Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, we were sitting in Miller Park enjoying the Brewers thrilling bottom of the ninth win against the defending World Champion Giants. Before a sellout crowd of more than 42,000 no less. Squeeze me baby! As I marveled at how incredible the scene was, another full house, another season of attendance in the vicinity of 3 million, and a really competitive Brewers team, I thought back to how close we came to not having the Brewers at all.
I’ll bet most of us have forgotten that the very existence of Miller Park all came down to one night, one bill, and one vote.
I thought back to 1995 when everyone was trying to figure out a way to keep the Brewers in Milwaukee. County Stadium was becoming quite decrepit, and was clearly not going to sustain the Brewers going forward. The only way to keep the team in Milwaukee was to build a new stadium. Bud Selig led the bandwagon. But that issue raised all sorts of controversy, specifically related to how the costs of the design and construction would be financed.
The Brewers couldn’t afford a new stadium on their own. The stadium commission proposed adding 0.1% to the sales tax in the immediate 5-county region to help finance the project. That created a significant furor in the area, to the point where a bill was created and voted on by the Wisconsin legislature, without a public referendum.
The deciding vote was cast by George Petak, then a State Senator from Racine, following a 16-hour debate on the night of October 6, 1995. Petak changed his vote at the last second, when he realized that the bill was going to fail by one vote. “In the heat of the battle, you do what you think is best,” Petak said at the time. “I knew that there would be different opinions in my community. There still are today. But I knew major league baseball would be gone if we didn’t do it.”
He proved to be a visionary, and a martyr.
His vote created such a firestorm that Petak was the subject of a recall election nine months after the fact. He wound up losing.
He is at the very least a forgotten man, and based on some recent online comments I came across, some people in Racine still have strong negative feelings about him. They accused him of selling out, of not representing the wishes of his constituents, of caring more about a privately held baseball team than the voters in his community. That, my friends, is as narrow-minded a view as you’ll find.
Have you looked at what the Brewers and Miller Park have meant to Wisconsin? Not just Milwaukee, but the region and the entire state? The economic impact is staggering. As is the positive image of Milwaukee and Wisconsin the Brewers help create around the country. And Racine is part of the Milwaukee area that benefits.
If you haven’t been to Miller Park, you need to go. Not just to watch the Brewers, who in the last month have the best record in the major leagues, but to see this modern wonder with the fan-shaped retractable roof which allows the Brewers to play home games, rain or shine, snow or sleet, at any temperature. And it’s a simply gorgeous stadium, with probably the best sight lines from every seat in the major leagues.
But I want to go back to George Petak for a second. Very few people have the guts to stand up for what they believe in, for what they think is right, in the face of negative public opinion. And Petak didn’t go on some public or media rant after he was recalled. He took his medicine, faded from public view and was virtually never heard from again.
Today, Petak and his wife live in Nashville, where they are closer to their children. He’s out of the political game now, and who can blame him, but he still considers changing his vote the “right thing to do”.
So the next time, or the first time, you’re sitting at Miller Park being blown away by the stunningly beautiful stadium and the amazing crowd, tell your friends that, in addition to Bud Selig and the residents of the 5-county area who have been slowly paying down the loans on the facility the last 15 years, credit belongs to one man for actually making this whole thing happen. And say out loud, “Thanks, George.”