Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Wildwood Baseball Park

All photos from Wildwood Baseball Park available on Flickr.

There may have been thunderstorms and tornado warnings in southeastern Wisconsin yesterday, but about an hour north in Sheboygan, Erik and I tailgated under blue skies at our first Northeast Wisconsin League game. This is a league that I discovered about four months as I was looking for work - because of course, if I was going apply to work in a city, there had to be ball nearby. While sending in applications to some firms in the Green Bay, Appleton, and Sheboygan areas, I ran across the NE Wisconsin League and Wisconsin State League, which are semi-pro leagues that run concurrently with many of the same teams. With Erik taking an LSAT exam 15 minutes away from the park on the day of the Sheboygan A's home opener, we marked this date on the calendar right away and have been looking forward to it ever since.

We got to the park around 5:30, early enough to beat the parking attendant and start a tailgate. It seems like the type of lot where tailgating would be discouraged, but the A's welcome it (as quoted on their website). Sheboyan is a pretty city right off the lake and the ballpark is in a very nice area with a park and some softball fields across the street. As we fired up the grill and popped open a couple PBR tallboys, our anticipation for the game only grew as we watched all of the players arrive in 10-year-old Hondas and Toyotas, some clearly coming straight from another job. We wrapped up the tailgate about 45 minutes before first pitch and purchased tickets, walked around the park, bought some beer (beer comes in pitchers!), and watched some bullpen sessions. Watching the players warm up, I was instantly reminded of why I loved semi-pro ball - if you want to play ball and you're dedicated enough, you can find a team just about anywhere in America to play for.

I found out two things quickly upon entering the stadium. Well, three things - #1, Wildwood Park was 5 times better than Pohlman Field and the city of Beloit should be ashamed of itself. There's just no reason that a team in this league should have a better team store, scoreboard, field, pressbox, and attendance than a minor league franchise - I won't even get into the fact that the A's are 7-1 and the Snappers are like 20 games below .500. #2, I had expected this league to be of the Golden League variety, a bunch of has-beens and never will-bes. Actually, it's somewhere between a college summer league and a semi-pro league. There are some older players on the roster that dabbled in the minors - one of the relievers was 41 - but most of the team is made up of college kids. Whereas Northwoods kids come from all over the country though, this league is mostly local talent. The third thing I picked up on was the rich history of baseball in the Sheboygan area, which I never would have guessed there was. The Sheboygan A's (note: upon investigation, "A's" is not short for Athletics...it's just A's) are in their 47th season and are very much a local institution. The city has continuously supported the team, and has raised millions of dollars throughout the years to keep the franchise running and to update the ballpark. On this night, the pregame ceremony had the owner, team president, and mayor on hand to burn the Wildwood Park $105,000 mortgage note as a symbol of it being paid off in the offseason. The joy and loyalty in the faces of the ownership, the boosters, and the crowd was very inspiring. In 1973, fans raised money for a new ballpark; in 1997, fans raised $400,000 as part of a major renovation that included the mortgage; and this coming year, fans will again come to the team's aid for a third ballpark renovation, this time to add expanded amenities, a new protective net, and a jumbotron. Aside from the nearby Green Bay Packers, never have I seen such unquestioning community involvment, pride, and fan dedication in an sports organization that goes so far beyond the game itself, and I was truly honored to be there to help celebrate.

Speaking of the game itself, it certainly was not a letdown following all the pregame hubbub, as the A's rallied from 2 down in the 9th to win 6-5. Greg Blahowiak got the start for the A's and pitched great, giving up only 2 runs and 3 hits over 6. Mitchell Gardner pitched the final 3 innings and got the win. In the end, it was defense that won the game for Sheboygan, as they made a couple nice plays in the infield and the centerfielder Albright made an amazing diving catch, and on the flip side Menasha had five errors. 2B Matt Shilter had 3 hits for the winning team, and David Novak drove in the winning run in the 9th for the walk-off victory.

After the game, we celebrated the victory with a tap at a local bar down the street, despite being 2+ pitchers deep and having an hour drive ahead of us. We both paid for that decision this morning! The trek was definitely worthwhile, and I can only hope that any other NEW and WSL experiences we have are half this entertaining, or at least have an awesome mascot like A-1!

park stats and rankings:
aesthetics - 3
views from park - 3 (houses)
view to field - 4 (close but obstructed by posts and fence)
surrounding area - 5
food variety - 4 (menu appears large, but is mostly candy and beer)
nachos - 5 (good cheese to chip ratio, very cheap)
beer - 7 (only Bud & Coors, but points added for pitchers and souvenir cups)
vendor price - 10
ticket price - 9 ($5 behind home plate, $3 GA along the lines)
atmosphere - 6 (small crowd but very involved)
walk to park - 4
parking proximity - 10 (across the street for free)
concourses - 2
team shop - 4 (decent variety but not a lot on display, and the store is actually a shed)

best food - nachos
most unique stadium feature - bullpen area easily accessible by fans for viewing
best jumbotron feature - n/a
best between-inning feature - live oldies band

field dimensions - 320/395/320
starters - Mike Lloyd (MEN) v. Greg Blahowiak (SHB)
opponent - Menasha Macs
time of game - 2:45
attendance - 191
score - 6-5 W
Brewers score that day - off

Brewers 33-24, +2.5 (3 v. Rockies, 3 v. White Sox)
Reds 29-27, -3.5 (3 @ Nationals, 3 @ Royals)
Twins 28-31, -4.0 (4 @ Athletics, 3 @ Cubs)

Erik - 19 (+8 worked)
Peter - 26

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