'We should have won': '81 Crew paved way

October 8th, 2021

MILWAUKEE -- The 1982 Brewers hold such a special place in franchise history that it’s tempting to forget their postseason-caliber predecessors. Forty years later, however, it would be a mistake to overlook 1981.

“We should have won,” said Cecil Cooper, the sweet-swinging first baseman. “That team might have been better than the team in ‘82. It had all the ingredients. Everything was there.”

The 1981 Brewers had 25-year-old Robin Yount, 24-year-old Paul Molitor and something of a head of steam coming off three straight winning seasons from 1978-80 in which they finished no lower than third in the powerhouse American League East. Fortified by a blockbuster trade with the Cardinals at the Winter Meetings that landed a future Hall of Fame closer in Rollie Fingers, a future Hall of Fame catcher in Ted Simmons and a bulldog starter in Pete Vuckovich, they were off to a 31-25 start when the players went on strike over a disagreement with owners about the rules of free agency.

Baseball shut down on June 12 and didn’t resume until Aug. 10, and it was decided that the first-half and second-half champions would meet for the first Division Series in Major League Baseball history.

In the East, the second-half “championship” came down to the 29-21 Brewers facing the 28-21 Tigers in a season-ending three-game series at County Stadium. If the Brewers could win the series, they would win the second half and the right to face the Yankees in the first round of the playoffs.

In this case, there was no last-day drama. The Brewers took the first two games of the series to secure the first postseason appearance in franchise history, clinching on the season’s final Saturday with a two-run rally in the eighth inning that featured only one hit -- and a bunt hit from Cooper at that. Gorman Thomas, the franchise’s first Draft pick in 1969, drove home Yount for the winning run with a sacrifice fly.

Members of the 1981 Brewers celebrate the first postseason clinch in franchise history.

When Fingers sealed a 2-1 victory, the Brewers celebrated a postseason trip for the first time.

“It was a race to the finish to get into the dance,” Molitor said. “But we had a nice team. Some of the experience we had gained the previous years [helped]; we had pretty much the same nucleus of players. We got pushed by the Tigers down to the end, but we found a way to get in.”

“I had been in the playoffs before, so I knew about pressure situations,” Fingers said. “But almost nobody else did.”

Of the Brewers’ 31 second-half victories, Fingers pitched in 23, logging 16 saves and five victories. He finished the regular season with a 1.04 ERA and became the first relief pitcher to win his league’s Cy Young Award and Most Valuable Player Award in the same year.

“He was on the corners every pitch,” second baseman Jim Gantner said. “That’s one of the most unbelievable seasons from a relief pitcher I ever saw. If we would have had Rollie in ‘78, ‘79, ‘80, I think we would have won many more pennants. We had such good hitting teams, but we never had a great closer. He came in ‘81 and we got in the playoffs.”

For the players, the experience of making the postseason was undiminished by the odd circumstances of a split season. The Brewers had come to Milwaukee from Seattle days before the 1970 season, and they endured eight consecutive losing seasons before finally becoming a team to reckon with in ’78.

“All I remember was, we were in the freaking playoffs for the first time in our careers and this was it,” Yount said. “Most of us had never been in it, and we were playing the New York Yankees! These were the biggest games we had ever played in. That was a huge learning experience that we had never felt before, most of us.”

That was true even of some veterans. Simmons remembers approaching Fingers and Sal Bando in the showers -- these guys never stopped talking baseball -- to ask about their experiences with the mighty Oakland A’s teams of the late 1970s.

“I remember one of them said, ‘What you need to know is you can’t make any of these games any bigger than they are, and if you try to, you’re going to [mess] it up,'” Simmons said.

Said Bando: “It was important that in ‘81, the team got to the postseason, to understand the pressure and the excitement and how to control yourself. In ‘82, the team almost blew it, but was able to hold on. I think that ‘81 pennant race helped. Then, the postseason is a whole different ballgame. What you did in the regular season has nothing to do with that postseason.”

It was a best-of-five AL Division Series against the Yankees. New York promptly won Games 1 and 2 at County Stadium.

The Brewers were not done, however. Trailing, 1-0, in the seventh inning of Game 3, Simmons hit a two-run home run off Tommy John and Bando added insurance with an RBI single. After the Yankees tied the game in the bottom of the inning against Fingers, Molitor led off the eighth with a homer and Simmons added another RBI on a double for a 5-3 win, with Fingers closing it out.

A day later, manager Buck Rodgers employed four relievers behind Pete Vuckovich to finish a 2-1 win in which Gantner went out with a knee injury. That set up a decisive Game 5 at Yankee Stadium on Oct. 11, 1981.

Future Hall of Famer Rich "Goose" Gossage inherited a 5-3 lead in the eighth for the Yankees. Bando and Roy Howell worked two-out walks to bring up Don Money.

“I’m in the press box. Money hits a drive deep to left and everybody thinks it’s gone,” Brewers founder Bud Selig recalled. “Dave Winfield made a good catch -- not a great catch but a good one. He leaped at the wall and he caught it. If he doesn’t, we win the game.”

Added Fingers: “If he had hit it another five or six feet, it would have been a home run, and I would have probably been in the game.”

Instead, Jim Slaton and Jamie Easterly pitched the bottom of the eighth and the Yankees tacked on two insurance runs en route to a 7-3 victory.

The best season in Brewers history to date was over.

“That catch kind of changed everything,” Cooper said. “I can’t exactly explain it, but it did.”

Still, it was a step forward for the franchise.

“It was a ‘block-builder,’” said Gantner, adding to his list of Gumbyisms. “It was Step 1. We thought, ‘Next year, we have to go farther.’”

The 1982 season couldn’t come fast enough. But in the moment, it hurt.

“We were this close,” Yount said. “That stung, but not like losing the World Series. We couldn’t wait for next year.”