The Madison Mallards’ 20th season in the Northwoods League could be the summer collegiate baseball circuit’s best year ever in terms of the talent on the field.
The caveat, as with everything else in a sports world on pause because of the COVID-19 pandemic, is there’s no certainty on how much of the season will be played.
Some major sporting events into July and August being canceled might not inspire a lot of confidence that a May 26 Mallards home opener at Warner Park will go off as planned. But the most recent message from the Northwoods League was it was preparing for an on-time start.
If the season is played as scheduled, the Mallards and the other 21 Northwoods League teams could benefit from the early ending to the NCAA baseball season.
Normally, college coaches are protective of players who get a lot of use during the spring season, especially pitchers. Some get held back from summer ball altogether and others get sent to teams with inning limits.
A scaling back of the Major League Baseball draft from 40 rounds to as low as five also could lead more talented players to spend their summer in amateur play.
In the past few weeks, Mallards general manager Tyler Isham has been getting more calls than usual from college coaches looking to secure spots for their players. The NCAA season lasted less than a month before it — and other spring college campaigns — were ended because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We expect the talent level in the league to be the best it’s ever been,” Isham said. “Not that it’s been bad before. It used to be the first month of the season, you never knew who was going to pitch. ... Once the big-school guys get there and the College World Series is over, the pitching really steps up.”
The Northwoods League has changed roster regulations for the upcoming season. Temporary contracts, which have been used to get teams through the early part of the season when some of their committed players are still playing college ball, are out.
The roster has grown from 30 to 35, though only 30 players are eligible for a game and the same number can travel with the team. In effect, a team with a six-pitcher starting rotation can leave off the five starters who aren’t scheduled to throw.
League officials didn’t return messages seeking comment on the upcoming season.
The Mallards, who have led summer collegiate baseball in announced attendance for all 12 years that BallparkDigest.com has tracked national figures, have plans to celebrate their 20th season with bobbleheads, fireworks nights and celebrity appearances.
They’re starting it out with a special they’re calling Hopening Day. A $10 promotion gets the buyer a ticket to the first home game and a Mallards hat, and $5 goes to the Dane County COVID-19 Emergency and Recovery Fund.
The pandemic has made for turbulence in scheduling around sports, but the Mallards are hoping to get going as planned. The Northwoods League season end date in the middle of August is firm but, to Isham, there’s no point where the season would be too short to make it not worth playing.
“Our thought is any baseball is better than no baseball,” he said. “Any fans coming to the ballpark this year is going to be good.”
Concerned about COVID-19?
Sign up now to get the most recent coronavirus headlines and other important local and national news sent to your email inbox daily.