Cavaliers faithful gather en masse to usher in another season of baseball

Opening Day. There’s nothing like it.

From the smell of the hotdogs and fresh popcorn permeating the air to the anticipation both the players and the fans feel, the excitement of the first game on the diamond for the year is simply like no other. And no matter, the outcome, the joy of just knowing that another baseball season, which signals that summer is just around the corner, is shared by all.

While the final score in the record books will show a 1-0 Osseo Merchants victory — with the Eau Claire Cavaliers ultimately having to forfeit their season-opening game after six innings due to not having enough players left to field a team on the diamond — it didn’t take away from the fans’ appreciation of being back at Carson Park Sunday afternoon for another season of Cavs baseball.

“I just can’t seem to get it out of my blood,” Bill Briggs, a member of the Cavaliers’ board of directors, said about 30 minutes before the first pitch on the season was thrown.

Asked to be a board member back in the 1980s, Briggs has remained a volunteer ever since. Sunday afternoon he could be found manning the team’s souvenir kiosk.

“It’s a nice day,” he added. Actually a perfect spring day for baseball is more like it.

Longtime and newer Cavaliers fans alike were at Carson Park to not only attend the start of another baseball season, but to also eagerly share different stories, but a similar bond that links them to America’s favorite past time. And their collected excitement was both palpable and contagious.

For some, like Tom and Janice Swanke, they first started attending Cavaliers games as a nice, inexpensive way to spend time with their family. They stayed for the love of the game.

“We missed a couple of seasons, but we’ve been coming here because you can spend quality time and not spend a lot of money,” Janice said.

“It’s cheap and the best entertainment there is,” Tom said, adding that he likes the fact that all of the players have to be from or attending school in the Eau Claire area.

“It’s fun to watch the kids and the people here,” Janice said.

Unlike Tom and Janice, Judy Valen is a virtual rookie as far as attending Cavaliers games go.

This is only her second season opener to attend. She explained that she started going to games last season because she knows Cavs field manager Ryan Bembnister. She now is hooked.

“I love the kids who are playing,” Valen said, adding, “It’s a relaxing kind of thing and it’s great baseball.

Janice Swanke probably described it best, though, noting that she’s been excited for awhile anticipating opening day and seeing the team come together.

“I love that these guys play with their heart, they have fun,” she said.

Eau Claire Cavaliers

Eli Rathke at bat for the Cavaliers on Opening Day at Carson Park Sunday afternoon. Eau Claire forfeited the game to Osseo 1-0.

With that said and after all the anticipation associated with Opening Day, it was time to play ball.

With Laidel Torres on the mound for Eau Claire, the Merchants went up 1-0, early in the first inning. Torres was replaced early on in the first due to injury by Eli Rathke, who got the home team out of the inning with no additional runs from the visitors.

Settled down and settled in, Rathke maintained his cool, steady hand in the second and by the end of that inning it remained a 1-0 ball game. Five Merchants runs — including a two-run homer from Jaxson Kostka — in the third put the game steadily in Osseo’s hands. Despite a strong effort of play from Eau Claire in the inning, it was 6-0, Osseo after three.

Following another Merchants run in the fourth Rathke was replaced on the mound by Xavier Bembnister. Despite another Osseo run, Bembnister got the Cavaliers out of the fourth. And even though Eau Claire again showed some spark and promise in an inning that saw two men on base for the Cavs in the bottom of the fourth, the score was 8-0, Osseo.

The Cavaliers finally got on the scoreboard in the bottom of the fifth when Cody Dayton made it to home with two outs in the inning and the stanza eventually ended with Osseo’s lead cut to 8-1.

The sixth, which would end up being the last inning played, saw both Caden Erickson and later Brayton Thillman on the mound for the home team. Two runs in the early part of the inning put Osseo up, 10-1. And that’s how the game ended, although the record books will show the 1-0 Cavaliers forfeit.

Bembnister explained to the Leader-Telegram following the game that the Cavs were down to seven men left by that point, having started with a limited roster of 11. That number, of course, will change as college players wrap up their seasons and high school players will be allowed to join the team in the coming weeks following graduation.

Despite the loss, Bembnister was encouraged by what he saw from his limited number of players who were at the game.

“I saw they didn’t quit. We were playing against one of the best pitchers in the league (Osseo’s Luke Eide) and by the end, we were starting to get to him. This team didn’t give up. I’m very proud of how they (continued to fight),” Bembnister said.

“Going forth, we will be getting some new guys” and they will need to get some practice repetitions and then should fit nicely into the squad, the field manager noted.”

Bembnister added that Torres left the game in the first after possibly reactivating a prior hip injury.

Osseo outhit Eau Claire 6-3 in the abbreviated game. Osseo had one error and Eau Claire had zero during the course of the contest.

Despite the outcome, though, the Cavaliers faithful are sure to continue to show up to see this team grow and prosper. All that, plus the ambiance of the park doesn’t hurt either.

“It’s the whole atmosphere and it’s the smell of the popcorn and the hot dogs,” Valen noted.

The Cavaliers will again take to the field next Sunday — which is also Mothers Day — when they face the Plum City Blues at Carson Park. First pitch is set for 1 p.m.