Vern Stenman and I are standing in the bucket of an industrial lift 30 feet above the Duck Blind party deck at Warner Park. The general manager of the Madison Mallards has a cordless drill in one hand and a cell phone in the other as he simultaneously mounts a sign, consults with team owner Steve Schmitt, who is directing him from the field below, and tells me how he landed in Madison six years ago, along with the Northwoods League franchise.
"Have you ever met Dick Radatz?" Stenman asks. "Dick Radatz Jr. is the president of the Northwoods League. His dad was Dick Radatz Sr., this huge guy, like 6'6", who pitched for the Red Sox. They called him 'The Monster,' and I think he struck out Mickey Mantle something like 47 out of the 50 times he faced him. [Actually, 54 out of 67.] They based the Sam Malone character in Cheers on him. Anyway, Radatz wanted Madison to have one of the first teams when he started the league in 1994."
Many conversations with Stenman work this way. There's a rapid-fire sharing of information, some thinking out loud and plenty of digressions.
Stenman, a native of St. Cloud, Minn., previously worked for the Northwoods League's St. Cloud River Bats and the National Hockey League's Minnesota Wild. At 29, he's driven, funny, optimistic and self-deprecating - all qualities in full display last Thursday, opening day for the Mallards, which I spent following him around Warner Park.
Thanks in large part to Stenman, the Mallards are a local cultural phenomenon. As the team begins its seventh season, it is a model for success in the growing business of summer college baseball.
The Mallards averaged 6,056 fans per game in 2006, easily tops among the nation's summer collegiate clubs. At some point this season, the team will sell its millionth ticket, a feat thought impossible seven years ago, when the Madison Black Wolf of the independent Northern League folded its operation after five seasons.
Credit for the Mallards' good fortune goes to Stenman and Schmitt, who have crafted a ballpark experience that features goofy promotions, an aggressive style of baseball, and an outfield party deck that separates the leather-lunged, beer-swilling crowd from those seeking a night of family entertainment.
They have improved the park every year and built winning teams, at the same time making the fan experience the top priority.
"Vern's philosophy is like mine," says Schmitt. "If you never try it, you'll never know. We don't know a lot, still. But we light it up, play good music and give 'er heck. Try to keep smiles on faces."
As noon approaches, stacks of lumber block entry to the area behind home plate as carpenters work to install more than 100 old seats salvaged from Milwaukee County Stadium. As with seemingly everything at the Duck Pond, there's an amusing story behind the seats.
"The Clinton Lumber Kings down in Iowa had this ad on ballparkdigest.com for 500 County Stadium seats that they bought but never used, for some reason," says Stenman. "We were able to get a better deal than I anticipated, so we bought all 500 of them. So let's say we get a new stadium project together in the next couple years, maybe we could have a bleacher section in left field and it would be all County Stadium seats. That would be kind of cool."
Cabinets to hold 14 flat-panel TVs are also being installed around the park. The TVs will carry the same closed-circuit feed of home games that fans can view on the Mallards Web site, www.mallardsbaseball.com. Stenman frets about the angle of the cabinets in-between fielding phone calls from reporters and supervising the painting of a new cotton-candy counter and pulling some weeds near the concession stands.
What's on his to-do list? "At this point, there's no plan," says Stenman. "I'm just kind of reacting."
Amid other tasks, Stenman recalls his first year on the job: "It was really kind of fun in a way because everybody said, 'The media won't talk about you, the sponsors won't support you, the fans won't care, you won't get any season ticket holders.' To me, there was nothing to lose, and it was fun because of that."
The club's success has changed the equation. Stenman now presides over a staff of seven full-timers who work year-round. That leaves him more time to think about the big picture.
"On a daily basis, I sit and look at our to-date ticket sales and compare it to where we were last year, and if we're not there, I start to panic," he says. "I wasn't doing that in 2001 or 2002. I look at Web traffic all the time now, and I never used to care."
Stenman's desk is located in the corner of the Mallards office. When the current building replaced an old trailer a couple years ago, Stenman was inspired to put seating on the roof, in the tradition of the rooftop gardens that overlook Wrigley Field, and luxury suites behind the left-field fence. They're popular destinations for corporate outings, a growing source of revenue for the club.
Boxes of pocket schedules and baseballs litter the floor, and autographed photos compete with pennants and posters for wall space. Marketing manager Koby Schellenger is listening as Stenman is on the phone sharing his displeasure with a sales rep over a dropped ad.
