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Redoing the Dark Ages: 1996 Milwaukee Brewers

How does the team respond to a World Series loss?

San Francisco Giants vs Chicago Cubs
John Burkett.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Allsport/Getty Images

In the absence of real baseball during the COVID-19 pandemic, we are using OOTP Baseball 21 to redo the dark ages of the Milwaukee Brewers, when the team failed to post a winning season for 14 years from 1993-2006. Here is how we’ve gotten to this point so far:

The Milwaukee Brewers broke their 12-year streak of missing the playoffs in 1995, winning 101 games and their second-ever American League pennant before getting dispatched by the 120-win Atlanta Braves in the World Series. In just three seasons, our young GM has pushed this team through a rebuild and turned them into legitimate contenders. The challenge for this offseason would be to figure out what finishing touches are needed to get the franchise over the top and capture their first championship trophy.

The offseason started with relatively easy decisions to pick up team options for starter Ramon Martinez ($3 mil) and closer Bryan Harvey ($2.5 mil). Deion Sanders enjoyed a solid season as the club’s regular center fielder, but his $900K option was declined and he hit the open market. Not too long after that, Milwaukee agreed to one-year deals with reliever Graeme Lloyd ($600K) and superstar catcher Dave Nilsson ($1.5 mil) to avoid arbitration.

As award season comes and goes, right fielder Sammy Sosa is recognized as a Silver Slugger award winner. Free agency begins and the club waived goodbye to reliever Greg Hibbard and failed rental starter John Smiley as both join Neon Deion in looking for new homes. Outfielder Chris Jones and catcher Todd Hundley also became available after they were non-tendered by the team.

Our young executive’s two biggest transactions of the winter came as trades. First, the Baltimore Orioles called and in an aggressive pursuit of infield prospect Fernando Vina. Feeling solid about his depth on the dirt, Milwaukee’s lead decision maker was able to pry not only All-Star reliever Randy Myers away from the O’s, but also four prospects — RHP Jay Powell, 1B TR Lewis, RF Damon Buford, and 3B Myles Barnden — in what wound up as a five-for-one swap.

A few weeks later, just before the end of the calendar year, the Texas Rangers came calling and were looking to poach away a big fish. Jeff Cirillo was the Junior Circuit’s reigning batting champ after hitting .347 in 1995 and was one of the team’s most popular homegrown players. In order to land him, though, Texas was willing to put together a package led by talented outfielder Rusty Greer, who was himself coming off of a 120 OPS+ performance in 1995. It wound up turning into an eight-player blockbuster, with Cirillo and right-handed pitching prospects John Wasdin and Damian Leon heading to the Lone Star State in exchange for Greer, lefty reliever Jim Poole, third base prospect Mike Bell, pitching prospect Wilson Heredia, outfield prospect Jose Guillen (who was the #16 overall pick in 1993), and $155K in cash. Fans were understandably upset at the loss of Cirillo, but some of that distress was offset by the arrival of Greer, the 1994 Rookie of the Year runner-up and a 1995 All-Star.

Osvaldo Hernandez was Milwaukee’s number one selection in December’s MLB Draft at #28 overall, a high-floor arm who should be able to reach the majors relatively quickly. Other notable draft picks included Eric Gagne (round 2), Stubby Clapp (round 3), Greenfield native Peter Bergeron (round 4 with a well over-slot bonus), Justin Duchscherer (round 5), Peter Moylan (round 8), Chad Bradford (round 18), Wayne Franklin (round 20), and Joe Winkelsas (round 41). Donnie Blair — who was outrighted off the 40-man after the season — was lost to Colorado in the Rule 5 Draft, though Milwaukee got back at the Rockies by taking outfielder Luis Andino with their choice in that same draft.

