Staying in the Swing of Things
The Wisconsin Woodchucks play at Athletic Park in Wausau.
On any given summer evening in 2008, you might well have found the stands at Athletic Park jammed with baseball fans of all ages. After all, it’s not every year that the city’s much-loved team makes the playoffs. The Wisconsin Woodchucks, a fixture in the community since 1994, has a proud history when it comes to producing winning seasons – and winning players who go on to great things in the major leagues. The playoffs, which the team narrowly lost after several team members sustained injuries, were the icing on the cake. “Last year we had 10 players in the major leagues who had either played or signed to play with the Woodchucks last year or the year before,” says team Chief Operating Officer Jesse Bolder, citing in particular Ben Zobrist, a Woodchuck alum who plays outfield for the Tampa Bay Rays. “It was nice to see one of our former guys out there on the field during the World Series,” says Bolder. “He played a key role for them.” The Woodchucks are members of the Northwoods League, known as the country’s premier summer baseball league. Talented college players are recruited from across the country and must be eligible to play NCAA baseball. The league uses wooden bats and the same size baseball as professional teams, and teams like the Woodchucks are considered highly desirable training opportunities for future professionals. “These are guys who have been drafted or want to be drafted and are finishing their education before they do so,” says Bolder. “They play in a league like ours before they cross over into the professional leagues. But we are run similarly and maybe even better than some minor league teams. In fact, there are teams in our league who are doing better in attendance than many minor league teams.” The Woodchucks are one of those teams, boasting an average attendance of 1,800 to 2,000 per game in the season, which runs from the end of May through the middle of August. On several occasions last summer, fans had to be turned away. Bolder credits the fan interest not just to the team’s quality playing, but to a vigorous promotion schedule that includes everything from a post-game fireworks series to T-shirt cannons, dizzy bat contests and bobblehead giveaways. One particular hit in the 2008 season was a visit by Baseball Hall of Famer Robin Yount, a Milwaukee Brewers teammate of Woodchucks manager Jim Gantner, making his first Central Wisconsin appearance. Woody Woodchuck, the team’s mascot, is responsible for much of the in-stadium merriment. He also maintains an active schedule of community appearances, including the team’s reading program in the schools, and serves as the face of the Woodchuck organization.