To fans realistic enough to admit they could never play major league baseball, owning a team is the next best thing. On a beautiful afternoon in late July, Mark Attanasio '79 happily signs autographs and chats with fans as he makes his way to Section 114, Row 1, Seat 1 right beside the Milwaukee Brewers
dugout at Miller Park, the team's home field. Also known as the owner's box, this has been Attanasio's preferred spot for monitoring his latest investment - one that he acquired in January for $223 million from the family of baseball commissioner Bud Selig. "It's hard to believe this happened," Attanasio says about baseball's acceptance of his bid for the Brewers, "and it feels so good."
A bespectacled and young-looking forty-seven-year-old, Attanasio looks like an investment banker, which is in fact his "day job," as he likes to refer to it. His style of dress tends toward slacks and jackets, and he somehow gives the impression he's wearing a tie, or took it off and jammed it into his pocket just before reaching his seat. He prefers berry smoothies to beer - a risky choice in a city known for beer and brats. But there he is today in the owner's seat, fulfilling a fantasy Attanasio first dreamed up during a class in sports law at Columbia Law School more than twenty years ago. After graduating from law school, though, he joined a New York City firm, and the closest he got to owning a team was playing Rotisserie baseball (cofounded in 1979 by Sports Illustrated executive editor Rob Fleder '72, Rotisserie baseball is the predecessor of today's ubiquitous fantasy leagues). "I was very mediocre in Rotisserie baseball," Attanasio admits.
In 1985, Attanasio's classmate Richard Ressler '79 convinced him to leave the law firm for Drexel Burnham Lambert, the soon-to-be notorious firm run by convicted junk-bond king Michael Milken. Attanasio, as it turned out, had a gift for investing and eventually became a senior vice president. When Drexel collapsed in 1990 he emerged a wealthy man untouched by the scandal. Then in 1991 he moved to Los Angeles and organized Crescent Capital Partners, which in 1995 was purchased by Trust Company of the West (TCW). Four years ago Societe Generale of France bought a majority interest in TCW, a sale that reportedly earned Attanasio a payment well into nine figures. He remains a senior partner at TCW and the head of its leveraged finance group.
Back at Miller Park, Attanasio cheers on his Brewers. It's an ugly game against the Arizona Diamondbacks, who eventually win, 3-0. Along the way, the Brewers commit three errors, and Attanasio commits one of his own when he stands up and goes into a home run dance on a long Brady Clark foul ball. At one point, he accepts a rally cap (a Brewers cap turned inside out) from a nearby fan and wears it during one of his team's futile attempts at scoring. Although the Brewers have been having one of their best seasons in years, this game is a reminder that the fans' warmth toward Attanasio masks their hope that he is their unlikely savior. For too many years the Milwaukee Brewers have been, quite simply, a bad team. Their last winning season was in 1992.
The club has also attracted bad publicity through the years, and a reputation for not wanting to spend the money to build a winning team. In 2002 the Brewers hired Ulice Payne as the first African American club president in major league history, then fired him a year later after he criticized management for slashing payroll by 25 percent. Shortly after that, the team agreed to an unusual public audit of its books. That same year, 2004, the Brewers finished last again in their division, 37.5 games out of first place.
Attanasio, meanwhile, found himself with a lot of money on his hands. He had a pivotal conversation with Chancellor Stephen Robert '62, another successful investment banker. "He asked me, now that I achieved financial success, what was I going to do with it?" Attanasio recalls. "He pointed out that he found helping Brown not only did society good but helped him grow personally."
Robert succeeded in getting Attanasio involved with his alma mater. Attanasio, who has built a reputation at TCW for turning around distressed companies and portfolios, ably improved, pro bono, a portion of the University's endowment known as the Third Century Fund, preparing it for more routine outside management. Since then, according to President Ruth Simmons, Attanasio has been "generous in sharing his knowledge, perspective, and expertise in helping me to think about the variety of issues that I confront as president."
Attanasio says the experience put him on the lookout for other opportunities that would benefit both him and the public good. During a long, philosophical conversation with a friend of the Seligs' he realized that owning a baseball team might provide just such an outlet. "It's a huge public stage for charity and good work," Attanasio explains. At first, he says, he offered to buy a part of the Brewers from the Seligs. Then they told him they were ready to sell the whole thing.
"I decided to go through the process to get approved as a potential owner," he recalls. He provided Major League Baseball with reams of personal and financial information. He had to prove not only that he had the money to buy a team but that he was of good character and not involved in any business, such as casino ownership, that would disqualify him. "It was a long shot, really," he recalls. "But a long shot I really wanted."
He was asked during one meeting what he could do for the team. "I said I could keep the team in Milwaukee," he remembers, "and I could provide good management." He also remembers that the person who asked him the question told him at the end of the meeting, "You should own the franchise."
On August 11, 2004, while Attanasio was in Italy with his family, he learned that his application had passed the due diligence test. "I thought to myself," Attanasio says, "I could do this!" The final board meeting was on September 26. "I knew that if I lost I would be heartbroken," Attanasio recalls. "Steve Greenberg [son of Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg and founder of what is now the ESPN Classic cable-TV station] ran the meeting. When he came to us, it was running about four hours late, so I figured we'd lost. Then Steve came on the line and said, 'It's yours.' I got goose bumps."
Attanasio may want to help the city of Milwaukee by owning the Brewers, but he's also a shrewd and competitive businessman who likes to earn a profit and who's not going to take on an organization unless he believes he knows how to improve it. Attanasio insists this is not a criticism of the Seligs' management. "The Seligs didn't have to sell," he says. "They just thought this was the right time to get out." Baseball beat writer Drew Olson of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel agrees, saying the Seligs "wanted out, but it wasn't because they were going belly up. They just got tired of cash calls and losing."
