"But going into Yankee Stadium, with the monuments and the history, it was exciting, man. It was The Stadium
. That was the epitome of Major League Baseball. That's The House that Ruth Built."
Thomas' first visit to New York was in May 1973, and he remembers it like it was yesterday. The first thing he did was hustle out to Monument Park.
Brewers broadcaster Bob Uecker did precisely the same thing in 1964, when his Cardinals beat the Yankees in the World Series.
"I don't care who you are, the first time you stepped into Yankee Stadium, that was something," Uecker said. "That field was revered, and there was the immensity of Yankee Stadium. You were fired up."
The Yankees are creating new history now at the latest incarnation of Yankee Stadium, a billion-dollar palace across 161st St. from where the former ballpark stood. The Brewers will play there Tuesday through Thursday in their first meeting with the Yankees since taking two of three Interleague games at Miller Park in 2005.
Corey Hart experienced the old Yankee Stadium for the 2008 All-Star Game. He was looking forward to exploring the new place.
"You hear about how much guys like hitting in it, so I'm looking forward to that," Hart said. "It's new, but it's still a cathedral, so it will be nice to check it out. Any time you go to a new stadium, you get excited."
The Yankess own the all-time series between the teams, 208-182, with one tie.
Thinking back on some of his battles with the Yankees, Thomas turns back into a 20-something center fielder, with wild hair spilling out from under his cap and a fewer greys in his bushy mustache. The rivalry comes back quickly.
He rattles off the late 1970s Yankees roster without even thinking about it -- from Reggie Jackson in right field to Lou Piniella in left, to the infield of Chris Chambliss, Willie Randolph, Bucky Dent and Graig Nettles. There were 20-game winners Ron Guidry and Ed Figueroa at the top of the rotation, and Goose Gossage in the bullpen.
Thomas remembers catcher Thurman Munson throwing pebbles at his shoes while Thomas tried to settle into the batter's box, just to break the kid's concentration, and Yankees pitcher Dave LaPoint striking Thomas out with a maddening series of eephus pitches.
Thomas recalls the day the Brewers' bus broke down in Harlem and players had to walk the final six or seven blocks to Yankee Stadium. And the way legendary Stadium public address announcer Bob Sheppard called a certain No. 2 -- not Derek Jeter, but Yankees outfielder Bobby Murcer.
There was the time Jackson, frustrated by his personal struggles against Brewers left-hander Mike Caldwell, threw his bat halfway to the mound after a popup. Caldwell picked it up, snapped it in half and sparked a brawl.
Some of the memories came from County Stadium, like the day in April 1976 that Yankees manager Billy Martin convinced the umpires to wipe out Don Money's walk-off grand slam. Martin argued that Chambliss had called time out before the pitch.
"We were already back in the clubhouse drinking our first beer," Thomas said.
The teams were ordered back to the field, and the Yankees wound up winning, 9-7.
Thomas had a personal affinity for Martin, but most Milwaukee residents did not. In 1973, when he managed the Tigers and the Brewers were a fledgling franchise on a winning streak, Martin vowed in a particularly politically incorrect moment that, "If the Brewers can win with that club, then I'm a Chinese Aviator." When the Brewers were still hovering around .500 in August, they hosted Chinese Aviator Night at County Stadium, and Martin was game to serve as judge in a costume contest.
Thomas remembers another brawl with the Yankees years later -- in 1979, he thinks -- that ignited when Piniella threw a forearm at infielder Jim Gantner.
"I was running in [from center field] for two reasons," Thomas said. "One, I wanted to get in the middle of it. Two, I was getting chased by Ron Davis and Goose Gossage, and they were a hell of a lot bigger than me.
"So [Luis] Tiant comes out from the clubhouse to see what's going on, and all he has on is this little towel that won't fit around his waist. He looked at me and hollered, 'Gorman, you can be anything in the jungle but the hunter!' It was wild, man."
Speaking of intimidating pitchers, Uecker recalled the day the Yankees' Jackson spent too much time admiring a long home run off Brewers right-hander Pete Vuckovich. When Jackson finally began to trot, a furious Vuckovich ran right alongside him, all the way around the bases.
"Once he saw 'Vuke,' then he really started running," Uecker said with a laugh.
"But I don't think it escalated too often to where you really wanted to fight someone. It wasn't 'the hated Yankees.' It was just two good teams."
Adding to the rivalry was the fact that Brewers fans still remembered 1957 and '58, when the Milwaukee Braves met the Yankees in back-to-back World Series. Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Warren Spahn and the Braves won in '57, but lost in '58 and never made it back to the postseason before leaving for Atlanta.
The Yankees denied Milwaukee again in 1981, when the teams played a five-game playoff to decide the AL East champion. The season had been interrupted in the middle of the summer by a strike, so the first-half champion Yankees were matched against the second-half champion Brewers.
The Yankees won the first two games in Milwaukee, and the Brewers won the next two in New York. Uecker was in Yankees owner George Steinbrenner's office after Game 4, when a furious Boss summoned manager Bob Lemon and the coaching staff for a dressing down.
The division came down to a decisive Game 5, a 7-3 Yankees win. For the Brewers, it was a step toward their magical 1982 season, in which they won the AL pennant and went all the way to a World Series Game 7 against the Cardinals.
"We finally had a team," Thomas said. "Even though it was a different [playoff] formula, it happened for us."
Brewers fans are aching for it happens again and will be watching closely this week to see how Milwaukee holds up in New York. The Brewers have Zack Greinke on the mound for Tuesday's series opener, and have won eight of the last nine games Greinke has pitched.