25 Years of Woodchucks Baseball
The Wisconsin Woodchucks were founded in 1993, one of five teams to originate the Northwoods League and one of two remaining original teams in the league. Their first season was in 1994. 2018 will bring the 25th season of play at Athletic Park. In honor of the team’s 25th anniversary, let’s take a look back at the history of the Wisconsin Woodchucks!
George MacDonald, president of the Northwoods League at the time, announced on April 29, 1993 that Wausau would be one of the cities to host a baseball team for its first season in 1994. The hope was to draw at least 500 fans a night. On November 17, 1993, Matt Ban was announced as Wausau’s first general manager and on December 20, 1993 the name “Wausau Woodchucks” was announced after a mascot-naming contest.
The Wausau Woodchucks began their first season of play in the Northwoods League. There were five teams who competed in a 56-game schedule from June to August. The roster consisted of 20 players, many local, and the manager was Scott Hertler. The Woodchucks home opener was on June 11 against the Manitowoc Skunks. The Woodchucks far surpassed the hope of drawing 500 fans per night, averaging 858 fans per game. Athletic Park saw one of its largest crowds ever this summer with 3,582 fans in attendance for a Woodchucks game. Wausau finished second in the league behind the Rochester Honkers. The team finished with a 28-21 record.
The first ever Northwoods League All-Star game was held at Athletic Park on July 22nd. The Woodchucks played for the East team and Woodchucks manager Scott Hertler managed the All-Star team. The East team won the game 14-2 after losing the home run derby 8-3.
Clark Eckhoff purchased the Wausau Woodchucks and they made the Northwoods League playoffs for the first time. The Woodchucks squeaked into the playoffs in August after winning eight games in a row. The Woodchucks played the St. Cloud River Bats in the first round of the playoffs but did not advance. Steve Foster was the manager of the Woodchucks this season and he managed the All-Star Team as well.
The Wausau Woodchucks’ name was changed to the Wisconsin Woodchucks because at the time they were the only Northwoods League team in Wisconsin and the team has fans from all around north central Wisconsin.
This was the best season in franchise history at the time. The Woodchucks had a 34-29 record. Pat Neshek, current MLB pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies, was a member of the Woodchucks.
The Wisconsin Woodchucks won their first Northwoods League World Series Championship, beating the St. Cloud River Bats two games to one. Starting pitcher Kris Regas got the win even though he was pitching on three days rest and coming back from an elbow injury. The Woodchucks were down one run in the ninth inning of the final World Series game, but they were resilient and rallied for three runs to win the championship. The most famous player from this season was Casey Janssen who went on to play professionally. Pitcher Tom Oldham posted a Northwoods League record best ERA of 0.74 that season and he still holds this league record today. There were 10 returning players for the successful 2000 team that helped lead the way to the championship under field manager Rob Smith.
The Northwoods League saves record at the time was broken by Wisconsin’s Steve Grasley from Creighton who racked up 19 saves. Steve Foster returned to manage the Woodchucks once again.
Former Woodchuck Wes Obermueller (’96, ’98) became the first player to go on to the majors, making his MLB debut on September 20th with the Kansas City Royals.
The Wisconsin Woodchucks won their second Northwoods League World Series Championship over St. Cloud. They lost the first game but came back to win the final two games. What made this even more impressive is that two of the top pitchers on the team were suspended the week before the playoffs, but the Woodchucks still pulled it off. Notable players included pitchers Justin Berg and Mark Lowe who went on to play in the MLB, Ned Yost Jr., son of Kansas City Royals Manager Ned Yost, and Ben Zobrist, 2016 World Series MVP for the Chicago Cubs and two time World Series champion. Zobrist was named the Woodchucks team MVP that season. Outfielder Mike Pankratz was named League MVP after posting a .699 slugging percentage along with 12 home runs. He was also the first ever Woodchuck to hit for the cycle.
Woodchucks pitcher Lance Broadway finished with 95 strikeouts to lead the league while also tossing one of three no-hitters in 2004. He went on to play professionally with the Chicago White Sox and the New York Mets. Pitcher Ricky Cavaiani tied the Woodchucks franchise record for saves with 19.
The Woodchucks hosted the Northwoods League All-Star Game on July 14th, 2004. At the time the league consisted of only ten teams.
Pitcher Jay Buente got the Woodchucks franchise record in strikeouts with 100 and innings pitched with 94.2. His 100 strikeouts are 5th all-time in the Northwoods League. He went on to play in the majors for the Florida Marlins and Tampa Bay Rays.
Former Woodchuck Dave Gassner became the second Woodchucks alum to make it to the professional level with the Minnesota Twins.
The Wisconsin Woodchucks had a record high attendance at Athletic Park of 73,079 people. This is still the franchise attendance record today.
