06/25/10 3:00 PM ET
The '80s were a banner decade for Crew
Club earned first playoff and World Series berths in '81-82
By Jordan Schelling / MLB.com
When Robin Yount circled the warning track at County Stadium on a Harley Davison motorcycle, the crowd of more than 20,000 fans was thrilled for the return of their beloved Milwaukee Brewers.
To this day, the Brewers' 1982 team is adored by fans for giving Milwaukee its first World Series since the Milwaukee Braves won back-to-back National League pennants in 1957-58.
After finishing the previous decade with what remains the club's best record to date in 1979, the Brewers enjoyed their greatest success of any decade in the 1980s, finishing .500 or better five times while reaching the playoffs twice and making the franchise's only World Series appearance in '82.
This weekend, as a part of the 40th anniversary of the move from Seattle, the Brewers are celebrating and reflecting on the club's second decade in Milwaukee. On Friday, the team will wear reproductions of its 1978-89 uniforms, highlighted by pinstripes with "BREWERS" block letters on the front and the ball and glove logo on the cap. The Mariners will wear light blue road uniforms worn from 1981-84.
On Sunday, all fans in attendance will get a bobblehead doll commemorating Cecil Cooper's base hit to drive home the winning runs in Game 5 of the 1982 American League Championship Series.
While nearly everyone's first thought of great Brewers teams goes immediately to the 1982 squad, the 1981 team was impressive in its own right.
With a 62-47 record, the Brewers finished with the best overall mark in the AL East and earned a playoff berth for their second-half record due to the split schedule that season caused by the players' strike from June 12 to Aug. 10.
But while the Brewers lost the division series to the Yankees, three games to two, the 1981 season is remembered fondly by the players involved.
"That was probably our best team, we just jumped out in front and never looked back," said Rollie Fingers, who won the AL MVP and Cy Young Awards in 1981. "It was a shame we had the strike in the middle of it, but it may have helped me.
"I remember I only gave up one earned run in Milwaukee that year. It was on a triple to Freddie Patek, I remember. It was one of those years where nothing went wrong."
Following the club's first-ever playoff appearance in 1981, expectations were high for the Brewers in 1982. Through the season's first two months, however, things did not go as planned.
After the Brewers struggled to a 23-24 record on June 1, manager Buck Rodgers was fired in favor of Harvey Kuenn. With that, Harvey's Wallbangers were born.
"When I think about the 1982 season, that's the first thing that comes to mind: Harvey's Wallbangers," said Robin Yount, who won the first of his two AL MVP awards in 1982. "We worked hard, but we had a lot of fun that season, too. We wanted to win it for Harvey, and we did it his way."
Over the last four months of the season, the Brewers went 72-43 to finish first in the AL East, one game ahead of the Baltimore Orioles. After losing in the division series the year before, the Brewers returned to the playoffs for the second time in franchise history.
As they squared off with the California Angels in the AL Championship Series, the Brewers immediately dropped the first two games of the series in Anaheim. But as the series returned to Milwaukee, the Brewers swept all three games at County Stadium, including a thrilling 4-3 victory to clinch the AL pennant.
Milwaukee loaded the bases in the bottom of the seventh, which led to the most famous single of Cooper's career, a two-run hit that put the Brewers on top and won the series.
After winning the ALCS, the Brewers were set to face the St. Louis Cardinals in the "Suds Series," the first World Series in club history. Though they fell short in Game 7, the 1982 season remains fresh in the memories of players and fans alike.
"My career might be over, and the games are in the past, but the memories, those last forever," second baseman Jim Gantner said. "That group of guys we had those years, it was unique. No matter how many teams you look at, I don't think you could find another with so many characters like we had. It was incredible."
"Pitching was the difference"
But the Brewers would not make it back to the playoffs in the 1980s.
Despite having much the same ballclub as the previous two seasons, the Brewers dropped from first in the AL East in 1981-82 to fifth in '83, seventh in '84 and sixth in '85 and '86.
In looking back, Yount sees a distinct difference between the successful clubs of the 1981-82 seasons and those that never made it back to the playoffs in the years following that success.
"Pitching was the difference," Yount said. "I think that's true of any great team. Look at any team that wins a championship, they've probably got great pitching."
When asked if it was disappointing not to make it back to the playoffs in his career, Yount did not hold back his feelings on the matter.
"Of course it was disappointing," Yount said. "That's an understatement."
Though they still would not reach the playoffs over the decade's final three seasons, the 1987 team would provide plenty of memories.
And all within the first two weeks.
To open what turned out to be a wild and wacky season, the Brewers tied a Major League record, winning its first 13 games of the year. One month later, the club lost 12 in a row.
But the 13-game stretch to open the season is among many Brewers fans' favorite memories. Along the way, two highlights stand out.
First, in the team's ninth game of the season, lefty Juan Nieves tossed the first no-hitter in franchise history, blanking the Orioles on April 15, 1987, at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore.
Nieves became the first Puerto Rican-born pitcher to toss a no-hitter, but he couldn't do it without a little help from Yount, who made a tremendous no-hitter-saving catch in center field for the 27th and final out.
"There's no way I wasn't going to catch that ball," Yount said. "When I saw it, I just took off running. There's no time to think in that kind of situation. So I just reacted and luckily I got there and was able to be part of the Brewers' only no-hitter."
Three days later, the current Brewers hitting coach delivered the most famous home run in Brewers history, on Easter Sunday no less.
With the winning streak on the line, the Brewers headed to the ninth down, 4-1. At that point, the might have Brewers thought it was over, as did their fans. With that in mind, the crowd of 29,357 gave a standing ovation in appreciation for the 11-game win streak.
But it was far from over.
With two on and one out, slugger Rob Deer crushed a 1-0 curveball out to left, tying the game at 4-4. Rookie B.J. Surhoff followed Deer with a strikeout, but after a walk was drawn by Gantner, the switch-hitting Dale Sveum had a chance to make it 12 in a row.
He did just that.
With a full count, Sveum got a cut fastball, waist-high over the middle of the plate. Sveum jumped on it and blasted a two-run walk-off homer, sending County Stadium into a frenzy, as the Brewers had won their 12th straight to start the season.
"It was one of those games where nobody really wanted to leave," said Brewers infielder Craig Counsell, a Wisconsin native who stood in the stands that day as a 16-year-old. "If you were there, you'd remember it."
Later that season, Paul Molitor drew national attention when he hit in a team record 39 straight games. It remains the seventh-longest hitting streak in big league history, and fifth-longest since 1900.
Jordan Schelling is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.