A Heady Time : In 1987, the Brewers’ Season Had a Little Bit of Everything--Except a Pennant

Times Staff Writer

The Milwaukee Brewers’ 1987 season lacked only an Oktoberfest.

A playoff berth and World Series would have been the perfect culmination for an improbable season that left the Brewers believing they are capable of reaching those two events.

On the other hand, who needed anything more in ‘87? Who could have handled one more highlight or lowlight or burnt bratwurst? Weren’t there enough tailgate parties in the County Stadium parking lot to create a siege of smog alerts?

As relief pitcher Dan Plesac said the other day: “There was a World Series atmosphere without the World Series. You couldn’t wait to get to the park. You couldn’t wait for the game to start.”


Was there one word for what happened in 1987?

Bizarre, Plesac said.

Wacky, suggested broadcaster Bob Uecker.

Wire-to-wire exciting, infielder Paul Molitor added.

“As a player, I know that ’82 (when the Brewers won the American League pennant) represented a pinnacle, but it didn’t compare to last year as far as having fun day in and day out,” Molitor said.

At 31, in his 10th year with the Brewers, Molitor had his finest season, highlighted by a 39-game hitting streak, the seventh-longest in baseball history but a mere footnote to a Brewer summer that also included:

--A 13-game winning streak that tied the major league record at the start of a season, sent fans parading down Wisconsin Avenue and propelled the Brewers to a 20-3 record and 5-game lead in the American League East on May 2.

--A 12-game losing streak that began May 3, tied a club record, led to 18 losses in 20 games and resulted in a 6-18 May, leaving the Brewers third in the East, five games out.

--A 49-28 second half that seemed to be ignited by Molitor’s hitting streak, was the second-best record in baseball over that period--the Detroit Tigers were a half-game better--and enabled the Brewers to finish third in a difficult division with a 91-71 record, an improvement of 14 wins over 1986 and a record that would have won the title in either of the Western Divisions.

If that had been it, if there had only been the winning streak of April, the losing streak of May and the consistency of the second half, the three seasons in one, Uecker said, it might not have seemed so wonderfully weird. But there were also:


--A no-hitter by Juan Nieves for win No. 9 in the season-opening streak and a 5-run, 9th-inning rally that included 2-out, 2-run homers by Rob Deer and Dale Sveum for win No. 12.

--A second-half streak of 32 straight scoreless innings by Ted Higuera, who threw a 3-hitter, 1-hitter and 2-hitter during that span and won 11 of his last 14 decisions.

--A July 17 game in which Sveum hit three home runs and drove in six runs against the Angels, and an August series at Cleveland in which Deer hit grand slam homers in consecutive games.

--A 3-game sweep of the Toronto Blue Jays in the final week of the season, extending a streak that ultimately cost the Blue Jays their final seven games and a title in the East.

Said Brewer General Manager Harry Dalton: “Aside from a couple championship clubs I’ve been associated with, I’ve never seen a season of so many highlights or so much excitement.”

Said Sveum: “You knew that if something strange didn’t happen today, it would happen tomorrow or within the week.”


The most important thing that might have happened is that a young and maturing team weathered the highs and lows, played impressively during the second half and now seems to believe in itself--and its manager.

Basically a major league rookie when the 1987 season started, Tom Trebelhorn emerged as a tested veteran. He emerged so in demand in his hometown of Portland, Ore., that he had to give up his job as a substitute teacher.

Or as Trebelhorn said: “I spent a lot of winters wondering if I was going to have milk on the table, and I’m sure there’s other guys in that situation who can use the job.”

Said Molitor: “Of all the things that happened last year, one of the highlights was the way Treb handled his first full season. Even when the team wasn’t, he was consistent. I’ve never played for a more positive manager. He left you with a positive thought even on the bleakest days.”

Dalton saw it even before spring training ended last year and quietly extended Trebelhorn’s contract.

“I wanted him to know that I was happy enough with the direction and leadership that he didn’t have to worry about what happened on the field,” Dalton said.


Upbeat, personable and close to his players, Trebelhorn preaches intensity, intelligence and aggressiveness.

His Brewers--a pale imitation of Bambi’s Bombers and Harvey’s Wallbangers--were 13th in a 14-team league in home runs but were second in runs scored, primarily because they were first in stolen bases with 176, an increase of 76 over 1986.

Trebelhorn reflected and said that the 1987 season seemed wilder looking back than when he was going through it.

“All I tried to do was stay out of their way when they were winning, and remind them to keep things in perspective when they were losing,” he said.

“It wasn’t that they stopped playing hard, they just stopped scoring,” he said of the miserable May. “I have to feel that when they thought about it over the winter, when they thought about what they went through and the way they came back, they realized that they’ll be better because of it.

