In my last entry in the expansion series (many moons ago), I spoke of the Kansas City Royals, one of two new AL teams in the 1969 expansion. The Royals, their present dreadfulness notwithstanding, were the franchise that legitimized expansion, making themselves competitive very quickly. On the other end of the spectrum we have their expansion-mates, the Seattle Pilots.
The Seattle Pilots were a doomed enterprise from the beginning. When the franchise was awarded to former Indians owner William Daley and Pacific Coast League President Dewey Soriano, it was with the understanding that the minor-league Sicks Stadium would be enlarged to accomodate a major league team. This simply didn't happen, every interested party blamed the others for the delay, and Seattle mayor Floyd Miller threatened to evict the team from the stadium. Plans to fund a new domed stadium (the future Kingdome) foundered on the issue of public money (sound familiar?) with the final plans not executed until after the team had already left town. The team name, "Pilots," was a nautical reference. The uniforms bore captain's stripes on the hat and sleeves along with a bizarre flying baseball.
The Pilots made a fair showing in the expansion draft, relatively speaking. Their first pick was Yankee farmhand Mike Hegan. They went on to nab speedy outfielder Tommy Harper from the Reds, slugging first baseman Don Mincher from the Angels, and reliever Diego Segui from the A's. They also picked up former Dodger star Tommy Davis, former Yankee star Jim Bouton, former Indians star Gary Bell . . . you get the idea.
Despite a fairly strong start, the thin talent and utter mismanagement of the team resulted in a last-place, 64-98 finish (only the Indians sported a worse record in the AL). The owners made many bone-headed decisions. The worst may have been the non-payment of bills for their spring training complex, which eventually led to a lawsuit. Or possibly the theory that since they made so little money from television revenues, they would raise ticket prices. The thought that charging higher admission than any other AL team to see a game in prehistoric Sicks Stadium was a good idea is laughable.
Although the AL made assurances about keeping the team in Seattle, the horrible management led the Sorianos to take offers from other cities. After several legal measures taken to keep the team in Seattle, the okay finally went through approving the sale to Milwaukee car dealer Bud Selig. Just one year after their creation, the Pilots went bankrupt and moved across the country.
Some of the fallout from the whole fiasco included numerous lawsuits against the league that totalled some $32.5 million, political griping by Washington congressmen (leading the league to promise Seattle another team in the future), and a pretty big black eye for baseball in allowing the whole charade to take place at all.
But the Pilots are really remembered because of a book written by relief pitcher Jim Bouton. Bouton kept a baseball diary during the season, recording candid conversations about the real life of a baseball player. The book, Ball Four, is tame when compared to modern tell-all exposes. But it was a huge scandal at the time. Not only did Bouton violate the code of silence among baseball players (and baseball media) by revealing players' rampant use of amphetamines and adultery on the road, he was uncomfortably honest about the incompetence, heartlessness and racism among upper management.
The book is still funny, even 35 years later. My particular favorite story is when Bouton recalls -- from his time with the Yankees -- an exchange between Mantle and manager Johnny Keane. Mantle was finding it more and more difficult to deal with his aching knees, and Bouton quotes an exchange between the two about his status:
JK: "How do your legs feel today, Mick?"
MM: "Not too good."
JK: "Yes, but how do they feel?"
MM: "It hurts when I run, the right one especially. I can't stride on it or anything?"
JK: "Well, do you think you can play?"
MM: "I don't know. I guess I can play. Yeah, hell, what the hell, sure I can play."
JK: "Good. Great. We need you out there. Unless you're hurt -- unless it really hurts you. I don't want you to play if you're hurt."
MM: "No, it's okay. I hurt, but it's okay. I'll watch it."
JK: "Good, good we sure need you."
Mantle and Bouton would then joke about it later:
JB: "Mick, how does your leg feel?"
MM: "Well, it's severed at the knee."
JB: "Yes, but does it hurt?"
MM: "No, I scotch-taped it back in place."
JB: "And how's your back?"
MM: "My back is broken in seven places."
JB: "Can you swing the bat?"
MM: "Yeah, I can swing. If I can find some more scotch tape."
JB: "Great. Well, get in there then. We need you."
