It’s Thanksgiving Day here in America, the fourth Thursday in November. It’s a day where we give thanks to our God and spend time with the family and friends with whom he has blessed our lives.
The day usually includes a traditional meal of turkey, stuffing, vegetables, pies, and other foods and treats. It also includes watching pro football games on TV, and sometimes watching high school rivalry games in person.
Something that we don’t usually think about or associate with on Thanksgiving Day is the sport of baseball. But I am going to take a little time to speak about the game on this day for one important reason.
This is supposed to be a day on which we recognize and express our gratitude for the people and things that we love, and in my life there have been few things outside of my family that I have loved more than the sport that I like to call “The Greatest Game That God Ever Invented.”
My love of the game encompasses every way that it can be enjoyed, from playing to coaching to spectating to fantasy. My involvement in the game pretty much began with the opening of Veteran’s Stadium in my South Philly neighborhood when I was just 9 years old. Until that point the only real sports events that I had been exposed to were the Big Five basketball games that I remember my dad watching on television.
In the spring of 1971, ‘The Vet’ opened it’s gates at Broad and Pattison, and my dad took my brother Mike and I to the ‘Opening Day’ festivities. It was an event prior to the first game, where fans could get in and walk around the sparkling new facility.
All of the baseball specific features were on display, from the baseline picnic areas, to the booming cannon of Phil & Phyllis that would follow each Phillies’ home run, to the colorful Dancing Waters fountain in center field.
I was hooked by the place, and the team and game would soon follow.
The Phillies in those early 70’s days were awful. The first three seasons at The Vet, the first three that I followed, saw the team finish in 6th and last place in the National League East Division.
But my friends and I loved heading down to the ballpark where we could sit in the 700 level for just .50 cents. Because the team was so bad, there were many nights that we were able to move down to the lower levels in the later innings to seats vacated by season ticket holders.
We would go to those games in groups, often with a dozen or more kids together at one time. Sometimes we took the 79 bus on Snyder Avenue up to the Broad Street Subway, and then south to the Pattison Avenue stop at the stadium.
Most times we just walked, since it was just a few miles and our legs, hearts and minds were all still young. The walk itself was often a part of the adventure and experience of having a good time hanging together.
My favorite players in that first 1971 season were slick-fielding, scrappy 2nd-year shortstop Larry Bowa, colorful rookie center fielder Willie Montanez, and a powerful rookie outfielder named Greg ‘the Bull’ Luzinski.
In 1972, two new players who would eventually change everything would join the team. Pitcher Steve Carlton came in a somewhat controversial trade for talented and popular pitcher Rick Wise, who had tossed a no-hitter the previous year. And a highly touted prospect third baseman named Mike Schmidt would make his debut late in the season.
On the fields, playgrounds and schoolyards of my Two Street neighborhood in South Philly, I played the game as much as I could. Although I tried out and played a couple of seasons in organized leagues at the Murphy Rec Center at 4th and Shunk and with our local EOM sports organization, it was mostly in loosely organized neighborhood teams where I got my playing experience.
My friends and I played our version of stick ball in the schoolyard at Sharswood Public School. We called the game ‘long ball’, a game where the defense was setup the same as a baseball team, but where offensively you hit a rubber ‘pimple ball’ that was pitched to you underhanded on one bounce.
You did your hitting with a stick, usually fashioned from a broom or mop handle. Some kids came up with things over the years that looked like war clubs, some made of shovel handles, some the origins of which were purely speculative.
We also had a game called ‘fast ball’ that was played with the same stick and pimple ball used in ‘long ball’, but in which the pitches were delivered overhand in the usual baseball pitching style. The batter stood at a ‘strike zone’ that was usually formed by a box drawn on a schoolyard wall, or that was formed by the window covering on the lower levels of the school building. The pitcher would deliver fastballs, curves, sliders and anything else he could come up with to fool the hitter.
A traditional South Philly game was ‘half ball’ in which you would take the standard rubber pimple ball and literally slice it in half. The two halves then each became a ‘halfball’, with the pitches delivered underhanded. The batters would usually face a large wall or structure, a certain level of which was designated as a home run.
We played these games every single summer from around age 9 or 10 until they disappeared from our radar screen when we reached around age 14.
During those early to mid-70’s days of my developing love for the game, baseball was featured on network television in a ‘Game of the Week’ format. We also got to watch many of the Phillies road games on a local ‘UHF’ channel 17, and also the Major League Baseball playoff and World Series games.
My earliest memory of watching baseball on television involves following the 1972 NLCS where the Cincinnati Reds were facing off against the defending World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates. The Reds were in the early years of what would become known as the legendary ‘Big Red Machine” and had players such as Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, and Tony Perez. The Pirates showcased Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell.
