Stormin' Gorman—Thomas is the only Brewer hitter who looks as if he chews glass. But, like many a mean slugger, he takes a short, compact stroke. "I used to have a golf swing—take it way back, loop it, all kinds of stuff," he says. "I finally got it through my thick head that you don't have to swing hard to hit a homer. With two outs and a man on second, I'll spread out my stance, shorten my swing even more and just try to make contact. I got this way a couple of years ago. I was hitting about .200 at the All-Star break, and I spoke with Harvey, who was our hitting instructor then. He said, 'Why don't you spread out your legs a little and hit the ball at second base?' That's his approach. He doesn't say, 'This is the way it's done.' He makes a suggestion. I got a couple of hits the next game."
Thomas used to be hotheaded, but he showed off his new discipline one night last week in Yankee Stadium. A year earlier, New York Reliever Dave LaRoche had humiliated Thomas by striking him out with his notorious blooper pitch, called LaLob. The frustrated Thomas cracked a batting helmet with his bat. Last week LaRoche threw not one but seven LaLobs to Thomas. Thomas fouled off five, took one for a ball and hit the seventh to left for a single. Safely at first, he stuck his tongue out at the home dugout, breaking up the Yankees. "I loved the whole thing," Thomas said the next day. "Both dugouts were cracking up and the fans were going crazy. The LaLob's good for baseball." The LaBomb is, too. Thomas won the game with a two-run homer in the 12th.
Five of the first six hitters in Milwaukee's lineup have been starting together since 1978, which happens to have been their first winning season. Not coincidentally, it was also George Bamberger's first year as field manager and Harry Dalton's first as general manager.
"When I got here in November of 1977 there were already some good young players coming out of the farm system, most notably Molitor and Yount," says Dalton. But Dalton made the team considerably better by reacquiring Thomas, who had been traded to Texas, and by picking up Simmons, Starter Pete Vuckovich and Reliever Rollie Fingers in a massive trade with St. Louis before last season. Vuckovich and L.A.'s Fernando Valenzuela have won more games (24) than any pitcher in baseball the past two years, and Fingers, who had 16 saves by week's end, has given the Brewers the bullpen stopper they had always lacked. "It hasn't been just a question of starting players," says Dalton, "but of deepening the club at every position." Like second base, where Ed Romero has ably filled in since June 18 for the injured Jim Gantner.
Dalton's most recent stroke of genius was replacing Rodgers with Kuenn. "I guess I'm cliché-ing the word, but it was a question of chemistry," he says. "I kept waiting for things to turn around, but they never did. You just have to be in the right frame of mind to play."
Overseeing the whole operation is owner Bud Selig, a gabby, excitable man who can sweat so much during a game he'll look as if he has caught nine innings. "We've gotten some talented people, but that's a given," he says. "But back when we were an expansion team we had no character, no purpose. We were aimless. These days we don't have one leader. We have a diversity of styles, and that's healthy." Selig's no-star system extends to Bernie Brewer, the mascot who slides into a giant beer mug after Milwaukee homers. Bernie isn't one man; he's three rotating groundskeepers.
Despite their talent, diligence and selflessness, the Brewers haven't drawn well in Milwaukee, a community where the work ethic is an organized religion. Going into last weekend's showdown with the Red Sox, the Brewers had averaged 17,800 at home and 22,400 on the road. Explanations vary, from the city's long memory—Milwaukee had a particularly virulent reaction to last year's strike—to miserable weather this spring. There's also the fact that the Brewers had been as dismal at home (15-17) as they had been devastating on the road (27-15). "We're the big bullies on the road," says Thomas. "People boo us and that cranks us up. We get home, they're cheering for us and maybe we try too hard."
If so, last weekend was surely a turnaround. For last Friday night's country-music promo, a crowd of 28,957 showed up at County Stadium, but the fans weren't there merely to hear the Bellamy Brothers sing If I Said You Had a Beautiful Body Would You Hold It Against Me? They wanted the road show to come home, and the Brewers didn't disappoint them. Laughing off Boston's early lead, Milwaukee bombed the Bosox for 17 hits and won 14-5. Thomas hit two homers, Simmons one and Cooper a grand slam, and Yount went 5 for 5. "Coop!" the crowd whooped, and organist Frank Charles played Rockin' Robin and Fly, Robin, Fly.
Milwaukee wasn't to play again until Saturday night, but by 8:15 the next morning hundreds of fans were lined up outside the ticket office. By 5 p.m. traffic was stacked up half a mile outside the stadium, and the smell of broiling bratwurst was wafting through the parking lot. It was Bat Night, and 55,716 fans—the largest crowd in Milwaukee history—watched the Brewers move into a tie for first. The game? Strictly routine. Molitor and Cooper homered on 1-2 pitches in the first, Yount added a three-run job in the fourth, Cooper had a 400-foot shot in the sixth and Vuckovich (10-3), who wears unmatching baseball shoes and glares cross-eyed at enemy hitters, switched to a no-windup delivery and set the Red Sox down 7-0 on three singles.
That win put the Brewers in first place, but on Sunday their bats were uncharacteristically silent and they lost both the game 4-1 and the division lead. Thus has the Ball Four team—author Jim Bouton pitched for this franchise when it was based in Seattle for a year, 1969—become the latest Boys of Summer. It's somehow fitting that former Manager Rodgers has been exiled to a California glue factory (not as horseflesh but as a salesman). The Brewers are off to the (pennant) races.