The Brewers started off in an unfortunate place, having to put together a franchise from the rough pieces of the Pilots. With a new staff of upper management and the loss of several key players, the Brewers were not anyone's choice as Most Likely to Stand a Chance in Hell. The 1970 team picked up where the Pilots left off, faring only slightly better at 65-97, tied with the Royals for 4th in the AL West. Though they fared slightly better in the Win-Loss column, the team finished last in the next two seasons.
The mid-70's were a difficult time for the franchise. While never degenerating to the truly awful, the team was a perennial loser, finishing either last or next-to-last from 1971-1977. It wasn't until 1978 that the nucleus of a good team became apparent. Under new manager George Bamberger, the Brewers went an amazing 93-69, finishing in 3rd place, 6.5 games back in the AL East.
The core of the team was a powerhouse offense that finished 1st in the AL with 4.96 runs/game. It was primarily powered by the first fruits of the farm system, future Hall-of-Famers Robin Yount and Paul Molitor. Yount, a shortstop later converted to center field, was a fine hitter and a capable defender. A two-time MVP and consistent producer, Yount spent his 20-year career entirely with the Brewers, compiling 3,142 hits. He was inducted into Cooperstown in 1999.
Molitor was an excellent hitter, but a defensive challenge. He was such a good hitter (306/369/448 career) that his place in the lineup was assured. But while he wasn't awful defensively, he simply didn't fit into any natural defensive position. He finished his career as a Designated Hitter, but not before playing 791 games at third base, 400 games at second, 197 at first, 57 at shortstop, and another 50 in the outfield. He was inducted into Cooperstown in 2004, the first player so inducted who spent the majority of his career as a DH.
Along with these two key ingredients, the Brewers added former Athletics team leader Sal Bando (who later moved into the front office), good-hitting first baseman Cecil Cooper, slugging center fielder Gorman Thomas, and other solid hitters such as Ben Oglivie, Sixto Lezcano, Don Money and Larry Hisle.
What held the team back was its decidedly mediocre pitching. Despite several solid contributors (Mike Caldwell, Pete Vuckovich and Jim Slaton, among others), the Brewers have never had a truly good pitching staff, nor have they produced a truly excellent pitcher from their system. (Two possible exceptions to that last statement: Mexican pitcher Teddy Higuera, who certainly was excellent until injuries essentially ended his career at age 30, and current star Ben Sheets, who still has a lot to prove at age 27 and must avoid suffering Higuera's fate).
Good though the Brewers were, it must be noted that they bore some of the more embarassing uniforms of all time, as these bananaberry togs illustrate. They also created a ball-in glove logo. It's not only a ball in a glove, it's also an "M" above a "B." I'm forced to admit that I've been looking at this logo for 20 years and did not notice this until recently.
The "Brew Crew" improved to 2nd place in 1979, going 95-66. After a dip to 86-76 in 1980, new manager Buck Rodgers guided the team to a close victory in the AL East in the second half of the season (the 1981 season divided in half by a players' strike). The Brewers met the first-half champion Yankees in a special division championship series, their first postseason appearance, and quickly went down 2-0 in the best-of-5 series. But the Brewers fought back valiantly, taking close victories at Yankee Stadium in Games 3 and 4, before losing the decisive Game 5.
The 1982 team was the start of a new era. New manager Harvey Kuenn presided over an offense-heavy team dubbed "Harvey's Wallbangers." The Wallbangers had the image of a gutsy, blue-collar team, perfectly in keeping with their hometown. Along with veterans Yount, Molitor, Cooper, Oglivie, and Thomas were added veteran catcher Ted Simmons, slick-fielding second baseman Jim Gantner, and ace closer Rollie Fingers. Starting pitcher Pete Vuckovich took home the Cy Young Award with an 18-6 record, despite the fact that he wasn't even one of the twenty best pitchers in the league that year.
The Brewers went 95-67, just edging the Orioles by 1 game. In the ALCS against California, the Brewers found themselves in a familiar position when they fell behind 2-0 in the best-of-5 series. But the Brewers scored 14 runs in the next 2 games, forcing a decisive Game 5 in Milwaukee. Conquering the demons of the previous year, the Brewers gained a close 4-3 victory in Game 5, with Cecil Cooper's bases-loaded single in the 7th inning the decisive blow.
