All photos of Simmons Field available on Flickr.
The Northwoods League has more teams, more games, and more fans than any other summer collegiate league, and has shown no signs of slowing down - in fact, it is still growing. This summer, the Northwoods League introduced its 17th and 18th teams to the circuit - the Kalamazoo Growlers and the Kenosha Kingfish. I made the trip down for the Kingfish inaugural season at historic Simmons Field this past week. It seemed like it would be a quick and easy jaunt down to the 'Nosh from Milwaukee, but the city is more than 7 miles off of the freeway to the east. The ballpark is oddly situated on a commercial strip south of downtown on Highway 32, and would be easy to drive right by and not notice on a non-game day. But when I saw the staff members dressed like Elvis directing traffic, I knew I was at the right place.
The Kingfish play at Simmons Field, which opened in 1920 as the home of the Simmons Bedding Company's baseball team, a company which had its roots in Kenosha in 1870. Since then, the park has seen a variety of tenants from amateur teams, women's professional baseball, the 2-time champion Kenosha Twins in the 80s and 90s, and even a previous failed Northwoods League team, the Kroakers. Even though Kenosha has a population of nearly 100,000 with close proximity to Milwaukee and Chicago, they have not had a baseball team other than a local club team in over a decade. These are exactly the types of challenges that the Northwoods League thrives on and love to take head on. The same ownership group that has championed successful efforts in Madison and Wisconsin Rapids has taken on the Kenosha venture, and from my observations already look to have scored a big hit with the Kingfish and Simmons Field. It began with a $1+ million renovation during the offseason, with pretty much only the 84-year old grandstand remaining in tact. The renovation follows that same formula that has worked so well in Mad City and Rapids - bold branding, reuse and reclaim whatever you can in a unique way, an active concourse, and a slew of group areas and seating options. This ownership group clearly knows what it's doing and knows what works in this league, and have since even expanded their operation to purchasing the rights to the team in Green Bay. If Big Top Baseball wants to go ahead and own all of the South Division, I would be perfectly fine with that.
As I've implied, the Kingfish follow the basic template of the Mallards. For anybody that has been to a Mallards game, or a Rafters game for that matter, a Kingfish game will look and feel very familiar. There is a similar storyboard banner wrapping around the concourse that educates patrons about the history of baseball in Kenosha. There are the same types of wacky concessions items and ridiculous variety of beer also found at both Warner Park and Witter Field. All three parks are big on reclaiming and reusing old materials, including the 2,000+ seats salvaged from Camden Yards now found at Simmons. Hell, the Kingfish even stole the Mallards' old PA guy, Aaron Sims. But perhaps the most noticeable similarity is the amount of attention paid to marketing and branding, to the brink of oversaturation. This includes a fun double entendre of the name "Kingfish," in which the mascot is a fish dressed like Elvis Presley and named King Elvis I - who also arrives to the ballpark via zipline as Maynard G. Mallard does, by the way. Everything in the park is fishing or Elvis themed and the logo, name, and team colors are seen everywhere. There is an all-you-can-eat-and-drink area in left field aptly named "The Fish Bowl" (a la Duck Blind in Madison), a portion of which is an actual restored boat called "The Bambino" that is also a part of the outfield wall. My point is not to make it sound like the Kingfish is just a carbon copy of the Mallards, but rather an extraordinary example of how the ownership has applied a variation of their product that has already proven to be a success. My experience at Simmons Field was very fun and comfortable because I was familiar with the style of entertainment, but at the same time the ballpark itself made it a unique experience. The asset that Simmons Field has that Warner Park could never replicate is the atmosphere of a nearly century-old ballpark.
I arrived at the ballpark plenty early to be sure I received my King Elvis mascot bobblehead and to partake in pregame 2-for-1 happy hour. I took my two Lakefront beers and my footlong fried fish hoagie to a high counter at the top of the seating section along the 1st base line. This was a very subtle thing, but probably one of my favorite parts of the park. I think every ballpark, particularly of this size, should have a social area like this where you can enjoy a meal and talk to friends while still being able to watch the game. From there I moved to a seat in the 1st row by the home bullpen and proceeded to watch the Kingfish destroy the St. Cloud Rox, 14-3. Rico Garcia was phenomenal for Kenosha, allowing only 1 hit over 6 innings, but obviously in a 14-run output, the stars of the night are going to be the hitters. 7 of the 9 players in the starting lineup had a hit, including a 4-hit performance by Alex Dunlap out of Stanford. Pat Porter launched a 2-run bomb into the Bambino in the 3rd. I was hoping to see somebody hit a ball off the wall of the boat to see how it played in the corner, but that did not occur.
I made it until the 8th inning, but an unseasonably brisk July evening forced me to my car a bit early. It was only about a 50-minute drive back to my apartment with minimal traffic, so I am going to have to strongly consider a Kingfish 7-pack over the convenience of a Chinooks 6-pack next season when Megan is here. With the Kingfish, I have one of the few things I miss about Madison within a decent distance of me - really fun summer collegiate baseball.
Coming up this week for Erik and I is our big trip of 2014 - the All-Star Break in Minneapolis!
park rankings and statistics:
aesthetics - 5
views from park – 1
view to field - 7
surrounding area – 2 (primarily residential - downtown is a couple miles north)
food variety - 9
nachos - 4 (basic)
beer - 9 (large variety)
vendor price - 7 (lots of specialty items which are pricy)
ticket price - 6 ($10 box, GA is only a small lawn section)
atmosphere - 9
walk to park – 1
parking price/proximity - 7 (free adjacent but not clearly marked)
concourses - 4
team shop - 9
best food – I did not have it, but the Foot-long King Dog featuring peanut butter, honey, and bananas
most unique stadium feature – private deck on a boat in the outfield (the Bambino)
best jumbotron feature – n/a
best between-inning feature – the Flying Elvi
field dimensions – 314/410/330
starters – Tim Faix (STC) v. Rico Garcia (KEN)
opponent – St. Cloud Rox
time of game – 3:13
attendance – 1577
score – 14-3 W
Brewers score that day – 4-1 L
STANDINGS AND UPCOMING SERIES AS OF 07.09:Brewers 52-40, +2.0, (3 v. Cardinals)
Reds 49-42, -2.5 (3 v. Pirates)
Twins 40-49, -11.0 (3 @ Rockies)
2014 GAMES ATTENDED:
Erik - 3 (+18 worked)
Peter - 25