30 Years Ago: Recalling the Forgotten 1988 Milwaukee Brewers

Ask most Brewers fans to rank the best teams in Brewers history and you’re likely to hear some arrangement of the years that any good Brewers fan knows by heart: 1982, 1987, 1992, 2008, 2011. A look at the best Brewers teams by win totals mostly confirms this answer, while also reminding how great and under-appreciated George Bamberger’s late ‘70s teams were in an era when only 4 teams from all of MLB made the playoffs:

















This list is basically the Yount/Molitor/Cooper/Oglivie Brewers that culminated in the franchise’s only World Series appearance to date (for what it is worth the 1981 Brewers were on pace for 92 wins in that strike-shortened season) and then the Braun/Fielder Brewers. The exceptions are the 1987 and 1992 seasons.

Most fans of a certain age remember those 1987 and 1992 seasons as the lone bright spots during the Brewers' quarter-century wander through the wilderness without a playoff appearance. 1987 was the miracle season featuring that unforgettable 13-0 start that included Juan Nieves no-hitter and the Easter Sunday Rob Deer/Dale Sveum heroics, as well as Paul Molitor’s 39-game hitting streak. (Some of us have even memorized basically every word of the Brewers' 1987 season-ending video.) 1992 featured the Brewers most entertaining pennant race between their 1982 and 2008 playoff appearances: Phil Garner’s managerial debut, Pat Listach’s AL rookie of the year award, Cal Eldred’s epic run of starts following his July call-up, and Molitor’s final season as a member of the Brewers. (It was also the Brewers last winning season for 15 years.)

But did you know that the closest the Brewers came to the playoffs between 1982 and 2007 was neither 1987 nor 1992, but the 1988 season? It's true: When the dust settled on the AL East race in 1988, the 87-75 Brewers finished just two games behind the first place Boston Red Sox. Yes, the AL East lacked a dominant team in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, as the Twins and A’s combined would take five straight pennants for the AL West. But the division was also highly competitive, with five teams finishing within 3.5 games of first in 1988.

Other surprises: It was 1988, not 1987, that featured manager Tom Trebelhorn’s best team in terms of expected wins and losses (based on the ratio of runs scored to runs allowed). Most fans think of the 1980s and think of Yount and Molitor, but the 1988 Brewers success was primarily attributable to their excellent and deep pitching staff. Only AL pennant winning Oakland, which won 104 games, had a better AL ERA than the Brewers (remember, there was no interleague play in 1988, so league stats tell you everything).

The 1988 Brewers were a legitimately good, if shallow, ballclub. Ted Higuera, the best pitcher in Brewers history, capped a dominant three-year run as the 2nd best pitcher in the league behind Roger Clemens with a sterling 162 ERA+ (2.45 ERA) during a 7.4 bWAR season. (Unfortunately, Higuera’s arm had begun to wear down, and he would never again make 30 starts.) Rookie Don August, a 1984 first round draft pick of the Astros who the Brewers acquired via a deadline deal in 1986 (for new Reds pitching coach Danny Darwin!), but whose prospect star had dimmed considerably, surprised everyone by posting 3.1 bWAR in 22 starts, eventually placing 4th on the AL Rookie of the Year ballot (August’s peripherals did not support his performance, and he was never effective again). Chris Bosio began his breakout at age 25, contributing 2.3 bWAR in 182 innings, including 22 starts. And the bullpen was excellent. Dan Plesac (52.1 IP, 2.41 ERA) and Chuck Crim (105 IP in a league-leading 70 appearances, 2.91 ERA) continued to be elite at the back-end, and journeyman LHP Paul Mirabella (60 IP, 1.65 ERA) came out of nowhere to have his best season.

It was the offense that kept the 1988 Brewers from greater glory. The team did not lack for elite performers: Hall of Famers Molitor and Robin Yount combined were both healthy and great for the first time in a season together in some time, combining to exceed 10 WAR for the first time since 1983. Rob Deer battled some injuries but put together another fine season, and Jim Gantner bounced back from severe injury in 1987 with 2.3 WAR performance that recalled his early 1980s peak despite celebrating his 35th birthday. Glenn Braggs was on his way to a nice season when he hurt his shoulder in late June and was lost for the season.

But that was it. The rest of the Brewers regulars in the lineup were awful. BJ Surhoff, Dale Sveum, Greg Brock, and young 1B/DH Joey Meyer, for whom the Brewers had high hopes entering the season, really struggled. Other options such as Ernest Riles and Jim Adduci weren’t any better. To the Brewers credit, when it quickly became clear that they needed another bat, Bud Selig authorized a move to acquire a high-profile player (at least by Selig-era Brewers standards): OF Jeffrey Leonard of the San Francisco Giants. The problem was that the Leonard acquisition was a classic pre-analytics-era mistake. Leonard's name recognition was high because he'd been a 1987 NL All Star and had been the MVP of the previous year’s NLCS (despite being on the losing team) thanks to a flair for the dramatic and a .417/.500/.917 performance in the series. But in reality, Leonard had been good for only the first two months (plus October) in 1987, was 32, terrible in the outfield, and hadn't posted an OBP above .322 since 1984.

As a result, though the Leonard experiment excited fans, it turned out to be a nightmare, as he posted a -1.1 WAR in just 94 games with the Brewers thanks to batting .235/.270/.350 and playing poor defense in LF after Braggs was lost for the season. (Perhaps a free agent or two following the successful 1987 season could have helped, but this was right in the middle of the owners’ collusion era.)

Still, the Brewers only came up two games short. So why don’t we hear more about the 1988 team?

For one thing, it was probably inevitable that 1988 would fall under the shadow of the 1987 season, with all of its magical moments commencing right from the very first day of the season. 1988 lacked any singular memorable moments or streaks.

