Promises, Promises – Miller & Comiskey

After our three day Wrigley Field sojourn, Mrs. Nomad and I visited Milwaukee’s Miller Park and Chicago’s Guaranteed Rate Field. If you go, to either expect the standard visuals presented in various forms and quality. There are statues, retired numbers, some brick, good food, and baseball.

Milwaukee’s Miller Park

Miller Park

I enjoyed Miller Park – and rank it relatively high on my list of favorite ballparks. It’s the kind of ballpark I would be happy to live near so that I could go often. It’s easy to get to, comfortable to sit in, the food and beer are plentiful, all in all, a lot of fun. Then, of course, there is the tailgating.

Tailgating

Only 17 of 30 ballparks allow some sort of tailgating. However, of those, four don’t allow alcohol, and I’m not sure it’s really tailgating without beer. Others have restrictions as to where one can tailgate and if open flame/ charcoal is allowed. However, at least four ballparks not only encourage your tailgating event, but they will also cater it.

Late afternoon tailgating before the game

Then there are places like Wrigley that allow tailgating, but why would you miss the fun in the surrounding neighborhoods. Others like Coors and Camden Yards don’t allow tailgating, but the great activities around the stadium offset the loss.

With that said, Milwaukee is known as the best:

Finally, an MLB organization and ballpark that not only permits tailgating before games but openly encourages it! It’s been stated that Miller Park is one of the, if not the best, greatest places to tailgate in all of baseball. The tailgating rules are pretty simple: parking lots open 3 hours before game time, tailgating ends 30 minutes after the game starts, it’s permitted in all lots (except for Logan and Front Office), no open flames are allowed but you’re able to use gas/propane or self-contained charcoal grills, and of course all tailgating activities must coincide with the law.

Baseball Tailgating – A Quick Guide for Pregaming This Summer 1

History – Statues

Hammerin’ Hank outside Miller Park

Statues of the Brewers’ most celebrated players, broadcasters and executives surround Miller Park. Hank Aaron, albeit a nominal Brewer, but Milwaukee legend is there. Nearby, stand Hall of Fame members shortstop Robin Yount, and former owner and MLB commissioner Bud Selig. I appreciate statues at ballparks. It’s nice to see the players that I respected so much when I was growing up honored and remembered this way.

Selig has a mixed reputation. Some fans appreciate his work to reinvigorate the game after the 1994’s player strike. In those years, he played an instrumental role in returning baseball to financial stability and profitability. However, others criticize him for failing to stop the widespread use of steroids that ultimately marred the game.

Mr. and Mrs. Nomad in the “front row” with Bob Ueker

If Selig is controversial, Hall of Fame announcer Bob Uecker is not. Everyone loves Bob Uecker, and he has two statues, one inside the stadium and one outside. The one inside memorializes his Miller Lite commercial, where he assumed his seat “must be in the front row.” Uecker’s humor, genius, and respect for the game is evident in his Hall of Fame induction speech.

An exceptional addition to Miller Park is a space that commemorates the workers who built the ballpark. I don’t remember another ballpark that so significantly gives credit to the people whose work the fans enjoy each game. It’s made more poignant by the statue named “Teamwork” that memorializes the three workers who died in an accident during construction.

Chicago’s Guaranteed Rate Field

Readers of my blog know the value I place on the whole baseball experience. It’s not just about the team, but about the style and personality of the park. I’m interested in the fan experience, the setting, the food, and beer.

Guaranteed Rate Field’s main entrance

In this context, it’s unfortunate that Guaranteed Rate Field is a sterile suburban ballpark stuck in the middle of urban South Chicago. Not surprisingly, it has none of the neighborhood appeal that its crosstown rival – Wrigley Field – does. Of course, Wrigley is hard to compete with, but the “retro” ballparks built after Guaranteed Rate Field also have much more charm.

It’s not that the White Sox don’t try. Guaranteed Rate Field is just not special even if they offer the requisite statues, a plethora of food and drink choices and other amenities that fans expect.

