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From Waukesha to New York, opening day in Milwaukee is a big draw

A large inflatable mascot stands in the back of a pickup truck in a parking lot full of cars.

Sixty-year-olds shaking their thing to Sir Mix-a-Lot. Beers cracked at 9:30 a.m. A balanced breakfast of burgers and brats and any number of dips. Strangers walking up to other strangers and becoming two-hour best friends.

Opening day is for doing stuff that wouldn’t be socially acceptable on nearly any other day of your life. Or maybe it’s a day that gives you the courage to do all the stuff you wish you could do on every other day of your life — like yelling at the guy on his laptop to quit working at opening day (many, many examples of this, mostly good-natured).

Either way, Monday’s home opener at American Family Field had all the hallmarks of that cut-loose day on the calendar, complete with an inflatable Bernie Brewer keeping a watchful eye on everyone.

A wide shot of a parking lot full of cars near a sports stadium, with people tailgating and hanging out.
A packed Molitor lot on opening day Monday at American Family Field.

The best carpe diem example that I found was inarguably the least elaborate tailgating setup in any parking lot. Ryan and Brett, two New York Mets fans, stood near the open trunk of their sedan with New Jersey plates holding bottles of Spotted Cow. Clearly, they did their homework regarding which beer to grab inside of state lines. What they hadn’t grabbed was a bottle opener.

After a quick keychain accessory loan, the guys from Edison, N.J., explained how Ryan’s relocation to Chicago and a weekend visit from Brett gave the Molitor lot the only two Mets fans I could find.

“It was a quick hour-and-a-half drive up from Chicago, and we wanted to try some Spotted Cow,” Ryan explained. “So kind of really no plan on tailgating. We wanted to get here and get in early and watch warmups, walk around the stadium. And it’s opening day — take in all of that.”

Although it wasn’t quite an ideal scenario. “We're actually a little mad that the Mets are playing them because we wanted to be Brewers fans for the day,” Brett explained.

“It would be cool to come back for a tailgate here wearing, like, the blue Brew Crew jerseys are so cool,” Ryan added, capping off his take on the atmosphere with a nod to Midwest Nice. “Like in New York City, everyone’s kind of head down in their own world. Everyone in the Midwest, like Chicago and especially out here in Wisconsin, everyone’s been so friendly and so welcoming. We’re excited to get inside [the stadium] and check it out.”

A few rows south in the Molitor lot sat a group that knows the interior and exterior of AmFam Field — as well as its predecessor — down to the last inch.

A group of sports fans tailgate outside in a parking lot, with a large tent covering tables and a bar near the front of their space.
Mike Grehn and his tailgating crew in the Molitor lot at American Family Field on opening day.

Mike Grehn and his friends occupied the opposite end of the tailgate-elaborateness spectrum. Aluminum trays loaded with grilled everything. Wisconsin Badgers tent overhead in case the elements didn't cooperate. Better-than-makeshift wooden bar standing guard near the trailer.

They come by that preparedness honestly.

“Thirty-plus years,” Grehn responded when asked how long they’ve been doing this. “We were 10th in line today, and this is probably as far up as we’ve been in a long time.”

When they started three decades ago, they didn't worry about prime real estate on the asphalt, instead opting to join the annual party thrown by Judge’s Irish Pub. Eventually, Judge’s stopped the opening day tradition and then stopped existing altogether. Grehn and his friends kept going, although he said the numbers predictably dwindled over the years from 150-200 tailgaters to the 40 or so grizzled veterans in attendance Monday.

That goes back to the whole point of opening day: Doing what you wish you could do every day of your life, even if everyday life doesn’t quite fade completely to the background.

“I had to drop the kids off at school this morning and then come here, and then I can’t drink all day anymore because I have to be a father when I come home,” he said. “But you can still have fun for a while, go to the game, have a nice tradition every year.”

And will he be there with his crew again next year?

“Oh yeah. Every year.”