The Brewers set the tone in the World Series with a sound 10-0 thrashing of the St. Louis Cardinals. Mike Caldwell threw a shutout, Ted Simmons homered, and the Brewers did some wall-banging indeed at Busch Stadium. The Cardinals came back to win Games 2 and 3, and appeared to have Game 4 in hand, taking a 5-1 lead into the 7th inning. But the Brewer bats awoke for 6 runs, giving them the 7-6 lead they would retain, evening the Series at 2-2. After a close win in Game 5 behind ace Caldwell, the Brewers took a thrashing in their own in Game 6, getting bombed for 13 runs while Cardinal pitcher John Stuper allowed just 1 run in a complete-game victory. Game 7 was close, with Cy Young winner Vuckovich against Cardinal ace Joaquin Andujar. But Andujar was just a little better, and the Cardinals took the game and the Series with a 6-3 win.
1982 was as good as it got in Milwaukee. In the 23 seasons since, the Brewers have never again finished in first place, and only managed a second-place with a 92-70 performance in 1992. Unfortunately, 1992 also marked the last time the team finished above .500. They came close this past season, but had to settle with an even 81-81 record.
The simple story was that the team, never strong on pitching, wasn't able to replace hitters like Yount or Molitor as they aged. With the exception of Higuera, the Brewers of the late 80's and early 90's simply weren't able to produce a star from their farm system (Higuera excepted), with solid but unspectacular players such as B.J. Surhoff, Greg Vaughn, and Pat Listach the best they could do. On second thought, they did produce a bonafide star: Gary Sheffield. But Sheffield was not only slow to develop; he was also a perceived attitude problem. So they traded him to the Padres for Ricky Bones, Jose Valentin and Matt Mieske, whereupon Sheffield embarked on what could very well prove to be a Hall-of-Fame career.
The 1992 team, managed by Phil Garner, succeeded with a mediocre offense (with Molitor and Darryl Hamilton the only strong contributors) but had the best pitching staff in the league. Unfortunately, none of the stars were either consistent or reliable. The staff was led by guys like Bill Wegman, Jaime Navarro, Chris Bosio, Cal Eldred, and Doug Henry. All pitchers who had some good years, but nothing to build a franchise on. The 1992 success was illusory, as the rest of the 1990s would illustrate.
There were several good-but-not-great hitters to come through the Brewers through the rest of the 1990s. There was capable slugger Jeromy Burnitz, all-around gem Jeff Cirillo, solid second baseman Fernando Vina, versatile catcher Jeff Nilsson, defensively-challenged hitter Jose Valentin, solid left fielder Geoff Jenkins, and aforementioned slugger Vaughn. With good pitching, this team could easily have contended, and might even have made the postseason at some point. But the Brewers couldn't put together a good pitching staff for the life of them. When they did get a good pitching performance, it was usually some journeyman having a career year (Ricky Bones' 1994, Scott Karl's 1995, Jeff D'Amico's 2000). So while they were rarely awful (1993 was the only year of the decade they lost more than 90 games), they were never competitive.
Another notable development of the 1990's took place in the front office. Owner Bud Selig had always been one of the strong guiding hands behind baseball ownership. He was, along with White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, one of the primary forces behind the ouster of Commissioner Fay Vincent. Selig took over as Interim Commissioner until such time as a replacement could be found. As time went on Selig, still the guiding force behind the Brewers although his daughter exerted nominal control, continued as commissioner (through the 1994-1995 quagmire), eventually taking on the job on a full-time basis. Control of the Brewers reverted to daughter Wendy Selig-Prieb, but the huge potential for conflict of interest was on everyone's minds.
The greatest example of this conflict was the realignment of the major leagues that took place to accomodate the 1998 expansion. It was impractical to have two 15-team leagues, since one team in both leagues would always be idle at a given moment. It became clear that one team would have to switch leagues to even things up. MLB's first choice was Kansas City, but the Royals turned them down. Selig saw his chance and proposed moving the Brewers. Milwaukee voters were keen to the idea. There was a history of National League baseball in the city, and relatively few people really gave a damn about which league such a bad team was in. Selig, however, saw with the move to the NL Central the chance to create a potentially lucrative rivalry with the nearby Chicago Cubs. So the Brewers opened the 1998 season in the National League, the only team ever to switch leagues between the AL and the NL. (Conflicts of interest, and allegations of financial misconduct, were set to rest recently when the team was sold to Mark Attanasio).
