The first part of the drive from Madison to Appleton is pleasant enough, with broad expanses of farmland rushing by. But the view from Oshkosh on is dominated by strip malls, including the neighborhood surrounding the home of the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers.
Even from the parking lot, it would be easy to confuse the cinderblock structure with a factory outlet store, were it not for the knots of tailgaters grilling their pre-game feasts. In most respects, Time Warner Cable Field at Fox Cities Stadium is a fine venue for baseball. But the scrubby woods and Highway 41 beyond the outfield wall leave it somewhat lacking in the backdrop department.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, the scene on the field typifies the chaotic goofiness that makes minor league baseball fun. Today's game is between the Rattlers and the Beloit Snappers. It's a match-up that promises - and delivers - a lot of bite.
Suiting up for the Snappers is left-handed Ben Revere, who has the best current batting average in professional baseball at .403. The Minnesota Twins drafted the speedy, if diminutive, center fielder last year in the first round, and they expect great things from him.
The Snappers' roster also includes relief pitcher Spencer Steedley, who hit .260 in 40 games as an outfielder for the Madison Mallards in 2006. His pitching that summer was limited to one three-inning appearance, during which he scattered three hits and gave up no runs. So far this season, Steedley has an impressive 2.14 ERA in 46 innings as Beloit's closer.
The team also includes 7'1" relief pitcher Loek Van Mil, pro baseball's tallest player, and 5'3" infielder Chris Cates, the game's shortest.
The Rattlers don't boast a similar circus sideshow, but they do have Joe Dunigan, who, despite a .197 batting average, goes three for four on Sunday, including a solo homer in the ninth that ties the game at 11.
In the early 1990s, when Major League Baseball rolled out facility standards for minor league teams, the Appleton club faced a predicament: rehab historic Goodland Field in downtown Appleton, or build a new park. It did the latter, on the outskirts of town, also changing the team's name from the Appleton Foxes to the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers.
"We're really a regional team now," says Rob Zerjav, the Rattlers' president and general manager. "We draw well from a 60-mile radius, but people also come here from the U.P., Madison, Waupaca, Door County, all over the state."
Before the start of Sunday's game, families are playing catch in left field, and players are posing for photos with fans. Attesting to Appleton's status as an All-American town, vendors in the concourse sell military-themed souvenirs, including (presumably disarmed) mortar shells.
The Timber Rattlers are attired in patriotic jerseys emblazoned with the stars and stripes, which will be auctioned off for charity after the game.
Just under 2,000 fans are spread out over the 5,500-capacity park. The Rattlers are struggling this year; going into Sunday's game, they've lost nine straight and occupy the Midwest League's Western Division cellar with a 3-15 record in the season's second half. Beloit, on the other hand, leads the division with a 12-6 record.
"The losing does hurt attendance," says Zerjav. "As much as the fans like to come out and have a good time, there's still about 20% who want to see your team win and succeed. We've had a few people who haven't renewed season tickets with us this year because of how the team has been struggling."
The game is tied at five going into the seventh inning when the Snappers pile up five runs, including a grand slam from catcher Allan de San Miguel. Then the Rattlers put up four of their own in the bottom of the inning. In the ninth, with their team down two runs and some fans heading to the gates, first baseman Ron Garth and Dunigan hit back-to-back homers to ensure extra innings. But Beloit gets one across in the 11th, and Steedley slams the door on the Rattlers' comeback chances. Final score: 12-11.
On their way out of the park, fans walk past a series of displays honoring Appleton's rich baseball history.
"Alex Rodriguez played here," says Zerjav. "I think even if you're not a baseball fan, a lot of people know who Alex Rodriguez is. Maybe you're a Madonna fan and now you know who A-Rod is. But it's neat to know he started here. He was only in the minors for a year, and half of that year was in Appleton, so he sees himself as a former Appleton Fox. People around here take a lot of pride in stories like that."