The Ides of June, 1982

In this year that may be without baseball (and numerous other things), it has been entertaining to read chronicles of the 1982 Brewers season, courtesy of the 1982 Milwaukee Brewers page, which has been chronicling 1982 in simulated real time.

The ’82 Brewers are actually a story that started four years earlier. The Brewers, remember, started as the Seattle Pilots, the last major pro sports franchise to go bankrupt in its first season of existence. Milwaukee car dealer Bud Selig, a former minority owner of the former Milwaukee Braves, purchased the Brewers in bankruptcy court during 1970 spring training, and thus begat the Brewers … and eight years of mediocrity.

Then Selig hired former Baltimore Orioles general manager Harry Dalton, who in turn hired Orioles pitching coach George Bamberger to be their manager. The Society for American Baseball Research shows how Dalton was successful before coming to Milwaukee.

The cupboard was not entirely bare when Dalton and Bamberger arrived — 22-year-old shortstop Robin Yount was a four-season veteran already, and the Brewers had previously swapped first basemen with the Red Sox, getting future star Cecil Cooper for aging star George Scott, while the Brewers had drafted Paul Molitor in the 1977 first round. But the 1977 Brewers won only 67 games (at least they were consistent — they were 11th in runs scored and 11th in earned run average)  while the 1978 Brewers won 93 games and, for the first time in their existence, were a contender.

How did that happen? “Bambi’s Bombers” emulated the style Bamberger’s former manager, Earl Weaver, used in Baltimore — pitching (for the first time), defense and three-run home runs. (Instead of 11th, they led the league in runs scored, though pitching improved only from 11th to eighth.)

Dalton replaced Jim Wohlford (.248, 2 home runs, 36 RBI) in left field with Larry Hisle (.290, 34 home runs, 115 RBI), and Von Joshua (.681 OPS) with Gorman Thomas (.866 OPS) in center. Nearly everyone else’s hitting improved. Molitor, having played all of 64 minor-league games, played well enough to finish second in American League Rookie of the Year voting.

As for pitching, Mike Caldwell, whom the Brewers had obtained from Cincinnati’s farm system when the Reds were making annual postseason trips, went from 5–8 with a 4.58 ERA to 22–9 with a 2.36 ERA. Lary Sorenson went from 7–10 and a 4.36 ERA to 18–12 with a 3.21 ERA. Every starting pitcher who was with the team a year earlier had a better record than the previous season.

Dalton must have taken a big gulp before trading his best pitcher of 1977, Jim Slaton, to Detroit for outfielder Ben Oglivie, but Oglivie batted .303 in 1978 for the Brewers. Slaton, meanwhile, came back to the Brewers as a free agent in 1979, and ended his career as the Brewers’ all-time winningest pitcher. (Which says volumes about the traditional state of Brewers pitching, but we’ve already covered that here.)

The Brewers remained a contender for the next four seasons, though Bamberger had to step down for health reasons during and at the end of the 1980 season, replaced by Rodgers, his third-base coach. Thomas led the AL with 45 home runs in 1979 and 39 home runs in 1982, and Oglivie tied Reggie Jackson for the lead with 39 1980 home runs. “Benji” and “Stormin’ Gorman” also got more than their share of RBIs despite relatively low batting averages because of how well Molitor and Yount got on base in front of them. Cooper was the quietest elite hitter in the league, with an OPS of .833 or more every season between 1978 and 1983.

Then came The Trade. In November, Dalton traded outfielder Sixto Lezcano, Sorenson and pitcher Dave LaPoint and David Green, the Brewers’ top minor league prospect, to St. Louis in exchange for starting pitcher Pete Vuckovich, relief pitcher Rollie Fingers (who had been with the Cardinals for four days as part of a 10-player trade) and catcher Ted Simmons.

How did that trade work out? Fingers won not just the 1981 Cy Young Award but the 1981 American League MVP. Vuckovich won the 1982 AL Cy Young Award. Simmons didn’t hit well for a season and a half, but was a big improvement behind the plate, moving out Charlie Moore, who found a spot in right field, as Reggie Jackson would find out:

(Sorenson, by the way, pitched one year for the Cardinals, then went to Cleveland as part of a three-team trade to get outfielder Lonnie Smith from Philadelphia. Lezcano was traded with shortstop Garry Templeton to San Diego so the Cardinals could get shortstop Ozzie Smith. LaPoint was part of a group of players traded to San Francisco to get Jack Clark, the hero of most of the Cardinals’ 1985 season, but a World Series goat.)

