Inside a Madison Mallards Gameday

Inside a Madison Mallards Gameday
Madison Mallards players prepare for the start of gameday.

If you ask someone when a Mallards gameday starts, they may tell you “7:05” or “Gates open at 5 or so.” What they’re really telling you is what time the more than six thousand fans show up at Warner Park, ready to eat food, drink beer and watch collegiate summer baseball.

In reality, by the time the crowds pack the Duck Pond’s gates, gameday has usually been in motion since 6 a.m., when Maple Leaf Landscaping comes to mow the field.

“They will mow either on the day of the game or the day before,” says Mallards general manager Conor Caloia, “before anybody gets here.”

After a gentle start, operations lurch into motion at 8:30 a.m., when the fifteen full-time Mallards staff members arrive, and go full tilt when the twenty-five interns arrive a half hour later. And the first order of business is preparing the field.

“Between our interns and our full-time staff and even some of the assistant coaches, we kind of handle all the dirt,” says Caloia. “Chalking the bases and dragging the field, that falls on us.”

For director of operations Matt Lowrey, this work has a certain appeal. “I like to get my hands dirty,” Lowrey says. “I like to get out and work in the field or break a sweat.”

Meanwhile, field manager Donnie Scott is happy to start cleaning the clubhouse.

“I figure if you have a little discipline in the clubhouse, you’re going to have it on the field,” Scott says. “That’s why I like to keep it tidy.”

A focus on food also begins around 9 a.m., when concession supplies start arriving at the back gate—about eight semi-trucks will deliver burgers, brats and kegs on a peak gameday.

Executive chef Tristan Straub spends the morning managing those shipments, doing inventory and preparing food for the four suites and general concessions.

“I’ll make some barbecue sauce and things like that for our regular menu,” Straub says. “Most of my time up to, say, half an hour or an hour before the gates open is in the Duck Blind,” the popular all-you-can-eat-and-drink party deck that serves up to 1,244 fans. “That’s where our big production kitchen is.”

Indeed, food is no afterthought at the Duck Pond. At the main concession stand, ballpark favorites—hot dogs, brats, soda and peanuts—are supplemented with cheese curds, Caesar salad, chicken sandwiches and even poutine. Other specialties are scattered throughout the park, from gourmet beef, veggie and salmon burgers at Maynard’s Slide-In Diner near the first-base grandstands to brisket sandwiches behind home plate at Stoddard’s Smokehouse, named for the Cottage Grove meat market where the brats are sourced.

The Mallards pride themselves on local partnerships. All hot dogs come from Madison’s own Oscar Mayer, and the Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co. not only sponsors the Duck Blind, it also brews a special beer—Mallards Pilsner—exclusively for the park.

The afternoon signals the arrival of the players, who head to the field for catching and batting practice before the game. The twenty-six Mallards—most hailing from Wisconsin and Illinois, but some coming from as far away as New York, New Jersey, California, Washington, Florida and even Canada—are all college students spending their summer gaining experience in the Northwoods League and bunking with local host families.

“It’s pretty important to get there early to get your infield work in. Same with batting practice,” says infielder and Sun Prairie native Michael Handel. “You probably get there around 1 o’clock, do a bunch of work and hang out with the guys in the locker room.”

So what exactly does an infielder do to practice for a gameday?

“[You] ask one of the coaches to hit ground balls and work on ground hits, work on throwing to first, work on turning double plays with your second baseman,” Handel says. “It’s a lot of fun when you get somebody else to go out there and work there with you as well.”

For field manager Scott, these early practices not only fortify players’ skills but also prepare their minds. “I feel like these guys have to get into a routine, so every day we expect them to show up and get their early work done, whether in cages with spot tossing or tee work or just extra batting work.

“It’s a full day. I mean, most of the players are going to be there no later than 1 o’clock and be getting out of there roughly 11 o’clock at night. So they put in their time.”

Five o’clock is when Patrick Mahoney—or, rather,  Maynard G. Mallard—touches down at Warner Park. 

After playing the team’s mascot for the past five summers, Mahoney is well aware of the weight and responsibility of his role.

“I think probably my most important job is getting the fans involved. Obviously, I can’t talk, so I make sure people are smiling.”

Once Mahoney dons his costume and ensures he has a steady supply of water, he’s ready for whatever the night should demand of him—starting with zip-lining onto the field before the first pitch.

Mahoney delves into Maynard with an actor’s aplomb, taking on a comic swagger and other traits he’s developed to please the crowd.

“I am no longer Patrick when I have the suit on,” he says. “I am Maynard.”

As the traditional workday ends across Madison, the Mallards’ more than three hundred part-time gameday staffers from kitchen workers to cashiers start pouring into the stadium. They must be ready for the fans before the gates open at 5:30.

For beer pourer Mary Rieder, who works primarily in the Duck Blind, preparation is no-nonsense.

“We get all the kegs tapped up and we get the beer ready to pour,” she says.

As staffers prepare, so do the fans, some of whom have been tailgating in the parking lot, firing up grills and festivities before heading to the gates. On popular bobblehead giveaway nights, the crowd starts queuing up as early as 4:15 p.m.

When the gates open, crowds rain upon the park and the noise level shoots up decibels, with shouts and whoops of conversation, kids at play and the rhythm of shoes on metal bleachers.

And all the energy that’s been building since just after sunrise crescendoes, peaking at 7:05 p.m., when it’s finally time to play ball. 

Sean Reichard  is a UW–Madison student, writer and former Madison Mallards usher.