Latest Reports Bring Sour Conclusion to Milkmen’s Season
In American Association Daily, Robert Pannier discusses the latest news surrounding the Milwaukee Milkmen and how this may have completely soured their first season in the American Association. This includes the firing of Manager Gary McClure and a legal battle over the naming rights to the team’s stadium.
Stadium Lawsuit, Manager Departure Unsettling News for Milkmen
For more than a year before the Milwaukee Milkmen took to the diamond, we knew that there was going to be a Milwaukee Milkmen, at least a team in Milwaukee. The American Association received a huge gift when owner Mike Zimmerman opted to join the league.
The team would be in a new 2,500 seat stadium in Franklin, Wisconsin, which would be home to both the new American Association team and to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee baseball team. No need to stress for the league as to whether they could find a team that would potentially replace the Wichita Wingnuts (which they ultimately did); the Wisconsin team fell right into their laps.
A Delay Begins to Blemish the Luster
Things were on track for the team to begin their first season, but a funny thing happened on the way to the ballpark – the ballpark wasn’t there. Well, at least it wasn’t finished. On April 9, Zimmerman made the gutsy call to move the first month’s home games for his team to Kokomo, Indiana, as the stadium would not be ready for opening day.
This was a move that took a lot of courage. He had a brand new team that would draw a lot of buzz in their new home but, instead, opted to move these games 254 miles away to ensure that the stadium was ready for big time baseball. The willingness to delay a huge moment in the team’s history, possibly tarnishing the team’s image right off so that the stadium was everything it should be when fans walked through the gates for the first time, definitely deserves a tip of the cap. That was a bold move.
Yet, it also was a move that likely doomed this team’s success from the start. Fans did not take to the team right off as the Milkmen were not able to capitalize off of being the new thing in town. They had already played 30-plus games by late June, and were well below .500 by that point. It’s hard to get fans excited about coming out to see a team that is battling to stay out of last place.
In addition, that kind of early schedule is tough on players. Just ask the Salina Stockade. The Stockade spent the entire 2017 on the road, becoming a replacement for the Laredo Lemurs after that team folded three weeks before the season began. A 10 day road trip is tough enough, but a 30 game one is brutal.
Not surprisingly, the team struggled. To their credit, they played hard and had one of the better pitching staff’s in the league. It was that they did not hit, and that cost them games.
A Stunning Move at the Top
If you hang around managers in the American Association for a year or two, there is one thing from them you learn quickly. Their first year at the helm or in a new ballpark was possibly their toughest for one primary reason – it is difficult to figure out how the ballpark is going to play, and so building a team can be a real challenge. Just ask Sioux City Explorers Manager Steve Montgomery.
His first season in Iowa he put together a team meant to hit lots of homeruns, but he had already scrapped those plans halfway through the season. Now, he builds teams with speed and has made the playoffs in four of the last five seasons as a result.
Chicago Dogs Skipper Butch Hobson had a team in 2018 that could not score runs. They were ranked near the bottom of the league, and that led to a fourth place finish in the North Division. This year, after a year of learning how Impact Field plays, Hobson brought in Keon Barnum and Victor Roache and, suddenly, this was a team that improved by 14 games, who battled for a playoff spot until the final weekend of the season.
It takes time to learn how to build an offense in your ballpark. That was one of the biggest lessons Gary McClure had to learn in his first season in Milwaukee, which was made even more difficult by the fact that his first dozen “home” games were played 250 miles away. It was not surprising that this was not a particularly good hitting team.
The Milkmen finished in last place in 2019. Anyone who expected anything other than that before the season began was either a dreamer or a liar. The team was in the toughest division (four of the top five records in the American Association came from the North), McClure had never been a professional manager before, and the team was in a division with three managers who had won 1000-plus games and another who had won league titles in two of the last three years. There was going to be some growing pains to say the least.
Yet, the team won a respectable 38 games. They struggled in the last 32 games, going 11-21, but they also dealt arguably the best reliever in the league at that time (Tanner Kiest) and would later trade a former Major League hurler in T.J. House. It was going to be tough to win games in the last month when four of the teams in their division were already in playoff mode trying to make the postseason.
This is why it is stunning that the team opted to part ways with McClure following the season, as a member of his staff, Anthony Barone, takes over. The team gave McClure a two year deal before the 2019 season began, and he had earned a shot to take what he had learned and apply it in the 2020 season.
What makes this move make even less sense is the hiring of Barone. Even if McClure had done something to earn his termination, why hire another guy with no managerial experience? The team is literally back at square one.
On top of that, this move has put Barone in a terrible position. There is no doubt that there is going to be whispers that he was working behind the scenes to get McClure fired so he could get the job.
A few years ago, one team in this league fired their manager with a month left in the season, and replaced him with the pitching coach. For over a year, the rumors abounded that the new manager had lobbied to get that job, helping to lead to the early exit of the former manager. Those rumors were not true, but that cloud hung over the new manager’s head during his entire tenure.
That is what Barone will face this year. It will not be long before many are speculating that he stabbed his former manager in the back to get the job. It is unlikely that Barone would ever consider doing that, but getting rid of a manager after one season and replacing him with his coach is going to stoke the rumor mill.
Even the Naming of the Stadium Was Not Routine
The one area where the Milwaukee Milkmen seemed to have done a great thing was in acquiring naming rights to their stadium early on. Franklin-based baseball apparel company Routine Baseball LLC came to an agreement to have the new ballpark named after the company, and Routine Field was born. Now it may be stillborn.
The apparel company is now suing Zimmerman and his team, claiming that they had used the name “Routine” for their field without signing a contract that gave them formal approval. In a filing in federal court, Routine Baseball explained that the rights to using their name had not been “fully negotiated or signed by any of the necessary parties.”
That may be true, however, it sure looks like Routine was milking the situation for everything it was worth. According to Zimmerman, Routine Baseball posted information on their website and social media accounts explaining how this was a major opportunity for the apparel company. So, they may not have completely signed off on the deal, but they sure weren’t averse to acknowledging that the stadium was named after them.
Maybe Zimmerman jumped the gun, but that did not seem to matter until there was an opportunity to get lawyers involved.
There is a good chance that the team will win this suit, but it still doesn’t look good for a club who should be basking in a season of success. These stories are definitely souring the milk in Milwaukee. Another story like this and one has to wonder if this will become the norm for the team.
By Robert Pannier