Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Brewers' owner tops list of non-playing heroes from first half

Here's an article about owner Mark Attanasio by John Heyman of Sports Illustrated:

When Brewers owner Mark Attanasio's car got stuck in traffic on I-94 on the way to a game the other day (yes, there is heavy traffic in Milwaukee on game days now), he hopped out of his vehicle and scaled a four-foot fence in hopes of seeing every last pitch. Luckily, a security guard recognized the Los Angeles interloper who's done everything he can to become beloved in down-to-Earth Milwaukee. So the guard approved Attanasio's illegal fence-hopping and ushered him in to see his team, the best Brewers team in decades.

Of course, it doesn't hurt Attanasio's local profile that within four years of taking over ownership, the Bronx native and Brentwood, Calif., resident who frequently sits and mingles among the masses at Miller Park has authorized eye-catching expenditures for the small-market club. The latest example is the recent blockbuster trade for pitching ace CC Sabathia, which established the Brewers as a potential National League playoff force and took their payroll from a baseball-low $28 million four years ago all the way into the $90-million range now.

Attanasio credits accomplished, risk-taking general manager Doug Melvin, the team's savant of a scouting director Jack Zduriencik and many other club employees for the turnaround that has the pennant-starved city dreaming of its first playoff appearance since 1982. That was the year Stormin' Gorman and the rest took the Brewers to Game 7 of the World Series before losing to the Cardinals (the Brewers didn't join the National League until the 1998 season). But Attanasio is the one bankrolling that dream that he says will all but guarantee red ink.

"If we win the World Series,'' Attanasio says, "we may break even.'' And Attanasio, who bought the Brewers in 2004 from the family of baseball commissioner Bud Selig for an estimated $220 million, says that with glee. Tricky bookkeeping may allow some owners to claim bottom-line losses, but considering Milwaukee ranks 30th out of 30 franchises as a media market, Attanasio's claim is more than believable.

You can take this investment banker's promise to the bank, too. "If there's something to do, we'll do it,'' Attanasio says. "We're going for it.''

Attanasio can hardly contain his joy at having made beer town a baseball town again. On Sunday, the Brewers' 3-2 victory over the Reds was seen by their fourth straight sellout, and 20th of the season. The Brewers set a club record with 2.86 million fans last year and are expected to hit the 3-million mark for the first time this year. Meantime, Attanasio will be doing whatever he can to get to the games. He estimates that he sees 40 a year, 20 at Miller Park and 20 on the road. "I am a baseball fan,'' he says. "I feel like one of them. I am one of them.''

Now, he isn't viewed as any sort of California carpetbagger. In fact, he's imbedded in the community. He and star Brewers pitcher Ben Sheets, who's been selected to start the All-Star Game, are part-owners of the Milwaukee Admirals hockey team. His son Dan played at Milwaukee's Summerfest celebration with his band Pan Am.

At one point in our conversation, Attanasio excused himself so he could witness the clubhouse beer dousing (apropos for the Brewers) to celebrate the latest Brewers All-Star, Corey Hart, who had just won the final roster spot on a fan vote. That vote tally where Hart beat New York Mets icon David Wright was the latest affirmation of Milwaukee's love affair with baseball, and Attanasio sounded as excited as if he were celebrating the achievement of one of his own children. For his unadulterated glee, and his unlimited bankroll, Attanasio is my No. 1 behind-the-scenes hero of the first half (more heroes are listed below).

For Attanasio to be truly gleeful, the Brewers will have to still be playing on October. Melvin, the GM, actually started the ball rolling several weeks before he eventually landed Sabathia for top slugging prospect Matt LaPorta and three more minor leaguers. Sometime back around June 1, Melvin told Attanasio he thought they'd have a shot at the 2007 American League Cy Young winner if the Indians didn't turn it around. About a month later, Melvin made it happen with a bold approach that included offering LaPorta right away. "He didn't play games,'' Attanasio says. "He got right to the heart of the matter.''

Attanasio is a similarly straight shooter. His early pledge to do what he can to bring a winner to Milwaukee turns out to be anything but idle chatter. While many other owners remain cost-conscious, including the Dodgers' Frank McCourt of Attanasio's adopted hometown team who is reported to have nixed a trade proposal for Sabathia, Attanasio pledges to allow his GM to do what he can to improve their team and pennant hopes.

The 52-43 Brewers are among the more talented teams in the National League. But not every move has worked. The Brewers have $16 million tied up in three floundering relief pitchers (Eric Gagne, Guillermo Mota and Derrick Turnbow, who's in the minors).

Attanasio is a professional money man who puts wins ahead of bucks. If there's a relief pitcher who can aid the cause, Attanasio pledges to approve the deal. If there's a lefthanded hitter who can help, Attanasio pledges to add one of those, as well. He says, "Barring injury, we think we have a shot. And you don't know when you'll have a shot again.''

Thanks to some hellacious drafts, the Brewers may actually have more shots than a local neighborhood South Side bar. Melvin wisely kept Zduriencik, a holdover from the previous regime, and the result is 10 All-Stars at Double-A Huntsville in addition to maybe the best young nucleus in the bigs (All Stars Ryan Braun and Corey Hart, plus Prince Fielder, J.J. Hardy and Yovani Gallardo were all Zduriencik draft picks). Those drafts have positioned the Brewers to have a chance to become a perennial power, which was actually pledge No. 1 on Attanasio's list when he arrived in 2004. At the time, it seemed like a long shot. Now, not necessarily.

The Brewers actually signaled their arrival last year when they took the NL Central race into the last week but succumbed to the archrival Cubs, who probably benefited by having the more experienced Lou Piniella managing them. The bad finish made some folks forget it was still Milwaukee's first winning season in 15 years. But now, with the arrival of Sabathia, the expectations are through the Miller Park roof. Regarding a possible World Series appearance, which shouldn't be out of range, Attanasio says, "I think it would be presumptuous to say we have to get to the World Series. We have to make the playoffs first.''

But Attanasio well understands that Sabathia has put them in the mix. "A lot of people think we have a very strong 1-2 [pitching tandem, with Sheets], and that could get us deep into the playoffs,'' Attanasio says. "But we don't want to take anything for granted. We have to get there first.''

And if Attanasio has to scale fences to get there to see his team, so be it. His Brewers are scaling their own heights.


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