Published On: August 11th, 2003

Vern Stenman doesn’t have much use for the word “sellout.”

The general manager of the Madison Mallards insists that he’d rather rope off the warning track at Warner Park and let fans stand inside the outfield fence than turn someone away at the gate.

There was a time, not so long ago, when Stenman would have been branded a fool for bandying about such thoughts.

Not anymore. The Mallards concluded another record-setting campaign at the gate by luring a staggering 7,491 fans to the Duck Pond for Thursday night’s regular-season finale.

Nobody spilled out onto the warning track, but everywhere else you looked was jam-packed. Thursday night’s numbers gave the club a season attendance total of 136,751 — a little more than 5,000 better than the Madison Muskies ever drew for a full season — despite having more than twice as many home dates as the Mallards.

The 1983 Muskies (1,908), the 1996 Black Wolf (1,990) and last year’s Mallards (1,973) all came close to averaging 2,000 per game. This year’s club left that milestone in the dust, averaging an eye-popping 4,411 fans per outing.

“Coming into the season, I was hoping we’d draw 2,500-3,000 fans a night,” Stenman said. “I didn’t even want to say 3,000 because I was afraid I’d look like an idiot.”

Now, he and Mallards owner Steve Schmitt look like visionaries. Unfailing optimism and effort have turned Northwoods League baseball and Madison into a winning combination.

“I really never thought that Madison would jump on board for a baseball team, until I saw what Steve’s been able to do out here and what we’ve been able to do together building this thing,” assistant general manager Rich Reynolds said after most of Thursday night’s crowd had filtered out. “I never thought it was possible.

“When this team came in, I thought this was a good league because you only need about a thousand fans a night to start turning a profit. So maybe it’s perfect for Madison. But I never thought we’d see this. And realistically, I don’t think any of us ever thought we’d see a night like this.”

‘This is Something Else’

George Dreckmann was at the first Muskies game in 1982, when the Class A Midwest League affiliate of the Oakland As opened up shop at Breese Stevens Field before settling in at Warner Park. Over the Muskies’ 12 years in town, Dreckmann made it out to several games.

The North-side Madison resident bought a ticket package in 1994 for the Madison Hatters, the St. Louis Cardinals’ Midwest League affiliate that passed through town for one season. He then bought season tickets for each of the five seasons of the Madison Black Wolf, an independent team in the Northern League.

And he bought the first set of season tickets for the Mallards in 2001. He only missed one game this year, and Thursday he was in his familiar seat behind home plate.

“This is unbelievable,” Dreckmann said. “I was talking to somebody today, saying, ‘Remember we used to sit here with 500 people watching the Black Wolf?’ This is something else.”

The Hatters in 1994 were the only city team in the last 22 years to fail to draw 1,000 fans per game. But the club moved into Madison with its eye already on another relocation the following year, and never developed a local following.

The Muskies and Black Wolf, however, did enjoy some success at the gate. But it dried up quickly, and never reached the level of support that has been thrust upon the Mallards.

So they all packed up and left town. The Muskies moved to Grand Rapids, Mich., after the 1993 season. The Hatters bailed out after their one year and headed to Battle Creek, Mich. The Black Wolf hit the road for Lincoln, Neb., after the 2000 season.

When the Mallards opened up operations in 2001, there was a healthy amount of skepticism in town.

“The amazing factor down there in Madison is there was a negative history behind (baseball),” said La Crosse Loggers general manager Chris Goodell, whose Northwoods League expansion team ranks second behind Madison in attendance. “You look at almost across the nation, when there’s been a failed attempt, some negative history, that’s awful hard to rebound from and to capitalize on. They have, and in a big way.”

Attitude is Everything

The Mallards’ attitude from day one has been driven not by an itch to make money, but rather a desire to show their fans a good time. Ticket prices have been kept low, and in-game entertainment is abundant and, well, entertaining.

There’s even ample opportunities to take in a game for free, whether it be wearing a uniform on Little League night, a Cubs hat on a particular night or picking up tickets from your local Culver’s restaurant on Hometown Nights. (The giveaways, while counted in the paid attendance figures, make up less than five percent of the total crowd, Stenman says.)

