The C.C. (or CC) Sabathia trade is not just an example of a franchise going for it, it’s a case of a franchise also making a total break from its past. During the long, dry Bud Selig years, the Brewers were not a big in-season trading team. They made one decisive move at deadline time in 1982. Since then, they haven’t had much of a chance to do anything similar, and even when given the chance, they never got around to bothering.
In 1978, July 31 found the Brewers in second place in the American League East, 5½ games behind the front-running Red Sox, and 2½ games ahead of the third-place Yankees. The Brewers had the best offense in the league despite a catching tandem (Buck Martinez and Charlie Moore) which couldn’t hit and a punchless rookie named Dick Davis getting too many swings in at DH and left field. The pitching staff was just average, with manager George Bamberger pushing the rotation-a pretty shaky unit after you got past terrific lefty sinkerballer Mike Caldwell and second-year righty Lary Sorenson-to the second-most complete games in the league.
On July 31, 1982, the Brewers were just half a game in front of the Red Sox and three games in front of the Orioles. In that case, the Brewers did make a move, and one that proved to be classic, though it nearly came too late. Over the next month, the Brewers went 19-11 and pulled away from the Red Sox, who had an ill-timed 15-15 stretch. With a 4½ game lead (five in the loss column), 33 to play, and the competition fading, the Brewers would seem to have been set. The offense was terrific, on its way to hitting a then-impressive 216 home runs. The pitching staff had been just okay, but seemed to be good enough, with a generally indifferent rotation headed up by Mike Caldwell and Pete Vuckovich (the latter the eventual Cy Young Award winner, though hardly the best pitcher in the league), and future Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers doing strong work in the late innings.
Even so, there were problems. Lefty Bob McClure was doing a middling job at best, and Moose Haas had been pounded regularly since May, posting a 5.66 ERA in 16 starts. The club had purchased a fading Doc Medich from the Rangers on August 11. Medich was a league-average pitcher at best throughout his career despite some seasons with high win totals predicated on good run support. He hadn’t even been league average in 1982, going 7-11 with a 5.06 ERA for the Rangers. Yet, in his first four starts for the Brewers, he was far better than that, allowing just nine runs in 28 1/3 innings.
In Medich’s next start, manager Harvey Kuenn made the odd decision to allow him to go all the way in a complete game 10-inning loss to the Tigers. Medich had pitched six scoreless innings and the Brewers held a 3-0 lead when the Tigers finally got to Medich for two runs in the top of the seventh. He pitched on into the eighth. The Tigers picked up another three runs in that frame, with Medich giving up runs on a delayed double steal of home with Lou Whitaker on the front end and a Larry Herndon triple. Still Medich pitched on. The Brewers tied the game in the bottom of the eighth on Ben Oglivie‘s two-run homer; Medich stayed in. Finally, in the top of the tenth, Tom Brookens led off with a home run for the Tigers… and Medich remained in the game to finish the frame.
Doc Medich made five more starts during the regular season. He pitched 24 innings and allowed 22 runs. They were, not coincidentally, the last starts of the 32-year-old’s career. His last almost undid the season, for while the Brewers were watching the Red Sox, Earl Weaver’s Orioles were coming up on the outside. In the midst of a 17-1 stretch that included a ten-game winning streak, they blasted past the Red Sox on September 4. The two teams met on October 1 with four games to play. The Brewers led by three. All they needed was one win.
The October 1 meeting was a doubleheader. Vuckovich faced Dennis Martinez in the first game, which the O’s won handily. Caldwell pitched against Storm Davis in the nightcap. Eddie Murray homered in the first; the Orioles would hit three more, all off of Caldwell, who stayed in to absorb the pounding. The Brewers now led by one with two to play. Medich was to pitch against Scott McGregor. The Brewers hammered the veteran lefty, knocking him out in the fourth, but unfortunately, Medich would be knocked out in the same inning, and by a larger margin. The Orioles won 11-3. Bye-bye, Doc Medich. The race was tied with one to play.
