Once O's 'twin,' Brewers dream of their own rise

ON BASEBALL

January 25, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

There are professional sports franchises all over America that can bear witness to the curative power of a new stadium, but when Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig looks at his struggling team and the construction site that soon will be its new home, the franchise that comes first to mind is the Orioles.

"In the '70s and early '80s, the Brewers and O's were almost identical in revenues and expenditures," Selig said Thursday. Former Orioles owner] Edward Bennett Williams used to kid me about that. They were two franchises that you could put a blanket over."

Not anymore. The Orioles moved into Camden Yards in 1992 and everything changed. In barely the time it took to cut the ribbon, they were transformed into a wealthy, large-market franchise with a revenue stream the size of the Potomac River.

"They had the same economic problems that we did," Selig said. "Then came Camden Yards and, all of a sudden, they were a big-market team and we were a small-market team."

Miller Park is supposed to change all that. The new Brewers stadium is rising just outside Milwaukee County Stadium. It has been under construction for more than a year and is expected to be ready for the 2000 season. Selig can't wait.

He walks out to the site almost daily to catch a glimpse of his club's future in the making. The new stadium is expected to spur interest in the club and provide the economic underpinning necessary to compete in the big-money era, though there is no guarantee that the Brewers will be able to mirror the success of the Orioles.

Despite previous comparisons, the two metropolitan areas are quite different. The Orioles have long drawn significant support from Washington and its well-heeled suburbanites. The Brewers have to depend almost entirely on a relatively small population base. Chicago is only 75 miles away, but there are two major-league franchises there, and the Cubs have solid fan support.

Still, Selig's optimism is unshakable. The Brewers are experiencing an upturn in ticket sales, which can be linked both to the growing excitement about the new stadium and the novelty associated with the club's shift to the National League this season.

"We're headed for a new ballpark and we're changing leagues," Selig said. "We believe that our revenue streams have the potential to increase dramatically."

He's already banking on that. The Brewers are expected to have the highest payroll in club history this year. The club already has committed $27 million to 18 players and is all but assured of topping $30 million. That may not sound like much in Baltimore, where the Orioles will spend more than twice that, but it is a sign that the Brewers are back in business.

"Our payroll, by natural forces, is going up," Selig said. "We could have a payroll of $30 million or a little more. But that's still below the league average, so I guess it's not that bad."

Maybe he'll never be in a position to spend as much as Orioles owner Peter Angelos, but Selig foresees a time when the Brewers and Orioles will be on a par the way they were back in the early 1980s.

"One year, we went to a [regular-season] playoff with the Orioles and reached the World Series," Selig said. "The next year, they went to the World Series and won it. We were two of the strongest franchises in baseball."

Now, in the post-realignment era, they can both get there the same year.

Time to reconsider?

Hall of Famers Ted Williams and Bob Feller recently petitioned Selig (in his other role, as acting commissioner) to lift the ban imposed on Chicago White Sox great "Shoeless Joe" Jackson and allow the Hall of Fame's Veterans Committee to consider him for induction.

Jackson was banned for life by baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis after being linked to the infamous Black Sox scandal, even though he was acquitted of charges that he participated in an attempt to fix the 1919 World Series.

The campaign to rehabilitate the image of Jackson has been going on for decades, and it was the underlying theme of the popular movie, "Field of Dreams," but no commissioner has yet seen fit to lift the ban. Selig may be reluctant to set a precedent that could logically be extended to all-time hit leader Pete Rose.

Tony the tiger

Anaheim Angels president Tony Tavares usually is more comfortable side-stepping controversial issues, but he took some uncharacteristic swipes at baseball's management hierarchy during a speech last week to a local meeting of marketing executives.

Tavares called on baseball to elect an independent commissioner and criticized procedural rules that make it virtually impossible to make progressive changes in the way the industry operates.

"If I can find three morons in my league to agree with me," he said, "whether it's a good idea or a bad one, I can block it."

He also blasted baseball's ruling faction for handing over control of the game to the players union during a series of ill-fated labor showdowns.

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