Guaranteed Rate Field is a disliked, suburban ballpark wedged into an urban area. It’s also the last ballpark built before the Orioles revolutionized baseball when they opened Orioles Park at Camden Yards. As such, it is the last of the pre-retro “dinosaurs.” Unfortunately, the White Sox ignored a revolutionary and better design for “New Comiskey.” If built, it might have usurped Baltimore’s retro ballpark revolution.

Promises, Promises

So we had two more good days at two more ballparks. For me, it was the end of a long stretch of baseball infused travel. In ten days, I went to three cities, four ballparks, and eight games. I started in Minnesota, flew to Chicago, made the short drive to Milwaukee and returned to Chicago the next day.

White Sox retired numbers

What intrigued me on the last leg of the long trip was the story of these stadiums’ origins. As I’ve written in other posts the history of ballparks reveals many of the issues facing the game. In this case, the stories include public funding controversies, damaging naming rights, disloyal franchises, and non-competitive behavior (aka “tanking“). The basic question is – what is a franchise’s responsibility to its fans?

Miller Park’s Promises

Milwaukee County Stadium

Interestingly, Milwaukee’s County Stadium was the first stadium financed entirely with public funds. 2 Milwaukee built it in 1950 to attract a major league team back to Milwaukee. I say “back to Milwaukee” since the Brewers were a charter member of the American League in 1901. However, after only one year, they moved to St. Louis and became the Browns due to a lack of support. The Brewers remained in Milwaukee as a minor league team, through 1952. The next year, they moved to Toledo 3 when the Braves relocated from Boston and started to play at County Stadium. 4

Miller Park’s Wall of Honor

When County Stadium opened, it started a trend where public funding was responsible for about 75% of all new stadium costs. This trend was in part due to “widespread urban renewal policies” that made funds available. It’s success also established the practice of using tax dollars to build stadiums to fund private, professional teams. However, public financing correlated with the plethora of multi-purpose and ultimately boring stadiums.5 Municipalities wanted to get the most for their money and thus funded stadiums appropriate for many purposes.

County Stadium was revolutionary in more ways than just its funding. More importantly, it was the first stop in baseball’s westward expansion. When the Braves moved to Milwaukee in 1953, they drew record crowds and demonstrated the profitability of moving west. 6 The Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants soon followed their example and headed for California.

Enter the Brewers

Unfortunately, although very popular and successful, the Braves stayed in Milwaukee for only thirteen years. They moved to Atlanta before the 1966 season because they wanted the benefits of a broader TV market. However, Milwaukee was not without a home team for long. In 1970, future baseball commissioner Bud Selig brought a franchise to Milwaukee when he purchased the bankrupt Seattle Pilots. When they moved, the Pilots revived Milwaukee’s traditional name, the Brewers.

Robin Yount

For the next 31 years, the Brewers played relatively mediocre baseball at County Stadium. They finished second or higher only four times with only one World Series, losing to the Cardinals in 1982.7 That loss was a sad event for Mrs. Nomad, who spent some of her formative years in Wisconsin.

After they lost the Series, the Brewers returned to mediocrity, finishing out of the running more years than not. Significantly, they endured eight consecutive losing seasons before they moved into Miller Park. 8

From a business point of view, the team’s attendance was also mediocre. During this period, the Brewers finished eighth or lower in attendance 23 out of the 31 years at County Stadium. Average attendance was an unimpressive 1.4 million per year. 9 As a result, the team lost money throughout the 1990s and accumulated most of what would become a $110 million debt.10

Miller Park’s Controversial Funding

Thus, by the mid-1990s, the Brewers were not competitive, financially unstable, and played in an outdated stadium. Moreover, County Stadium lacked many profitable amenities, especially luxury boxes.11 As such, Selig sought public funding to replace the aging County Stadium.