The 1981 Brewers made the postseason for the first time …

… and there was considerable hoopla about 1982. That hoopla didn’t pan out at first, and by the start of June the Brewers were 23–24 and in fifth place in the AL East.

There was considerable underperformance, and there was considerable disgruntlement with Rodgers, who one year earlier decided to move Molitor from second base (where Jim Gantner was waiting to play) to center field, pushing Thomas unhappily to right field (Lezcano’s former position), until Molitor got hurt and the 1981 baseball strike interrupted the season.

Then in 1982, Molitor moved to third base, pushing Roy Howell unhappily into a platoon at designated hitter with Money, while Moore went from behind the plate to right field. All these moves might have been all right if the Brewers were winning, but through the first two months of 1982 they were not.

All may have come together in a 5–4 11-inning loss in Seattle June 1 that dropped the Brewers to two games below .500:

Once again, the Brewers blew leads (2-0 in the first, 3-2 in the ninth and 4-3 in the 11th). This time, it was the trifecta.

With a runner on second and two outs in the ninth of a 3-2 game, manager Buck Rodgers went to the bullpen in an attempt to retire lefty Bruce Bochte. Was it Rollie Fingers, the closer? No. Rodgers went with usual-starter Mike Caldwell, who many fans remember had given up a home run to Bochte into the third deck of the King Dome in the 10th inning two years ago.

Bochte hit a single to score Rick Sweet and force extra innings. It was only then that Fingers came on to get the final out. It would be the only batter he would face.

Why? In all likelihood, words were exchanged between innings.

Fingers after the game: “That’s probably the final nail in the coffin,” Fingers said, presumably referring to Rodgers’ fate. “Does he think I can’t get a left-hander out? I’m getting good money to do that.”

Fingers wasn’t done: “That’s my job, to come in save situations. Mike Caldwell is paid to start. I’m paid to relieve.”

Did Rodgers panic, over thinking the move? “I shot my wad in the ninth inning,” he explained. “I was trying to get the game over in the ninth.”

Other players in the clubhouse weren’t shy when talking about the current state of the team. “We’re in serious trouble if we can’t beat these guys,” said Cecil Cooper, “especially when you take the lead three times and can’t hold it. There’s just no answers. What do you do? What do you do now? We’re losing every way we can. Those two games we lost in Anaheim, we were up three runs and we lose. We’ve lost three games on this trip and we should have won every one of them.”

[Jim] Gantner made a not so subtle hint at the change he expected to be made: “You can’t fire 25 players. Sometimes the manager’s at the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s really too bad. We’re going to have to do something to shake up this club. I’m not saying fire the manager, but something has to be done to shake up this club.”

It was the Brewers’ 14th loss in 20 games, dropping back to two games under .500. For the first time since April 18 when they were 6-9, the Brewers are in sixth place.

(Note to current coaches and managers: The phrase “shot my wad” is probably one you should avoid today.)

The next day, Dalton fired Rodgers:

Yesterday, Harry Dalton told us that the job of a general manager is to remain patient. Apparently, his patience has run out. …

“I think Buck’s a good baseball man,” Dalton said today. “The chemistry went sour. We hadn’t been getting what we had the right to expect with the talent we have available. I recognize everything that happened wasn’t Buck’s fault. I wanted to give Buck every opportunity to right the ship.”

And that opportunity ran out. Brewers fans would argue that Rodgers was given far too much time to “right the ship.” You can’t right a ship that’s sinking, and water’s been flooding a gaping hole in the SS BrewCrew for quite some time.

It’s interesting this announcement was made today, given the Brewers beat the Mariners 2-1 yesterday. But the rumor is that the decision to make the move had already been made prior to yesterday’s game, which would make sense considering the collapse that led to three blown leads in that game. Dalton knew that change was coming when he spoke of patience. Rodgers was a dead man walking and he was made aware of the change this morning.

In something of a surprising move, the Brewers have replaced Rodgers with longtime coach Harvey Kuenn… at least for now. “We have appointed Harvey Kuenn as interim manager,” said Dalton. “That can mean anytime from two to three weeks to the end of the 1982 season. We have been looking for someone to take over on a permanent basis.”

So who will be that permanent solution? Good question. It won’t be former team captain Sal Bando, long rumored to be waiting for the opening. He isn’t interested in committing to managing.

The interesting twist in all of this is that the man the Brewers really want, former manager George Bamberger, is no longer available. Bambi stepped down due to health concerns and Rodgers took over. Had the Brewers not made the playoffs last season, they were primed to invite Bamberger back. Instead. they did take that next step and felt obligated to bring Rodgers back. Meanwhile, Bamberger took a job to manage the Mets.

