This story is an excerpt of frequent contributor Matthew J. Prigge’s latest book, Opening Day in Milwaukee, which is slated for an April release. Buy it and find local signings and events at mjpmke.com.
Opening Day is, ultimately, just one game in the very long baseball season.
The 53 home openers in Milwaukee Brewers history represent about three-fifths of 1% of the games the franchise has played in its history. This tiny sample really means very little – the 10 best teams in Brewers history combined to go just 5–5 in home openers; the same record as the 10 worst – but it does give us a framework for a history of the team. The randomness and relative meaninglessness of so many of the games is part of the point. The challenge of writing about these Opening Days was to tell the story of the Brewers while devoting no more space to a championship season than a last-place campaign – to carve a path off the well-worn map of heroes and triumphs and tell the year-to-year story of what it means to come back to baseball with an all-too-often naive hope about what lies ahead.
For all that Opening Day lacks in statistical meaning, it abounds in emotional meaning. It’s the one day of the schedule guaranteed to draw a crowd, the one day of the schedule when hope is sure to exist. The day when everyone who even might think of giving a damn is most likely to be paying attention. It’s the most democratic day of the season, with every team in the league the same distance from the same prize (at least in theory).
But above all, it’s about coming back. Back to the ballpark. Back to the summer routine dictated by TV broadcasts and peppered with the background chatter of Bob Uecker on the radio. It’s about digging things out – the folding chairs, the portable grill, the cooler – for the pleasures of wide-open blacktop and plumes of charcoal smoke. It’s about catching up with old friends and family with whom baseball is the pull that keeps you from slipping out of orbit. The team may win or lose, but that’s not all that matters. Not today.
Here are just a few of those Brewers Opening Days that stick in our mind.
Tuesday, April 7, 1970
Angels 12, Brewers 0 | Attendance: 36,107
The life of a ballplayer is, by its nature, a semi-transient one. But the plight of the Seattle Pilots during the spring training of 1970 was something rare even in baseball. Seattle had been granted a franchise in 1968, expecting to begin play in 1971 but forced into a premature existence by the league for a disastrous 1969 season in a not-ready-for-prime-time stadium. The season wasn’t even over yet before rumors of relocation surfaced.
Meanwhile, fans in Milwaukee had now been four years without a true home team since losing Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews and the rest of the Braves to Atlanta after the 1965 season. As the 1970 season approached, 35-year-old Allan H. “Bud” Selig and his group seeking a new major league franchise for the city threw all they had into buying the moribund Pilots. A deal to acquire the bankrupt franchise, reached early in March, was held up in a tangle of courtroom mini-dramas. Waiting on a judge to approve Milwaukee’s $10.8 million offer, club employees working in Arizona loaded up a truck with gear and had it driven to Provo, Utah, to await the final word: either west to Seattle or east to Milwaukee.
Finally, late on the night of March 31, the sale was approved. Back home, the city celebrated, and workers rushed to get the 17-year-old Milwaukee County Stadium into baseball shape. (It had last been used in November for a Packers win over the New York Giants, and gallons of green paint were sprayed onto the still-dormant grass in an attempt to hide the football yard markers.)
As for the new Brewers – the players everyone was so excited to now call the home team – expectations were muted. The best known of the former Pilots was probably Tommy Harper, who led the American League in steals for the bottom-dwelling club in 1969.
As the stadium gates opened at 11:30 a.m. on a sunny spring day, local fans once again had a true home team to watch. Milwaukee County Executive John Doyne tossed out the game’s ceremonial first ball before right-hander Lew Krausse, a middling swingman who earned the Opening Day nod with a good spring, took the hill for the real thing. His first pitch, a ball, was sent to Cooperstown, and he set down the Angels in order to complete the first half-inning in team history. After that, the Angels struck early and often, while Angels ace Andy Messersmith allowed only one Brewers runner past first base. But still, Milwaukee had a team.