Allan “Bud” Selig

Selig argued that the new stadium would generate the revenue needed to increase payroll and field a competitive team.12 The new stadium funding plan was extremely controversial. Future governor, then County Executive Scott Walker declared it was “the most polarized issue he ever dealt with as a state legislator, even more so than abortion or gun control.” 13

The most controversial part of the financing bill was a one-tenth-of-a-cent sales tax imposed in Milwaukee County and its four surrounding counties. George Petak, the Republican legislator who cast the deciding vote, was recalled the following year.14 Further funding came from the nearby Miller Brewing Company that purchased naming rights over twenty years for $40 million.15

The stadium tax will finally end in 2020 after raising $600 million over twenty-four years to offset the initial $160 million debt. 16

Broken Promises

Imagine the fans’ dismay when the Brewers moved into their beautiful new ballpark but reneged on their promise to field a competitive team. In the first 18 years at Miller Park, the Brewers finished above third place in their division only three times. They made the playoffs just twice. 17

What happened? Due to their massive debt, poor drafts and acquisitions, the Brewers were a troubled franchise when Miller Park opened.18 Likely, more so than anyone predicted. To improve, they started a drastic rebuild, which resulted in years of losses. In their first six years at Miller, The Brewers finished in the bottom half of their division five times. In that period, their best finish was third.

Additionally, as befits a rebuild, they dramatically reduced salaries. Over that period, the Brewers’ salaries were between 25 and 60% below MLB’s per team average.

The fans’ disappointment was palpable:

‘They have a massive credibility problem that will be difficult if they don’t come clean with the people who helped build the stadium,’ said Assembly Speaker John Gard. ‘That credibility problem is with the people they’re trying to convince to take money out of their pockets to go to Miller Park.

Pat Borzi – BASEBALL; In Milwaukee, a Bookkeeping Brouhaha 19

Resurgence, “Tanking,” and Resurgence

After the rebuild, the salaries stabilized at just below the per-team average, and the team’s performance improved. Though 2012, the Brewers tended to finish in the top half of their division and made the playoffs twice. However, in 2013, they finished fourth and stagnated through the 2015 season. That year they hired Houston’s Assistant General Manager, David Stearns, to become their new GM.20 Houston was famous for its “tanking” methodology. Sterns started another rebuild. In the years between 2015 through 2017, their salary levels plummeted to roughly 50 to 60% below the MLB average. Meanwhile, they lost games at a rapid pace while they rebuilt their farm system.21

In 2017, they emerged from their rebuild extremely competitive, making the playoffs twice. In 2018, they were only one victory away from the World Series.22 The team acquired future MVP, Christian Yellich via a trade with Miami in 2018 and he promptly won the MVP award. At this time, they expect success with controllable salaries to continue. 23

Interestingly, the fans seem to have grown accustomed to the Brewers’ up and down performance. Attendance has exceeded 2.5 million fans in twelve out of the last thirteen years.

Maybe, Selig’s initial promise is finally coming true.

Of course, business is business, and “Miller Field” will take a name in line with their new sponsor, American Family Insurance, in 2021.24

Chicago’s Comiskey Field – err Guaranteed Rate Field

Aging Comiskey

In contrast to Milwaukee’s experience with the Braves, the White Sox have always been loyal to Chicago. They were charter members of the American League 25, using the name that originated with the crosstown Cubs – “White Stockings.” During most of that time, Comiskey Park on Chicago’s South Side was their home. 26

Charles Comiskey

In the mid-1980s, new owners Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn started discussing replacing their aging stadium. They planned to build a publicly financed stadium in suburban Addison about 25 miles away from Comiskey. Addison was their choice because marketing studies indicated that they should cultivate their high-income fan base in the western suburbs.27

The plan called for a suburban stadium because Reinsdorf was “enamored with Royals Stadium in Kansas City.” The initial design for Chicago was similar to Kansas City:

There’s a modern “intergalactic” feel to both designs. You see the vertical circulation ramps positioned in close to the same spots, the long-span upper decks. The outfield light banks look surprisingly alike. You see the symmetrical dimension, the rounded edges, and the slivers of green beyond the outfield fencing.