After only a mediocre 2000 (73-89), the Brewers embarked on their worst 4 years ever. In 2001, 2003, and 2004, the team lost 94 games. In between was a truly horrific 2002, where the team went 56-106. The only silver lining was the further development of slugging first baseman Richie Sexson and the future of star pitching prospect Ben Sheets.
The 106-loss 2002 resulted in a housecleaning for the organization. Former Ranger executive Doug Melvin took over in the front office as GM, and Braves third base coach Ned Yost took over as manager.
By all accounts, the change has been a fruitful one for Milwaukee. Yost, along with pitching coach Mike Maddux, have often been able to make something of nothing. The team still suffers from a weak pitching staff, and Maddux has gone to work creating unlikely closers out of Dan Kolb and Derrick Turnbow.
But the most instrumental person in the organization has been Melvin. Melvin has quietly returned the Brewers to respectability. This is confirmed not just by their 81-81 record in 2005, but with the record of Melvin's transactions. Melvin has not only presided over an impressive crop of young players (Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, J.J. Hardy, though unfortunately no pitchers) while doing a good job of fleecing other GMs. A good example would be a trade before the 2005 season that sent Brewer closer Kolb to the Braves in exchange for pitching prospect Jose Capellan. Kolb bombed in Atlanta, and was recently traded back to Milwaukee. So Melvin somehow has everything he had a year ago, plus a good pitching prospect.
But the best trade Melvin ever made was one with the Arizona Diamondbacks before the 2004 season. The D-Backs coveted slugging first baseman Richie Sexson and asked for him in a trade. Melvin traded Sexson to Arizona and got, in return:
- Lyle Overbay, who gave the Brewers 2 fine seasons at first base. In December, Melvin traded Overbay, increasingly expensive and expendable with the arrival of Prince Fielder, to Toronto for a serviceable pitcher and two prospects.
- Chris Capuano, who pitched fairly well in 2004, then emerged as a durable if unspectacular starting pitcher in 2005, posting a 3.99 ERA with 176 K in 219 IP.
- Craig Counsell, second baseman, who had a decent 2004 before leaving as a free agent.
- Junior Spivey, who hit quite well with the Brewers, although in limited time due to many injuries. With the arrival of Rickie Weeks at second, Spivey too became expensive and expendable, so Melvin sent him to Washington for serviceable pitcher Tomo Ohka.
- Chad Moeller, no kind of hitter, but a good backup catcher.
- Jorge de la Rosa, a young pitcher who didn't pan out (5.12 ERA in 65 IP in Milwaukee).
And for all of this, the Arizona Diamondbacks got Richie Sexson and two no-names. Most importantly, though, Sexson was eligible for free agency in a year. So unless the Diamondbacks were able to convince him to sign an extension to stay in Arizona, they would have given up all of the above just to get one year of Richie Sexson. Which is exactly what happened, as Sexson only stayed in Arizona for a year, taking a big-money contract in Seattle.
But the funniest thing about it all? Sexson got injured and only played 23 games in Arizona. The silver lining, I guess, is that Sexson hit 9 HR in those 23 games, including a 500-plus-foot bomb that hit his own image on the center field scoreboard. So the Diamondbacks have a discolored blotch on the center-field scoreboard as an eternal reminder of the time they got absolutely fleeced by Doug Melvin.
But I digress. The simple fact is that the Brewers have improved and continue to improve. The NL Central is pretty much up for grabs, and the Brewers have the chance to emerge as contenders, and soon. It all depends on their pitching, still their Achilles heel after all these years. If they can find a solution to their pitching ailments, the Brewers could emerge as a National League powerhouse. You heard it here first.
Total Ballclubs by Donald Dewey & Nicholas Acocella
Total Baseball Encyclopedia 2004 Ed.
Ball Four by Jim Bouton ed. Leonard Schechter