Milwaukee Brewers put on hit show

It is considered bad form, even if a club is running away from its rivals, to compare the home-run power of any present-day team to the 1927 New York Yankees, who reached the fences so often they were called Murderer's Row.

That was the year, of course, when Babe Ruth exploded for 60 home runs, and Lou Gehrig, who followed Ruth in the N.Y. batting order, hit 47 while driving in 175 runs. Opposing pitchers set a record that season with bizarre excuses for why they couldn't work on days the Yankees were in town.

While no one here is trying to say that the 1980 Milwaukee Brewers are anywhere near as good as the '27 Yankees or even the current Yankees of Jackson and Nettles, who happen to lead them in the standings, the Brewers do have a hit show in Milwaukee.

Brewers Manager George Bamberger has eight players who regularly smash the ball out of the park, including outfielder Gorman Thomas, who led the American League last year with 45 homers. The other seven are Ben Oglivie, Larry Hisle, Sixto Lezcano, Cecil Cooper, Paul Molitor, Robin Yount, and Don Money.

Milwaukee also employs Sal Bando in the dual capacity of player-coach. Bando is a former home-run threat whose major league high was 31 and who, on occasion, can still put a pitcher's mistake into orbit.

The trouble with most home-run hitting teams is that they generally live or die with the long ball. Their defense is often shoddy; their pitching so-so; and their speed practically nonexistent.

In some games this kind of team can generate a thrill an inning, but when the season is over don't look for it in the World Series, because its players probably will be home lifting weights when they should be studying up on defense.

"While it's true that we can do more damage with our bats than any team in baseball, I would disagree with anyone who says we are not a complete team," Bamberger explained. "Sure I like my sluggers because they hit home runs, but they also hit singles and doubles, and that's why I think we can catch the Yankees and eventually win the American League pennant.

"We can beat you bad with the big inning or the home run," George continued. "But we can also beat you several other ways that are a lot more subtle. I don't want a ball club that's top- heavy in one department, unless it's depth, because you need a lot of things to win consistently, and balance is what saves you over a 162-game season."

Nevertheless those Milwaukee sluggers have already accomplished a number of amazing things this season, including 24 home runs in the Brewers' first 18 games. They also tied a major league record with two grand-slam home runs in one inning against the Boston Red Sox.

Another time they hit seven balls out of the park in one game against the Cleveland Indians, whose outfielders weren't even bothering to follow the flight path after the third or fourth inning.

Probably the two most interesting hitters on the Brewers are Oglivie, a left-hander who's clouted 21 homers, and Thomas, a right-hander with 17. It should be pointed out, however, that Cooper has a more perfect swing than either of them.

Oglivie, who started his career with the Red Sox in 1971 and was traded to Detroit when he averaged only .218 his third year in Boston, was basically a line-drive hitter until 1977, when he suddenly learned he could pull the ball for distance.

Now he pulls everybody. He hit 29 home runs last year and led the American League in homers entering this season's All-Star break. Ben has also learned to combine average with power.

Thomas, on the other hand, is a free swinger who drove in 123 runs last year with only 136 hits. Of his 376 lifetime hits going into this season, 190 were for extra bases. To manage Gorman, you've got to understand his talents and his personality, which would not go unnoticed on any quiz or "Gong" show.

When Thomas hits he's beautiful -- cannon shots that play footsie with half the seats in most ballparks' upper decks. But when he strikes out (175 times last year), he looks like a guy trying to hit a low-flying airplane with a two-by-four. Most pitchers fool him, but not for long.

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