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New parks serve as home remedies for Brewers, Pirates
from News Services

For the past decade, the Milwaukee Brewers and Pittsburgh Pirates have been among the poster children of small-market baseball teams trying to stay above water. They were the have-nots, with revenues that were dwarfed by the haves.

For the most part, both teams have not been factors in recent division races. Pittsburgh won the National League East from 1990-92, but the Pirates didn't have the money to keep Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla and Doug Drabek, and they left as free agents. The Pirates have not finished above .500 since 1992.

Milwaukee also hasn't had a winning season since 1992, when it was in the American League. The Brewers shifted to the NL in 1998, but they remained an also-ran.

In addition to their market size, the teams were hampered by aging, unattractive ballparks. The Brewers played at County Stadium, a 1950s relic that had little charm even when it was in its prime. The Pirates played at Three Rivers Stadium, a cold, circular coliseum that was the place to be in Pittsburgh only on Sundays during football season.

In order to survive, the teams needed new baseball-only parks with suites, club-level seating and other amenities that produce the revenue necessary to become competitive. The new stadiums are the first step in the rebuilding efforts of both clubs.

``We've been in our place just one year, and already it's the third-oldest park in our division,'' said Houston manager Larry Dierker. ``Cincinnati's getting one (in 2003), and St. Louis is trying for one. The only old place is going to be Wrigley (in Chicago), and that's going to stay. We're going to be in the best division for ballparks, that's for sure.''

Miller Park was scheduled to open in 2000, but a construction accident that claimed the lives of three iron workers in July 1999 pushed back the opening one year. To be sure, the Brewers are counting on added revenue from the 42,500-seat, retractable-roof park, but Milwaukee general manager Dean Taylor believes the impact will go beyond that.

``It's going to entirely change the mindset of everyone connected with the organization,'' said Taylor. ``The front-office staff, the coaching staff, the players and the fans -- everyone who is involved with the organization -- is going to realize a tremendous emotional lift from this facility.

``It gives the organization a tremendous emotional and financial shot in the arm. It's the outgrowth of a different mindset.''

Before the Brewers officially opened Miller Park against Cincinnati over the weekend, they played two exhibition games the weekend before the regular season started. They came away with the feeling they had moved from the rear of the plane to the first-class section.

``People have been asking me, `When you walk through the park, what do you think?' '' said Milwaukee outfielder Jeromy Burnitz. ``Look where we came from. It's hard to explain. It's just awesome.''

Though Miller Park is one of five retractable-roof stadiums in the majors -- Toronto, Arizona, Seattle and Houston have the others -- it's the first to have a fan-shaped roof with seven panels. The roof weighs approximately 12,000 tons and rises 200 feet above second base.

The roof takes 10 to 15 minutes to close. In addition, two of the five exterior wall panels in the outfield can open or close, depending on the weather.

The Brewers are hoping they can draw close to 3 million fans this season after attracting only 1.57 million in 2000. That alone should give the Brewers added incentive. In addition, not having to brave the damp, wet weather the first two months of the season should be a plus.

``Just ask the players, and I think you'll see they love it already,`` manager Davey Lopes said last week after the team's two exhibition games. ``I mean, what's not to like?

``I think having the new ballpark will be a boost for us. Everybody likes playing in front of big crowds. I'm very excited about that.''

Unlike Enron Field, Miller Park apparently won't be a home run haven. The dimensions are honest, with the gaps in right- and left-center measuring 374 feet and 371 feet from home plate, respectively.

The right-field line is 345 feet, with the left-field line 344. The height of the fences could help pad the homer totals. The fence down the right-field line is six feet high. Elsewhere, the fence is eight feet high.

The Brewers settled in nicely at Miller Park, sweeping Cincinnati in three games over the weekend after starting the season with four straight road losses -- three of them at Enron Field. Heading back to Milwaukee from Houston, Brewers first baseman Richie Sexson, who broke in with Cleveland and was accustomed to playing in a first-class stadium, was caught up in the excitement.

``Getting on the plane, (Milwaukee shortstop) Mark Loretta and I were talking, and we were saying, `At least we don't have to go back to County Stadium,' '' Sexson said. ``We're going to try to settle in and win some games. This makes you more comfortable. That's for sure.''

Comfort level aside, the Brewers are counting on having additional revenue. In anticipation of that, they signed budding young stars Sexson and left fielder Geoff Jenkins to four-year contracts and re-signed potential free agent Burnitz. They also signed free-agent center fielder Jeffrey Hammonds to a four-year contract.

``It has already had some impact on our payroll,'' said Taylor. ``We did increase our payroll this year from the high 40s (in millions of dollars) to the mid-50s. And if we do draw 3 million fans as hoped, it will give us some additional revenue and the ability to hopefully attract other players similar to Hammonds in the future. You just can't understate its importance.''

Said Sexson: ``New ballparks bring fans, and fans bring money, and money brings free agents. Then good players bring wins, which brings more money. It's all connected.''

In anticipation of additional revenue, the Pirates, too, were able to re-sign young stars such as catcher Jason Kendall, pitcher Kris Benson and left fielder Brian Giles to contracts worth more than $120 million for the next six years.

New manager Lloyd McClendon, who played on the Pirates' division-winning teams a decade ago, says PNC Park, which seats 38,000, will usher in a new era for the team. The Pirates opened the park Monday with an 8-3 loss to Cincinnati.

``Those days of players leaving for financial reasons are over,'' McClendon said. ``That's not the way it works here anymore. We keep our players.''

Said Benson, who started the season on the disabled list: ``I made it very clear that I want to be here for a long time. I like the organization. I like Pittsburgh. I think there are a lot of good things ahead for the Pirates, especially with us moving into the new ballpark this year and the way they've been signing our top players. I'm glad I'm going to be a part of it.''

First reviews of PNC Park, which has no retractable roof, have been glowing. Of all the new stadiums, the one in Pittsburgh could be the most picturesque. The Pittsburgh skyline is directly behind the park, and one Pirates employee said: ``It's like something you'd see in a movie set or Disney World. It takes your breath away.''

The two-tiered stadium has been in the works since February 1996, when Kevin McClatchy bought the club with the condition a baseball-only park be built within five years. The result is a fan-friendly park that seems light years removed from Three Rivers.

``It's a real ballpark,'' said Pirates pitcher Terry Mulholland. ``It's not an amusement park. It's not a corporate temple. It's a ballpark. Hopefully, we can give the fans something to cheer about this year.''

Said Pirates general manager Cam Bonifay: ``If fans can't enjoy this ballpark, then I can't think of one they could enjoy even more.''

The park has its unique elements. The distance from home plate down the right-field line is only 325 feet, but there is a 21-foot high wall. Twenty-one? It's a tribute to Roberto Clemente, the Pirates' Hall of Fame right fielder who wore No. 21.

The alley in left-center, however, is 389 feet away, meaning home runs will not be cheap, especially in the cool days of the early part of the season.

``I think it's going to play a little smaller than people think once the weather breaks,'' McClendon said. ``I think once the air gets hot, the ball will jet-stream (to left field). I don't think it's going to be as difficult as people think to hit it out.''

Former Astros right fielder Derek Bell, who signed a two-year contract with Pittsburgh as a free agent before this season, thinks the spacious park may aid the Pirates.

``This team has a lot of line-drive hitters who will use the gaps more so than the (foul) lines, and this park is suited for us,'' Bell said. ``We've also got some speed in the outfield. We've got a lot of room to do things out there.''

Bell also said he thinks PNC Park will attract other free agents as the years pass.

``This is exactly why I came here,'' Bell said. ``I hope more players want to come here after they get a look at this place.''