Dead Ducks: How a minor-league baseball team made a major-league screw-up while trying to be funny during a pandemic

Dead Ducks

I never know how to take it when former students tell me things like, “I saw this massive media screw-up and immediately thought of you!” That said, I’m grateful for the help in identifying the face-palm moments of life that keep the blog humming.

UPDATE: The president of the organization got back to me on this. I posted his response in full below.


Like many other sports franchises, the Madison Mallards baseball team in Wisconsin is coming to terms with what to make of a lost season. The Northwoods League team decided Wednesday to formally cancel its entire schedule, announcing the decision with an approach that could politely be referred to as “tone-deaf:

In Memoriam: Madison Mallards 2020 Season (2020-2020)
The 2020 Mallards Baseball season, a highly anticipated summer mainstay on the cusp of its 20th season, ended before it even had a chance to start on Wednesday, June 24th at 5:00 pm.

Survived by its mascots, Maynard, Millie, and Bonehead, a dedicated staff, supportive corporate partners, and a city full of fans, the season will be dearly missed by many. The Mallards, born in 2001, have provided decades of fun, community, and wieners. Their 20th season in Madison would have been no different.

The cause of the “death” of this season is, of course, the coronavirus pandemic that has sickened more than 2.3 million people in the United States as of the latest count. The death toll has reached past the 120,000 mark for the country, with more than 750 of those in the state of Wisconsin. Dane County, where the Mallards play, is listed as a hot spot for the virus, one of 22 counties in the state registering spikes in the “high” range, according to state DHS data.

So, maybe the obituary approach wasn’t exactly the wisest of ways to alert the readers on this one. (Also, and I know it’s a minor point, but how in the hell did the Mallards provide “decades of fun” if the team is short of its 20th season? I get that journalists aren’t good at math, but you gotta get at least two of something, in this case it would be decades, before you can pluralize something.)

The closing paragraphs of the “obituary” decided to take the concept of “EEEESHHH” to a major-league level:

A Celebration of Life will take place at the Duck Pond on June 29th, 2020 from 5:00pm to 8:00pm. Entry will be free for fans, with beer and concessions for purchase, and the opening of our new Team Store.

In lieu of flowers, fans are encouraged to support by attending upcoming events at the Duck Pond, shopping in our online team store, or sending condolences and fan mail to

Let’s unpack this:

  • We are having a “funeral” for a season that was essentially “stillborn,” to carry out the writer’s death metaphor to its most disturbing and yet accurate end.
  • The writer is encouraging people to come out en masse for this “funeral” during a pandemic in which social distancing is the primary way of avoiding contracting an actual illness that has the potential to be fatal.
  • What’s the draw? A free admission to an empty ball field in celebration of a NEW TEAM SHOP where you can buy stuff for a team that’s not playing. Oh, and you can buy beer and hotdogs as well.
  • The “in lieu of flowers” line had me shaking my head. Also, I’m not sure why I’m sending you “condolences” at this time…

I put in a note to the “Info” address above, asking for some thoughts and rationale on their approach here. The president of the organization got back to me with this note:



Thanks for your note. The Mallards role in our community for 20 years has been to provide a place for people to escape from their day-to-day routine. One of our old ad slogans was actually “Welcome to your 9-inning vacation.”
As we grapple with the real challenges of 2020 for our world, our community and our business, we thought it was important for the Mallards to continue to do what we do & hopefully provide a bit of levity for our fans. As evidence of us most likely being on the right path, I still haven’t seen a negative comment on social media related to the obituary part of what we did. I think our fans understand our satirical tone & that we would never intend to offend anyone. And, when we have delivered the wrong message in the past (which we have done) our fans have been quick to point it out & scold us on social media, as you would expect.
We will have more measures in place than simply socially distancing people at our Monday event. We didn’t feel the need to outline all the protocols in this post, but we will be clarifying them as we move forward. We’ve worked extremely closely with the Health Dept here & we know how to execute safe events and we will not allow a scene to develop similar to what has been seen at bars across the country. We have one of the largest venues in Madison & we’ll have plenty of room for people to safely gather.
Thanks for your time & consideration of our position on this. I authentically hope to see you at the ballpark next summer!
Vern Stenman
Big Top Sports + Entertainment

I have to say, I appreciate that the guy who runs the show would actually take time to respond to me, basically a chimp with a blog. I’m not exactly sure I’m buying into the “we haven’t seen a negative comment” defense, because a) not having seen something doesn’t mean it’s not there and b) the word “yet” should be clearly implied there… Granted, this isn’t as horrible as some of the other gaffes we’ve covered on the blog before, but “This could have been worse” isn’t exactly the target I’m thinking you want to be shooting for.

He’s standing by his approach, which is fine. Maybe I’m wrong about this, having lost a family friend to the coronavirus and knowing other immuno-compromised people I worry about every day. (It must be a cold day in hell right now, as I’m potentially being overly sensitive to something…) If I’m not, I’m sure the more people who see this will tell him. And to be fair, he did say if this gets ugly and they were wrong, they’d pony up. That’s a fair and fine strategy.

I’ll also stick by my two points below, made prior to Mr. Stenman’s email:

You aren’t as clever as you think you are: The idea of trying to “spice” up dull copy is an admirable one, but some situations call for straight-forward information dissemination. It’s the reason we don’t note that people who died during an explosion “went out with a bang” or that a drug overdose victim “failed the Pepsi Challenge and went with coke.”

I got smoked on a lead to a story once like that when I was filling in for a day-side cops reporter. The PIO at the station clued me into a burglary where this guy stole some tools and about 20 cases of soda from a local business. It was hot outside and we were talking about being too thirsty for their own good, so I wrote a lead that played on this idea, focusing on the soda.

The owner of the business called to complain that the true loss was the high-end manufacturing tools, worth tens of thousands of dollars, not the soda from the break room. He felt we were mocking his situation and that I wasn’t taking the burglary seriously. My managing editor crawled inside me with his shoes on, and I deserved it.

The point is that, yes, you write a seemingly interminable number of “noun-verb-object” leads that just give people the facts and you desperately want to do something more amazing than that. That said, this isn’t about you. It’s about your readers. Think about what happens when a Madison Mallards fan who lost a family member or a friend to the coronavirus reads this. Whatever you’ve got in your head, I bet it’s not good.


Paranoia is your best friend: I think I say this at least once per week during regular class periods, and it bears repeating here. A really good way of avoiding problems in your writing, reporting and publishing is to first consider what you are doing and then ask, “What are the infinite number of ways this could go wrong and make me look like a complete idiot?”

I joke about the voices in my head arguing about stuff quite a bit, but I’ll honestly tell you this: I do listen to specific voices when I’m writing. When I come across an issue of race, I think about a friend of mine who is an expert on this and another friend who deals with racist stuff on a way-too-frequent basis. When I come across an issue that could be seen as sexist, I have another friend’s voice in my head, arguing that there is a better way to write whatever it is I’m writing. When I start cursing on the blog, I can hear my publisher’s voice, yelling, “Vince, people from small religious schools read this!” (I then quietly delete the cussing and find a euphemism like “chucklehead” to replace what I really want to say.)

The paranoia that something could turn me into a tragic tale of wasted youth… er… middle-age… keeps me from doing a lot of tragically stupid things. Keeping your paranoia meter finely tuned won’t prevent every problem, but it will keep you from walking off a 20-foot ledge directly into a lava pool populated by robot sharks. Or whatever your recurring nightmare is…



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