Wrapping up the offseason were some further moves to shore up the pitching staff, which has been the team’s greatest weakness each year of our GM’s tenure. Veteran right-handers Tim Pugh and Greg Harris were inked to one-year deals both for $225K, and long-time closer Stan Belinda agreed to a one-year deal for $1.8 mil (plus the $260K buyout of his $2.6 mil team option for 1997). A handful of players came and went on waivers, including infielder Craig Counsell, who was claimed and spent the year in El Paso after getting DFA’d by the Dodgers. Lastly, Ramon Martinez once again agreed to forgo free agency by agreeing to a three-year extension with a club option for 2000. He’ll stand to make $3 mil each year of the deal.

Tom Gordon recovered from the elbow surgery (bone chips) that shelved him for most of 1995 in time to make the Opening Day start on the road against the California Angels on April 2nd, and he tossed five innings of one-run baseball. He was outdone by opposing starter Mark Langston, however, who fired eights shutout frames as the Angels would win 1-0. That would kick off a slow first two months in the Menomonee Valley as the offense struggled to get things going.

John Jaha was ice cold during the month of April, posting only a .588 OPS. Nomar Garciaparra, who was handed an everyday job after the Cirillo trade, hit for a 77 OPS+ and -0.4 WAR in his first 24 games before getting sent down and replaced in the lineup by Alex Rodriguez. Luis Andino was given regular at-bats in center but was sent back to Colorado after hitting .242/.276/.303 in 29 games. Tim Pugh was waived following a 12 walk, 6 strikeout performance and 5.68 ERA across 19.0 innings. Sammy Sosa’s OBP was below .300 after two months. Some superlative performances elsewhere around the diamond helped the Brewers tread water, but at the end of May, the club sat under .500 with a 26-28 record. Would a long and disappointing summer lie ahead for fans in Milwaukee just one year after nearly reaching baseball’s zenith?

Fortunately, as the weather warmed up, so too did the Milwaukee Nine. The club put together 18-9 records in back-to-back months to draw within a half-game of the division-leading Indians in the AL Central on July 31st. Three players were named to the All-Star team — Bryan Harvey (who was actually experiencing a ‘down’ season by his ERA standards), Jose Valentin, and Dave Nilsson. The Aussie Nilsson was having a particularly notable season, and by the end of July, he owned this stat line:

The bullpen was in solid shape thanks in large part to the free agent relievers that were brought in during the offseason, but while the rotation was performing solidly, it was lacking an impact arm at the top. Fortunately, the San Francisco Giants were well out of playoff position and their GM Matt Lewis was looking to sell off his top starting pitcher, 31 year old righty John Burkett — a 22-game winner in 1994 who missed a good chunk of 1995 with a fractured elbow. He had recovered enough to post a 4.14 ERA through 23 starts for San Fran — good for a 114 ERA+ — but a 3.59 FIP said he was even better than that. Lewis struck up a conversation with our young executive to gauge interest on deadline day, and common ground was found.

In the end, Milwaukee agreed to send three MLB-ready contributors to the Bay Area — 26 year old outfielder Troy O’Leary (who was serving as fourth outfielder with a 106 OPS+), 26 year old infielder Kevin Jordan (who saw action in 23 games as a utility player), and 25 year old third base prospect Tim Unroe (who had posted a 108 OPS+ in El Paso). The Brewers not only received Burkett in exchange, but San Fran also agreed to cover 70% of his remaining contract. Burkett’s deal paid him $3.48 mil in both 1996 and the following year in 1997, meaning that Milwaukee was only on the hook about $350K to finish out the ‘96 season and $1 mil the next year.

Unlike the 1995 John Smiley trade, this deadline deal worked like a charm for our GM. Manager Bryce Curtis had his horse atop the rotation and Burkett worked 75.2 innings across 12 starts during the final two months of the season while authoring a 3.93 ERA (133 ERA+). The Indians wound up fading badly, going 24-31 during August and September (after a 7-20 July) to fall out of the race and become a non-factor by season’s end. Our local nine didn’t light the world on fire by any means, finishing 30-24 during that same span, but they were able to win the division with relative ease after cruising home with a 90-72 record (3.0 games ahead of the White Sox). It was only the third time in the franchise’s history that they had earned the right to hang a divisional banner.

