The Beer And Hotdogs Weren’t Free, But It Felt Like It

by Elliot Hughes

There is a baseball team in Madison, Wis. called the Mallards, a collegiate summer league team that plays in a ballpark affectionately known as the “Duck Pond.” It’s a neat little attraction in the summers, when the college sports-crazed city has no Badger football, basketball or hockey to take in.

But that is not why seven friends and myself made the hike to the Duck Pond recently. The Mallards have this magnificent thing there, long known to my friends and I but never previously explored (save for one), called the Duck Blind, a special section reserved for those who pay about $30 for the right to unlimited food and drink.

As a 23-year-old college graduate, you can imagine I am not someone who parts easily with his money. I would say I’m fairly responsible with my cash. There are times — increasingly often, it seems — that I must say no to friends (not that they necessarily have it way better than me or are less responsible) and reserve myself to a night in, staying the hell away from places that trade fun for money. Whenever I do allow myself to go to such places, every purchase made is usually accompanied with some small sting of guilt. It is the feeling of my funds receiving another dent, another spank. From ordering fries with a burger or getting one more drink, it is like being stung by bee after bee. Then I get home and a “Good God, what have I done I?” sort of feeling hits.

So what is so bewitching about this Duck Blind deal — despite the fact that I consider spending over $30 on entertainment in one day to be a lot — is that I get to escape the tortuous bee stings of guilt. Instead, it all comes in one big conscience-freeing dump, after which I am set loose, free to roam the menu — encouraged, even — until I break even and, perhaps, profit (profit!).

So at about 5:15 on one recent summer day, I set out for the Duck Blind. I secured my ticket online (-$29.50) and met with three friends at a bus stop across from the granite-white Wisconsin State Capitol. To pay the bus fare, I needed to break my $20 bill, so I picked up a Reese’s Pieces (-$1.65) from Walgreen’s before boarding the bus (-$2.00).

The Duck Pond — actually named Warner Park — is modest, clean and, overall, an impressive ballpark. Several rows of seats run along the baselines. A vast, green roof, hoisted up by steel pillars with a brick base — brick always looks nice in sports stadiums — covers much of the infield stands. It feels like some county fair after passing through the ticket gate. A bounce house and another inflatable platform are right there, and past that, food and merchandise stands flank the walkway.

The Duck Blind itself is a sprawling, patio-like area hugging the foul pole in right field. Long, skinny bar tables and picnic benches are scattered all about. After entering, we headed straight to the concession stand. The food menu featured standard stadium grub, and we quickly came to understand this menu is a quantity over quality kind of thing, which is fine with us. But the beer list — it is glowing. Apart from the usual hogwash swill, like Bud Light, there are more sumptuous brews, from Goose Island, New Belgium, Magic Hat and local breweries.

(The concession stand does not post prices; there is no need. So as I assess the value of my intake, I will assume, conservatively, that all beer is worth $4. I was able to find stadium food prices for other sections on the Mallards’ website.)

For my first serving, I went with a Potosi Cave Ale (+$4.00), a cheeseburger (+$4.50) and fries (+$3). In the outfield, we found an elevated section of seats, maybe 20 feet above everyone else, reminding me of some kind of tree fort because it is made of wood. Four other friends eventually found and joined us. The Duck Blind was not well attended that night, perhaps because rain was a possibility, but we had no fear, only faith. Our tree fort also provided shelter, anyway. “Haha,” we said, looking at everyone below.

I was eager to get my money’s worth, but I knew I must pace myself to avoid filling prematurely. In the meantime, the Mallards put on a decent show. The mascot flew down a zipline from the outfield to homebase. There was a baby crawling race and a footrace with kids wearing fruit costumes. Every single foul ball was punctuated with the announcer leaning into the microphone to matter-of-factly say, “Weiner,” which got us every time. Also, the Mallards happen to be good at baseball.

The second serving was a bit heftier, in an attempt to limit trips because it was a long walk to the concession stand and a foul ball came within 20 yards of hitting me during that walk. I collected Goose Island’s 312 (+$4.00), the thinnest hot dog I have ever seen (+$2.00) and a pulled-pork sandwich (+$5.00). Halfway through this serving, me and two other friends remarked at how our hunger had bedded down quicker than expected, despite eating less earlier that day. This will become the last plate of the night for me. No sense trying to cram cafeteria food into a crowded stomach with sublime beer on hand.

As I slogged through the last of my food, I grabbed a happy glass of Magic Hat #9 (+$4.00), followed by a Great Dane Crop Circle What (+$4.00). Meanwhile, we in the tree fort picked out a favorite player — a strapping outfielder by the name of Drew Weeks. He stood within earshot of us and we applauded him continually, although we were wary of coming off as sarcastic hecklers. He acknowledged us on several occasions, and we swooned each time. Then, after getting a little silly, we jokingly asked what the score was and how many outs there were and he seemed to prefer we not do that, so we stopped.

As the 7th inning began, we realized our time was dwindling. Beer service ends after the 8th, so we scuttled down to fit in another, a Fat Tire (+$4.00), in time to be right back for the last call — a second Fat Tire (+$4.00).

Almost no one was able to finish these last-call drinks before the game ended and workers shooed us from our tree fort. It was just as well. By my estimates, I finished more than five dollars into the green on the night:

Total expenses: $33.15

Value of food, drink consumed: $38.50

Like I said earlier, I consider spending $30 on entertainment in one day to be a little much for me. But it was almost worth it just to cut out the bee stings of guilt from nagging at me and distracting me from happy times.

And we got our photo taken with Drew Weeks after the game. You can’t beat that.

Elliot Hughes lives in Madison, Wisconsin.