“The coldest winter I ever experienced was a summer in Duluth.”Mark Twain (maybe…probably not…but maybe)
After some time off from our trip which included some fun (time at the family cabin in northern Minnesota), and some pain ($2100 car repair), we were excited to get some more baseball in. We had a couple scheduled games canceled and it was time we got back at it.
We resumed the I-35 portion of the Great Baseball Ride. This was a level of baseball we had not yet explored on our trip; the Northwoods League (NWL). The NWL is a college summer All-Star league ala the Cape Cod League. While the Cape Cod League is more well known, the NWL has a more pro-like experience, playing in larger stadiums and playing an intense schedule with games almost every day over the summer.
Keke and I both went to college in Duluth, Minnesota and they happen to have a NWL team that plays in Wade Stadium. Wade Stadium is steeped in history as it was built in 1941 and prior the Huskies, it hosted the Duluth Dukes which was a minor league affiliate of a number of teams over the years. The stadium was built from paver bricks taken up from Grand Avenue in Duluth as that street was being redone. Having been to Wrigley and old Yankee Stadium, I can say that Wade has a similar feel especially in the concourse. Between the NWL and the Dukes, a number of pro players have played in Wade Stadium.
Soren was not having the idea of going to a baseball game today, so he and Keke went and hung out in Canal Park. Canal Park is a strip of land separating the main portion of Lake Superior from Duluth Harbor and is a wonderful tourist destination. The area is most known for the Aerial Lift Bridge that controls the port of entry for very large tanker ships (and large recreational boats).
It’s a bummer Soren didn’t want to come as it was education day and the stands had a number of schools on a field trip. I later talked to a PA guy named Ted that said in years past 2k to 3k kids would be in attendance, but current ownership has decided to charge the kids (where the old owner didn’t). Bummer that they charge now as I suspect they would make a ton of money on concessions with the higher attendance.
Tickets to get in for a general admission ticket are $8.50 in advance and $10.50 at the gate. Surprisingly, this is on par with what we have been paying at the MLB level (typically through Stubhub), although there aren’t all the extra fees that the MLB ticket processors would charge. Concessions are reasonable.
I try to tell as many people as I can about what we are doing in the hopes of getting to find their favorite parts of the respective team/stadium. I struck gold with that plan today as a number of people connected to the team showed me different/unique parts of the stadium.
I spoke with a gal who I believe was the clubhouse manager. Her name was Shovana and after telling her about what we were doing she let me in to see the Huskies clubhouse.
The clubhouse was tight, and there were separate sections for pitchers and position players with cubbies along the wall for each player and couches/chairs for them to relax in. I was also able to see the training room, but my favorite part was the heavy bag they have for players that get a bit upset (after a strikeout or a poorly pitched inning) to take their wrath out on.
I met Greg Culver, the GM of the Huskies after going through the clubhouse. I spoke with him briefly, and he had a familiar look about him, though I don’t think I met him before.
I met the aforementioned Ted when I went up to the highest point I could find behind home plate for my standard stadium shot. He had a mic and I quickly found him to be the stadium PA guy, not the general announcer, but he would talk between innings and get the kids pumped up. I found out that he is a teacher in near by Proctor, MN, and you could easily tell by how well he interacted with a stadium full of kids.
We got to talking and he decided to take me up to the “crows nest.” This was the actual highest point of the stadium on top of the roof/canopy. To get there you had to climb up an old wooden ladder and watch your head. I found the last part out the hard way as I bonked my head in the ascent. At the top of the ladder you then walk up a ramp to a small room overlooking the field. Once inside you see two small sections, one with a camera and a play-by-play announcer, and a separate section with a TV production crew. This was my first taste of the inner workings of TV production and it was very cool. The NWL games can be viewed streamed via their website.
Next I met Joe. Joe is the Sustainability intern with the team, but for the purposes of the game today, he was the lone bartender. The concession areas in the concourse were not serving adult beverages as it was education (kids) day. I like kids, but it being kids day seems like the exact reason to serve adult beverages (for clarity, to the adults that are not responsible for the kids). None-the-less, the only portion of the stadium that was serving beer was an area along the right field line called the Kennel Club. Normally, this area is a separate ticket, but today was the oasis for those that weren’t on a field trip.
Joe and I got to talking about the team and while we were speaking a man named John joined the conversation. John seemed like a fan, but actually worked on some of the computer systems around the stadium. He was a wealth of information about the team. Ted had mentioned that the stadium site originally had a football stadium on it that was the home of the Duluth Eskimos. The story goes that the Eskimos eventually became the Washington Redskins. This is back in the leatherheads days, as portrayed in the movie Leatherheads (George Clooney and John Krasinski). John (from the stadium, not the actor) is actually an amateur historian and wrote a paper on the topic. He believes that the connection is likely inaccurate, although I’d like to pretend otherwise.
John, Joe, and I continued to talk, and John eventually brought over a man named Bill Getty. Bill grew up in the area and remembers much about the Duluth Dukes teams of years ago. Specifically, he recounted how the Dukes were previously a Detroit Tigers farm team, and many of the 1968 World Series Champion Tigers went through played for the Dukes. I don’t believe Bill officially worked for the team as it seemed everyone else did, but he seemed to have free reign of the stadium. He was an art teacher before he retired and now is an artist. Bill has some work up in the concourse and also has done lifesize works of former MLB player (for one at bat) Eddie Goedel who was the shortest player ever to play, as well as a lifesize work of Hall of Famer Randy Johnson (who was 6’10” and oddly enough his parents are from Duluth, MN). Everything I saw was incredible and his talent as an artist is matched as his knowledge of baseball.
The best times we’ve had at stadiums have been like the one today, were we spend so much time learning about the team/stadium/food/drink/etc that we don’t see much of the game. This seems counter intuitive as baseball is the focal point, but the reality is that we are after the experience, and very often it’s the people that love the team that are the best of the experience.
That said, I did get a chance to sit and watch the game towards the end and by that time the kids had started to clear out. I sat front row just off to the right of home plate a bit and really got a sense of the talent on the field.
You see, while the Cape Cod League is more well known historically, the NWL is legit. There have many MLBers that have gone through the NWL, and some of those players are Max Scherzer, Matt Chapman, Chris Sale, Ben Zobrist, Curtis Granderson, Kevin Pillar, Mitch Haniger. Pitchers Drew Smyly and Mark Melancon are two of the Huskies currently in MLB.
Keke came to pick me up before the game ended. I believe it was bottom of the 7th or maybe the 8th inning. The Huskies were down 4-1 to the St. Cloud Rox. Last time I went to a game by myself was the Padres vs. the Dodgers. Keke came to pick me up early. The Padres were down in that game going into the ninth and they ended up winning on a walk-off grand slam. Of course since I left this game early I would regret it (as I did the Padres game), and I did. The Huskies ultimately came back to win.
That (self-induced) disappointment aside, I could not have enjoyed my experience with the Huskies more. I met wonderful people, really got into the history, and enjoyed some great baseball!