The Brewers opened the season 5-20 and finished at 65-97, 33 games out of first in the American League West.
Thursday, April 16, 1982
Rangers 4, Brewers 1 | Attendance: 49,887
There was a feeling among baseball people that the talented Brewers had underperformed in the strike-shortened 1981 season, marked by tension between the naturally loose bunch of players and taskmaster manager Bob Rodgers. Only a handful of the Brewers would even comment after Rodgers signed a contract extension just days after the Yankees ended Milwaukee’s season in the divisional round of the playoffs.
But heading into spring training with confidence, depth and playoff experience, the Brewers were still one of the teams to beat in the American League. The roster was largely unchanged from 1981, headlined by Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, Gorman Thomas, Cecil Cooper and Ted Simmons, with Pete Vuckovich, Mike Caldwell and reigning Cy Young winner and AL MVP Rollie Fingers heading up the pitching staff.
Although Fingers separated his shoulder while horsing around in the mud during a rare Arizona storm, he was ready to go by the time the team headed north for their April 6 opener against Cleveland. The weather, however, was not. It snowed all day that Monday, as temperatures struggled to reach 30 degrees. The snow kept flying, and it would be 10 days before the Brewers would return to Milwaukee, sitting at 3-3 after visits to Toronto and Cleveland.
During pregame introductions, delayed 30 minutes by a cold rain, Fingers got the biggest cheer. Veteran starter Moose Haas had spent the winter stewing over a hung curveball that Reggie Jackson crushed for a game-tying home run in the decisive divisional
series game 5 against the Yankees. Haas needed to redeem himself, and he delivered, allowing only one run in his eight innings. But Texas starter Dave Schmidt and reliever Danny Darwin were also sharp, sending a 1-1 game to the ninth.
Then Fingers trotted out from the bullpen to a roaring ovation, working a scoreless ninth that Darwin again matched. Effective long relief was a big part of why Fingers had been so honored in 1981. But today, in the damp and cold, his fastball was dull, and his breaking ball lacked its usual snap. He gave up three singles and a double in the 10th, and Darwin finished the job for Texas. It was a letdown for a game a week-and-a-half in the making, but afterward Cooper wasn’t about to read too much into it. “One game doesn’t make a season,” he said.
After starting the season 23-24, Rodgers was fired and Harvey Kuenn took over as interim manager. The team quickly found its groove and bashed their way to the AL East title, with Yount winning the club’s second straight AL MVP. Down 2-0 in the ALCS, they stunned the California Angels with three straight wins to clinch the AL pennant before falling in the World Series to the underdog Cardinals in seven games.
Friday, April 6, 2001
Brewers 5, Reds 4 | Attendance: 42,024
For the last two-plus months of the Brewers’ County Stadium era, the future was in the air. The late July trade that brought in lanky slugger Richie Sexson kick-started a respectable finish. In between innings of the final game at County Stadium, 22-year-old fireballer Ben Sheets bounced out of the dugout, a just-won Olympic gold medal around his neck, and waved to a crowd that couldn’t wait for the 2001 season to begin in the long-delayed stadium next door.
In the offseason, GM Dean Taylor dipped into the long-promised wealth of Miller Park. Jeffrey Hammonds, a once-hyped prospect who’d just had a breakout season in Colorado, was given the richest contract in franchise history. Over four days in early March, the club surprised fans by extending disgruntled slugger Jeromy Burnitz and adding eight years to the contracts of Sexson and outfielder Geoff Jenkins, solidifying the heart of a dangerous lineup and the core of the loose and fun-loving clubhouse. The hype around Sheets went into overdrive.
When the actual baseball began, the Brewers opened flat, dropping all four games of a season-opening road trip. But come Friday, April 6, it made no difference to Milwaukee. Opening at night for the first time in team history, the Brewers had the attention of the baseball world in a way not seen since the 1982 World Series. Miller Park, finally ready for baseball, was polished and gleaming, with a roster of baseball and political dignitaries on hand to help inaugurate what the Brewers promised would be the next great cathedral of sport.
