MILWAUKEE -- When Brewers center fielder Gorman Thomas fanned at a Bruce Sutter pitch to end the 1982 World Series, he never expected a quarter century to pass before the team played its next postseason game. Nobody expected it. Nobody could have. "You didn't even think about that," Thomas said this weekend at Miller Park. "You had just lost the last game of the World Series, and you never thought it would be the last time you were in the World Series.
"Now, looking at it 26 years later, it is kind of remarkable that somewhere along the line, the club at least didn't make the playoffs." Until now. The Brewers overcame a dreadful start to September to earn the 2008 National League Wild Card. For the first time since Stormin' Gorman and the Brewers took the St. Louis Cardinals to that decisive World Series Game 7, Milwaukee will play a game in October that means something. In the 26-year interim, the team has changed hands from the longtime ownership group headed by Bud Selig to Mark Attanasio, and has moved across the parking lot, from Milwaukee County Stadium to Miller Park. Four different men have been general manager: Harry Dalton, Sal Bando, Dean Taylor and now Doug Melvin. Ten different managers have sat at the end of the Brewers' bench, from Harvey Kuenn to Rene Lachemann, George Bamberger, Tom Trebelhorn, Phil Garner, Jim Lefebvre, Davey Lopes, Jerry Royster and Ned Yost to Dale Sveum, who took over for Yost with 12 games left in the 2008 regular season. One man has watched it all from the radio booth. He called Thomas' Series-ending strikeout, and was among the many who never expected the Brewers to fall off the postseason map. "You had Hall of Famers on that team, and we went into '83 with expectations," said Hall of Fame Brewers radio voice Bob Uecker. "I used to throw batting practice in those days, and I was around them before and after games, and, shoot, you got around those guys and they had that chemistry about them. "You said to yourself, 'Jeez, we've been waiting here a long time, and here we are. We're a club that's going to be there for the next few years, at least.' I don't think anybody expected what happened the following season." What happened in 1983 was a slow start. The Brewers were 35-36 entering July, in sixth place, and Thomas was traded to Cleveland in June. "So then you said to yourself, 'Good teams get going in July,'" Uecker said. "That year, it just didn't happen." Or, at least it didn't happen at the right time. The Brewers did win 40 of their next 53 games and held a one-half game division lead over the Orioles on Aug. 25. They went 14-22 the rest of the way and finished fourth. "We were so far behind and then we got back to even, but we had nothing left in September," said Robin Yount, one of four future Hall of Fame players on that team (Paul Molitor, Rollie Fingers and Don Sutton were the others). "We were pretty well spent.
"But we all thought we would win again," Yount said. "If you had told me we wouldn't be back to the playoffs, I wouldn't have believed that." But that's exactly what happened. In 1984, Molitor was limited to 13 games by an elbow injury, no Brewer hit more than Yount's 16 home runs or topped his 80 RBIs, and a 67-94 Milwaukee club finished seventh in the AL East. The team did not finish better than third until 1992, when the Garner-managed Brewers went 92-70 but were nipped by the Blue Jays for the AL East crown. Toronto went on to win the first of two consecutive World Series. Again, the '92 team, which featured Yount and Molitor together for the last time, got off to a slow start, falling a season-low 8 1/2-games behind first-place Toronto on July 16 despite a 45-42 record. The Brewers went 47-28 the rest of the way and pulled to within two games of the Jays with two games left in the season. Milwaukee lost its final two games to the A's while Toronto won out against the Tigers. Following the season, Molitor went to Toronto via free agency in a sign that baseball's economics were changing. The Brewers did not have another winning season until 2007, when Yost's club built a lead in the National League Central as wide as 8 1/2 games in June before a second-half fade. They finished two games out of first place with an 83-79 record. Along the way, the Brewers worked to get Miller Park built in the late 1990s and moved there in 2001 with Lopes as the skipper amid some high hopes, but injuries decimated the team in the second half. The franchise low-point came in 2002, when the Brewers lost 106 games under Lopes and Royster, who took over in April, then went through a period of upheaval.
Taylor was dismissed as general manager in favor of former Rangers GM Melvin, who brought in former Jays GM Gord Ash as his top lieutenant. Melvin hired Yost, who brought in a new coaching staff (longtime bullpen coach Bill Castro stayed on, and remains today), but Melvin's best move may have been keeping amateur scouting director Jack Zduriencik in place. Under Zduriencik, the Brewers have shed their history of poor Drafts and restocked the system with top-level talent. Former first-round Draft picks Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder were together in the big leagues by 2007, when the Brewers led the NL Central most of the way only to finish 83-79, two games behind the Cubs. Zduriencik's fingerprints are even more evident in 2008. Five of Milwaukee's eight positional starters on Opening Day were his picks -- first baseman Fielder, second baseman Rickie Weeks, shortstop J.J. Hardy, left fielder Braun and right fielder Corey Hart, plus catcher Jason Kendall, who was Pittsburgh's top pick in 1991, when Zduriencik was the Pirates' scouting boss. That the Brewers have built from within gives Melvin hope that he has a team built not just to compete in 2008 but beyond, though the July trade for impending free agent CC Sabathia certainly gave this year's club a new sense of urgency. But who knows if the Brewers will find themselves at the end of 2009 in this same position? If 1982 taught Milwaukee anything, it was to enjoy success while it lasts. "That's what makes this game so great," Uecker said. "You can sit back and say, 'How did this happen?' Look at the old [Milwaukee] Braves. In '57 they won the World Series, in '58 they were back in it, but then where did that go? It was all the same guys -- Hall of Famers. What happened? "And then look at the [Atlanta] Braves. Every time we're there now I look up there at all of those championship banners. Fourteen consecutive years, you're division champions. How do you do that?" Uecker is working himself up by the madness of it all. He throws his hands up in the air and breaks out of it with a laugh. "All those years, that's pretty good," Uecker said with a chuckle. "I don't know how you keep something like that going, and I don't think anybody does. You hope that these guys here right now can do it."
1982 Brewers leaders
|Batting average: Robin Yount, .331|
|Home Runs: Gorman Thomas, 39|
|RBIs: Cecil Cooper, 121|
|Stolen bases: Paul Molitor, 41|
|Wins: Pete Vuckovich, 14|
|ERA: Jim Slaton, 3.29|
|Saves: Rollie Fingers, 29|
Brewers postseason history
|World Series vs. St. Louis Cardinals: Lost, 4-3|
|ALCS vs. California Angels: Won, 3-2|
|AL Eastern Division Series vs. N.Y. Yankees: Lost, 3-2|
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.