Published On: July 29th, 2009

A look at two days in Madison with the Eau Claire Express

By Justin Harings
Eau Claire, WI Leader-Telegram

Photo: Shane Opatz, Staff photographer

Published July 25th

For mid-July, the morning air is unseasonably cool.

Beneath smothering cloud cover, everything in the rather busy business hub on the city’s southeast side takes on a depressing shade of gray.

Tucked into a corner of the sprawling parking lot with Festival Foods as its backdrop, a simple, white charter bus sits. The name of its baseball team is splashed across the side in familiar orange and black, railroad-style font.

In minutes, the Eau Claire Express will be back on the road.

Since winning the Northwoods League’s South Division first-half championship late last month, the Express have seen an awful lot of this bus. Today their destination is the state capital, where they’ll play the Madison Mallards in their final two-game series before the league’s three-day All-Star break begins.

And the Express could use it. They’ve lost 11 of their past 19 games, and there’s no sign of Carson Park in sight. They’ve already played nine of their past 15 games on the road. Tonight they’ll play the first of eight consecutive road dates. They won’t play in front of their home fans again for 11 days.

What follows is a detailed recollection – a fly-on-the-wall diary, if you will – of the Express’ road trip to Madison earlier this month. The baseball games are just a part.

Saturday, July 18

11:45 a.m.: Sitting in their pickup truck, Express utility men Brooks Pinckard and Jon Ringenberg – teammates from Baylor – are among the first players to arrive in the Festival Foods parking lot, half an hour before takeoff.

The Express are scheduled to play the Mallards at 6:05 p.m. But they’re due to be in Madison at about 3 p.m. for their pregame meal, which ultimately determines their bus schedule. Today they’re shoving off at noon.

11:55: The equipment has been stored beneath the bus, and the last players are filing on board. Players and coaches select their own seats, and it looks like we’ve already got ourselves a seat dispute. Assistant coach Shawn Peck is eyeing the seat currently occupied by pitching coach Nate Schwartz. Already settled in, Schwartz smiles and doesn’t budge, leaving Peck to take the seat in front of him.

Manager Dale Varsho is seated in the front row, across the aisle from Jake, his 7-year-old son and the team’s bat boy. Directly behind Dale on the aisle’s right side is veteran bench coach Vic Cable. I’m seated behind Cable, and radio play-by-play announcer Scott Montesano – my soon-to-be roommate at our Madison hotel – is behind me. After Jake Varsho on the left side, in order, are Peck and Schwartz, who is seated directly across the aisle from me. Beyond that, the players fall in line in seats of their choosing, with enough room for each to have two to himself.

12:03 p.m.: The bus engine fires up, and we’re off. Destination: Madison.

12:07: How’s this for an exchange? Two days earlier, right-hander Tyler Bremer threw the first no-hitter in Express franchise history. The day after that, Kole Calhoun hit a walk-off home run in the 13th inning. As they pass each other near the front of the bus, Calhoun casually greets Bremer with, “Hey, no-no.” Bremer’s reply? “Hey, walk-off.”

12:10: Nolan Fadness, an Eau Claire Memorial graduate and one of two All-Stars, stands up to insert “The Sandlot,” a familiar baseball movie, into the DVD player. In the process, Fadness claims outfielder Robbie Knight calls the remote a “button pusher.” This draws a laugh from Schwartz and Knight, who is seated a row in front of Fadness.

12:11: “The Sandlot” begins.

12:24: At the back of the bus, Calhoun stands up and lobbies instead to watch the comedy “Role Models,” because newly arrived left-hander Matthew Klein “hasn’t seen it yet.” Calhoun organizes an impromptu vote against “The Sandlot.”

Apparently, shortstop Andy Leonard has wanted to watch “Never Back Down,” an action movie about a high-school-football-player-turned-mixed-martial-arts-fighter, all summer. Schwartz wants to leave Leonard hanging by watching it on the summer’s final bus trip.

12:26: “The Sandlot” comes out. It survived all of 15 minutes. “Never Back Down” goes in, and the typical bus trip accessories – pillows, blankets, books, iPods – come out.

