Larry Haney throws the longest pitches in baseball.
Each day, Haney gets behind his protective screen and, in just 45 minutes, throws 50 to 90 gopher balls.
In cozy ballparks like Tiger Stadium, Haney is capable of averaging a home run pitch every 30 seconds. Even in the largest parks, he never falls below one per minute. Often, two hits are airborne at the same time. Haney has thrown five homers on six pitches, all within a minute, although the six-homer minute, he admits, has evaded him.
Just as impressive as the quantity is the quality of Haney's home runs. No batting practices approach his in length. Fans in the third deck are never safe from stray 500-foot projectiles. Those 350-foot liners that splatter the bleachers arrive with bone-cracking force.
From coast to coast, crowds cheer these performances as Haney stands in the midst of awe-struck ovations. The 39-year-old bullpen coach, a former big league catcher, says all this is due to his control and strong arm.
"I know just where to put the ball for every hitter," he says. If pressed, however, Haney'll admit he has help.
You see, Haney pitches batting practice for the Milwaukee Brewers -- a.k.a. Harvey's Wallbangers, named after Manager Harvey Kuenn, who replaced Bob Rodgers early this season. His daily job, should he choose to accept it, is to pump up the adrenaline level of the most savage lineup baseball has seen in 20 years.
At their current pace, the Brewers will have the second-highest home run total in history: 226. If they strike another motherlode like their streak of 35 homers in 15 games which tied a major league record earlier this year, they could break the all-time season mark of 240 set by the '61 Yankees of Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle.
Pete Rose had it right. Before the All-Star Game, he was asked about the American League's chances. "Why don't they just send the Brewers?" said Rose respectfully.
"I've frequently seen 'em lose seven or eight dozen balls into the stands in one batting practice," says Haney. "Never seen 'em hit less than four dozen. Without that screen in front of me, you couldn't get me out there to pitch to those guys. You could get killed."
These days, Haney barely looks to see the rocket shots land downrange. For the past five years, he's watched this lineup grow and ferment until "it's the best I've ever seen. When we're playing well, we beat everybody. How they play doesn't even matter."
Each crack of the bat, each long ball trajectory has its signature.
If the hit is towering and titanic, then it must be Stormin' Gorman Thomas, who's well on his way to his second AL homer title. Through Friday, he had 32 home runs and 86 RBI.
If the ball leaves the bat like a hissing snake, then Ben Oglivie -- the cobra-thin martial arts expert with the whip-crack swing -- is the culprit. Oglivie, also an AL home run champ, stands all over the plate, wags his bat as if it were a black antenna and has 25 homers and 78 RBI.
If the pitch is slashed to the opposite field, or golfed halfway up the bleachers, then the perpetrator is Cecil Cooper, the best hitter of the bunch. His 24 homers, 88 RBI and .318 average are entirely in line with his previous work in this area.
If one pitch is clocked over the fence right-handed and the next left-handed, then switch-hitting cleanup man Ted Simmons is doing the damage. He owns the NL record for switch-hit homers and, at the moment, has 18 homers and 67 RBI. If he gets hot and reaches 100 RBI, the Brewers will likely be the second club (joining the '36 Yankees) to have five 100-RBI men.
If the ball barely creeps over the fence, embarrassing the rest of the mighty Brewers, then it's probably Paul Molitor or Don Money who've hit the paltry thing. Each has "only" 13 homers; if they both make 20, and it'll be a narrow thing, then Milwaukee will be the first club ever with seven 20-home run hitters. Molitor has an excuse: he's not a slugger, just a great player--with a .295 career average, 26 steals and 95 runs scored. As for Money, before mocking the decrepit 35-year-old DH, remember that, after Thomas, he has the highest ratio of homers to at bats, and RBI to at bats of any Brewer.
Only the AL's probable most valuable player -- shortstop Robin Yount, the 26-year-old who has 1,300 career hits; will he stop at 3,000 or 4,000?
Yount leads the AL in slugging (.572) and total bases (265). He has 22 homers, 33 doubles, 83 RBI and is hitting .321; that's with 42 games left.
Also, Yount led the league in fielding percentage (.985) in '81 and, for the second season in a row, directs the infield that leads the majors in double plays.
What Mike Schmidt has been to the NL for the past four years, Yount is now to the AL -- the league's best all-around player.
As General Manager Hary Dalton, the architect of this mayhem, puts it, "I wish I could say it was all a master plan, but I'd be lying. This lineup has grown like Topsy: a piece here, a piece there, until, now, it's almost ideal. Even if we're scoreless in the seventh inning, you feel like a four-, five-, six-run inning is just around the corner."
The Brewers, taken as a group, almost numb judgment. The way they're going, they'll score 880 runs -- the most in baseball since expansion in '69.
The first six hitters in their order -- Molitor, Yount, Cooper, Simmons, Oglivie and Thomas -- are all excellent, yet, in their very different ways, are almost equal. Their No. 9 hitter, second baseman Jim Gantner, is batting .306.
The most fascinating oddity about Milwaukee is that, by the standards of even an average team, it gets little production from two basic power positions. The designated hitters and right fielders have contributed only 23 homers.
