brewers baseball and things


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just another winter day

the elder john and grandpa joe discussed death related matters,
wills and who should inherit that Gorman Thomas broken bat with barrel still intact
and what about all those Topps doubles from 1977 and 1978?
all those books and pennants, posters and Cecil Cooper’s wrist bands?
and should they be cremated or buried in street clothes six feet under?
when all of a sudden Grandma molasses had an idea – to be buried under Busch Stadium in a secret catacomb, to haunt all future Cardinal teams. Everyone laughed including the two kids in the room. They couldn’t a been more than 12 years young. That’s when Grandma molasses announced that she wasn’t cooking lunch that day – a cue to Elder John to lead the parade out the door to the Esmeralda Pharmacy that did double duty as a diner. That’s where they continued to discuss death related matters, scribbling makeshift wills on napkins. Everyone tossed in ideas and came to life, including the two young boys who shared a steak and eggs breakfast.

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getting high on false hope

The name Dion James aroused very little excitement in 1980. He was the 25th overall pick by the Brewers and probably mentioned on AM talk radio and written up in the morning Milwaukee Sentinel and afternoon Journal, but the Brewers won 95 games in 1979 and down the road projects were of little interest.

The Brewers had plowed through the initial franchise life cycles of embryo, toddler, infant; losing 90 or more games 7 out of 9 seasons. They were standing on two feet now and swinging a mighty bat; a Bambi’s Bombers bat followed by Harvey’s Wallbangers. It began in 1978 with 173 home runs and peaked four years later with 216 in 1982.  

Dion James was born in Philadelphia; raised in Sacramento, California; attended McClatchey High School; same school as Rowland Office and current major leaguers Vance Worley and Nick Johnson.

James hit above .300 at every minor league level including .336 at AAA Vancouver in 1983; perfect timing because on June 6 of that same year, the Brewers did the unthinkable. They traded Gorman Thomas, Ernie Camacho, and Jamie Easterly to the Cleveland Indians for Rick Manning and Rick Waits.

Gorman Thomas no longer a Brewer was the saddest song to hit Wisconsin Avenue since the Braves became Atlanta’s team. The party was over again and 1984 was going to be whatever George Orwell said 1984 was going to be or not be. 

Paul Molitor got hurt and missed most of the season. Robin Yount led the Brewers with a puny 16 homeruns. The team hit a total of 96; last in the 14 team American League.  No one hit above .300, but Dion James took over right field and hit .295.

remember the size of his mitt more than anything else; a huge web and James seemed to make every catch or maybe-probably I was clutching a buoy-wearing rose-colored glasses; anything to stave off the sting of losing Gorman and 1982 being so far away. The Brewers lost 94 games.

James earned a spot on the roster in 1985; but didn’t last long. He was sent back for AAA schooling in May and never appeared in a Brewers uniform again; traded to Atlanta for Brad Komminsk after the 1986 season, but James had served an essential function. He was the dirty hope between links of a stretched out and dying bike chain and his presence kept that chain from jumping and me from tumbling over the handle bars.

James being traded for Brad Komminsk was an extra splash of lighter fluid; maybe misguided but filled with even more hope I could ride on because Komminsk was gonna be the next Babe Ruth or Dale Murphy and that wasn’t Gorman Thomas, but close enough.

Atlanta had apparently grown tired of Komminsk and Milwaukee was ready to put his apple back on the branch and watch it grow; a change of scenery story, but Brad Komminsk never happened. The potential never ripened, but something else did.

In 1982 the Brewers were back at it; selecting yet another shortstop in Dale Sveum with the 25th overall pick. That was followed by left-handed pitcher Dan Plesac in 1983 and four more shortstops between 1984-1987.

That made 9 shortstops out of 17 first round franchise picks and only two of them were duds; Tommy Bianco in 1971 and Isaiah Clark in 1984. One of the more interesting shortstop selections was B.J. Surhoff; first over all pick for the Brewers in the 1985 draft. 