But the more obvious reason is that the Brewers did not enter the AL East race until most fans had stopped paying close attention. Despite high expectations in Milwaukee, the team sputtered right from the start. Opening the season with an eight game road trip to Baltimore, New York, and Boston, the Brewers started well by sweeping two against the lowly Orioles, but lost the remaining six games of the trip, first at Yankee Stadium and then Fenway Park.

Next, a presumably unsettled record crowd of 55,887 showed up for the April 15 home opener only to see things get worse. Starter Mike Birkbeck surrendered five runs in the 1st inning before departing with one out in the second after allowing 5 hits, walking 3 batters, committing THREE balks, and putting the Brewers down 6-0. They would lose 7-1. Losing your home opener in listless fashion to fall to 2-7 is not a way to hold fans’ attention.

The Brewers did manage to battle back to .500 by winning their next five games on the homestand (in front of much smaller crowds), and they finished April with a-modest-but-not-terrible 9-11 record given the ugly start. Then, from April 30 to May 9, they won 10 straight games against AL West opponents (a theme for the season, as it turned out), leaving them in 2nd place in the AL East at 18-11, tied in the loss column and just one game back of the first place Yankees.

But the Brewers schedule swung back towards playing the AL East, and things again got ugly as the club lost 12 of their next 17, including 7 of 9 during one homestand. Just two and a half weeks after sniffing first place, the Brewers found themselves in 5th by May 27, 8.5 games back, with a 23-23 record. (The Yankees, who stayed hot while the Brewers went cold, remained in first place, followed by a very surprising Indians team that fattened up to a 30-16 record thanks to a heavy April and May diet of AL West opponents—Cleveland would finish the season by going 48-68 the rest of the way.)

And that’s basically how things held for the Brewers over the next 3 months. You could have left the country on May 27 and returned on August 29, and it would not have been at all clear that you had missed anything (except for the filming of "Major League," which took place at County Stadium that summer). When the Brewers finished their 134th game of the season on August 29 (a 6-1 loss to the Blue Jays completed in 2 hours, 27 minutes thanks to Jim Clancy’s complete game), they were once again .500 at 67-67, just as they had been on May 27. They were nine games out of first, but just one-half game worse than three months earlier. The Indians had collapsed and the Yankees had sputtered to third place. Detroit and Boston now led the way, but because both had started somewhat sluggishly themselves, the Brewers weren’t hopelessly behind.

At last the Brewers entered the race. Following that August 29th loss to Toronto, the Brewers won 16 of their next 20 games. Meanwhile, the first place Tigers had just begun a terrible stretch of losing 16 of 19 that would ultimately cost them the division title to Boston. Key to those stretches for both teams was a four-game Labor Day weekend series between the teams in Detroit. Milwaukee came to town on September 1 eight games out of first, and when they left four days later, that margin had been cut in half. The Brewers woke up on Labor Day morning, September 5, 1988, in third place, trailing both Detroit and Boston, who were tied for first, by 4 games.

The excitement continued. After splitting two home games with the White Sox, the Brewers welcomed the Seattle Mariners to Milwaukee for a weekend series. On Friday night, September 9, an electric 9-inning duel between Bill Wegman and Mariners ace Mark Langston was upstaged by a 19-year-old rookie September Brewers call-up named Gary Sheffield, playing in his fifth major league game. In the sixth inning, with the Brewers trailing 1-0, Sheffield collected his first major-league hit off Langston--a solo homerun to tie the game. The game stayed 1-1--and Langston kept on pitching--into extra innings, until Sheffield came to bat in the bottom of the 11th inning with one out and pinch runner Mike Felder on 2nd. Two pitches into the at-bat, Felder stole third. Three pitchers later, Sheffield roped Langston's 137th pitch of the evening into left field for the dramatic walk-off victory.

Counting the September 9 win, the Brewers kicked off a run of winning 9 of 12, but unfortunately, the Brewers wouldn’t get any closer than 4 games back until the final week of the season. Part of the problem was that, as the AL East "swing team"[1] in 1988, the Brewers faced only AL West opponents after Labor Day. Though the Brewers were winning, with too many AL East teams jumbled just in front of the Brewers, even as they beat up on each other someone in the division was always winning. Thus, even as the Brewers won on Tuesday, September 27, to tie the Tigers in the standings, Boston held a 3.5 game lead with only 4 to play. Milwaukee would be eliminated two games later, ultimately finishing 2 games back and 13 games over .500.

In retrospect, everything that made the 1988 season a compelling one for the Brewers occurred during the final four-and-a-half weeks of the season: the 16-4 run, the exciting Tigers sweep, the Sheffield walk-off, etc. Unfortunately, late August is not a great time to try and start regaining fan interest if you’re a baseball team. When the Brewers finally ignited, most fans had already abandoned their high preseason expectations (recall that still-record Opening Day crowd) and turned their attention to next year. Kids (like me!) had already gone back to school. Football (as bad as the Packers and Badgers were in those days) was underway. And as the AL East "swing team" most of the Brewers late season run came against AL West opposition, meaning many games were played late in the evening and there were no opportunities for signature showdown games against their fellow division contenders.

Still, thirty years ago this year a Brewers team led by a memorable core came as close to a division title and playoff appearance as they ever would between 1982 and 2008. That’s worth commemorating. The good news? There's a video for 1988 too.

[1] Prior to the 1993 expansion and split into three divisions, the American League had two 7-team divisions, and therefore for scheduling purposes, each year the American League office would select one AL East team from among a centrally-located group of Milwaukee, Detroit, Toronto, and Cleveland that would serve as that year’s "swing team" for scheduling purposes. As the schedule was put together, the swing team wound up being paired with the AL West teams for balance and travel purposes.