Summer Collegiate : : Story
Thursday, August 02, 2012

The Northwoods crown jewel

Patrick Ebert        
Photo: Perfect Game

The 6,073 fans that attended the 2012 Northwoods League All-Star Game last week in Madison, Wis. were treated to a very exciting ballgame as the host South Division all-stars defeated the North 4-3. The game was filled with big hits, big arms, key defensive plays and hometown heroics.

The hometown heroics came in the form of Tyler Marincov's solo home run in the bottom of the eighth inning to break a 3-3 tie. Marincov turned on the first pitch from Patrick Goelz and yanked a line drive over the fence in left field on his way to being named the game's “Star of Stars” MVP. Marincov also drew a pair of walks in the game, and showcased his powerful arm from the outfield during the pre-game scouting workout. Most importantly, in the context of this game, Marincov plays right field for the hometown Mallards.

It wasn't by accident that the Mallards, one of the 16 teams in the Northwoods League, were selected to once again host this year's all-star game after doing so just four years ago in 2008. Having over 6,000 fans in attendance isn't anything new for the Mallards, who average over 6,100 per game, and set the all-time summer collegiate record a year ago – one they set themselves numerous times – with a total of 213,467 over a 70-game schedule. The Mallards have pulled in over 200,000 people every year since 2006.

Much of the credit for the team's success goes to owner Steve Schmitt and President Vern Stenman.

“Steve Schmitt, Vern Stenman and (General Manager) Conor Caloia,” Northwoods League President Dick Radatz, Jr. said when asked what made the Mallards such a successful organization. “The magic of Steve Schmitt. I fondly say that Steve is somewhat of a marketing savant. He just does a magnificent job and can cater to what fans want, and this is a result of that.

“We're at our showcase facility, showcase town, showcase of summer collegiate baseball really here in Madison. It's nice to be back and I'm sure we'll be back here in the (near) future. It's great for advertisers, sponsors, scouts (etc.). They do a great job here, like I said probably as good as anyone does it across the country for summer collegiate baseball.”

Attending a Mallards game is at the very least entertaining, and many to most of their innovations are things all teams at any level could learn from. Between a clever public address announcer, numerous hospitality decks and the team's mascot, Maynard, flying down to home plate on a zip line prior to the beginning of every game, the team's creativity in producing a unique in-game experience is evident.

Stenman, who is in his third year as the team's President after serving the previous eight years as the General Manager, has been part of most of those decisions. He was named the NWL Executive of the Year two times, in 2003 and 2005, and honor that current GM Conor Caloia received last year.

“It's a completely different story from 2008,” Stenman said of hosting the all-star game for the second time in five years. “We've completely re-built the stadium, and I think that's a big part of the reason we were able to get the All-Star Game again so quickly here in Madison. I think the league and Madison wanted to show it off a little bit.”

The Mallards spent $2.2 million to renovate their stadium, Warner Park, fondly referred to as “The Duck Pond” by the local fan base, prior to the 2011 season. Their creativity was shown in these renovations, using old seats purchased from Camden Yards and Wrigley Field to fill several sections, while using old bleachers as tabletops and to create the stadium's new gift shop.

That green initiative is only part of the team's overall creativity, and something a progressive city of Madison, the capital of Wisconsin, readily embraces.

With a population of nearly 250,000, it's a little surprising that the city of Madison hasn't been able to support baseball in the past, as the University of Wisconsin does not field a Division I team while minor league and independent teams such as the Madison Muskies, Hatters and Black Wolf weren't successful enough to keep those teams from leaving town.

“For us it's always been a mentality of constantly getting a little bit better, both off and on the field,” Stenman said of the team's involvement with the community. “We're always looking at things differently and where we can find an opportunity to get better at.

“We're a customer service business. Part of that experience is putting a good product on the field, and that's always No. 1 for us. At the same time we realize it's entertainment and we have to have great food, we have a great ballpark and we have to put on a great show.”

The Mallards success has led both Schmitt and Stenman to start up another Northwoods League franchise, the Wisconsin Rapids Rafters, who are in their third year of existence and hosted the league's all-star game a year ago. The Mallards and Rafters are two of seven teams from the league located in Wisconsin, as the Mallards, La Crosse Loggers and Eau Claire Express ranked Nos. 1, 2 and 3 respectively in league attendance.

