RIVER FALLS, Wis.-- When the dirt and grass at First National Bank of River Falls Field was torn up and replaced by artificial turf last fall, local baseball players and fans figured not even the weather would keep them from enjoying America’s pastime once the snow melted this spring.
But they never counted on a pandemic.
Thanks to the new turf, the 2020 schedule includes everything from the usual high school, Legion, town ball and youth baseball games to park and rec t-ball, youth, high school and adult softball, Challenger League and college baseball games-- booked solid from late March through August. But that’s all on hold now as River Falls joins the rest of the world in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ryan Bishop, whose River Falls High School team was scheduled to play its first game at the field April 7 against Osseo, said this was going to be a special spring at the ballpark.
“For the first time in my coaching career we were set to start the season outside on the field in mid-March,” he noted. “A kind Mother Nature, along with our newly renovated turf field, had us more excited than usual.”
The River Falls Baseball Council was able to replace the dirt and sod at the field with artificial turf thanks to an $850,000 grant it received from Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players’ Association Youth Development Foundation last spring. Since opening in 2014, First National Bank of River Falls has hosted around 130 amateur, high school, American Legion and youth baseball games each year. That number was going to increase significantly this season with the expanded opportunities made possible by the new turf.
Bishop said his high school team was looking forward to no more indoor practices, which some years ran into May. No more gym floor ground balls, or white baseballs ricocheting off white gym walls, or sharing the gym with hundreds of other spring sport athletes. None of that was needed this spring. The field was ready and waiting. And still is.
“The 2020 field schedule is packed,” Bishop said. “With the expanded opportunities the turf would allow for, this past winter was spent setting up the field calendar to benefit baseball and softball players of all ages and abilities. Aside from our high school practices starting in March, we had a dozen college games scheduled to be played from late March through early April.”
River Falls Baseball Council president Greg Peters said the field was set to host a weekend of UW-Stout college baseball games the last weekend of March. And despite the rain, the games probably would have gone on if the WIAC had not cancelled all of its sports seasons due to the coronavirus crisis.
“We had a lot of college games that likely would have been played but that’s not going to happen,” he said, noting UW-River Falls’ club team also had dates on the schedule. But everything is on hold now.
“It’s a waiting game,” he said. “We’ve never been in this spot before.”
Nobody has, including River Falls’ amatuer team, the Fighting Fish. The team traditionally kicks off its season with a game against the over-35 River Falls Groupers, fittingly on the same day as Wisconsin’s statewide fishing opener. But Fish player-manager Josh Eidem said that’s the last thing on the mind of the players right now.
“Most of the team is guys in their 20s, who just saw their college seasons cancelled and are trying to figure out how to do online school,” he noted. “I think at different ages, generations, there are just different stressors associated with the pandemic. It's just so important that we stay connected and look out for each other, whether it's keeping your baseball team organized, your sewing club, whatever threads there are that keep us connected.”
Eidem said the players have met over video chat the past two weeks while they all stay home.
“They would all rather be playing baseball, but each of them has been really affected by life changes away from the park,” he said. “Just like everyone else in and around River Falls.”
Bishop said he doesn’t have any magic words for his high school players as they wait things out.
“Our coaching staff hopes that what they’ve learned in our program, and from baseball in general, will help them stay positive and supportive of each other,” he said. “We all know adversity is where we learn the most about ourselves, and truly experience the opportunity for growth. Our guys have always been there for each other, on and off the field, and they will continue to do that regardless of the situation.”
While the high school team waits for word from the WIAA about the future of its season, Eidem said members of the St. Croix Valley Baseball League have met online and agree that some baseball will be better than no baseball this summer.
“So if that means a tournament at the end of the year, or a four-game season, we'll run something,” he said. “But I can't stress enough that it has to be safe to do so; that's the number one priority right now for everyone. What I can say is that the second we get an ‘all clear,’ there will be baseball at Hoffman Park and the Fish will be ready to take the field.”
Bishop said even if the “all clear” comes too late to salvage the high school season, he takes comfort in the fact baseball will be back.
“No one knows exactly what the rest of 2020 has in store for us,” he said. “But rest assured, baseball will return. And when it does, every ballpark in America will be filled not only with people, but with a reassured love for what America’s pastime truly stands for.”