In the age-old riddle about what came first, the chicken or the egg, Josh Eidem and Ryan Bishop chose the former.
Eidem and Bishop, both former baseball players at UW-River Falls, were teammates in 2007 on the Spring Valley Hawks amateur baseball team when one said to the other-“Wouldn’t it be great to have a nice ballpark in River Falls?”
Bishop, then in his eighth season as the River Falls High School baseball coach, knew that without an amateur team in town, the chances of garnering enough support to build a ballpark would be slim. So he and Eidem began having more serious discussions about moving the Hawks, who by then had mostly River Falls' players on its roster anyway, east on Hwy. 29.
The following year the River Falls Fighting Fish amateur team was born. And now, seven years later, First National Bank of River Falls Field at Hoffman Park is set to host its very first game next Friday, June 13.
Making it happen
What started as a casual conversation between two coaches and teammates has turned into reality thanks to the hard work of countless volunteers, the financial support of over 80 local businesses, the cooperation of city leaders, and a shared love of the game of baseball.
After the Fighting Fish moved to River Falls in 2008, the hustle and bustle of running the high school, American Legion and amateur teams for Bishop and Eidem took over and talk of a new ballpark was put on hold.
But in 2011, the high school team came within an extra-inning run of advancing to just the second WIAA state tournament in program history, the Fighting Fish won the Wisconsin Baseball Association state championship, and the Post 121 team won the American Legion state title.
“Baseball fever was flying high in River Falls and there was no better time to start up the new field conversations again,” Bishop said. “So Josh and I assembled a group at my house where we decided the time is now, and we WILL get it done.”
That was the beginning of the River Falls Baseball Council. As interest in the project grew, the RFBC expanded from three or four original board members to nearly 50. Initial conversations with the city focused on a proposed city sports complex on County Road FF. But then the city pulled the plug on the project and the RFBC was left searching for an alternative.
That’s when the city stepped up and offered the Hoffman Par East site and the RFBC signed a lease agreement to develop and maintain the ballpark on the 7.7 acre parcel of land located between Hanson Road and the Hwy. 35/65 bypass. Then they went to work raising the $800,000 necessary to build the facility, and the community responded big time.
“If anything can be learned from the birth of this ballpark, it's that you never really know what is possible and what is impossible until you just try,” Eidem said. “When you try, at whatever it is, the obstacles will come. But if you're willing to fend off, hurdle, and otherwise negotiate those obstacles, rather than just bash into them until you have a concussion, then you've always got a chance to accomplish the goal.”
Already a baseball town
Bishop, currently in his 15th season as high school coach, remembers when the Wildcats used to play their home games on a run-down field without a fence behind what is now Meyer Middle School.
“I'm pretty sure our left fielder is still chasing a ball that Eau Claire North's Mo Burian hit back in 2000,” he said. “Yes, that's 14 years ago, but there are some things you never forget.”
Prior to 2002, the Wildcats had just one winning season in the Big Rivers Conference. Since then they’ve had just one losing season. They have reached the regional championship game or beyond in each of the past 12 years, and this year’s team began the playoffs this week with a record of 16-4.
The Post 121 team made its first ever state tournament appearance in 2004, and has been back five times since then, including a state runner-up finish in 2013. And the Fighting Fish have won the St. Croix Valley Baseball League title every year since moving to River Falls, highlighted by the 2011 state championship.
“The Fish have become a household name in River Falls, not only for their play on the field but for their contributions to the River Falls community as a whole,” Bishop said. “They have helped strengthen the River Falls Baseball community in every way imaginable.”
Need more proof that River Falls is already a baseball town?
Twenty RFHS graduates have gone on to play college baseball since 2002, more than any other high school sport. Two former Wildcats have gone on to play professional baseball-Jay Slick with the River City Rascals of the Frontier League and Marty Herum with the Arizona Diamondbacks Class A affiliate.
JP Feyereisen, a 2011 graduate, is an All-American pitcher at UW-Stevens Point and had a workout with the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field this week in anticipation of the Major League Draft. And 2013 graduate Alex Call just completed a stellar freshman season at Division 1 Ball State University, where he led the team in hitting (.354) while batting leadoff and playing centerfield.
Opening night festivities at First National Bank of River Falls Field will begin with live music by local musician and high school teacher Chris Silver on the plaza at 6 p.m., followed by pre-game ceremonies, the traditional first pitch and the National Anthem sung by the St. Croix Chordsman Barbershop Quartet. Like all games at the ballpark this summer admission is free.
Bishop said he can’t wait.
“I vividly remember opening day at the high school field, with Tony Oliva on hand,” he said. “That opening day at the high school was pretty awesome, and I can only imagine how special it will be with this field on June 13. There's something truly special about an ‘opening day’ when you have something that is built with nothing more than hard work and volunteers. I have been truly blessed to be a part of something so special, and be surrounded by unselfish people who have one common goal in mind; to make River Falls Baseball be the best that it can be.”
Eidem said he can’t help but think about the what-ifs.
“It's fun to think of all the little things that added up to this happening,” he said. “If Joel Schaffer doesn't hit a home run to make the WBA championship game 5-3 and we don't win in 2011, does that change the momentum? How about all the parents who brought their kids to a free Fish youth clinics over the years? What if Marty Herum and JP Feyereisen grew up in different towns, or Ryan Bishop? What if Nathan Brom had never recruited us all to play for Spring Valley in 2002? Maybe this is true of all big projects; I don't know, this is my first one. But the amount of little details that add up to make this ballpark happen? It's like the number of stars in the sky.”