This Thursday at Warner Park, the Madison Mallards will likely welcome their one-millionth fan since the team came to town in 2001. In true Mallards style, the club plans to mark the occasion by commissioning a statue in the fan's likeness.
"That's not a joke," declared Mallards announcer Aaron Sims when his proclamation of this prize at last Sunday's game was met with scattered laughter. "That's really the promotion!"
Forgive local sports fans their skepticism. After all, they watched UW athletic director Barry Alvarez preside over the dedication of his own statue outside Camp Randall stadium last fall. In an era when big-time sports are increasingly the purview of skybox patrons, moments when ordinary fans are sincerely honored are few and far between.
Except at Mallards games.
Here fans are used to rewards - and not just the kind that come free with a ticket at the team's frequent promotion nights. The club has reached the Northwoods League playoffs the last four seasons, winning the championship in 2004.
This season has been more of a roller coaster ride. After finishing the first half with a mediocre 16-18 record, the Mallards lost six of their first seven games in the second half before experiencing a Eureka! moment on a road trip to Green Bay.
"We got hot the second game against Green Bay when we put up seven in the first inning and realized we could score runs like that every night," says Brian Smith, a right-handed pitcher from Northern Illinois who also plays first base and right field. "Our bunting game worked that night, and we've been using it every game since then. Once [Mallard manager] C.J. [Thieleke] got it into our heads that bunting wins games in this league, we've been doing it, and it's been working."
Since winning that game 13-4, the Mallards have won 18 of 20 games with a 14-game winning streak heading into Wednesday night's game. This creates a race for the playoffs that might be decided this weekend when they welcome Eau Claire to town. Thieleke credits the team's success to locking into a consistent starting lineup.
"In this league, they allow you to sign 30 kids, but only 26 can be active," he says. "For the first three-quarters of the year almost, we would have three or four kids not active for 10 days. We just got to the point where we shrank our group to 26 kids, with nobody around that's not active, and we started throwing the same lineup out there, which got our guys comfortable. We platoon a little bit at the catcher's spot, play a couple different guys at second base and out in right field. But other than that, the first six hitters have been consistent."
That first six included three Mallards veterans: Jordan Comadena (batting average .295), Randy Molina (.337) and Bobby Hubbard (.308). Add first-time Mallards Daniel Webb (.287), Brandon Wikoff (.336) and Evan LeBlanc (.277), and it's no wonder opposing pitchers are getting beat up.
"At first, we had a lot of different lineups, and guys were getting days off here and there," says Comadena. "It's only lately that we've had a steady lineup with guys playing every day, so we're feeling pretty fresh. The bat's not feeling too heavy in my hands. Hopefully, I can keep that same feel for the next couple weeks here."
Keeping that same feel is a polite way of saying you don't screw with a streak, and even Thieleke will admit to some superstitious behavior over the past few weeks.
"There are some little things you definitely pay attention to," he says, scratching his stubble in his clubhouse office. "I haven't really shaved, same undershirt, same socks. I normally clean my shoes up before every game, but I haven't for about two weeks now. We try to keep things just as they are. I'm not nuts about it - I'm not eating the same thing every day."
Wearing the same socks isn't a little nuts? But a winning frame of mind is what the Mallards have established in seven years, which makes Warner Park a fun place to be, for the players as well as the fans.
"Guys are just loving to come to the park," says Comadena. "It being so late in the summer, some teams are starting to wear down. On some of the teams that are struggling a little in the second half, maybe out of the playoffs, guys are ready to go home. But this team has gotten stronger and closer together in the last two weeks than any other team I've been with. We're playing such good baseball that if we make it into the playoffs, I'm sure we'll be the hottest team."