- The Washington Times - Friday, July 5, 2002

Try to name five current members of the Milwaukee Brewers.
After first baseman Richie Sexson, an All-Star and former member of the high-profile Cleveland Indians, the task gets difficult.
And, when you add the anonymity of its players to a widening apathy by the once fervent baseball fans of Milwaukee, you have a baseball club in trouble.
"There's no question the Brewers have had a dreadful season," said Tim McCarver, Fox Sports analyst, of Milwaukee, owners of the National League's worst record this season. "There just isn't a tremendous amount of recognizable talent there."
Such is life for the small-market Brewers, who play host to this year's All-Star Game on Tuesday.
They just exist far, far below the radar of national baseball discussion. There have been no winning seasons since 1992, no playoffs since 1982 and no major individual postseason awards of any kind for the Brewers since 1992. National TV appearances are extremely rare.
"It's hard to blame the networks for that," said Bob Uecker, Milwaukee native, one-time Brave and the team's lead radio announcer for 23 years. "Every sport has marquee franchises, and Milwaukee isn't one of them right now. We're certainly not alone in that regard. This city has supported baseball for a long, long time, but it's also hard to blame fans for getting a little upset. Losing when you're busting your butt is one thing. But losing and playing bad baseball is another. And unfortunately, we've seen a bit too much of that."
It wasn't always this way for Milwaukee, once one of America's very best baseball towns. When the Braves played there, they were the top-drawing team in all of baseball, besting even the mighty New York Yankees, each year from 1953 to 1958.
When the Braves beat the Yankees on the field for the 1957 World Series title and fell a game short of repeating the feat a year later, Milwaukee truly arrived. Braves players were treated like rock stars, and often had basic expenses such as food, gas, and laundry provided free by local businesses. The romance continued strong until a vicious circle of declining wins and attendance and the lure of a new stadium in Atlanta prompted the Braves to move south in 1966.
And after a turbulent beginning as the Seattle Pilots, the Brewers won more than 90 games three times between 1978 and 1982 and captured the 1982 American League pennant. Like Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron and Warren Spahn before them, Brewers stars Robin Yount, Paul Molitor and Cecil Cooper forged a deep and lasting bond with Milwaukee fans. As recently as 1983, Milwaukee remained one of the better draws in baseball.
In short, Milwaukee loved the Braves and Brewers, and the teams loved the city right back.
"It was such a happening," Uecker said. "It was one of the things, particularly with the Braves, that if you didn't have tickets, if you weren't headed to County Stadium, you weren't really with it. It was a tremendous thing."
So what happened?
Call it a deadly combination of spiraling baseball economics and the small Milwaukee market. Between 1993 and 2001, average MLB salaries more than doubled and total revenues nearly tripled. The $10 million, $15 million, $20 million and $25 million barriers for annual salary were shattered in lightning-quick succession. The mid and late 1980s were a similar story, though with a few less zeroes in the ledgers.
Blue-collar Milwaukee simply has not been able to keep up. Already the smallest media market in Major League Baseball, Milwaukee also has severe limitations in where it can effectively promote the club. Chicago is just 90 miles away and on nearly every other side is little more than farm country.
"Milwaukee is just really hemmed in geographically. You basically have Chicago to the south, Lake Michigan and the fish to the east and cows to the north and west," said Gabe Paul, executive director of the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority. Paul worked as the Brewers' vice president of stadium operations for more than two decades. "Cows are fine, but they don't pay to go to ballgames."
Bad baseball decisions, such as tying up $22 million in oft-injured and disappointing outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds, have also plagued the club.
Miller Park, the long-planned retractable roof stadium, opened last year and that was designed to elevate the franchise back into respectability. After all, a spate of teams including Baltimore, Seattle, Atlanta and Cleveland all dramatically moved up to supposed big-market status on the increased revenues of their new ballparks.
Brewers attendance indeed did leap to 34,704 last year, the best in franchise history. But the team finished 26 games under .500 and the increased revenues from the new ballpark were largely directed to paying down debt instead of boosting up the roster. Team payroll increased this season only marginally from $46 million to about $50 million.
The team is well on its way to another 90-loss season, and fans have begun to revolt. Attendance is down 30 percent from 2001, a precipitous drop for a team in a new ballpark, and back into the mid-20,000 range where its been for most of the Brewers' history.
Of course, it doesn't help either when the roof of Miller Park springs cascading, waterfall-like leaks, which has been commonplace during storms even into this season.
"Usually a new ballpark really helps an individual club spend more to put the best talent on the field," said McCarver, who played against the Milwaukee Braves in the early '60s as a St. Louis Cardinal. "But it just hasn't happened in Milwaukee. It's sad."
Despite all its problems, Milwaukee is not a typical small-market baseball team. Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig, in testimony delivered to Congress in December, claimed the Brewers completed the 2001 season with an operating profit of more than $9 million.
Sure, they struggle mightily to compete with the National League's big spenders in Arizona, Los Angeles and elsewhere. But the Brewers, brought to life by Selig 32 years ago and now run by his daughter, have never been a candidate to be eliminated. They are not one of the league's prominent charity cases. And they typically do not participate in the mid-season trades that send talented players to big-market clubs for the pennant chase.
So what happens now? The Brewers, like nearly every team playing west or south of the Bronx, are awaiting a new labor deal that allows for a more even economic playing field and a reasonable chance of competing. But if and when that happens, the onus returns to a team's baseball operations to finally field a winning product.
"I remain an optimist. There's a magnificent new stadium, and I think you're going to see some deals get made, some more money invested, and this team say 'What we've doing is not right,'" Uecker said. "I don't care how many bat [giveaway] days you have, you have to win at some point. This team's time, I'm sure, is coming, and when it does, the fans will come back."


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