DECATUR — There was no boarding of the dogs, booking a hotel or traveling more than five hours each way for Tim Highley to watch his son, Braden Highley, play baseball on Monday afternoon.
Until this weekend, simply attending a Decatur Commodores baseball game was a multi-step process that included travel to Ohio or Cape Girardeau, Mo., as the state of Illinois prepared to move to Phase 4 of Gov. J.B. Prtizker's "Restore Illinois" plan.
On Saturday, though, with Illinois now in Phase 4 that allows for gatherings of 50 people or fewer with a 20% capacity for spectators at outdoor spectator events only, the Commodores returned to Sunnyside Park for games. Those games, a part of a Bloomington Tournament, continued on Sunday at Sunnyside before playing their first game at the brand new Workman Family Field on Monday afternoon — the home of Millikin's baseball team.
“It’s nice to be home," Tim Highley said. "We had both kids playing so we were traveling all over the place: Cape Girardeau, Cincinnati; it’s just nice to be home."
Braden Highley is committed to play at the Workman Family Field next season as a member of the Millikin baseball team and was glad to get an early chance to be on his future home turf.
“It’s awesome," Braden Highley said. "I’m going to college here. It’s really nice and we’ve got a really nice complex in this area and around here."
Prior to playing for the Commodores this summer, he hadn't played baseball since an injury ended his junior season at Mount Zion that cost him the summer before his senior year. All Illinois High School Association spring sports were canceled this season as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which further prolonged Braden Highley's return to the diamond.
“It’s worth it. It’s definitely worth it," Braden Highley said.
While the IHSA awaits approval from the Illinois Department of Public Health in order to move to Stage 2 of the "Return to Play" plan, travel baseball and softball teams are beginning to return to playing inside the state after traveling out of state in recent weeks.
Yellow tape marked off seats in the stands at the Workman Family Field to ensure social distancing was practiced. Heavy sanitation methods are in place and spectators had to sign a waiver and fill out a symptom questionnaire before entering. Tim Highley said he wasn't "that concerned" about the resumption of games.
“We’re pretty much just following the guidelines they set at the ballparks and just enjoy watching the games," he said.
Players also signed waivers had to leave the diamond through a fence in right field as to not interact with the next team to use the dugout. It's all part of the process to slide back to a sense of normalcy in the safest possible fashion.
“Sure, there are a lot of obstacles and hurdles and some of it’s like, ‘OK, this seems like a little too much,’ but I’d rather go above and beyond and do what we can do so we can continue to have events here," said Millikin head baseball coach Brandon Townsend, who also coaches the Commodores 18U team. "If we don’t follow those, things don’t allow us to do what we want to do and give us those opportunities.
"For us, it’s a little more work. We have some of our (Millikin) players here helping out and be able to go through some of those guidelines and things like that, but it’s just what we’ve got to do to be able to play baseball. I’d do a lot more to be able to play baseball."
On the field, the product hasn't changed. There were still strikeouts, base hits, runs scored, ground balls and diving catches in the outfield. Spectators who didn't sit in the stands stood around the fences, some not wearing masks.
The roster is made up of area players from the Herald & Review area and into the Springfield area. Being back on the field is a reprieve after an unusual spring season and beginning to the summer season.
“It really meant a lot to them," said Commodores organizational coach Kevin Koslofski. "When we started practicing you could tell they were so happy to be out playing it and getting a chance to have a summer."
As of Monday, the Commodores have played "a dozen or so games" this summer, Koslofksi said. Tournaments will wrap up in the middle of July, Koslofski said, before the program readies to host tryouts for the 2021 teams on July 21-22. Until then, they're relishing the chance to play some games at home. There's still a trip to Louisville, Ky. planned, but games in Illinois are back after guidelines necessitated the Commodores go out of state for games.
“We’re willing to do what it takes," Townsend said. "At that moment, what it took was to go out of state to play and follow guidelines and that’s what it took to play. We’ve got guys who are just hungry to go out there. We’re very conscious and aware of what we need to be doing and making sure we’re taking the proper guidelines in safety, but we can still make that work and you can see a lot of people being able to make that work right now."
A few members of Braden Highley's family who haven't recently seen him play were in attendance on Monday. There was no extended drive home after the game, just a short drive back to Mount Zion.
“It was fun staying in the hotel with the team and getting to know each other, but it’s a long drive back after the tournament," Braden Highley said.
PHOTOS: Millikin University's Workman Family Baseball Field
Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25
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