Who are these guys? As a team, they play better on the road than at home. One of their power hitters is a shortstop. Another is a 170-pounder with a comic-strip nickname. A third is a balding, bearded fellow who looks as if he's about to fall apart when he stands in at the plate.
Who are these guys? They're the Milwaukee Brewers—a.k.a. Harvey's Wallbangers, the scourge of the American League East.
Last month the Brewers simply destroyed their division, going 20-7 while hitting 47 home runs, with most of the wins coming against Detroit, Boston, Baltimore and New York, no less. July had started out the same way. At week's end, after winning two of three games from both the stumbling Yankees and the Red Sox, Milwaukee, which had dug itself a deep early-season hole, stood a game behind first-place Boston, with a 44-33 record. "If they keep it up," says Red Sox Pitcher Bruce Hurst, "we might as well just concede the championship and go home."
For opposing pitchers, the word on the Brewers is: Keep it away from them and pray. But that hasn't worked. The Brewers have been homering on outside pitches, off-speed pitches, pitchers' pitches, even waste pitches. A couple of weeks ago Milwaukee Leftfielder Ben Oglivie swung at a pitch that was about to bounce in the batter's box and blasted it over the fence. Asked what he thought when the bullpen phone rang during one of last week's games with the Brewers, New York's intimidating Goose Gossage covered his ears with his hands and shouted, "No! No!" Added Gossage, an 11-year veteran, "There isn't a lineup I've ever faced that's better."
To Brewer pitchers, the order of the day is just to throw the ball over the plate and have a few laughs. "When you get down two or three runs early in the game, you don't worry," lefthander Bob McClure said last Friday night after the Brewers overcame a 4-2 deficit to beat the Red Sox 14-5. "I thank the good Lord that He made up the roster that put me on the Brewers."
And that roster is loaded with real sweethearts, who need to be left alone. Under Bob Rodgers, who was accused of overmanaging and poor communication, Milwaukee was a fifth-place team with a 23-24 record. From June 2, when lowkey Harvey Kuenn took over, through Sunday, Milwaukee won 21 of 30 and averaged 6.5 runs a game. Hence, Harvey's Wallbangers.
"When Harvey opened his first and only team meeting, he said, 'We're going to go up to the plate, hit the ball in the seats and have some fun,' " says Center-fielder Gorman Thomas. "We were like birds in a cage," says Oglivie. "He opened it and—freedom!"
Kuenn takes about 15 seconds to explain his philosophy, saying, "Stay within yourself, and play sound fundamental baseball. The less you have to worry about, the better you do." For his part, Kuenn acts as if he hasn't a worry in the world—no small feat for a man who has had stomach surgery, a heart bypass operation and a leg amputation below the right knee. "That," says one of his players, "is inspirational."
Of course, the Brewers were expected to play well. This is virtually the same team that had the league's best record last year, won the second-half divisional title, extended the Yankees to the full five games in the mini-playoffs and was widely picked to be the American League's World Series representative in 1982.
They just weren't expected to play this well. At the end of last week, Milwaukee had five home-run hitters in double figures: Thomas (21), Oglivie (19), First Baseman Cecil Cooper (19), Shortstop Robin Yount (12) and Catcher Ted Simmons (11). Two others, part-time DH Don Money (9) and Third Baseman Paul Molitor (8), were on their way to that plateau. At their present pace of 113 homers in 78 games, the Brewers have a good shot at the season record of 240 set by the 1961 Yankees.