Most Mallards fans don't pay much attention to what happens around the Warner Park Duck Pond immediately after a game. As the final autograph seekers shout their thank-yous and vendors count their cash, the college kids who spend their summers learning how to hit with wood bats and survive the rigors of a 68-game schedule emerge from the clubhouse in shorts and flip-flops to chat.
A lot of these guys are from the South and are the media go-to guys on their college teams. They are adept at giving cliché-riddled statements about getting your work in every day, taking care of business, adopting a lunch-pail mindset and having a one-game-at-a-time mentality. But occasionally a player will let his guard down and admit that spending a summer playing for the Mallards is a blast.
"Everybody got up here in late May, early June, and we came together like that," says Luke Stewart, the Mallards' hard-hitting first baseman from Alabama-Birmingham. "I think C.J. Thieleke is the best manager in this league. He's easygoing and keeps everybody loose. When it's time to get to work, he gets to work. But he likes to have fun, and that helps us relax and play the game."
Last Sunday, the Mallards came up one run short to the Thunder Bay Border Cats in the Northwoods League championship series. But it was clear around the clubhouse, especially after the Mallards swept the Wisconsin Woodchucks in the divisional playoffs last week, that this was a season worth celebrating.
"We got to play for a title," says Thieleke. "And regardless of whether it's school ball or summer ball, they don't just hand those opportunities out."
Stewart, who could return to Madison next summer after completing his senior year in Birmingham, says the season, particularly with postseason play and an additional round-trip to Thunder Bay, makes him optimistic about the future.
"We knew coming into this league that we'd have to play 68 games, and we know that if we want to get to the next level, they play 162," he says. "Hopefully, we'll all get to play pro ball, and we'll be that much better because of all the games we played in this league."
Verona on the verge
It took 11 innings, but the Verona Cavaliers beat Hollandale last Sunday, 6-5, to win the Home Talent League's Western Section. For the sixth time in eight years, they'll enter the round-robin, final-four playoffs. Sun Prairie, Middleton and Utica are also in the running.
"Every team that we play is gunning for us, throwing the best pitchers at us," says manager Dale Burgenske. "I think I've convinced our players to expect that, and it doesn't bother us anymore. If you're always mentally in the game and you're a good, close-knit group of guys, then there's always hope that you're going to stay in close games and win."
Playoff games will be held on the next three Sundays, and the team with the best record will claim the trophy. Follow the action and read some colorful stories on hometalentbaseball.blogspot.com, a blog compiled by league enthusiast Brian Carriveau, who has a book on the 2008 season in the works.
Mustangs too good for their own good?
Back in May, I caught up with the Madison Mustangs as they trained for the 2008 season. Since then, they have reeled off 10 straight victories, outscoring their opponents in the Ironman Football League 532-43.
This Sunday at 5 p.m., the Mustangs host the Milwaukee Venom - a team they beat 54-10 on July 6 - in the conference championship game at Middleton High School. If they win that game, they'll play in the Iron Bowl, also at Middleton High, on Sept. 6.
Team owner Bob Gingras has expressed hope that the Mustangs are destined for "a better stadium where we can sell beer and draw more fans." But before that can happen, some of the league's other teams must address their level of play.
Muskego, identified as the Mustangs' biggest rival heading into the season, fell to Madison, 36-0, in week one. The Mustangs later crushed the Fond du Lac Crusaders, 59-0, in the first round of the playoffs.
People can be convinced to watch football in the summer, particularly if Gingras can come up with some fun promotions. But if games are typically over after the first quarter....