A blast from Brewers history: Easter Sunday '87
Churches and dinner tables will be crowded today as Milwaukee celebrates the Easter holiday, but thousands of fans will head to Miller Park to watch the Brewers' matinee with the Cubs.
And as much as morning Masses, Easter egg hunts and candy are a part of the holiday, Easter Sunday around here also brings up images of baseball and free hamburgers.
Today marks the 20th Anniversary of Milwaukee's very own Easter miracle; when the Brewers rallied in the ninth inning to beat Texas, 6-4, at County Stadium, extending its season-opening winning streak to an American League-record 12 games and also making it possible for George Webb Restaurants to fulfill a nearly half-century old vow.
As a refresher, the Brewers trailed Texas, 4-1, in the bottom of the ninth inning. With the winning streak on life-support, a surprisingly small crowd of 29,357 rose to their feet in appreciation. Rob Deer hit a game-tying three-run homer and Dale Sveum won it with a two-run shot.
"When we came up to bat, that was just amazing," said Jim Gantner, who was the Brewers' second baseman then and is now a part-time coach. "We always thought we were going to win it. Our goal was to get two guys on and bring the winning run to the plate."
Sveum, now the Brewers' bench coach, remembered what a shot in the arm the ovation was after what had turned into a rough day for the upstart Brewers.
Jose Guzman had started the game for the Rangers and for awhile looked to have Milwaukee in check.
"He just shut us down. We didn't have a lot of offense going and that kind of got the crowd quiet," Sveum said. "When we left the field in the ninth and everybody rose to their feet, it got the emotion back into us."
Facing Rangers reliever Mitch Williams, Glenn Braggs led off the inning with a walk and moved to second on a Greg Brock base hit. Cecil Cooper flew out to center, bringing Rob Deer to the plate.
Texas manager Bobby Valentine called in Greg Harris from the bullpen to face Deer, who took a big cut at a breaking ball for strike one. Harris threw another breaking ball and Deer sent it deep to left field.
"I don't think Rob Deer ever hit a ball so hard or any harder than he hit that one," longtime Brewers radio announcer Bob Uecker said. "He got a hanging curveball and he really hit it; it nearly went over the bleachers."
With the crowd roaring and the score tied at four, Harris struck out B.J. Surhoff for the second out. Gantner worked the count full before drawing a walk, to bring Sveum to the plate.
Hitting from the left side, Sveum worked the count full and then smacked a line drive that cleared the right-field fence and fell into the Brewers bullpen, solidifying its place in Brewers' lore.
Sveum hit 69 home runs over the span of his 12 seasons in the major leagues, but none of them were more special than the one he hit on April 19, 1987.
"It' the most exciting game that I've ever played in," he said. "I've been with teams that have won World Series, but obviously to single out a particular game of my career in Milwaukee; it'd have to be that one."
County Stadium was rocking in ways not seen since the 1982 World Series. Fans brought Sveum out for two curtain calls and then brought Sveum and Deer out for another. A picture of Deer celebrating his home run would grace the cover of Sports Illustrated on later that month.
"Dale had such good power both ways," Uecker said. "By the time he came to the plate, everybody was on their feet wondering if it could happen again and it did. When Sveum hit that ball into the bullpen in right-center, it was fantastic."
Sveum would go on to finish with a career-best 25 home runs in 1987, and posted a personal-best batting average of .252. His path as the heir apparent to Robin Yount at shortstop got sidetracked when he blew out his knee a year later.
Aside from the victory itself, the day was memorable for the weather. An uncharacteristically balmy April day made for the perfect backdrop.
"It was just such a beautiful day, like 70 degrees," said Jim Gantner. "I remember coming to the ballpark that morning and we were all fired up with the streak. It was Easter Sunday and the parking lots were packed with tailgaters. There was an electric atmosphere."
Sveum is one of the few people with the team today that was around in 1987. In the locker room, though, are two players and a coach who vividly remember that day for more than just Easter Baskets and hidden eggs.
"It's funny, when I was with Pittsburgh, it's how I introduced myself to him," bullpen catcher Marcus Hanel said. "I remembered listening to the game on the radio with my family, we were going nuts."
Like Hanel and many others who couldn't make it to the stadium that day, catcher Damian Miller was at a family gathering in western Wisconsin. He remembers listening to Uecker call the winning shot.
"We were tuned in for sure," Miller said. "When Rob Deer hit the homer, we went crazy; my family was high-fiving each other just like everybody else in Wisconsin. It was a good time to be a Brewer fan."
Infielder Craig Counsell was at County Stadium that day. Just 16 years old at the time, he had seats close to the Brewers dugout and remembers the excitement.
"It was a great game," Counsell said. "It was just one of those magical days. It doesn't happen that often during the regular season, it was just a great day and a great game."
No story about the Easter Sunday game would be complete without mentioning the hamburgers. A tradition that dates back to the days of the old American Association Brewers, George Webb Restaurants predicted the team would win 17 straight games, although never said exactly what would happen should the feat be accomplished.
When the Braves came to town in 1953, the prediction was 12 straight and ads started popping up in newspaper and on restaurant walls. After a number of close calls, the prediction finally came to fruition 20 years ago.
After Sveum's heroics finally fulfilled the prediction, the legendary Milwaukee chain announced that it would give out free hamburgers at its restaurants across the state.
On April 22, more than 168,194 burgers were handed out in Wisconsin, adding to the legend that is Easter Sunday in Milwaukee.
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