By Drew Olson Special to Published Oct 02, 2006 at 5:32 AM Photography: Allen Fredrickson
Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio has been invested -- emotionally and financially -- for only two of the club’s 14 consecutive non-winning seasons.

But, like many of the team's long-suffering fans, he’s tired of losing.

The Brewers wrapped up the 2006 season with a 5-3 victory Sunday in St. Louis that left them with a record of 75 victories and 87 losses. Although general manager Doug Melvin, manager Ned Yost and other principals will return next season, the club will have a new hitting coach, first base coach, a handful of new players and a fresh outlook.

During the team’s final homestand of the season, Attanasio sat down with in a conference room overlooking the field at Miller Park and discussed his relationship with the city as well as some thoughts about this season and the future.

Enjoy this Milwaukee Talks interview with Brewers owner Mark Attanasio: Before we dive into some baseball questions, I’d like to ask you about your relationship with Milwaukee. How has your appreciation for the city changed? What do you know about the city, and particularly your fans, that you didn’t know a year ago?

Mark Attanasio:  I’m still, in some regards, finding my way around this city. We -- my wife Debbie and my kids and I -- continue to have reaffirmed what we felt about this city from the first time we got here: everybody is extremely welcoming and very supportive. I walked around this morning and everybody was saying, "We’ll get ‘em next year." I was waiting for them to say, "Hey, get out of here, you loser! Go back to Los Angeles!"

I’m happy to be here today in the rain. So, there you go. I left Los Angeles. I’m here. I’m happy to be here.

OMC: Are you as involved with the community as you want to be? Has that aspect of your involvement taken off, or is it something that is going to progress as you move along?

MA: I’ve been able to get more involved in things this year than last year -- the Art Museum, the United Way and the Mayor’s Initiative on Fatherhood. I’ve supported a few other charities. We came in for the Heart Association Ball this year. One of the reasons I’m taking it somewhat a step at a time on the civic involvement is that I’m someone who really likes to follow through on things. I don’t want to in any way lead anyone on and do something and then find out it’s either not for me or it’s not quite what I thought it was, then have someone say, "Oh, gee, the first couple years he was very involved, and then he wasn’t."  I’m trying to pick things carefully that I know I can follow through with year in and year out.

OMC: I’m sure you get a lot of inquiries from people looking for help.

MA: We’ve increased our charitable givings. It’s easy to write checks. Fortunately, I’m in a position where it’s easy for me to write checks. But, I want to make sure we’re supporting worthwhile things and also when we can, Debbie and I like to be involved with things where we can give some of ourselves, too.

OMC: Do you get to spend as much time in Milwaukee as you envisioned? Your place here isn’t done yet, is it?

MA: Once our place is done (at University Club Tower) next year, we should be able to come a little more. It will be a little more comfortable to be here.

OMC: Baseball front offices have a unique rhythm, which is usually related to how well the team does. Do you get a sense of that on a daily basis? Is it good to be disconnected from that a little, or are you still plugged into how things are going here all the time?

MA: I’m completely plugged into how things are going here, but what I don’t want to do is disrupt the rhythm here. One of the benefits for everyone here has having an owner who is not on-site all the time is that they can actually have a fair amount of responsibility without getting micromanaged and having someone look over their shoulder. I was talking about this to a couple other investors in the team yesterday. The same way we talk about measuring our players, you don’t really want to get too involved with the manager or the general manager because how can you evaluate them when you’re dictating everything? Likewise, I’ve had a very clear path to evaluate everybody who works on the business side here; because I’m not here every day and I get to see what they can do without my involvement. I think they’ve done really well.

I think it probably makes the work environment more pleasant for everyone. The fact is, when the team is losing, we all get frustrated. When the team was losing in May, I was calling (Melvin) five times a day. That was my first really bad losing streak. We had a couple of seven-game losing streaks last year. We didn’t have something like that where we were just getting blown out. Every owner needs to go through it. I don’t want to go through it again. It’s not that you don’t communicate. You communicate in a different way than when you’re on-site.

OMC: Is being away in some ways an advantage? I imagine it makes it easier to control the urge to barge into the manager’s office and yell, "How could you bring that guy into the game again?"

MA: That wouldn’t be my style, anyway. I might storm down to the general manager’s office and say, "How could the manager put that guy in?" I think it’s the same thing. The manager, the bench coach and everybody in the dugout have to make real-time decisions and I think what you need to do is evaluate those decisions over the course of a 162-game season.

OMC: How do you evaluate a manager?

MA: If there are certain patterns that you see that you don’t think are favorable to the team, you raise that in the off-season, in that context, with a number of examples. It’s not, "Why, tonight, did you bring in so-and-so?" The executive management of the team and the fans all get 20-20 hindsight. When you don’t bring in Brian Shouse to pitch to Barry Bonds and he hits a three-run homer in the sixth inning, you say, "Well, what were you doing there?" Then, when the game continues to see-saw into the eighth inning and he brings Shouse in and he gets Bonds out, you realize the manager has to manage a nine-inning game and not a six-inning game. Maybe, on a given night, he might make the wrong call.