"Y'know, make-goods are fine," he says. "But there's only one opening day."
After hanging up, he plows through e-mails and consults with Schellenger over some missing banners while some interns fill me in on the "Big Fly," a zip line that will send Maynard G. Mallard, the team's mascot, hurtling from atop the Duck Blind to home plate each game, allowing him to toss sub sandwiches into the crowd along the way.
"He'll have some colored smoke, if we can make it work without burning him," says Megan Ritchie.
Another intern, Ryan McShane, drove up from Arkansas two weeks earlier and was immediately put in charge of laying out the 100-page game program. In his first week on the job, he clocked 100 hours.
Today the interns are painting, hanging banners, stocking refrigerators and doing any other jobs that Stenman and his staff throw their way. They're paid $1,000 for a summer's worth of this.
Stenman's typical pace falls just short of jogging, and he greets everyone he meets on his jaunts around the park. The sun is out now, and the humidity has the Mallards staff looking haggard.
"The real story of the Mallards," says Stenman, wiping sweat from his forehead, "is the ridiculous amount of Gold Bond we go through in a summer."
In the press box, Schellenger has convened a production meeting with some interns, most of whom are unfamiliar with the team's in-game promotions, including the gigantic water balloon slingshot.
"Have you guys set it up yet?" Stenman asks an intern, who nods yes. "So you know it works? You flung some balloons with it?"
"Well, we flung it," she replies. "We didn't fling any balloons, but we flung it."
Promotions are a big part of Mallards games. Last year, for the Thunder Bay Border Cats' first visit to the park, the Mallards wore hockey jerseys on the field and played Celine Dion over the loudspeakers until a certain amount of money for a local charity had been raised.
This year, Stenman and his staff have concocted some new ideas. One involves using the team's sumo wresting costume to sell sushi in the stands. Stenman loves the idea.
"There are seven of us working in the office every day, all day together," he says. "We almost have to talk about ideas all the time, because if we didn't, summer would almost be too far away. That's what we live for. We work 9½ months for 2½ months. It's a weird life because of that, but you want to remind yourself about the fun parts of it."
The gates to the Duck Pond open at 5 p.m., and fans pour in, negotiating a gauntlet created by street teams from four radio stations, a Dixieland band and other attractions. Stenman is in high gear. I frequently lose sight of him, but his voice shows up on the radios carried by all staffers.
"Somebody collected all the TV remote controls, can you tell me where they are?" he asks, only to be greeted by silence. "Anyone?"
Later, during the bottom of the second, I run into him near the Mallards' dugout; he admits he hasn't seen a pitch yet. He still runs a couple promotions during games, a role he clearly enjoys. He enthusiastically greets Matt and Jess, tonight's contestants in "Sing for Your Supper," where the one who draws the most applause singing a verse from "Do Wah Diddy Diddy" wins a gift certificate to Outback Steakhouse.
"It's all about putting a show on," Stenman tells them. "Do you know the words?"
He suddenly gets on the radio and asks an intern to find out how fans in the newly installed County Stadium seats are enjoying the view. Then, a second later, he's on the field with a microphone: "Hello, Mallards fans!"
A few innings later, a fan makes a nifty barehanded catch of a foul ball down the left-field line. Stenman is off doing something else, and he sounds regretful when I tell him about it.
"That's one of the bad parts of this job," he says. "So many cool things happen during a game, and I don't get to see that many of them."
With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Mallard Mitch Saum hits a double to tie the game. They go on to win on a wild pitch in the bottom of the 10th.
Stenman is thrilled that the guys who came up big at the end of the game - Saum, Bobby Hubbard and Jordan Comadena - are returning players. With all he does to help make games a big party, it's often easy to forget that Stenman is intimately involved in the baseball side of the operation.
"My job with the baseball [side] is more the theory of the team than the nuts and bolts of the team," he says. "This year we talked a lot about the conferences where we wanted players and the types of players we wanted. Then C.J. [Thieleke, the field manager] goes out and finds those kids."
It's past 11 p.m., and most fans have left the park. For the first time all day, Stenman's phone isn't ringing every three minutes. As we stroll toward the gate, he's walking at a reasonable clip, talking about subjects other than the Mallards. Stenman and his wife have a baby on the way, and the end of this season will mean ramping up the team's campaign for a new stadium at Warner Park.
"All the stress and really positive things happen at the same time," he reflects. "I don't ever really think it feels too much like a job. I think if it ever did, I'd know I was probably in the wrong place."