Madison Mallards a summertime hit for baseball-hungry fans

Madison Mallards pitcher Andrew Buckley throws a pitch June 6. - Madison Mallards

For the past 14 years, the family-friendly organization has been successful both on and off the field with the Madison baseball fanbase.

The early half of the 1990s was not kind to the Madison baseball community. The University of Wisconsin, racked with debt of $2 million when former athletic director Pat Richter came aboard in 1989, dropped its varsity men's baseball program following the 1991 season.

Another blow came in 1993 when the Madison Muskies, a single-A minor league affiliate of the Oakland Athletics that gave Madisonians early looks at Jose Canseco and Terry Steinbach, left after 12 seasons for Michigan.

Another minor league organization, the Madison Hatters, moved from Missouri but only lasted a year, and the Madison Black Wolf came and went after five seasons. In the matter of a decade, the city lost four teams.

Enter Steve Schmitt, owner of The Shoe Box, a shoe store in Black Earth, Wisconsin. In 2001, the business owner brought the Madison Mallards to Warner Park and reinvigorated the baseball fanbase. Now going into their 14th season, the Mallards bring in top-tier college talent each summer to compete in the Northwoods League. The Madison community has responded in kind by embracing the family-friendly organization.

"We wouldn't be anything without our fans. I think we've got the best fans in the league," Mallards Assistant General Manager Tyler Isham said.

"I would argue that we've got the best fans in the whole country from a summer collegiate perspective and maybe even in all of minor league baseball, and it starts and ends with them."

The Mallards, who won the 2013 Northwoods League Championship, average about 6,000 fans per game, twice the amount of the next Northwoods League team, and almost four times the league average. Though the team plays from late May to mid-August, the organization operates 12 months a year, working to bring in various celebrities and engage their fanbase with promotions.

Last Friday, the Mallards promoted an "Office Space" night with actor Richard Riehle, a Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, native who played Tom Smykowski in the 1999 cult-classic film. After the game, old printers were smashed in reference to one of the movie's iconic scenes.

A couple of weeks ago, the team had former professional wrestler Diamond Dallas Page come to "The Duck Pond" for a post-game yoga session. Next week comes "Superhero Day," where children 12 and under will receive a standing room-only ticket if they dress up as their favorite superhero.

It's all part of the atmosphere the Mallards organization wants to bring to each game for its fans, a "three-hour vacation" that allows them to have quality family time while not traveling far to do so.

"We want them to be able to come to our ballpark, forget about life for a while, and just relax and enjoy some good baseball and some good entertainment in between innings," Isham said.

The 2014 Mallards team, boasting college baseball talent from across the nation, has Madison roots. A handful of players, including Verona pitcher Ben Neumann and three Sun Prairie residents -- pitcher Nathan Hoffmann, infielder Michael Handel and infielder Tony Butler -- make up a team currently 12-6 and tied for first place in the South division of the Northwoods League.

Isham noted the pool of talent in the Madison area and how high schools are churning out Division I talent. The organization is excited to bring homegrown players back to the city.

"Nothing's better for us than seeing a local kid succeed and see his friends and his family and everything like that in the stands every night cheering him on," Isham said.

Butler has yet to join the team, as his Virginia Cavaliers are in the College Baseball World Series. The Mallards have a pre-existing relationship with the university to send its players westward, along with other baseball programs across the nation. It's part of the process of bringing in and shaping the roster each summer.

"Madison's a destination. People want to send their players to Madison," Isham said.

"We've proven we can win. We've proven we can develop players, and so the colleges are calling us, trying to place players with us." -Tyler Isham

"They see that we've got [manager] Donnie Scott. We've proven we can win. We've proven we can develop players, and so the colleges are calling us, trying to place players with us."

In fact, two Cavaliers -- pitcher Nick Howard and outfielder Derek Fisher -- were chosen on the first day of this year's MLB draft. Howard was drafted 19th overall to the Cincinnati Reds, while Fisher was chosen 37th by the Houston Astros. Both players spent past summers with the Mallards.

Many former Mallards have found homes in professional baseball. Among them is outfielder Ryan Spilborghs, who played for the Colorado Rockies and in Japan during his career. Jonathon Crawford was drafted in the first round of the 2013 draft by the Detroit Tigers and is currently 3-2 with a 2.58 ERA for the single-A affiliate West Michigan Whitecaps.

The Mallards aren't the only team in the league to have helped groom college players for the big time. Other major league all-stars such as pitchers Max Scherzer, Chris Sale and Jordan Zimmerman all played in the Northwoods League at some point. The schedule during the summer, with 72 games in 77 days for the Mallards this season, helps prepare these players -- many of which are playing summer baseball away from home for the first time -- for the next level.

"It really prepares them for the grind of being on a bus: hitting the road, doing road trips, learning how to take care of your body, take care of your mind kind of throughout these long trips when they're on the trip and stuff like that," Isham said.

With success on and off the field, the Mallards organization has shown there is genuine interest in baseball in the Madison area. Though the chances are very slim of the university rejuvenating its baseball program due to many factors regarding scholarships and Title IX considerations, Isham does believe it could prosper.

"I think the Mallards have shown that there's a definite baseball following here in Madison.

"People who like baseball, who want to see baseball, and I think, for sure, the baseball community in Madison's out there."

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