RIVER FALLS -- After sitting empty for nearly four months, the brand new artificial turf at First National Bank of River Falls Field finally saw game action over the weekend when the River Falls Fighting Fish hosted their first two games of the delayed 2020 season.

The field should have had plenty of use by now, beginning with high school baseball and softball in the spring and continuing with youth, legion and amateur games into the summer. But the coronavirus pandemic put an end to all that, leaving the brand spanking new turf, installed over the offseason, sitting there taunting local players and fans as it sat vacant on the east side of Hoffman Park.

Forty-four-year-old Fighting Fish veteran Joel Schafer said he’s been making the best of his first spring in over 30 years without baseball, but it felt good to be back on the field.

Forty-four-year-old Joel Schafer of the River Falls Fighting Fish holds his son Van, while daughter Lucy clings to his leg after the Fish defeated the St. Paul Mudhens 11-3 Saturday, June 27, at First National Bank of River Falls Field. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia
Forty-four-year-old Joel Schafer of the River Falls Fighting Fish holds his son Van, while daughter Lucy clings to his leg after the Fish defeated the St. Paul Mudhens 11-3 Saturday, June 27, at First National Bank of River Falls Field. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia

“Being at home as much as I have been, I looked out and I couldn’t believe how long spring is,” he noted. “And all of a sudden you look out again and it’s green and it’s beautiful. But there’s just a little something missing until you come out here and you get to play baseball again.”

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Schafer went 1-for-3 in the Fish’s 5-4 victory over the Anoka Bucs Friday night and singled and scored a run in Saturday’s 11-3 win over the St. Paul Mudhens. He said it’s always hard not to smile when he’s around a baseball field, and last weekend was no different.

“I think people being cooped up, this gets them back out there and gets them to be able to join the world again,” he said. “Obviously we still need to be safe, that’s the name of the game. But people are still social creatures and need to be out here.”

Fish infielder Lucas Luedtke, who lost his senior season at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point when the college season was cut short in March, is half Schafer’s age. But he felt the same way.

“It feels like we’re getting a little back to normal,” he said. “It’s good to see the people. And I’m just happy to be back with the boys and with the crowd.”

Social while physically distant

Fans did their best to social distance and wear face coverings and were encouraged to bring lawn chairs to spread out down the foul lines while certain seats in the grandstand were blocked off. The traditional post-game handshake line between the two teams was replaced by a synchronized tipping of the hats from in front of each dugout.

Luedtke said as good as it felt to be back, players and fans alike need to continue to do everything they can to limit the spread of the coronavirus in order to ensure the season can continue.

“We’ve been dying to be out here but the biggest thing is to be safe first,” he said. “Public health comes first, then baseball.”

As far as the new turf goes Luedtke, who had a total of six RBI over the weekend, gave it an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

“I love it,” he said. “Ground balls find holes; they travel farther so there’s more base hits. Perfect hops; you don’t have to worry about a bad hop. And probably the best part about it is, no field work afterwards.”

The Fish will return to their new turf field Tuesday, June 30, for a 7:30 p.m. game against the Minneapolis Cobras before opening St. Croix Valley Baseball League play at home Friday, July 3, at 7:30 p.m. against the Plum City Blues.

In other upcoming SCVBL action, the New Richmond Millers will host the St. Paul Metro Knights at Citizens Field Wednesday, July 1, at 7:30 p.m. while the Hudson River Rats will visit the Menomonie Eagles for a league game the same night.