Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Play ball: Madison Mallards take the Louisville Bats to school -- and Bats ingloriously flunk out.

(Crossposted at NA Confidential)

Before I make the mistake of sweeping generalizations, there’s a disclaimer: Chain-infected mass-market monoculture infects the city of Madison, Wisconsin (population 208,000) just as it does the remainder of an increasingly sterile exurban America.

Familiar generic entities like Wal-Mart, McDonald’s and Anheuser-Busch are as entrenched in Wisconsin’s capital city as anywhere, especially in the predictably cookie-cutter outer districts surrounding the historically progressive city center.

But, now for the good news, at least from the point of view of one who vows death to chains.

You simply can’t help but notice that in Madison, some of the most abrasive and insulting aspects of suburban and exurban sprawl are at least softened and made more tolerably human by virtue of vigilant planning and aggressive code enforcement. To cite just one example, commercial signage is discrete and typically hugs the ground, and mandated trees and landscaping provide a soothing alternative to the pervasive concrete of the oft-repeated American look-alike tableau.

Furthermore, worker-owned companies (including a prominent taxi service) and cooperatives abound, green consciousness is widespread, bicycles are everywhere, and the Saturday morning farmers market that surrounds the majestic capitol building on all four sides is one of the oldest, largest and best-attended in the country.

We ended our stay with baseball and beer, and found in these bookends of summertime Americana even more evidence that in some locales, things are just better than in others.

The Madison Mallards are the city’s baseball team. It is an amateur team in the short-season Northwoods League, one composed entirely by unpaid collegiate players who are housed with local families and work in the community when they’re not playing ball. On the field, they use wooden bats, not aluminum, in preparation for the future employment a precious few of them will enjoy within the ranks of paid, professional baseball.

The Mallards play at the Duck Pond, a charmingly human-scale park on the north side that holds a bit more than 7,000 people, 210,000 of whom viewed the 32 home games played during the recently concluded 2007 season. We were part of a sell-out crowd on the final game of the season, which doubled as fan appreciation night, and as bearers of $25 tickets, we were admitted to the riotous seating area within the Great Dane Brewing Company’s Duck Blind, in turn entitling us to unlimited ballpark food, draft beer and soft drinks in addition to the game itself.

Note that in a testament to the ready availability of public transport, reasonably priced taxis and bicycles, beer is served until the last out is recorded. Are there no attorneys in Wisconsin?

The Duck Blind is a funky, sprawling wooden warren of picnic tables, bleacher seats and elevated platforms that might have been designed by the Swiss Family Robinson, all nestled in the park’s right-field corner. The all-you-can-eat park/pub grub unfortunately does not include the sushi that can be purchased elsewhere on the grounds, but instead is the sort you’d expect straight from the coals of the backyard grill – burgers, brats and the like.

The open-minded diversity of the beer selection is noteworthy, for while ample quantities of fizzy yellow swill are available for the enjoyment of the unwashed and flavor impaired, the selection is balanced by a half-dozen local microbrews, most of them drawn from the sponsoring Great Dane brewery, but also including two from the German-inspired Capital Brewing in nearby Middleton.

Understand that no one, not even the ever radicalized author, denies that a ballpark is a business proposition even if the team is spared the burden of salaries, and as with other major and minor league venues, including Louisville Slugger Field, the Great Dane Brewing Company must “pay to play” at the Duck Pond’s Duck Blind.

Accordingly, I inquired of a friend in Madison’s beer community about the probable price of sponsorship, and while I’ll not quote it publicly, it should suffice to say that (a) the cost to the brewery is reasonable, (b) the cost is a sum that does not preclude the smallish brewery from making a profit on keg sales, and (c) the cost is part and parcel of an agreement that graciously permits mass-market swill also to be sold alongside local craft beer in an area primarily sponsored by the local craft brewery – something that is seldom the case in reverse, when multinational mega-breweries pay the big bucks for beer placement with the express intent and expectation of excluding competition, enforcing a de facto carbonated dishwater monopoly, and denying any measure of genuine choice for the consumer.

In short – let’s come right out and say it – a Madison Mallards game offers the consumer an experience the polar opposite of that regularly (and tepidly) teed up by the Louisville Bats, who offer a brand of baseball on the field that is at least four levels better than Madison’s, but whose management routinely succumbs to a colorless, chain-think, pocket-stuffing Philistinism that deprives discerning fans of the best aspects of locally-based cultural diversity in beer, in food, and by extension, in life itself.

As I’ve noted so many times before, here and elsewhere, the lowest-common-denominator bottom line practiced by the Bats is hypocrisy of a high and galling order, for it violently contradicts the stated aim of the team in providing Louisville fans with a locally-based baseball and entertainment alternative to the higher-priced major leagues.

On the other hand, Madison’s Mallards obviously get it. Why does Madison’s ball club have a far better grasp of the philosophy involved? Why does it offer a far better overall package than Louisville’s?

Part of the answer involves the presence in Madison of sufficient numbers of progressive, thinking baseball fans who demand a better product, but another crucial aspect of it – not coincidentally, the shading that consistently eludes Louisville’s primeval team management – has to do with Madison’s brain trust being progressive itself, responding not only to the dully predictable profit imperatives of the lowest common denominator in the traditionally underachieving fashion of the Bats, but also actively participating in shaping its market, not just pandering to it.

To me, it’s another manifestation of the Louisville metropolitan area’s congenital refusal to admit that knowledge really matters when it comes to the advancement of the human species … and that will have to await another day’s rumination.


Fred said...

Hey Roger -

Glad you enjoyed Madison, it's a remarkable slice of the Midwest and the Great Taste is legendary.

I agree with so much of what you say about chains and battles for choice in mainstream channels such as ballparks. I wanted to add though, that in my opinion, I think it's a positive thing when craft-brewers enter into sponsorships without the security of exclusive contracts.

I've said to many buyers, when organizing events and or negotiating contracts, that I am not going to create the same type of agreement that I've disagreed with when on the losing/locked out side.

In other words, it should always be about choice. Brewers, retailers and consumers ought to be considering each other and creating the best choices they can.

I believe in the end, this will produce the most dynamic market, but we are not without our man-made obstacles.

Take care -great blogging,


The New Albanian said...

Thanks for fleshing this out. It really was impressive to me that there was a choice throughout the ballpark, and not just the way Louisville's Bats handle it, i.e., with the sole tap of anything remotely approximating good beer (Redhook) being at the centerfield tap station, far away from the main part of the grandstand.

Has somehting to do with the football-field sized Budweiser billboard in right field, and yet it makes no sense to me that Bud woul acquiesce in the poor placement of its own distributed product.

They're Philistines, Fred. Really.

Fred said...

Ah yes, it's their own distributed product, but it's not their product. These buyout deals are weird mojo, and situations like this make suspicious intentions viable.

It's almost like they said, "Eventually these craft products are going to challenge our place in these stadium buyouts. If those brands are going to make it in, they should be ours, and we should have control of where they go, so they'll never unseat papa."

A-B has some sort of pseudo-disciplinary authority with its craft partners like Widmer, Redhook & Goose Island and I find it terribly odd.