Twenty-five Aprils ago, Brewers ruled baseball
This is the first in FOXSportsWisconsin.com’s five-part series commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Milwaukee Brewers’ 13-0 start to the 1987 season.
Today: 13-0 still special 25 years later
Monday: Juan Nieves’ no-hitter makes it 9-0
Tuesday: The Easter Sunday Game
Wednesday: 13-1. Now what?
Thursday: Free George Webb hamburgers for everyone!
The young manager approached his first spring training in charge of a major league baseball team with a plan that he recognized could fail miserably.
Tom Trebelhorn knew he didn’t have the experience to warrant instant credibility with his players when the Milwaukee Brewers opened spring camp in March 1987. But he also knew the virtues necessary to win for an entire season — stressing fundamentals more than any other manager in the league. That’s how, at age 37, he won the Pacific Coast League title in 1985 as manager of Triple-A Vancouver, the Brewers’ top-level farm team.
So when spring training opened, Trebelhorn made sure his players understood his core values: They would work harder, longer and smarter on the small details that might go overlooked by other teams.
“His philosophies were different than previous managers we had,” Brewers third baseman Paul Molitor said, “a little more innovative with how he thought about the game and aggressive base running and situational hitting.”
By the time spring training ended, Trebelhorn felt certain his players had a sharper understanding of basic baseball principles, even if they weren’t sure his philosophies would work.
“It was a tough spring training,” Trebelhorn said. “I would say we outworked any other team in baseball. I wanted to stress to the players that spring training should be tough so the season is playing a bunch of games and having some fun.”
Nobody had any idea just how much fun was in store for the Brewers. But one play on Opening Day against the Boston Red Sox symbolized the start of a magical run and helped Trebelhorn earn the respect of his players.
With a runner on first and nobody out in the top of the fifth inning, Red Sox shortstop Spike Owen dropped down a bunt toward the first-base line. Rather than catch the ball for an out, Brewers first baseman Greg Brock trapped the ball, forcing the runner on first to take off for second base. Brock tagged the batter out and threw on to second for a double play.
It was the exact defensive situation Trebelhorn had forced his players to practice repeatedly in spring training. The Brewers went on to win 5-1.
“You practice things that may happen,” Trebelhorn said. “Sure enough, it happened. In my situation, the hard work in spring training and the fact that things came up that we talked about in practice, some of which wasn’t normal stuff, gave me some credibility. It gave the players confidence that we seemed to know what we were doing.”
Perhaps Opening Day was an omen of good things to come from the mighty baseball gods. Milwaukee surprisingly won 13 consecutive games — still tied for the longest winning streak to open a season in major league history — and whipped a city, a state and a country into a frenzy.
The Brewers eventually floated back to earth, also losing 12 consecutive games and missing the playoffs, but 25 years later, the 1987 season remains one of the most memorable in franchise history because of the team’s unexpected success.
The winning streak
If an Opening Day victory against Boston stirred the masses in Milwaukee, fans and players couldn’t have imagined the triumphs that lay ahead.
The Brewers went on to sweep the Red Sox, winning the next two games, 3-2 and 12-11.
“For Milwaukee, sweeping Boston the first series was a big deal,” Trebelhorn said. “Locally, that’s a big deal to start a season.”
Milwaukee then traveled to Texas for a three-game series and swept the Rangers, too. The final game of the series lasted 12 innings before Milwaukee won 7-5 on B.J. Surhoff’s two-run single to right field.
With the team 6-0 to start the season, players began to sense they had an opportunity to be a part of something special.
“When you have a team that comes to the ballpark every day that believes you’re going to win and goes out there and does something out of the ordinary to win, you get to a feeling like, ‘How can we ever lose?'” Brewers outfielder Rob Deer said. “At that level, when you have a feeling that you’re going to win every day, it’s like the greatest ever.”
Riding high from a six-game winning streak, Milwaukee traveled to Baltimore and continued its winning ways. The Brewers won 6-3 and 7-4 before pitcher Juan Nieves, just 22 years old, tossed a no-hitter to help turn Milwaukee’s streak into a national story.
“We were getting to that point that people were saying, ‘Whoa, this team is for real,'” Nieves said. “There were some great feats there.”
