The 1992 Milwaukee Brewers represented the start of a new era, with Phil Garner managing the team. The previous five years under Tom Trebelhorn hadn’t been bad—three winning campaigns and another at .500—but there had been a definite decline from the 91-win season in Trebelhorn’s rookie year of 1987. Garner had to turn around the decline and that’s exactly what happened in a surprise year where the Brewers captivated their hometown in the month of September.
Milwaukee made one big move in the offseason and was to unload the immensely talented, but oft-discontented Gary Sheffied. Only 23-years-old, Sheffield would have an excellent career with a number of teams, but he wasn’t happy in Milwaukee and wasn’t going to be. The Brewers shipped him to San Diego for a package of players keyed by starting pitcher Ricky Bones.
Another change directly inspired by Garner was style of play. The Brewers would not wait for the long ball. They would run. And run they did. Eleven players stole at least ten bases. The leader was rookie shortstop Pat Listach who batted .290, swiped 54 bags and won American League Rookie of the Year honors.
The Brewers also hit singles and drove the ball in the gaps. Paul Molitor, now 35-years-old, hit .320 to lead the way. Robin Yount, the other holdover from the franchise glory years in the early 1980s, only hit .264, but the 36-year-old was still a leader and his quest for 3,000 career hits was a big storyline in this season.
In many ways this was the anti-Moneyball team. They didn’t take walks or hit home runs, but they hit the baseball the old-fashioned way and then started running. It produced the fifth-best offense in the American League.
The pitching was even better, ranking first in the AL in staff ERA. Balance was the key. Jamie Navarro won 17 games with a 3.33 ERA. Chris Bosio rang up 16 wins and posted a 3.62 ERA. Bill Wegman’s luck was a little harder, but he went to the post 35 times and finished with an ERA of 3.20.
That alone would have made the Brewers competitive, but they uncovered a gem midway through the season. Cal Eldred, only 24-years-old, got 14 starts and ripped off an 11-2 record with a dazzling 1.79 ERA. In the bullpen, Dan Plesac, Mike Fetters and Jim Austin were lights-out in doing setup work for closer Doug Henry.
One important historical point to make here is that prior to 1998, the Brewers were in the American League. And prior to 1994, they were in the AL East. Each league was split into just an East & West, with only first-place teams moving on the postseason. Realignment and postseason expansion was still two years away and that would be significant for the legacy of the 1992 Milwaukee Brewers.
It was still a mediocre start to the season. The low point of the early going was a seven-game road swing against the White Sox, Royals and Rangers. The Brewers lost six of those games and were 20-21 on Memorial Day, 5 ½ games off the pace in the AL East.
But they came out of the holiday weekend and went 8-4. A West Coast road trip produced four more wins in six games. The only down note was Milwaukee lost a couple series to Baltimore, who joined Toronto in setting the first-half pace in this division. The Brewers had slipped 7 ½ back by the All-Star break, but they were doing their part to improve, getting the W-L record to 45-41.
Garner’s team continued to gradually pick up the pace through the late summer. They won four of seven games against Toronto and in three of those wins scored a combined 48 runs. Milwaukee was 73-65 on Labor Day and still within 5 ½ games of the lead, with the Blue Jays and Orioles still running neck-and-neck. Yount was closing in on the magical 3,000-mark as the city got excited for September.
Milwaukee took the first two games of a series with Cleveland. They lost the finale, but even that came with excitement, as Yount got his historic hit. I was sitting in County Stadium that night. I can still recall seeing the pitch come in and Yount immediately attack and hit it over the second baseman. History was made. Now the Brewers had to try and pull off a miracle run.
And they almost did. They went to Baltimore for a three-game set. After losing the opener to Oriole ace Mike Mussina, the Brewers took over. Navarrao was staked to a 4-0 lead and pitched a complete-game shutout. Eldred went the distance in a 3-1 win in the finale, aided by three hits apiece from Molitor and Listach. Milwaukee couldn’t gain ground on Toronto, but they were pulling even with Baltimore.
The Brewers went on to Fenway and took advantage of a bad Red Sox team, winning three of four games. The Orioles were now making a return trip to old County Stadium in Milwaukee for a four-game weekend wraparound set. With Toronto playing at a steady pace, one of the contenders had to deliver a clear knockout blow here.
That’s what the Brewers did. In Friday night’s opener, Greg Vaughn hit a three-run blast off Rick Sutcliffe in the first inning and the rout was on in a 12-4 win. Bosio went seven strong innings on Saturday afternoon to win 4-1. On Sunday, Bones fell behind 3-0 and was chased by the fifth inning. No problem—Milwaukee scored eight runs in the bottom of the sixth, with Molitor doubling twice in the inning. The final was 9-3.
The seven-game Oriole-Brewer sequence ended as it had begun—with Mussina winning for Baltimore. But the wins in between meant Milwaukee had surged into second place and was 4 ½ games back of Toronto.
The Brewers didn’t stop. They won eight of the next nine, getting complete-game shutouts from Eldred and Bosio. The margin was down to two games, but only the final weekend of the season remained. Milwaukee was visiting Oakland. The A’s were an elite team, but also one with nothing to play for, having already clinched the AL West. The Blue Jays were hosting mediocre Detroit. The odds were still against the Brewers, but I can still vividly recall how much the city believed.
Friday night seemed to confirm something special was going on. Oakland led 2-1 in the ninth and turned it over to closer Dennis Eckersley, a future Hall of Famer having the best year of his career. Molitor beat him with a game-tying double and the Brewers won in 11 innings.
But Toronto wasn’t playing along with the Cinderella story. They jumped out to a 6-1 lead and then held off Detroit for an 8-7 win. On Saturday, both teams had day games on tap, but with the Brewers on the West Coast, they were the later start. Toronto won 3-1 and the race was over.
Milwaukee still finished 92-70, the third-best record in the American League. Fast-forward the clock two years into realignment and they would have won the AL Central. Instead, they were going home.
The unfortunate part of this story is that, in spite of the pitching staff being mostly in its prime, this would be a repeat of the Trebelhorn Era, where the team declined. Actually, it would be worse.
Brewer GM Sal Bando made a fatal decision to let Molitor walk in free agency, believing he could better spend the money on a larger quantity of marginal players. Molitor won a World Series MVP trophy in Toronto—cheered on by his old hometown, who knew he had been nudged out the door.
Milwaukee never again had a winning season under Garner, who oversaw the team’s transition into the National League in 1998. They would not see the postseason until 2008.