1:19: We’ve been stuck in a near-standstill traffic jam on Interstate 94 for about 20 minutes. We veer off the interstate and take Exit 143, an alternate route through Tomah.

1:30: We’re back on the interstate, albeit a construction-filled one. It must be summer.

2:15: The credits roll on “Never Back Down” to passionate shouts – some probably sarcastic – from the back of the bus. The movie receives a poor review from Jake Varsho and most of the coaches who watched it. Spoiler alert: Guy with haunted past moves to new town. Guy gets beat up by future rival. Guy learns from cerebral trainer. Guy beats rival. Guy gets girl. Basically, imagine every fighting movie cliche you can.

2:28: The movie over, sleep starts to set in throughout the quiet bus.

2:46: Nearing our destination, we take Exit 132 into Madison.

2:51: Prompted by our review of “Never Back Down,” a discussion of good bus movies breaks out with Montesano. Ultimately, we agree to endorse any movie narrated by Morgan Freeman.

2:57: Varsho stands up and breaks out the team’s pass list for players who will have family attending tonight’s game. Knight, Leonard, Matt Fritz and Jason Ganek are among those who sign up.

3:01: When the Express played in Madison last summer, former TV star Gary Coleman – “What ‘chu talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” – took a staged at-bat in the Mallards lineup. As we enter Madison, Fadness walks past Varsho and asks if Coleman will be in town again. Varsho’s deadpan response? “I hope not.”

3:04: The bus parks for the pregame meal, which is set up by hosting teams for the visitors in the Northwoods League. This afternoon’s lunch is courtesy of The Great Dane, a mellow pub in downtown Madison. The players take their seats, and a game of pool starts up on one of the pub’s tables. Everyone chooses one of three meals from the Dane: a barbeque pork sandwich, chicken salad croissant or pub burger.

4:01: Stomachs full and legs stretched, the bus starts up again.

4:16: The bus enters the Warner Park parking lot for the first time this summer and is greeted by a tailgating atmosphere unseen elsewhere in the league. When it comes to attendance, Madison is the uncontested king of the Northwoods.

4:23: Players head for the visiting clubhouse behind the third-base line, while Montesano and I break for the press box situated behind the home plate bleachers. A cover band is setting up behind the plate, and Montesano – an hour behind schedule – begins to worry.

4:43: As the band begins to play while fans trickle into the park affectionately known as the Duck Pond, Express players begin to emerge onto the field.

5:25: Montesano leaves the press box to meet his family, which has traveled all the way from New York for the weekend.

6:07: The first pitch of the night’s game is thrown – a strike to Knight, the Express leadoff man. Montesano, who didn’t have time to change because we didn’t check into our hotel before game time, is braving the 63-degree weather in his orange Express polo and cargo shorts.

The announced attendance is 7,211 people – a season high for the Mallards and, therefore, a season high for the NWL.

8:40: Lost in the flow of fan traffic, the Express cross in front of the home plate bleachers and make for the clubhouse after a 7-4 loss to the Mallards. There, they enjoy a postgame make-your-own-burrito spread.

9:04: Team members begin filing back onto the bus.

9:05: Montesano gets on board, claiming he just collided with a young popcorn vendor, making quite a mess of the situation.

9:13: The bus leaves the Duck Pond for the dark, quiet ride to our hotel.

9:35: We arrive at GrandStay Residential Suites, a rather spacious hotel just off Madison’s main drag – again, decided by the hosting team. Cable announces the bus will leave at 10:45 a.m. sharp the next day. Players pick up their keys for the rooms assigned by Varsho.

9:36: Montesano and I arrive at Room 207 to find one bed in the three-room suite. Montesano, who has been with the team for four seasons, pulls rank. Looks like I’ll take the pull-out couch tonight.

9:45: Both rooms have TVs, but my remote naturally doesn’t work.

10:45: The Montesano family and I grab a late-night dinner at the nearby Perkins Restaurant and Bakery. I lay waste to my Tremendous Twelve.