The Brewers returned home, and with Milwaukee County Stadium abuzz, they didn’t disappoint the home fans. Milwaukee knocked off Texas 10-2 and 4-3, setting the stage for perhaps the most memorable game in franchise history, forever known as “The Easter Sunday Game.”
With Milwaukee trailing 4-1 in the bottom of the ninth inning and one out, Deer blasted a three-run home run to tie it at 4-4. Three batters later, Dale Sveum launched a two-run homer that sent the Brewers to a 6-4 victory and a 12-0 start to the season.
Deer found himself on the cover of Sports Illustrated, rounding the bases with the title “Brewing Up a Storm” etched next to his name. The Brewers had become an international story when they traveled to face the Chicago White Sox the next day.
Deer and Molitor were even guests via satellite on Good Morning America.
“When we went down to Chicago right after that, CNN and every major sports network was on the field,” Deer said. “In Old Comiskey Park, walking out of the dugout to the plate, there were just massive cameras the whole way down. You’d have to go to each camera and give an interview. It was worldwide news.”
The Brewers went on to win their 13th consecutive game in the first contest against the White Sox — which tied a major league season-opening record set by the 1982 Atlanta Braves — before suffering a 7-1 defeat on April 21.
The losing streak
There were plenty of good vibes that came with the 13-game winning streak, and the Brewers had no reason to believe they would end any time soon.
Future Hall of Famers Molitor and Robin Yount were hitting well over .300, as were Brock, Deer, Surhoff, Sveum and catcher Bill Schroeder.
Even after the first loss, Milwaukee won seven of nine games to move to 20-3 overall and five games ahead of second place in the American League East.
Then, disaster struck.
Molitor, who was batting .395, injured his right hamstring, and without him the Brewers collapsed.
The swoon began with a 7-3 loss at Seattle on May 3 and continued through May 19. During that span, the Brewers lost 12 consecutive games.
“It was absolutely horrible,” Deer said. “To be given an opportunity to take full advantage and to have it crumble, it was very humbling. Because I know everybody tried to figure out ways. What can we do differently? What are we doing wrong? The beginning of the season, we were catching all the breaks. We were playing as well as we could play. Then all of a sudden, bam. It was kind of like destiny.
By the time it was over, Milwaukee was in third place, three games out of first, and never fully recovered. No matter what managerial tactics Trebelhorn tried, nothing worked.
Milwaukee’s 1987 team became known as “Team Streak,” becoming the first team to win 13 consecutive games and lose 12 in a row in the same season. Not even Molitor’s 39-game hitting streak later in the season — the fifth-longest streak in major league history — could pull the Brewers from the depths of despair.
“In this business, when things are going well, you always wait for the baseball gods or whatever you want to call it,” Trebelhorn said. “You always wait for something to bring you back to reality.”
The freefall continued into July. When the All-Star break mercifully arrived on July 12, the Brewers were 42-43 overall, 11 games back and in fourth place in the AL East.
“After the season got going and we started losing some games, you lose the confidence,” Deer said. “You try to find it and you try to believe it, but it’s hard to get that back. That’s why it’s so special when it happens.”
A memorable season
The Milwaukee Brewers did not make the playoffs in 1987 — a fact that seems lost to history 25 years later.
Milwaukee rallied to finish 91-71 but took third in the AL East, seven games behind Detroit.
“I wish we could have had a spark in the end there to hopefully catch a couple of teams,” Nieves said. “It would have been nice. I know we didn’t win the whole thing, but at least 25 years later we can talk about it.”
For many of the players involved, the season remains one of their greatest sports memories.
“That was my World Series,” said Deer, who played in the big leagues from 1984 to 1996. “It was amazing.”
From 1982, when the Brewers made their one and only World Series appearance, until 2008, the team did not reach the playoffs, and 1987 served as a bright spot in Milwaukee baseball during that span.
“What made it so much more exciting was we were picked to be if not last, close to the bottom of the AL East going into the ’87 season,” Brewers closer Dan Plesac said. “It was a transition period for the organization.”
Even though it didn’t result in a playoff appearance, in many ways, 1987 is still considered one of the best seasons in Brewers baseball. If nothing else, Team Streak defied the odds with a young roster and an unproven manager and showed that almost anything in the game is possible.
“It was an unbelievable story,” Trebelhorn said.
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