Milwaukee's Selig plays role of villain and hero Strike three! Baseball calls off the season

September 15, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

MILWAUKEE -- There could not be a more unlikely candidate for villainy. Milwaukee Brewers President and Acting Commissioner Bud Selig is about to go down in history as the grinch who stole baseball, and it just doesn't seem to fit.

Not in Milwaukee, anyway.

The national media may be having a field day with the acting commissioner's decision to call an official end to the 1994 baseball season, but in this midsized Midwestern city, Mr. Selig is viewed from a different perspective.

He is the man who resurrected major-league baseball in Milwaukee, and he is the champion of all those who worry and wonder if this town is big enough to keep its professional sports franchises.

The nation may be furious at being denied its daily ration of the national pastime, but there is no need to dig a moat around Milwaukee County Stadium. The natives are not even restless.

"I think that there is no doubt that's true," Mr. Selig says as he tools through the streets of Milwaukee on the way to another television appearance. "Wherever I go, people are incredibly supportive. Sure, they're sad that there is no baseball, but they understand that when I say there are going to be huge economic and social consequences to a lot of cities if we ignore these problems, this [city] is one of them."

If only he could have made the players union understand, he wouldn't have been standing there at County Stadium yesterday, explaining why the World Series would be canceled for the first time in 90 years. Explaining why he and John McGraw will go down in history as the only two people ever to call off the Fall Classic.

"In the end, it's going to be better everywhere -- even in Baltimore," Mr. Selig said. "I think everyone knows that there has to be a change."

It is clearer to some cities than others. The Orioles were getting along fine without a salary cap, but the Brewers were finding it harder and harder to field a competitive team. There were even rumors of an effort to relocate the team to Phoenix, which only served to increase civic appreciation for Mr. Selig's efforts to keep the club viable.

"Because Bud has tied his ability to keep the Brewers in Milwaukee to revenue-sharing, he has the support of the people in Milwaukee," said Milwaukee Sentinel sportswriter Tom Haudricourt, who has covered Mr. Selig and the Brewers since the early 1980s. "He has made it clear that to keep the team in Milwaukee, they need a new stadium, and they can't have a new stadium without revenue-sharing. Because he has made that clear, the people who want the Brewers to stay in Milwaukee are behind him on this."

'Small-town schlepper'

The rest of the country is not so forgiving. Mr. Selig has been vilified as the "small-town schlepper" who is holding baseball hostage to the interests of a cabal of struggling teams. He has spent all but one day of the strike at home in Milwaukee.

"I think you're likely to get a different perspective here," said Bob Milbourne, executive director of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, a group of prominent businessmen who have worked with Mr. Selig to promote the construction of a new stadium for the Brewers. "In some ways, baseball and Bud Selig are synonymous in Milwaukee. He is credited with bringing baseball back to Milwaukee and maintaining it.

Mr. Selig, president of Selig Executive Lease Co., a car-leasing company, was the largest public stockholder in the Milwaukee Braves before they moved to Atlanta after the 1965 season. He led the effort to return Milwaukee to the majors, and after failing to buy the Chicago White Sox in 1969, Mr. Selig and his investor group were awarded the Seattle Pilots franchise by a bankruptcy court in 1970.

Club officials say there have been few complaints from Brewers season ticket holders since the strike began. No scientific survey has been performed, but calls and comments -- according to the team -- have been 90 percent supportive.

Of course, the Brewers aren't one of the clubs that has sacrificed a chance to play in the World Series this year. The perspective might have been different if the club were in the hunt.

"I think it's much different here than in the big markets," Mr. Selig said, "but I think it's the same in places like Houston, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Oakland and Cincinnati. People here clearly understand, and I think in time everybody will understand."

In the meantime, Mr. Selig is trying to understand the heat he is taking.

"Sure, I feel it," he said. "I called [New York Times columnist] Dave Anderson after he wrote a very negative column about me recently, and he said, 'You've taken that job, and this is part of it.' I guess there is a lot of truth to that. There have been a lot of institutional hits."

Bud the businessman has been at war with Bud the baseball fan for a long time. There is nothing he enjoys more than watching the Brewers from the owner's box. The strike has left a void in his life, just as it has for many others, but the businessman finally is taking a stand.

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