People rapidly approach the ticket sale windows while others patiently wait in a line that stretches past the sidewalk outside of the ballpark. Music begins to play as staff members grinning from ear-to-ear open the gates and welcome fans to their nine-inning vacation.
Little do some know, this scene was not a familiar one in Madison 19 years ago.
On June 2, 2001, Warner Park opened its gates as the Duck Pond for the first time after the Northwoods Collegiate Baseball League added another organization to the mix. The team was then purchased from the Northwoods League in March 2001 by business man, Steve Schmitt, who named the team the Madison Mallards and brought the green and gold to the North side of the capital.
“The commissioner of the Northwoods League called and asked what I thought about bringing a baseball team back to Madison,” Schmitt said. “I am a huge baseball fan, I grew up playing the sport.”
Although the Mallards have been competing at the Duck Pond for almost two decades, the journey of baseball at Warner Park dates back to 1982. The Mallards are the fourth team to call Warner Park home. It all started with the Madison Muskies, a Single-A Midwest League Oakland A’s affiliate.
Warner Park was known as the “Fish Bowl” for the Muskies between 1982 and 1993. After fan attendance declined each season, the Muskies swam away from Madison and relocated to Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1994, becoming the West Michigan Whitecaps.
However, Warner Park did not remain empty for long.
The Muskies were quickly replaced by a St. Louis Cardinals affiliate, the Madison Hatters in 1994. The Hatters story is much shorter than the Muskies, as the team only lasted one year in Madison before relocating to Battle Creek, Michigan.
Warner Park was deserted after the Hatters departed, until 1996.
A third team, the Madison Black Wolf, took over the stadium as their “Wolf Den.” The Black Wolf survived five years in the city before relocating to Lincoln, Nebraska after the 2000 season.
Since each team that attempted to occupy the ballpark failed, the city of Madison was deemed a non-baseball town and was said to have a lack of passion for the sport.
Steve Schmitt wanted to prove the former teams and the city residents wrong.
“I knew people who worked for the previous teams and they told me no one would want to come to Warner Park and that bringing baseball back to the city could not be done,” Schmitt said. “ I always say that you will never know unless you try, so that’s what I did.”
Today, most know the Mallards as an organization that successfully fills stands with thousands of fans every home game. Nonetheless, drawing in fans during the first few seasons was not easy.
Promotions in the early 2000’s summers included letting people in for free if they were from certain cities of Wisconsin, or wearing a ball cap for a specific team.
“I could sit in the press box and count the number of fans in the stadium,” Schmitt said. “We had less than two hundred fans in the beginning, I tried everything.”
It was not until the stadium started to consistently grow more packed that tickets were of high demand and prices began to rise. Attendance started to pick up after each season, the Mallards began to average hundreds to a few thousands fans per game.
Now, the Mallards have achieved selling tickets that add up to a 6,000 fan crowd almost every game. Last year, the Mallards were named the team with best fan attendance in all of summer collegiate baseball by Ballpark Digest, after reeling in 218,712 total fans during the 2018 summer.
Photo: Madison Mallards