Brewers' boss proving he's far from conventional

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Michael Hunt
Monday, February 28, 2011
— So you want in on big-market baseball, huh?

Well, sure. Without a salary cap, spend whatever you wish. Go ahead, smash that $200 million glass ceiling on the payroll. It’s not as if it hasn’t been done before.

Just make sure you lease a fleet of forklifts to tote the baggage.

In Los Angeles, our Bud Selig dropped down like a catcher corralling a 58-foot sinker and blocked the Dodgers’ $200 million loan from Fox. Seems as if the L.A. owner is $430.million in the hole, partly because of his very public divorce.

In New York, the Mets admitted they borrowed $25 million from MLB to buy an industrial-size mop to clean up some of the Bernie Madoff mess.

And here it is, another day in paradise with baseball’s smallest market, and what was the Milwaukee Brewers’ most egregious sin last season?

They spent $81 million on 77 victories.

Ouch. That seriously hurt. Not nearly on the level that has smeared two titans such as the Dodgers and Mets, but the Brewers felt it for many mornings afterward.

In response, they went out and did the anti-small-market thing. They spent some more on what has the spring look of being the right things, pitching and Prince Fielder.

So when the principal owner flew in last week for his annual spring-training address to the troops, Mark Attanasio was asked about the delicate cost/success ratio in a market that has almost no margin for financial misstep.

The guy who saw one part of his holdings rise while the other crumbled within 24 hours in 2008 just chuckled.

“I’ve managed to put myself in a position where I’ve got two incredibly humbling things to deal with every day, the securities market and a major-league baseball schedule,” Attanasio said.

The lesson in both is to never get cocky and never go conventional.

“In the past we didn’t think we were spending money just for the sake of spending money, but that’s what it proved to be,” Attanasio said.

With its media revenue limitations, $80 million to Milwaukee might as well be $300 million to New York or L.A. Just because attendance projections say you can spend it to properly run a business doesn’t mean you necessarily should. The grand illusion of a relatively big payroll, for example, is just silly when a good chunk of it is being directly deposited into Jeff Suppan’s account.

Attanasio’s a smart guy and this is his seventh season of calling the shots, but some owners don’t understand how to walk the tightrope in twice the time.

“This year, we didn’t have a number set in mind for payroll,” he said. “We let the kind of players we could get dictate the payroll.

“You get your opportunities to get marquee players at different times. This winter we were waiting to see how things panned out. When it’s Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke, then the payroll gets to (start with) a ‘9’. It wouldn’t have been unless we had quality pitchers available.”

So if you’re Attanasio or a fan, you buy the ticket and take the ride. Where it leaves the Brewers this season, even with the realistic forecast that they’ll draw 3 million for the third time in four years, is unclear. Pitching is never a sure thing. Just ask St. Louis.

Will the Brewers make money? Who knows? Who cares? No rational person gets into the pro-sports biz anymore with the idea of using the proceeds to retire in Monte Carlo.

The only thing that matters is whether they make the playoffs.

But give Attanasio this: He never uses market size as an excuse. In fact, he refuses to use the “s” word. With revenue sharing he could keep the payroll near the bottom of the league, not worry about quality and still be OK. Some shocker here, but a few of his, um, medium-market brethren work the books that way.

Of course, everybody would want New York-Los Angeles money to spend, even if the price were the occasional scandal. But since baseball is not going to have a salary cap for the foreseeable future, there is some comfort in knowing the Brewers are always willing to punch above their weight class.

“We always try to put a good team together,” Attanasio said. “I think in the past we maybe confused depth with good. So we eliminated that confusion and just went with good this year.

“The one thing I want before I kick the bucket is a World Series ring for the Milwaukee Brewers.”

Last updated: 4:12 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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