By the bottom of the ninth inning at County Stadium last Sunday afternoon, it seemed that the inevitable had finally arrived. Milwaukee had opened the 1987 season with 11 consecutive wins, tying them with the 1981 Oakland A's for the best start in American League history, but now they trailed Texas 4-1. As the Brewers came off the field to the dugout for their final turn at bat, the Easter crowd of 29,357 began to rise and cheer.
The applause had a valedictory feel at first, a certain sadness that the streak was about to come to an end. But then the cheering began to swell into something more until, with two men on and one man out, leftfielder Rob Deer strode to the plate. "It was just a feeling of 'Here it comes,' " Deer said later. "You just knew it was going to happen."
Deer, who had hit his sixth homer of the season in the fifth inning, turned on reliever Greg Harris's second pitch, propelling it 445 feet into the leftfield seats, against a strong wind. Tie score. Suddenly, winning seemed inevitable. With two outs, a man on and facing a full count, shortstop Dale Sveum lofted a towering home run into the rightfield bleachers. "It felt like we just won the World Series," said Deer, and indeed, for 15 minutes after the players left the field, people stood in the stands, cheering and stomping their feet. It was only April 19, but they were waiting for an even bigger miracle in Milwaukee.
Monday night the streak continued, as the Brewers defeated the White Sox 5-4, to tie the major league record set by the 1982 Atlanta Braves.
Pinch-me time for Milwaukee really began last Wednesday night when Juan Nieves pitched the first no-hitter in Brewer history. On the flight back from Baltimore after the game, Nieves kept leaning out into the aisle of the airplane and watching, as if he were expecting a flight attendant to come up and tell him he was in a dream. Occasionally he would say something in Spanish to pitcher Teddy Higuera, and they would laugh, or they would touch the tips of their fingers together. Then Nieves would lean out of his seat and look again, but no one was coming. As the plane settled through a heavy blanket of fog and alighted on the ground in Milwaukee, one of Nieves's teammates looked out the window and cried, "Look, it's the cheeseheads!"
Cheeseheads is the more or less affectionate term by which some Brewers refer to the good people of America's Dairyland. And at that moment about 300 of them were standing on an otherwise empty runway at nearly one o'clock in the morning waiting to welcome the then 9-0 Brewers back to Cheeseville. Nieves left the plane first to a huge cheer, then the other players followed a bit uncertainly. When the fans circled the team bus, and it appeared for a moment that they weren't going to let it leave, one player suggested "we give them Juan," so the rest could slip away.
Slipping away was precisely what the Brewers seemed to be doing from the rest of the American League East. Milwaukee's spectacular start would have been more than enough to turn Cheeseville into a bubbling Brewer fondue, but Nieves's no-hitter against the Orioles made it clear that anything is now possible. "People probably think this is a joke," Nieves said, "but it's not. It's a taste of what's to come the rest of the way. We're back. No mercy."
Wednesday night had been cold and drizzly, not ideal conditions for Nieves, who is from Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico. "I was really uncomfortable, and my stuff was awful," he said later. "I felt like a pregnant lady. I couldn't throw a slider for a strike, and everything was hanging the first few innings." Eddie Murray hit a sinking liner to left while Nieves was still struggling in the second inning, but leftfielder Jim Paciorek made a diving catch just above the grass.
In the fourth and fifth innings, Milwaukee third baseman Paul Molitor speared a couple of line drives to preserve the no-hitter. But as the game went along, Nieves, who was the captain of his baseball, basketball and crosscountry teams at Avon Old Farms School in Avon, Conn., began to assume full command. In the ninth inning, Ken Gerhart grounded out and Rick Burleson lined out to Molitor, but then Nieves walked Cal Ripken on four pitches. Murray was the next batter, and he pounced on the first pitch, hitting a drive deep to right center. At the crack of the bat, centerfielder Robin Yount moved swiftly to his left. "When it was first hit, I thought, 'No way,' " said catcher Bill Schroeder. "But he just kept gaining ground on it." Yount waited until the last instant, then extended his body fully in the air and made the catch. Poetry in motion.
The Brewers may not be quite so poetic all season long, but they have set a merry dance before a town that loves to polka. Most people in Milwaukee didn't realize until about a week ago, though, that the tune was being played by something called a Trebelhorn.