New baseball park essential part of state

I remember the lines, the broken concrete, the thousands of smiling faces. But none of those things were the one image that was, and always will be, indelibly burned into my memory until I die.

There was this father toting around his two sons, maybe 4 and 6 years old, while he was holding a sign that read, “God Bless George Petak.” Everyone in the crowd applauded and cheered the family everywhere they went.

The day was Nov. 9, 1996. The place was the parking lot of County Stadium in Milwaukee.

It was the groundbreaking for Miller Park.

Five years ago it was concrete in the County Stadium parking lot broken into little pieces. Today it’s the Brewers’ new state-of-the-art home.

Anyone who has ever sat in County Stadium, whether it was the bleachers, the box seats or the mezzanine, knew the old thing had to go. Seats across the stadium were falling off their hinges and pillars, scaffolding and whatever else was holding the 48-year-old relic together obstructed the view from seats that weren’t broken.

Now there’s a new stadium in town, and it’s all thanks to Petak. He’s the state senator from Racine (or at least he was at the time) that changed his vote at 5 a.m. after an all-night legislative session on the Brewers’ sales tax.

By changing his vote he changed the course of history in Milwaukee. He saved baseball and gave the Brewers’ sales tax a win by a one-vote margin.

But the people of Racine, located about 30 minutes south of Milwaukee, didn’t like the fact they would now be paying one-tenth of 1 percent more on sales tax (about one penny to every $10).

Nine months later Petak became the first state official to ever lose a seat in a recall election.

When I was 16 years old, I couldn’t have cared less about a higher sales tax, I just knew that crummy old County Stadium needed to be replaced. But somehow the scene of that guy with the tag board in his hand, his two sons waddling behind him just stuck.

Walking up to the stadium last Saturday, the first game I’ve been to since Miller Park opened earlier this month, the image returned to me. As my family and I sat down to take in the game just 300 feet from where my dad and I dug up pieces of the dirt with our souvenir shovels five years earlier, I couldn’t get that man and his children out of my head.

Petak said the reason he changed his vote was to save baseball in Milwaukee. If a new stadium hadn’t been built, the Brewers would have flown the coup like the Braves did a 30 years earlier.

But Petak didn’t let that happen. Why? Because of people like that man with his two sons.

Sure, any taxes, particularly in a state like Wisconsin where the average family has to work four-and-a-half months before its full tax burden is paid off, are arbitrary and sometimes frustrating to pay.

But Milwaukee without baseball, without fathers taking their children to games, without uncles and nephews having a game of catch in the backyard as the game plays on the radio in the background, without tailgating in the stadium parking lot – it just wouldn’t be close to being the same.

It wouldn’t be Milwaukee anymore.

Milwaukee is lucky, although seats at the new ballpark go as high as $50; people can grab cheap bleacher and grandstand tickets for as little as five bucks. The Brewers also offer a variety of ways to get to a game at a reduced price.

As I was sitting there, amazed by this technological marvel on Saturday, I looked around at all the smiling faces, even as the Brewers were blowing an early five-run lead.

There’s something about a baseball game that’s worth more than I can put into words, worth more than one man’s job, worth more than 1 cent on every $10.

God bless George Petak.