“The key thing we have to prove in 1988 is that 1987 wasn’t a fluke, and that’s what we intend to do. A year ago, we talked about winning 85 games and won 91. It would be nice to improve six on that, but even with average years based on our guys’ capabilities, I’m sure we’re going to be in (the race). I see us winning anywhere from 85 to 95 games. I’d be disappointed if we weren’t a contender.”


Said Plesac: “Third place wasn’t like winning the pennant, but it was a great stride for us, particularly when you consider how young we are.”

Never higher than fifth in the previous four years, the Brewers arrived through patient belief in a farm system that has received the organization of the year award from Baseball America for the last three years.

Only Robin Yount, Jim Gantner and Molitor remain from the ’82 pennant winner. At a point in the spring when the Brewers were still carrying 38 players, 20 had two years service or less in the big leagues. Of the regular lineup, only left fielder Deer and first baseman Greg Brock came from outside the system.

Now another farm product, Joey Meyer, who hit 29 homers and drove in 92 runs in 79 games at Denver, will be given a chance to strengthen the offense as the designated hitter. The holes have been filled to such an extent that the spring search was confined basically to a fifth starting pitcher.

But while the names change, the key seems to remain the same. The Brewers have to keep Molitor healthy. Only once in the last four seasons has the catalytic leadoff hitter played more than 118 games. Only once in the last eight years has he made it through a season without having to go on the disabled list.

Said Plesac: “He’s our Rickey Henderson. We’re a different team when he’s healthy.”

The Brewers’ winning percentage with Molitor in the lineup over the last three years is .528. It’s .397 when he’s not. They were 75-41 when he played last year and 16-30 when he didn’t.


Now, hoping he can play 150 games and bidding to lessen the pressure on his arm and legs, the Brewers are moving Molitor to second and Gantner to third.

Molitor shook his head and said he has never been able to explain why one player is always battling injuries and another performs like a machine.

He said he has never lost confidence in his ability but has been left to wonder about his durability.

Even last year, when he led the league in doubles and runs scored and established career highs with a .353 batting average, 45 stolen bases and 75 RBIs, he was on the disabled list twice in the first half with a pulled hamstring and came up to the All-Star break “wondering what my future in the game was.”

“My contract was up, and I had to wonder if I’d be welcomed back if I didn’t play,” he said. “The team had a bright future, but I couldn’t be sure I’d be part of it.”

A .368 average over the second half, a season’s average of .449 with runners in scoring position and the 39-game hitting streak removed any doubt. Molitor received a 2-year $2.8-million contract.


He reflected on the streak that began in the first game after the All-Star break and said it didn’t make sense considering how little he played in the first half. There was mounting pressure, yes, but the difficult part, he said, was maintaining perspective, remembering that the team was more important than the streak.

“I knew it had to end, so my attitude was to ride it out and have the most fun I could with it,” he said. “ I couldn’t help but fantasize as to how far I could take it, but I emphasize fantasize because I knew the odds and probabilities were against me.

“I suppose I would have liked to have gone one more game, to round it off at 40 and match Ty Cobb, a player whose style I admire, but I look back with a feeling of appreciation rather than regret. How many players have had the opportunity to experience what I did?

“The best feeling of all was that the streak seemed to coincide with our re-entry into the race.”

It also lifted a deserving and talented player into an overdue spotlight.

“I think the players around the league and the people in Wisconsin realize that when I’ve been able to play, I’ve played well,” Molitor said. “I also think that if you play long enough, you get the opportunity to leave your mark on the game, and maybe this was mine.”

Does he regret that it didn’t come sooner or more often? Molitor said he hasn’t played for that and couldn’t expect it in a smaller market area. He also said:


“I’ve always felt that the things you gain playing in an area like Milwaukee far outweigh any loss of recognition.

“I’ve had the opportunity to leave as a free agent and didn’t consider it because for me it’s the ideal atmosphere, a low-key environment in which there is very little media, fan and organizational pressure.

“It’s a blue-collar city that would naturally prefer a winner but accepts hard play and a high intensity level.”

In the wake of that strange and ultimately successful 1987 season, more may be expected of the Brewers than hard play and intensity.

“I was skeptical if we were ready to make the turn in spring training last year, but in looking at the talent and leadership that emerged, I’d be disappointed if we didn’t contend,” Molitor said. “A lot of positive things would have to happen for us to win, but the signs are there.

“I mean, when you start off as dramatically as we did last year, then collapse so suddenly, you find yourself searching for an identity besides that of streakers. I think we found it in the second half.”