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(Almost) Winning in Milwaukee

The author of The Art of Fielding on the Brewers, falling short, and baseball in the upper Midwest

On October 16, my father and I drove north from my parents’ home in Racine to attend Game 6 of the NLCS — Brewers versus Cardinals. It was my first-ever playoff game, and I felt like an ancient wrong was being redeemed. In 1982, the Brewers appeared in their only World Series, against these same Cards. I was 6, and it was my first season of serious fandom. Someone gave my dad two tickets to Game 5, a Sunday-afternoon game, and my dad, with whom I’d attended many games that season … took my mother. I was baffled. Did she even like baseball? It was unclear. My dad and I had been going all season long, she’d stayed home, and I saw no reason why I’d get demoted now. I consoled myself with the idea that, since it was a rare day game, I’d get to watch the whole thing on TV.

Twenty-nine years later, minus one day, my time had finally come, and against the same despised Cards. Brewer fans still bear a grudge against St. Louis for ruining our lone shot at glory — our only World Series appearance in 42 years — and since the teams became divisional rivals in 1994 (through the machinations of Allan Huber Selig, on whom more later) there’s often been a corresponding bitterness on the field. It’s a rivalry born of intense identification: two medium-sized Midwestern industrial towns, one on a great lake, the other a wide river, impassioned and wise about baseball, with stadiums named after the lager empires that have partly sheltered their towns from the worst ravages of manufacturing’s collapse. The only thing missing was a few more Milwaukee victories — the Cards have won 11 World Series, the Brewers none — and this seemed to be the year. But when it’s never your year, it’s never your year.

Miller Park rises from one of the cheerier expanses of sun-bleached concrete you’ll find, amid a network of spur roads, stringy trees, and pedestrian overpass bridges three miles west of downtown Milwaukee. Around the parking lots’ fringes lie various low-slung businesses — Badger Railing, Taylor Dynamometer, Wisconsin Highway Business Signs — whose names, like the old Brewers ball-and-glove logo, might have been designed especially for hipster T-shirts.

The stadium itself has a gigantic aspect — both familiar and alien, bigger than a ballpark, siphoning cars toward it. The pale-brick facades make it look like a shopping mall, or a train station in a gentrified downtown, but what stands out is the green retractable roof, swelling skyward, its raised iron beams running like spines over the mammoth length of the place. Presumably those beams serve some structural purpose, but they also make a nice piece of urban architecture, suited to Milwaukee but imaginable atop a cutting-edge art museum in a labor-minded European city.

We arrived at four o’clock as the parking lots opened, and by 4:15 the smell of charcoal filled the air. Wisconsin tailgaters, whatever the sport, move with a military efficiency, at least until they’re drunk. Tables and camp chairs bloomed across the lot; the tables filled with meats, buns, condiments, Jell-Os, desserts, and a surprising number (at least to me) of full-on wet bars. Everyone played cornhole — so many bean bags flew toward so many wedge-shaped wooden goals (some with Brewers or Packers or Badgers logos, others marbled black and white like Holsteins) that it was hard to walk around.

A flag-stiffening wind blew from the west, calling to mind the windy day in 1999 when the Big Blue Crane, as it’s known, collapsed against the side of the nearly finished stadium, killing three ironworkers. Today, the sun fell swiftly, casting parts of the parking lot in chilly shadow. All radios were tuned to WTMJ, which recounted highlights from the just-booked Packers win. The crowd, too, content and subdued, seemed yet to have turned its thoughts to baseball. No one was warmly dressed, because the stadium roof was closed, and so even when the night turned frigid it would be plenty warm inside. It has always struck me as odd and incongruous, a roof like this in Wisconsin for a summer sport, and no matter how many games I attend I still tend to forget it exists. Baseball, after all, is a summer sport, and we cherish our summers here.