In the series, the Pirates took two out of the first three games in the best-of-five series. The Reds stayed alive and tied the series up with big 7-1 romp in the fourth game, sending the series to an ultimate, dramatic fifth and deciding game.
In that fifth game, the Pirates took a 3-2 lead into the bottom of the 9th inning. The Reds rallied to tie on a dramatic home run by Bench. Cincinnati then put two more runners on base, and the Pirates brought in Bob Moose, one of their starters. Moose got two outs, one of them moving George Foster to 3rd base. Then it all ended suddenly when Moose threw a wild pitch, enabling Foster to score the game and series-winning run.
No one knew it at the time, but it would be the final game in the storied Hall of Fame career of the legendary Clemente. He would be tragically killed in an off-season plane crash while on a humanitarian mission to help victims of an earthquake. Both the Pirates and the Reds would remain contenders throughout the decade, and would both become rivals to the Phillies as our home team finally became a contender at mid-decade.
The Phillies fortunes began to change by 1974, when they finished at 80-82 and were a much more competitive club. By 1975, the team was a winner, and seriously challenged for the NL East title before falling short. That team was inspired by second baseman Dave Cash, who had come over from the Pirates and whose slogan “Yes We Can!” inspired the ball club and was the rallying point for the team’s advertising campaign.
The Phillies began to reap the benefits of the development of their own core of young players in Schmidt, Luzinski, Bowa, catcher Bob Boone, and pitchers like Larry Christenson, Dick Ruthven and Randy Lerch. Carlton developed from a good pitcher into a great Cy Young Award winner. And management made great trades to bring in Gary Maddox, Bake McBride and Tug McGraw among others. The stage was set for winning the NL East in four of five seasons from 1976 through 1980.
For the 1979 season, the team was able to make perhaps the biggest free agent signing in it’s history when Reds spark plug Pete Rose was signed. That 1979 club ultimately fell apart down the stretch due to injuries and complacency, but in 1980 it all came together.
The Phillies won the World Series for the first time in the 97 year history of the franchise in 1980. I got to attend Game #2 of that Fall Classic, a victory over the Kansas City Royals and future Hall of Famer George Brett. When the Phillies finally clinched the crown with a win in Game Six, my friends and I were right there in the middle of all the celebrations.
By the mid-1980’s, I had been employed at First Pennsylvania Bank for a few years, and was a young father of two daughters. I had also been involved with the game by playing in a men’s softball league, and had gotten involved with a team which we eventually came to call the “Brewers”, mostly after our love of having a few cold adult beverages following each game.
The Brewers, their wives, girlfriends, and families became my 2nd family over the years, the best friends of my adult life. We would build the team into a perennial winner, and would take home league championships in 1985, ’89, ’90, ’91, ’92 and finally in 1994.
I had the privilege of managing the ’89, ’91 and ’94 Brewers champions. I also had my personal greatest moment as a ballplayer with the team when, on August 1st, 1991 in the final game of a championship series sweep, I homered over the fence at Archbishop Ryan high school’s field.
Eventually, the playing career would give way to a combination of age and adult responsibilities. But the game never left me, as I continued to both follow the Phillies and MLB, both in person and on TV. I also got involved in the new hobby of ‘fantasy baseball’, in which you ‘own’ certain pro players and where your fantasy team success is based on their real-world performances.
In 1993, the Phillies would enjoy a rarity in Major League Baseball, a ‘worst-to-first’ season. The franchise had basically collapsed following the greatness of the late 70’s and early 80’s. That 1993 season would, in fact, be a rare contending season for the team over a two decade period.
But those 1993 Phillies would prove to be the most fun ball club that I ever watched. Players such as John Kruk, Lenny Dykstra, Darren Daulton, Curt Schilling, Mitch Williams and a cast of characters along with them moved to first place early, stayed there all year, and then upset the Braves in the NLCS.
They took the defending champion Blue Jays all the way to the 6th game of the World Series, where Joe Carter beat Mitch in one of baseball’s greatest finishes. Despite the finish for the Phillies, the season will never be forgotten by those of us who lived through it and enjoyed every inning.
In the summer of 1998, I formed the ‘Whitey Fantasy Baseball League’ with a number of other lovers of the game from all around the country. It is a ‘keeper’ league, where you get to keep and maintain control over your players unless or until you trade them away or release them. We have both Major League players and a full minor league/prospect/draft system now. I won the championship in this league with my Philadelphia Athletics teams in both 2002 and 2008.
Of course, that 2008 baseball season was important to all Philadelphia baseball fans, not just to my fantasy title-winning self. The Phillies, after floundering for most of the past two decades, had been building a winner over the previous few seasons.
