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Memories of Harvey's Wallbangers

Posted by johnnieraz on October 19, 2018 at 2:10 PM

By John Rezell

     The thundering roar of 54,968 screaming fans literally shook County Stadium to its core, the din echoing down into the bowels of the structure where anixous sportswriters sat in the basement press room watching the TV as Rod Carew grounded out to Robin Yount completing one of the most improbable comebacks in baseball not to mention igniting one of the wildest celebrations in Milwaukee's history.

     It doesn't get much better than watching your hometown team earn its first trip to the World Series, unless, of course, you get to be there in person.

     And you have the opportunity to write about it.

     But I'll never forget that moment when every hair on my body stood at attention, and I gazed across the press room with a goofy pinch-me grin on my face, then locked eyes with my high school pal Bud Geracie.

     We just slowly shook our heads in disbelief understanding the astronomical odds of that moment becoming reality, not to mention us sharing it.

     Two young pups barely removed from college not to mention the halls of Brookfield Central High School, where we both wrote for the student newspaper, Tyro. Tyro, of course, meaning beginner, or novice.

      Little did I know what story had begun.

      Bud would ascend to become one of the best baseball writers in America, eventually covering the Oakland A's for the San Jose Mercury News.

      Me? That would be the last Major League Baseball game I covered.


      A distasteful experience just two days earlier pretty much erased any desire to cover Major Leaguers (more on that later), but as I scrambled to find my sportswriting voice over the next few hours I came to realize my true destiny.

      When the Brewers' lockerroom opened and champagne rained from everywhere, reporters crammed around the lockers of Cecil Cooper, who drove in the winning runs, Robin Yount, Paul Molitor and any number of Brewers who had a hand in the day's success — Jim Ganter, Charlie Moore, Pete Vukovich, Pete Ladd.

       As I geared up all day in anticipation for this winner-take-all event, I spent a lot of time reminiscing about the countless games of my youth spent in County Stadium, typically with my best friend Jack.

       We would sit in the upper deck with maybe a thousand others, seldom making our attendance guesses exceed 20,000 as we popped empty beer cups to listen to the echo in the empty rafters.

      Or we'd spend a sunny afternoon in the bleachers with as many empty seats as those filled. The Brewers losing more often than winning, but it didn't matter.

       We would skip school for Opening Day and never, ever miss a Bat Day.


      Our heroes were names that only the most dedicated baseball fans outside of Milwaukee might know. Danny Walton. Tommy Harper. Ted Kubiak. Jerry McNertney. Phil Roof. Mike Hegan. Skip Lockwood. Davey May. Johnny Briggs. The Boomer.

       Only one player on that '82 team represented that long ride to get to this moment: Stormin' Gorman Thomas.

       In what would become a signature move of my reporting style, I turned my back on the pack journalism and headed to a table filled with champagne bottles, cans of beer and snacks.

       There, alone, Gorman Thomas limped to belly up to the bar, so to speak. So I bellied up with him.

       Stormin' Gorman kind of tilted his head like a curious dog, his thick mustache already dripping from his first couple of trips to the table, wondering, no doubt, why I found him more interesting than the rest.

      Stormin' Gorman wildly shook a fresh bottle of champagne as I neared, and grinned with wild eyes as he laid down the law.

      "If you want to talk to me, you're going to get wet. Oooh, are you going to get wet," Stormin' Gorman chuckled.

       I said you've been around long enough to experience this long ride to the top. How does it feel?

       "How does it feel?" Stormin' Gorman said, preparing to make good on his word as another writer came to crash the party. "You'll notice that I'm being very deliberate in taking this wrapping off this cork. I'm savoring each moment, taking my time, loving every minute. And as soon as I get it off, I'm going to hose you guys to the bone. Ooh, boy, am I going to get smoked tonight!"

       Moments later, the cork popped and I got hosed down as promised. The burn of champagne in my eyes never felt so good.

       We continued the interview, and Stormin' Gorman admitted, "I don't have to tell you guys I stunk up the place with my hitting, but it didn't matter ..."

