Day 1: Fort Atkinson, Wis. Home Is Where The Fest Is
The Midwestern twilight at Jones Park in Fort Atkinson, Wis.
By Luke Winn
Tied between a pair of rusty metal stakes on the corner of Janesville Avenue and Sixth Street in Fort Atkinson was a vinyl sign that marked our arrival -- the official beginning of the Midwestern Loop:
From the top: Jones Park's "welcome sign"; a Jefferson batter; the concession's ultra-cheap menu; the smoky grill.
BASEBALL FEST CARNIVAL JUNE 15-18 JONES PARK
A fourth line might have drummed up business -- THE LAST PLACE ON EARTH WHERE BEERS ($1) ARE CHEAPER THAN SODA ($1.50) -- but there was no space for additional text, the locals were well aware of the deal, and the park was picturesque enough to lure in fans on its own. Beyond the sign is an outfield fence bedecked with bunting; dozens of lawn-chair fans down the left-field line; a covered grandstand dating back to 1917; the concession serving seven kinds of $1 beers; and a well-kept field hosting the fest's opener, Fort vs. rival Jefferson in 16-18 year-old American Legion ball.
If you wander too close to the beer-brat grill at Jones Park, the thick white smoke creeps up your nose and messes with your head. You start looking around, at the old coaches holding court, surly men drinking PBR, kids chasing down foul balls ... and get wistful for your old playing days. Dan nudges me out of it. A lifelong Bay Area city-dweller, he was an alien around these parts, and was wearing an expression you'd expect out of a 25-year-old who just found out about the beers-for-a-buck gimmick. "Give me your camera," he said. "I've gotta get a shot of this menu."
By the concession, we find the park regular we came to meet: My dad, who was taking in the game after work. He played here in the '60s. His dad caught on this field in the '40s (and later backstopped for Bob Feller during one of Rapid Robert's small-town exhibitions). My pops stopped coaching the 16-year-olds here in 2004, and hasn't had a son playing here since '01 (my brother, Nate), but he keeps coming back. At Jones, it's what you do. This 11,000-person town has a jewel of a field, but its real fortune is the preservation of the ballpark as a local social mecca. It's the reason this festival -- with a four day slate of games and a creaky carnival midway for the young'uns -- is a worthy first stop.
The plan all along had been to pick Dan up at the Madison airport, drive east, and within a half hour, have him suffocating in small-town Americana. Because a true baseball road trip, like an at-bat, should begin at home, and Jones Park was my old baseball stomping grounds. There, I killed innumerable days in the '90s as a first baseman, lefty pitcher, spectator ... and one laughable stint as a 14-year-old groundskeeper.
We camped out in the grandstand, cracking High Lifes amid aluminum-bat pings (the game was a mound-desecrating affair that would finish 18-16 in Jefferson's favor). I explained the finer points of groundskeeping to Hoyle -- chalking lines, dragging the infield, lighting fires ... "Fire?" he said. I was once convinced by elder players that flaming gasoline would be an effective method for drying out swamped basepaths after a monsoon. We poured out half of a can of tractor-juice towards first and third. Someone lit a match. The inferno was magnificent for about 10 seconds, but it did nothing for the field. The game was still called.
Dad started in, as fathers are wont to do, with the story of my final high school at-bat here (a home run to right). Eight years have done a wondrous thing to that tale: erased the part about the critical, run-scoring error I made in the top half of the inning. I told Dan I only had one bit of glory in the Fort-Jefferson series, a one-hitter at the start of that senior spring -- and we still lost. Their ace threw a no-hitter. He's now in Double-A with the Braves. I am now in a grandstand, eating peanuts and drinking the champagne of beers.
My Dad pointed out to Dan that a local scout was sitting a few rows behind us.
"Pro scout?" "Yeah," I said. "Devil Rays. Used to be with Cleveland." "How come you didn't get drafted?" (Smirking.)
We could've walked up there and received the explanation. I knew the answer, though. I preferred to settle, instead, for not dampering the first day of the trip.
Road Trip All-Star No. 1: Roger Cluver, Brat Master
Roger, in his grill-area throne.
Cluver occupies a cabinet position at Jones for which there are no term limits: He has been the grillmaster, specializing in brats, for 30 years. In Fort, his name is as synonymous with pork sausage as Charlie Murphy. Today, however, he got a forced respite. "I was just in the hospital -- I had a stroke," he explained. "After a week, I told them, 'I've gotta get out of here -- I've got games to go to.'" So he was back, sitting a few feet away from the grill while it was manned by a reserve. When asked for his grilling secrets, Cluver turned in the direction of the brat-backup and said, "You don't burn 'em -- like he's doing." -- Dan Hoyle