I do watch a lot of baseball, besides the Brewers. A lot of the decisions we see our field manager make we see other managers of other teams making similar decisions.

OMC: You mean, like not bringing in the closer when the game is tied on the road?

MA: That happens to be one of my pet peeves, actually. I’m not telling Ned what to do. Every other manager does it his way, too. I just don’t get that.

OMC: Speaking of strategy, how has your baseball acumen improved since you took over the club?

MA: I think what happens is that you never really know what you don’t know. Coming into the job, if you had asked me privately I’d have told you, "Sure, I know a lot about baseball." Then I was here about two weeks and I realized I knew nothing. I knew what a fan knows. By the way, the fans know a lot. A lot of times, you can miss the forest for the trees with all your knowledge. But, I really knew nothing about baseball.

It’s funny, because I don’t really do this often, but generally after a loss I will just go in the clubhouse and be supportive and leave. After a win, if I’m going to comment on something negatively or ask a question, I would only do it after a win, never after a loss.

There was one game that we had and it was a loss. I was down in the clubhouse and I got a call from my brother. I went into a corner, actually into the video room we have, for 40 minutes came back out and (pitching coach Mike) Maddux and (bench coach) Robin (Yount) and (manager) Ned (Yost) were still in Ned’s office going through the loss. I was like, "Hi, guys." They said, "Come in." They were wrestling with a particular problem on the team, and they asked me, "What do you think?" I said, "I think you have about 70 years of experience and I have a year and a half." They said, "OK, but what do you think?" I did tell them what I thought. I still think I’m right, by the way. You can have an opinion, but you have to me mindful of guys who have a lot of experience.

I don’t want to be an owner who thinks he’s always right and when he’s proven wrong he just fires the people he directed. I’m not going to be like that.

OMC: In an interview after last season, you talked about how the club’s progress would be linear and that you didn’t want to get people’s hopes up and that sometimes a team needs to take a step back to take a step forward. In essence, you set the stage for what happened this year. In that context, is what happened this year still disappointing or deflating? It almost seems like you predicted it.

MA: Is it disappointing? Absolutely. Is it deflating? Well, the team we had on the field (toward the end of the season) was not the team we started the year with. Three quarters of our infield is down. We’ve had some injuries in the outfield. It’s apples and oranges.

What we need to do is be very careful this year not to blame things on injuries and we have to recognize in building our team that injuries are part of the game. If we’d have had this level of injuries last year, it would have been a disaster. This team has actually competed fairly effectively with this level of injury.  Our goal is to always compete effectively. When you look at what we’ve done, fans aren’t going to get excited about bringing in non-marquee players, but we’ve brought in a number of very strong players. Look how well Tony Graffanino did. Where would we be without him?

OMC: You’d be watching Chris Barnwell be overmatched like some of the young pitchers were earlier in the year.

MA: What happens is you don’t know, often until guys get to the major leagues, whether they are career Triple-A players or major-league players. If they get to the major leagues and they’re overmatched, you’re in trouble. We don’t want to ever get in that position with our team. If you look at where we are, what our infield depth was last year, who our fourth outfielder was last year and who it is this year, how deep is our pitching this year. We’ve got more injuries than any team in baseball this year.

OMC: What do you say to upset fans who say, "They told us they were going to be good this year and they fell apart! They lied to us!" What do you say to them?

MA: Everybody’s expectations got raised. I’m a fan, too. When you watch Harold Reynolds on ESPN and he says, "The Brewers are going to win," the fan in me says, "We’re going to win!"

We had national writers come to our camp in spring training who said they hadn’t been to our camp in six years, seven years. They hadn't even thought of it. Last year, in the middle of the year, I couldn’t get a meeting with any of those guys. This year, they came to our camp. It’s not that Ned Yost and Doug Melvin and I said, "We’re going to compete this year." That’s not what brought those guys there. They thought we were going to compete, too. A lot of third-party experts thought so, also. I don’t think anybody in our group -- and certainly my policy would not ever be to try to lie or mislead the fans. The fans can see through that very easily. Hopefully, what you have here, especially after years of losing, is that (the fans) are just disappointed, the same way I’m disappointed.

It’s like going to a movie. When I want to go and see a movie, and I’ve heard a lot about it, you know, it better be a really good movie or you end up being a little disappointed --  even if it’s a pretty good movie. Here, I think we played pretty good baseball this year. If the seasons had been reorganized and this current year was the 2005 year following 2004, everybody would have been delighted. Instead, there are some questions.

OMC: What are the big questions?

MA: The biggest question, I think, does fall on the injuries. Not so much as an explanation for what happened this year but in looking forward. We need these young players to be healthy. Frankly, one of the judgments we have to make is will they be healthy or are they just injury-prone? That’s one of the thing Doug will have to wrestle with.

OMC: How will this off-season be different than last?

MA: We’re following the same process, though it’s probably more rigorous this year. Also, we’re trying to look at some things in non-traditional way. When you have Carlos Lee, you’re not going to platoon with Carlos Lee. But, what does a Kevin Mench and Gabe Gross platoon look like? Can you do a statistical profile of that player? I’m not saying either one is a platoon player. We’ve done every permutation. The goal is to have a winning team. We have an enormously deep outfield. Last year, we had three outfielders. This year, we have six guys who are capable outfielders and Bill Hall could possibly play the outfield.