And Mallards games have proven a popular destination for company outings; group sales are a significant attendance factor.

But most with knowledge of Madison’s baseball past come to the same conclusion as to what really sets the Mallards apart from Warner Park’s previous tenants.

“The Mallards are the first team that embraced this ballpark,” Dreckmann said. “Everybody else said, ‘You’ve got to have a new ballpark.’ Well, they weren’t going to get a new ballpark.

“They embraced it, they got out the paintbrushes, they made this a destination.”

That they have. Color is splashed all around what was once a drab grandstand. The entrance to the park is stamped with inlaid duck prints. And the flagship project for this season, the new right-field Duck Blind (a multi-level party deck), has been a resounding success.

Stenman says he loves Warner Park, simply for the possibilities that exist to improve the facility. There has been talk about adding another Duck Blind in left field, and possibly extending the grandstand further down the left-field line. New lights are scheduled to be installed next year, along with a $100,000 concession stand.

The team and the city are spending money on the park. But their expenses don’t come close to approaching the tab for a brand new stadium.

“I think if one of those teams (that left town) would have had that same kind of direction, would have had that same kind of attitude, they could have made it here,” said Reynolds, the was play-by-play voice of the Black Wolf from 1998-2000.

Proving the Doubters Wrong

The only baseball team in Wisconsin that is drawing more fans per game than the Mallards is the Milwaukee Brewers. Madison is outpacing its Northwoods League counterparts in La Crosse and Wausau, and is showing up Midwest League teams in Appleton and Beloit.

On July 28, the Mallards outdrew the Brewers – and they were playing in New York, against the Mets.

The Mallards’ attendance numbers are bound to make some rethink whether or not the leagues that failed in this city could, as Reynolds suggested, make it after all.

Still, the move turned out well for most of those franchises. All but the old Hatters are outpacing the Mallards this season.

Stenman has said all along that the amateur Northwoods League, with unpaid college players thrown together for a summer, is a much better fit for Madison than either league that preceded it.

“The thing I keep coming back to is we’re a college baseball team in a college town,” he said. “I don’t think that’s a part of the mix that we should ever overlook.”

The Mallards have drawn more fans this year than any summer college baseball team in history, which helps put the spotlight on the Northwoods League. But the team is also benefiting from the rising popularity of the league itself.

Now 10 years old, the Northwoods League added two more expansion teams this year (La Crosse and Thunder Bay, Ontario) and has more growth planned for next year.

The Mallards set a league record last year with their 1,973 fans per game. All three Wisconsin teams, including La Crosse (2,718) and the Wausau-based Woodchucks (2,308), surpassed that mark this season.

“This league is in the midst of exploding right now,” La Crosse’s Goodell said. “And Madison’s leading the charge.”

Still Not a Perfect World

The official listed capacity of Warner Park is 3,750, and the Mallards admit they had a hard time handling the overflow crowds this year. Thursday night was the fifth time the team drew more than 6,000 fans. Last year’s high-water mark was 5,047 for the season finale.

Lines for concessions and restrooms can try any fan’s patience. Walkways can get so congested, it’s nearly impossible to move from one section to another without missing a chunk of action. The parking lot has completely filled up on some nights. And the pregame line for tickets can extend 1,000 people long.

The new concession stand should help matters, and team officials will hire more staff to make sure those problems don’t surface next year.

Yet as Stenman, the ultimate optimist, points out, “These are the kinds of problems you want to have.”

Build a Winner, They Will Come

The success of this year’s club has furthered the attendance boon. The Mallards can clinch their first-ever Northwoods League championship series appearance tonight at the Duck Pond in Game 2 of their best-of-three divisional series against the Woodchucks.

“I always thought that people come to this place a couple of times a year to have a good time,” Dreckmann said. “But if the team’s good, they’ll come back five or six times.”

And the players feed off the crowd energy. At this year’s home opener and the night the Mallards clinched the first-half championship (both in front of 5,000-plus fans), the players described a playoff-like atmosphere.

“My hat’s off to the fans and the city of Madison,” Mallards manager Darrell Handelsman said. “It’s been a great ride, and I don’t want it to end.”

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