Born in the Bronx; attended North Carolina University. The Brewers turned Surhoff the shortstop super athlete into a catcher and he enjoyed a 19-year career including 9 years as a Brewer; played every position except pitcher; .282 BA, 188 HR’s; excellent defensive catcher with incredible lateral movement. I don’t remember his throwing arm.

Will Clark, Barry Larkin, Barry Bonds, and Rafael Palmero were all drafted after Surhoff, but what the hell. Since the draft was instituted in 1965, no first overall  pick has been inducted into the Hall Of Fame, but Ken Griffey Jr will most likely be the first in 2016. There’s also Chipper Jones and A-Rod? to consider and down the road Joe Mauer, Adrian Gonzalez and maybe David Price.

Surhoff as a rookie played a critical roles in the memorable streak season of 1987; hitting .299, .350 OB% and 68 RBI’s. Sveum hit 25 homeruns and Plesac established himself as Milwaukee’s closer. The Brewers won 13 games in a row to start that year; then lost 12 consecutive in the merry month of May and later that summer Paul Molitor flirted with maybe not DiMaggio 56, but definitely Rose 44 and Cobb 40. Molitor’s 39 game hitting streak ranks 7th on the all time list. The Brewers won 91 gamed and finished 3rd in the tough AL east. Exciting summer!

Hopes were high again.


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no gold in the 1979 Brewers draft, but still

One of the more common habits of young catchers is flinching; a slight twist of the body or turn of the head resulting in bruised shoulders. Becoming a catcher is not for everyone. It’s the only position that looks out at the team looking in. He is the band leader in both positioning and mind. 

The catcher flashes signs, dresses like a ninja turtle, waves his arms in air traffic control urgency, rolls around in the dirt. It’s no place for a cry baby or the self-absorbed. A catcher is part shaman, part daredevil and at times; he has to be an alpha asshole. 

Buster Posey is the kid parents love to see their daughters bring home. Yadier Molina is not, but they are both the best at their craft. They are both catchers.

Most kids prefer pitcher or shortstop or left field or second base; places to show boat and play it safe. A catcher’s job is hard work. He looks and sounds like a gladiator; lugging all that equipment around the diamond; racing down the first base line at times to back up throws. You can count on him. He’ll stand up and face the enemy; take part in fisticuffs.

The Brewers began the 1970’s by drafting a catcher-Darrel Porter and ended with another-Nick Hernandez. Porter’s career lasted 17 long years in the majors; Hernandez 4 short seasons in the minors. Every team needs a catcher and one day I’d like to connect winning teams with their catchers and see if there’s a pattern. The Brewers went to the World Series with Ted Simmons in 1982.

The Brewer catchers make book ends to a wonderful decade of drafting especially if we include 1969 and Gorman Thomas. I wonder if any franchise has been as freaking lucky as the Pilots/Brewers when it comes to first round picks in the first 10 years of their of existence?

I get goose bumps knowing the Brewers discovered Thomas in 1969, Robin Yount in 1973 and Paul Molitor in 1977; the three most popular players in Brewers history; Yount and Molitor with their bronze heads in Cooperstown and Gorman still the closest thing to a deity in Milwaukee.

Kids too young to remember Gorman are escorted by pops to Gorman’s Grill inside Miller Park. They eat a brat, enjoy a story often times told by Gorman himself and to think it all happens in the same Menominee Valley where Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews bashed home runs for 13 Braves seasons; 1953-1965. Goose bumps.

The wins came in bunches during the late 1970’s and that trifecta of Thomas-Yount- Molitor played a huge role in the franchise’s first wave of success. There was a mini  slump in 1980 followed by the most significant off-season action in franchise history; importing Ted Simmons, Pete Vukovich, and Rollie Fingers through trades; flirting with WS success in 1981 and a year later adding Don Sutton and getting even closer, but I’ve jumped ahead.

The Brewers made Nick Hernandez of Hialeah, Florida the 8th overall pick in the 1978 draft. He never advanced above A ball, but he is the nephew of MLB umpire Angel Hernandez; something maybe he doesn’t like to admit, but he also fathered another Nick Hernandez; drafted by the Phillies as a pitcher in 2009.