So why the Brewers? "What I look for when acquiring a company," Attanasio says, "is momentum. I felt like the Brewers had good momentum. They had Ben Sheets [a promising pitcher who won the 2000 Olympic gold medal game for the United States], two million in attendance last year, very good baseball and front-office management, and good business dynamics. Plus we're in a new stadium."
Unlike other recent owners, such as John Henry of the Boston Red Sox, Attanasio has not brought in number crunchers and "sabermetrics" specialists such as Bill James to direct player acquisitions. In fact, Attanasio has fired no senior official within the team. "They have very good baseball and front-office management," he repeats. A scout within the Brewers organization says, "Going from Bud Selig to Mark Attanasio, I have not encountered any real differences."
What he has done is increase the payroll, from $27 million to $40 million. (By comparison, the New York Yankees' payroll is $206 million.) So far, at least, he has deferred to the judgment of general manager Doug Melvin and assistant general manager Gord Ash. While Melvin and Ash have elaborate Miller Park offices packed with beautifully mounted baseball memorabilia and expansive views of right field, Attanasio's office is a simple interior affair, with a single, autographed ball encased in a plastic cube on his desk.
Attanasio's noninterference in the baseball end of the Brewers' front office paid off almost immediately. To shore up the minor league system - an important piece of any baseball team's future success - Melvin proposed trading All-Star reliever Dan Kolb to the Atlanta Braves for some highly regarded minor-league prospects. "Doug told me he has a huge amount of confidence they can develop relievers," recounts Attanasio. The trade also spared the Brewers' having to give Kolb, who was nearing the end of his contract, a multimillion-dollar raise.
Last December, a month before officially taking over the team, Attanasio agreed to the trade, replacing Kolb with Derrick Turnbow, whom the Brewers claimed after the Los Angeles Angels released him. Turnbow has flourished in Milwaukee while Kolb has struggled with the Braves. But this was a trifling deal compared to what Melvin next proposed: trading outfielder Scott Podsednik, who led the National League in stolen bases last year, to the Chicago White Sox for outfielder Carlos Lee. Not only would Milwaukee lose a great and popular player in Podsednik, Attanasio says; the deal "would break the budget by about 10 percent." Again he backed his general manager, saying, "Carlos Lee could alter the franchise." And he has. Lee has been one of the top three run producers in the league this season and has given the Brewers a genuine superstar.
Attanasio, meanwhile, has been searching for business models for his team. Instead of emulating the big-spending franchises, such as the Yankees and Red Sox, he has paid particular attention to what he calls the "moderately priced, successful teams," especially the Florida Marlins, the Minnesota Twins, and the Oakland A's. "In businesses we acquire, we collect facts, we're analytical," he says. "Then we set goals, measure." One early conclusion? "We're a little high on [the top of] payroll," he muses. "Our top three players make up 48 percent of payroll. We should be at 40 to 44 percent."
Sitting in the owner's box at Miller Park in July, he demonstrates both his borrow-what's-best approach and his attention to detail. When the scoreboard starts flashing the message noise to prompt fans to cheer, he points out casually, "I got that up there. I saw another team use it." Then, watching rookie second baseman Rickie Weeks swing a bat in the on-deck circle, he says to a teenager sitting near him, "Look at Weeks's spikes." Weeks was wearing what appeared to be custom-made black patent-leather zip-up spikes. "Aren't those something? I think they're Nikes." Later, he approached a television technician about getting more shots of the Brewers in the dugout. "I think [manager] Ned Yost hides from the camera. Could we get another camera to focus on him?" he asks.
Owning a baseball team is a delicate balancing act. The trick is to get the best out of the front office and the players without thinking you know more than people who have spent their entire lives in the game. "It's too early to tell if he'll micromanage," says Bob Uecker, a longtime Brewers announcer and a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. "But I think he's caught up in owning more than he thought he would." Attanasio acknowledges that baseball may be squeezing out his day job for his attention. "Several owners told me how addictive it was," he says. "Tom Werner [an owner of the Boston Red Sox] says he was up at 2 a.m. watching games on mlb.com while in Italy. Every day there's a bunch of stuff to deal with, and every day there's a game." With every game, he says, comes "another data point" from which to evaluate performance. And he's pleased with this year's performance. The Brewers are not yet a playoff team, he says, but unlike past years, "the players aren't giving up." In late August, the Brewers were in third place in their division, had lost only two more games than they'd won, and were a mere five-and-a-half games back in the competition for a wild-card spot in the playoffs.
Uecker, who has seen a lot of Milwaukee teams, believes this one will probably not make the playoffs. "This year or next, no wild card, that we all know," he says. But, he adds, Attanasio "knows what he wants to do here, and he wants to win." Does Uecker think Attanasio's ownership is good for Milwaukee? "Absolutely," he says. "It was a good deal for us." The Journal-Sentinel's Drew Olson cautiously agrees. "He's made all the right moves thus far," he says. "He's accessible to fans, and unlike [previous team president] Wendy Selig-Prieb, he sits down by the field." But Olson adds, "After twelve losing seasons, the fans need a winning season. They don't care what he does, as long as they win."
It's the ninth inning. The Arizona pitcher struck out the heart of the Brewers' order in the eighth, including Carlos Lee. This inning's not much better; the first two batters strike out, and the third grounds out weakly to first base. Then it's over, and the remaining Brewers fans, long habituated to losing, drift toward the exits. One of the last to leave is Attanasio. He's determined to stay until the end.