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First look: Warner Park renovations, Madison Mallards

One important thing to know about the front office of the Madison Mallards (summer collegiate; Northwoods League): they move quickly. Within a short period of city approval for a makeover of Warner Park, Vern Stenman, Conor Caloia and crew were out tearing down the Muskies-era bleachers  to make way for new seating from Oriole Park – and a drastic makeover of the Duck Pond, one of the most unique venues in all of baseball.

Though the makeover’s price tag is modest — $1.3 million, with $800,000 from the city and the rest (including any overages) from the Mallards ownership – the changes in the ballpark will be dramatic. Gone will be the grandstand seating behind home plate and the bleachers down each line; in their place will be three sets of theater-style seating – complete with 3,500 recycled seats from Oriole Park at Camden Yards – as the Mallards prepare the most extensive renovation of Warner Park ever.

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Let’s face it: Warner Park is a great destination because of the energy generated by the Mallards and the TLC the team has given the facility in the form of upgrades like the Great Dane Duck Blind and the TDS Triple Play seating area, featuring seats from Wrigley Field. Sitting in the grandstand, particularly down the third-base line, has never been a comfortable experience; the place was built to coincide with the arrival of the Madison Muskies (Low Class A; Midwest League) in 1983, and it showed. The bleachers were at the end of their functional life, per the manufacturer, and needed replacing no matter what.

The new layout will be aggressively asymmetric, even more so than the previous layout. First, the bleacher section down first base will turn into a larger seating area, complete with many of the Oriole Park seats and rising higher than the current bleachers. Second, the grandstand seating will be replaced by a new Home Run Club, with 500 of the Oriole Park seats and its own concession area. Third, the third-base bleachers will be replaced with a shorter stand of seating. An open 13-to-15-foot-wide concourse will connect all three sections, while there should be a roof of sorts (yet to be determined) covering the Home Run Club and the third-base seating. All three sections will be right up against a new grandstand wall, with the old 12-foot-wide aisle eliminated.

Comfort will be the key, with two-thirds of the ballpark seating down the sun-friendly first-base line and wider (36”) treads between rows. There will be concessions on the concourse level behind home plate and down the third-base line, and a new finer netting will replace both the existing netting and chain-link fence. Handicapped accessibility will be increased in the redesign as well.

“Now we can go to the ballpark and breathe,” said Mallards owner Steve Schmitt. “The old ballpark is almost all gone.”

Still, some key ballpark components will remain, including the Great Dane Duck Blind, clubhouses and a concessions building behind home plate. Changes in ticket prices will be minimal: the $5 SRO ducat will remain, while the former bleacher areas will go for $9 (up from $7 in 2010) and seats in the Home Run Club will go for $12.

“We think this will give Madison fans a big-league experience,” said Madison Parks Superintendent Kevin Briski said at a press conference announcing the changes. “It will be unlike any other ballpark in the country.”

One of the things stressed by Stenman as he explained the renovations: creative reuse of materials will be a priority. Summer-collegiate ball is an industry that by and large sets up shop in former minor-league ballparks on the decline or glorified Legion or high-school fields; you rarely find a new facility in the summer game. That’s why it’s important for teams to make do with that they have, Stenman says, recycling what they can. In the case of the Warner Park renovations, wood planks and the actual metal bleachers are put aside for reuse; some may end up on a new roof over the grandstand, or at the very least hold up the roof.

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