With a season that begins while some college programs are gearing up for the NCAA tournament, the nature of the Northwoods League is in changing personnel.
Players in a team’s Opening Day lineup might be around for only 10 days before they’re replaced by someone whose college season just ended.
The more players a team signs from prominent, successful NCAA programs whose seasons stretch into June, the more it has to fill in with temporary bodies in the opening weeks of the summer collegiate baseball season.
The Madison Mallards felt like they had two different teams over the 12-week season, general manager Tyler Isham said.
“We’d have our team for the first three to four weeks of the season, and then these guys would start getting eliminated from the tournament and they’d get there for the second half of the season,” he said. “It made it really difficult, I think, to mesh the team together and make it really feel like a team.”
As the 2018 season begins at 6:05 tonight at Warner Park against the Wisconsin Rapids Rafters, the Mallards are trying a different approach to roster building. They’ve seen it have success in their opening night opponent.
Isham said the Wisconsin Rapids team, which like the Mallards is owned by Big Top Baseball, has been crafted with players that might not have the greatest scouting pedigree but are often the best players on lesser-known teams.
Using that approach, the Rafters were a league-best 52-20 in 2017.
The Mallards aren’t planning on going to extremes. They still have relationships with big schools such as Florida that they want to cultivate even if it means they have to wait until the Gators’ NCAA run is over to bring players in.
But they also signed players from Division II and junior college teams that they’re hoping will bring more of a full-season presence.
“We just wanted guys to be able to be here right away and know each other right away and be able to bond as a team right off the bat,” Isham said.
That’s significant to sixth-year Mallards manager Donnie Scott, but he’s also excited about another change in the team’s makeup.
The Mallards signed more players who they thought would be getting a high number of at-bats in the college season as opposed to freshman reserves.
It can take a few weeks for younger players to get up to speed in the Northwoods League, in both playing in front of larger crowds and adjusting to seeing live pitching again.
“Now, we’re getting guys that have already been through that,” Scott said. “They’ve put up numbers in college and they’re here to show the scouts what they can do.”
The 2017 Mallards (38-34) didn’t challenge for the South Division title in either half but were in contention for one of two other playoff spots until the final days of the season.
Further illustrating the transient nature of summer collegiate baseball, this season’s team has only two players back from that group: first baseman David Vinsky and right-handed pitcher Ryan Schmitt.
Three Wisconsinites, all infielders, are on the initial roster: Milton’s Jack Blomgren, who plays at Michigan; Cambridge’s Nick Schrader of UW-Whitewater; and Marshfield’s Trevor Schwecke of UW-Milwaukee.
Off the field, the average announced attendance in 2017 was 6,308, second-highest in the club’s 17 seasons and 93 percent of Warner Park’s 6,750 capacity. A new Duck Blind all-inclusive area and suites building in the right-field corner opened in stages during the opening weeks of the season.
That addition earned Ballpark Digest’s award for the best ballpark improvement of the year. Having the indoor portion of the structure available all season is a game-changer for the Mallards in being able to host events such as weddings and business meetings.
“We’re just now cracking into a little bit of the special event world in that indoor space, year-round,” Isham said. “We’re excited for it. It should be a blast.”