Once again, the Brewers were an offensive juggernaut. They lead the league with 1,084 runs scored, hitting a combined .307/.375/.503 (!!!) while smashing 261 home runs. Dave Nilsson had a season for the ages, falling just shy of .400 but winning Milwaukee’s second straight batting title and emerging as one of the favorites for MVP. Rusty Greer more than proved he was worth giving up Jeff Cirillo for. Alex Rodriguez became one of the top candidates for Rookie of the Year. John Jaha bounced back from his slow start, and Marty Cordova recovered from a rough 1995. In fact, only one regular member of the lineup had a wRC+ below 100:

This year, though, the pitching staff finally caught up with the starting lineup in terms of helping the team to victory. Milwaukee finished 4th in the AL with a 4.45 ERA, and their 4.10 bullpen ERA was tops on the Junior Circuit. No one had a particularly standout year, but most of the men were at least solid:

The Brewers squared off against California in the ALDS. Melido Perez gave up eight runs in Game 1 as the Angels won 10-4, but a solo homer by Cordova and an RBI double by Nilsson in the 8th inning of Game 2 gave the Brewers a 5-4 victory and evened the series at one apiece. Flash Gordon threw seven innings of two-hit baseball for Milwaukee in Game 3 in a 2-1 win, and then a three-RBI performance from Mark Loretta in Game 4 powered the Brewers to a 7-2 victory and on to the NLCS versus the Yankees.

Milwaukee was able to jump out to a 1-0 lead over the 108-win Evil Empire, with John Burkett throwing 8.2 innings and getting back with home runs by A-Rod, Nilsson, and Cordova in a 13-1 victory in Game 1 victory. Rusty Greer smacked five hits in Game 2, but Melido Perez (7.2 IP, 3 ER) was outdueled by Andy Pettitte (7 IP, 1 ER). Tom Gordon tossed 7 innings of one-run ball to earn a Game 3 victory. In Game 4, Cal Eldred was cruising through 6 frames before coughing up a three-spot in the 7th, but Slammin’ Sammy bailed him out with a walk-off solo home run in the bottom of the 9th to put Milwaukee up in the series three games to one.

The Yankees clawed their way back into the series, however. John Smoltz fired eight shutout innings in Game 5 as New York won 5-0. Then in Game 6, old friend (or enemy?) Gary Sheffield launched a pair of home runs and a double while driving in 6 runs. The 9-2 victory knotted the series up at 3 games each and the two teams headed to Yankee Stadium for the deciding Game 7 featuring Tom Gordon versus Mark Langston. The game was tied nothing-nothing until the fourth inning, when Nilsson began the scoring with a solo home run. Milwaukee then broke the game open with a four-spot in the fifth thanks to run-scoring hits by Nilsson and Loretta. Gordon wound up throwing six shutout frames and Milwaukee won easily, 7-0. The Brewers had captured their second-straight AL pennant and were once again set to square off against the Atlanta Braves in the World Series.

Milwaukee lit up Greg Maddux for six runs in Game 1 but very nearly blew the game late, with the bullpen coughing up five runs in the 9th inning before eking out a 7-5 victory. Steve Avery, who authored a no-hitter for Atlanta during the regular season, shut down Milwaukee to the tune of two runs in 7 innings during a 6-2 Braves win in Game 2.