His son never advanced above A ball either, but did pitch for the Winnipeg Goldeyes last season; Indy league; 12-2 with a 3.06 ERA; a record like that makes any burger taste better.

The Brewers lost their 1979 pick after signing free agent pitcher Jim Slaton; the same Slaton the Pilots/Brewers drafted in 1969. Slaton was the Brewers ace from 1971 to 1977 before being traded along with Rich Folkers to Detroit for Ben Oglivie.

Slaton enjoyed a career high 17 wins with Detroit; but typical Slaton stuff; durability; lots of innings; keeping his team in the game. The Brewers suffered serious regret nonetheless and signed Slaton back as a free agent. He spent five more years as  Brewer and is still the all time franchise leader with 117 wins.

So heading into that 1979 season, the Brewer roster included both Slaton and Oglivie and good thing because they played significant roles in the Brewers 95 win season that year. Oglivie hit 29 homers and Slaton won 15 games. Two winning seasons in a row for the Brewers and the best was yet to come.

The 1980’s was more eventful on the diamond than in the draft room, but how can you top two Hall of Famers and Gorman Thomas? Maybe you can’t, but Brewer first rounders from the 1980’s did something else. More on that next time. 


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Stormin Gorman

Mrs. Z never gave us candy for Halloween; just baseball cards on Valentines Day with a wink and a one way nod; always up; a reminder that nothing stands in our way because the season never ends.

It couldn’t end. It was scientifically impossible because one season was 6 months and it always replaced another and that lasted 6 months too. There was no more room on the calendar. 

Each had a gatekeeper and trumpets but just a Saturday afternoon without end to us; the regular season followed by the dreamy off-season when Sal “The Barber” Maglie came to life.

Mrs Z was right. Bill Parsons was the first player drafted by the Seattle Pilots, but we were already crazy over Gorman Thomas. He inspired adults at the bar rail and kids at the plate. We all walked a little differently.

Seattle and Bill Veeck dance somewhere outside of time and Gorman is rushed to the major leagues as the only drafted and developed Seattle Pilot; an almost impossible wish since the Pilots were a one year and done team; a caterpillar butterflying into the Milwaukee Brewers.

But Gorman was born December 12, 1950 so even a call up and he would not have been the youngest player; not by a long shot. Joe Nuxhal pitched for the Cincinnati Reds as a 15-year old in 1944.

Joe_RelifordAnd then there was Joe Relliford; the 12-year-old bat boy for the Fitzgerald Pioneers of the Georgia State League. On July 19, 1952 in a game against the Statesboro Pilots, Relliford was called on to bat and he grounded out to third and stayed in the game as center fielder. His manager was suspended. The umpire was fired. Child labor laws I guess, but Relliford is still the youngest to ever play professionally and he also broke the color barrier in the Georgia State League. (baseball reference)

Where was I? Oh yeh, Gorman drafted in the first round; 21st pick in the 1969 draft and many players drafted don’t even sign. They accept scholarships and attend four-year universities; refine their skills and four years later, reappear in the draft; in much earlier rounds.

Dave Winfield was selected by Baltimore in that 1969 draft; 40th round; 884th overall pick, but attended The University of Minnesota instead and four years later in 1973, the San Diego Padres made him their number one pick; 4th overall.

Robin Yount was the third overall pick in that 1973 draft and speaking of teenagers in baseball, Yount was 19 when he became the Brewers regular shortstop; spending only one season in the minors with the Newark Co-Pilots.

But where was I? Oh yeh, Gorman; born in Charleston; turned down a football scholarship and signed with Seattle instead; as a shortstop; spent six years in the minors plus one more in 1977; prolific home run hitter including 51 in 1974 with Sacramento in the hitter friendly PCL.

Gorman splashed onto the Brewers scene in 1973; clean-shaven; a few at bats here and there; a74 few more in 1974, 10 home runs in 1975, 8 in 1976, back to the minors in 1977 and then BAM BAM BAM, he hit 32 in 1978 and a living legend was born.

Gorman was converted into an outfielder and what a rugged and durable fielder he became. He was the opposite of what people expected a center fielder to be; on the surface anyway. He grew a scruffy beard and long hair. He appeared to be fat; maybe a softball star who could down a 12 pack between innings.

