The Milwaukee Brewers probably are the best team in baseball.
But they probably can't beat the California Angels in the American League Championship, which begins today in Anaheim at 8:15 p.m. (EDT).
To all appearances, the Brewers and Angels are teams of remarkable similarity. Both are built on glamorous, powerful offenses with lots of famous sluggers. A composite lineup taken from these two clubs might well perform on equal terms with a combined all-star team from the other 24 teams in the sport.
Think not? Take Paul Molitor, Robin Yount, Cecil Cooper, Ted Simmons, Gorman Thomas and Ben Oglivie from the Brewers. Add Reggie Jackson, Bobby Grich and Don Baylor from the Angels, and you'd still have a bench that included eight-time batting champ Rod Carew, former MVP Fred Lynn and 30-homer Doug DeCinces of California.
Both teams have credible starting staffs, full of tired veterans with lots of brains, and, at this time of year, sore arms. Milwaukee's Pete Vuckovich and Mike Caldwell, who have won 35 games between them, have appeared at wits' end to get anybody out in recent starts. California's Ken Forsch has had similar difficulties.
The "ace" of each staff is a high-price Hessian acquired on the last day of August for the stretch drive in "trades" that were really closer to cash purchases. Milwaukee got Don Sutton, who beat Baltimore, 10-2, on Sunday to clinch the AL East championship on the season's last day. The Angels got Tommy John (14-12 overall, 4-2 for the Angels), who will start tonight against Milwaukee's crafty and combative Vuckovich, the league's probable Cy Young winner with an 18-6 record.
Both teams have terrible bullpens; knock out either of these club's starters and you're well on your way to double-digit run scoring. In recent days, the Angels have gotten some short relief from inexperienced Luis Sanchez, while the Brewers' hopes rest entirely on the painful right arm of Rollie Fingers.
Since Fingers tore a forearm muscle on Sept. 2, the Brewers have teased the baseball community with a half-dozen "Rollie is almost ready" messages. The latest came Sunday in Baltimore with the report that Fingers, despite some recurring stiffness and discomfort, is ready to pitch -- at least to one or two hitters -- immediately. Many will believe that the 1981 Cy Young and MVP Award winner isn't out for the season when they see him in a game.
Both teams have removed enormous pressure from themselves by staggering into the playoffs. The Angels, with their enormous payroll, could not hold off a Kansas City Royal team decimated by year-long injuries until the next-to-last day.
California Manager Gene Mauch was the most relieved Angel at his team's victory. As the majors' senior manager with 23 years service, it was beginning to look curious that Mauch's teams never had won anything and had finished higher than fourth only twice. Mauch still has never won a pennant, but, now, he has captured a division championship.
Mauch gave his team -- the oldest contender in baseball -- the day off yesterday. "I think it's a little unorthodox," said Mauch. "But I talked to all the players and they welcomed it to a man. We've had one day off in the last 24. With a younger team, we might not do that."
The Brewers enter this series with a sense that they've been released from purgatory. Had they lost Sunday in Baltimore -- dropping five games in the standings in the final four days of the season, and, also, losing their last six meetings with the Orioles, the Brewers would have put the 1964 Pholdin' Phillies in the shade for collapses.
The most grateful Brewer was Simmons. His mental gaffe -- flipping the ball to the umpire when he mistook a second out for a third out -- led to a Baltimore run in a game that ended in a tie, instead of a Milwaukee victory, in June; the Brewers lost the makeup game on Friday.
"I have literally tried to block that thought out of my mind for four months," said Simmons after Sunday's victory. "But that thought has popped up 1,000 times. And, this morning (before the game) it popped up again. I knew that if we lost, that mistake would stay in my memory the rest of my life. Human nature being what it is, people would have focused on that mistake as long as there is baseball, just like the (Fred) Merkle Boner (in 1908)."
In such a series, the decisive factor may well be emotional fatigue. The Angels had a long hard fight with the Royals, but, for the past week, they really never were in danger, despite their belated clinching. The Brewers, however, have been through the emotional equivalent of a train wreck over the past weekend.
A comparison comes quickly to mind. In 1980, the New York Yankees won 103 games -- the most in baseball, just as the Brewers' 95 is the best in this season of parity/mediocrity. The Yankees, however, had been in a draining race for two months with the second-best team in captivity -- Baltimore. The Yankees were swamped in three games by Kansas City and looked dead on their feet.
This year, Milwaukee has had an almost identical experience, being forced to the wall for seven weeks by the same second-best Orioles.
If the True Blue Brew Crew can recover quickly enough to match blows with the Angels, somebody should buy them a round of Harvey Wallbangers.