A couple of possibilities are on Bambi’s staff. Jim Frey, the former manager of the Royals and current coach on the Mets, could be an option. Frank Howard, a former Brewers coach who was fired after managing the Padres last season, is also a coach on the Mets’ staff who could be on the Brewers’ radar.

Rodgers did not go quietly

Contacted for his comments on being fired as manager of the Milwaukee Brewers today, Buck Rodgers tried to be diplomatic.

On whether he feels like he failed: “Sure, there’s a little sense of failure. I thought this club could win. I’ve never failed in my life. I don’t like to fail. But that’s all part of the game, you know that. It wasn’t exactly unexpected. I’ve had my mind made up for the last two weeks it might happen.”

Then Rodgers decided that if he were going to go down, he’d take someone with him. He went down swinging.

“I think there are a couple of cancers on the club,” he said, not mentioning their names. “I think you’ve got 18 or 19 players who want to win. You’ve got three or four who will go any way the wind blows. I’m not going to name the cancers, and I’m not going to name the ones who blow with the wind.”

… leading to speculation about to whom Rodgers was referring:

We’re left guessing about the two players he’s speaking of, but those following the team tend to believe they are Mike Caldwell and Ted Simmons.

Caldwell was often a critic of the way Rodgers handled pitchers. In fact, as recently as May 23, he made this comment to the press following a loss to the Mariners: “I don’t know. I’m just a player. I’m just trying to do my job. I don’t know if I’m getting a chance to do it.”

The Brewers also tried unsuccessfully to trade Caldwell during the winter. Knowing that the team didn’t want him likely didn’t make relationships with management or his performance on the field any easier. Caldwell is sporting a disappointing 2-4 record and 4.70 ERA.

While Ted Simmons didn’t provide the juicy quotes like Caldwell, he and Rodgers did not see eye-to-eye. Rodgers, a former catcher who prided himself on his defensive ability, was thought to prefer Ned Yost and Charlie Moore as defensive backstops. Simmons has yet to live up to the hype as an offensive producer either, and Rodgers may even prefer Don Money or Roy Howell as the DH.

In other words, Simmons was forced upon him, and Rodgers wanted him off of the team. Some believed that if Simmons stayed with the team all season, Rodgers would quit.

If Rodgers wasn’t referring to one or both of Caldwell and Simmons, he may also have been talking about Roy Howell. Howell has received very little playing time and has been a thorn in the side of the team since spring training. Unable to trade him, Howell has sulked and thrown tantrums while producing very little.

Not Howell? It could also be Gorman ThomasRollie Fingers or Pete Vuckovich. But at this point, we’re reaching. And to be honest, it’s why making the comment without naming names is a cowardice act.

Rodgers’ former players didn’t seem heartbroken at their former manager’s departure:

Mike Caldwell, who many believe is one of the “cancers” that Rodgers referred to, thinks that his former manager didn’t give the pitchers equal billing on the team: “He’s the one who said we didn’t have a team leader. He mentioned several players who could be leaders. None of them were pitchers. I think there are some pretty good pitchers around here who have the guts and integrity, who are the types who could be leaders.”

Cecil Cooper: “I think we needed a change. Not necessarily the manager, but something had to be done. We’re not a .500 team. Harvey told us if something is bothering us to come in and we’d talk about it. That might have been harder with Buck. Guys didn’t feel relaxed with him.”

Just two days ago, Jim Gantner seemed to know what was coming. Always willing to speak his mind, he had this to say: “You can’t fire 25 players. Sometimes the manager’s at the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s really too bad. We’re going to have to do something to shake up this club. I’m not saying fire the manager, but something has to be done to shake up the club. Make some changes somehow. That’s not my decision, though, that’s the front office.”

So whose fault was it?

We know that Buck Rodgers was a bad fit. We tried to accept him for a while. We blamed a bad attitude here, bad luck there. But Brewers fans have collectively come to the realization that the reason for their team’s under performance may have been much easier to explain than we thought.

When rumors surfaced of Rodgers’ demise weeks ago, you couldn’t find a player who had their manager’s back. And whether it was Rollie FingersTed SimmonsMike CaldwellPete VuckovichRoy HowellJim Gantner or the countless other malcontents, someone was always spouting off.

Players weren’t happy. They didn’t respect their manager. The inmates were running the asylum, and they were plenty crazy. Should it be any wonder that they played below expectations?

Roy Howell is a role player. He never understood his role. As a result, he was never happy when each day passed by and he wasn’t on the lineup card. Isn’t this a communication issue? Howell should never be surprised about when he will or will not be playing.

