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Milwaukee's Best

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It was all becoming a little too much for Jon Loomer to take last summer.

He’d log on to Twitter, and there were the Yankee fans, chirping about the success of the Bronx Bombers. In 140 characters or less, there were the Phillie fanatics, crowing about their team during the pennant chase.

As a fan of the middling Milwaukee Brewers, Loomer had little to squawk about. “If only Twitter had been around back in 1982,” he thought, harkening back to the most glorious year in the history of the Brew Crew, a 95-win season that culminated in the franchise’s only trip to the World Series.

So Loomer took it upon himself to turn back the clock, sending Twitter back to ’82 like some sort of time machine. Along with his pal Rob Peterson, he launched @TweetsFrom1982, and for the rest of the 2010 campaign, the friends Tweeted Brewer news that happened on that date back in the dream season.  

Such is the appeal of that team among Brewer loyalists that on its first day of existence, 100 people started following the account. By season’s end, nearly 700 fans were reminiscing along with them, and an accompanying Facebook page had accumulated 650 “likes.”

Some might find it odd that hundreds of people would spend their time eagerly awaiting 28-year old news briefs, but for devotees of “Harvey’s Wallbangers,” the story of 1982 never gets old. Crack open a musty cardboard box of ’82 baseball cards, and two things stand out about the Brewers in the set:

  • These guys were scruffy looking, perhaps better suited to play in a blue-collar, beer-league softball circuit than the American League East.
  • There were some awfully good ballplayers on this club, including future Hall of Famers Rollie Fingers, Robin Yount, Paul Molitor and (trading-deadline acquisition) Don Sutton, not to mention ’82 Cy Young Award winner Pete Vuckovich, home run champ Gorman Thomas and Silver Slugger winner Cecil Cooper.
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Whatever that team had in talent, it was more than matched by a bygone brand of camaraderie. Guys showed up early to play cards. After games, they either hung out in the clubhouse and ate cheese and crackers, drank beer and talked baseball, or piled 10-deep into cabs and did the same thing at bars on the road or in Milwaukee, occasionally at a tavern owned and operated by none other than their manager, Harvey Kuenn. The team was unusually close then, and remains so to this day. Guys like Thomas, Vuckovich, and right fielder Charlie Moore email each other so frequently, Thomas says, that “if you needed to buy postage stamps for emails, we’d all need to take out second mortgages.”

The Brewer franchise was just 13 years old in 1982; Bud Selig had bought the floundering Seattle Pilots and moved them to Milwaukee just before the 1970 season. After several years of futility, fortunes turned in 1978 when George Bamberger became manager. Milwaukee won 90-plus games in 1978 and 1979 but — in a two-division, pre-Wild Card era — failed to make the playoffs. Then general manager Harry Dalton pulled off a blockbuster trade prior to the 1981 season, landing Vuckovich, Fingers and Ted Simmons from St. Louis, a move that finally pushed the Brewers over the top. In the strike-interrupted 1981 season, the Brewers were “second-half” champs, making their first-ever playoff appearance against the first-half champion Yankees, losing three games to two.

Hopes were high as the ’82 season began, but then-manager Buck Rodgers failed to connect with his veterans, and the Brewers stood at just 23–24 and in fifth place when Dalton fired Rodgers on June 2. From the moment the tobacco-chewing-and-spewing Kuenn took over, he made it clear things would be different. This manager, he of the amputated right leg, was no micromanager; he hated trick plays and team meetings, and he didn’t like messing with the lineup. Kuenn had immense confidence in his veteran players, believing they performed at their best when they were loose.

