Friday, July 4, 2003
By Jason McMahon The Capital Times
Growing up on Madison’s near west side, David Hrncirik spent many of his summer nights in the stands at Warner Park with his father and older brother watching the Madison Muskies, the single-A Midwest League affiliate of the Oakland A’s.
His favorite Muskie was Jose Canseco, and he still remembers the slugger’s broken bat that found its way to the family home after Greg, his older brother, did a stint as a Muskies bat boy.
And David remembers thinking how cool it would be to be one of the Fish.
“As a kid, you always have that dream of going to play for the pros,” Hrncirik said. “I always wanted to play for them when I was younger.”
The Muskies, of course, left town after the 1993 season. The Madison Hatters, who spent the 1994 season at Warner Park, and the Northern League’s Black Wolf, who were around from 1996-2000, never caught Hrncirik’s fancy the way the Muskies did.
Just as Hrncirik’s dreams of playing pro ball in his backyard withered away, so did his aspirations of suiting up for his hometown college team when the University of Wisconsin cut its baseball program in 1991.
So the former Madison West star figured he had played his last game in front of a true home crowd when he wrapped up his Regents career in 2000 and moved on to the University of Minnesota. Then the Madison Mallards called.
The Mallards, who began play in the amateur Northwoods League in 2001, offered Hrncirik a roster spot toward the end of last season. It wasn’t exactly the scenario that he had played out in his head as a kid, but you won’t hear him complaining.
“It’s been a dream to come out here and play every day,” Hrncirik said. “Coming to play baseball every day beats working for the summer.”
Hrncirik spent the first couple of months of last summer working at baseball camps in Minnesota. When he returned home, the Mallards offered him a spot on the team for the remainder of the season.
The team was short-handed due to some injuries, and Madison general manager Vern Stenman put in a call to a friend, Minnesota assistant head coach and Sun Prairie native Rob Fornasiere, to see if any Gophers might be available.
“He said, ‘I’ve got this kid, Dave Hrncirik, from Madison,’ ” Stenman recalled. “I’m feeling like the biggest idiot in the world because I didn’t know who he was.”
Stenman wasn’t aware of Hrncirik because the Mallards arrived in Madison a year after Hrncirik graduated from West, and he redshirted his first year at Minnesota.
But Hrncirik opened some eyes in his first season with the Gophers, blossoming late in the year. He earned the starting job at third base and hit .397 in the equivalent of about one-third of a full season, which led Fornasiere to recommend him to Stenman.
“I thought I’d give it a shot and see what it was all about,” said Hrncirik, who hit .207 in nine games. “Obviously it made a good impression.”
He made a good enough impression of his own, as Hrncirik is one of only two players, along with pitcher Cody Hall, to return to the Mallards for the 2003 season.
The revamped roster has reversed the fortunes of a team that was a league-worst 24-40 last year. With a 10-5 victory over the Wisconsin Woodchucks Thursday night, the Mallards clinched the Northwoods League South Division first-half title and the accompanying playoff berth.
It’s another notch in the belt for the 21-year-old Hrncirik, who has won at every level. The three-time All-City player helped West win a Big Eight championship as a sophomore, and he has been a two-year starter at Minnesota for the back-to-back Big Ten champion Gophers.
“It’s always exciting to be a contender for a championship,” said Hrncirik, who batted .324 for the Gophers this spring. “I’d put it up there with the other championships.”
Hrncirik, who was 1-for-4 Thursday night, is batting .215 this season. After struggling mightily in his first 16 games, he is hitting .286 since June 26.
“When you mix the wood bats into the whole scheme, it’s a lot harder to get hits,” Hrncirik said. “It took a little bit getting used to wood. You kind of have to develop a rhythm, and I couldn’t develop that within the first two weeks, so I was struggling a little bit.
“Then all of a sudden, it kind of clicked and I started hitting the ball harder and putting it in places where they aren’t.”
Hrncirik began the season manning first base for the Mallards, as the team awaited the arrival of more players. He has also appeared in left and right field.
Hrncirik can also pitch, and may carve out a spot on the Gophers’ staff next year.
“He’s a perfect guy to have on the team because he can do anything for us,” Stenman said. “He just gives us so much flexibility. And he gives us a little bit of leadership. He’s an older kid, he’s a local kid. All of the things you look for in a player, he’s a lot of them.”