By Michael Hunt of the Journal Sentinel
Mequon – A light rain was falling on Kapco Park before the Lakeshore Chinooks’ final home game of the season Thursday.
But not long in advance of the first pitch, a fitting symbol for the success of a partnership between a new team, a college, a stadium and a community formed just beyond right-field fence, high above the vista of Lake Michigan that makes this little slice of baseball heaven so special.
The rainbow assured everything was going to be fine, for now and the future for the start-up Northwoods League franchise and Concordia University Wisconsin.
In January, lovely Kapco Park was just a ragged field on a back corner of the Concordia campus, so unusable for baseball that the Falcons were forced to play their home games in West Bend.
Four months later, a gleaming new stadium with 1,500 seats, a synthetic-turf field, modern facilities and a million-dollar view was ready to be used by the Chinooks and Concordia.
In Milwaukee, where it typically takes four years to haggle over a single point, consider Kapco Park a minor miracle in the spirit of can-do cooperation.
"I’m pretty proud of how we got it started," said Jim Kacmarcik. "I don’t want to brag too much, but I feel really humbled by it."
It’s more than O.K. for Kacmarcik to brag. The president of Kapco, a Grafton-based metal-stamping firm popularly known for celebrity spokesman Robin Yount, Kacmarcik got the idea to bring the collegiate summer league to the area and never took his eye off the ball until the thing got done with the speed and beauty of a Yount triple to right-center.
Kacmarcik decided the new Northwoods League was going to be on Concordia’s lakefront campus or nowhere. Then it was a matter of convincing the NCAA Division III program that the benefit of having one of the nicest baseball stadiums for any school its size was worth the partnership.
"If Concordia didn’t agree, it wasn’t going to happen," Kacmarcik said. "I wanted to be associated with a great league and a great campus."
Suddenly, he began fielding calls from Yount, Bob Uecker, Ryan Braun, Craig Counsell, Brewers general manager Doug Melvin and Bucks general manager John Hammond.
They all wanted to know what they could do to help get this thing up and running.
"You can move to a position of strength when you have people like that behind you," Kacmarcik said. "Yount and Uecker gave us credibility. I think it was meant to be."
Kacmarcik is the majority owner of the Chinooks, with 14 other community leaders – including Yount, Uecker and Hammond – serving as co-owners. But make no mistake, it’s a labor of love.
"It’s about helping kids live their dream out. That’s 100 percent what it is," Kacmarcik said. "If we break even, we’re happy."
The players, from colleges around the country, aren’t paid to retain their eligibility. They stay with host families in the community. They use wooden bats and wear spikes to help get them ready for professional baseball during the 70-game season against 15 opponents from Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa and Ontario.
Kapco Park acknowledges the Brewers with its outfield dimensions, the last two numbers reflected in famous uniforms – 317 feet in left for Jim Gantner, 344 to left-center for Hank Aaron, 404 to center for Paul Molitor and 319 to right for Yount, who helped design the fence.
Even if the Northwoods League is not professional, everything about the Chinooks has a first-class feel.
From the seating area to the video scoreboard to the restrooms to children’s play area to the concession stands with better food than served at some major-league parks, the game-day experience radiates family-oriented value. The most expensive seats cost $11, which buys a lot of fun.
"The payoff has been the smiles," said team general manager Dean Rennicke, a former University of Wisconsin baseball star who is Kapco’s marketing VP.
Besides the players, the Chinooks provide experience to young people who want careers in sports management. Like the players, they are essentially interns from across the country. Kacmarcik said he was a little worried about handing over the fan experience to inexperienced young adults, but they have pulled it off with aplomb.
"I wanted everyone to be happy, everything to be right and it was needless anxiety," he said. "The kids have really nailed it. We couldn’t be happier."
All things considered, it was a home run of an inaugural season off and on the field, where the Chinooks are finishing near .500. Young people are getting real-life experience. Families are being entertained in a beautiful environment.
And Concordia is greatly benefiting in many ways from having the team on campus. There is talk that the school could help lure an NFL team back for training camp.
"We feel really blessed that we’re getting good feedback, so we know we’re on the right track," Kacmarcik said. "We hit the mark in a lot of areas, but there are things we can do better next season.
"We look forward to that when we sit back and take a deep breath."