MILWAUKEE – The junk-bond investor sat in the middle of the room, a slight and bespectacled man surrounded by grizzled baseball lifers wired on snuff and coffee, sure that his new business would be little like his old.
About an hour earlier, Mark Attanasio, fresh off his purchase of the Milwaukee Brewers, had received a call from his general manager, Doug Melvin, who was holed up in an Anaheim, Calif., hotel room for baseball's 2004 winter meetings. Attanasio had bought the Brewers in September 2004, so this was his first crack at playing owner, and Melvin apprised him of a trade offer: Dan Kolb, the Brewers' All-Star closer, for Atlanta Braves prospect Jose Capellan.
Attanasio rushed through the Los Angeles traffic and up to the Brewers' suite. As the baseball men ping-ponged pros and cons of the deal, Attanasio sat silently, which, with his fondness for nouns, verbs and the like, was a painful proposition indeed. Then the Brewers' assistant GM, Gord Ash, wondered about the public perception of the deal, of the new guy taking a $3 million-plus salary off of the paltry $27 million payroll he inherited, and the accompanying implications.
No longer could Attanasio muzzle himself.
"We need to make decisions that make good sense," he said, "and we'll take the responsibility for explaining them."
By making that deal, no longer, either, did Attanasio think baseball was different than investing, or any other business for that matter: The best choices deliver the best results, outside opinion be damned.
And so as Attanasio milled about Miller Park over the weekend, his Brewers baseball's biggest surprise at 27-16 and atop the National League Central, he took time to appreciate what Melvin, Ash, manager Ned Yost and the others in that hotel suite had built: a team that defies its tiny media market, low-revenue streams and skinflint reputation built during its ownership by the Selig family.
Why, look at the infield. At first base is Prince Fielder, round like his daddy Cecil and just as prodigious in the power department. He's second in the NL in home runs to the man delivering the most throws his way, shortstop J.J. Hardy, who already has socked 14 homers after never exceeding 12 in a previous season.
"And while it wasn't blatantly evident that there was going to be something special, I could see it," Attanasio said. "I had to. You need success with the younger players, because if you don't, you've lost five years."
Initially, Attanasio wasn't sure. Weeks fielded like a colander, things always slipping through his grasp. And Hardy, for his defensive prowess, couldn't hit. Stuck batting around .180 for all of June 2005, Hardy's feeble numbers forced Attanasio to ask Melvin the type of question he tried to avoid.
"You ever think about sending J.J. to the minors?" Attanasio said.
"You want to send J.J. to the minors?" Melvin replied.
Though Melvin would have complied with any request, Attanasio heard Melvin's tone: He didn't want to send Hardy to the minors, no way, because it would stray from the Brewers' plan. And neither, really, did Attanasio.
He needed a better understanding of the decisions that go into running a baseball team, the why and how instead of the what and where and when. That June, he sat in the Brewers' war room during the draft and took comfort in the thorough, methodical nature the team used in its scouting methods.
In the first round, they took third baseman Ryan Braun, who is now arguably the best player in all of minor-league baseball and could provide a Miguel Cabrera-like punch when the Brewers choose to recall him. With right-hander Yovani Gallardo the pitching equivalent of Braun – 48 2/3 innings, 27 hits, 66 strikeouts and a 2.22 earned-run average at Triple-A Nashville – the Brewers' talent isn't limited to its big-league club.
Though they haven't been too shabby. Milwaukee's rotation, headlined by Ben Sheets, Chris Capuano and the Brewers' biggest free agent in ages, Jeff Suppan, has been among the best in baseball. And its bullpen, with the impermeable Francisco Cordero at the back end, has been just as stellar.
After winning 81 games in Attanasio's first full season, the Brewers regressed to 75 last year, beset by injuries to Weeks, Hardy and third baseman Corey Koskie. Before Attanasio threw $42 million at Suppan for four years, he signed utility infielders Tony Graffanino and Craig Counsell, whose versatility, Attanasio believes, makes up for their poor hitting numbers.
"I always try to learn a lesson from where I've been," Attanasio said. "One of the lessons from last year was that we need depth. So we sign Graffanino and Counsell, and people start saying, 'Cheap owner. Cheap team.'
"One guy doesn't make a team."
Attanasio said his goal was to own a major-league team by 60. Here he is, 49, in full control not just of one, but of a good one. The Brewers' payroll to begin the season was almost $71 million, $14 million more than last season, $30 million more than 2005 and almost triple what it was following the Kolb trade.
So it's no surprise that as Attanasio roams the Brewers' clubhouse, the players welcome him and embrace him as contemporary more than suit. They're at ease these days in Milwaukee, where baseball for so long has gone to die.
Hardy and Brewers outfielder Kevin Mench sat on a leather couch in the clubhouse watching a big-screen TV. Mench clicked around before stopping on the AT&T Classic golf tournament in Duluth, Ga., where the sun beamed and the grass was so verdant it looked painted.
"Be nice to be there," Mench said.
Hardy smirked. Maybe so.
Right now, Milwaukee is just fine by him.
- Mark Attanasio
- Doug Melvin