After a seventh-inning bullpen meltdown by Stan Belinda and Graeme Lloyd allowed four Braves runners to cross the plate, it looked like Milwaukee was headed for another loss in Game 3. But the offense managed to put together some magic against lefty Mike Stanton in the top of the 9th, started by a single off the bat of — who else? — Dave Nilsson. Jose Valentin followed with another single, and an error by left fielder Ron Gant allowed the runners to get to second and third. Nilsson scored on a sacrifice fly by Alex Rodriguez, cutting the lead to 7-4. Sammy Sosa came next and on a 2-2 count, lined a double to left field that scored Valentin to make it 7-5. Stanton was pulled in favor of Larry Anderson, but that didn’t stop pinch-hitter Jose Offerman from roping a triple to bring home Slammin’ Sammy and make it 7-6. Mark Loretta followed and fell behind 0-2, but got a hanger and lined a single back up the middle that scored Offerman to tie the game up at 7-7! Lyle Mouton came next with a single to put runners on 1st and 2nd, then Rusty Greer walked to load the bases. That brought out righty Mark Wohlers to face John Jaha, and the first baseman lifted a fly ball that was deep enough to center to allow Loretta to scamper home as the go-ahead run. Bryan Harvey allowed a walk and a single in the bottom of the ninth, but escaped trouble with the help of a double play and saved the 8-7 victory. Suddenly, the Brewers had a 2-1 lead in the World Series.

The series lead quickly dissipated, however. The Brewers held a 5-2 lead after 712 innings in Game 4, but then Randy Myers and Graeme Lloyd imploded late as the team fell by a score of 10-5. Game 5 featured another furious comeback by Milwaukee in the late innings, scoring five runs in the top of the ninth thanks to an A-Rod triple and a Sammy Sosa home run. That tied the game at 9 and forced extra innings, but Terry Pendleton launched a walk-off homer against Bryan Harvey to give Atlanta a 10-9 victory and a 3-2 series lead. Once again, the Brewers were on the precipice of a World Series defeat at the hands of Atlanta.

Cal Eldred took the mound for Milwaukee on a 39 degree day at County Stadium in the biggest start of his career, and he had to face off against Atlanta’s best — Steve Avery. Though he performed admirably, Eldred (6.2 IP, 1 ER) was out-dueled. Avery cruised through the first eight innings on just 85 pitches and held a 2-0 lead heading into the bottom of the ninth, looking to finish the game and clinch Atlanta’s second-straight title. He got Dave Nilsson to ground out to second on the first pitch of the inning. Sammy Sosa came next and got the count in his favor 2-1 when was late on a fastball, lifting a fly ball to right field (88.8 MPH exit velo) that just...kept...carrying...for a solo home run! That cut the score to 2-1 and was enough to convince Bobby Cox to come get his ace and turn the game over the the bullpen.

Greg McMichael was the choice to relieve Avery, and he promptly served up a line drive single to Mark Loretta. He then fell behind Alex Rodriguez 2-0 before A-Rod grounded a single back up the middle. Loretta motored around to third base and narrowly beat the throw to put runners on the corners. Jose Valentin walked to load the bases, and McMichael was yanked in favor of Mike Stanton. Pinch-hitting savant Jose Offerman strolled up to the dish, and after getting ahead 2-1, he smoked a ground ball through the hole between first and second base. Loretta scored easily, and A-Rod was running hard from second. Right fielder David Justice uncorked a strong throw on target to home, but Rodriguez slid in safe under the tag! The Brewers won 3-2 on the walk-off hit to force a do-or-die Game 7.

On October 26th, 1996, in front of 52,981 fans at County Stadium in Milwaukee, Tom Gordon took the mound against 23 year old Jason Schmidt with a championship on the line. Flash was hardly sharp — allowing four runs on eight hits across 6.0 innings — but the game’s best offense did their best to make sure that didn’t matter. Jose Valentin hit a two-run bomb in the first inning. The home team added two more runs in the third, then put up a four-spot in the fourth thanks to a three-run jack by Rusty Greer. Valentin added a second dinger later in the game as the offense piled up double-digit runs. With an 11-5 lead, Ramon Martinez was on the mound to finish the game out in the ninth. The 1996 World Series ended with David Justice lifting a popup on the infield that was gloved by Mark Loretta for the final out before fans stormed the field.

For the first time in history, the Milwaukee Brewers are world champions!

Here is the end-of-season roster:

1996 Real-Life Milwaukee Brewers: 80-82
1996 Redo Milwaukee Brewers: 90-72 || World Series Championship