As the current Brewers owner says, “Teams can go in two directions” when major setbacks happen.
As Baseball Commissioner Emeritus and former Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig was promoting his autobiography, we posted a piece in July on the role of Milwaukee’s Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation more than two decades ago in helping to finance the construction of Miller Park, home of the red-hot Milwaukee Brewers. Well, as of this writing, the Brewers are surprisingly in the midst of an exciting playoff race—so we have, and might have even more, further thoughts on baseball, life, and philanthropy. (Plus, we like the picture.)
When reigning National League Most Valuable Player Christian Yelich was lost for the remainder of the season on earlier this month with a broken kneecap, many thought the playoffs would be out of the Brewers’ reach. It was a major setback. To the dramatic, a disaster. Everyone seemed to “know” the season was basically over.
"I think what had happened is it felt like the dream had died for the season,” current Brewers owner Mark Attanasio told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel earlier this week. “And, now, it hasn’t. The strength of the organization has shown through here.
"I give credit to [Brewers manager] Craig [Counsell] and the coaches and the players for how they pulled together,” Attanasio said. “Teams can go in two directions when something like that happens. They can give up or they can pull together. This group pulled together."
A group cannot pull together unless it shares first principles and common operating assumptions. This is true of any and all groups, of course, including policy-oriented philanthropies and nonprofits, with whatever worldviews.
As we wrote in the context of the Bradley Foundation and Miller Park, those shared principles and common assumptions included a strong sense of place. We think that sense, in this case, is associated by locals with hard work, common sense, public virtue, and humility—perhaps parochially, maybe correctly, seen as Midwestern, “flyover-country” traits either dismissively discounted or actually attacked by the elite culture of the coasts.
The project to build Miller Park, as Selig recounts in his book, was in definite trouble in 1996. The public portion of the public-private partnership was increasingly in doubt, and policymakers were tensely starting to lay the foundation for assigning blame to others. Everyone seemed to feel, to “know,” disaster was imminent. Time was running out.
While there may be times when either principle or prudence would warrant strategically passing up on a presented grantmaking opportunity or even outright withdrawal from a program area, this wasn’t one of them. After internally ascertaining the risks with diligence, but also agility, Bradley boldly announced its $20 million charitable investment—citing its support for the preservation and revitalization of civil society, placing baseball, and its mores within the many potential ways of trying to do so.
Similarly, for another example, when the Wisconsin Supreme Court issued an injunction in August 1995 against implementation of the Milwaukee school-choice program newly expanded to include religious schools—literally just as thousands of schoolchildren in the city were beginning the new school year at their parents’ newly chosen religious schools—it was a disaster. Felt like a dream had died.
Knowing the risks, but taking the chance, Bradley announced a $1 million grant to a local private scholarship-granting organization that would step in to pay the kids’ tuition at those schools until further litigation ultimately resolved the issue three years later.
For a third similar example, in the context of a particular nonprofit, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1995 Kelo v. City of London decision allowing the use of eminent domain to transfer land from one private owner to another private owner to further economic development was a disaster for those groups arguing against eminent-domain abuse. As Attanasio said of the Brewers after Yelich’s injury, “Teams can go in two directions when something like that happens.”
The Bradley-supported Institute for Justice did not give up after the Kelo loss. Rather, it pulled together and boldly launched a new “Hands Off My Home” campaign, as part of its already-existing Castle Coalition, to take and make its arguments in the courts of public opinion and to policymakers. During the coming years, dozens of states would enacted increased protections against eminent-domain abuse.
While we don’t know what Attanasio thinks about school choice or eminent domain, he’s right about the choice to be made by groups in the face or wake of disaster. It can and should apply to baseball, philanthropy, or anything else, too. “They can give up or they can pull together,” he said. “This group pulled together."
Seasons really don’t end as fast as it might sometimes appear to those who “know” it’s time to give up. Plus, there’s always another. There may be more games at Miller Park during this one, though.