Friday, August 5, 2005

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today

The date was August 5th, 1985, “8-5-85” as it would easily be remembered, and would become forever known in team lore.

It was a typically warm, sunny summer evening on the softball field at Archbishop Ryan High School in the Northeast section of Philadelphia.

On this night, the Brewers softball team was trying to nail down our first DVFL modified-pitch championship.

We led the best-of-three playoff final series by a two games to none margin over the dangerous FPS Snakes, a squad that had handed us a 16-5 defeat earlier in the season.

The Brewers were a huge part of my life as a young man, and our journey from a makeshift band of loveable losers to champions is unforgettable to me and the others who lived through it.

I had joined the core group of players that would become the Brewers just three years earlier. I was working for First Pennsylvania Bank in Philly, long since swallowed up in the numerous mergers that changed the face of the banking industry during the 1980’s and 90’s.

First Penn had an intra-mural softball league back then made up of about eight teams. After playing for another team as a 19-year old kid in the 1981 season, I was recruited by a guy named Ed Markowski to play for his Pennamco team in 1982.

Ed was the kind of guy that every successful sports entity needs at the helm. He was a baseball lifer, a guy who loved the game with a passion, and loved his team just as much. But he had come to the realization that his team was getting older, and if they were going to be able to compete in the coming years they needed an infusion of young blood.

So for that 1982 season, Ed made some additions. Pennamco brought in a large contingent of young guys in their 20’s, and yours truly joined as a 20-year old catcher.

Also joining the club for that 1982 season, specifically recruited for his leadership and managerial ability as well as his baseball talent, was a guy who worked with Ed by the name of Ken Grolsko.

On the diamond, Kenny seemed to be the antithesis of what you might expect from a third baseman. He was a lefty-hitting contact hitter at a position where most teams had a power-hitting right-hander.

Very much in the Tony Gwynn mold, it seemed like Kenny could sling a base hit into left field at will. The guy also played the shallowest hot corner that I have ever seen, with a glove that became known as “the vacuum cleaner”.

Kenny not only played 3rd base, he also helped Ed out with running the team, and eventually would take over as the full-time manager.

Pennamco was also bolstered by a speedy young outfielder named Greg Nigro. He was also from South Philly, and we went on to ride the buses and subways of SEPTA on many a day and night together getting back and forth to games and practices.

Greg had a great glove and an underrated line-drive swing. But Greg’s biggest weapon were his legs. He was pure speed, one of the flat out fastest guys with whom I ever played ball.

Ken, Greg, and I were joined by a handful of other young players in joining a veteran club that had traditionally been a playoff contender, but rarely a championship contender in recent years.

That first year of 1982 together as Pennamco was spent building chemistry. It was also spent building character, as we suffered through an incredible 0-12 season. You read that right, no wins. Zero. The character came in overcoming that record, which included dropping eleven of the dozen losses in frustrating nail-biters.

But the real story of that season was the chemistry, built off the field as much as on it. The young guys added a spirit to the team. We spent many a summer night out with one another after every game. More than a few pitchers of brew, and many late nights later, we were becoming a team.

For the following season of 1983 we came out with largely the same cast, adding a strong 31-year old veteran to the infield named Tom O’Connell. He had been a regular with Pennamco before, but had been unable to play at all during the 1982 debacle. Tom was back in 1983, and his maturity, hustle and talent at shortstop helped make a huge difference on the field.

The big change to the team, the long-lasting change, had come in the preseason. Pennamco had been a subsidiary of First Pennsylvania Bank, one for whom many former players had worked. But that was no longer the case, and we decided to seek an entirely new identity.

In seeking that new identity, the team voted to take on the name “Brewers” for a number of reasons. The Milwaukee Brewers in Major League Baseball had reached the World Series in the fall of 1982. That group, nicknamed “Harvey’s Wallbangers” after their manager, Harvey Kuenn, was a throwback group of guys that looked like a bunch of beer league softball players. They perfectly fit the fun-loving, loose feeling that we wanted to create.

Also, the idea of the word "brew" in our name fit our style as a group of young beer-drinkers who liked to enjoy a good time after the games, almost as much as we enjoyed the games themselves. We chose an interlocking beer mugs image as our logo, and adopted team colors of black and gold because they seemed very “beer-like” to our way of thinking.

As you may be able to tell, a tall, cold, refreshing post-game brew was very important to this crew.

The 1983 season was almost a dream. The team came out with an incredible start, winning our first ten games. Each game was one spirited rally after another, one victory toast after another, and of course, one usually rowdy post-game party after another.

