With me now having a girlfriend that lives in Madison, I have become completely unphased by the 2.5 hour roundtrip from Milwaukee. And so, it should come as no surprise that a few days ago I decided that I was going to make another trek out west for the home opener of the most exciting team in baseball, the Madison Mallards. Winning a ticket in a drawing on Saturday and Lauren having off Monday nights all but sealed the deal. I decided to not drag her to yet another baseball game on her one day off, so I rode solo to be one of the 5200+ screaming fans in attendance.
I arrived at the ballpark about 20 minutes before first pitch, knowing that I would need a little time to find parking and to take in the new surroundings. More than any other ballpark I know, Warner Park adds and changes so much from season to season. It is so different now than from when I first went there three years ago that I can hardly imagine what it must have looked like during the Mallards' inaugural season of 2001. Madison has the attendance to be able to invest in their park, team, and promotional calendar that other Northwoods League teams simply do not. The most noticeable features inside the park this year are the expanded Duck Blind and the addition of bullpens in left-center and right-center, which I'm sure are probably the only enclosed bullpens in the NWL. The Duck Blind has been pushed closer to the foul line to allow for more seating and has added a section of bleachers, since it can be hard to see from that area (although people who purchase the all-you-can-eat-and-drink seats typically aren't too attentive, understandably). The same has been done on the left field side, where an existing section of bleachers has been angled and pushed closer to the field. The fences have been pulled in for the third year in a row to accomodate the bullpens in the outfield, which are surrounded by chain-link fence and advertising. The team stores seem to contain a lot more items this season as well, and it looks like they finally figured out how to use the jumbotron they installed last year. Lastly and perhaps most importantly, the concession stands now serve funnel cake! All of the annual additions always seem to contribute to an atmosphere I would already rate a '10,' which just goes to show you that there is no real substitute for good cheap concessions and quality entertainment.
As for the game itself, it was a back-and-forth battle in which the home team eventually pulled out a 7-6 victory over the Rochester Honkers. It seemed for most of the night that nobody really wanted to win, as eleven total errors were committed, and the defense only got worse as the night got cooler. There were also at least seven hit batsmen that I could count, three by the Mallards' starter and son of Dodger great Orel Hershiser, Jordan. He lasted only 1-1/3 and his ERA is now 20.26 after his first start since missing his entire season at USC with Tommy John surgery. The Mallards' bullpen would surrender three more runs (none earned) after Hershiser's exit en route to a walk-off win in the 9th. Pitchers in the Northwoods League are really just experimenting with pitches for the next collegiate year, and defense is usually shotty; the real treat is to pick out which hitters are adapting to using wood and put together quality ABs. Every year, I like to latch onto a Mallard who I think is gritty enough to have what it takes to get drafted, and this year my favorite Mallard so far is the C/DH Ben Long. He wears #00, and he runs out to the bullpen after making outs to warm up relievers, so he caught my attention right away. He was 2-4 on this night, and I found out on the car ride home that he is hitting .588 on the season, so I must know how to pick 'em! I'd also give an honorable mention to Troy Channing - he is the cleanup hitter and has a really nice stroke. Now let's see if he can follow in the footsteps of my past projects of Jordan Comadena, Mike Rohde, and Tony Campana and latch onto a pro team someday. As always, I was entertained the entire game by an assortment of new and old between-innings games and some wild plays in the field, and I'm excited for another season of Northwoods League baseball.
STANDINGS AND UPCOMING SERIES AS OF 06.02:
Brewers 30-21, +1.0 (4 @ Marlins, 3 @ Braves)
Reds 27-23, -2.5 (4 @ Cardinals, 3 v. Cubs)
Twins 25-27, -4.5 (3 v. Indians, 3 @ Mariners)
RACE FOR 2009 "MOST GAMES ATTENDED" TITLE
Erik - 18 (+ 8 worked)
Peter - 24