At 5, the stadium gates opened, and my dad headed in to watch batting practice. I walked around, looking for old friends. I passed a pair of old women in crocheted Brewers sweaters, white with patterned versions of the ball-and-glove logo where the pumpkins or snowflakes would otherwise be. A guy walking ahead of me wore a Brewers jersey with NIXON between the shoulder blades. I was surprised to see two attractive women in proximity to one another (it’s not that kind of crowd), until I realized one was a TV reporter — she held a microphone to the other’s lips and nodded absorbedly for long stretches, relieved to have found someone almost as telegenic to talk to.

As I strolled through the tailgate, I saw virtually no black or Latino people, but I did soon run across the latter group’s representative sausage: The Chorizo. The Chorizo is 10 feet tall and wears a sombrero and a green T-shirt with his name and the number 5 emblazoned on the back. He was added to Milwaukee’s sixth-inning Sausage Race in 2007 to honor the city’s Latino population — which, though sizable, appears not to attend Brewer games, at least not playoff ones. The Chorizo, unfazed by this, was out shaking hands and posing for photos, no doubt striving, as the newbie, to build a following commensurate to those of the original four sausages: The Brat, The Italian, The Polish, and The Hot Dog.

I could tell the crowd was serious by how little Packers garb I saw despite the autumn Sunday — even in the height of summer there’s usually more green and gold. Fans in red had to be vetted for Badger or Cardinal alliance — if they were wandering instead of tailgating, they were probably from St. Louis. The Cards fans’ beefiness looked different from Wisconsin beefiness — healthier, heartier, as if they’d been eating organic meat. Everyone else wore the dark blue of the current Brewers or, almost as often, the paler blue of the 1982 team.

The mustachioed, beer-bellied shadow of 1982 hangs over everything to do with Milwaukee baseball — not just this season, but especially this season. Those Brewers are fondly remembered by fans in many places, and might be the most famous post-expansion team not to win a title. This year, on the night of Game 5, I found myself committed to a dinner in Nashville, unable to watch the game. When I asked my Tennessean tablemates if anyone had a smartphone on which to check the score, they instantly, and for no other reason than the joy of reciting the names, rattled off the lineup of the ’82 Brewers — Yount, Molitor, Cooper, Thomas, Oglivie, Gantner, Simmons, Vuckovich, Fingers. Throw in the handful of guys they forgot, like Moose Haas and Charlie Moore, and you have one of baseball’s iconic teams, a supremely charismatic group that won back-to-back MVPs, back-to-back Cy Youngs, a home run title, and a pennant, but no World Series, and which faded to oblivion by the end of the following year.

There are reasons for their popularity. Those Brewers were, or at least resembled, a perfect manifestation of their place and time — beer-drinking, bike-riding guys in the city of Miller and Harley-Davidson. At the dawn of Reaganomics, amid the rise of the bond trader and a new corporate ethos, they found themselves already, accidentally, a crazily coiffed throwback to the supposedly freewheeling ’70s.

The moustaches, and the heartening lack of guile when talking to the press, might have counted little if their style of play didn’t exude the same careless excess. They were average in the field and on the mound (despite those back-to-back Cys for Fingers and Vuckovich), as though to deny the other team its share of runs would be stingy and wrong. To compensate they raked and raked and raked. They were a slow-pitch softball team in a big-park, dead-ball era. They led all of baseball by 30 home runs, while finishing second-to-last in strikeouts. They scored .45 runs per game more than anyone else — a gigantic margin.

Their manager was Harvey Kuenn, who suited them perfectly: a hometown boy, UW-Wisconsin star (before the Badgers canceled baseball), and AL batting champ who married a former Miss Wisconsin, and — no joke — bowled in the winter to stay in shape. In case that wasn’t enough, he’d also, like Ahab, that coach of another unruly gang, had one leg amputated just below the knee.

Kuenn became manager only on June 2, after the team sputtered to a 23-24 start and Buck Rodgers was fired. Harvey’s Wallbangers, as they were called, finished a formidable 72-43 to win the AL East, defeated the California Angels in a dramatic ALCS, then battered the Cardinals 10-0 in the opening game of the World Series. They parlayed that win into a 3-2 Series lead, then went to St. Louis and let it slip away. The team finished fifth the next year, and Kuenn was fired. Since then, Milwaukee fans have been frozen in time — forever celebrating, lamenting the loss of, and wearing the caps of, the only pennant-winning team we’ve ever had.