Radatz believes that success is reflected at the Miller Park turnstiles for the big-league Brewers in Milwaukee.

“(Milwaukee Brewers GM) Doug Melvin (as part of the event's dinner banquet the night before) said how interesting it was that we were cultivating fans and creating baseball fans. And then he mentioned two or three times how they drew three million (fans) in the last four years. Well we have seven teams in Wisconsin now cultivating fans that will eventually want to go to Miller Park. It was really interesting to hear him say that because we've believed that for years.”

Many of those fans will likely come from Madison, Wisconsin's second largest city, with a renewed fan base connected to America's Pastime.

“We want to create memories that families and fans can connect with for a long time, and the All-Star Game has really become an event like that,” Stenman said. “We'll have a sell-out crowd on hand tonight to come out and see some of the best baseball in the country. And that's what it's all about.”

Game notes

Catcher Alex Real and shortstop Ty Forney, who like Marincov played all nine innings of the contest, hit back-to-back solo home runs of their own to open the bottom of the sixth inning to give the South a 3-2 lead.

This is the second year in a row that Forney was named to the NWL All-Star Game. A superior defender up the middle of the infield, he was also named the No. 42 prospect in the league a year ago. A shorter, smaller-framed athlete, Forney's home run was no fluke, as he pulled the ball high and deep to left field.

Real participated in the 2010 Perfect Game National Showcase, where he earned high marks for his ability to hit for average and power, to go along with his arm strength behind the plate.

Other South hitters that were impressive include first basemen Casey Gillaspie and Brendon Hayden. Both are coming off of their freshmen seasons at Wichita State and Virginia Tech respectively. Hayden replaced Gillaspie, whose older brother Conor has enjoyed a few cups of coffee with the San Francisco Giants, in the third inning when Gillaspie was hit in the head with a pitch. Both players have extremely long and tall frames that give them exciting power potential. Gillaspie showed the ability to loft and drive the ball a long way from both sides of the plate and to all parts of the field during the event's home run derby prior to the game.

Middle infielder Pat Kelly has natural middle infield actions showing soft hands and a strong accurate arm. He also employs a patient approach and short, compact swing at the plate, and is currently hitting .315 for the Rafters.

Third baseman Bre Kimball has one of the most impressive statures of those in attendance, with a strong, stocky build. He has very good bat speed at the plate with an aggressive approach and exciting bat speed. He also showed well during the defensive drills as part of the pre-game scouting workout, with good lateral movements and a strong arm from the hot corner.

Richard Prigatano has a large and powerful 6-foot-3, 200-pound frame, and fittingly was also part of the home run derby prior to the game. A right-handed hitter, he is currently hitting .318 with 13 doubles and eight home runs this summer, and showed his ability to drive the ball hard in this game by smoking a double to deep left-center in the second inning.

An alum of 12 different Perfect Game tournament events playing for the renowned Orlando Scorpions and FTB travel ball programs, Marincov, as detailed above, is another talented overall athlete with good size.  He's 6-foot-3, 200-pounds and shows promising multi-tool potential. His best tool might be his strong outfield arm, and he's having an MVP caliber season with a .329 average with 16 doubles and 11 home runs.

The North team scored a run in the top of the seventh to pull back to even, and put the first two runs on the board by scoring single tallies in the fourth and fifth innings when Michael Suchy scored on a wild pitch and James Ramsay hit an RBI single.

Of the North positional prospects, starting shortstop Hunter Dozier stood out. Not only does he have impressive size and strength at 6-foot-4, 225-pounds, but he also has very good looseness for his size. He made the defensive play of the game by making a bare handed scoop and throw on a slow roller to throw out the speedy Forney in the seventh. At the plate he went 0-for-3 with a walk, but showed a good approach and exciting bat speed.

Jimmy Pickens also stood out for his visible athleticism. At 6-foot, 220-pounds Pickens is hitting .365 with 20 extra base hits and 21 stolen bases after hitting .248 for Michigan State during his freshman season. He hit a hard line drive up the middle for a sharp single in the seventh, and is a player to watch at the college level the next 2-3 years.

