Four days, three games in the heart of summer ball
Posted: Monday September 10, 2007 12:57PM; Updated: Monday September 10, 2007 12:57PM
A couple weeks ago, my editor called with an idea, simple yet beguiling: a baseball road trip through the Midwest in the heat of August. The plan: Six teams in four days in three cities, with an eye toward the NL Central race. Go forth and explore baseball country, the editor said, and then he used a bunch of words that East Coasters like to invoke when talking about the Midwest, like "Americana" and "heartland" and "cheese curds." I told him I would do my best.
Road trips are no good without wingmen, of course, so I recruited one in my friend Pat, who lives in Madison, Wis. Pat is 33, has two young children and recently received a PhD in political science from the University of Wisconsin, though you'd never know it from his dress or demeanor, unless flip-flops, athletic shorts and old rec league T-shirts scream "doctor" to you. A devout San Diego fan, he has been wearing the same Padres hat since 1991 -- "the year they went blue," as he explains -- and once, while working at the State Department in 1998, flew from Washington D.C. to San Diego with no vacation time to catch his boys in the NLCS. Once there, he was featured on the JumboTron in full body paint singing, to the theme of the Macarena, "There's-an-MVP in our ci-ty, and his name is Ken Cam-min-iti." He made for an enthusiastic travel partner.
We mapped out our itinerary: a Cubs-Reds game in Chicago, a Brewers-Cardinals game in Milwaukee and, for contrast, a Northwoods League game in Madison, where our journey began.
Game 1: Eau Claire Express vs. Madison Mallards
We were down the right field line, a good way into our third plastic cup of beer, when the kids came over. One was shirtless, his head topped with a great puff of black hair. The other had on a muscle T, a backwards baseball cap and was holding what looked like a cup of green urine. It turned out to be some sort of special emerald-tinted beer, produced to honor Henry Aaron. We were in Wisconsin after all, where beer comes after the Father and the Son but before the Holy Ghost, so it was a fitting salute.
"Hey, pitch," yelled the kid with the hair to one of the opposing players in the bullpen. "Give us some inside info on your team and we'll get you a brat."
The player, a pitcher for the Eau Claire Express, looked over and smiled, then resumed tossing in the bullpen.
"No, really, we will," said the kid.
The player ambled over. This being the Northwoods League, a collegiate summer circuit akin to the Cape Cod League, all that separated him from us was a chest-high chain-link fence.
"We're the guys who are always yelling," said the hair.
"Yeah, you're good," the pitcher said. His hat was pulled low and he had an easy way about him. "This is the best place to play in the league. You guys had us laughing all game last time."
There was a cracking noise, and one of the hitters sent a ball into left field. It was the fifth inning and the Express were winning the game handily. The pitcher turned to watch, then turned back.
"How's your stuff," Pat asked.
"Fastball's decent but my curve's not very good," said the pitcher. "I need to work on my offspeed stuff."
Like most of the players in the Northwoods, a wood-bat summer league that runs out of small towns like Brainerd, Minn., La Crosse, Wisc. and Waterloo, the pitcher probably wouldn't make it to the pros, though some players did. Juan Pierre, Jeremy Accardo, Tom Gorzelanny, Curtis Granderson, to name a few.
The conversation went on for a few minutes. Eventually, the kid in the muscle shirt disappeared, then reappeared with a hot brat, wrapped in aluminum foil, which the pitcher declined with a smile. Still, promise kept.
"Hey, you want a beer?"
The pitcher laughed. "Ten thousand dollar fine for that," he said.
He tipped his cap and jogged back to the dugout. Around him, thousands of Madisonians baked in the heat, drank beer and stuffed their faces with giant sausages. A banner near home plate read "Baseball as it ought to be," and, damn if it wasn't true. This was small-town, bright-lights summer ball, where families learned the names of new players each June, any kid could chat up an opposing player, 12 bucks got you a T-shirt and it seemed every home game came with a crazy promotion. There was Short People Appreciation Night, when Emmanuel Lewis signed autographs, and World's Largest First Pitch, in which the first 5,000 fans to arrive early could toss out an increasingly erroneously-named "first pitch."
We'd arrived in the late afternoon on this, the first day of our road trip, a good hour before the first pitch. We waded through the crowd of 7,000-plus, which appeared to be split into equal parts college kids, families and Wisconsin characters such as the gentleman ahead of us in line for tickets who sported a white collared shirt with cutoff sleeves unbuttoned to showcase his gut, a blonde-tipped receding mullet and, on his right deltoid, a Green Bay Packers logo engulfed in flames. More prevalent than Packers paraphernalia, though, was that of the Brewers -- on hats and shirts and jerseys. Even here, many fans' thoughts were with the pennant race going on in Milwaukee, and the Brewers score was updated over the PA at regular intervals (they would lose, but so would the second-place Cubs).
Our home for the evening was the Duck Blind, perhaps the best deal in all of baseball. The Blind is a raucous right field seating section in Madison where, for $25, you get a ticket to the game plus all you can drink and eat. The food's what one might expect -- brats, pulled pork sandwiches, burgers -- but the beer selection is exemplary, with dozens on tap, including microbrews.
On this night, the Mallards lost to the Express, but that wasn't the point. Since it was the last game of the season -- the Mallards were eliminated from playoff contention the night before -- the experience was about the atmosphere, not the game. The timing also created a sort of instant nostalgia about the evening. The Mallards players sang the national anthem, each man trying to go more sotto voce than the next, lest he stand out as the most off-key. There was also much honoring of the team's star players; and they were legit, having won a Northwoods league record 16 straight at one point in the season. But mainly, there was a sense of imminent seasonal loss. "It's a shame this is the last game of the summer," a kid in baggy shorts said while we waited in the beer line. "This is the best thing that's happened to Madison."
He was wrong, of course. Lots of good stuff has happened to Madison; it is the state capitol after all. But the spirit of what he said wasn't that far off. And what good is an unlimited beer supply if it doesn't lead to grandiose statements?
On our way out of the park after the game, we caught up with the pitcher from the bullpen -- not hard to do, as all the players come out to talk to the fans, one of the many family-friendly aspects of the Northwoods League. He was in the middle of telling us a story about life on the summer circuit -- and how there were occasional groupies, not all of whom were over 200 pounds -- when we heard some squeals from behind us.
"Oh my god, there he is!" shrieked a sizeable blonde girl who looked to be in her early 20s, both in age and beers consumed for the evening. She was accompanied by two smiling friends, and they advanced upon the pitcher in drunken formation.
"Well," Pat said with a grin, "I guess it's about time for us to go."
The pitcher nodded sheepishly, and as we walked away we could hear him politely deflecting the girls' queries, suggesting to them that the player they were really looking for -- perhaps the first baseman? -- would be right out, any minute now.