Small-town baseball

Like countless other towns across the country, Wausau is represented on Facebook with a group entitled “You Know You’re From Wausau, WI If…” Today, there was a post that linked to an article that caught my eye – and brought back a lot of memories:

http://www.lookoutlanding.com/2015/4/21/8460413/a-brief-history-of-the-wausau-timbers

In case I have not yet mentioned it today, I love baseball, and have my whole life. I remember the buzz back in 1975, when the Wausau Mets brought professional baseball back to town for the first time since the 1950s. Over the years until I left Wausau in 1983, I went to an occasional game to take in the Mets (and their successors, the Timbers) as my work and social schedule would allow…not terribly often, I must admit, as my priorities back then gravitated more toward the pursuit of the opposite sex, and one did not go to the ballpark for the purpose of picking up chicks. Nevertheless, I did manage to check out a game here and there.

I also got a chance, on a small handful of occasions, to talk to a player from time to time when one or two might wander into Nino’s after a game – not all that often, but it did happen on occasion. Most memorably, there was one night when a friend of ours who worked at Athletic Park brought several of the Timbers out to our apartment for a post-game party.   As usual at that particular apartment, the beer flowed quite readily that night, and everybody mingled quite freely. Over the course of the night, though, I did notice one of the ballplayers who seemed to be keeping to himself a bit more than the others, hanging out off to one corner and not talking a whole lot. As I am prone to do on occasion, I gravitated toward the guy to strike up a conversation with the hope that he would feel perhaps a bit more at home. In fact, he did come across as a bit shy and soft-spoken; I detected a slight trace of a southern accent in his voice. I spent a fair amount of the party talking with him – a pitcher from Indiana by the name of Brent Gaff. Although I never did get a chance to talk with him after that evening, I did keep an eye out for how he did over the next few years; when he was called up to the New York Mets in 1982, I was almost as delighted as I was the following year to find his card upon opening a pack of Donruss baseball cards.

By the time I moved back to the Wausau area nearly a decade later, the Timbers were no more, having departed Wausau for the greener pastures of Kane County, on the far fringes of the Chicago metropolitan area. A couple of years after our return, though, a new league – a summer college-level circuit similar in scope to the well-known Cape Cod League, to be known as the Northwoods League – brought baseball back to Wausau under the banner of the Wausau Woodchucks. As the kids grew older, we started to attend several ‘Chucks games every year. Back in the early years, crowds were frequently on the sparse side; free tickets were relatively easy to come by back then. The whole vibe seemed to hew toward the amateurish; while this certainly was to be expected to a point, there was still a perception that things could be done better.   With the purchase of the club by Clark Eckhoff in 1998 and the subsequent purchase by Mark Macdonald in 2012, there has been much more of the sense of pride that comes with local ownership (the franchise was operated by the Northwoods League prior to the purchase by Eckhoff). In fact, the success of the Woodchucks has served as the impetus for a two-phase renovation of Athletic Park worth several million dollars…something that would have been impossible were the team not successful.

To be sure, I still love the Brewers, and we try to take in a game or two in Milwaukee every year. But to have something like the Woodchucks in our local community is very much a blessing, and one that should not be taken for granted.  A number of the players who have appeared in a Woodchuck uniform over the years have gone on to careers in the major leagues. The beer is just as cold, the brats are just as tasty, and everything is a whole lot more affordable up here. And you are a whole lot closer to the action at Athletic Park.  Beyond that, you can say “hi” to the team owner on any given night – or, on occasion, have him pour you a beer (as happened one night last year when he had to step in and help out; I am betting that Mark Attanasio has never poured your beer at Miller Park).  Opening Day for the ‘Chucks is still a month away, but I am already pumped. See you at the ballpark.

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