Buck Rodgers lacked confidence in his starting pitchers, often giving them the hook rather than letting them fight their way through jams. Based on complaints from Mike Caldwell, it’s also possible that he lacked respect for pitchers in general. Is it any wonder that the rotation as a whole has been shaky?

In steps Harvey Kuenn, destination unknown. He’s known as a loose leader, one who wants his players to relax and have fun. He’s a communicator. He’s everything that Buck Rodgers wasn’t.

The change, whether directly or indirectly, resulted in a win. One win in one game. But what we saw were things we had seen rarely during the past two months. A starter fought through his own jam and pitched a complete game, shutting down the opposition during the final three innings. The offense was timely, collecting 12 hits. And the defense didn’t commit an error.

Most importantly? The players are happy. For the most part, that was rarely the case under Rodgers, even after a win.

Soon after being fired, Rodgers didn’t hold back when referring to two cancers on the team. Given the time to cool off, he hasn’t backed down: “I can’t say too emphatically how good this club is, except for a couple of players. I know who they are, the players know who they are and the front office knows who they are. They may have tried to stab me in the back, but they didn’t get me fired. They’ve stabbed everyone they’ve been involved with in the past, and they’ll do the same in the future.”

We shouldn’t be surprised about reports surfacing that Mike Caldwell, during a card game on the May 30 flight after a 7-3 win over the Angels, said, “I hope we lose 10 games in a row just to get rid of that sucker.”

The Brewers are littered with strong personalities. They need someone to lead them. They don’t need someone who is paranoid, constantly worried about who is trying to stab them in the back. This happens when a leader fails to communicate or loses the respect of his team.

Keep in mind this was not the same era of baseball as today for numerous reasons. There were managers known as disciplinarians who were successful — Fred Haney was not friends with his players, but won the 1957 World Series and got the Milwaukee Braves into the 1958 Series. Dick Williams took Oakland and San Diego to the World Series and Montreal to the cusp of the playoffs; Dallas Green, who was perfectly fine with his players not liking him, was the manager of the 1980 World Series-winning Phillies (who wrote an interesting book about his dealings with his players), and Earl Weaver won four pennants (three in a row) and the 1970 World Series with Baltimore. There were also managers known as, shall we say, colorful yet successful — Billy Martin took Minnesota, Detroit, the Yankees (during his four stints as manager) and Oakland to the playoffs, getting fired afterward in each case; and Tommy Lasorda won two World Series and managed in two more with, as one sportswriter put it, his “outrageous combination of pasta and theatricality.”

The pattern in pro sports for decades used to be that a team would hire a disciplinarian, get some wins (they hoped), and when the winning stopped hire a so-called “player’s” coach or manager, get more wins (they hoped), and when the winning stopped go back to the disciplinarian. Or if the franchise started with the nice guy and he failed, bring in the head-knocker. (None of this, you’ll notice, includes how well the GM does, or not, in bringing in players, nor the manager’s ability to manage in-game situations or use players correctly during the long season.)

Rodgers was far from the last manager who had to deal with players who disliked him. (Casey Stengel’s famous line about one of his Yankees teams was that one-third of his team liked him, and he was trying to keep the one-third of his team that hated him away from the one-third of his team that hadn’t made up their minds yet.) The next player who says he likes his manager but feels misused or not used enough will be the first, since the latter always outweighs the former. Rodgers was far from the last manager who appeared to have disdain for his pitchers, or vice versa, or was accused of mishandling pitchers. (Lasorda, a pitcher, was accused of burning out Fernando Valenzuela, and Martin was accused of burning out his entire starting rotation in Oakland. Sparky Anderson took disdain for beyond pitchers when he announced to his team that he had four stars — Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench and Tony Perez — and the rest of the team, including all of the pitchers, were all, to directly quote him, “turds.” The manager known as “Captain Hook” for his pulling of starting pitchers nonetheless won five division titles, four pennants and two World Series in Cincinnati.)

But Gantner was right then (and certainly now) when he observed that it’s impossible to fire 25 players, at least during the season. Whether it was Rodgers’ fault, it was Rodgers’ responsibility, and it appears from nearly 40 years’ perspective that he failed to get his team to play better than it should have. (If the “cancers” included the three players for which Dalton traded, that probably made Dalton think it was time to change managers.

Rodgers went on to win more games than he lost as a manager, though he fit in better with a young Montreal team than he did with a veteran Brewers team. Kuenn, meanwhile, followed Rodgers’ start with a 72–43 finish, winning the AL East on the last day of the season, and then coming back from an 0–2 hole to win the American League Championship Series and go to the World Series for the only time in team history.

That, however, has yet to be covered.

 

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