The 1980 Milwaukee Brewers came into the season as a team on the rise. They followed up a breakout year in 1978 with another strong year in 1979, in each case only the strength of their division keeping them out of the playoffs. By that standard, 1980 was a disappointment. The Brewers continued to play winning baseball, but injuries and bullpen problems led to regression in the won-loss column.
The Milwaukee teams of this era were renowned for their ability to hit. The ‘80 edition finished third in the American League in runs scored, and excelled at most everything except drawing walks—which, in all fairness, was not emphasized the way it is in today’s game.
Cecil Cooper hit .352, second in the American League and the first baseman finished fifth in the MVP voting. Ben Oglivie’s 41 home runs tied for the league lead. Robin Yount played terrific all-around baseball, leading the league in doubles and scoring 121 runs. Gorman Thomas bashed 38 home runs. Charlie Moore and Jim Gantner weren’t feared hitters, but with batting averages of .291 and .282 respectively, they weren’t easy outs in a lineup like this.
But Molitor missed 50 games, and his penchant for getting on the disabled list eventually prompted a move to get him away from his second base spot. Sixto Lezcano, a rising star in rightfield, first missed 50 games of his own and had a bad year when he was healthy.
The starting pitching was good enough to compensate—Moose Haas came into his own at the age of 24 and won 16 games with a 3.10 ERA. Mike Caldwell, a reliable veteran lefty, logged 225 innings and won 13. Lary Sorensen, another reliable arm, churned out 12 wins and nearly 200 innings. Bill Travers was competent at the back end of the rotation and the Brewers got some respectable spot start work from Paul Mitchell and Reggie Cleveland.
But the bullpen was woefully lacking in depth. Bob McClure and Bill Castro were functionable arms, but at a time when the closer’s role was becoming ever-more popular—and also one that would be utilized as early as the seventh and eighth inning, the Brewers were woefully deficient.
And the division they were in was merciless. Milwaukee was an American League team prior to 1998 and in the baseball alignments that existed up through 1993, they were in the AL East. There were only two divisions per league and only the first-place teams advanced into postseason play. The previous two seasons had seen Milwaukee produce a team that was good enough to win other divisions—but not the one where any of the Yankees, Red Sox or Orioles were knocking on the door of 100 wins.
WATCH THESPORTSNOTEBOOK’S VIDEO DISCUSSION OF THE 1978-83 ERA
The season started off in exciting fashion. Lezcano came up with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth in a 5-5 tie against the Red Sox. He poked a grand slam down the rightfield line. The Brewers went on to take two of three in New York. But they were also swept three straight at home by lowly Toronto. At the Memorial Day turn, Milwaukee’s record was 19-18, four games off a pace being set by the Yanks.
An East Coast trip in June went well, as the Brewers went 5-2 on a run through Boston and Baltimore. They went 9-5 on a long road trip that included AL West power Kansas City and the West Coast. But the bullpen weakness was most evident by three walkoff losses. Milwaukee’s record was a solid 43-34 at the All-Star break, but New York was the best team in the majors and held a seven-game lead.
In the late part of July it became apparent that Baltimore, rather than Milwaukee, would be the one to make a run at New York in the second half. The Brewers lost five of six games to the Orioles. Milwaukee also dropped five of eight to New York. For good measure, they dumped three of four in Fenway.
There were some good moments—a four-game sweep in Cleveland saw the bats get unleashed and score 10-plus runs twice. But the problems against the league’s upper crust continued to be evident when Kansas City came to town in late August. The Royals won three straight, including one game where George Brett went 5-for-5 and lifted his average to .407. It was the highwater mark of Brett’s pursuit of .400, and he eventually “slipped” to .390.
During this long hot summer, manager George Bamberger, whose arrival in 1978 coincided with the arrival of winning baseball, stepped down. Buck Rodgers took his place. The Brewers showed life in September, even though they were miles off the pace of the Yankees and Orioles, who each hit the 100-win threshold.
Milwaukee went 17-12 down the stretch. They ended the season the way they had begun—with some walkoff drama for the home fans. Oglivie hit his 41st home run in the ninth to tie the game 4-4 and tie him with Reggie Jackson for the AL home run title. The Brewers eventually won in 15 innings and finished the season 86-76.
It was a fun ending, but did not overshadow the disappointment that Brewer fans felt. They were used to contention and wanted to see their team get over the hump. They wouldn’t have long to wait—by December, the biggest trade in franchise history was engineered to strengthen the bullpen with Hall of Fame closer Rollie Fingers. In 1981, they made the playoffs in the strike-shortened season. And in 1982, they won the American League pennant.