Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Final Phase of Warner Park Renovation

All photos of Mallards Home Opener available on Flickr.

Last week, I attended the 12th Opening Day in Mallards history at Warner Park in Madison, Wisconsin.  After calling the Waterloo Bucks my hometown Northwoods League team for the past 3 seasons, I am ecstatic to have a 7-pack back home for the Madison team.  I've enjoyed going to Bucks games, but after going to a Mallards game, no team in all of summer collegiate baseball is even in the same ballpark.  Speaking of ballparks, this past offseason marked the final phase of a 3-year, 3-phase, $1.5 million renovation at "The Duck Pond."  2010 expanded the popular all-you-can-eat picnic area (The Duck Blind) and introduced a new section, the TDS Triple Play Club, which utilized old Wrigley Field bricks and seats.  The most ambitious phase came last year, which featured a completely gutted grandstand with new canopy, a new team store made with salvaged parts from the grandstand demolition, and new bullpens.  This year brought even more exciting changes, including a grass berm area in left field and a reconfiguration of the Duck Blind.  Part of the charm of the Northwooods League is that many teams play in old WPA stadiums that hosted minor league teams and Legion Ball for many decades but are no longer up to current professional standards.  Rarely do these teams have the resources to spruce up their parks as Warner Park does, which is what gives the Mallards the most unique stadium and ownership group in the league.

I got to the park about 45 minutes before first pitch and parked behind the centerfield wall.  Immediately I noticed the new berm in left-center.  The Mallards have such a tight window to do renovations in the Wisconsin climate that the seed wasn't even fully grown yet.  I tried to get up there before I went in but I noticed that it had its own separate entry, like the bleachers at Wrigley.  This is really stupid and needs to be fixed.  Everybody should be able to enjoy a blanket on the cheap seats on a nice day, and every fan on the berm should be able to enjoy the concessions in the rest of the park.  If this were a Major League team I would consider this an elitist move, but I know the Mallards have good intentions.  I would make a return to the berm towards the end of the game and I found that nobody really checks tickets there, so that put me slightly more at ease.  I've been clamoring for a GA lawn section in the outfield here for a few years and I'm glad that they finally have one, regardless of the access situation.  Something I realized later is that the addition of the berm displaced the bullpens that were in left-center last year, and I now have no idea where they are.  I thought maybe they were hiding behind the center field wall, but I never noticed a door there or any relievers running in.  This is something I will have to investigate during my next visit.

After collecting the customary opening day magnet schedule giveaway, I proceeded to the opposite corner of the stadium to check out the new Duck Blind.  Along the way, I noticed a few lesser interventions in this phase of the renovation.  There is now a long mural behind 3rd base that depicts the entire history of Madison baseball: from Breese Stevens Field (which still stands and is currently used for soccer), to the demise of UW baseball, and through the pre-Mallards era of Warner Park up to present day.  Warner Park may not be a 1940s gem like Athletic Park in Wausau, or Wade Stadium in Duluth, but the ballpark and the city have its own rich history and it was nice to see that on display.  This area of the stadium where this history wall is is probably my last remaining complaint about the stadium.  It cramps down to about a 5-foot path here and gets very congested, especially when players are trying to access the clubhouse.

Moving now behind the stadium, the team store seems to be much more open inside now.  And one can't help but notice the new giant golden King Kong on top of one of the concession stands in the home plate pavilion.  Why do they have this statue?  Because they can.  The Mallards have always gone by the beat of their own drum and they don't need to explain themselves to anybody.  I did not question this fodder and accepted it as standards Mallards practice very quickly.  Most of the concessions back here look the same, with the exception of a few new beers, including a Blue Moon-orange sherbet concoction that sounds divine.  Completing the lap to the back right corner, the Duck Blind finally looks to have some order to it now.  There is a still an area of picnic tables, but they're not just mashed in there to capacity.  Some are now laid out up high behind a "mini-Monster" wall in right, and there is a legit stage instead of just a bunch of palettes on top of a shed.  I never liked sitting in the Duck Blind because you couldn't see, but now I will be taking any and all of my summer guests to this section.

I met Lauren back at the front gate at 6:30 and we got in line for our 7-pack complimentary buffet.  For $95, you get 7 game tickets, one hour of food and drink included each game, guaranteed giveaways, and a cap.  I challenge anyone to find a better deal in all of baseball.  We settled in with our brats and cheese curds in the row behind the visitor dugout for a thrilling match that ended in a 6-5 victory for Madison.  The Mallards' pitchers dominated the defending champion Bombers, striking out 19 batters in total, 13 by starter Alec White alone.  DH Jeff Zimmerman had the big blow for the home team with a 3-run double in the 3rd, followed by a booming homerun by Tyler Marincov in the 6th.  I really hope I get to see him in the NWL Home Run Derby next month he looks like a solid player.  Our favorite player there was 2B Luis Munoz, who is listed as 5'-8" but was barely taller than the umpire while crouching.  It's always fun to root for the little guys.  I was also very happy to see my my favorite all-time Mallard, Jordan Comadena, returning as an assistant coach.  He played there for 3 years and I got to see him regularly in 2006 when I previously lived in Madison, and he once again dons the #14 that has been retired in his honor at Warner Park.  There seem to be some questions in this Mallards lineup due to the uncertainly of the upcoming MLB draft, but for now the team looks pretty solid and played 3 really good games at home.  I can't wait to go back on Friday!

Brewers 24-30, -6.5 (3 v. Cubs, 3 v. Padres)
Reds 30-23 +3.0 (3 v. Pirates, 3 v. Tigers)
Twins 20-33, -10.5 (3 @ Royals, 3 v. Cubs)

Erik - 2
Peter - 11

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