy Young Award -- was grunting and grinding his way through every batter.

“His shoulder was blown, and he still got us to the sixth inning of the seventh game,” said Simmons. “He was giving me, like, half a fastball. He knew it. And finally, the Cardinals knew it. But Peter is an extraordinary man. Peter is the kind of guy who would say, ‘Hey, everyone has got challenges.’”

“Taking nothing away from the Cardinals, we were the better team,” broadcaster Bob Uecker said. “But they won it. We had a better team, but they won it.”

The Cardinals won it with three runs off Vuckovich and Bob McClure in the bottom of the sixth inning, then two more in the eighth off Moose Haas and Mike Caldwell. When Gorman Thomas struck out to end the game and the season, a 12-year-old kid named Craig Counsell in the upper deck tried to process his disappointment, surrounded by thousands of euphoric Cardinals fans. His father worked in the front office, so the family had made the trip to St. Louis for Games 6 and 7, and even got to stay in Selig’s suite their first night in town because Selig hadn’t arrived yet. When the boss arrived, the Counsells relocated to an RV in the parking lot.

“It was sad, but it’s weird when you’re 12 years old and you’re sad everyone else around you is going crazy because they’re so happy,” said Counsell. “You don’t realize at that age how hard it is to win. You have no concept of that. I just knew my dad was down in the dumps.”

Down on the field, the men in uniform were feeling even worse.

“People always ask me, 'What’s the highest moment in your career and what’s the lowest moment?'” said Jim Gantner. “Well, the highest was the World Series and the lowest was the World Series.”

“That was the closest we ever got,” said Molitor, “and I don’t think you ever let that go.”

Win or lose, the 1982 team had won a place in the hearts of Brewers fans. To their surprise, players were treated to a parade down Wisconsin Ave. when the team returned to Milwaukee.

The team still remains close today.

“When we all get back together in a room as a group, it’s like we were all in the clubhouse just last night,” Yount said. “Like we had a game last night and we’re all back this morning. It’s like no one ever left. It’s pretty weird how that happens.”

“They were just perfect for this city,” Selig said. “There was a lot of anger about the Braves, but that went away now. They were colorful. They were good. I can still remember the last home game of the season -- we hadn’t won anything yet. And when they went on the field, the crowd rose and gave them a standing ovation. They hadn’t played the game yet! They were just Milwaukee guys. All of a sudden, this cloud that had hung for years and years, it was gone. Those were some good years.”

Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram and like him on Facebook.