The highlight came towards the end of that opening 10-0 run. With two outs and two men on base in a game at Ryan High School, we trailed by two runs. Our best hitter, a slugging outfielder named Joe Ready, stepped to the plate. Joe created the biggest moment of that season, driving a pitch out over the fence for a three-run, walkoff, game-winning home run.

 It was an incredible time to be one of the new Brewers, but it wouldn’t last. We dropped our final two regular season games, sucking the air out of our overblown team balloon. We were then subsequently swept in an opening round playoff series by the Pirates and a stud outfielder named John Bullock, who proved a one-man wrecking crew.

That ’83 season left a great feeling with the team, despite the sour ending, as we prepared for a big step up in competition for the 1984 season. The old First Penn intramural league had dwindled to just six teams. Our league was then approached by the Delaware Valley Savings & Loan League (DVSL) for a merger.

The DVSL had previously been made up of many local financial institutions, but had itself dwindled to just four teams. It seemed a perfect marriage, and the two leagues merged to form the new Delaware Valley Financial League (DVFL) for the 1984 season.

Success that the Brewers had enjoyed in the First Penn league in 1983 did not repeat itself in the new DVFL in the summer of ’84. The “Brew Crew”, as the team had begun calling itself as a nickname, could not manage to win a single game against any of the DVSL clubs.

We did battle the old First Penn clubs to a 6-4 record. But the 0-8 mark against the new DVSL competition left the Brewers with a dreadful 6-12 overall mark. There were also a few internal struggles as our team battled with itself during that horribly disappointing campaign.

This was the buildup to the 1985 season. The old Pennamco team image died, then the First Penn league itself died. We were now the Brewers, one of a handful of old First Penn teams looking to find a way to contend in the new DVFL against a stiffer level of competition. As we began preparations for 1985, we vowed not to let the old DVSL clubs push us around on the field again.

One of the key differences between those DVSL teams and our fellow teams from the old First Penn league was one of player availability. We had been hindered by the issue of sponsorship money. The other clubs could draw players from any source. However, the First Penn teams were restricted by the bank to only using employees of the company and it’s subsidiaries in order to obtain full financial sponsorship.

The leadership of the Brewers, which I was beginning to take a role in during that off-season, made the key decision to decline the First Penn sponsorship for 1985. This meant we would have to try to find an outside sponsor and raise our own funds for the first time. But this would also allow us to add players from outside the bank, and we quickly set about both efforts.

An influx of new talent began with the addition of a big-hitting lefty outfielder named Frank Gleason, who moved over from a rival First Penn team. Getting Frank was a coup in itself. He perfectly fit our off-field, good time mold, and combined that with a booming on-field bat and all-around strong outfield play. Over the years, Frankie would take on the nickname “Pops”, and become the team captain. For 1985, he was the beginning of a big off-season for the Brew Crew.

We added a trio of pitchers with different styles as well. John Delagrange was a tough knuckleballer who had played with the team in the Pennamco days. John had left the bank, and thus was unable to play while we had still been accepting First Penn sponsorship money. Now that we were out from under that restriction, he was back. The other two new arms were the crafty Adrian Kosteleski and a fireballer named Ron Briggs.

A solid 1st baseman from South Philly named Lou Gentilucci further solidified the team. The final addition would prove to be another new outfielder, the strong-willed and speedy Tom Loiacono.

With Loiacono and Gleason in the middle of the outfield, Nigro moved over to left, and former shortstop O’Connell moved out to right field. The group would go on to have a tremendous season offensively. But they would justifiably become most proud of their overall defensive play. The group christened themselves with the nickname “The Flytrap”, because they swallowed up most every ball hit into the air.

But perhaps the biggest additions to the 1985 Brewers were in the middle of the infield. In the final few games of that disappointing ’84 campaign a young 2nd baseman named George Sweeney had joined the club. George had shown that he had plenty of talent. Now he was ready for his first full season with the team, and he was joined by a new double play partner at shortstop.

That shortstop was an incredible left-hander named John Kelly. Not only was Kelly a devastating force at the plate, but he also fielded left-handed at shortstop. John had played with us in a fun "beer game" after the 1984 season against a team that would become our biggest rival over the years, the Bad Loads. The Loads had gone unbeaten in the 1984 season, and were prepping for the championship series. With Sweeney and Kelly in the middle infield, we beat the Loads in that game.

