- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 16, 2003

The promises were all there when the Milwaukee Brewers spent the mid-1990s lobbying for more than $300 million in public funds for what would become Miller Park.

Team executives said a new ballpark would help Milwaukee become competitive again and end a pitiful run that included no winning seasons since 1992 and no postseason appearances since the 1982 World Series.

The promises then continued last year when Bud Selig, Major League Baseball commissioner and Brewers owner, said the new labor agreement and its expanded revenue sharing would be of particular benefit to small-market teams like Milwaukee.

Just three years into the life of Miller Park and one year into the new collective bargaining agreement, the promises have become hollow, empty words.

Despite the increased revenues of Miller Park and revenue sharing that soared from less than $2 million in 2001 to $15 million last year, the Brewers’ board of directors are now putting final touches on a plan to reduce the 2004 payroll from this season’s $40.6 million and 2002’s $50.3 million to somewhere between $30 million and $40 million. That $40.6 million figure for 2003 was the third lowest in baseball.

If the 2004 payroll drops all the way to $30 million, a target figure according to team president Ulice Payne, the figure could be the lowest in baseball next season, leaving little immediate hope for a franchise that has lost 87 or more games in six consecutive seasons. Attendance, already down nearly 40 percent since Miller Park opened, could fall below 1.5 million for the season.

Payne, who by several accounts originally signed off on the payroll reduction, is openly criticizing the cutbacks, and tense negotiations are underway to end his tenure as team president after 14 months. In the process, the cutbacks and organizational infighting created unprecedented levels of ire and scorn from what was once the most loyal fan base in baseball.

“The Brewers made it clear that if we built a modern, state-of-the-art stadium it would provide them with the resources to field a winning baseball team,” said Tommy Thompson, former Wisconsin governor and now secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “They promised to go out and get the star players that would allow them to compete for a World Series.

“The taxpayers stepped up, built the stadium and kept Wisconsin a major-league state. Yet the Brewers have not upgraded the quality of their team. The Brewers need to put an end to the games,” Thompson said.

The Brewers’ malaise is not for lack of organizational effort. General manager Doug Melvin is one of the game’s most respected minds. No evidence exists to suggest team owners are simply pocketing team funds and leaving the product on the field to wither. The team’s budget for minor-league operations doubled since Miller Park opened. And Selig, whose 30 percent stake in the Brewers sits in a trust, continues to invest in the club while maintaining distance from day-to-day operations.

But team executives acknowledge several glaring errors that continue to leave the franchise among the game’s true laggards and tax the patience of its fans. Among those miscues are a series of horrific entry drafts and ill-advised free agent signings like Jeffrey Hammonds. The team also amassed more than $100 million in club debt in what remains baseball’s smallest media market and created the impression that pennant-contending status would arrive in short order after Miller Park.

The plan now is to retrench the baseball operations and rebuild from the farm system, similar to the process that has led Minnesota to two straight division titles. While a noble idea, it is quite the opposite from what was promised by the team.

“We wanted to replicate the renaissance that happened to the Indians and the Orioles [in the 1990s],” said Rick Schlesinger, Brewers executive vice president for business operations. “But we have had a series of things happen that has not made that possible. There’s a lot of frustration out there, and I understand that. We’re frustrated, too. But we’re going to be disciplined and not be seduced in doing short-term things [with the roster] that simply won’t materialize. A time will come when the payroll will ramp back up. That time is not now.”

In fairness to Milwaukee, numerous other teams around baseball are looking to shed payroll. The Cincinnati Reds, playing their debut year in the Great American Ball Park, conducted a highly unpopular roster purge before the July trading deadline. The Arizona Diamondbacks, once one of baseball’s freest spenders, are starting a systematic reduction that could leave payroll below $60 million by 2005. Other high-profile cutback cases include Texas and the New York Mets.

But arguably no other team besides Milwaukee created such a wide schism between the expectations and promises and what actually happened on the field.

“What’s happened completely flies in the face of what was intended from the new [labor deal],” said Andy Zimbalist, Smith College economics professor and a frequent critic of MLB policy. “But this is another lesson that a new ballpark is not actual revenue, it’s potential revenue. You still have to go out there and get it, and the Brewers have under-invested and poorly invested systematically.”

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