Posted March 11, 2020
The men’s club baseball team at UW-River Falls is working toward regaining its status as an official competitive school sport for the first time since it was suspended nearly two decades ago.
Some of the final moments for competitive baseball at UWRF were in the spring of the 2001-2002 season, the year that the program was suspended. For that Falcons baseball roster, cutting of the program was unexpected.
The baseball team was scheduled for a weekend series against UW-Stout in April 2002. At the time Josh Eidem, one of the team captains, was getting his team ready for its matchup with the Blue Devils. Instead, the team was greeted by Athletic Director Rick Bowen, who delivered the news that the program was being suspended.
“It was devastating,” Eidem said. “Rick came down and told us that the decision of the Competition Committee had been to eliminate the baseball program.”
The Athletic Department’s Competition Committee, in addition to the Faculty Senate, had decided that baseball, as well as gymnastics and wrestling, would be suspended for the foreseeable future.
Eidem said he and his team were given several reasons for baseball’s suspension including competition level and inconsistent coaching. At that time, the Competition Committee was looking at each sport in terms of how competitive it had been in the past and how competitive it could be in the future.
Bob Burrows started reporting on UW-River Falls athletics in 1996 for the River Falls Journal. He had seen several part-time coaches come and go between 1996 and 2002 when the program was suspended.
“They went through about three different head coaches. They had a hard time retaining coaches. Part of that may have been looking at it as a part-time position,” Burrows said.
Baseball at UWRF before the 2002 suspension never had been able to finance a full-time head coach. The team struggled to compete and to make consistent postseason runs. Without having full-time support, it was nearly impossible for the team to gain an advantage against other schools with full-time coaches.
“Our head coach would come in from working overnight shifts at his regular job to trying to be a Division III baseball coach. So that was a difficulty at the time,” Eidem said. “What that affects is not only consistency of coaches, but it’s how much time they can put into recruiting and some of those different things that other schools are doing that, I think, made it harder for us to compete.”
After the program was suspended, community members were still holding out hope that the program would return in a couple of years. However, that sentiment changed when the university tore down the old baseball field.
“I was out there the day they brought the bulldozers in to take that baseball field out and replace it with tennis courts. I was out there with Don Page, he used to coach baseball back in the day and at the time he was retired as the athletic director here,” Burrows said. “That hit him hard. He got emotional out there that day. It was one thing to drop the program, but then when they came out and bulldozed the field, that made it permanent.”
After the field was demolished there was a 13-year gap until baseball returned to UWRF. In 2016, baseball was brought back to campus as a registered student organization by Aaron Mamer, who graduated in 2019. He was later elected organizational founder and president.
The first year that baseball was back on campus there were only nine players on the roster. Ryan Newpower, current baseball club president, was one of those nine players.
“We played one game our first year and we had nobody sitting on the bench,” Newpower said. “Since then we’ve been at every Involvement Fair continuously recruiting guys.”
Newpower and his team worked with Campus Recreation to make the baseball team a sport club in 2017 after spending the one-year minimum as a registered student organization. Traditionally, sport clubs are more intense and require more involvement than an intramural sport but less than an official collegiate sport.
The growth of the sport club baseball team has been steady since the inaugural 2016 season. In 2018 the roster grew to 15 players and now, during the 2019-2020 season, there is an active 25-man roster.
“This year was the first year we had to make decisions about who to bring and who to leave behind,” Newpower said. “This is the first year where it’s really been serious. You’ve got to be good enough to come.”
Both the number of players on the roster and the level of competition have been increasing in the last two years. Newpower said the current goal for the team is the same as it was four years ago: get back to Division III baseball.
“When Mamer founded the club, his ultimate goal was to build something that would turn back into a Division III team,” Newpower said. “He knew that it would not happen in his time here; he just thought it would be cool to have it be traced back to him. And we’ve all jumped on board with that.”
If the current baseball team regains NCAA status as a competitor in the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WIAC), it would solve a lot of the funding problems.
As a sport club, the team receives only about $3,000 in funding each year, half of which goes to the league fee for the conference that it plays in. The team currently plays wherever it can afford to play. The team doesn’t have a “home field” anymore because of the razing of the baseball field over a decade ago. The owners of the field at Hoffman Park in River Falls are asking for $500 per game for the team to use the field, Newpower said. Although the field is located on public property, stadium use still requires a fee to be paid that does not go to the city. Greg Peters, a River Falls insurance agent and one of the people setting the price for events at the ballpark, said that the going rate for everybody is $500 for a game or $100 per hour for other events.
Because of the high cost associated with finding a place to play, the baseball team can’t afford to keep winning games this season. The team currently is leading its division after playing its fall series and it has two more series in the spring. If the team were to win the division, and then win the first playoff series, it would be going to the Club World Series which is in Pennsylvania. However, the team doesn’t have the funding to finance that kind of trip.
“It’s very much on the mind of all of us that we’re in contention,” Newpower said.
If the baseball team becomes a competitive school sport, the players would have transportation, lodging and other expenses covered by the university instead of having them pay out of pocket. The team would be back to focusing on winning baseball games, not logistics and finances.
Each year UWRF looks at potentially adding and suspending sports. Baseball will be one of the teams on the list for reinstatement. The Faculty Senate Athletic Committee, the chancellor and the athletic director would all have to agree to reinstate the baseball program. However, a formal process for reinstating the team has not been started, according to Athletic Director Crystal Lanning.