Playoff return highlights 2000s turnaround
Sabathia's heroics end Brewers' 26-year postseason drought
MILWAUKEE -- Along with the turn of the century and the start of a new millennium, the 2000s marked a new era of Brewers baseball, one that included a playoff appearance.
It began in 2001 with the opening of Miller Park, the Brewers' new state-of-the-art, $400 million home. The changes continued in 2002, when Doug Melvin was named general manager of the club. In 2004, the Brewers had new ownership, as Mark Attanasio took over the club from Commissioner Allan H. "Bud" Selig.
All that set the stage for the team's return to the playoffs, 26 years after losing the 1982 World Series.
Brewers alumni Geoff Jenkins and Bob Wickman are scheduled to participate Friday in a pregame autograph session to celebrate the 2000s as part of the Brewers' 40th Anniversary season. On Sunday, all fans will receive a collectible Brewers Bobble Head doll, featuring CC Sabathia securing the final out of the regular-season finale, playoff-clinching game in 2008, compliments of Palermo's Pizza and Piggly Wiggly.
After a one-year delay due to a fatal crane accident, Miller Park finally opened its doors to the public on April 6, 2001. Among those in attendance were President George W. Bush and Selig, both of whom threw out ceremonial first pitches.
With his 435-foot home run in the bottom of the eighth, first baseman Richie Sexson sent the crowd of 42,024 home happy, as the Brewers secured the first win at Miller Park, 5-4, over the Cincinnati Reds.
The Brewers' new ballpark got rave reviews, to say the least.
"There's no comparison," said former Brewers infielder Jim Gantner. "This is an awesome building and a great place to play. You miss County Stadium, but when you see this, you forget about it real quick."
"I did play in County Stadium and know what it was like to play there," Sexson said. "This is definitely 10 times better than County Stadium."
While much of the credit for getting the ballpark built goes to Selig, and deservedly so, the Milwaukee native, along with his daughter, credited the fans on Opening Day 2001.
"There are many people that played a role in building this magnificent park," Selig told the fans. "But none are greater than all of you."
"You're the best fans in the world," added then-team president Wendy Selig-Prieb. "Enjoy this wonderful ballpark. You deserve it."
In their first season playing at Miller Park, the Brewers had high hopes, but weren't any better than previous seasons. In fact, they were worse, finishing 2001 in fourth place in the National League Central with a 68-94 record as injuries decimated the team in the second half.
One year later, the ballpark, with its unique fan-shaped roof, was host to the first 100-loss season in Brewers history, as the Crew finished 56-106, good for last in the division. With that came more changes for the Brewers, this time in the front office.
Melvin gets a second chance
In April 2002, the Brewers fired manager Davey Lopes after just 15 games as Milwaukee skidded out to a 3-12 record in Lopes' third season at the helm. Five months later, general manager Dean Taylor was cut loose as well, as the Brewers shook up their front office.
Doug Melvin was tabbed for the job, given a second chance to show what he could do running a Major League club. Melvin, the former Texas Rangers general manager who led that franchise to three division titles in four years during the 1990s, was named the eighth general manager in Brewers history on Sept. 25, 2002.
"I don't believe in rebuilding plans," Melvin said in a spirited press conference. "If there was a three-year plan, I would wait and buy a ticket in, what, 2005? I don't believe in that, I want people to be a part of this process to get to where we want to go.
"We'll enjoy it a lot more if we do it together."
Melvin brought in former Jays general manager Gord Ash as his assistant GM and hired manager Ned Yost, who brought along with him a new coaching staff. But Melvin's best move in his first days as general manager now appears to have been keeping amateur scouting director Jack Zduriencik in place.
Under Zduriencik, the Brewers put together some of the best Drafts in club history, restocking their system with top-level talent, and building one of the best cores of young players in the Major Leagues.
Among those draft during Zduriencik's tenure are former first-round picks Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, second baseman Rickie Weeks, former Brewers shortstop J.J. Hardy, right fielder Corey Hart, staff ace Yovani Gallardo, catcher Jonathan Lucroy and center fielder Lorenzo Cain.
As well as building from within, one of Melvin's best moves as general manager came in 2008, when he traded highly rated prospects Matt LaPorta, Michael Brantley and Zach Jackson to the Indians for Sabathia, who would help carry the Brewers to the Wild Card.
