Did the 1,200-plus passionate high school baseball fans who packed Kapco Park on the campus of Concordia University-Wisconsin for the WIAA state championship game between Oak Creek and Germantown on July 20 actually give the waning summer version of the sport a badly needed shot in the arm?
We'll wait and see, because numbers have been dwindling for the summer version of the game for years now (the vast majority play spring ball), but the passion and energy as well as the whimsy and generosity that everyone saw and experienced on that beautiful summer day on the shores of Lake Michigan may help bring a few more schools and maybe conferences back and keep a few others who have been wavering in the fold.
"You yell like crazy for your guys, it's good for your lungs, gives you a lift and nobody calls the cops. Pretty girls, lots of 'em."
- quote from the late actor Humphrey Bogart on why he likes baseball, on a sign at Kapco -
"It's only the first year," said Tournament Manager and Homestead Activities Director Ryan Mangan, "but a lot of people in the Milwaukee area saw what can be done here. If it can attain that goal and that is the outcome (of bringing more teams back to summer), than all the better."
Field impresses players
The finals crowd as well as the attendance at the two semifinal games earlier in the day were easily three to four times the average crowd at Bukolt Park in Stevens Point where the event had been held the previous 22 years (Point is 2 1/2 hours away from the metro Milwaukee area). The amenities and the synthetic field at Kapco drew raves from everyone who took advantage of them.
Even the players were stunned at the true bounce the synthetic turf gave to them.
"No bad hops," smiled Germantown third baseman Tom Andrus.
The one-day, three-game event was a far cry from the monsoon-soaked misery that was the tournament in Point last season. With fewer and fewer northern teams involved every year in summer ball, and with the game becoming more Milwaukee suburban-centric, the need to move from Bukolt was long overdue.
Crowds were sparse there even in good weather (and it seemed to rain every other year) so something had to be done. Enter Kapco Park, the fine folks at Concordia and the Lakeshore Chinooks baseball team whose home is Kapco and whose general manager and vice president is none other than that fine son of Homestead and former summer baseball star himself, Dean Rennicke.
"We were excited about the opportunity," said Mangan, noting that Homestead became the host school once Kapco was chosen as the new site for the summer tournament, "and between Dean (Rennicke) and Rick (Riehl, Sports Information Director and assistant director of athletics at Concordia) we got a lot of help."
Those efforts including giving each of the four teams (Oak Creek, Germantown, Waukesha West and Sheboygan Falls) a quick 30-minute workout on the field on July 19, as well as introducing them all on the big professional-size scoreboard in left field during the Chinooks' game that night.
It drizzled that night, but the day was clear and not too hot on July 20.
"Wade Labecki (deputy director of the WIAA) helped us and we used the blueprint of the spring tournament at Fox Cities Stadium (in Grand Chute)" Mangan said. "I had worked on that 13 years ago, so I had a good idea of what we had to do."
"If you get three strikes even the best lawyer in the world can't get you off."
- The late, legendary MLB team owner Bill Veeck, on another sign at the park -
Homestead hosts, volunteers
Mangan also credited the army of volunteers for making it work, citing Homestead baseball coach Ernie Millard for his work rounding up people.
"It went so smoothly," Millard said. "Almost all those workers were volunteers. I managed to get half to three-quarters of my team to pitch in, too, and they were great, but Ryan is the one who really deserves all the credit. … We were all nervous. You want it to go well, and it did."
Millard was also thrilled at the number of coaches he saw in attendance at the games including Jim Hughes of 2010 and 2011 state champion Franklin, Jay Wojcinski of Whitefish Bay, Mike Donahue of Brown Deer, Brian Karas of Wauwatosa East, and former West Allis Central coach Dan Gaynor. Several of these coaches were there with players, another good sign.
The financials are not in from the event, but it's a good bet that it went from a certain money loser in Bukolt (more than $32,000 in the hole last season according to WIAA records) to at least a small moneymaker this time around.
The crowd was stunning to Oak Creek coach Scott Holler, whose team rallied for a 5-4 championship game win. Holler had led the Knights to a crown at Bukolt in 2005.
"Someone said the whole setup was like something out of the movie 'Hoosiers,' " Holler said. "I haven't experienced anything like this in any of our previous state tournaments. You had the Germantown people on one side, you had ours on another. You just look up as a coach at all those people and it's just so inspirational."
"It was like something out of a movie. It's the way it's supposed to be (for a state championship)."
"Life will always throw you curves. Just keep fouling them off."
- The late former great baseball fan Rick Maksian -
Everything was a hit, from the well-stocked, large concession stand, to the colorful, well-designed tournament T-shirts (if you were there, you should have bought one, they were great).
You also couldn't beat the view of the lake as you drove up the east-side drive of the Concordia campus with a sea of blue just outside the players' reach. Even all the construction still going on at the still-growing school couldn't hold the good feelings back.
Building numbers up
Mangan understands that there is a three-year contract with Kapco to keep the summer tournament there. That gives the summer baseball people some time to build its numbers back up (it was 56 schools this year down from a height of 110 in 1999).
Like I said, the facility is a huge draw, the people are friendly and accommodating and the atmosphere is great.
"The next step would be to build it back up so you could have a quarterfinal round again," said Brookfield Central coach Jeff Bigler, "Get more teams involved. What a great way to cap off the summer."
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