      Stormin' Gorman talked about the  journey.

      "It feels so good because we worked from the bottom up to make a winner here," Stormin' Gorman said, adding, "It's like planting an acorn and watching it grow into a tall, mighty oak."

       Eventually I made the rounds. I caught Paul Molitor, alone, walking out of the lockerroom in the hallway outside, the euphoria left behind.

       "You sit and watch each year and you see others trying to explain their feelings in words, and they just can't," Mollie said. "And you wonder to yourself what it's really like. You can't imagine then, and I can't explain it now."

       Back then reporters had no portable computers. I dictated my story over the phone for the previous two games. Luckily, I worked for an afternoon paper, so my story wouldn't be due until the next morning. I'd make the three-hour drive back to Dubuque later, spending all night writing.

      While the rest of the sportswriters hammered to meet deadlines, I walked out of the stadium, up the hill to Wisconsin Avenue, and followed the congo line of inching cars toward downtown.

       From that moment on I made sure I always soaked in the ambience of the moment, to let myself savor the experience and have that drive the tone of my stories. And I found you might find the true essence of the moment in the most unlikely places.

      With bumper-to-bumper cars honking horns packed with screaming fans stretching 50 blocks to downtown and filling half of the Wisconsin Avenue viaduct, I saw a lone figure walking down the other side of the bridge.

      I literally did a double-take as I realized it was Reggie Jackson. Irritated to be stuck in a traffic jam on the California Angels team bus, Reggie decided to walk back to the Pfister Hotel. I followed at a polite distance. Occasionally a kid would recognize him and approach for an autograph, only to get a fierce glare.

      By the time we go downtown, he hit some side streets. But for the better part of 20 minutes I saw the two sides to every game. Interestingly enough, when Reggie got off the plane the next morning in LA, he had a shiner. Someone has a great story to tell out there ...

     Despite all those wonderful memories, the fact is I also remember that playoff series for showing me how much I never wanted to spend time around egomaniac professional athletes.

     Here is an excerpt from my book "A More Simple Time: How Cycling Saved My Soul"

BEGIN EXCERPT

     I got the opportunity to cover them in their home games of American League Championship Series in 1982. The old Harvey's Wallbangers who, of course, began as Bambi's Bombers.

       They hobbled back from California down 0-2 to the Angels in the best-of-five series. No team had ever come back from 0-2 in a series in baseball. No matter, I was thrilled with the prospect of my assignment, even if it might turn out to be just one game. Like most reporters, I went down onto the field during batting practice. The pack of reporters surrounded Brewers manager Harvey Kuehn, asking worthless, lame questions that reporters ask.

      I wanted to just soak in the ambience of the moment. It was the first time I had set foot onto the grass of County Stadium, after years of sitting in the far reaches of the upper deck, or the sun-soaked bleachers in the outfield with my buddy Jack. It was one of those moments where, yes, I actually looked down and watched my shoe step onto the grass as chills rushed up my spine. I turned away from the pack, to head back up to the press box, when Cecil Cooper emerged from the dugout for his turn in the batting cage. Cooper was a fan favorite. County Stadium would echo with "Coooooop!" whenever he came to bat. He replaced a Brewer legend at first base, George Scott. The Boomer. Cooper was so damn talented that Milwaukee fans fell in love with him, too. I had no intention of doing anything but strolling past. I did, however, make eye contact. That's when the reality of professional sports reared its ugly head.

       "Don't even fucking think about it, you mother-fucker," Cooper snipped under his breath, pretending not to be speaking to me, yet glaring from beneath his visor with eyes afire. "Don't you fucking dare ask me a fucking question."

       I lost all desires to ever have a pro beat at that moment, although, I really never thought about it much. Even watching the Brewers magnificently battle back to win the next three games and advance to the World Series couldn't change my mind.

END EXCERPT

    So I sit here 36 long years later wondering if this latest group of Milwaukee Brewers can match that magical ride with a sweep at home to head off to another World Series, ready to spark new dreams ...


    

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