Palm Springs, Calif. — Until two years ago, the Milwaukee Brewers operated an American League franchise that closely resembled someone trying to eat egg foo yong with only one chopstick.
But with the arrival of George Bamberger as manager in 1978, along with several player changes, Milwaukee suddenly became an AL pennant contender, winning 93 games that year and 95 the next.
How much more improvement the Brewers can make in 1980 is probably going to depend on the quality of their bullpen. There is certainly nothing wrong with their hitting, fielding, attitude, or starting pitchers.
In fact, this is a team with a chance to replace Baltimore atop the AL East. Milwaukee has four regular outfielders and five regular infielders who are virtually interchangeable. It helps, of course, that they all can hit.
For health reasons Bamberger has temporarily lent his manager's portfolio to Coach Buck Rodgers, but their philosophies and their rapport with General Manager Harry Dalton are basically the same. The change in command has been an orderly one and should continue until Bamberger's return, scheduled for June 6.
Most rival pitching staffs would rather stand in the middle of a rifle range than face the Brewers' arsenal of bats. For example, center fielder Gorman Thomas hit 45 home runs last year, right fielder Ben Oglivie 29, and left fielder Sixto Lezcano 28.
Larry Hisle, scheduled to be the designated hitter, didn't play much last year because of injuries, but the previous season he hit 34 homers while driving in 115 runs.
Cecil Cooper, a consistent .300 hitter, will play first; Paul Molitor (.322) is at second; Don Money, who had an off-year last season but has been a solid hitter throughout his career, holds down third; and Robin Yount (.267) is the shortstop. Then there are Sal Bando, a good RBI man, to fill in at either first or third, plus infielder Jim Gantner, who hit .284 last year.
Milwaukee has two nearly equal defensive catchers in Charlie Moore and Buck Martinez, although Moore outhit Martinez last year by 30 points. The club is also high on rookie catcher Ed Yost, who hit .263 last year for Vancouver in the Pacific Coast League.
The Brewers' five-man starting rotation consists of Mike Caldwell, Lary Sorensen, Jim Slaton, Moose Haas, and Bill Travers, although there is still a chance that Travers will be traded to the California Angels. In return the Brewers would get Angel outfielder Bob Clark.
Where Milwaukee hopes to improve most is in the bullpen, where Bill Castro (who had a 2.05 ERA last season) and Jerry Augustine figure to handle most of the work. But good things are also expected from Reggie Cleveland (25 pounds lighter) and rookie Dan Boitano, who had 18 saves last year with Vancouver.
Rodgers, the interim manager, is a former big league catcher with the Angels who works as a glue salesman in the off-season. Buck joined the Milwaukee staff two years ago after previously coaching in Minnesota and San Francisco and managing in the Angels' minor league system.
"Even though George Bamberger and I have similar baseball philosophies, I agreed to take this job temporarily only if the Milwaukee front office was willing to let me be my own man," Rodgers explained.
"I didn't want to get into a situation where a decision would come up and I'd have to stop and ask myself, 'Well, I wonder what George would have done?'
"No man can manage and hold his players' respect if they know he's just a figurehead. And fortunately General Manager Harry Dalton feels as strongly about this as I do. We're all looking forward to Bamberger's return, but until George gets back I'm the boss on the field. And my feeling is that if our bullpen comes through, we've got as good a chance as any team in our division."