These 2011 Brewers, the city’s most talented team since ’82, seemed both buoyed and burdened by their old-school counterparts. Like their predecessors, they started poorly, beginning the season 14-20, then racked up the majors’ best record thereafter. They, too, were charismatic sluggers who played suspect defense and relied on a well-coiffed closer — John Axford, winner of the Robert Goulet Memorial Mustached American of the Year Award, even though he’s Canadian. Most important, they looked like they could win it all — on the last day of the season, still playing hard for home-field advantage, they won their 96th game, finally eclipsing the ’82 team’s record.

As always, the Cardinals loomed large. The teams went 9-9 against each other, and the games were exceedingly tense. In August, Jason Motte retaliated for a pitch that hit Albert Pujols by plunking Ryan Braun; later in the game, Cards catcher Yadier Molina went berserk on the plate umpire. In September, Brewers center fielder Nyjer Morgan, who’d been feuding for a while with Chris Carpenter, flung his tobacco in Carpenter’s direction, enraging Pujols, whom Morgan then inelegantly slagged on Twitter, and inducing Tony La Russa to tell Morgan to get a clue. (La Russa, sometimes easily induced, also described Brewers fans as “idiots,” and complained that Miller Park employees were altering the lighting depending on who was at bat.)

Morgan’s erratic behavior had pretty much made him a pariah before he joined the Brewers this year, but his new teammates rallied around him in a fierce, palpable way. He became the team’s focal personality, which reduced the pressure on Fielder and Braun and seemed to give the whole team confidence. Brewers fans loved him as much as opposing fans despised him — the jersey of his alter ego, Tony Plush (who was, weirdly, invented as a kind of Neil Strauss The Game-style avatar for picking up women in clubs), became the team’s best-seller. An SI cover story about the Brewers’ season morphed into a sympathetic profile of Morgan, perhaps the only black kid from San Jose ever to drop out of high school to move to Canada to play minor league hockey.

Even Brewers fans occasionally get annoyed with the garrulous Morgan and his proliferating alter egos — Tony Tombstone, Tony Gumble, Tony Hush, et alia — and when they do, they contrast his mania to the calm dignity of Yount and Cooper. But mostly fans can’t get enough of Morgan, because he feels like a throwback to that premodern era when an athlete, unable to become a corporation, might decide to become a character. What we want from our ballplayers, apart from the beauty of their performance, is a little insight into the thoughts that make that performance possible. But they can’t really talk about what they do — what they do is too delicate, too fragile, too elusive. And, in the age of endorsements and corporate sponsorship, they can’t talk about much else, either. The athlete interview — and we watch and hear and read so many — is a deadening monotone. But Morgan talks and talks, wears his feelings on the outside, and so makes us feel like we’re inside. It’s a brave move, if an uncalculated one, especially for a black man; and it makes Morgan, more than any other Brewer, feel like a link to the league of 30 years ago.

Now as then, the Crew won their first playoff series in a deciding Game 5 — this time in the bottom of the 10th, when Morgan bounced a single up the middle, scoring his platoon mate Carlos Gomez. Later that night, the Cards beat the Phillies, and it was on. Perhaps the exorcism could finally be performed, the heads snapped off all those endless throwback bobbleheads.

The crowd streamed through the main entrance near home plate, slowed only by a perfunctory security check. Opposite that entrance stands an idyllic Little League field, built on the infield of old County Stadium, and in between stand four life-size bronze statues: Hank Aaron; the three ironworkers who died in the Big Blue Crane accident; Robin Yount; and owner-turned-commissioner Bud Selig. The Selig statue was installed most recently, in August 2010, and I had somehow remained ignorant of its existence until I found myself standing before it.

