Team is struggling, but loyal crowds continue to flock to Miller Park
How popular is Major League Baseball these days? Listen to this, then shake your head in disbelief.
Even though the Brewers have wallowed near or at the bottom of the National League Central for most of the season, they've provided this wonderfully strange contradiction in Milwaukee: The losses keep coming for the hometown team, but so have the fans to Miller Park.
In fact, 1.1 million folks already have clicked the home turnstiles this season for the Brewers. Not only that, the overwhelming majority of those folks were highly spirited -- you know, like always.
They've responded as if the Brewers are racing to the playoffs, instead of to a lengthy vacation in early October.
This makes no sense.
Well, it does if you're from Wisconsin, or if you've lived among the Cheeseheads, which was the case for me.
For those of us in either category, we know Wisconsin has the most supportive fans per capita in the country. We've seen the state's hugging of the Green Bay Packers no matter, and of everything involving the University of Wisconsin, and of anything associated with the Winter Olympics, and of Marquette basketball, and of the Bucks ...
And of the state's Major League Baseball team.
I say "the state's," because every sports team, personality or event in Wisconsin is cherished by the masses. The examples are plentiful, but here's just one: For the longest time, the Packers played their home games before packed and rabid crowds in Green Bay and Milwaukee, but the response would have been the same around Wisconsin if Oshkosh, Eau Claire or Racine were in the mix.
Here's another example: Before the Brewers, Milwaukee had the Braves, and when you combine the overwhelming love over the years from those in the city toward both franchises, Milwaukee often is forgotten as one of baseball's greatest baseball towns.
Soon after the Braves arrived from Boston in 1953, they led the NL in attendance at 1.8 million at old Milwaukee County Stadium. Then the Braves did the unprecedented in league history the following season by drawing over two million. They also did so for the next three years before (ahem) dropping to 1.9 million in 1958, when they reached a second consecutive World Series.
Milwaukee continued to cherish the Braves until those rumors began in the early 1960s: The team was about to bolt to Atlanta -- and then those rumors became fact before the 1966 season. Bitterness reigned across Wisconsin over the move, but forgiveness slowly followed. That's because the Pilots left Seattle for Milwaukee before the 1970 season, and the Pilots switched their name to the Brewers.
We lived in Milwaukee during those early years of the franchise, and even though the Brewers of Joe Lahoud and Skip Lockwood weren't the Braves of Henry Aaron and Eddie Mathews, folks came.
They really came.
They came to see an occasional veteran standout for those Brewers, such as George "Boomer" Scott, or a rising one such as Robin Yount, but they came, and they came often.
County Stadium also was just fun -- with Bernie Brewer sliding into his mug after home runs, that tasty Secret Stadium Sauce on always-huge brats, the organist playing the "Beer Barrel Polka" during the seventh-inning stretch, and Bob Uecker.
Many of those things moved to Miller Park, including The Great Sausage Race. The new state-of-the-art stadium featured a roof that allows fans to travel across Wisconsin without fear of suffering from the region's frequently ugly climate.
In other words, what's happening now with the Brewers and their attendance does make sense.
Despite a four-game winning streak before Tuesday night's 5-4 loss in Miami, the Brewers are 12 games below .500 (26-38), but they are averaging nearly 31,000 folks per game in Milwaukee. That's impressive, and this is even more so: Those numbers place the Brewers 13th out of the 30 Major League teams in home attendance.
Consider, too, that the Brewers' home-attendance average per game is larger than that of the Atlanta Braves, Cincinnati Reds, Arizona Diamondbacks, Baltimore Orioles, Pittsburgh Pirates, Oakland A's, Tampa Bay Rays and Cleveland Indians.
All of those teams have better records than the Brewers by a bunch, and there is something else. According to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, the population of the metropolitan statistical area of Milwaukee is smaller than those of the cities of the previously-named teams.
While Milwaukee ranks 39th in the country in that category, Cleveland is the next lowest at 29.
That puts it in perspective. Even as the smallest of small-market franchises, the Brewers drew three million fans for four consecutive years through 2011. They (ahem) dropped to 2.8 million last year, and they'll settle around that mark this year.
Such will be case despite ... everything.
The starting pitching is awful, and so are the offensive numbers of second baseman Rickie Weeks. There are knee issues, which is why first baseman Corey Hart hasn't played all season and why third baseman Aramis Ramirez isn't available for day games after night games.
In addition to Ryan Braun battling PED allegations, the slugger has spent weeks dealing with a damaged thumb.
You also have the Brewers' once-prolific farm system feeling the effects of team bosses shipping young talent away in recent years for the short-term likes of pitchers CC Sabathia and Zack Greinke.
Still, they keep coming to Miller Park. If the Brewers don't win, their favorite sausage just might.