In 2008, it finally all came together. The team won the World Series led by players like Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jayson Werth, Shane Victorino, Brad Lidge, Cole Hamels and Brett Myers. They went back to the Series in 2009, and nearly made it three straight appearances this past season.
My love for the game remains strong as I turn 49 years old. I haven’t stepped into a batters box since early in the summer of 1999, but the game still courses through my veins.
This past season, my wife and I purchased our first-ever season ticket package for the Phillies, enjoying many Sunday games together at the place we consider our 2nd home, one of the most beautiful ballparks in baseball, Citizens Bank Park.
Just last month, we stood in the stands and roared with the crowd as Roy Halladay threw a no-hitter against the Cincinnati Reds in the NLDS. It was the only no-hitter and one of the greatest pro baseball moments that I ever experienced in person.
This Thanksgiving Day, among all the other things for which I am thankful, I include this game that has meant so much to my life’s enjoyment.
From the schoolyard ball of South Philly to the family of the Brewers softball team to the great Major League moments: Carlton Fisk waving a ball fair, a baseball rolling between Bill Buckner’s legs, Brad Lidge dropping to his knees in joy, baseball has given me memories and experiences that have enriched my life in so many ways.
Finally, thank you, God, for allowing me to participate and enjoy your greatest game in such an intimate way. And almost as much as spending eternity in your loving presence and with my family and friends.
And I look forward to playing the game, once again in my youth, in your Heaven. To running the bases, sliding into the bags, diving for the balls, gunning the throws, smelling the freshly mowed grass, feeling the crack of the ball against the bat, hearing the cheers, feeling the embrace of teammates.
For this great game, I am eternally thankful. Happy Thanksgiving to all.
On this coming Tuesday, I will turn 46 years old. Two days later is Thanksgiving. It is the closest that my birthday ever comes to actually falling on the holiday, which it will never exactly meet.
Thanksgiving is celebrated always on the fourth Thursday in November, and if you do the calculating you will see that the latest that my birth date, the 20th, can fall is on the third Thursday.
Still, with this being my own closest confluence of the two days, which some years is almost a full week apart, it gives me a good opportunity to reflect on what exactly it is for which I am personally thankful.
Sliding towards the back end of my 40’s, with apparently no reversal of this aging process in sight, reflection is something that I find increasingly vital in my life, and here is a sharing of those things.
I am thankful for having a good career that is affording me opportunities and experiences that I could have never imagined as a young man. To tell of all the many exciting, demanding, rewarding experiences that one gathers over almost two decades as a police officer on the streets of a big city would take up volumes. Suffice it to say that they have all contributed to my personal growth and knowledge. For this career I am very thankful.
I am thankful for the educational opportunities that I have been afforded, and for the intelligence and perseverance that it takes to pursue a college degree while also working full-time at a demanding job.
Special thanks in this area goes out to Philly police boss Keith Sadler, who encouraged me to get going on my degree pursuit over four years ago now. It goes out to the Philly PD, as well as to the Community College of Philadelphia and St. Joseph’s University, for their relationship in helping cops travel this journey. For these educational opportunities, I am very thankful.
I am thankful for my home, which feels so much now like a glove-fit, but which I could not have envisioned just a little over a decade ago. For a kid from a row house neighborhood who never had two nickels to scrape together during his 20’s, to think that I could one day own a single home in a great neighborhood with a nice front and rear yard, a garage, and a swimming pool is amazing. It isn’t a mansion, and it needs some work, but it is ours, and it is home. For this wonderful place to live out day to day life, I am very thankful.
I am thankful for the people in my life, because relationships are what this life is all about. These people include friends, co-workers, my fellow students, regular acquaintances, and most of all my family. Without the rich texture and color of their own many and varied personalities and experiences, my own life would be so much less enjoyable. For the people that bring my life to life, I am very thankful.
As a police officer, then a detective, and now as a police supervisor, I have had to deal with other cops and investigators under some tremendously pressurized situations all across the city. From South Street to Red Lion Road, from Kensington Avenue to Cobbs Creek Parkway, I have first-hand, on the street experience watching some of the most dedicated men and women in the world handle fights and fires, auto accidents and homicides.
Everything that you can think of that comes under the umbrella of the good, the bad, and the ugly, the men and women of the Philadelphia Police Department experience almost daily. For the opportunity to work alongside them, I am very thankful.
As a student, I have had the opportunity to sit in the classroom with some of the most dedicated individuals within those same police ranks. These are officers who do that same difficult job every day and night, and yet still find the time, energy, effort, perseverance, and intellect that it takes to also pursue a college education.
