The Wisconsin Timber Rattlers have made it through the longest offseason in their history and are back stronger than ever as they prepare for this season with new ownership, a long-term agreement with the Milwaukee Brewers and lessons learned from the season that never happened.
One year ago, the Rattlers were still hopeful of opening their season on time. New Business Membership and Sconnie Plan ticket packages sold at a brisk pace. Matt Erickson would return for his 10th season as manager. Buffalo chicken egg rolls were the winner of the Annual Food Fight.
Major League Baseball training camps closed on March 13, but fans of the Rattlers were not deterred and single-game tickets for the 2020 season went on sale to the public on March 14. The optimism for a new season was not dimmed as fans purchased tickets for the opening night Keston Hiura bobblehead giveaway, Star Wars night, Udder Tuggers weekend and many other popular nights.
This would all be over soon. Then, it wasn’t.
On March 16, the Rattlers announced they would be closing the ballpark for two weeks. The State of Wisconsin had announced a ban on events of 50 or more people. This wouldn’t just affect the home opener on April 9. It forced the cancellation of many events in the Fox Club Banquet Facility.
The shutdown was extended through Memorial Day and the first two months of the season were lost. It wasn’t just games that were lost. Decisions were made to delay and eventually cancel the Green & Gold Charity Softball Game and Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra’s Brats, Beer & Beethoven.
The team tried to do anything to bring in revenue. Easter brunch and Mother’s Day brunch were changed from a sit-down event in the Fox Club to a take-home meal with curbside pickup. Fish fry meals and ballpark dinners were added to the take-home food offerings.
The business office reopened on May 26. However, there had been no announcement on whether any Timber Rattlers games would be played.
When gatherings of 50 or more were allowed again, Neuroscience Group Field became a theater. “The Lion King” and “Star Wars: A New Hope” were shown on the videoboard on June 26 and 27. It was a fun, safe time at the ballpark and almost like things were back to normal.
Reality slapped everyone in the face again a few days later — on June 30 — with the inevitable announcement that the entire Minor League Baseball season would be canceled.
The news meant that no professional baseball games would be played in the Fox Valley area for the first time since 1957. The Fox Cities Foxes began playing in 1958 under the ownership of Appleton Baseball Club, Inc., a nonprofit group that ran the team in a similar structure to that of the Green Bay Packers ownership.
This group oversaw a lot of changes: renaming the Foxes to the Timber Rattlers, moving from Goodland Field to Fox Cities Stadium after the 1994 season and becoming an affiliate of the Brewers after the 2008 season.
The club had never seen anything like the pandemic, though. The loss of 70 home games and a variety of other events meant the loss of 90 percent of the team’s revenue for the season.
The team carried on by doing what it could do and there was a kind of baseball at the stadium. The Brewers needed an alternate training site to keep those who weren’t on the active roster ready to make it to Milwaukee at a moment’s notice. The Brewers also needed a place for prospects to train. Using the Neuroscience Group Field made sense.
Unfortunately, fans could not attend these sessions. Had they been able to, former Rattlers Aaron Ashby, Ethan Small, Mario Feliciano, Tyrone Taylor and Brice Turang would have put on a show for them. Fans also would have seen players who went up to help the Brewers make the playoffs for the third consecutive season.
Fans could see live baseball if they traveled to Fond du Lac. Appleton Baseball Club-owned the Dock Spiders, an amateur team in the Northwoods League, plays its games at Herr-Baker Field on the Marian University Campus in Fond du Lac.
Attendance was limited to roughly 425 people per game for the 25 percent capacity guidelines. Fans were seated in a socially distant manner and every reasonable precaution was taken to allow fans to feel safe.
Dock Spiders players also complied with health guidelines and made their way to the playoffs as they compiled a record of 31-17 during the regular season. In the post-season, the Dock Spiders beat the Green Bay Booyah and the La Crosse Loggers at home to claim the Wisconsin-Illinois Pod Championship.
That celebration couldn’t replace the revenue lost or remove the uncertainty of the change that was happening to the landscape.
MiLB had operated under an agreement with MLB from the early 1990s in which minor league teams signed a player development contract with a major league team. The MiLB/MLB relationship remained unchanged for almost 30 years, but this deal was going to end on Sept. 30, 2020, without the easy, automatic renewal of the past.
Major League Baseball wanted control of the product and facilities that met minimum standards. This meant some cities that had Minor League Baseball for more than 100 years were in danger of losing their franchises.
The COVID-19 situation complicated the negotiations, and MLB had several other situations to deal with in handling its abbreviated season. Many minor league teams were on edge.
The Timber Rattlers learned they would survive on Dec. 9, 2020. They were extended an invitation to remain a Brewers’ affiliate.
The invitation gave the Rattlers a 10-year affiliation with the Brewers but also committed them to making significant stadium upgrades. That would mean spending more money than the community-owned Rattlers could raise.
Fortunately, Third Base Ventures purchased Appleton Baseball Club.
Craig Dickman, majority owner of Third Base Ventures, had experience with the club as a board member and board chairman. Dickman’s first year on the board was 2002, which also was Rob Zerjav’s first year as Timber Rattlers president and general manager.
Eighteen years later, Zerjav asked Dickman for advice on how to weather the storm and keep professional baseball in the Fox Cities. The conversations gradually developed into discussions with the current board of directors and eventually into the idea of Dickman, the co-managing director of TitletownTech and former owner of Breakthrough, buying the club. Dickman, who for years had thoughts of one day buying a Minor League Baseball team, started the process and brought Zerjav in as a minority owner along with Madison-based lawyer Brad Raaths.
The sale was announced on Dec. 22, with Third Base Ventures purchasing the Timber Rattlers, the Dock Spiders and Neuroscience Group Field.
“I have known Craig for almost 20 years and his track record speaks for itself. I truly believe our new ownership group will allow the team to not only survive this pandemic but thrive for many years to come,” Zerjav said.
The season is almost here. Tickets and sponsorships are available for games. The banquet facility is ready to host events again. The Wisconsin Timber Rattlers are back and they invite you to Come Back Home.
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