Tailgate Tradition

There’s nothing quite like the Miller Park lot on Opening Day.

By 10:15 a.m., only fifteen minutes after the gates open, the familiar smell of grill smoke permeates the parking lot. Nearly a hundred are lit already, pouring their sweet summer smells into the air as they form a low-hanging cloud that drifts over the massive line of cars still waiting to get in. Except it’s not summer. It’s barely even spring. And if anyone needed any further indicator, big fluffy snowflakes punctuating the overcast sky serve as an apt reminder.

If Opening Day is often thought to herald spring, Mother Nature missed the message this year. As weather conditions postponed games in both Cleveland and New York, Brewers fans still swarmed to Miller Park despite sub-freezing temperatures because in Wisconsin, the cold doesn’t break traditions, it makes them.

Even with the chilly weather, little changes about the way the fans approach Opening Day. Car doors are still flung open to facilitate the blasting of music from every corner, which makes walking through each row feel like someone is carelessly changing the radio station at top volume. The grills are still fired up, each bellowing their own enticing smokestack into the air before being washed away by the wind. Tables and chairs and feet crowd every inch of the aisles as people gather to eat and drink and chatter their way through the chill.

Best of all, there are few genuine complaints. Almost every one you hear as you weave through the massive crowd is followed by a laugh, or a joke, or a smile. Because despite all else, it’s still Opening Day.

Even when the Miller Park staff finally opens the doors at 11 a.m., the promise of warmth within the colossal green dome isn’t enough to draw many inside. Only short lines of the underprepared stand in wait, shifting, bouncing, and dancing to stave off the bite of the wind before being doused in the glow of giant, overworked heaters.

One row from the sidewalk leading up the stadium, just off of lot marker “Yount 3,” stands a group of men, most in yellow pants and matching blue Brewers jackets. Zach Zwadzich, the group’s spokesman, also sports a blue and yellow afro wig, the colors split down the center. Beneath his open jacket is a too-short old-school mesh Brewers shirt.

One group of tailgaters celebrates their 12th Opening Day together.

“12 years,” he says, that they’ve been coming to Opening Day. “These are all friends of friends, so we all started coming together and became one happy group.”

“Hey! I’m not his friend!” shouts his father with a laugh from across the group, who, at 77 years old, still joins them as the reigning patriarch.

Around the horn, Zwadzich’s friend, Greg Schmidt, says the tradition started his freshman year of college. Over the years, people came and went and elements were added until they had a good-sized group, a solid spread of food, and enough beer to fuel a starting roster.

“It’s the one event every year where we actually get to see each other,” he says, looking around as others celebrate with a gulp of Schlitz.

“Although, some of us camp out for Arctic Tailgate for our tickets, and it was warmer then than it is today,” says Zwadzich, shaking his head. “So that’s a change.”

By the way they drink and smile and crack jokes around their portable yearly home, you can sense their tenure. They even have a makeshift port-o-john wrapped in a Brewers-blue tarp and capped with a ball-and-glove tent top. A few years ago, when the home opener was against the Cubs, they equipped it with a Carlos Zambrano photo as a backsplash, and charged Cubs fans for its use, while doling out free beer and free access to Brewers fans.

“The Cubs fans were pissed,” says Schmidt, laughing at his own unintentional pun.

But not all fans who attend have such a storied history. Some are just getting their first taste, whether they’ll remember it or not. Folks who are as dedicated as parents as they are Brewers fans briskly walk their children – some swaddled to look like Randy from A Christmas Story, some babies bundled so thoroughly only their tiny faces poke through – up to the gates, as excited as their kids.

As the first pitch is thrown, shortly after 1:10 p.m., the parking lot is still teeming with life. Spring weather or not, many fans are reluctant to leave the wild and free-range social climate of tailgating for the more subdued behavior of assigned seats and civil order inside. For some, this is what makes Brewers games, especially Opening Day, all worthwhile.

“There’s nothing like it,” says Mitch Hess, who, along with his wife Crystal, is a season ticket-holder who often wrangles other family members to join in the fun. “It’s first pitch and the parking lot is still half full.”

For them and many others, it’s more like a holiday than anything else. “What do Wisconsinites call this again? Christmas in April?” he asks, following with a grin.

“It’s great because you don’t have to know your neighbor and everybody’s willing to share everything,” chimes her father, exemplifying his point by offering one of the family beers. “It’s one of a kind,” echoes her brother. “Where else can you go that’s like this? That celebrates like this?”

Even in a rebuilding year, where all but three positions players were traded for younger prospects who may not even see a Major League field this season, the fans are just as happy to indulge in the joys of the experience, win or lose.

“It is what it is,” says Hess. “Everybody goes through it. As long as they win the World Series before I die.”