The hits just kept on coming in the summer of 1989.
New Kids On The Block’s “Hanging Tough” hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. A hit TV show about nothing, “Seinfeld,” made its debut. And “Batman,” starring Michael Keaton as the caped crusader, hit the big screen.
Locally, though, no story was a bigger hit than Janesville’s American Legion baseball team.
Post 205 capped an incredible summer by finishing third at the AAA Legion World Series in Millington, Tennessee. Janesville became the first—and remains the only—Wisconsin Legion team to advance to the World Series.
Jerry Davis managed Post 205 and was the glue behind the team’s success. He pushed all the right buttons, seemed to make all the right moves and got 17 boys—the majority of whom had been bitter rivals from Janesville Craig and Janesville Parker—to come together and play as one during that magical summer of ’89.
“There was absolutely no animosity on that team at all,” Davis said. “No east side or west side mentality. It was just a bunch of kids that wanted to play baseball and were good at it.
“Everybody knew their role on the team, and nobody ever complained about how many games we played or anything like that. We played 22 games in August that year. For most kids now, their seasons are over by August.”
Janesville finished the 1989 season with an 44-8 record. Five of the eight losses came in tournament play, including two at the World Series. Post 205’s season ended with a 3-2 semifinal loss to Guynabo, Puerto Rico.
The road to the World Series began with the state tournament in Oshkosh. Janesville beat Appleton 6-1 to open state play but then fell into the loser’s bracket after blowing a 7-0 lead in a 13-10 loss to Eau Claire. Forced to win three straight games for a state title, Post 205 clipped Appleton 13-9 to stay alive but was then forced to double-dip unbeaten Eau Claire for the title.
Behind left-hander Scott Odegaard’s complete game, Janesville won the first game 7-2. Davis then went against conventional wisdom and started Odegaard again in the second game.
The decision proved to be a shrewd one as Odegaard gave a short-handed pitching staff that was playing its fifth game in four days a much-needed boost. He went the first three innings before being relieved.
In a back-and-forth game, Janesville eventually won 9-8 for its seventh and last state title when pinch-runner John Kraus raced home on a passed ball.
Many of the coaches and players to this day believe that Davis’ decision to let the team play Home Run Derby after the Eau Claire loss—instead of practicing—was the difference-maker in winning state.
As the beat writer for the Legion team that summer, Davis asked me to pitch Home Run Derby. And although the pundits probably second-guessed Davis at the time for going against the normal routine, the contest allowed the players to relax and took some pressure off a team that was 29-3 during the regular season and was a heavy favorite to win state.
“We were taking these massive hacks and having a great time,” third baseman Tom Drew said in a Gazette story in 1999. “Here we were about to play our most important game of our Legion lives, and he lets us play Home Run Derby.
“I had never seen a coach who would allow that, because it could mess up your swing or however you want to look at it. But it was the best thing that could’ve happened to us. We went out and played a great game, and it seemed to have set the pace for the rest of the tournament.”
Davis later said Eau Claire was the best-hitting team Post 205 played the entire season, including the World Series.
“I remember when the state Legion commissioner handed me the trophy, he told me that we were a good team but certainly not good enough to get to the World Series,” Davis said. “I kind of laughed and said not only we were good enough to get there, but two teams that we just beat in Eau Claire and Appleton were, too. He really underestimated the baseball talent in the state at that time.
“Eau Claire might’ve been the best team we played all year at any level. And our guys were fearless, so I knew going to the Great Lakes (Regional) wasn’t going to intimidate them.”
Janesville opened up Great Lakes play in Danville, Illinois, with a 7-1 in over Levittown, Pennsylvania. Levittown’s coach made a reference to what was an early start to that game by saying, “the kids from Wisconsin were probably used to getting up early and milking cows back home.” That was all the fuel Post 205 needed as it rolled behind right-hander Jeff Thelen.
Post 205 then beat Palatine, Illinois, 2-1 and Midland, Michigan, 9-7 to remain the only unbeaten team in the tournament. Steubenville, Ohio, beat Janesville in a semifinal game, but sticking to its season-long theme, Post 205 bounced back behind Dan Bloom’s two-run homer to capture the state’s first Great Lakes or Ohio Valley regional title with a 9-4 win over Steubenville.
A pitching staff featuring four quality starters in Thelen, Odegaard, Mark Sievert and Bloom paved the way.
“You’ll never see a better pitching staff than the one we had that summer,” Davis said of his starters who finished the season with a 1.02 ERA and struck out 364 batters in 52 games. “I can count on one hand the number of times I had to take one of them out for a reliever. They were that good and that consistent.
“And defensively, we were solid at every position. Those kids knew how to play the game, and I really think that the success that team had had been building for a couple of years.”
Tom Murphy was one of two assistant coaches on the team, along with the late Dick Roehl. He credits a hard-nosed group of players and the top-flight managerial skills of Davis with creating a dream team.
“Jerry laid down the ground rules at the start of the season and stuck to them,” Murphy said. “He told all 15 guys that everyone was going to play during the regular season, but once tournament started, he was going to settle on a tournament lineup.
“Everyone had their roles and nobody was grousing about it. I think of a guy like John Kraus, whose only role was to pinch run late in games because of his speed, and what does he do? He scores the game-winning run in the state championship game.”
Murphy also said chemistry between the players played a pivotal role in the team’s success. With state, the Great Lakes Regional and the World Series taking place for basically the entire month of August, the team spent most of its time in hotel rooms living out of a suitcase.
“When we started advancing beyond state, every kid got meal money every day,” Murphy said. “But they’d still have their parents take them out to dinner, so the meal money they got would go toward euchre games back at the hotel. But that was the cool thing about it. You never had to worry about the kids or what they were doing. They were all split up in different rooms playing euchre.
“And Dan Molden always carried the jack of clubs in his back pocket, so if we had the third base dugout and he was on third, he’d reach into his back pocket, pull out the jack of clubs and then he was gone.”
Molden’s jack of clubs made its most memorable appearance at the state tournament. After Janesville double-dipped Eau Claire to win the state title, Molden whipped out the card as the team celebrated at home plate and yelled, “that’s a bump.”
A bump in euchre is worth two points.
Behind 1989 Lakeside Lutheran graduate Jerry Wellnitz’s three-run homer, Post 205 won its first game of the World Series 11-7 over Braintree, Massachusetts. Janesville lost its next game 3-1 to eventual champion Woodland Hills, California, but bounced back behind Watertown Luther Prep’s Mark Sievert’s dominating performance in a 9-2 win over Fullerton, California.
Janesville then edged Gonzalez, Louisiana, 3-2 behind Bloom’s gem.
The season ended with a heartbreaking 3-2 loss to Puerto Rico.
With four quality starters, including two that were drafted in Thelen and Sievert, a stout defense and a team batting average around .330, Davis believes the 1989 Janesville American Legion team was one for the ages.
“No team has ever had the pitching that the ‘89 team did,” said Davis, who starred on Janesville’s 1968 Legion state championship team and was drafted by the New York Mets.
“The maturity those kids showed set them apart. They didn’t put themselves on a pedestal before they went out and did it, and a lot of good teams will do that. They worked hard for everything and that was the difference.”