Periods of rain, gloomy skies and cool temperatures didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of fans who flocked from miles around to see the Lake Country DockHounds’ first-ever home game as the team opened its new ballpark in Oconomowoc on Friday night.
Traffic began to back up on roads leading to Wisconsin Brewing Company Park more than an hour before the first pitch. Long lines of fans slowly made their way through the entrance to the stadium, which eventually reached its 3,600-person capacity to see the DockHounds take on the Winnipeg Goldeyes.
The DockHounds are the newest franchise in the American Association of Professional Baseball, an independent professional baseball organization that also includes the Milwaukee Milkmen.
FREE FINANCIAL ADVICE
Tune in for our next Women & Wealth webinar on Wednesday at noon. We’re talking about navigating your finances through life transitions.
With players from the DockHounds and Goldeyes gathered along the first- and third-base foul lines, the crowd rose to its feet as the Oconomowoc High School choir sang the Canadian and American anthems.
Former New Berlin Eisenhower star Alex McRae started on the mound for the DockHounds and fired the game’s first pitch to the plate. T.J. Bennett singled in the bottom of the first inning with two outs to record the DockHounds’ first hit in the new stadium. Bennett would then come around to score the first run.
Veteran Taiwanese star Daikan Yoh, an eye-popping signing for the DockHounds, whipped the crowd into a frenzy when he became the first player to hit a home run in the new ballpark, a solo shot in the second inning. The celebration continued when the next batter, T.J. Bennett, also belted a round-tripper.
McRae pitched seven strong innings to notch the win as the DockHounds walked away with an 8-5 victory, much to the delight of the opening-night crowd. Fans had to dodge raindrops a few times throughout the game, but few seemed to care. Many stood in line for drinks and food and kids scampered to have photos taken with Louie, the DockHounds mascot.
“I think it’s amazing. It’s exceeded my expectations,” Oconomowoc resident Nita Deputy said of the new ballpark. “I didn’t know, truthfully, that it was going to be all of this. It’s come together unbelievably.”
Deputy took in the action from a perch in the spacious upper deck area behind home plate, where fans were seated at tables.
“The facilities alone are pretty amazing,” Deputy said. “Bringing your family out here for a day at the ballpark is great. Imagine if it’s 70 degrees and sunny. It’s 55 and rainy tonight and look at it. It’s going to be a great summer out here.”
Joe Kaluva, who watched the game from a spot in a grassy area down the left-field line, drove from his home in Madison, about 40 minutes away, to catch the action.
“I like it. It’s nice,” Kaluva said of the ballpark. “This is my first time being at an American Association game.”
Kaluva attends 10 to 15 Milwaukee Brewers games each season and also enjoys traveling to watch minor league games in Appleton and Beloit. The independent professional league offers benefits similar to minor league games, he said.
“I like the ambiance and cheaper prices. Major League games are obviously very fun but it’s really expensive and kind of a hassle,” Kaluva said.
The location of Wisconsin Brewing Company Park, just off I–94, is convenient for fans coming from various directions, Oconomowoc resident Lynda Kohler said.
“It’s a perfect location. It’s easy to get to, and there is great parking,” Kohler said. “I think it’s awesome. We’ve never had anything like this out here.”
Kohler also expects there to be a fun, friendly regional rivalry developing between the DockHounds and the Milkmen, whose home ballpark is in Franklin. The two teams met in Franklin the previous weekend in a season-opening series.
“It’s going to be a good rivalry,” Kohler said. “I think it will bring Oconomowoc people to Franklin and Franklin people here.”
The DockHounds lost to the Goldeyes 6-3 on Saturday before winning a 6-5 thriller on Sunday on Yoh’s walk-off, two-run single. Milwaukee native Connor Bagnieski started in the outfield in the games on Saturday and Sunday. He collected two hits in four at-bats and drew two walks. The win on Sunday gave the DockHounds a series win in their first weekend at their new ballpark.
Among those in attendance for the DockHounds Friday night home-opener was Joshua Schaub, commissioner of the Minnesota-based American Association of Professional Baseball.
“The commissioner would never miss a stadium opening. Those don’t come around very often,” Schaub said in an exclusive interview. “It’s a great venue. It’s very intimate. In the American Association, it’s one of our smaller venues but one where I saw an extremely passionate fan base that was having a hell of a time out at their new ballpark.”
The owners and operators of the DockHounds faced challenges in getting things in place for opening night, Schaub noted.
“The stadium construction finished very recently so it’s very difficult for a staff to come in and just operate like clockwork,” he said. “I look forward to the new things they will unveil moving forward. I thought, despite the concession lines being long because of the sellout, there was tremendous branding around the ballpark. It’s only going to get better. The stadium meets the market size, which is very important. I think it’s going to be a perfect addition to the community.”
Schaub also applauded the ownership group, which is led by the Kelenic family, for the team they have assembled on the field.
“I hope the community noted the talent level of the baseball being played on the field,” he said. “That game on Friday night in particular was extremely well-played.”
Having a veteran manager in Jim Bennett is also beneficial for the newly formed franchise, Schaub said.
“I would be concerned about a new member in the league if they also came in with a rookie manager, but we’re talking about a former Manager of the Year in the American Association who knows the landscape,” he said.
The signing of Daikan Yoh, who’s also known as Dai-Kang Yang, was a major move for the team, Schaub said.
“Getting one of the premier players in the Japanese professional league to come over and play in the American Association may be the first of its kind,” he said. “That’s your cornerstone in the lineup.”
Schaub said he is confident that Milwaukee metro area will support two American Association teams.
“They are 35 miles apart from home plate to home plate,” he said. “There’s likely to be some crossover, too. I think there are different sponsorship bases as well. They serve two distinct areas. But you may see some crossover sponsorships at both ballparks, too.”
The franchises already are forging a rivalry, Schaub said.
“There will be a rivalry there, I guarantee it,” he said. “They are going to see each other a lot. The fan bases are going to interact with each other quite a bit on game day.”
Schaub is also confident of the long-term success of the American Association, which he said received a significant boost when it opted to conduct its 2020 season with fans in attendance, in a limited capacity, even though Major League Baseball operated with a shortened schedule and played games in empty stadiums while affiliated minor leagues shut down altogether as the coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc on the sports world.
“I think 2020 was really a catalyst for us,” Schaub said. “To keep our banner alive and be the only traditional baseball circuit in America to actually play games in front of fans really kind of started to elevate us past other leagues and similar competition.”
Only six of the American Association’s 12 teams chose to participate in an abbreviated 60-game season in 2020, with the Milkmen capturing the league title in only their second year of existence. But having a season, shortened as it was, kept the league’s brand active, Schaub said.
“If we take our brand off the shelf for a year, fans are going to go find something else to do,” he said. “I think us staying active was critically important to take the leap that we have the last two years. If you look at attendance already this year versus 2021, there’s a 23% to 25% leap in attendance over the opening weekend. We’ve made tremendous strides.”