79Gorman hit home runs in bunches and struck out. In 1979, he led the league in both categories and there’s nothing out of the ordinary in that, but Gorman in center field was out of this world.

He could run and throw and track down balls with the best of center fielders; hair flying in the breeze. He was only missing a key chain dangling from his belt. The damn knees and rotator cuff did him in. Traded to Cleveland for Rick Manning in 1983 and then back to Seattle; the Mariners that is and two years later; signed as a free agent with Milwaukee to close out his career in 1986. 

Outside County Stadium, there was Gorman’s Grill and inside Miller Park, there is the same. It’s more than a statue. It’s food and Gorman makes guest appearances throughout the season

Stormin Gorman was the franchise’s first ever first round pick and it doesn’t always work out this way; but he became a firework slowly creeping up the sky and BAM! a grand finale that never seems to end.


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big daddy Parsons

Mrs. Z worked in a small room; to the left of the guidance counselor and to the right of the big exit doors. She wasn’t trained as a nurse or made no airs if she was; no name tag on the door; no framed wall certificates; more like back alley abortion equivalent so the school could save money I guess.

Mrs. Z. was small; maybe 5 feet and had nice minty breath; reminded us of Mary Lou Retton; but much older. She didn’t smile too much either. We preferred it that way.

She was our get out of jail free card. There were 6 or 7 of us and we could be sick with a 102 temperature or suffering from a severely scraped knee or nothing at all. Mrs Z didn’t care. Trick the teachers and make it to her room and she wouldn’t say a damn thing and if you talked baseball, you could stick around a while.

We weren’t the smartest kids; a few flunked the fourth grade, but we knew Mrs. Z could melt clocks; make the day pass faster. I remember snippets she said; things like, “The Los Angeles Angels were born from a one night stand.”  It didn’t make sense until we watched girls practice gymnastics and got those sensations.

I think it was Doug Limpkins who gave us the scoop about the Angels; about AL expansion in 1961 being a knee jerk reaction to the Continental League threat. Limpkins was good at math too.

The Angels did pretty good that first year; 70-91; still the best record for any expansion team’s first season, but according to Mrs Z; “the owners made it rougher after that.”

We never knew what she meant, but it helped explain nine consecutive losing seasons for the Brewers.

Gorman Thomas came up often in our conversations. He was Seattle’s first round pick in 1969; making him our big daddy, but Mrs Z. never liked Walt Disney. She preferred reality.

“The Pilots were in the 1968 draft as well,” she explained “And it was more than the Expansion draft; more than Roger Nelson, Don Mincher, and Tommy Harper.”

Limpkins confirmed it. “Expansion teams beginning play in 1969 were rewarded picks in 1968,” he told us, “But not until after the fourth round.”

“Some reward,” Mrs Z would add.

Limpkins’ father had media guides of all Brewer/Pilot teams. We could have just asked him, but we preferred sneaking around, so we waited until Mr. Limpkins was at work and slipped into those media guides.The first Pilots player chosen in that 1968 draft was Marty West; 4th round; 84th overall pick. He never surfaced in the major leagues and neither did the Pilot’s next two picks; Greg Brosterhous in the fifth round; 108th overall or Roger McSwain; 6th round; 132nd overall pick.

baseball almanac

baseball almanac

“But The Pilots took Bill Parsons in the 7th round; 156th overall and he had a decent career,” one kid said.

Mrs Z smiled and said. “four years and 360 degrees, but he did get that trophy on his baseball card.” She never tried to look too smart; preferring dialogue instead.

She had an album of Brewers cards and pulled it out often. We all looked at each other; blood1976-TOM-KELLY-MISSING-TO-USE rushing to our heads.

The Pilots made Tom Kelly their next pick, but he never made it to the majors until 1975 and not as a Brewer, but as a Twin. Mrs Z had that card too.

But other than Tom Kelly, there were just a lot of names on the draft board and blank spaces in her baseball card binder.

howardThe only other player Mrs Z showed us from that 1968 draft was a 1974 Rookie Outfield card featuring Wilbur Howard; originally drafted in the 19th round; 443rd overall. Most of us had never seen a rookie card like that; not with four mug shots.

