If 2001 romantic comedy Summer Catch provided any kind of service to humanity, it was to alert aspiring young ballplayers to the complicated but ultimately beneficial influence of Jessica Biel’s intoxicating charm on one’s talents. Many of our greatest minds have contemplated whether Freddie Prinze Jr.’s character Ryan Dunne would have, left to his own devices, received a contract offer from Phillies scout Hugh Alexander. It’s impossible to know, of course. Yet one suspects that the presence of Biel’s Tenley Parrish in Dunne’s life — whatever challenges it posed along the way — ultimately rendered him not only a better ballplayer but a better man.
Beyond this philosophical grist, Summer Catch offered another sort of gift to the public — specifically, by introducing a new demographic to the existence of the Cape Cod League. The country’s premier collegiate wood-bat summer circuit, the Cape League is one of those rare entities whose virtues are actually difficult for the soft-focus lens of a Hollywood film to embellish. The games feature some of the top amateur talent in the country, are played in a network of small parks along the New England coastline, and cost absolutely nothing to attend. It is, in some ways, the ideal way to experience the game.
And while the Cape’s version is, by a number of measures, the best of these wood-bat summer leagues, it certainly isn’t the only one. A map of collegiate summer teams compiled by Jeff Sackmann earlier this decade reveals their ubiquity:
Most of these teams follow a model similar to the one employed by the clubs on the Cape, offering families an opportunity to watch a fairly high level of baseball for something close to free. They draw 1,000 or 2,000 fans per game — in many cases, fewer than that — and are relatively modest in terms of presentation and ballpark experience.
One team very much does not follow the Cape model, however — namely, the Madison Mallards of Madison, WI. Founded in 2001 as part of the Northwoods League, the Mallards drew just over 1,000 per game in the inaugural season. In subsequent years, however, the numbers have increased rapidly. In 2006, the Mallards drew 6,000 fans for the first time. They have averaged roughly that same figure in the decade-plus since.
It’s not surprising to find that the Mallards’ attendance figures are unrivaled among collegiate summer teams. The gap in attendance this season between the Mallards and the second-best club by that measure — the Savannah Bananas of the Coastal Plain League — is equal to the gap between those same Bananas and the 10th-highest-drawing club, the Macon Bacon (also of the CPL).
Perhaps more surprising, though, is how favorably the Mallards — who feature a roster mostly of college freshmen and sophomores — compare to actual, professional, affiliated minor-league teams.
|3||Round Rock Express||Pacific Coast||Triple-A||70||8,809|
|4||Nashville Sounds||Pacific Coast||Triple-A||69||8,741|
|6||Lehigh Valley IronPigs||International||Triple-A||66||8,511|
|8||St. Paul Saints||American Assoc.||Independent||50||8,178|
|9||Albuquerque Isotopes||Pacific Coast||Triple-A||70||7,948|
|11||El Paso Chihuahuas||Pacific Coast||Triple-A||69||7,819|
|12||Sacramento River Cats||Pacific Coast||Triple-A||69||7,808|
|14||Toledo Mud Hens||International||Triple-A||69||7,362|
|15||Iowa Cubs||Pacific Coast||Triple-A||63||7,356|
|16||Salt Lake Bees||Pacific Coast||Triple-A||69||6,921|
|18||Oklahoma City Dodgers||Pacific Coast||Triple-A||69||6,713|
|20||Rochester Red Wings||International||Triple-A||67||6,537|
|23||Richmond Flying Squirrels||Eastern||Double-A||64||6,198|
|25||Fresno Grizzlies||Pacific Coast||Triple-A||67||6,051|
The Charlotte (NC) Knights, the White Sox’ Triple-A affiliate, led all non-MLB clubs in attendance this year, at just under 9,000 per game. After that, one finds a collection mostly of other International or Pacific Coast League teams. The St. Paul Saints, a member of the American Association, feature the top attendance among independent-league teams by a healthy amount. (The Somerset Patriots of the Atlantic League finished second this year, with roughly 3,000 fewer fans per game.) The Dayton Dragons of the Low-A Midwest League also did well relative to their minor-league level.
Still, it’s the Mallards’ success relative to actual pro clubs that seems most worthy of attention. As to why they attract so many fans, that is outside the purview of this brief post, although the population of the city itself has to be an asset. Madison proper features roughly 250,000 people, while the Metropolitan Statistical Area contains just over twice that figure. That’s a lot more than Chatham, Massachusetts, for example.
Still, pro clubs in Madison have had trouble drawing such crowds. The Muskies, a Midwest League club that played in town from 1982 to -93, never averaged even 1,000 per game. The Hatters, another Midwest League team that remained in Madison for just the 1994 season drew only 69,080 in 139 dates — a figure the Mallards would reach in roughly 11 games.
Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.