February 27 marks the 30th anniversary of a dark day in Milwaukee Brewers history. An explosion in the center of their spring training complex in Chandler, Arizona, injured nine people. It happened within the coaches’ room at the center of the complex. The worst injuries were to third base coach Tony Muser, pitching coach Herman Starrette, bullpen coach Larry Haney, and plumber Jeff Sutton. Muser and Sutton required helicopter transport to the Maricopa County burn unit. Muser received second and third degree burns over 50 percent of mainly the upper half of his body, while Sutton was burned mainly in his hands and face. Starrette had first and second degree burns on his hands and arms, and was taken to Chandler Community hospital for treatment. Muser was later transferred to a burn unit in California – and considered lucky to be alive.
Also taken to the hospital with minor burn injuries were pitcher Bill Wegman, first base coach Andy Etchebarren, general manager Harry Dalton, and catcher Bill Schroeder. A construction worker was also treated for smoke inhalation. Some were injured while trying to get the flames to go out on Muser, Haney, Sutton, and Starette. It was an unlikely turn of events for a team that was so excited to begin work in a new spring home. As Schroeder said later, the only positive was camp was just beginning with pitchers, catchers, and coaches on hand. He shuddered to think of what might have happened with a full team in the facility.
The Brewers had just moved into Compadre Stadium after holding spring training in Sun City for the previous 13 years. Compadre was a brand new complex at the time, built at a cost of $1.6 million from the pockets of local developers. Chandler’s mayor, Jim Patterson, had courted the Brewers after finding out the team would be leaving their Sun City training site because it had been sold to developers. Patterson said his goals were to bring notoriety to Chandler and create community activity – and the best idea he had was to bring a major league baseball team to the city. After leaving office, Patterson pushed ahead with a development called Ocotillo – 2700 acres with the ballpark as a main said. “Harry Dalton was trying to beat that out and I jumped on him.” He continued, “We got the fire out anyway, and I got him out of the building.”
Dalton and Bamberger had offices next to each other, and the explosion was so forceful that the cinderblock wall separating them completely collapsed.
“I was trying to get the fire out, and get people out of there as fast as I could because you never knew if there would be another explosion,” said Dalton.
The Brewers public relations director, Tom Skibbosh, was nearby and hurried to the explosion.
“When I opened the door, Muser was on fire,” Skibosh said. “George jumped on him, and
Muser and Starette were interviewed a year after the fateful blast, and offered their perspectives on what happened and the aftermath of dealing with not just the physical scars, but the emotional ones as well.
Looking back on the blast, Muser said, “I couldn’t describe it, but it was a funny-looking orange with blue, snaky curls in the center of it. The next thing is the power — how quickly it threw me to the floor and into the wall.”
Muser had a rough couple of months in the hospital with nerve endings growing back before his skin did – a long process that caused him to become depressed and stop taking morphine for a time. He also began to believe there was a conspiracy against him and he stopped trusting the doctors. He said, “With the help of a psychiatrist, I started taking morphine again. I was very concerned about becoming an addict because they were pumping some pretty good amounts in me. I was trying to do everything myself and set my own progress. I had to kind of give in a little bit. Once I started following [the doctor’s] instructions, things started going good for me.”
An exercise program was put in place for Muser’s recovery, starting with walking using ankle weights, then bicycling. He was then cleared to drive a car, and returned to working with the Brewers on May 9.
He said, “I knew I had to get back to baseball because I was tired of hurting. I was tired of feeling sorry for myself. I wanted to get my life going again. The return to baseball was a big part of that healing process.”
Muser said the worst physical pain he still experienced was the tightness and stiffness first thing in the morning. “It’s the toughest time for me because the skin has contracted a little bit,” Muser related.
Starette admitted to not sleeping more than two or three hours in a single stretch due to continued nightmares. Most of his bad dreams had something to do with a fire or explosion. He said, “When I was in New York, I caught myself at 3 o’clock in the morning trying to get the fire extinguisher out of the wall. It scared me.”
He continued, “Somebody will close a door or whatever the case may be, and I jump out of bed. It gets to the point where in a hotel room, somebody closes a car door and I jump up.”
Both of the coaches stated they were cautious with fire and knew firsthand what it could do. Muser claimed he let his wife always light the gas grill at home. Starette said he would rather jump from a hundred story building than be burned to death.
The Brewers kept Compadre Stadium as their spring home until 1997 when they moved to Maryvale Baseball Park in Phoenix. Maryvale had more fan seating and practice fields than Compadre, and the team has remained there through the present day. Maryvale hosts minor league training programs and plenty of local community leagues and special events. Compadre didn’t fare so well, and sat vacant for many years, falling into a state of disrepair. A local park called the Snedigar Recreation Center was created after the Brewers left – complete with animals grazing in the old outfield.
Standard Pacific Homes purchased the property for $29 million in January, 2014, and in July received approval replace the stadium and training complex with a gated, residential community called Echelon. The proposal included plans for 181 single family homes and 137 townhouses. The 64 acre property would possibly be the last large development for the 8.5 square mile Ocotillo area. The stadium was demolished in late summer and construction began a short time later. As of this writing several realtors are promoting future home sales in the development with an expected opening later in the year. While Compadre is gone, memories of the tragic day remain.