The editor’s opinion from Marketplace, Northeast Wisconsin’s business magazine. (Obligatory disclaimer: Most hyperlinks go to outside sites, and we’re not responsible for their content. And like fresh watermelon, peaches, pineapple, grapefruit, tomatoes and sweet corn, hyperlinks can go bad after a while.)

July 31, 2008

Is something brewing at Fox Cities Stadium?

Post~Crescent sports reporter Brad Christopherson drew some interesting conclusions when he reported that the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers are taking their own sweet time renewing their Player Development Contract with their parent organization, the Seattle Mariners.

The timing of this is interesting because, while the Rattlers’ contract with the Mariners expires after this season. the Milwaukee Brewers’ contract with their similar Class A affiliate, the West Virginia Power, also expires after this season.

The Brewers haven’t had a minor league affiliate in Wisconsin since 2004, when they severed relations with the Beloit Snappers. The Timber Rattlers have been affiliated with the Mariners since 1993, when they were known as the Appleton Foxes. Many major league teams have been affiliated with Appleton-area minor league teams. The 1940–53 Appleton Papermakers were linked with the Cleveland Indians, Philadelphia Phillies, St. Louis Browns (who became the Baltimore Orioles) and Milwaukee Braves. The Foxes, formed in 1958, affiliated with the Washington Senators (who became the Minnesota Twins), Chicago White Sox (for 26 years) and the Kansas City Royals before the Mariners.

A Brewers–Timber Rattlers agreement would be an ideal move for both the Timber Rattlers and the Brewers. The Brewers’ franchise is clearly on the upswing, having finally reached .500 in 2005 and finishing with a winning record in 2007, following 25 years that were analogous to the Packers’ “Gory Years,” with wins and playoff berths few and far between. The Brewers have gotten several awards for the quality of their minor league system this decade, and their home-grown players include first baseman Prince Fielder, second baseman Rickie Weeks, shortstop J.J. Hardy, third baseman Bill Hall, left fielder Ryan Braun, right fielder Corey Hart and starting pitchers Ben Sheets and Manny Parra. The Power, the Brewers’ minor league team at the same level as the Rattlers, is (are?) in first place in the Northern Division of the South Atlantic League.

The Timber Rattlers’ relationship with the Mariners has served the Rattlers well until recently. (I remember watching Alex Rodriguez have a poor night for the Foxes in Goodland Field’s and the Foxes’ final season in 1994. That was the season where Rodriguez did something probably unprecedented — he played in Class A and Class AA, then the Mariners, then was sent down to the Mariners’ Class AAA affiliate just before the 1994 players’ strike, all in the same season.) As of today, Wisconsin is 42–63, 11–28 in the second half of this season. The Rattlers played in the Midwest League championship series in 2005, but have not contended for a playoff berth since then, finishing 54–86 in 2006 and 53–85 in 2007.

That, of course, reflects the quality of players sent to the Timber Rattlers by the Mariners. One ranking placed the Brewers’ minor league system as fifth best in baseball, while the Mariners’ system ranked 19th. Minor League Baseball.com noted in 2007 that the Mariners’ drafts of North American players had produced “only a handful of major leaguers dating back to 2000.” Not surprisingly, the Mariners have gone downhill since they set the record for wins in a regular season with 116 in 2001, their last playoff season. The Mariners are on their second general manager and field manager of this season.

Of course, minor league baseball isn’t specifically about winning. An impressive list of major leaguers has played for Appleton or Wisconsin, including new Hall of Fame relief pitcher Rich “Goose” Gossage, Cy Young-winning starting pitchers Pete Vuckovich and LaMarr Hoyt, former Rookie of the Year Ron Kittle, Mariners starting pitcher Felix Hernandez (who is good enough to have his own bobblehead), Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz, and, of course, the player now known as “A-Rod.” Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver, who managed the Orioles into four World Series, won the 1960 Midwest League title managing the Foxes, as did former Florida Marlins manager John Boles in 1983.

The 2007 Timber Rattlers drew 197,511 fans, 3,237 per game, eighth best in the Midwest League, and, more importantly, 59 percent of capacity. So far this season, the Rattlers are averaging about 2,500 fans per game, about 45 percent of capacity, though the franchise was hampered by our crappy spring.

Affiliating with the Brewers could result in an upswing in attendance from Brewers’ fans, on Brewers’ days off or on road trips, for those interested in seeing future Brewers, or for those looking for a less expensive Brewers baseball experience. Having a minor league affiliate two hours away would be quite handy for Brewers’ player personnel executives, too. (The Brewers’ three higher-level affiliates are in central Florida, Huntsville, Ala., and Nashville.) Next year’s Timber Rattlers could have players from the Brewers’ two rookie league teams, the Arizona Brewers and the Helena (Mont.) Brewers, plus leftovers from this year’s Power.

That also might result in some more media attention for the Timber Rattlers, whose games are broadcast on a Clintonville radio station and online and who get a “Rattler Report,” instead of a game story, in the Post~Crescent. (Perhaps Fox Sports Wisconsin might see fit to start covering Timber Rattler games; a few games are on Time Warner Cable now, but if you’re not a Time Warner subscriber, you can’t watch them.) Conversely, having an in-state minor league affiliate could help the Brewers’ statewide marketing efforts, which are in a catchup mode after having had no appreciable statewide marketing efforts before the Brewers’ current ownership took over.

The date to watch is Sept. 16, when major league teams can begin negotiating with minor league teams through Sept. 30. As Rattlers president Rob Zerjav told the Post~Crescent, “I think whenever we make a decision, it’s important that we look at what the fans want. They’re the ones buying the tickets. You want to give them what they want. So it’s one aspect of how we make the decision.”

“If the Brewers are looking at Appleton, I'd understand,” Andy Milovich, executive vice president of Palisades Baseball, the management company that runs the Power, told the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette. “I don’t think the stadium there is as good as ours [an assertion unsupported by the online evidence — for one thing, Time Warner Cable Field at Fox Cities Stadium holds 1,000 more than Appalachian Power Park], but I’m sure there’s pressure from the local media and politicians to move [the Brewers] there.” (Pressure? Moi?)

From an outside perspective, there seem to be no negatives with a Brewers–Timber Rattlers affiliation deal. Let’s hope it happens.

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