11:28: We arrive back at the GrandStay for the night. We’re looking at about an 8:30 a.m. wakeup to be ready in time for the bus.

11:41: Watching the 2007 comedy “Knocked Up” on separate TVs in separate rooms, Montesano and I launch into an in-depth dissection of the cast through our shared wall. Our rather elementary conclusions? Katherine Heigl is very good, Paul Rudd is underrated and Jonah Hill is best suited to support roles. There you have it.

11:58: Finally, the lights go out.

Sunday, July 19

8:30 a.m.: My alarm goes off for the first time.

9:00: My alarm goes off for the second time. And, as if by some divine force, I’m awake.

10:44: The team bus leaves the GrandStay, heading out of town for the afternoon’s pregame activities.

10:46: After a discussion among the coaches, Cable pulls out “Bonanza,” a long-running Western TV series aired from the late 1950s to early ’70s. This prompts a shout from somewhere in the back of the bus: “Vic, when did they air this – 150 years ago?”

11:28: About half an hour outside Madison, the bus arrives at Rookies Food and Spirits in Mazomanie. The restaurant is owned by Mallards owner Steve Schmitt. The team is treated to pulled pork sandwiches before trickling out to the authentic, turf-surfaced wiffle ball field behind the building.

12:02 p.m.: The meal over, Express players and coaches make their way out to the wiffle ball field on a sunny, comfortable Sunday afternoon. They unwind with a spirited game featuring the right-handed hitters against the left-handers. The lefties rally from eight runs down to edge the righties, 14-12, on the strength of Fadness’ three-run home run over the 85-foot wall in left field.

Other highlights from the game include right-handed grand slams from Bremer and Bobby Rinard, who takes some heat for his three errors in right field. Jake Varsho earns a win and a save on the mound for the lefties thanks to relaxed re-entry rules. Dale Varsho serves as the all-time catcher and umpire.

12:43: The players and coaches file back onto the bus with more than four hours to burn before the game – scheduled for 5:05 p.m. tonight.

12:50: The bus arrives at The Shoe Box, a vast shoe store in Black Earth owned by Schmitt. Express players and coaches spend about half an hour browsing the racks before filing back onto the bus.

Today’s activities – like the wiffle ball game and shoe store visit – simply aren’t matched in most Northwoods League cities. “That’s one of the perks of coming to Madison,” Varsho says. “Usually, we are stuck in a mall or something, wasting time.”

1:29: The bus leaves The Shoe Box as “Bonanza” begins to roll again.

2:11: Now we’re back to Warner Park for the Express’ final game before the three-day All-Star break. It’s not long before the team is on the field taking batting practice and going through its pregame routine.

5:05: The game’s first pitch is thrown in beautiful, 71-degree weather in front of another packed Pond.

7:40: The Express officially have been swept into the All-Star break, dropping a frustrating 11-7 decision to the Mallards on their getaway day.

8:11: Through a large crowd still milling around the Duck Pond, the Express bus pulls out of Warner Park with its sights set on home.

8:17: The 2001 movie “Blow” is suggested for the ride home. There are no notable objections, and the based-on-a-true-story tale of a 1970s American cocaine pioneer begins.

10:17: “Blow” ends exactly two hours later. The silence on the bus is broken, if only for a moment, as people begin to stir.

10:46: The bus pulls off the interstate and exits back into Eau Claire.

10:48: Garbage bags are passed down each aisle as Peck wishes good luck to Fadness and left-hander Rudy Jaramillo, the team’s All-Stars.

10:50: The bus parks in the same spot it sat Saturday morning, everyone gets off and the equipment is unloaded again. Players pull out of the Festival Foods parking lot as Varsho is interviewed by WQOW TV-18.

For everyone except the All-Stars – who must travel 350 miles to Thunder Bay, Ontario – the next three days will be a break from the grind of the road. But they’ll be back on the bus soon, moving east across the state to Green Bay when the second half resumes.

The parking lot is still rather busy for this time of night, left in the same state the Express found it Saturday morning. The only difference is the two losses on their record.

That’s life on the road.

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