The All-Star Break left a little time for a lot of musing. And so, a short time ago in an alternate universe far, far away…
No, I couldn't resist tuning in for the MLB All-Star Game Tuesday night. It's always fun when there's a reason to watch baseball again, which is a rare occurrence in Milwaukee these days. Outside of the really big events, like the All-Star Game, Opening Day and the playoffs, the sport’s really faded into the background of the local sporting landscape.
Sure, once upon a time, Milwaukee fans cheered on their Brewers, often with a passion that few cities could match. Folks still talk about those World Series parties back in 1982. Which only made it all the more poignant when all that cheering stopped.
Hard to believe it's been almost two decades since the Brewers left town. Even harder to believe how it all came down to one little vote in the Wisconsin state Senate. But the people's representatives had their say in 1995, and they said no to helping fund a new baseball stadium, defeating the proposal 16-15. Increasing the region's sales tax by one-tenth of 1 percent – a dime of every $100 spent – was just too big a price to keep big-league ball in town. There were whispers that a Racine Republican senator named George Petak considered changing his vote at the last minute, but he kept his pledge of "nay" (and with it, maybe even his job).
It probably didn't help that baseball was still recovering from the 1994 work stoppage. And the Brewers’ poor form in the mid-1990s surely made the proposed new ballpark a tougher sell. The team hadn't had a winning season since 1992, and hadn't made the playoffs since '82. But hey, it was Milwaukee's team nonetheless.
And then, just like that, it was Charlotte's team.
It didn't take long for cities like Washington, D.C., to start coveting the lame-duck Brewers, who became the first MLB franchise to relocate since 1972. But Charlotte put its ducks in a row first, getting a hometown boost from NationsBank (later Bank of America), which was not only headquartered in Charlotte, but was also the Brewers' primary lender. Plus, the city already had a Triple-A stadium, so the team could play there for a few years while Bank of America Ballpark was being built.
You have to admit, it's a gorgeous facility, and they really embraced the franchise's history, as evidenced by the Robin Yount statue in front of the stadium's main gate. They even took advantage of the extended All-Star break by hosting a Paul McCartney concert there last night. And the sixth-inning Stock Car Races between Ford, Chevy and Toyota sure are fun to watch. I still remember the time Pirates player Randall Simon knocked down Chevy with a bat.
Not that it didn't take some getting used to, seeing North Carolina baseball that didn't feature Crash Davis and Nuke LaLoosh. And it's still a little weird seeing those Knights uniforms on TV. Always makes me think of Roy Hobbs’ team in The Natural. But so many years later, the Charlotte Knights are just another big-league team, and Milwaukee is just another city without big-league ball.
Still, I found myself paying extra attention to Charlotte's players in the All-Star Game last night. That Jean Segura kid looks like a slick fielder, and speedy Carlos Gomez is the kind of breakout story baseball fans love to see. And of course, it's always fun to watch the power of Prince Fielder, who might just be worth that $180 million contract extension he signed with the Knights. Ah, the payroll flexibility that comes with being in a far-reaching media market, where all the Carolinas and half the populations of Tennessee and Kentucky are watching your games.
Charlotte’s All-Stars have been bright spots in a rough season for the Knights, who've struggled through injuries, starting pitching woes and all the talk of a possible Ryan Braun suspension. Still, Knights fans have had their share of success recently enough, with those playoff runs in 2008 and 2011. They'll probably become National League East contenders again sooner rather than later. And hey, even if they don't, having bad baseball is better than having no baseball at all.
Which brings us back to Milwaukee, where summers have just seemed emptier since that final Brewers season in 1996. Sure, there's still plenty to do in town when the weather warms up, like Summerfest and FC Milwaukee, our Major League Soccer team, which has a fine fan base and helped fill the local sporting void. Personally, I play a lot more golf these days, too. Even splurged on a new putter last week and still felt a tad thrifty, thanks to paying only $100 instead of $100.10.
And yes, enough wounds have healed and enough time has passed that talk of bringing a Triple-A team here is finally picking up steam. There's surely room to put up a facility at the old County Stadium lot, which has been something of an empty eyesore just screaming for development since we had to tear everything down. If the minor league club comes, some fans hope it could lure Bob Uecker back from Chicago, where he's been calling Cubs games since 1998. A lot of Milwaukee kids don't even know that the guy who does those Usinger’s Sausage commercials once worked for the Brewers.
But whether it’s Uecker or somebody else calling the games, I really hope Milwaukee gets a Triple-A club. Having minor league baseball certainly would be better than nothing, even though we all know Triple-A just isn't the same as the big leagues. No kid grows up dreaming of being a Triple-A player. Few remember who wins the Triple-A championship.
Heck, you wonder how many local residents can even remember the Brewers. They’ve practically been gone for a generation now, a reality brought on by the cold fact that baseball is as much a business as a pastime. I know Milwaukee isn't alone in its predicament. Not long after the Brewers left town, Montreal lost its team to Washington. And I know ownership of clubs changes hands all the time, which often leads to a franchise’s renaissance. Just look at what the Mark Attanasio-led group has done since outbidding Frank McCourt for the Los Angeles Dodgers back in 2004.
But knowing it’s a business doesn’t make you stop wishing for the pastime. It was so poignant watching a cornerstone of the community leave town. Some say current MLB Commissioner Bud Selig never really got over seeing the Brewers move away. You wonder what went through his mind, watching President Bill Clinton throw out the first pitch at new Bank of America Ballpark in 1999. After all, Selig had made it his life's mission to bring baseball back to Milwaukee once the Braves left town. Then he had to live through the pain of seeing another club – his club – leave.
In subsequent years, Selig made no secret of getting emotional whenever he drove past the old County Stadium site. Those experiences might have even played a role in moving his commissioner offices to New York permanently, which is a big reason New Yorkers have discovered the wonders of Jake’s Delicatessen. Folks there say it’s the best deli around, and that’s saying a mouthful in New York. But whenever Selig is back in Milwaukee visiting friends or supporting a local charitable effort, he always makes sure to work in a meal at the original Jake’s, too. Some things in Milwaukee, you can always count on.
Baseball used to be one of those things. Perhaps someday, it will be again. It crossed my mind a lot last night, watching that celebration of all things baseball. But for now, you can only wonder what that one little vote might have done.
You wonder what might have been.