As we prepared to open 1985, one of the Loads made the comment that “a lefty can’t play shortstop for a full year in this league”. He was proven wrong in one of the greatest athletic seasons that I ever personally witnessed out of one player. Kelly proved to be a one-man wrecking crew.

We knew that we were vastly improved as we entered that 1985 season, we just weren’t quite sure exactly how good we would be. We started the year by winning five of our first six games, with the only loss coming to the hard-hitting Wild Bunch, one of those still-nagging former DVSL clubs.

We began to think that we actually had not only a winning team, but perhaps a championship-caliber team as the early wins piled up. But then we ran into a club called the FPS Snakes. At 68th & Dicks in Southwest Philly, the Snakes destroyed us in a 16-5 debacle.

Two days later, still reeling from that loss, we dropped an upset squeaker at our home field of Archbishop Ryan to First Penn team, the Cardinals. Suddenly we were 5-3, and were no longer the swaggering Brew Crew. Not only that, but our next game would be a rematch with the Snakes, who looked to deliver a knockout punch to our once-great season.

As we started that regular season game at Ryan against the Snakes coming off back-to-back losses, we needed a hero. The Snakes bolted out to a 2-0 lead in the top of the first, and we had to answer right away or risk them riding the momentum to another win.

The first two batters, Nigro and Loiacono, reached base to lead off our half of the first inning, bringing Kelly to the plate. In one of the biggest moments in Brewers history, the shortstop drove a lightening bolt go-ahead home run that suddenly jolted us into a 3-2 lead. We went on to win that game, the first of eight straight wins to end a 13-3 regular season.

The winning streak gave the Brewers our first-ever regular season championship. Not only that, but we had gone 7-1 against the old DVSL teams who had our number the previous year.

In the first round of the playoffs, we were matched up against the Pirates, the same club that had swept us out of the 1983 playoffs. This time we did the sweeping, and we moved into our first-ever league championship series having already settled a number of old debts.

Standing between the Brew Crew and our first DVFL title were those same FPS Snakes who had battled us tough early in the season. The Snakes had gone on to finish in 2nd place during the regular season. But in this championship series, we would not be denied. After capturing the first two games, we took the field at Ryan with a chance to wrap it up.

I was behind the plate for this all-important game, catching the crafty Kosteleski who baffled the opposition with tremendous ball movement and pitch placement. The guy rarely walked anyone, so just as rarely beat himself.

Adrian mowed through the hard-hitting Snakes on this night, holding them down to a single run. At the plate, I had one of the better games of my playing career, going 4-4 and driving in a pair of runs during a big rally that ended the suspense early.

We jumped out to a huge early lead, and would ultimately coast home to an 11-1 win. When the Sweeney-Kelly keystone combo finished it off with a force out at 2nd we all mobbed one another in a huge celebration on the mound.

It was twenty years ago today, August 5th, 1985, and the Brewers were the champions of the DVFL for the first time.

We spent the night partying both at the Ryan field, where we drank champaign along with our usual brews. As much as we drank, we dumped just as much of that celebratory bubbly over each other’s heads.

We were young, we were good, and we were champs. We really thought it could go on that way for a long time, that it would be the first of many. It wouldn’t, at least not in the short term. It would be four long years before the Brewers won another title.

But on this night, a group of ballplayers and friends, some who were relative newcomers, some who had been working and playing together for years, had reached the top of their competition level.

The guys who had lived and played through that 0-12 season just three years earlier would party the heartiest: Ed Markowski, the architect of the team who became known as “The Godfather” of the Brewers, strong starters Kenny Grolsko and Greg Nigro, and the group that formed the best bench in the league in George Rayzis, George Torres, Charlie Penberth, Joe Gessner and myself. We all had been there in 1982. We were all still there in uniform to celebrate on that 8-5-85 night.

Looking back, it’s hard to believe that twenty years have now passed. To celebrate, we are holding a reunion at tonight’s Phillies game at Citizen’s Bank Park. Taking in the game will be several members of the championship club: Markowski, Grolsko, Loiacono, Nigro, Penberth, Gessner and myself. A couple of players from later championship versions of the Brewers (we also won titles in 1989, ’90, ’91, ’92 and ’94) will also join us.

The Phillies opponents for tonight's August 5th, 2005 game at the beautiful new Citizens Bank Park? Why, the Milwaukee Brewers, of course. Could it have worked out any more perfectly?

It was twenty years ago today. We were young, we were good, and we were champions! Congratulations, and thanks for the memories to all the members of the great Black and Gold, the Brew Crew.

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