The Duck Blind ... where the only thing you hunt is your next beer.
On our second day we traveled west to Madison, trading our quaint small-town surroundings for the king of Midwestern college towns -- but the University of Wisconsin, named Playboy's top party school in '06, is out for summer. The city's Northwoods League baseball team, the Mallards, is trying to pick up the entertainment slack.
From the top: A birds-eye view of the Duck Blind; a post-game blues concert.
(1) Madison Mallards; (2) Luke Winn/SI
By Luke Winn
MADISON, Wis. -- The price on our ticket stubs was $32, for a right-field seat on a wooden bleacher, at a college summer league game in which we had prior knowledge of none of the players. Yet neither Dan nor myself considered this a rip-off, for one reason: We were in a section called the Duck Blind, and we'd never watched -- or at least tried to watch amid a horde of partiers-cum-baseball fans -- nine innings like this before.
I consider the Duck Blind to be gestalt entertainment for Badger-staters: a merger of imperfect attractions into a brilliant whole. Its ingredients, and their issues:
1. Baseball. The sport is beloved in Dairyland, but Madison has a rocky history with it: The city is thrice divorced from the national pastime, twice from Class A teams (the Muskies in 1993, and the Hatters in '94) and once from an independent team (the Black Wolf, in 2000).
2. An Open (Beer) Bar. Most young Wisconsinites froth at the mere mention of an open bar -- but if that's the sole activity, staged at a standard watering hole, it easily degenerates into depravity.
3. All-You-Can-Eat Grill Food. An unlimited brat-'n'-burger restaurant could stay in business in this state ... but not without becoming a haven for gluttons in Packers sweatpants.
The Duck Blind joined those three elements into a perfect union: Fans buy an MLB-priced ducat for Warner Park's multi-level right-field deck, drink bottomless Great Dane beers, eat as much ballpark food as they can handle -- and manage to stay on an even keel (or at least upright) by paying attention to the ballgame. Marriage No. 4, for Madison, is working out quite well. There are about 6,000 fans packing the rest of the stadium -- we walked by those poor souls on the way out here -- but the Blind is no doubt leading this baseball revival.
As journalists scoping the scene, Dan and I were possibly the only patrons not to go immediately to the beer lines upon entry. We've invited my brother, Nathan, a UW student, to make those runs for us. He soon arrives at our seats -- front-row, hugging the foul pole -- with two Great Danes. And two clarifications.
"These are mine. I didn't know where you guys were." "It's 20 minutes before the first pitch. And you're already double-fisting." "I'm trying to get my money's worth out here." "I got you that ticket." "Fine. But I'd still like to consume its value."
Dan postulated that Wisconsinites talk cheap-beer values with the same fervor Californians discuss health-food nutrition. A few minutes earlier, we stumbled upon two men debating the price of the aforementioned Duck Blind ticket. The girlfriend of the pro-sider explained, with mock pride, that, "My boyfriend has calculated exactly how much you need to drink for it to be worth it." They resolved to get more beers. We resolved to send Nate back to the tap, and not keep score.
Day 2: Madison, Wis. Swimming In Disguise
From the top: Dan's Favre-aided foray into scorekeeping; mascot Maynard the Mallard.
(1) Luke Winn/SI; (2) Madison Mallards
After the Mallards lost 5-3 to Duluth (Minn.), we had this back-and-forth about nine innings in the Duck Blind:
LW: First off, that Brett Favre jersey (see photo at right) you wore to "blend in with the locals" -- and climb up by the scoreboard -- was embarrassing.
DH: I brought it as a joke. It worked, though -- a guy high-fived me as congrats for my not retiring.
LW: I found the Mallards' owner on the deck, and he was as disguised as you were. "Owner," to me, evokes visions of grumpy suits like Steinbrenner or Selig, and here's this guy, Steve Schmitt, just hanging out in a baseball warmup shirt and shorts. He's a hardcore Cardinals fan who owns a shoe store in Black Earth, Wis., and said he splits from work at 3 p.m. on gamedays to drive over to Warner Park in a WWII Jeep and start hanging up advertising signs. He bought the franchise from Minot, N.D., because he "thought Madison was ready to support a team" -- of college kids -- "who don't play for money." That was a solid gamble.
DH: While you were schmoozing with the owner, I ran into a guy named "B.A." -- same size as Mr. T, but without jewelry, and white. He had just been drilled in the chest with a foul ball. He said, "I was standing there, and the crowd got a little louder. All of a sudden, whack! It smoked me. After that, I switched to soda." B.A. was sippin' a fresh Pepsi -- soda was apparently also free.
LW: The last kids we met were still the highlight -- four local twenty-somethings who had bought picnic-table tickets in the Blind, for the primary purpose of playing "Hockey" (a drinking card game) and barely looking at the field.
DH: "Meatballs," their ring leader, had about 25 empties stacked up. The cops came over in the 8th and cut off his wristband, ostensibly because he was the drunkest of the four. He then bragged to me about how he'd been to detox before ...
LW: ... and said that detox serves the "best scalloped potatoes." I think my jaw dropped for like 10 seconds. He then saw you writing that quote down ...
DH: ... and snapped. He grabbed my notebook and looked around for something to pour on it. All he had was beer, though, and even in a drunken rage he had the presence of mind not to sabotage his only resource.
LW: He did, however, sabotage his spot on our All-Star team. It went to Mary instead ...
Road Trip All-Star No. 2: Mary, Queen Of The Blind
Mary, filling her 3,454th beer of the day.
Jon Nelson/Madison Mallards
Reigning above the raucous fans in the Duck Blind was Mary, the Queen of the beer stand. From her post aside a Bud trailer that held enough spirits to flood right field, Mary leads the Northwoods League in career cups served with 132,382 over five seasons in Madison. I fabricated that stat. But based her own, per-game estimate, it's not far off:
Q: Mary, how many beers could a person possibly consume over the course of one Mallards game? A: Oh, I don't know. Between 20 and 40 probably.
Perhaps she'd had too much interaction with "Meatballs" this season. More likely, that number was a tad high. But damn, was she an efficient Queen; her line was never long, and she kept the taps flowing until the last out -- providing the bumbling crowd's primary indication that the game had ended.
We think we caught the Duluth right fielder staring up in her direction. Really, How can a college kid pay attention in the outfield, when there's a woman working a neverending tap just beyond the warning track? -- Dan Hoyle