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Catch the Action

Fox Cities Stadium is the place for baseball at its finest—and good old-fashioned fun
By Margaret LeBrun

Reprinted from the 2003 Fox Cities Visitors Guide

The aroma of sizzling bratwurst fills the air. Ballplayers take to the pristine field of green under a bright blue sky. Up in the stands, Fang, the team mascot, bends down to sign autographs on the smiling cheeks of children. Snippets of song stir the crowd.

“Daaaaay-OH!”

“Daaaaay-OH!” thousands of voices reply with gusto.

It’s a typical summer night at Fox Cities Stadium, home of the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, Class A affiliate of the Seattle Mariners in the Midwest League. The mood is light, festive and fun. The stadium is so intimate you can hear the crack of the ball on the bat. Tickets, munchies and drinks in hand, fans feel good about what’s left in their wallets.

“Compared to a Brewers game, it’s a lot more economical,” says Bob Buss of Green Bay, who shares a $4 per person patch of grass on the lawn behind third base with his wife, three sons and three of their friends. “You can’t get $1 hot dogs at Miller Park,” like you can on Bang for Your Buck Night, every Tuesday at Fox Cities Stadium.

“You get to sit up close and see players who may be promoted to the majors.” A friend of his son agrees.

“It’s fun to watch the players,” says Little League player Ryan Simones, 11. “They’re better than me-you can learn something.”

While Major League Baseball suffered bad press with economic problems, an eroding image and the threat of a strike last year, the popularity of Minor League baseball soared. Attendance has increased almost 30 percent in the past decade, compared to only 3 percent growth in the Majors.

Creating a Following

Built in 1995, Fox Cities Stadium came on the scene just in time to feed the national frenzy to local crowds. Attendance averages about 200,000 each year.

“I haven’t missed a game in five years,” says Patty Miler of Appleton, sitting in the handicapped-accessible area with her mother, Mary Ann Miler. “We go to the welcome home banquet every year in April.”
Fox Cities Stadium hosts its annual Fan Fest the week of the home opener, which is scheduled for April 3, 2003. Fans are invited to walk on the field, check out the activities, buy tickets, food, drinks and souvenirs, and catch a little baseball fever.

Fun and Games

Fans can wander beyond the concession area to try their luck at some of the carnival-type activities available at every game. These include Speed Pitch, where they can test their pitching arms; the inflatable batting cage; the Timber Rattler Putting Challenge, where they have the chance to win prizes by making three putts of different lengths; and the Vande Hey’s Sport Court, where they can take a shot at winning a T-shirt by making three free-throws in a row.

On this particular Tuesday, emcee Nikki Becker pumps up the crowd with some of their favorite between-inning activities.

“Hello Rattlers fans!” Becker shouts, as five supersized dice are rolled onto the field. “It’s time for the Oneida Bingo & Casino Roll for the Dough! Everybody say hello to Jeff from Appleton! What do you want to win? ... OK, $10,000!”

Jeff rolls, but no dice. He takes a consolation prize of $5 and gets a big hand from the crowd as the Rattlers run back onto the field.

T-Rats fans don’t have to wait for the seventh-inning stretch to get on their feet. At the bottom of the fourth, they leap for a chance to catch a brat, shot from the Bratzooka as the mini-cannon is pulled around the field. This is the stuff Becker loves.

“It’s great!’ Becker says of her job. “It’s energizing. There’s never a dull moment.”

You can almost hear the grin in her voice, booming over the microphone, as she runs from one end of the stadium to another, overseeing such important events as the Keebler K-Man, Log Roll, Flying Rubber Chicken, Racing Eyeballs and Sack Races. People can be so unpredictable, she says. Once, during a Jay’s Potato Sack Race, two kids, ages 5 and 8, put the sacks on their heads and took off running. The memory makes her laugh out loud.

“I took for granted they knew to put them on their feet!”

Staff members brainstorm fresh ideas for promotions, some generated by the thread of an idea from a local merchant and others borrowed from teams throughout the league. Becker came up with the musical beach ball stunt, in which she tosses a beach ball into the crowd and the fan left holding the ball when the music stops wins merchandise from Old Navy.

Special events for the 2003 season include the fourth annual Brett Favre Celebrity Softball Game, which pits the offense against the defense of the Green Bay Packers. The game raises money for the Brett Favre Forward Foundation, which supports charitable organizations focused on helping disabled or disadvantaged children in Wisconsin. Also returning in 2003: the NCAA Division III College World Series, May 22-27, and the WIAA State Baseball Tournament, June 10-12.

Fans eat up the weekly promotions all season. Bang-for-Your-Buck Night, when concessions sell hot dogs, small sodas and beer for $1 each, is especially popular.

The Preisler family of Hortonville enjoys their reserved seats behind home plate as the T-Rats battle the Fort Wayne Wizards. “We come every Tuesday night they’re home,” says Tina Preisler.

