Although the April 9 opener was the first official game for the Timber Rattlers as a Brewers affiliate, the excitement of a potential relationship between the Appleton/Fox Cities community and Milwaukee started well before Opening Day.
In fact, nearly a year and a half before the affiliation became official on Oct. 1, 2008, the possibility was brought to Zerjav's attention. A local newspaper reporter wrote that the Timber Rattlers' 16-year affiliation with the Mariners and the Brewers' contract with the West Virginia Power (Charleston, W.Va.) both ended in 2008.
Once the word got out in the community that a Timber Rattlers/Brewers relationship was a possibility, Zerjav started hearing from fans. Due to Minor League rules, he couldn't talk to any other club while under contract with Seattle. But as the contract drew to an end, he started asking fans what they thought of a potential relationship with the state's only Major League team.
The more people he talked to, the easier the decision became.
"I really encouraged fans to give me their opinion and I took it all in," said Zerjav, who noted that numerous fans had shown up to games wearing Brewers gear in years past. "I don't want to say it made the decision really easy, but my job is to sell tickets and your fans are saying they want the Brewers -- and it wasn't just a majority, it was everybody. It was literally every single person I talked to told me I needed to do this."
Fans have stuck to their word, and the Timber Rattlers are having one of their best attendance years ever. The average attendance per game is up by more than 1,000 fans through the same point last year. Through 24 games this season, an average of 3,259 fans passed through the Fox Cities Stadium turnstiles, compared to an average of 2,001 in 2008.
On June 12, the Timber Rattlers broke the 100,000 attendance mark in the first half of the Midwest League season for the first time in their history.
Angie Ceranski, the Timber Rattlers' vice president of marketing, said the new affiliation came at the perfect time.
"The Brewers were coming off that awesome season last year and the economy as it is right now, and we are very, very fortunate to have this happen now," Ceranski said. "We are staying very steady where we're at financially and with the response from the community."
The front offices of the two teams also have worked together with co-promotions, which have benefited both teams, as well as fans.
There is an ongoing co-branded ticket package where fans can get a Brewers ticket, a Timber Rattlers ticket and a T-shirt for $15. There is a certain block of games for each team that fans can choose from, and Zerjav said those ticket sales have far exceeded expectations.
On Sundays, the Timber Rattlers wear Brewers-themed jerseys with the Timber Rattlers logo and Brewers colors, and members of the game-day staff also wear shirts with the Brewers logo on it.
The Timber Rattlers also played a game at Miller Park earlier this season with nearly 18,000 fans in attendance.
"It was great exposure for us, a great revenue generator for the both of us, a great experience for the players and a great opportunity for fans in Milwaukee to see the young guys," Zerjav said. "It was just a real win, win, win for everybody."
The boost in the attendance numbers and fan support in the community also has affected the players. Corey Kemp, who played for the Brewers' Rookie-level affiliate in Helena, Mont., last season, said fans make a huge difference during the grinding baseball season.
"Sometimes the later the season goes, you kind of drag to the field ... and it wears on you when you get about 50 games in and you come to the ballpark and there are maybe 800 fans there and you see empty seats," Kemp said. "When you come here, you might wake up and be a little tired, but you come and see 5,000 people and that extra adrenaline helps."
The players are also noticed when they go out in the community.
"We walked into Wal-Mart the other day and the greeter was like, 'Hey guys!' She couldn't remember our names but she knew we were Timber Rattlers and it was interesting to walk in there and get noticed," outfielder Erik Miller said. "I actually saw her the other day here when I was in an autograph booth and she walked up and was like, "Hi! Do you remember me from Wal-Mart?' It was pretty cool."
Nine months into a four-year player development deal, both parties are happy with the results thus far.
"I think we would like to have a better record on the field there, but other than that, it has been a very successful relationship," Brewers assistant general manager Gord Ash said. "We have been able to use Appleton as a sort of springboard for some of our players out of [extended spring training], and the facility, of course, is top-notch."
Both Ceranski and Zerjav said they hope 2009 is just the beginning of a long affiliation.
"In talking with the Brewers -- you can sign a two-year or a four-year deal -- and when we sat down [in September] we decided on the four-year deal," Zerjav said. "But when both parties look at this, we look at this as a long-term relationship. With the way things are going so far, I'd say [continuing the relationship is] a no-brainer."