On a balmy mid-summer evening in Madison, Wisconsin there is plenty to do. A college town and home of the University of Wisconsin, people scurry about their everyday lives. But there is a place in the center of town that helps about 7000 of those people unwind, relax, and most importantly, it is a place that lives, eats, and breathes college baseball when the Madison Mallards are in town. That place is the “Duck Pond”, home field for the Mallards since 2001 and a member of the Northwood’s college summer baseball league.
Knowing I was going to be in Madison I was curious to catch a game and luckily enough they were playing at home against Eau Claire. It seemed like your run-of-the-mill ballpark, that is, until I parked the car and headed up to the park to get a ticket. Duck prints on the sidewalk lead me to the entrance. It was bobble head night, and the featured bobble head was not of one of the players, but of the owner. I saw grown men running to get in line to ensure they would secure a bobble head, and at that point I knew I was in for something a little different.
The Madison Mallard mascot rip-corded in from high above right field to home plate after the national anthem. People were lined up in droves to get a “Curd Burger”. The announcer chastised a few regular season ticket holders for “jumping like little girls” when a foul ball came back towards the backstop screen. It was a constant barrage of trivia, pop music, organ music, and an atmosphere that has a bit of a carnival feel to it. For nine innings the only time there was ever a lull was when the pitcher started his wind-up or started to come to the set position. Only then, for a brief moment did the music, trivia, organist, and announcer fall silent. The minute the ball popped the catcher’s mitt or was put into play the antics started right up again.
It is exactly what Estevan Uriegas anticipated when he agreed to play in Madison. As a junior pitcher at Texas A&M, coach Rob Childress wanted him to play in a competitive summer league where he could get some innings, play against good competition, and work on his velocity.
“One of our assistants said he had a great place to play in Madison, Wisconsin . Wood bat league, Uriegas explained, “ I had been asked back to Alaska but it sounded great to come up here. Great competition, lots of scouts, and everyone loves baseball here.”
Uriegas wasn’t alone. Tyler Jones, a local on the team out of Madison Technical College and headed to LSU, said he was working on a change-up this summer.
“Summer ball here is really competitive but it is easier to come out and work on different pitches. It’s a lot easier to come out here and be loose, work on things, and experiment,” Jones said.
It was very appropriate that Kyle Gaedel, great nephew of the (in)famous Eddie Gaedel (who standing just 3’7” tall, was the shortest player in the history of the major leagues ), had the opportunity to play in Madison this summer. The right fielder out of Valparaiso University said the transition to using a wood bat is definitely just that, a transition. “You can definitely get away with some things with an aluminum bat, but it took a couple of weeks to a month to get used to using wood” noted Gaedel.
Eau Claire first basemen Josh Scheffert (University of Nebraska) said using a wood bat even becomes more difficult when you are playing every day. “It’s been a little difficult and been a fight to get my swing back to what it was this spring, but I know it is helping me in the long run.”
Eau Claire right fielder Michael Blatchford (Creighton University) said that playing in front of 7000 people a night is something he could get used to. “It’s great. Just playing in front of all these fans….it’s a great experience. I’m just up here trying to get stronger, work on my game, and this is a great place to do that.”
So, if you are ever in Madison, Wisconsin, take a trip down to the Duck Pond to catch a glimpse at some of college baseball’s stars of the future. Take a walk around the stadium. Listen to the hum of excitement as game time approaches. Get yourself a curd burger, a soda, and settle in for an evening filled with all kinds of antics, oh, and some pretty darn good baseball as well. Is it Heaven? Nope, but pretty darn close if you are a baseball fan. Madison Mallards….well done.