Born in Milwaukee, Selig attended the University of Wisconsin, where he roomed with Wisconsin senator and Bucks owner Herb Kohl, and then entered the family auto-leasing business. He became a minority owner of the Milwaukee Braves, tried to keep the Braves in town, failed. Immediately he formed the Milwaukee Brewers Baseball Club, whose sole purpose was to bring baseball back to the city. He tried to spirit the White Sox away from Chicago, but that purchase was blocked, and then turned his attention to the Pilots, a bankrupt expansion club that had lasted a single season in Seattle — just long enough to have their awfulness immortalized by Jim Bouton in Ball Four. The cost was around $10.8 million, of which Selig himself put up a small fraction.

You could and probably should call Selig a local hero — a hometown boy who’s devoted his life to keeping baseball in Milwaukee, and now occupies the game’s highest office — and yet he’s never played the part quite convincingly. His lifelong nickname stems directly from his role as a little brother; when his mom returned from the hospital with baby Allan in tow, she told her first-born, Jerry, “We brought you a little buddy.” And indeed Buddy’s relationship to Milwaukee, over the past five decades, has always had a big/little brother dynamic, with Buddy, no matter how powerful he becomes (and by certain measures he’s one of the more powerful men in America), forever in the role of noogie recipient. He’s remained perpetually loyal and eager to impress, which gives Brewers fans perpetual license to remain unimpressed. As fiercely as we’ll defend Selig against outside attacks, among ourselves we’ll say little that’s forgiving about the guy. He wants our affection — has always openly wanted it — and that gives us the option to withhold it.1

He’s also been willing to stir up trouble outside the family to protect what’s within.

Much of what other fans chide Selig for are his pro-Milwaukee moves: First, his shrewd orchestration of the Brewers’ switch from the AL to the NL, which saved us the cost of a DH; gave us endless cracks at the Cards; and replaced free-swinging White Sox fans with free-spending Cubs fans. Second, his willingness to raise the vexed question of contraction (to shrink, in the American imagination, is worse than death) while refusing to consider the then-struggling Brewers as a candidate.

Within Wisconsin, Selig’s major shortcoming has always been not winning enough — which has meant, in large part, not being wealthy enough. He self-identified with his Brewers in a way Kohl, for instance, never has with the Bucks, and his team lost and lost and lost, confirming in fans’ minds what they always sort of thought: Selig couldn’t win. The Brewers won 65 games in their first season, one more than the hapless Pilots had, and things were rarely much better thereafter. Hence the enduring love for that ’82 team; in the Selig family’s 35 years at the helm, that was the only team that had a shot.

As the ’80s wore on and professional sports became huge business, it became harder and harder for cities like Milwaukee to keep pace. They weren’t cities, it turned out, so much as “markets”; economically and rhetorically, the distinction between small- and large-market clubs became the critical one. This language took some of the heat off Selig, even while it made it seem less likely that he’d ever redeem himself.

Then as now, the conventional wisdom was clear: A small-market club survived by building a big-market facility. This wasn’t going to be easy for Selig, who didn’t have any money, and so constructing a stadium in Milwaukee would require, even more so than in most cases, a pure application of public funds: $310 million, which was raised through a controversial .1 percent sales tax on Milwaukee and four surrounding counties.2 The bulk of the Brewers’ contribution, meanwhile, came from a government loan and from leasing the naming rights to Miller — hardly much of a contribution at all.

In his two decades as commissioner, meanwhile, Selig has presided over a steady, massive expansion of the business of baseball. Although the sport’s cultural primacy has been in slow decline for decades now, Major League Baseball has become, on Selig’s watch, a gargantuan, healthy, and labor-strife-free $6.6 billion business. Smooth David Stern gets most of the press and the props, but you could easily argue that Selig has been the more successful CEO. He’s been compensated in contemporary CEO fashion, i.e., absurdly: $18.4 million in 2010. To Milwaukee fans, such numbers beside our former owner’s name seem unaccountably strange.