First baseman Trevor Podratz claimed the home run derby prior to the game with a perfect approach for such an event. He swung on roughly every third or fourth pitch, saving his strength while waiting for exactly the type of pitch he could drive to the short porch in left centerfield.  Podratz played for the powerful San Diego Show travel ball program in high school.

Turning to the pitchers, 11 of the 22 players that took the mound in the game peaked at or above 90 mph, highlighted by Anthony Bazzani's 95 mph mark. Bazzani was rated the No. 3 prospect in the league a year ago, while Jordan Foley (94) and Bradley Wallace (93) also approached the mid-90s. The number of hard throwers in the game was a significant change from a year ago in which very few hurlers hit or surpassed the 90 mph mark.

Bazzani was particularly impressive, which makes it more curious why he fell to the 31
st round (Orioles) of this year's draft. He has great size at 6-foot-5, 215-pounds, and a power one-two punch. His first pitch was thrown at 94 mph and his best at 95 as noted above. He mixed in a power slider at 78-80 mph that some have identified as a split-finger fastball, and while he faced only two batters, they had no chance catching up with his stuff. He currently has 13 saves and a 1.88 ERA this summer after recording 12 saves last summer with the Alexandria Beetles.

Staying with the North squad, right-handers Brady Anderson and Jordan Foley as well as left-handers Trevor Belicek and Jared Miller stood out.

Anderson has a smaller stature but is a very good, balanced athlete with a low three-quarters delivery and a live arm. His fastball sat at 90-91 while pounding the lower half of the strike zone. He also mixed in a sharp 76-78 mph breaking ball.  Anderson was known more as a middle infielder in high school, and attended the 2010 Perfect Game National Showcase.

Foley's peak velocity of 94 mph was second only to Bazzani, who like Bazzani has very good size and strength in his well-proportioned 6-foot-3, 207-pounds frame. He has a very easy, repeatable delivery and arm strength, sitting at 91-92 throwing almost entirely fastballs.

I wish I had seen more of Trevor Belicek, who faced only one batter and gave up a base hit, but immediately looked to be arguably the most impressive pure pitcher to me of any arm that took the mound in this game. He has great size and easy arm strength producing 89-90 mph fastballs, with plenty of reason to believe that more is on the way.

At 6-foot-6, 240-pounds Miller was instantly memorable for his size alone. He used his size well to throw his fastball on a downhill plane, sitting in the 88-90 range while also throwing a sharp 78-80 slurvy breaking ball. Miller had a successful freshman season at Vanderbilt where he posted a 3.70 ERA in 20 relief appearances.

As noted above, Bradley Wallace was the hardest throwing hurler among the South arms. He too has good size, projectability and a loose, live arm. He warmed up at 91 mph and worked at 89-93, mixing in a promising curveball that he'll need to tighten up and throw with harder bite more consistently. For as good as his stuff was, the North hitters did make hard contact off of him.

Bryce Bellin followed Wallace in the fifth inning, also showing very good size, coming over the top with his 87-88 mph fastball and the best curveball spun in the game. It's a true 12-to-6 hammer thrown in the low- to mid-70s.

A pair of Bellin's Green Bay teammates also took the mound in the game, fellow right-handers Zac Hermans and Will Landsheft. Hermans recorded two quick outs after relieving Bellin in the sixth, using a 90-91 fastball and a low-80s slider. Landsheft showed a live arm and good projectability working at 88-91 with a 75-77 curveball.

Alex Tukey picked up the win in the game, recording the final out in the eighth and the first out of the ninth, serving as the bookends for Marincov's go-ahead blast. At 6-foot-4, 165-pounds Tukey is very lean and lanky, sitting at 90 mph with his fastball while flashing a sharp 78 mph curve.

Left-handed pitcher Anthony Marzi wasn't blowing batters away, but showed very good command of a 86-88 mph fastball and a sharp upper-70s slider. He had a quick inning pitching to contact.

Fellow lefty Jake Stassi of Long Beach State returned to pitch for the Loggers for his second straight summer. After going 5-3 with a 4.02 ERA a year ago, he's currently 4-0 with a 2.27 ERA and got the starting nod for the South squad. Like Marzi, Stassi enjoyed a quick inning, mixing in a mid-80s fastball, a slow curve and a changeup to induce weak contact, with one batter reaching on a weakly hit chopper to the right side of the infield.

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