Bob Uecker emceed the pregame ceremonies, quipping, “Isn’t it nice you can tell what’s up there?” after a video played on the massive center field scoreboard. Before delivering the stadium’s first regular-season pitch, Bud Selig delivered a short but emotional speech. “After all of these years and all the struggles,” he said, “it’s hard for me to articulate for one of the few times in my life how I feel today.” Following Selig, to a mix a of cheers and boos, was President George W. Bush, just two and a half months into the job. Bush’s one-hopper was the first presidential first pitch since Bill Clinton’s in 1996.
At 7:17 p.m., in windless, 60-degree comfort despite a steady rain outside, Jeff D’Amico wound up and delivered a first-pitch strike to Cincinnati shortstop Barry Larkin. In the bottom of the sixth, Burnitz crushed a high, looping homer to right, sending Bernie Brewer on his first official home run trip down the new winding, yellow slide above left field. Another bomb in the eighth, this one by Sexson, was the decisive blow.
After flirting with contention in April and May, the team fell apart in the second half of the season, finishing 68-94, their worst record since 1984. They drew 2.8 million fans, a new team record, but well short of the 3 million they expected.
Thursday, March 28, 2019
Brewers 5, Cardinals 4 | Attendance: 45,304
The 2018 Brewers came heartbreakingly close to just their second trip to the World Series in franchise history. The offseason moves by GM David Stearns had paid off immensely: Christian Yelich won the NL MVP award in a landslide, and Lorenzo Cain was an All-Star leadoff man, placing seventh in MVP voting.
Over winter, the lingering effects of the Brewers’ run to the NLCS and rumors of adding more big-name talent in the off-season pushed Brewers fever to a pitch not seen since the early 1980s. The Brewers took advantage of an unusually slow free agent market with two surprise one-year signings: catcher Yasmani Grandal and infielder Mike Moustakas, a 2018 midseason acquisition who’d been expected to sign a multi-year pact elsewhere. “The money sort of all came together at once,” said principal owner Mark Attanasio. “That wasn’t part of the plan. … All the chips are all in now.”
Following a ceremonial quartet of first pitches from Brewers MVPs Yelich, Ryan Braun, Robin Yount and Rollie Fingers, starter Jhoulys Chacín got the ball and struck out the side in the first. A series of home runs followed: three, including back-to-back shots in the second, by the Cardinals, as well as bombs by Moustakas, Yelich and an unlikely slugger in Chacín.
Going into the eighth, the Brewers handed their 5-4 lead to Josh Hader, who in 2018 had emerged as a multi-inning throwback to the days of the “fireman” reliever from the 1980s. He threw 11 explosive fastballs to the heart of the Cardinals lineup; all three batters struck out swinging. The 5-4 score held into the top of the ninth. With two outs, power-hitting José Martinez shot an outside 1-0 fastball deep to right-center. The crowd, already on its feet, gasped as the ball arced dangerously toward the wall. In center field, Cain jogged toward the gap, eyes upward. A couple members of the Cardinals bullpen held up their arms, anticipating a game-tying homer. Nearing the wall, Cain leapt, arm extended. With his glove arched just over the cusp of the fence, he flicked his wrist and pulled the ball back. His jump was so precise, he barely touched the padding of the wall as he landed. Yelich, tracking the play from his spot in right, bounced past Cain and shouted, “Not today!” Cain bounded toward the infield, shaking his head as the Miller Park crowd went wild.
On Sept. 10, with the Brewers two games out of a playoff spot, Yelich – on pace for another MVP award – broke his kneecap and was lost for the year. But the Brewers won 14 of their next 16, finishing in a wild card spot at 89-73. The magic ran out in the single-elimination wild card game, when the eventual world champion Washington Nationals stunned the Brewers with three runs off Hader in the eighth inning for a comeback win.