Proving that there ain't no party like a Madison Mallards party, dozens of local baseball fans filed into the downtown Great Dane Thursday night to eat bratwurst, quaff beers and get a glimpse of what's in store for the 2008 season from the team's management.
The Mallards will open their eighth season in the Northwoods League, a summer collegiate wood bat circuit, on May 29 at Warner Park, affectionately dubbed the "Duck Pond." Fans will find some big improvements including a statue honoring the team's millionth fan, Maynard's hamburger stand serving 100% locally sourced food and a digital video scoreboard in center field.
But general manager Vern Stenman assured the faithful fans at the Dane that plenty of what has made Mallards games a Madison summer staple will be back this year as well, including promotional night that border on the absurd.
"We made a list of some celebrities we thought we wanted to bring to the Duck Pond and got in touch with their agents to see what we could afford," he said. "For instance, Mr. T goes for $100,000. We can't afford that. Gary Coleman we can afford and maybe we can get him an at-bat as a little tribute to Bill Veeck and Eddie Gaedel."
Stenman was referring to the legendary White Sox owner who once inserted the small-statured Gaedel, with a tiny strike zone, into the lineup for a major league game in 1951. Stenman has made no secret of the fact that he takes a certain Veeckian delight in programming some of his team's zanier promotions.
Team manager C.J. Thieleke modeled the Mallards' new alternate uniform, a red jersey featuring a new logo and matching red cap, while detailing the 2008 roster. The 29-player roster might change a little between now and opening day, but Mallards veterans Brian Smith, Brandon Wikoff, Eric Nielsen, Russell Harben, Scott Heitshusen, Travis High, Nathan Kafka, Evan LeBlanc and Edgewood alum Craig Meier are currently signed to return.
Thieleke acknowledged that the club is hoping to open a remodeled Duck Pond for the 2009 season and that prompted him to find a solid group of freshmen who he hopes will mesh with the vets and be with the team for two or three seasons.
"The fans are always in our thoughts," he said. "Will fans enjoy this player? That's the number one question we always ask ourselves."
The full roster, as well as the schedule and a list of promotions, is listed on www.mallardsbaseball.com. Single-game tickets go on sale via the website on Saturday, April 26.