Former Woodchucks Pat Neshek, Casey Janssen, Mark Lowe, and Ben Zobrist all made their major league debuts.
Jim Gantner, former Milwaukee Brewer and UW Oshkosh product, was named field manager. Gantner was known as “Gumby” on the Brewers and played for the brew crew when they went to the World Series in 1982.
Switch pitcher Pat Venditte played for the Woodchucks and went on to play professionally as the only active switch pitcher.
Former Woodchucks manager Steve Foster made his coaching debut in the majors as the Florida Marlins bullpen coach.
The Wisconsin Woodchucks were back in the playoffs after having the best home record in franchise history (26-8) under Jim Gantner. They fell to the Madison Mallards. Assistant Coach Brandon Steele was named the Northwoods League Coach of the Year after a franchise-best season.
Local volunteers spent the off-season upgrading Athletic Park including painting, new flooring, new ceiling tiles and more, logging over 700 hours of volunteer work. The future of the stadium was uncertain due to health codes and the needs of the Woodchucks baseball team so local residents and businesses pitched in to help.
Former Woodchuck Ben Zobrist became the first Woodchuck to play in the MLB All-Star Game. At the time he was with the Tampa Bay Rays and won the “Most Valuable Ray” Award after he was among the team leaders in numerous hitting categories. His on-base plus slugging percentage of .948 was tied for third best in the American League.
Woodchuck pitcher Bryce Butt won Northwoods League Pitcher of the Year honors. Brandon Steele took over as the field manager while Jim Gantner moved to Director of Baseball Operations.
The Woodchucks made the playoffs again but fell to the Eau Claire Express in the first playoff series. Current Toronto Blue Jays player Kevin Pillar played outfielder for the Woodchucks. He finished the summer with 79 hits and 24 stolen bases, which placed him in the top 10 category for the Northwoods League. Pillar, known for his impressive defense in the majors, also left an imprint with his defense for the Woodchucks, providing several gems that still have fans talking today. The manager of the 2010 playoff team was Guido Aspetia.
Current owner Mark Macdonald purchased the Wisconsin Woodchucks from Clark Eckhoff. The Woodchucks made the playoffs after recording the most wins in franchise history (43-27) under manager Erik Supplee. They recorded the franchise record win in walk-off fashion, coming back from a 10-1 deficit in the seventh inning to beat the Madison Mallards. The team also set a Northwoods League record for wins at home with a home record of 30-5. The Woodchucks squared off with the La Crosse Loggers in the playoffs and they valiantly fell to the Loggers, holding the ninth inning lead in both games. Jack Fischer from Wake Forest, a converted infielder, won Northwoods League Pitcher of the Year honors. He went 6-1 during the regular season with a 1.76 ERA.
In April, it was announced that Athletic Park would undergo a renovation funded by team owner Mark Macdonald. The area around the ballpark would be updated by the city with new lights and parking spots.
Phase I of the Athletic Park Renovation began. This renovation included the addition of 4-top tables behind home plate, 288 new theater-style reserved seats, a new walk-in team store, new concessions stand, new ticket booths, climate controlled luxury suites, an elevator to the grandstand, a new community park, and a Pepsi Tailgate Pavilion for group outings.
The Woodchucks were back in the playoffs thanks in part to current St. Louis Cardinal Paul DeJong. DeJong set the Northwoods League home run record at the time on August 10th vs Thunder Bay. This helped the Woodchucks clinch a playoff berth. Jameel Ziadeh led the team as manager. The Woodchucks fell to the eventual Northwoods League Champions, the Lakeshore Chinooks.
Phase II of the Athletic Park Renovation occurred with the addition of the Ascension Terrace, more theater-style reserved seats, new third base bleachers, new restrooms, a new concessions stand with a full-service kitchen, new field lights, a second elevator for more accessibility, and new seating options closer to the field.
Woodchucks player Steve Passatempo won the “Star of Stars” award at the Northwoods League All-Star Game after going 4-for-5 with one home run and three RBI.
Former Woodchuck Ben Zobrist was named the World Series MVP after winning his second World Series, breaking the 108 year drought of the Chicago Cubs.
Athletic Park underwent another renovation with the addition of the Bullpen on the first base side. The Bullpen is a special seating area with all-you-can-eat ballpark fare and a social atmosphere with yard games to play.
The Wisconsin Woodchucks hosted the Northwoods League All-Star Game again, with the Northwoods League now consisting of 20 teams. The Woodchucks were a part of the South team and the South team won 6-2. Woodchucks pitcher Orsen Josephina closed the game by striking out the last two batters. Woodchucks player Stevie Mangrum won the Star of Stars award after going 2-for-3 with one double and two RBI during the game.