Madison, Wisconsin is a great college town. Over the last 10 years, it’s been voted as the best college sports town, the healthiest city in America, and the best city to live in. University of Wisconsin football reigns supreme here, and there are plenty of outdoor activity opportunities in both warm and cold weather.
However, as a metropolitan area with more than 800,000 residents, professional baseball has struggled to maintain a foothold. After a 40 year absence of the minors, the Madison Muskies began Midwest League play in 1982. After a 12 year run, the Muskies moved on and were replaced by the Madison Hatters, but they only lasted for the 1994 season. The Northern League came calling in 1996, and lasted for another five seasons.
Since 2001, Madison has been home to the Madison Mallards, a summer collegiate team in the Northwoods League, and it appears they have found their baseball footing. With an average attendance over 6,000 a game, they attract twice as many patrons as any team in college summer ball, and would rank in the middle of the pack in the AAA International League for average attendance.
A Mallards game offers a unique experience. On the surface you have a fairly typical ballpark experience at Warner Park from first to third and around home plate. But, get out into the right field corner, and there’s a fraternity party that’s broken out in the Duck Blind - an all you can eat and drink party section just beyond the foul pole.
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The focus of the Duck Blind is beer, with as many as 20 beers on tap. Local breweries Great Dane, Goose Island and Polosi are featured along with typical Budweiser and Michelob products. Beer is served in the Duck Blind until the 8th inning. Pepsi products are also available, but the soda machines are swarming with hornets after the spilled liquid sugar.
Food in the Duck Blind is a little more generic. You can choose from burgers, dogs, two kinds of sausage, and chicken sliders. The more unique food items are outside the party deck. The $11 Porktopia Pigwich is a heart attack on a plate, with a pork chop, pulled pork, bacon and bacon infused mayonnaise, all topped with fried pork rinds. It can be found at Stoddard's smokehouse, in the courtyard behind home plate, along with turkey legs and a smoked brisket that's smoked overnight before every home game. They offer beef jerky and beef sticks as snacks, and of course there's fried cheese curds wherever you go in Wisconsin. Down the right field line there's a dairy barn with desserts and frozen treats.
Here you have two unique experiences. The Duck Blind is a fraternity party. Despite all the gluttony sections that have popped up around baseball in the last five years, there's really nothing like this. The Blind is packed with people, and for them, the game is somewhat of an afterthought. It's a pre-fixe hangout. There are some reserved seats, but it's more a guideline than anything, and with people standing everywhere, there's no guarantee that your seats will maintain your view of the field. Even if it did, you're tucked so tightly into the corner, you at best have an obstructed view through the foul pole. The good news is that you can get your eat and drink on, then wander out to the rest of the park, and come back when you're thirsty.
The remainder of the park is typically family friendly with good sight lines down either baseline. Being college ball, there are no stars, so it's a very pure baseball for baseball's sake experience. They are near a sellout every night, but because a large percentage of the crowd is out in right field, it never feels crowded.
As a fun fact, they've recycled some seats from Camden Yards in their latest round of improvements, so the box seats are a little more roomy and comfortable than in years past.
This is not a neighborhood park. It's set out on its own in a large community park on the northeast side of Madison, with a highway bordering it on the north, and a lake and green space South and East. Madison is a great town to explore, so be sure to make the trip to experience Wisconsin's capital city.
The fans are great, and you get a nice mix of people, between the families in the seating bowls and the party goers in the Duck Blind. However, one thing that was noticeable was that the alcohol content never created an unfriendly environment. There's no rowdy element - just a relaxed mellow, Midwestern vibe.
Getting to the game is easy. There's no mass transit, but there's plenty of free parking for the good highway access. In an effort to foster good health, the Mallards have special promotions in the Bike Blind, including free tire filling and bike washing by Mallards staffers in the VIP bike parking area.
The cost of $25-$30 for all you can eat seats are an obvious ballpark bargain. If you have 3 beers and a couple of dogs, you'll spend more than that just about anywhere in organized ball. In the seating bowl, tickets can range between $9 and $15, and the seats are never more than 15-20 rows off the field.
In all, the Mallards know you're out for the night, and they're offering a bargain night out with family and friends. Beyond the seats, they offer reasonably priced extras to help keep your wallet open.
College summer ball is a lot like spring training used to be, and the accessibility to the players is unmatched. After the game, the players hang around the 3rd base concourse, between the field and the clubhouse and happily sign autographs for little kids, and even give away some batting gloves and baseballs while they chat with friends.
I'd love to see this happen more often, but I know it's almost impossible for players with any celebrity. It always makes me sad to see professional autograph hounds who bring boxes full of photos and balls for A ball players to sign. It removes a level of innocence and purity from the game. It's great to see it alive and well at the collegiate level.
**David Berger is the founder of Ticket to the Game.
Nonononononono, never again.
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