The sudden exit of Brewers president Ulice Payne Jr. has made it clear that the team—30% of which is owned by baseball commissioner Bud Selig—has found a level below last place in the NL Central, where it finished last season. Payne, 49, agreed Friday to a buyout of his contract, a move forced by a Nov. 9 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article, in which he revealed that the team's board (chaired by Selig's daughter, Wendy Selig-Prieb) had ordered a payroll cut from $40.6 million to about $30 million in 2004, and admitted the cut made it difficult for the club to be competitive.
The Brewers have squandered the goodwill and the financial windfall that surrounded the opening of Miller Park in 2001. Attendance has dropped from 2.8 million to 1.7 million, and the team's string of losing seasons has grown to 11. The new payroll means the Brewers will most likely trade first baseman Richie Sexson ($8.6 million salary) and outfielder Geoff Jenkins ($8.25 million). The club is reportedly $110 million in debt, and state legislators want an independent audit. Says an executive from another team, "It's a nightmare, top to bottom."
Though Selig's share of the team is held in a trust and he denies participating in baseball decisions, he is seen to be influencing the club through Wendy, 43. In the early '90s, Selig insisted that a publicly funded stadium was essential to fielding a competitive team. The legislature passed a sales tax that will provide $562 million for stadium expenses by 2014. In 1996 Selig said revenue sharing among teams would bring competitive balance and that small-market clubs could not merely pocket their slices. The Brewers received $15 million in revenue sharing in '03 yet will slash payroll and hold the line on other expenses. "We are not going to do short-term, cosmetic patching to make 2004 better," says Brewers executive vice president Rick Schlesinger.
As he bid farewell on Friday, Payne said he hoped that the Brewers, who last made the playoffs in 1982, "will return to the top of the baseball world." As the more polite Milwaukee fans might say, dream on.