Selig Plays Hardball on Stadium Deals
Like the aborted WHEDA loan, these loans would be serviced by annual taxpayer-funded maintenance payments.
Opening Day Shutout
An accident that killed three ironworkers set back construction for a year and cost the stadium project nearly $100 million, most of which was covered by insurance. Miller Park finally opened on April 6, 2001. President Bush flew in on Air Force One for the occasion with Thompson, who was by then a member of the Bush cabinet. The occasion called for Selig to throw out the first ball, the president the second. Brewers legend Robin Yount also took the field during introductions.
Thompson seethed through the introductions, waiting for his contribution to be acknowledged. The moment never came.
Selig said it was not the club's intention to shut out the former governor. "That was a night they wanted to honor the fans," he said. "You had Robin Yount, the all-time Brewer favorite, you had me, and you had the president of the United States, and that was enough."
"What's the big issue?" said Selig. "My goodness gracious, the man is the secretary of health and welfare. I'm the commissioner of baseball. I've got more important things to do."
Thompson vowed never to set foot again in the park he helped build as long as Selig owned the Brewers.
The opening obscured the fact that the Brewers' financial picture was grim. The team had raised ticket prices 23 percent in the five years after the stadium legislation was passed; the increase from 2000 to '01 was 39 percent. Brewers attendance rose 79 percent in Miller Park's first season, then plunged by nearly a million fans the following year as the team lost 106 games.
A growing disaffection settled over fans who saw their team remarkably unchanged despite their lavish new surroundings.
Ulice Payne Jr., a lawyer from Wisconsin's biggest firm, was hired to run the team on the assumption that he had the authority to make changes. He quickly came to believe, however, that Selig was still in charge.
At one point, Rick Schlesinger, the Brewers' executive vice president for business operations, told Payne he had spoken with Selig, according to a source familiar with the discussions. The commissioner suggested that Payne put off a planned firing because he was "moving too fast," Payne was told.
On Opening Day of the 2003 season at Miller Park, Payne heard that Selig during the game had referred to the Brewers' operations under Payne as "amateur hour," according to a source close to Payne. Selig, Payne heard, was threatening to install a representative of Major League Baseball to evaluate the franchise, according to a source close to the former Brewers CEO. Payne went to Selig-Prieb and asked for a meeting with her father.
That Sunday, while the Brewers played the San Francisco Giants, Payne, Selig, Selig-Prieb, Schlesinger and John Canning gathered in a conference room overlooking the field to "clear the air," said Canning, chairman of the finance committee on the Brewers' board and one of three limited partners who managed the Selig trust.
Payne aired his opinion that Selig was still trying to run the team, the source said. Selig called the account "fiction." As the end of the season approached, the team began to prepare its operating budget for the 2004 season. The team was trying to attract new investors for the debt-ridden franchise. To make the numbers attractive, the team would have no choice but to slash payroll -- from $41 million to $30 million.
As rumors of the draconian cuts surfaced, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel asked Payne if it was true. Payne confirmed the cuts as "the effects of a failed plan" and questioned whether they doomed the team to failure. The news exploded across the state. It was as if a single event had set to boiling years of simmering resentment over the construction of Miller Park.
The board, livid, negotiated to buy out the remaining four years of Payne's contract for $2.5 million. "The dispute was not between me and Ulice, it was between Ulice and the board," Selig said. He denied that he was involved with the team's operations.
When Selig announced he was selling the team in January, he said the sale was not tied to the stadium controversy.
He said he wanted to end the perception that his ownership of the Brewers and his position as commissioner of baseball were in conflict. Besides, said Selig, running Major League Baseball more than kept him occupied.
By the time the controversy erupted, Selig was balancing multiple conflicts. Baseball had entered its second year of ownership of the Montreal Expos, having taken over the team in February 2002 after a failed effort to "contract" Montreal and another franchise.
The strategy had grown out of a desire to lop off baseball's weakest teams.
The process had started with a long list of potential victims.
None of them was the Milwaukee Brewers.
Staff researchers Julie Tate and Margot Williams contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company