The Orioles had a future Hall of Famer scheduled for the last game. Jim Palmer would take the mound. Luckily, the Brewers also had a Hall of Famer ready to go. That’s because back on August 30, they had packaged a trio of youngsters (switch-hitting outfielder Kevin Bass, lefty reliever Frank DiPino, and lefty starter Mike Madden) to the Astros in exchange for Don Sutton, a 37-year-old right-hander with 254 career wins and a 3.05 career ERA. To that point in the season, Sutton had pitched 195 innings with a 3.00 ERA. He made six starts for the Brewers, and they went 4-2 in those games, with Sutton posting a 3.47 ERA. He rose to the occasion in this final start while the Brewers got on Palmer early, with eventual AL MVP Robin Yount swatting two home runs off of the three-time Cy Young winner. Palmer was gone after five innings; but Sutton held on for eight despite walking five and allowing eight hits, though surrendering only two runs. The Brewers went on to the playoffs, then the World Series.
A lesson would seem to have been learned, but from then on, the Brewers stood pat. In 1987, Tom Trebelhorn’s team opened the season by winning 13 straight games. It seemed like something special was in the offing, but in truth it was just one of those things; the Brewers went 78-71 from then on, both the offense and the pitching staff not quite worthy of even that record-the Brewers were a .500 team with some very good luck. However, even as they sank out of sight-by the July 31 deadline, they were in fourth place, ten games behind the front-running Yankees and eight games out of third-at no time did they choose to try to regain their momentum. They didn’t try to fix a particularly obvious problem after the late-June injury that pushed Paul Molitor from third base to the DL for three weeks, and then to DH once he returned. That injury turned their infield into a mostly-harmless mess of Juan Castillo at second, Ernie Riles at third, and Dale Sveum at short. The trio’s sole offensive contribution came in the form of Sveum’s rabbit ball-powered 25 home runs, and the unit lacked in defense as well, the Brew Crew finishing next to last in the league in defensive efficiency.
If you looked at the standings in 1988, when the Brewers finished just two games behind the Red Sox in a soft division, or 1991, when they finished just eight games out in another weak year for the American League East, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Brewers might have had a chance to get ahead if they had just pulled the trigger on a deal or three-after all, the club had some very conspicuous weaknesses in those seasons, be it relying on Mark Birkbeck to finish out their starting rotation, or playing Franklin Stubbs at first base. However, these Tom Trebelhorn teams look better on paper than they did in reality; both were out early and then closed hard, the 1988 team going 21-9 over its last 30 games to finish with a flourish, while the 1991 team, which had dealt itself out of the race with a 9-18 July, went 40-22 over the last two months. In the latter case, Brewers pitching suddenly and mysteriously clicked, a staff which had established itself as the kind that would allow four runs and change per game going on a crash diet that had them well into the threes. In the former, a good pitching staff got a little better, while the offense added half a run per game for no particular reason.
Phil Garner‘s 1992 team had a better excuse. The starting rotation was just fine, particularly after the extraordinary young Cal Eldred was added to the mix starting in July-a year before Garner subjected his arm to a season of 140-pitch starts-and the rookie went 11-2 with a 1.79 ERA in 14 games. The bullpen was strong as well, though Doug Henry made for a problematic closer. The real problem was the offense, which still had the Stubbs troubles (.220/.297/.368) and added some new ones-the offense as a whole hit 82 home runs, and the starting infielders combined to hit all of 22. Yount’s bat died, Dante Bichette was his pointless pre-Rockies self, and while Molitor was still great, he was just one man.
At the trading deadline, the Brewers were in third place, six games behind the Blue Jays-and no move was made. On August 31, they were still in third place, but just 4½ games back. There was no move made then either, though a little more than two weeks earlier they did add the veteran lefty Neal Heaton to the staff as a free agent. He pitched one inning. That would be the team’s last real chance to influence a pennant race with a deal until last year, when they put the pedal to the metal and sent three players to the Padres for Scott Linebrink.
So, adding Sabathia signals a wonderful, post-Selig-ian willingness to go for it, even if Sabathia proves to be little more than a three-month rental, and the contour of the deal tailor-made, given that the team had a dispensable über-prospect in Matt LaPorta, whose defensive restrictions made him a poor compliment to the current major league lineup. Flags, as they say, fly forever, and given the size of Sabathia’s pants, they would fly forever too if a good gust of wind blew into the waistband. That would be most likely to happen if the Brewers get to hang those expansive trousers from the rafters of Miller Park, a “Division Champion” legend, or even something better, stamped across the seat. Given more than a quarter of a century without a postseason appearance, it’s good to see that for all the things that might fit into those pants, there is no room for the habitual timorousness of the old ownership.