But, then, in a way, everything about the Brewers, who have the best record in baseball, is a bit anomalous.
This club's fate is to be remembered for its home runs. To dwell on anything else first would be foolish. The stats won't allow it. The quintessential Brewer moment comes as a homer leaves the bat. The players in the dugout begin yelling at the pitcher, "Nitro zone. He threw it in the nitro zone."
Nevertheless, it's unfair to dwell only on the Brewers' outward insignia and ignore their inward substance. Baseball's annals are full of 200-homer clubs that weren't excellent teams.
The Brewers see themselves as baseball desperados, essentially lovable but far from tame.
One clubhouse scene gives a sense of the Brewer style. Thomas stands by his locker with his hair far over his collar, his mustache and beard shaggy. Confronting him is his roommate, Pete Vuckovich, the 240-pound right-handed pitcher who is 28-8 in two Brewer seasons.
Vuckovich is the fellow of whom Dalton says, "He demonstrates the difference between competing and just performing. Vuck'll hang in there with nothing and beat you. He'll pitch when he's sick, when he's in pain. He doesn't ruffle. He's combative, tenacious. A lot of his mean exterior is a put-on, a mask. I rank him with Dave McNalley and Frank Robinson as a battler."
However, Vuckovich was also a blue baby and nearly died at birth. He loves to brag in the locker room that he's almost been killed by high-tension wires, wild car rides and a variety of childhood illnesses. He's got enough scars and marks on him for a whole NFL team.
"You are the ugliest," says the glowering Vuckovich to Thomas, developing a recurring theme between the pair.
"No, you are the ugliest," retorts Thomas. "In fact, you are the absolute worst in every way."
"Well," says Vuckovich proudly, "somebody's got to be."
That's the Milwaukee Brewers.
The Brewers seem out of place in the gentlemanly American League, and they relish the difference. For that matter, they seem out of place in the 1980s and are proud of it. "We're a National League (style) team," says Thomas. "Before Bambi (George Bamberger, the manager from 1978-80) got here, when you'd get knocked down, there might be a payback one time in six. Now, nothing's ever said, but you know it's going to happen.
"We're not into self. We're like the old Musketeers," says Thomas, rounding to a topic he loves. "What's the first thing fans think about modern players? They think, 'Overpaid, conceited, won't even sign an autograph, complacent with his guaranteed contract, won't slide hard or run into a wall.'
"Well, the true gamer, if he's got any pride, wants to prove to himself and to the fans that he's worth the money, that he's none of those things that they may think he is."
The Brewers have no shortage of gamers. When in doubt, they do it the old-fashioned way. Hip pockets are full of tobacco. A pregame rain delay brings out a dozen card players. Clubhouse music is hard rhythm and blues, perhaps unfashionably dated--like the Animals' "House of the Rising Sun." Even pregame warmups have a bygone relish.
Hard as it is to believe, this atmosphere was endangered this spring by second-year manager Rodgers, who brought discipline, tension and tricky inside baseball to a team that relishes simplicity. The Brewers were accustomed to Bamberger who, after serious heart surgery, didn't take baseball too seriously and, generally, was so self-assured and respected that he didn't need rules or a raised voice.
"Bambi made us loosey-goosey," says Cooper. "Then we had a guy who got rid of a lot of that."
"Maybe they tightened up a little bit under Buck (Rodgers)," says Haney.
In Kuenn, a former batting champion and seven-time AL All-Star, the Brewers have perhaps the only man in baseball who resembles Bamberger, both in his easygoing manner and in his sense of stoic fatalism. Kuenn has had stomach cancer and open heart surgery. In 1980, he had his right leg amputated below the knee. On the later calamity, Kuenn says, "It helped my golf."
"Harvey's good at keeping the worryin' part of the game out of your mind," says Yount.
A pressure-proof manager is essential to the Brewers because, by their very style, they are going to endure some extremely trying moments.
"Like almost every team that relies on power hitting, we're very streaky," says Haney. "We haven't scored a lot of runs when we haven't hit the ball out of the park. Good pitching still gives us fits . . . We're concerned with Baltimore's pitching. They're the club that could win 10 or 12 in a row."
The Brewers need those runs because their starting pitching, behind Vuckovich and Bob McClure (9-4) is mediocre, at best. If it weren't for all-purpose spot starter and long reliever Jim Slaton, the staff might have crumbled before now.
Thanks to reliever Rollie Fingers, Milwaukee is no longer traumatized by the late innings; the club has held 57 of 61 leads entering the eighth inning. Nonetheless, the Brewers, who don't relish studious "inside" baseball, can be had in close games; they're 24-23 in one and two-run games.
But for any team that stands in their way to the World Series, the Brewers are a formidable gang of desperados. Perhaps only one man really thinks he knows how to stop them: their daily victim, Haney.
As his pitches are battered into the bleachers from the Back Bay to the San Francisco Bay, the coach stands on the mound and plots.
"They all have weak spots. They can be pitched to. I've thought about it quite a bit. I think I could get most of 'em out," says Haney.
"Move up to 45 feet."