MILWAUKEE -- Mark Attanasio could have cleaned house after he bought the Brewers in 2005. An investment manager by trade, he took a different approach."In our business, now and then, we end up with control of companies," Attanasio said, reflecting on his early days as the club's principal owner. "I always give it a year to evaluate management without any changes. That's what we did here, on the business side and the baseball side. [I give it] one year to see what we've got." What he had was a baseball operation led by Doug Melvin, already a veteran general manager who'd held the post in Texas before Milwaukee's previous regime hired him in September 2002. Melvin had inherited a franchise in the final throes of a 106-loss season in 2002. He built a team that included assistant GM Gord Ash, pro scouting director Dick Groch and a key holdover, amateur scouting director Jack Zduriencik, and set about to break the organization down before building it back up. The Opening Day payroll in '04 was about $27 million. By September of that season, Attanasio's bid to purchase the team was under way. He was unanimously approved by the 29 other owners on Jan. 13, 2005, and Melvin was on the clock. He had a year to prove he and his people should stay. Of course, he did stay. Melvin is now in his 10th season in Milwaukee. In practice, he is baseball's eighth-longest-tenured GM, and on Tuesday, Attanasio gave Melvin a promotion to president of baseball operations and a contract extension through 2015. By the end of the new deal, Melvin will have run the Brewers for 13 years, one shy of the club standard set by the late Harry Dalton, architect of the organization's only World Series team in 1982. "You always have to prove yourself," Melvin said, thinking back on his one-year trial under Attanasio. "I had to do it in Texas. And when I was the assistant GM in Baltimore, we went through four different ownerships. You just trust in the people you have. I've learned a lot from Mark, and I think Mark has expressed that he's learned a lot on the baseball side." Attanasio actually went farther than that. "Since I've been here, he's been a terrific mentor to me," Attanasio said. "I was a baseball fan and I played rotisserie baseball back to 1983 or '84, and then I got to the Major Leagues, as they say, and I found out how much I didn't know."
The Brewers had some success from the start. They went 81-81 in 2005, snapping the team's 12-year losing streak. No champagne bottles were popped. Nobody paraded along Wisconsin Ave. But the franchise quietly celebrated a turning point. Melvin quietly kept his job. "The monkey was off our back," Attanasio said. In 2006, the Brewers were hit by injuries to starting pitchers, but in '07, they spent 138 days in first place and finished with a winning record for the first time since 1992. In '08, they took another big step, making the postseason for the first time since '82. In 2011, the Brewers were back in the postseason, this time making it to Game 6 of the National League Championship Series. A huge photo adorns the lobby of the team's Spring Training complex in Phoenix of Melvin, arm in arm with a gaggle of euphoric players after the team clinched the NL Central. Everybody, including the veteran GM, is screaming in celebration, bathed in some of Milwaukee's finest beer. "I think [keeping him] was a good decision," Attanasio said with a smile. "We've had a lot of success." "The key thing for me is that he cares about his players," said Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy, who signed a contract extension in the spring. "It's a lot easier coming to the field every day knowing that you're playing for someone who cares about you."
Melvin says he learned from Attanasio to be open-minded. No idea was ever too wild, no high-priced player ever too high-priced to have a simple discussion about. "Like when I called up and said, 'I might have a chance to get CC Sabathia,'" Melvin said. It's Melvin's favorite deal during his tenure, and an easy choice considering it happened in the heat of the season and produced such a remarkable result. Acquired from the Indians in a July blockbuster, Sabathia went 11-2 with a 1.67 ERA for Milwaukee, completing seven of his 17 starts. When the offense slumped in September, the Sabathia-led pitching staff carried the Brewers to their first postseason appearance in 26 years. "You have to just be open-minded to anything that's available," Melvin said. "In the past, we were a little bit closed-minded to making a trade, but the CC Sabathia trade sort of set the tone that we were open to anything. Don't exclude any kind of opportunity to get better. "The toughest thing we're having to face right now is that as you get to be a better team, you don't get the top five or six picks in the country in the Draft. And we've lost out on some players [because] we don't get the top waiver claims. Those are the challenges now. "But the only way to get those players again is to be a bad ballclub. That's not something we want to do." Melvin is being seriously challenged now.
The Brewers have already lost a starting pitcher (Chris Narveson), a starting first baseman (Mat Gamel) and a starting shortstop (Alex Gonzalez) to season-ending injuries, and replacements are hard to find. Teams are unwilling to trade this early in the season, and Melvin figures the additional playoff spot in each league will produce fewer Trade Deadline sellers. At the same time, the Brewers face some longer-term issues. Pitchers Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum and Francisco Rodriguez are all free agents, Randy Wolf will be a free agent unless Milwaukee exercises his $10 million option, and Narveson is arbitration-eligible for the first time this winter and about to get more expensive. Is Melvin in for another rebuild, if that's what it takes? He did not like that word. "It would be more like a transition," he said. "Sometimes you have to take a step back, but that's not our focus right now." Melvin, who will turn 60 before this season is out, says he is energetic as ever. Taking the extension was an easy decision. "I've always liked challenges, and I look at the challenge as trying to continue winning here," Melvin said. "We want to continue doing this year after year. I still love the game. I spend a lot of time living and breathing the game. It's my life. "I don't have a whole lot of other interests; my family, I go to movies and baseball. That's what I do."