I recently attended a Lakeshore Chinooks game for the first time with my dad and my friend Kevin. In short, I had a great time and you should check it out. It’s a short drive from Milwaukee, up at Kapco Park on the Concordia University campus. It’s right near the lake so you kind of get that Wrigley feel with the winds.
The Chinooks are a recent addition to the Northwoods League, beginning play in 2012. If you’re not familiar with the Northwoods League, it’s a summer league comprised of top college players from all over. Players use wooden bats and are unpaid; often they’re set up with host families for the summer. The league runs like a professional minor league in order to not only provide a great experience for fans, but also to allow the players to become familiar with the sort of grind of life they’d see as professional baseball players, including the use of those wooden bats, minor-league-sized baseballs, road trips and playing at packed stadiums. The season is 70 games long and there is an All-Star game and playoffs. Not only is the Northwoods League a prep school for college players, it’s also one for umpires.
The Northwoods League currently has 16 teams, with most of those in Minnesota and Wisconsin, but also one each in Iowa, Michigan and Ontario. According to their Wikipedia page, they will be expanding next year to add another team in Michigan and one down in Kenosha. For our game, we saw the Chinooks play the Green Bay Bullfrogs. The Bullfrogs sported an appropriate combination of black and green on their uniforms while the Chinooks play in a nice mix of white, silver and what I guess can be called ‘lake blue’. On this day the Chinooks didn’t have much going offensively until they took the lead in the late innings. They then proceeded to blow a save but win the contest on a walk-off double in the 10th. You may have heard of the Chinooks because the team is partly owned by Brewers icons Robin Yount and Bob Uecker. Northwoods League scores are also sometimes shown on the sports tickers on FS North in Minnesota and FS Wisconsin. The Northwoods League has seen many alumni reach the major leagues, including Jordan Zimmermann, a Wisconsin native who pitched for the Eau Claire Express and now pitches for the Nationals. Former Brewer Casey McGehee played for the St. Cloud, MN, franchise in 2001, which was then known as the St. Cloud River Bats.
I’m a big fan of minor league baseball because there’s less pressure on the result but all the good things about going to the ballpark: the sun, the crowd, wandering the ballpark, beer and sausages, and of course, the game itself. I’ve been to a bunch of Midwest League parks (low Class A, affiliated with MLB) and Kapco Park comes close to replicating that level of ball. Kapco is a comfortable and enjoyable, if modest, ballpark. Superb tickets can be had for around $12 bucks, which is the top tier; everything else is even more affordable. You can tell it’s something of a newer field by its construction (including a turf field). I’d prefer not to see home plate as a drawing on the field (at least the bases were normal), but it is what it is. With a permanent turf field there’s a lot less maintenance, I suppose. Anyway, beers were only about half of what you might pay at Miller Park and the food options offered were delectable, minus the fried creamed-corn nuggets, which I should have tried despite the image in my head. There were the obligatory sausages and burgers but also a salmon sandwich, which presumably was inspired by the team’s mascot. The Chinook salmon is native to the western U.S. but was planted in Lake Michigan in the 1960s to go after invasive species. According to the Michigan DNR, Chinook were originally introduced into the Great Lakes in the 1870s but disappeared and are now able to sustain their numbers by a process of stocking. The Chinooks logo depicts silver and white Chinook in an action pose, and I must say the logo is something pretty wearable compared to many logos in leagues beneath the majors, which can get pretty wacky and ugly at times. It certainly crushes the Green Bay logo, which appears to be a drunk guy in a monster costume found at Goodwill.
With the Brewers stinking up the joint this year, perhaps it’s a better time than in several years to check out baseball on another plane. Two Class A affiliated teams reside in the state of Wisconsin, of course. The Beloit Snappers (A’s) and Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (Brewers) offer actual major-league prospects but the Northwoods League is just another rung on the ladder and you may end up seeing players who will one day be big leaguers. Plus, there are seven teams in Wisconsin, so no matter where you are in the state it’s pretty easy to reach one of the clubs. It’s pretty cool that on Opening Day last year, NWL alumni were represented on 22 of 30 major-league teams. The Northwoods League certainly makes an impact for young players and the communities in which the teams play (which are often deemed too small for affiliated ball). It’s a fine thing to have the league here as yet another pillar of baseball tradition in the Upper Midwest. Go check out the Chinooks or the Madison Mallards, or whatever the case may be.