MLB Greats Help Close County Stadium

Friday, September 29th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MILWAUKEE (AP) — The greatest collection of talent ever to play in Milwaukee took the field one last time.

Forty former Brewers, Braves and Green Bay Packers gathered in a 100-minute ceremony after the final game at Milwaukee County Stadium on Thursday and listened to Brewers broadcaster Bob Uecker deliver a moving eulogy.

``It was here that boys became men,'' Uecker said. ``And men became champions, and champions became legends.''

Warren Spahn and Del Crandall helped the Brewers close down the ballpark they helped open in 1953. Spahn, the winningest left-hander in baseball history with 363 victories, threw the ceremonial first pitch to Crandall, his batterymate on opening day with the Milwaukee Braves 48 years ago.

The Brewers move next year to Miller Park, under construction beyond County Stadium's outfield fence.

Hank Aaron was the first one introduced in a postgame celebration following Cincinnati's 8-1 victory. He was decked out in his old Milwaukee Braves uniform.

Willie Davis, a defensive end with the great Green Bay teams of the 1960s, was next and rumbled around with a football tucked under his arm.

Hall of Famer Robin Yount rode in on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle and circled the field just like he did after the 1982 World Series.

When all were introduced, they formed a human chain from second base to center field and a flag with the County Stadium logo was passed down from Bernie Brewer's chalet, through the stands and all the way to the mound.

Yount handed the flag to Brewers shortstop Mark Loretta.

``Each of us has touched this flag, symbolic of how County Stadium has touched us,'' Yount said. ``Don't ever forget where it all started.''

Loretta gave him his word.

``County Stadium has served us well and we will never forget her,'' he said. ``But, oh, will it be sweet across the street.''

After the great ballplayers of past and present threw autographed baseballs into the crowd, Uecker gave a moving speech as the lights went out one standard at a time, leaving him alone in the dark near home plate.

``So long, old friend,'' he said before fireworks and flashbulbs illuminated the packed stadium.

The record regular-season crowd of 57,354 toted cameras and camcorders, shared memories, shed tears and downed bratwursts and brews on a cloudless day that only grew cold in the ninth, when they stood and shouted and snapped photos as if it were Game 7 of the World Series.

``That was the weirdest at-bat,'' said Loretta, who grounded out to short for the final out. ``They were cheering for a hit, but they wanted the ceremony to start. I could do no wrong.''

The fans had little to cheer about before that, save for Olympic hero Ben Sheets, the Brewers' top minor league pitching prospect who shut out Cuba in the gold medal game at Sydney, Australia. He emerged from the dugout with his medal dangling from his neck and waved to the crowd as it chanted, ``U-S-A! U-S-A!''

The crowd also went crazy over the final sausage race, which the bratwurst won, incidentally, by a casing over the Italian sausage.

Some came to say good-bye; others to say good riddance.

``I think I speak for all the guys who played here in the last five years when I say I'm glad to see it go,'' outfielder Jeromy Burnitz said.

The stadium, the nation's first publicly financed ballpark, was built in the early 1950s for $4.8 million — about what Burnitz made this season alone. And it was constructed at a time when no major league team had moved since 1901.

One look at the place lured the Braves from Boston and sparked pro sports' great westward migration.

The Braves, who won the '57 World Series, were the first NL team to draw 2 million fans and never had a losing season in Milwaukee. But they bolted for the Deep South after the 1965 season.

Four years later, Bud Selig led a group that bought the Seattle Pilots out of bankruptcy court and returned America's pastime to Brew City.

The Brewers won the '82 AL pennant but lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals 4-3. In 1998, they became the first team to switch leagues since 1892, returning Milwaukee to its NL roots.

But hard times began to thin the crowds, and with only one luxury box — a model to lure investment in a new ballpark — the Brewers could no longer compete.

The Packers pulled up stakes in 1994 after playing a portion of their home schedule at County Stadium for 41 seasons.

The new $394 million stadium, with its retractable roof, was to open this year, but the project was delayed after a crane collapse killed three ironworkers on July 14, 1999.

Along a chain link fence between the old ballpark and the new one, somebody placed three bouquets of flowers Thursday.


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