OMC: He’s probably your best athlete. You could make a case that he’s your team MVP.

MA: The one thing everybody agrees on is with the kind of year Bill Hall had this year, we’ve got to find a spot for him.

OMC: Bill Hall is one of the guys heading to arbitration. As you look at some of the long-term contracts of other players -- Geoff Jenkins, Ben Sheets, Derrick Turnbow and Brady Clark -- is it better to go year to year with arbitration-eligible guys like Hall and Capuano? Multi-year deals give you cost certainty and they are unavoidable in some cases, but they can also blow up.

MA: I think have to take it case by case. You don’t know. Look what Texas did with their shortstop, Michael Young. That looks like a good signing. Last year, we had a (multiyear) bid in for Bill Hall and Bill, to his credit, had an enormous amount of confidence in himself and he’s proved it.

You don’t know how things will work out. There is the injury issue. There is a mental issue. Some guys feel they’ve got their contract and they can take it easy and other guys are like Albert Pujols, who treat every at-bat like it is the most important of their career.

Take a look at Ben Sheets. He averaged 230 innings a year and was the ultimate competitor -- he still is -- then he gets this weird viral thing in his ear and the first injury of his career. You have to deal with it. It’s just part of the business. But, I still like our chances when we have Ben Sheets pitching. People say, "Is that a good contract or a bad contract?" I don’t know. We still have two years left on it. I’m glad we still have two years on it. Go try to get a guy like Ben Sheets on the free agent market. It just doesn’t come up.

OMC: In baseball, it seems like players are often paid because of what they’ve done, not what they will do moving forward. It’s not like that in other businesses, is it?

MA: It’s no different than what I do in my investment business when you buy a stock or buy a bond. It’s very easy -- when you bought a stock at $20 and then it’s at $60 -- to say that stock is your best friend. You look at your report every day and there is this big gain next to it. Investors see the report and they the big gain next to it. The question is, now that the stock is at $60, what’s the rate of return on that stock going to be going forward? That’s a much tougher question. A lot of the ways guys get paid -- the whole arbitration process is built on a historical platform and not going forward.

OMC: In your first two years as owner, you’ve traded two productive and popular players -- Lyle Overbay and Carlos Lee -- who were among your personal favorites. Do you still follow their progress every day?

MA: I do, for two reasons. First of all, I’m very fond of the guys. Second, I’m trying to measure how we think of things. I still follow Wes Helms and Russ Branyan’s numbers. Both of them have had good years this year. I follow all the guys.

OMC: Have you learned not to get attached to different players on an emotional level?

MA: I’m trying to get less emotional. The good news is that Doug Melvin makes all the baseball decisions, and he stays very detached. I feel I can get attached and it doesn’t affect the decision-making process, obviously, or we never would have traded Lyle. It’s probably like after getting jilted by your first love -- you have a little bit of a wall now, because you realize that things can happen that are out of your control.

OMC: Looking back now, are you happy with the way the Lee trade worked out?

MA: We brought Carlos Lee here. I brought Carlos Lee here. I remember calling him at the Pfister Hotel when he first checked in and telling him how happy we were to have him. During our first conversation, he was very quiet (laughs). Obviously, I didn’t know Carlos then (laughs). Obviously, he had other things he wanted to do. I completely respect that. I actually think Carlos liked me and liked playing here, but he can probably get more money somewhere else.

OMC: He might. But, there are some who feel he might not. His options could be limited because some clubs see him as a potential DH (designated hitter) in the near future.

MA: We’ll see. We put our best foot forward. I wish Carlos had signed his four-year deal with us. I think he’s an enormously productive player. But, don’t forget, we were six games under .500 with Carlos. That tracks out to nine or 10 games under .500 over a full season. And, (Francisco) Cordero has saved 15 games for us. At the time of the trade, we actually thought Derrick (Turnbow) was going to bounce back. Guess what? He didn’t.

OMC: Speaking of players bouncing back, aren’t you counting on some guys who were hurt or underperformed this year to improve next year?

MA: We’ve got to put some stakes in the ground. We can’t go out and get a lot of free agents, not just from a pay standpoint, but from a players-willing-to-come-here-versus-a-big-market standpoint. We can’t just fill every hole with a free agent. We’d like to get another No. 1 starter to go with Ben Sheets. They’re not going to exist out there. You won’t be able to add that. We’ve got to have some stakes in the ground. We are committed to putting a winning team on the field.
Drew Olson Special to

Host of “The Drew Olson Show,” which airs 1-3 p.m. weekdays on The Big 902. Sidekick on “The Mike Heller Show,” airing weekdays on The Big 920 and a statewide network including stations in Madison, Appleton and Wausau. Co-author of Bill Schroeder’s “If These Walls Could Talk: Milwaukee Brewers” on Triumph Books. Co-host of “Big 12 Sports Saturday,” which airs Saturdays during football season on WISN-12. Former senior editor at Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.