Dayn Perry – The White Sox ballpark in Chicago that never was and could have changed history 28
The stadium, viewed from the approach from the Red Line.

However, when Addison’s voters denied the funding proposal, other cities expressed interest in hosting the White Sox. Naturally, Reinsdorf and Einhorn were happy to listen to the offers. 29

The 11th Hour Deal

Tom Nickens Photo

Denver, Phoenix, Washington, D.C., and especially Tampa expressed interest in the team. Tampa was already building a new stadium (now Tropicana Field – where the Rays play) to attract a franchise. The White Sox were so close to agreeing to move that they sold “Florida White Sox” t-shirts and hats in Tampa. 30

In an “11th hour deal,” the Illinois State Legislature agreed to fund the new ballpark. As part of the deal, the White Sox agreed to build the new park next to the original Comiskey Park. 31 However, Reinsdorf and Einhorn used the threat to the move to Tampa to extract amicable terms.

By the time it was all done, the White Sox had secured a clause that allowed them to pay no rent at all if they failed to sell a certain number of tickets. According to a 2011 Crain’s Chicago Business story, the team didn’t pay any rent at all for the first 18 years. Only when they renegotiated the lease in 2008 did the White Sox begin paying the IFSA (Illinois Sports Facilities Authority), and even then, their rent was one of the lowest in baseball.

Dayn Perry – The White Sox ballpark in Chicago that never was and could have changed history 32

Design Issues

Ultimately, they built a suburban park in an urban setting. 33 “A soulless, modern object stuck in the middle of parking lot.” 34

Charm, intimacy, and the idea of weaving the stadium into the fabric of its surroundings — all the things the retro parks have come to represent — were not high on the agenda of the White Sox or the agency that built Comiskey, the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority.

Blair Kamin – 10 years later, Comiskey still has a bad reputation” 35
Harold Baines

The ballpark opened with these issues:

  • Field-level seats were too far from the playing field. In 2001 the club added additional seats “along the foul lines and beyond the dugouts.”36
  • Similarly, bullpens created a “moat” between the outfield walls and the seats behind them. The team added more seats there in 2001 and thus created a “much needed” sense of theater.37
  • The outfield walls were too deep. In one of their many remodels, the Sox moved them closer to home plate. 38
  • Worst of all, the too steep, upper deck was too high and too far from the field. Its odd design was an attempt to avoid the overhang from the upper deck blocking the view from below. In later years, the team removed about 8,000 seats, and the original roof was replaced to make the upper deck a bit more comfortable. 39

“Site Driven” vs. “Program Driven” Stadiums

Interestingly, there was an initial revolutionary plan for the new stadium that might have changed the game as Camden Yards did a year later. Unfortunately, that stadium was never built.

A young architect named Phillip Bess became enamored with the stadiums built between 1900 and 1923, “from Shibe to Yankees.” 40 What interested him most was that the surrounding neighborhoods constrained their size. Additionally, they were an integral part of the neighborhood and adopted the neighborhood’s charm. For example, consider how the available area influences Fenway Park’s shape. The short left field and the Green Monster are a result of the neighborhood’s constraints.

Armour Field Design
Philip Bess/AfterBurnham.com

Bess felt that the suburban, multi-purpose stadiums were boring because they were “program-driven.” Since space was virtually unlimited, designers could easily include all of the owners’ requirements. In contrast, the older stadiums were “site-driven.” They could add only as many of the owner’s needs as the site’s size would allow. The resulting ballparks had unique dimensions, shapes, and character. Interestingly, in many of the retro stadiums, the available area is not a constraint, and thus their charm is “more affectation than necessity.”

Armour Field Design
Philip Bess/AfterBurnham.com

Additionally, the retro parks tend to have large footprints and anchor downtown entertainment districts. As such, vast parking lots create a barrier between the nearby neighborhoods that surround the ballpark. In so doing, the parking lots diminish the economic advantages that the ballpark could bring to the surrounding area.