The statue, which stands in a spot of honor near Aaron and Yount, is a good one. It captures a midlife Selig in midstep, besuited, tie aswing. He holds a baseball in his right palm, and his head is thrust forward, ahead of his body, in a way that’s quintessentially Selig — brave, dogged, not to be denied, but also hunched and vulnerable, exposing a slice too much neck to ambushing enemies. (“Given that the guy didn’t have much to work with,” Selig has said, “I think he did a masterful job.”) As I lingered by the statue, several people paused to photograph, or be photographed with, Bud’s likeness. All of them did so with a wry irony, sometimes affectionate, sometimes snickering, but always meant to keep the commissioner in his place: Once a little brother, always a little brother.

Inside, Miller Park resembles a many-balconied combination of Grand Central Station and an overly flashy NBA arena. Before the game, the Diamond Dancers performed in brief, blue sequined dresses and nude slippers than made them look barefoot, finishing in splits on the warning-track dirt, and this was in keeping with the zonked, casino-like, noon-at-midnight feel of the place. Recently, the original scoreboard was replaced with a gargantuan 1080-pixel display, and a long ribbon of high-def video screen wraps, like a stock ticker, around the face of the third level from pole to pole. Several panels of the left-field wall, weirdly, are also big digital screens.

My dad, as he sipped the dark homebrew he’d smuggled in in plastic Coke bottles, beer — the better to circumvent the rules against glass and alcohol — kept complaining about the screens: Forget the fans — how could the players concentrate amid all that flashing? In this, it seemed, he had an ally in La Russa.

For days Milwaukee talk radio had been consumed by an awful certainty that starter Shaun Marcum wouldn’t last into the second inning, and so it happened. By the time the game was 10 minutes old, the Brewers trailed 4-0, and the antsy crowd was booing. A buzzed-blond guy in a green Brewers jersey with shamrocks on the sleeves, loops of Mardi Gras beads around his neck, passed slowly down the aisle, touching elbows like an alderman. “Stay positive,” he counseled. “Let’s bring plenty of positive energy.”

The Brewers kept it close with three home runs in the first two innings, but in the third Allen Craig snuck a painfully slow, bouncy single through the infield, making the score 9-4. The rest was anticlimax: a series of empty rituals. The sausage race used to provide a reliable minute of relief, but within the pixelated swirl of the newly souped-up park it seemed distant and lost. In the top of the seventh, the organ player embarked on a hopeful rendition of Sweet Caroline — then abandoned it after a few bars, as if realizing how gruesome it was to evoke the Red Sox just then.

The crowd clambered gamely back to its feet to begin the eighth — first to will Prince Fielder to start a rally as big as himself; and then, when Fielder tapped weakly to short, to commemorate his 230 home runs; his All-Star MVP; his one missed game in the past three seasons; and the fact that baseball’s most electric slugger is a chubby, book-reading 5-foot-11 vegan. They gave a second ovation to gawky 41-year-old utilityman Craig Counsell, who’d subsisted of late on a series of increasingly unlikely one-year contracts, and is unlikely to return.

Late in the game, I took my dad’s camouflage binoculars and peered down the first-base stands toward home, trying to catch a glimpse of Brewers owner Mark Attanasio, who always — when he’s in town — sits in Row 1, Seat 1. Attanasio presents in Milwaukee as the anti-Selig: an East Coast Ivy Leaguer (Brown, Columbia Law) who made a clockwise progress around the country (born in the Bronx; founded an investment firm in Dallas, which was bought by a firm in L.A.) before purchasing the Brewers in 2004 for $200 million. If Selig seems the quintessential younger brother, Attanasio seems like Mark Cuban’s older brother. The two men are oddly alike in their looks and builds and haircuts, and Attanasio is indeed 10 months older and as placid as Cuban is pugnacious. Where Cuban, like Superman, puffs his chest, strains against his tight shirts, and seems always to be exerting himself, Attanasio wears glasses and basic suits and hangs in the background like Clark Kent.

