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Published On: June 4th, 2003

Tuesday, June 3, 2003
By Jason McMahon The Capital Times

If you would have told Darrell Handelsman last summer that his team would open the 2003 Northwoods League season in Waterloo, Iowa, he wouldn’t have been surprised.
After all, Handelsman had made his summer home there for four years while serving as the manager of the Waterloo Bucks. But had you told him he would be managing out of the visitor’s dugout in Waterloo, that would have raised an eyebrow or two.
That’s exactly the scenario that will play out tonight, when Handelsman fills out his first lineup card for the Madison Mallards, who open their third season in the summer collegiate baseball league.
The Mallards plucked Handelsman from Waterloo after the winningest skipper in league history led the Bucks to a championship. Handelsman, 33, has spent the last seven months attempting to lay the foundation to do the same in Madison.
“This is the premier place in the United States to play summer baseball,” Handelsman said. “When you add in every factor – from the ownership to the city to the ballpark to the fans … I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
“I was in what was perceived as the best place in the league for the last four years. It’s not even close. This is hands-down (better). That’s A-ball, this is the big leagues. It’s a different game here.”
And it’s a different approach this year for the Mallards, who brought Handelsman in as one of only two full-time managers in the Northwoods League.
Madison set numerous attendance records last season, including a season total of 67,184 fans that stands as the benchmark for not only the Northwoods League, but for any summer collegiate team.
But success at the gate did not translate into success in the standings, as the Mallards finished a dismal 24-40. The club began to worry that the momentum they were building off the field would be stalled by the struggles on the field.
“There’s no doubt there was concern,” said general manager Vern Stenman. “After wins, people were ecstatic. After losses – we’d have good crowds and good things going on … there was a little somber attitude. It was kind of like ‘We’re missing something.'”
Hence the decision to pursue Handelsman. The Encino, Calif., native has made many collegiate coaching stops. He also managed the now-defunct Kenosha Kroakers before taking over at Waterloo.
He amassed a 220-157 record over the past six years, leading the Bucks to the playoffs all four years and collecting Manager of the Year honors in 2000 and 2001.
Ironically, it was interim Mallards manager Drew Topham who first told Stenman that Handelsman might be open to making a move from Waterloo. The Bucks were in Madison for the season’s second-to-last series, and Stenman was able to chat with a Waterloo assistant who had been ejected, and he told the same story.
So Stenman caught up with Handelsman on his way to the team bus, planted a bug in his ear, and wasted no time offering a position after Handelsman’s season ended.
“It was too good an opportunity to pass up,” Handelsman said. “I knew within being here a month that it was the right decision, and it’s only gotten better since then.
“The passion in this organization is unbelievable. I feel blessed for the opportunity to be here.”
Handelsman’s calling card has been small ball. His Waterloo clubs led the league in stolen bases every year he was there.
“They would do anything to win,” said Mallards pitcher Cody Hall, one of only two players returning to the team. “They put a lot of pressure on you. It was definitely tough to throw against them when they’re always moving on you.”
Handelsman’s presence should help rectify one of the Mallards’ glaring weaknesses: their vulnerability in one-run games. No team in the league played more nail-biters last year, and no team had a tougher time, either. The Mallards were 7-16 in games decided by one run.
Handelsman compiled a 50-23 record in one-run games at Waterloo.
“It starts at the top. The first thing he said to us is, ‘We’re here to win and that’s it,’ ” Hall said. “That’s what every guy wants to hear, and you respect a guy like that who can put you in a good situation to win a lot of ballgames.”
“There were a lot of one-run games where we just couldn’t pull it together. I think some of those one-run games will go in our favor this year because he knows how to win games.”