Armour Park – The Neighborhood Ballpark

In contrast to the future retro stadiums, Bess created and presented a plan for “Armour Park” that fit into the area used by Comiskey Park. It was a real neighborhood park integral to the surrounding area.41

Armour Field Design
Philip Bess/AfterBurnham.com

Armour Field would express, in arresting physicality, Bess’ hopeful thesis: ‘I realized that baseball fans were a kind of community,’ he said. ‘And the thought occurred to me that you can make this argument about buildings as a form of community and make that point by using baseball parks and advance the larger idea.’

Dayn Perry – The White Sox ballpark in Chicago that never was and could have changed history

Additionally, it had unique dimensions required to fit into the existing space:

That would be perhaps the most compelling set of outfield distances and angles in all of MLB today (400 feet to center, 421 to the alleys, 388 to the first turn in the outfield, and 283 down the lines). Indeed, the “shotgun house” layout bears a great of similarity to the dear, departed, singular Polo Grounds. That deep outfield and those short foul lines are distinctive in a genuine way, as they’re necessary in order to fit the park within those neighborhood constraints.

Dayn Perry – The White Sox ballpark in Chicago that never was and could have changed history

Unfortunately, decision-makers did not seriously consider Armour Park’s plan.

Had they adopted the plan, the resulting ballpark that opened the year before Orioles Park may have revolutionized the sport in a different way. Future ballparks could have been both neighborhood oriented and “retro” in appearance.

Armour Field Design
Philip Bess/AfterBurnham.com

White Sox Performance In The New Park

So what did the taxpayers get from their investment? Fans want their teams to play exciting, meaningful games. They want their team to win. It follows that if they invest their tax dollars to support the team, they expect to see results on the field.

Carlton Fisk

In contrast to the Brewers’ early experience at Miller Park, the White Sox were on an upswing during their first years at New Comiskey. They finished second in the Central Division in their last year at Old Comiskey. Over the next 15 years, they never finished lower than third and finished first or second twelve times. Moreover, they won their first world championship in 88 years in 2004. 42

Billy Pierce

Throughout these successful years, their fans were likely happy since their salaries were competitive and consistent with MLB averages. Interestingly, the White Sox payroll grew in the years after their championship as they tried to keep their key players. Unfortunately, as their salaries grew, they started to finish lower in the standings. Beginning in 2013, the team reduced payroll dramatically as they began another drastic rebuild – they began to “tank.” 43

As of this writing, the White Sox now potent farm system is producing excellent young payers. They are augmenting these players with free agent acquisitions, and the future looks bright.

What About The Fans?

When I started my journey, I assumed I could produce a blog post for each ballpark as I visited them. I’d let my readers experience my adventure as it happened. Needless to say, that didn’t happen, the season is long over and I’m still writing.

I only focus on my delays as a way to explain why I can include mid-January events in this piece. As I finish this piece about threats, tanking and broken promises, baseball focuses on the events in Houston and Boston.

As you know, the Astros and Red Sox cheated in their championship seasons of 2017 and 2018. They used video equipment to steal the opposing team’s signs and then relayed them to their hitters. Houston fired its suspended general manager and manager – Jeff Luhnow and AJ Hinch. Boston fired manager Alex Cora but we still don’t know the length of his suspension. The Mets fired their new manager but former Astro, Carlos Beltran even though he escaped the commissioner’s punishment.

In the future, I’ll write pieces about some of the subjects brought to light by this scan-dal. What is the appropriate use of technology in baseball – and in life? Why is there so much moral ambiguity in social media? After all, how can they suspend AJ Hinch for only a year if they suspended Pete Rose for a lifetime? After all, doesn’t every-one cheat? Hasn’t sign stealing been around forever? What about foreign substances? And don’t get me started on PEDs.

Tainted Championships and Disappointments

Today, I just want to focus on the fans. The fans in Houston who waited so long for a championship and now have a tainted one. In Boston, they waited 86 years for their championship. Then they won four – however, the last one is also tainted by cheating. In New York and Los Angeles, the fans think the championship trophies should be theirs. I disagree but understand their disappointment.