Did somebody say “loose”? The ’82 Brewers were downright wobbly. Kuenn himself could give as well as he could receive. If players absconded with his prosthetic leg while he showered, the manager might retaliate by drooling tobacco juice on their feet in the dugout. Second baseman Jim Gantner once flew shirtless after teammates stole his clothes prior to a road trip; lefty Mike Caldwell traveled with nothing in his briefcase but a bottle of ketchup; Fingers’ car keys were dunked in a cup of water and frozen; reliever Bob McClure was locked in a bullpen port-a-john. Radio broadcaster and beer pitchman Bob Uecker threw batting practice just about every day, and the players loved nothing more than to partake in a pre-game contest of “flip,” a highly competitive tension-breaker in which a group of players stood in a circle and flipped a ball back and forth with their gloves, often at speeds high enough to bust lips and bloody noses. When Thomas arrived at County Stadium hours before game-time, he’d often stop at a tailgate party for a Pepsi and a brat; after the game, he’d stop for another brat, only at that hour he’d wash it down with a beer.

Nothing better illustrated the Brewers’ unconventional style than their biker gang appearances, perhaps fitting for a team that played in the hometown of Harley-Davidson. With the exception of Molitor, it often appeared that none of the Brewers could afford a razor. “A couple of those guys could walk through a door, but their hair wouldn’t arrive until five seconds later,” Uecker wrote in the foreword to Tom Haudricourt’s 2007 classic, Where Have You Gone ’82 Brewers? “If you shut the door too soon, you’d catch their hair. There was a lot of hair on that club. Fu Manchu mustaches, beards. You name it. That was their deal.”

The impact of Kuenn’s light touch was profound, as the Brewers went 72–43 the rest of the way, good enough for an MLB-best 95 wins. Leading the Orioles by three games with four left to play, the Brewers headed to Baltimore for the season’s final series needing just one victory to clinch the division. “Anyone who says we didn’t think it was a lock — they’re a liar,” Thomas recalls. But the Orioles swept Milwaukee in a Friday doubleheader and blew out the Crew on Saturday. “We realized we had changed our routine,” Thomas says. “We just sat around in our rooms and ordered crab cakes and got beat boom, boom, boom. So, the night before the last game, we all went out and had a couple of glasses of iced tea.” Relaxed, Milwaukee left no doubt in Sunday’s finale; Yount clubbed two homers, Cooper added a homer and three RBIs, Sutton allowed just two runs, and the Brewers were AL East champs. After losing the first two games of the ALCS in Anaheim, the Brewers ran off three straight wins to take the series 3–2, and with that, they were off to St. Louis to begin the first (and still only) World Series appearance in franchise history. With Fingers out with a torn muscle and Vuckovich pitching despite a torn rotator cuff, the Brewers weren’t able to hold on to a 3–2 Series lead, losing Games 6 and 7 in St. Louis. The dream season was over, and the fun-loving band of brothers was reduced to tears on the flight back to Milwaukee.

The next morning, the young Peterson made his usual paper route, but on this day the front page news was so disheartening that he began turning the Milwaukee Sentinel upside down. The season was over, but the lingering love affair with the team was just beginning. Thousands of grateful fans turned out for a celebration at County Stadium to honor the team; most of the players thought it was a bad idea to go through with what had originally been planned as a victory party, but on a sunny, crisp, October day, the fans restored the team’s spirits. When Yount burst onto the field atop a speeding motorcycle, the crowd roared.  

For decades, Brewer fans still only had that ’82 team to cheer for; the franchise didn’t make another playoff appearance until 2008. But throughout all those lean years, memories of ’82 remained magical. “Whenever ‘1982’ is mentioned,” Loomer says, “often not at all connected to the Brewers, I’ll look to my nine- and six-year-old sons and say, ‘That was a good year.’ They nod, knowingly. The wife just rolls her eyes.”

But even Loomer admits that it’s time to make new memories. And Thomas would agree. He loved that ’82 team so much that when he was traded the following season, he felt like “the fun was taken out of baseball.” Still, he’s ready for a new chapter in Brewer lore. “Here I am a retired Milwaukee Brewer, and I want them to win as much as they do,” he says. “I pull for them every damn pitch, every damn game. I was born (a Brewer) and I’m going to die one.”