Trent Eshleman is going on 30 years of involvement with the Eastern Illinois Baseball League.
Tim Dillman got his start in the organization back in the early 1980s.
Both guys, therefore, are strong authorities on the history of the area summertime league that contests the majority of its games on Sundays and has rosters filled with high school and college athletes.
So when asked if the E.I. League’s 85th season, which officially begins Sunday with a pair of doubleheaders, will be unlike any they’ve previously experienced, both Eshleman and Dillman know the answer.
“Yeah, that’s to say the least,” said Eshleman, league secretary and general manager of the reigning champion Buckley Dutch Masters. “It’s become like a full-time job, trying to work our way through it all.”
“I had kind of ruled it out,” added Dillman, general manager and coach of the Royal Giants. “I wasn’t anticipating being able to play at all.”
The COVID-19 pandemic put a halt on summertime baseball across Illinois, but E.I. League officials feel comfortable enough to conduct an abbreviated campaign involving four teams and five total weeks of action.
The Dutch Masters, Giants, El Paso Warriors and Paxton Swedes will vie for league supremacy. Their roads begin at 1 p.m. Sunday, with Royal and Buckley squaring off in a doubleheader at Buckley’s Scheiwe Field, while Paxton and El Paso engage in two games at El Paso’s South Pointe Park.
More regular-season doubleheaders are scheduled for July 19 and July 26 before the playoff semifinals on Aug. 2 and the best-of-three championship series across on Aug. 8-9.
“I was excited when we were able to play other than just practice games — play something that means something,” said Dillman, referencing scrimmages that took place last month. “The guys I’ve got, they were texting me every day, ‘What’s the chances we are going to get to play? We want to play.’ And I had nothing to tell them.”
Now Dillman can tell his crew it has a one-in-four shot of snagging the E.I. League’s top spot.
For those familiar with league operations, not much will look different at games compared to how they appear outside of a pandemic.
Eshleman said league officials are depending on people to be responsible and avoid games if they’re experiencing poor health. Dillman noted that many fans before the pandemic would park their vehicles along the ballpark fence and spread out to watch games, a precursor to now-required social distancing.
“The teams that are playing kind of agreed to police their own stuff and their own dugouts,” Dillman said. “High-fiving and a lot of congratulatory stuff is done verbally versus physically. ... After practice games — it kind of just happened naturally — instead of lining up and shaking hands, the teams came out of the dugout, tipped caps across the ball diamond and said thanks.”
Six teams typically operate within the E.I. League these days, but both the Game 7 Legacy and the Gifford-Flatville Giflats opted out of play this year because of COVID-19 concerns.
“By all means we respect them,” Eshleman said. “They are members of our league — respected members of our league. ... We certainly don’t want any organization to be uncomfortable.”
There are plenty willing to take the diamond for an E.I. League program in the wake of numerous other local summer baseball organizations, such as the Prospect League, not operating during the pandemic.
Both Eshleman and Dillman said they experienced greater outreach from potential players than in years past, with Dillman adding he had to turn away multiple competitors.
“Playing with a shortened season and once a week on Sundays ... everybody wants their at-bats,” Dillman said. “But I just can’t do that.”
Eshleman said he believes it’s important for athletes — especially in the age group catered to by the E.I. League — to partake in physical activity during a time when many are being cooped up in their homes.
He also believes relatively low COVID-19 case numbers in the involved communities have helped ease concerns about restarting games.
Royal had no active cases as of Thursday, according to Champaign-Urbana Public Health District data. Paxton’s home county of Ford, as of Friday afternoon, had 42 confirmed cases since the pandemic’s outset, according to the Ford County Public Health Department website.
Buckley’s home county of Iroquois, also as of Friday afternoon, had 155 confirmed cases and 125 recovered cases, according to the county’s website.
El Paso is part of both Woodford and McLean counties. As of Friday afternoon, the former had experienced 43 confirmed cases and the latter had 299 confirmed cases, with 251 recovered. All figures are according to the counties’ respective websites.
“We’re not immune by any means, but we’ve created sort of that middle-of-the-state bubble,” Eshleman said. “There’s not as much outside contact. Certainly that could change with people being on vacations and such, but I think right now everybody’s pretty comfortable with this outdoor-type setting.”
And it’s not just those donning the E.I. League uniforms who are thrilled for the return of this sort of baseball, especially in a time when live organized athletic events are hard to come by.
“We have a group of fans that follow Royal Giants baseball that that’s all they do on Sunday,” Dillman said. “We have a tremendous fan base, and they live and breathe E.I. baseball on Sundays.”