Fans live and die by their teams. In Milwaukee, they paid dearly to watch their team lose and owners make a lot of money. They already lost one team and didn’t want to lose another. In Chicago, the fans dealt stoically with one losing season after another. Only to have new owners threaten to move their team to Tampa.

The fans deserve better.

A week after I returned from Chicago, I spent a weekend in New York watching the Yankees play the Red Sox. I wrote about the travesty of New Yankee Stadium after I returned. The baseball world lost something special when the Yankees demolished the original stadium. Some fans were disappointed.
After that, I was off to Boston’s Fenway Park. The fans are proud that the place still stands even if it is a bit uncomfortable. The team found other ways to disappoint.

Thanks for reading my article.

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  1. See “Baseball Tailgating – A Quick Guide for Pregaming This Summer,” The Tailgating Spot, April 16, 2019, for more detail.
  2. Encyclopedia of Milwaukee – Milwaukee County Stadium
  3. John Wagner, “Sox kept the game alive in Toledo, won pennant in ’53,” The Blade August 25, 2003
  4. Encyclopedia of Milwaukee – Professional Baseball
  5. Dayn Perry “The White Sox ballpark in Chicago that never was and could have changed history” cbssports.com April 10, 2018
  6. Encyclopedia of Milwaukee – Professional Baseball
  7. Data from various tables in Baseball Prospectus.
  8. Ibid
  9. Ibid
  10. Pat Borzi “BASEBALL; In Milwaukee, a Bookkeeping Brouhaha” New York Times, December 12, 2003
  11. Encyclopedia of Milwaukee – Milwaukee County Stadium
  12. Bruce Murphy, “The Failed Promise of Miller Park” Urban Milwaukee April 20, 2017
  13. Pat Borzi “BASEBALL; In Milwaukee, a Bookkeeping Brouhaha” New York Times, December 12, 2003
  14. Ibid
  15. Wikipedia – Miller Park
  16. Brad Ford, “Miller Park stadium tax set to end completely in 2020,” Milwaukee Brewers News, November 6, 2019
  17. Data from various tables in Baseball Prospectus.
  18. Pat Borzi “BASEBALL; In Milwaukee, a Bookkeeping Brouhaha” New York Times, December 12, 2003
  19. Ibid
  20. Wikipedia – David Stearns
  21. Data from various tables in Baseball Prospectus.
  22. Ibid
  23. Phil Pinarski, “Team Executive says Milwaukee Brewer’s resurgence will last for years,” WTMJ-TV Milwaukee
  24. James B. Nelson, Rick Barrett, and Paul Gores, “American Family Insurance to replace Miller Brewing Co. as naming rights sponsor for Brewers stadium” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, January 22, 2019
  25. Wikipedia – American League Charter Teams
  26. Wikipedia – Comiskey Park
  27. Dayn Perry “The White Sox ballpark in Chicago that never was and could have changed history” cbssports.com April 10, 2018
  28. Ibid
  29. Ibid
  30. Ibid
  31. Wikipedia – Comiskey Park
  32. Dayn Perry “The White Sox ballpark in Chicago that never was and could have changed history” cbssports.com April 10, 2018
  33. Ibid
  34. Blair Kamin, “10 years later, Comiskey still has a bad reputation,” Chicago Tribune, July 22, 2011
  35. Ibid
  36. Ibid
  37. Ibid
  38. Ibid
  39. Blair Kamin, “10 years later, Comiskey still has a bad reputation,” Chicago Tribune, July 22, 2011
  40. See Dayn Perry “The White Sox ballpark in Chicago that never was and could have changed history” cbssports.com April 10, 2018 for all references in this section.
  41. See Dayn Perry “The White Sox ballpark in Chicago that never was and could have changed history” cbssports.com April 10, 2018 for all references in this section.
  42. Data from various tables in Baseball Prospectus
  43. Rany Jazayerli, “How the White Sox Are Trying to Perfect Tanking” The Ringer, April 2, 2018

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