Seems as if everybody has something good to say about Warren Spahn, old number 21, Spahnie, one of the greatest lefthanders of all time if not—beg your pardon, Lefty Grove and Sandy Koufax—the greatest.
Andy Pafko, the Wisconsin boy who came home to finish his big league days with the Braves, remembers what happened after he made a diving catch to preserve a shutout for Spahn. "He ran all the way out to centerfield," Pafko says, "and he threw his arms around me." This in an era when ballplayers who had been hardened by war and the Depression cut loose about as often as they wore bras and panties. But that was the Spahn whom Burdette calls "the best friend I ever had." A hell of a guy who thrived on trading gloves with Burdette in batting practice and betting a steak dinner on who could catch more fly balls wrong-handed. Competition was Spahn's lifeblood. How else to explain 17 seasons with no fewer than 245 innings pitched, 13 seasons with 20 or more wins and 23 wins the season he was 42 creaking years old?
Just thinking about the statistics makes you want to know the man—and Bob Allen, the erstwhile Braves publicist who has Spahn making more money at baseball card shows than he ever earned pitching, is sure he'll want to gab about Milwaukee's return to the site of his glory days. "He'd talk underwater," Allen says.
So the phone rings at the Spahn residence in Broken Arrow, Okla., and the missus picks it up. An instant later, old number 21 is on the line. The caller introduces himself and asks if he is interrupting anything. "Well, you are," Spahn snaps. Another time then? "No, go ahead. What is it you want?" He hardly waits to find out before he's talking again. "I pitched the first game ever in County Stadium," he says, "and now they're going to build another stadium. The things that are happening in baseball are squirrelly. And the Brewers are going in the National League. So what? I really don't want to discuss it."
Sometimes 21 is the wrong number.
One look at the plans for Miller Park, future home of the Brewers, and you get the feeling that the Braves of yore would have fit right in there. Its exterior will be old-timey brick, and—shades of Wrigley—there will be ivy on the centerfield wall and manually operated scoreboards to keep track of out-of-town games. The playing field will be grass, and the seats will be as close to the action as big league laws allow. Of course, the Wisconsin weather, having no respect for the past, always threatens to gum things up, so that's where the future enters the picture, bearing a retractable roof. With the roof will come luxury suites and a bar shaped like home plate. The only apparent downside of all this progress is its price: $250 million and counting.
"Well," Selig says slowly, "ballpark economics have changed." Don't think the good burghers of southeastern Wisconsin haven't noticed. They are a breed so frugal that when the Milwaukee Sentinel was folded into the Journal three years ago, there were readers who refused to shed tears over the loss of a public watchdog, an independent editorial voice, an old friend; instead, some of them wrote letters praising the publisher for saving money by putting out one newspaper rather than two. It comes as no surprise, then, that the locals tuned Selig out when, in the late '80s, he stalled saying that failure to build a new ballpark could mean the end of the Brewers. And when he warned that losing the Brewers "would leave a hole in the heart of Milwaukee," the populace went stone deaf.
Selig is a car salesman by trade, though, and his natural reaction was to dicker. First he said the Brewers would build the park with their own money. ("What money?" asked skeptics who would love to get a look at the team's books.) Then he started reducing the Brewers' proposed involvement, 20% here, 15% there. When, at last, it was time to fish or cut bait, the team's share of the construction price came to $90 million—and $40 million of that was anted up by Miller Brewing for the privilege of pasting its name on the park.
So who's footing the bill for the other $160 million? The taxpayers—who else? Not that they got to say whether they wanted the privilege. The state legislature made the decision for them when a senator changed his mind at the last minute and cast the deciding vote in favor of a sales tax that costs residents of the five southeastern counties a penny on every $10 purchase. That doesn't sound like much, but the tax is expected to produce as much as $17-5 million annually. Selig counters that Miller Park will generate $2 million more than that each year, but his prediction is hardly balm for the anti-tax forces, who so far have been shot down in the Wisconsin courts.
"They treated us like we had a social disease," says George Watts, a cherubic Milwaukee china dealer who has taken refuge in wit. Of only minor consolation is the fact that the offending senator was recalled, the first such voter retribution in state history.