Like me, they do it in the hopes that they will one day improve their working situation, be it in their current career on in another chapter of their lives. And the instructors and professors who teach us are also doing double-duty. For these people, I am very thankful.
None of us go through life without making friends. Some are closer than others, some come and go in our lives, but once you make a real friend, they are usually a friend for life. I had the good fortune as a young man to play ball with some great guys on the Brewers softball team.
The Brewers won a half-dozen championships on the ball fields of Philly between 1983 and 1996, We cemented our friendship over post-game food and drinks, post-work get-togethers, and family gatherings. Now over two decades later, I can say these were the best friends of my adult life.
I ran into Dee Sweeney, one of the Brewer wives, in a local store a few years back. She commented on how during the conversation she could still feel our friendship, even though we hadn’t seen one another for a few years at that point.
Dee and her husband, George Sweeney, had a few young kids at the time, and so my response to her was that “we could not talk to one another for over a year, and you could call me up at two in the morning to come watch your kids and I would”. Those are good friends, and for them I am very, very thankful.
For anyone who has their life in order, there are no more important people than family. These are the folks for whom I am most thankful. My extended family has been great throughout my life. The richness of the experiences that my aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents have brought to me has been unforgettable.
Whether at a shore house, or in a family gathering, or on a bus trip to a ballgame, even at a funeral, these people have brought fullness to my life, and an appreciation of the extension of our lives out into the world that a good family brings. For them I have always been and will always be thankful.
There are none more important than immediate family. My wonderful wife, my incredible daughters, my inspiring parents, my brother and his own family.
My parents had many challenges in their lives, especially my mom who died far too young after far too much suffering. My dad’s life as a Marine, a dedicated law enforcement professional, and the enjoyment that he has found in retirement.
These people were my foundation, and for the example they set through all their own challenges, the opportunities they afforded me as a kid, and the love they showed me throughout their lives, I am eternally thankful.
My brother, Mike Veasey, is “the Man”. If he weren’t, I would be, but he is around so the title is his. If you don’t get that idea, don’t worry, it’s a bit of an inside thing. As a kid, he and I had the typical big brother, little brother, combative relationship. As adults, we bonded into a closeness that I will forever cherish.
Mike was my partner for a few years when we were both young cops trying to survive on the streets. While I probably would have survived without him, it wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun. His family, my dedicated sister-in-law Diana and my wonderful Goddaughter Meghan, may as well be my own. For this family, I can never express my full thanks.
Then there are my kids, Christine, Kelly, and Melissa, and granddaughter Elysia Bellina. My kids have brought me so much joy and pain over the past three decades that I simply would not be the same person today without them. Only other involved parents can understand how the ups and downs, the highs and lows, the smiles and tears, the triumphs and tragedies of another person’s life can affect you so much.
To say that my three daughters have been a challenge would be appropriate. But to say that they are my pride and joy would be an understatement. That joy extends to my granddaughter, who puts a smile on my face and in my heart every time I see her. I can only pray that they all have children of their own one day, and pass along these family ties, bonds, history.
My wife, Debbie Veasey, is quite simply the best human being that I have ever personally known in my entire life. The gift that I was given when this woman came to my life, which was at an extremely difficult time in my life, is one that I did not deserve, but for which I am forever thankful. We have traveled together, grown together, and shared almost everything, almost every day.
Deb has stood by me through all of life’s difficult challenges, a couple of which were my own creation. She has loved me during every season of my life. She is truly my partner, my best friend, my love. For her, there is no level of thanks to truly express how I feel.
None of these people and experiences would have been possible without the blessing of a loving God. Saying that I am thankful to and for God Himself just doesn’t seem to say enough. The experience of His love in my life, the way that He has listened to my prayers.
The gift of his own Son, Jesus Christ, to my world. His death for my sins. His teaching that has begun to penetrate my consciousness more fully over the last year. I only pray that my own children will know this kind of personal relationship, this ultimate relationship, as they continue on the journey of their own lives. In fact, I pray for nothing more often and deeply. For the positive answer to that prayer, Lord, I would more thankful than anything.
Give thanks, all of you, for those people and things that are most important in your life. Give thanks for the joy they have brought you. Give thanks for the challenges they have brought you. Give thanks for the ability to enjoy the people and events, and the ability to battle and overcome the challenges.
And when you do give thanks, remember where that thanks should be directed. The full and final thanks goes to your God.
Happy birthday to me, and Happy Thanksgiving to all of you.
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 first baseman from South Philly named Lou Gentilucci, who was a good friend of Nigro, 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, giving themselves the nickname “The Flytrap”, because they swallowed up most every ball hit into the air.
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 second 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 champagne 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 helped form the best bench corps in the league: 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.