The Pilots last pick was Bob Nero; 71st round; 913th pick. Mrs Z never mentioned Nero as last emperor of a Roman dynasty something or other. She knew better. She wanted us to come back and anyway, we were still digesting what she told us about Bill Parsons.

He won Sporting News AL rookie pitcher of the year for the Brewers in 1971, pitched opening day in 1972, won 13 games both seasons and then as Mrs Z liked to point out; “he fell down a shaft.”

Parsons pitched only 2 more seasons and won a measly 3 games; traded to Oakland, then St; Louis, Chicago, surfaced in  Venezuela and “last scene at a bar rail,” Mrs Z joked.

Random killing sprees are harder to digest than the earth swallowing entire villages. We wanted to hear that Bill Parson hurt his arm or became a religious freak and wandered the earth barefoot.

No such luck, but Mrs Z. did point out that Steve Blass lost control about the same time Parsons……and then she would never finish the sentence.


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climbing up and down totem poles

Players worked winter jobs, rode subway to and from games, sat beside fans who also worked winter jobs and said things like, “Hey Hack,why’d you go and swing at that pitch?

There were men mounted on horses policing outfield alleys but before hoofs, fans braved barriers and tore up grass like fanatical dogs we still celebrate burial mounds sneaking peaks free of charge; from Coogan’s Bluff to Wrigley’s rooftop paradise there will be more.

Mockingbird Hill Milwaukee was situated behind the VA Hospital on National Avenue. Fans gathered and looked into County Stadium’s right field…sea gulls soaring in breezes, first the Braves, then the Brewers until the end in the early 1970’s. Ambition was to blame. Bleacher expansion.

But those Braves; from Boston to Milwaukee to Atlanta like Athletics from Philly to KC to Oakland; fantastic eagles wing spread. Totem poles. And then the Brewers like the Royals like the Mariners to replace the ghost of Braves Athletics and Pilots. Totems of the pacific northwest. Totems of our museum minds.

Maybe Atlanta knows nothing of Walt Tragesser and Milwaukee nothing of Ray Oyler but that’s ok in a silent and non invasive tree ring sort of way, barely disrupting the ecosystem; not knowing the totem or knowing is discovering it again.

This fresh autum day all can be brand spanking new; a perfect rite for a vortex and a warp and a time machine to escape these parentheses…..(         ) stuck in the here and now.

To that spring of 1970 when the equipment trucks heading north from Arizona turned left and not right; headed east-not west and reached  Milwaukee not Seattle to become the Brewers and not the Pilots and dammit the Brewers were never an expansion team and neither were the Milwaukee Braves.

Gorman Thomas was the first player the Pilots picked in the 1969 draft and well, if there was ever a player destined to play in Milwaukee and Brew city, it was Stormin Gorman Thomas. He fit the city like a patron saint of bar rails. Milwaukee has more bars per square mile than anywhere in the world if I’m not mistaken more bowling alleys as well.

Gorman didn’t surface in the majors until 1973 and it took a few years but in 1978 he became bigger than Evil Knievel and the love never stopped until it went terribly sour in 1983 when Gorman was traded to Cleveland for Rick Manning. There were others in that trade but Manning was Gorman’s ghost out there in centerfield and we never got used to him.

Manning slashed the game winning hit August 26, 1987…a walk off 10th inning single against his former Indians and Manning was booed by Milwaukee fans because Paul Molitor was on deck and his 39 game hitting streak was in danger of ending and it did. Manning could do nothing right in Milwaukee even when he did right. That game is remembered for Molitor’s streak biting the dust and on a more positive note Teddy Higuera’s 10 inning, 3 hit complete game victory. Rick who?

Stormin Gorman Thomas was the first ever Seattle Pilot. He will always be a forever member of the Seattle Milwaukee double helix totem pole. In that inaugural Milwaukee season, you could see Pilots under the Brewer uniforms. It was fading but it was there. Must have been low on linens back then.