“It’s cheap!” says her husband, Fred. “It’s a very nice venue. We can sit close by the concessions, close by the restrooms-there’s not a bad seat in the house.”

They’ve had some memorable games. Once, the family was sitting behind the Rattlers’ dugout, Fred got up to buy a beer. While he was gone, a hitter threw his bat. It flew over the dugout and landed hard in his empty seat.

“How a beer saved my life at a Rattlers game,” Fred says. He laughs. “We tell that story all the time.”

In the patio table seating area, the Girard-Harris family of Larson takes advantage of the food specials. Richard Harris and his fiancé Jennifer Girard let the kids splurge. Katelyn Girard and Brooke Harris, both 9, order a couple of hot chocolates. Between them they have already had a brat, a chicken sandwich, two plates of nachos and huge cups of Mountain Dew and Pepsi.

If that’s not enough excitement, brother Josh Girard, 11, is tonight’s celebrity.

“I got to throw out the first pitch!” Josh says. He takes a ball out of his pocket and shows off autographs by Fang and player Greg Dobbs. When he was getting his ball autographed before the game, somebody approached him and asked if he wanted to do the honors. How did he feel about that? “Nervous!”

Future Stars

For many fans, especially kids, the thrill of collecting autographs from rising stars is a ritual. A half-hour before each game, one player is designated to man the autograph booth for 15 to 20 minutes. Autographs can also be collected during each Sunday home game, when fans are invited to walk onto the field and meet the players and coaches in the dugout, markers and paper at the ready.
The big name on last year’s lineup was Shinn-Soo Choo. A Korean-born player who hit .300 and led the team in almost every offensive category, Choo was the first Rattlers player to have his likeness turned into a bobblehead doll. But he didn’t make it to the August game when it was unveiled; Choo and fellow player Lanny Patten, a relief pitcher, were promoted to play Class A ball in San Bernardino, Calif.

Fans don’t mind that their favorite players don’t stick around too long. They like the notion of watching rookie players hone their talents here and, maybe one day, make it big.

“It would be cool to say we saw a guy like Choo turn into somebody famous,” says Ben Ruh, 13, of Green Bay.

Likewise, the players indulge the fans. Rattlers pitching coach Brad Holman serenaded the crowd during the last game of 2002, when he sang and played guitar to the tune of “The Loyal Fans.”

Small Fan Fun

The Timber Rattler organization places a priority on its young fans and their families, according to Rob Zerjav, president/general manager. “The Timber Rattlers are all about affordable family entertainment. We try to tie in as many events to kids and their families as we possibly can. From our reading club and kid’s club to family night where kids run the bases on Thursdays, we try to make this the number-one spot for families to have a great time in northeastern Wisconsin.”
Among those programs are the Rattler Rookies Kids Club, for kids 12 and under, and Fang’s Reading Club. This club encourages area elementary students to read. The eight-week program offered each spring sets goals for students with a free Timber Rattlers ticket as their “homerun” prize. Last year, more than 16,500 students from 68 schools participated.

Loyalty Perseveres

Appleton has had a corps of loyal baseball fans for more than a century, hosting professional clubs on and off since 1891. Owned by the Appleton Baseball Club, Inc., the not-for-profit team began its Major League affiliation with the Seattle Mariners in 1993.
Back then the team was called the Appleton Foxes, and they played at Goodland Field on the city’s west side.

In 1995, when the T-Rats moved to their new home, Fox Cities Stadium, their attendance nearly tripled. Improvements to the new stadium were made in 2000, when a new, covered picnic pavilion was added.

“It’s a good time,” first-time fan Shane Tassoul of Appleton says as the sun goes down, the lights flood the field and the eighth inning begins. “You can socialize and watch the ball at the same time. It’s fun.”

For more information on the team, call (800) WI-TIMBER or visit www.timberrattlers.com.

Margaret LeBrun is a freelance writer based in Appleton.

Directions:

Fox Cities Stadium is located just west of Highway 41 and north of Fox River Mall, in the Town of Grand Chute. The main entrance to the stadium is located at 2400 N. Casaloma Drive.

Tickets:

General admission seating on the grass costs $4; reserved seats, $6 and box seats (seats closest to the field) cost $7.50. A patio table for four people, including waitress service, costs $48. Children 2 years old and under do not need a ticket if they share a seat with an adult. Parking costs $3 per car or $6 per bus or recreational vehicle. No carry-ins of any type, no coolers or lawn chairs are allowed into the park, and smoking is not allowed. Handicapped seating is available throughout the stadium. Fans are welcome to tailgate in the parking lot, which opens 2 1/2 hours before game time. (The lot closes one hour after the game ends.) - M.L.

Fox Cities Visitor Guide

Fox Cities Visitor Center

3433 W. College Avenue, Appleton, WI 54914

800-236-6673

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