Like Cuban, Attanasio sits front row and brings a boy’s bare passion to the game. He’s a regular guy with a regular-guy image and several hundred million dollars — he sponsors exhibits at the Milwaukee Art Museum, says only good things, and has presided over as many playoff appearances in seven years as Selig did in 35. And so fans have embraced Attanasio in a way they never did his predecessor, even though — or precisely because — he’s a super-wealthy financier who lives and works in L.A. and attends perhaps half of the Brewers’ home games. (Selig, on the other hand, still basically lives in Milwaukee, though for two decades he’s been running a giant corporation based in New York.)

The transition from Selig to Attanasio — from hometown striver to swooped-in savior, from land-grant scholar to Ivy Leaguer, business to finance, schlumpy to smooth, rich to superrich, and, ultimately, from losing to winning — seemed like a kind of lesson in modern life. If you live in a place like Milwaukee and you’re looking to win, you’d better hope for intervention from far-off places. Money and power flow through the coasts, and around the world, but they favor the interior of the country only by happy accident. Brewer fans understood this and welcomed the replacement of Selig, whose chief shortcoming, in the end, was to be too much a part of the place, and so partake of its limitations. Selig, meanwhile, had to move in the other direction — had to leave and go to New York, into the heart of power, to become powerful himself, and to keep helping Milwaukee.

Attanasio had favored our city, and we felt lucky to be the ones he’d chosen. As owners go he’s a good one, shrewd and earnest and passionate. But as I sought him with the binoculars, I couldn’t help wishing for something else. Because what’s an owner, anyway? We know who built Miller Park: the taxpayers, plus the buyers of tickets and jerseys — those same taxpayers. We know who builds all the parks, in all the cities, in all the sports. Wouldn’t the whole world of professional sports be better, more transparent, less icky-feeling, if we recognized that it’s the fans who put up the money and are, in fact, running the show?

And so I decided, late in the eighth, that the fans would go nowhere when the game was over, would stay put — would, in effect, occupy Miller Park. Would tailgate and tailgate, drink all the beer, organize a 4,000-team double-elimination softball tournament on the gorgeous green field, take turns wearing 10-foot-tall sausage costumes, sleep in the luxury suites until transparency was achieved and the current ownership agreed to sell to the people of Milwaukee — for a price that took into account all the money those fans had already poured into the project — the Brewers of Milwaukee. The roof was closed; we could stay all winter; it could only get so cold.

It was a fantasy, and yet only so far-fetched. Up in Green Bay, of course, there’s an NFL team that’s owned by its fans, and the method works. It plays in a city of 102,000 people, has a season-ticket waiting list of 83,000, and has won four Super Bowls. Beyond the bare numbers, there’s a purity and intensity of devotion on the part of Packers fans that (I might be biased) seems unique in pro sports, and that can’t be separated from their unique ownership of the team. No doubt there were hundreds of Packers stockholders in Miller Park at that moment. And didn’t they prefer that directness, that clarity, that acknowledgment of the importance of their role? Didn’t they prefer to live without the obfuscatory intervention of a single person with enough money to buy the team and sell it at a profit, but without enough money to house it in between? Of course they did. Anyone would. Selig could keep his statue; Attanasio could keep his seats. We would keep the team.

In the top of the ninth, John Axford entered the game. The Ax Man’s excruciatingly dissonant entrance song, Refused’s “New Noise,” had been chosen by fans before the season, and ever since had served to trigger a celebration — the Brewers had gone 68-12 when he pitched. Today, down by six, it was merely excruciating, and it chased the fans from their chairs. By the time it ended, half the stadium’s green seats were exposed. My dad and I stayed ’til the bitter end. The red shirts that had been scattered throughout the park collected behind the Cardinals dugout, like blood in the heel of a sock. The red shirts danced through the ninth, celebrating their team’s 18th World Series berth.

That Series, thrilling as it was, seemed like a sad formality to Milwaukee fans — nobody believes in St. Louis like we do. Congratulations, Cardinals.

Chad Harbach is the author of the widely acclaimed The Art of Fielding and is the Executive Editor of n+1.

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Filed Under: Milwaukee Brewers, Teams