Monday, July 23, 2012

Athletic Park

All photos of Athletic Park and Stevens Point Brewery available on Flickr.

I never thought I'd be visiting central Wisconsin twice in one summer, but such is the life of a ballpark chaser.  Erik & I drove north to Wausau on Friday night to cross another Northwoods League ballpark off the list.  Athletic Park is another old WPA gem and has been one we've wanted to see for quite some time.  Erik is mostly free on weekends now and the Woodchucks were home every Friday in July, so it worked out great that we could find time for the 2 1/2 hour drive.  Wausau sits at the end of I-39 and is about a half-hour north of Wisconsin Rapids, and it is cities like these two that truly give the league its name "Northwoods."  The city is beautifully nestled at the base of the forested Rib Mountain in the Wisconsin River basin, and is familiar to people in my profession throughout the Midwest as the home of Wausau Supply, Wausau Windows, and Wausau Tile.  Our shadytown hotel of this trip had a good view to the mountain and woods all around.  We made really good time up to the 'Sau, so we had the opportunity to drop off our bags at our nicer-than-expected room.  I'm not sure how many more of these roadtrips Yeller has left in her, but miraculously after 150 miles on the road, she managed to restart and not overheat and we made it to the park about 10 minutes before first pitch.

Athletic Park truly has one of the more unique perimeters and settings you will ever see for a ballpark.  We parked on the street and approached the front gate from the west, and the entire block was lined with stone masonry walls with turrets.  It wasn't as imposing to the similar situation I experienced in Duluth because the walls here were only about 8 feet tall and you could see back of the bleachers hovering beyond them.  As we arrived at the front gate, we noticed that the ballpark was right smack in a residential neighborhood, and I envy those residents.  I don't know the history of whether the park or the houses came first, but it is very strange to go to a ballpark surrounded by single-family houses.  Wrigley Field is the only stadium I know of that comes close to the setting of Athletic Park.  In fact, to get a picture of the front gate in its entirety, I had to walk across the street and stand in front of a guy's yard.  The front gate was my favorite thing about the park. It just had that old-timey look of Bosse Field or Wade Stadium that was at a much more personal scale, back when you used to be able to see the team offices and press box above from the outside.  The front gate and the stone perimeter take you back in time to 1936 when the ballpark was built, during an age when quality masonry, smaller intimate scale, wood framing, and cramped concourses were the norm in ballpark construction.  Again, similarly to Bosse Field, you sort of enter into a "bunker" for lack of a better term and have to ascend onto the seating level.  Most of the concessions and bathrooms are crammed under the bleachers in a herky-jerky fashion, with only one stand built-in and the rest on carts.  The Woodchucks have also made the customary Northwoods League improvements to the ballpark, adding a tally scoreboard and party deck in left, and a huge beer tent in right with picnic seating.

Our seats were in the 2nd row right behind home plate, but we moved to the 1st base side because a railing was in our line of sight.  We sat entirely alone in this section for much of the game because the sun sets in left-center field at this stadium and was directly in our eyes - probably a good reason it does not host an affiliated team anymore, the last of which was the Wausau Timbers who moved out in 1990.  We were both confused why the games would start so early at 6:35 when the setting sun is such a problem, but thankfully it was not 100º like it has been for much of July.  Another deficiency of the ballpark is that it is very small, only about 315' down the lines and 360' to center.  This kept the extra-base hits to a minimum in this game as the Woodchucks squeaked by the Eau Claire Express 4-3 in 11 innings to maintain a 2-game lead in the division.  Eric Filia-Snyder had the game winning hit for the 'Chucks on a bases-loaded seeing-eye single and went 3-4 on the night with 2 RBI.  The starting pitcher for Wisconsin was mowin' em down with 6 strikeouts and only gave up 1 hit but for some reason he only went 4 innings.  The highlight of the game was something that Erik & I have not had a chance to do since the Tour - be a part of the on-field entertainment!  We were asked to participate in a game in which we competed against each other in an air-guitar contest after the 6th.  I rocked out pretty hard but it ended up being too close to call by the applause-o-meter and no winner was announced.  I walked away with grass-stained jeans as a reminder for my efforts (which I at first assumed was mustard) and it was cool to sit in the field-level umpire room for a few outs really close to the action before we went on the field.  Other than the size and orientation of the stadium and maybe some canopy repair, Athletic Park seems to be in pretty good shape and serves as yet another example of an old stadium that has outgrown its use as a competitive minor league field, but serves as a more than adequate home of a collegiate summer/amateur team.

After the game, we were treated to a dangerous fireworks display shot out of a pickup truck in center field and unfortunately had an uneventful night afterwards.  We were looking forward to hitting this brewpub after the game, but it was closed because the game ran about 4 hours long, so we just had a beer at a different bar that was also closing before turning in for the night.  The nightlife and apparent short window of bar time in Wausau was very disappointing.  Our night was redeemed the next day though when we stopped in Stevens Point on the way home to tour Point Brewery.  $3 here gets you an hour long tour with unlimited samples and a free can coozie, one of the better tours I've been on.  There was also a tent sale there that day, but we didn't find anything of interest so I just bought a 6-er in the team store and we got back to Madison around 3pm on Saturday.

That's probably it for the Northwoods League tour this summer.  I did 3 new ones this year and we both have 11 current and 12 overall NWL ballparks crossed off of 16.  Erik is moving back to Minnesota for grad school next month, so we should easily be able to hit Alexandria, St. Cloud, and Eau Claire in the next couple seasons.  That would leave the two geographic oddballs to round out the league, which are both over 4 hours to the nearest team in the circuit: Thunder Bay, Ontario and Battle Creek, Michigan.  Talks continue about expanding the league to 18 teams, and cities in play include Kalamazoo MI, Waukesha WI, Kenosha WI, and suburban Minneapolis.

UPDATE March 2013: Erik calculated Athletic Park to be his 100th ballpark attended!

park rankings and statistics:
aesthetics - 8
views from park - 2
view to field - 3 (many obstructions)
surrounding area - 4 (residential)
food variety - 3
nachos - 9 (pulled pork & bbq sauce)
beer - 8 ($4.75 silos)
vendor price - 8
ticket price - 9 ($6 GA)
atmosphere - 6
walk to park - 6 (along stone walls, residential)
parking price/proximity - 6 (adjacent streets for free)
concourses - 2
team shop - 3 (several stands, no store)

best food - pulled pork nachos
most unique stadium feature - stone walls, main gate
best jumbotron feature - n/a
best between-inning feature - us in the air-guitar contest

field dimensions - 316/360/317
starters - Kye Winter (EC) v. Austin Stadler (WIS)
opponent - Eau Claire Express
time of game - 3:58
attendance - 1566
score - 4-3 W
Brewers score that day - 3-1 L

Brewers 44-50, -10.5 (3 @ Phillies, 4 v. Nationals)
Reds 55-40, +0.5 (3 @ Astros, 3 @ Rockies)
Twins 40-55, -11.5 (3 @ White Sox, 3 v. Indians)

Erik - 18
Peter - 27

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