Rollie Fingers’ Forgettable Final Season and the End of an Era in Milwaukee
In the summer of 1984, Rollie Fingers was back to his old self. After missing the 1982 playoffs and all of 1983 with a severe muscle tear, his arm was healthy and he was one of the few bright spots on a dismal Brewers team. By late July, he sported a sub-2.00 ERA and had recorded 23 saves. Fingers had been dealing with a back issue since May, a troublesome injury, but not one that kept him off the mound. But, fielding a ground ball one night, he felt a tweak and finished the game in serious pain. An examination revealed that he had a herniated disk and needed surgery. His season was done.
Reporting to spring training in 1985, Fingers had no issues with his back and looked forward to the final two years on his contract with the Brewers. He opened the year with a flourish, throwing five scoreless innings over his first four appearances. But things quickly unraveled. He blew three of his next four save opportunities, including a brutal outing against the A’s in which he walked three and gave up five runs in a single inning. As he walked off the mound, his ERA now at 7.15, the County Stadium crowd booed him heartily. In June, he blew four straight save chances and the Brewers lost six straight games in which he appeared – something once unthinkable for the legendary fireman. By the All-Star break, he was sharing the closer’s role with third-year pitcher Bob Gibson. “I have no idea what’s going on anymore,” he told the newspapers. “No idea.”
On September 4 at Minnesota, he pitched a clean ninth to seal an 11-10 Brewers win and mark his 341st save. It was the highest career total in baseball history and would remain so until Jeff Reardon passed it in 1992. And it was the last save of Fingers’ career. Two days later at Kansas City, Fingers came on in the 11th inning to try to preserve a 3-2 Brewers lead. After getting an out, he gave up a home run, saw a runner reach on an error, and allowed a run-scoring double to John Watham to end the game. Two days after that, still in KC, he came on to hold an 11-11 tie. He pitched a perfect tenth, but gave up a booming home run to Steve Balboni in the 11th to lose it.
Fingers compared his final season to a prison sentence.
There was still a month left in the season, but Fingers saw action just one more time. The Brewers were at Baltimore, locked in a 1-0 pitchers’ duel between Ted Higuera and Ken Dixon. With the Brewers down, Higuera got two out in the 8th before being tagged for three quick runs. Manager George Bamberger called for Fingers to mop up and, with a runner on second, Fingers served up a meatball that outfielder Gary Roenicke crushed for a two-run homer. Fingers then struck out Rick Dempsey to end the inning. It was an unglamorous way to end a Hall of Fame career.
After the final homestand of the season, Finger asked permission to leave the team and skip the closing New York/Boston road trip. “No use spending the money on an extra room if I’m not going to get into a game,” he told the Journal. Gathering his things and preparing to return home to San Diego, Fingers compared the end of the season to “being released from jail.” Six weeks later, the Brewers released Fingers, eating his $250,000 salary for 1986. That same day, they also cut Pete Vuckovich, Pete Ladd, and Mark Brouhard, all members of the 1982 pennant-winning team.
Like Fingers, Vuke struggled to stay healthy after the 1982 season. He threw three innings in ’83, missing all of ’84, and turned in 22 mostly regrettable starts in 1985. Also like Fingers, he felt he had a little more left in the tank. He ended up resigning with the Brewers, but managed only six starts in 1986 before his arm finally gave out. Fingers toyed with joining the Cincinnati Reds for 1986, but refused to adhere to the Reds’ no-facial hair policy by shaving his trademark handlebar mustache. He officially retired shortly after.