Published On: June 3rd, 2003

Wisconsin State Journal
Sunday, June 1, 2003

Chris LeBarton Wisconsin State Journal

With a glance, Madison Mallards general manager Vern Stenman surveyed a pockmarked section of Warner Park’s right field, dotted by dirt mounds and cement crags.
Many of the 24-inch wide, 4-foot-deep holes, some personally dug by Stenman and a faithful cast of interns, were filled with cement, while others remained hollow. Soon the whole area will be covered by the latest improvement to Warner Park: the newly renovated Great Dane Duck Blind party deck, which will hold 500 people, feature five levels and four, 20-person open air suites atop the right-field fence.
The project would have been costly had it just been handed over to the lowest bidder. Instead, by engineering an advertising trade with WKOW-TV, getting materials donated by The Home Depot and having a fan do the design and permit work for a bargain price, the project was more manageable.
Stenman got similar deals on a newly installed left-field party area and a repaving project in the concourse area, with close to $100,000 worth of improvements costing owner Steve Schmitt a fraction of that amount.
Less than two weeks before the Mallards were set to open their third home season at Warner Park, Stenman was slightly worried that the project was still in progress. But he quickly looked past the unsightly view and into the not too distant future.
Like the rest of the organization, which made its most significant offseason upgrade with the addition new manager Darrell Handelsman, Stenman sees Warner Park not for what it is, but what it will be.
“We knew we had to get better out here,” said Stenman, whose team opens the Northwoods League season Tuesday night on the road against Handelsman’s former club, Waterloo.
“From Day One, we had the attitude, ‘Let’s take this ball park and make it a little better every year.’ It’s not going to be Miller Park overnight, but it’s going to be better.”
Apart from the deck renovations, the stadium is in immaculate condition. Everything that doesn’t move is freshly painted, new signs and banners hang everywhere and the grounds are in fine shape.
Once a hex on the three minor league teams that previously inhabited it, Warner Park is now the proud home of the Mallards. Not that it hasn’t always been.
“Compared to the rest of the league, we’ve got a pretty special ballpark,” assistant general manager Rich Reynolds said. “We’re running with it.”\
Out of the dark ages
Reynolds remembers when Warner Park was less cheery.
The play-by-play announcer for the Madison Black Wolf in 1998 and ’99, Reynolds said the team’s constant bickering over the need for a new stadium and its inability to raise enough revenue to survive in the Northern League made for some bitter days.
“I think what they expected to happen was they would convince the city and the fans that this ballpark was so dilapidated and unplayable that they needed a new park,” he said. “They were more or less going to shame the politicians and the people of Madison into giving them one.”
Bill Terlecky, the Black Wolf’s GM from 1997 to 2000, said his team was initially open to working with Warner Park, but that financial woes – the team reportedly lost $1million in its five seasons – and an inability to work with the city on improvements made a new stadium imperative to survival.
“We tried everything,” Terlecky said by phone Saturday, speaking from Binghamton, N.Y., where he is the general manager of the New York Mets’ Class AA affiliate. “But no one wanted to put dollars into it anymore.”
The team’s ties with the city were fragile from the outset.
“I’ll never forget my first meeting with (former Madison Parks Department Superintendent) Dan Stapay,” Terlecky said. “I had just gotten there, and I was excited. Anyway, I have my first meeting with him, and before butt hits chair, the first words out of his mouth are, ‘I don’t have a lot of time here.’
“And I just felt like saying, ‘Well, then leave!’ I thought, ‘If this is how it’s going to be, where are we going?’ ”
A baseball executive for 25 years, Terlecky calls his stop in Madison his “wild ride.”
After starting his career in Rochester, Terlecky moved on to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, where he oversaw the building of $24million Lackawanna County Stadium. The Independent League’s Executive of the Year in 1989, Terlecky was honored with the J. Frank Cashen Award last year, given to the outstanding executive among Mets minor league teams.
But for myriad reasons, he couldn’t help the Black Wolf.
“It’s not like I was smart, got stupid and all the sudden smart again,” he said.\
A better fit
Terlecky and Stenman both agree the Northwoods League, comprised of unpaid college athletes and smaller budgets, fits Madison better than the unaffiliated Northern League or the ClassA Midwest League, which are dominated by multi-million-dollar stadiums and cities with stronger fan bases.
Whereas Warner Park was considered a hindrance to its previous tenants, the Mallards have forged their own home by using what Reynolds calls “sweat equity.”
“Most of the stuff out here is more or less what you’d put into your home,” he said. “Just cleaning up and painting. And it looks 100 times better.”
Said Handelsman, the winningest manager in Northwoods League history, “You see constant improvements. We were out here all weekend painting. Just because you’re the GM or the coach doesn’t mean you don’t paint.”
That isn’t to say there hasn’t been considerable financial equity poured into the project by Schmitt. The Mallards have put $60,000 into the stadium over the past two years, including $31,000 worth of what the city considers capital investments.
“The things that will be around for 20 years,” Park Superintendent Jim Morgan said. “They’ve really held up their end of the bargain, and it’s a really strong relationship we’ve built together.”
Morgan said the city will build a new concession stand and replace all the lighting in the park – more than $600,000 worth of improvements – in time for the 2004 season.
“It’s for everyone that uses the park, but the Mallards will benefit just as we’ve benefited from the work they’ve put in,” he said.

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