Along with Melvin, Ash and Yost, the organization brought in another new face in 2004, as Mark Attanasio, a Los Angeles investment banker and New York native, took over the club from the previous ownership group, which included Selig-Prieb.
When introduced at a news conference on Oct. 4, 2004, as the Brewers' owner-elect, Attanasio said he was "up to the challenge" of turning around the ballclub. He also admitted he had dreamed as a child of owning a Major League baseball club.
"As a kid, I lived, breathed and died with the Yankees forever," Attanasio said. "Once I realized that I wasn't going to be able to hit a curveball, I gave up dreams of playing Major League Baseball, and when I got a little older thought maybe one day I could own a team."
One of Attanasio's biggest impacts upon taking over as the team's principal owner was a commitment to raising the payroll to make the Brewers more competitive, despite playing in the smallest market in baseball.
After the payroll dipped as low as $27.5 million in 2004, it was raised to $39.9 million in Attanasio's first season as owner. A year later, the Brewers' payroll was up to $57.6 million, and by Opening Day 2007, it reached $71 million. When the Brewers reached the playoffs in 2008, the payroll was up to $80.9 million, and in 2010, the Opening Day payroll was up to $90.4 million.
Even with the financial commitment of Attanasio's ownership group, he acknowledged in his first news conference at Miller Park that he had a lot to do to match the legacy of the Selig family in Milwaukee.
"The Attanasio family feels it has big shoes to fill here," Attanasio said. "But that being said, we know that we can be the stewards of baseball in Milwaukee for the next 35 years."
With Melvin, Ash, Yost and Attanasio in place, the Brewers were just a few years away from ending their playoff drought.
The Wait Is Over
When the Brewers returned from St. Louis in 1982 having lost to the Cardinals in the World Series, no one could have guessed it would take 26 years for the club to return to the playoffs. After all, they were expected to be back the following season.
But time after time, the Brewers' best ballclubs came up short in 1983, '88, '91 and '92. Even in '07, when the Brewers led the division for much of the season, they came up just two games behind the Chicago Cubs.
Finally, in 2008, it was the Brewers' turn.
Milwaukee entered the 2008 campaign with high expectations after the '07 season saw the Brewers post their first winning record since '92. In an effort to bolster their playoff hopes, Melvin brought in Sabathia just before the All-Star break on July 7. Sabathia was so dominant over the final three months of the season for the Crew that he even garnered a few votes for the NL Cy Young Award.
In 17 starts for the Brewers in 2008, Sabathia went 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA, tossing seven complete games, including three shutouts. Aside from a near no-hitter against the Pirates in Pittsburgh, the most impressive of those seven complete games was Sabathia's last.
On the final day of the regular season, Sabathia made his third consecutive start on three days' rest and worked all nine innings in the most clutch pitching performance in Brewers history. In front of 45,299 fans, Sabathia threw 122 pitches, struck out seven, scattered four hits and allowed only one unearned run.
"It's unbelievable what he has done for the guys on this team, this organization and this city," left fielder Ryan Braun said. "He's revived baseball in Milwaukee. He took whatever expectation we had and destroyed it."
Braun played a pretty big role in the club's run as well. On that night, Braun made the difference at the plate, as he blasted a tie-breaking, two-run home run with two outs in the eighth inning, which gave the Brewers the 3-1 win.
Just days earlier, Braun delivered a grand slam in the bottom of the 10th inning for a 5-1 Brewers win.
"It doesn't get any better than that. It's difficult to describe," Braun said. "The grand slam the other night, that was pretty special, but this one was pretty meaningful."
With the Brewers finally returning to the postseason, Miller Park hosted the first two playoff games in its history on Oct. 4-5, 2008. The first game, Game 3, was the Brewers' first win in the postseason since that 1982 World Series. Game 4 was a different story, however, as the Phillies secured a trip to the NLCS with a 6-2 win.
They came up short of winning their first playoff series since 1982, but for fans in Milwaukee and across the state of Wisconsin, the '08 season was one to remember, and one 26 years in the making.
For the first time since 1982, the Brewers played games in October that mattered.
Jordan Schelling is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.