Every summer, college baseball players from around the country fly north to become Madison Mallards. They're greeted by a ballpark full of enthusiastic fans as interested in drinking beer, devouring snacks, and engaging in kid-friendly fun. But the team's coaching staff has the unique challenge of creating a unified flock out of 25-30 individuals in a very short period of time. Who are these Mallards, and from where did they migrate?
Regardless of their backgrounds, experiences and personalities, the Mallards can agree on one thing: The goal is to play major league baseball. "I don't see myself doing anything other than playing baseball," says pitcher Trevor Foss.
The Northwoods League provides players with the opportunity to prepare for the professional life by cramming 70 games into 75 days under the lights and in front of paying crowds. Players trade in the aluminum bats they use during the college season for wooden ones, which are less forgiving, says manager Greg Labbe.
The Daily Page caught up with three players on a recent afternoon.
Derek Fisher, #7
University of Virginia
Hometown: Rexmont, Pennsylvania
Just over a year ago, the Texas Rangers chose Fisher in the sixth round of the 2011 Major League Baseball draft and offered him a contract. He turned it down and enrolled at the University of Virginia instead, where he is studying sociology and playing for the Cavaliers, often starting.
Fisher admits his decision was largely based on money -- the Rangers didn't meet the price he set. But he also thinks an extra three to four years on the field will give him more experience before he tries to get signed again.
"I was basically brought up being one of the better players," Fisher says. "I never really got to play with kids and against kids that were as good if not better than me."
Labbe says like many players, Fisher struggled when he first started playing for the Mallards because the adjustment is tough.
"He's going to be a tremendous hitter," Labbe says. "I think he just needs to learn more about the game. How to react and how to respond to certain situations."
Fisher says the biggest adjustment is the "professional lifestyle" of long road trips on a bus and playing games almost every day.
"Your body is not always going to feel good," Fisher says. "You've go to stay loose, you've got to have fun, and I think a team of that is what's going to make us good."
Luis Muñoz, #8
Coffeyville Community College
Hometown: Zulia, Venezuela
Muñoz came to the U.S. for the first time in January from Venezuela, knowing almost no English. Almost seven months later, his English is still very broken, making it difficult for his coaches and teammates to communicate with him.
Labbe says it can be challenging to get Muñoz to understand what he needs to do, but points out that there is a "universal language on the field." He also adds that there are fluent Spanish-speaking staff members on the Mallards that can help translate if necessary.
Muñoz says he hopes to one day get a contract so that he can help his mother, brother and sister, who are still in Venezuela. His father died when he was seven. Muñoz says that in Venezuela, employees are paid sometimes only $4-5 a day.
"I play hard for [the] future of my family," Muñoz says. "In Venezuela, it's a difficult life."
Muñoz says he loves Madison, his host family, his team and playing baseball.
"He's really dramatic and he's got a lot of flair with the way he plays," Labbe says. "He always seems to be the center of attention."
Muñoz describes his positive attitude towards the game. The day before, he had a bad game, going 0-5 at the plate.
"I think, 'It's no problem, tomorrow is a new day,'" Muñoz says. "It's ok. The next day, new game, new day, new pitcher, new team and maybe [I'll] hit it."
Trevor Foss, #39
Texas A&M - Corpus Christi
Hometown: Janesville, Wisconsin
Foss didn't have to come a long way to play for the Mallards, but he appreciates the opportunity all the same.
"The standard, the expectations of playing for the Mallards in the Northwoods League is head and shoulders above other leagues," Foss says.
Foss loves playing in front of family and friends. He starts every sixth game and when he does, the stands are filled with an extra 40 people cheering him on.
"I almost feel like this is me giving back to them," Foss says. "All these people who have given so much to me, and so much time and effort into making me the player and the person that I am."
Foss admits that he is a quieter member of the team, not saying much except for the occasional movie or music fact.
"We were talking about Black Sheep and Tommy Boy the other day, and Chris Farley is from this area," Foss says. "He grew up just five blocks from here, so I was giving them the rundown. I have a lot of useless information about the area."
Like all the other players, Foss stays with a host family in Madison. But after the games, he often goes home to Janesville or to Whitewater to hang out with friends.
"This is by far my favorite team I've ever played on as far as chemistry and getting along with everybody, but I'm home, and I don't get to come home very often so I'm enjoying the time with family and friends," Foss says.