It’s the smell of the fresh grass that does it. The early morning sun, a light humid breeze foreshadowing a scorcher of a spring day and the smell of that fresh grass makes one believe that everything is starting new.
That feeling of newness and hope permeates the sport of baseball on every level. It’s what makes spring training and opening day so magical. The past is all the past and the future is unknown and bright. For some teams, there’s a falsity to that opening day feeling. The future isn’t bright. Past hurts are going to repeat themselves. Hope and newness are an illusion. For some teams – for many teams in fact – this is jarring reality the season will bring crashing down.
The Mallards, however, are not one of those teams. Last season ended in a dramatic, grueling game against Battle Creek at the Duck Pond on Madison’s north side. The Mallards faced a daunting 9-5 deficit heading into the ninth and final inning of the season in the first round of the Northwoods League playoffs. But as they had all season long they battled back, scoring three runs and putting two Mallards on the bases.
But that’s as close as they would come. They fell just one run short, ending the season on a 9-8 playoff loss.
“I know Donnie Scott, our manager, has been thinking about it since then,” said Tyler Isham, the Mallards General Manager. “He can’t wait until Tuesday night to get another game under our belt and out of the way. We’re excited. It’s going to be a really fun season and we’ve got a great group of players. Donnie obviously has a lot of success in our league and in minor league baseball, and we’re confident he’ll put out a winning team.”
The Mallards are returning Heath Renz, of the University of Whitewater, one of their best starting pitchers from last year. Renz, who started nine games last year and had 25 strikeouts was the NCAA Division III pitcher of the year.
Pitchers Luke Matheny and Mitch Vogrin also return for the Mallards this season, bolstering a bullpen that will also include Nate Brown from the University of Florida, who went to Arrowhead High School.
As usual, the Mallards will also feature several local players.
“One of our local players is Cade Bunnell, who is at Madison College,” Isham said. “He went to Stoughton. He battled injuries all spring at Madison College but he’s healthy now. His first game back from a hamstring injury about three weeks ago he hit 3 home runs. So he’ll provide some pop in the lineup in the infield spots. We also have Kian O’Brien from Madison College and Simon Rosenblum-Larson, who pitched at Madison West high school.”
Despite most of the roster turning over year in and year out, the Mallards have put together a winning culture and have made the playoffs in three of the past four seasons. The Mallards enjoy great support from the community and sell out the Duck Pond regularly. The Mallards, in turn, give back to the area as much as possible and rarely turn down an opportunity help organizations or non-profits.
“We love being part of the community on the north side for sure,” Isham said. “Last year, we partnered with the River Food Pantry just down the street here from Warner Park. We took our food at the end of every game and boxed it up, refrigerated it overnight and then they came and picked it up the next morning. So last year we donated just over 9,000 pounds of food throughout the season to River Food Pantry in a really good partnership with them.”
Isham said the Mallards donate regularly to the Boys and Girls Club, Madison Parks and Recreation and the YMCA. They use ticket sales to give back to those organizations. The Mallards also host Little League games on the east side of Madison where children get to experience the full feeling of playing in a Mallards game.
“In the 17-year history of the team we have never turned down a donation request of any type,” Isham said. “So even if it’s us donating a bobblehead to a non-profit or a door prize at a silent auction we’re always willing to give something to the community.”
The Mallards have more than doubled the number of seats in the Great Dane Duck Blind and Isham says the sightlines will be better than ever from the highly popular first come, first served seating area.
As grounds workers scurried about and ticket sales representatives hurriedly answered phones Friday, Isham seemed calm and confident. He feels good about the Mallards chances this year. But more than that, he seems assured that the organization is first class.
When asked what needs to happen for this season to be a success, Tyler Isham gave away the secret to winning baseball games and building the type of team he hopes the Mallards can be.
“We just need to make sure our hot dogs are hot and our beer is cold.”