Mount Pleasant resident Perry King doesn’t need to travel to Cuba to see baseball as an agent of good. A drawling social worker whose haircut mirrors that of Arizona Diamondbacks ace Randy Johnson, Kingcommissioner of the D.C. Babe Ruth League’s Bambino Divisionis up early on a chilly Saturday morning to preach the hardball gospel. “Baseball’s gonna teach you to do good,” he tells his 8- to 12-year-old disciples plunked down on the bench after a practice at Takoma Field.
To illustrate his point, King whips out the autobiography of Kirby Puckett, the retired Minnesota Twin who’s likely headed for Cooperstown. In simple prose, Puckett tells a Horatio Alger tale of a stumpy, poor, African-American kid from the city who becomes a baseball sensation. After he rode the bench as a freshman in college, Puckett pushed himself, never lost faith in his abilities, and became a star by his senior year.
When he made his major-league debut, Puckett slammed four hits in four at-bats.
Toward the end of his dedication-teamwork-sportsmanship catechism, King injects another key to sporting success: competition. When the regular season ends, King explains, D.C. Babe Ruth teams compete in tournaments with teams from that perennial District archrivalsuburban Maryland. “How many of you are going to get four hits when we play Maryland?” King prods the assembled crowd.
Eleven hands pop into the air.
“We’re gonna smoke ’em this year!” King adds, pumping up the youngsters. “We don’t want ’em to forget that we’re from D.C.!”
Hometown pride is a rare trait in District youth baseball. According to its adult organizers, the real rival exists much closer to home: the city itself. In order to play on a field, youth baseball leagues must battle against wily city bureaucrats, often more interested in advancing their own careers than those of aspiring Cal Ripkens. The kids may get taught peaceful lessons about hard work and fair play, but the fractious grown-ups seem to have learned a lesson more suited to military life than to the sporting life: Occupying and controlling land is the key to survival.
D.C. isn’t a famous breeding ground for pro ballplayers. But the fiercely competitive strategy needed for securing a field suggests that the District could well provide the right training for major-league owners waging ’90s-style wars over stadiums.
The blueprint looks something like this: “Little League,” used as a proper noun, is a national youth baseball program that directly competes with Babe Ruth as well as other independent programs for players. In the District, the Little League charter is shared between the D.C. Department of Recreation and Parks (DCRP) and three independent leaguesthe Northwest Washington and Capitol City Little Leagues, which play in Ward 3, and the Satchel Paige Little League, which calls Ward 4 home. Officially, at least on paper, DCRP sponsors five leagues comprising approximately 30 teams in the other six wards.
Little League charters specify the geographic boundaries of each league. That means players compete only against teams near where they live or go to school. Babe Ruth eschews Little League’s emphasis on geography and competes citywide instead.
DCRP owns the inside corner on playing fields because any group interested in playing organized sports on District property has to acquire a use permit for it. Most of the fields designed for baseball in the city are part of D.C. recreation centers. Programs officially run by DCRP, such as Little League-chartered youth baseball, have first priority on city fields.
That would be fair, rival organizers argue, if DCRP-sponsored teams actually showed up for practices and games. “Last year, we applied for Takoma Field, and we were told the field was already being used,” notes King. But when he went to scout out his competition, King didn’t need to assemble a rosterthe field was empty. “We went there anyway and played….The only time the field was being used [during the season] was when I saw one man chipping golf balls.”
Jackie Parker, who coordinates Babe Ruth teams on Capitol Hill, is also frustrated with DCRP’s alleged “ghost-team” phenomenon. Parker has requested permission to use the field at Watkins Recreation Center for her team. In past years, such requests were denied because the department claimed one of its Little League teams was using the field. This year, DCRP gave permission to Babe Ruth to use the field only in March and Aprileven though the youth-baseball season extends through July.
Department officials insist that the field was already scheduled for DCRP-sponsored activities, but Parker doesn’t believe them. “Supposedly, they said we couldn’t have it because they have other activities going on there,” she says. Until May, Babe Ruth has rights to the Watkins field this spring only two nights a week. “There’s nobody using it the other nights….I think they make up bogus teams just to have a schedule of events,” Parker adds. “And if you want to hold a meeting at a rec center, you have to send reams of letters to the department. Then you show up at the meeting, and there’s no one at the damn door to let you in.”
DCRP officials deny that recreation centers inflate their activities and hoard city fields. “That’s not true,” responds department spokesperson Larry Brown. Brown points to a department brochure that offers a general list of activities available at the city’s 77 neighborhood recreation centers. But when asked for a specific activity schedule for each center, Brown and fellow DCRP officials engage in a not-so-subtle hide-the-ball trick.
“You want an agenda?” Brown asks in an interview while munching on a bag of microwave popcorn.
“I think she wants the curriculum,” interjects Arthur Dockery, DCRP’s administrator for recreation centers and playgrounds.
“No, she doesn’t want that,” Brown answers. “We’ve given her all she needs.”
After almost half an hour of discussion about getting hold of specific schedules to compare field requests with field use, DCRP officials win by confusion. Only one recreation center schedule emerges out of the round robin. “Where we say there are teams, there are teams,” Dockery insists.
And in cases where there aren’t, DCRP officials throw other spitballs at parents and league leaders for not hammering them with the news. “It’s clear that somebody in the community doesn’t know who to call,” responds Brown. “We are not competing factors.”
“If that happens, they need to let us know,” Dockery adds. “If they come and see a field, and the field is not being used, you tell them to call me….I’ll take care of it. If [recreation directors] have something down, and they aren’t using that field, then they’re going to have to answer to me.”
Babe Ruth League leaders chuckle when told about Dockery’s comments. “That’s an old line from the rec department,” responds Kay Pierson, president of Babe Ruth’s Bambino Division. Pierson notes that while some recreation directors work well with all athletic groups interested in using their center’s fields, “others think [rec centers] are their personal fiefdoms.”
DCRP officials say they try to accommodate all of the city’s aspiring athletes. “We’re working cooperatively with as many groups as possible to share limited space,” notes Brown. “As long as we are serving children, that is our primary focus….What would we look like standing in the way of kids’ using fields?”
But baseball is a game where players compete not only in the present but against the pastand history gives plenty of evidence to contradict Brown’s statement. Three years ago, DCRP officials engaged in a nasty dispute over field space right next door to its own headquarters. Bell Multicultural High School Principal Maria Tukeva asked the department if the school could use a DCRP-administered soccer field right in front of the school off 16th Street NW for its athletic programs, since Bell lacks an indoor gymnasium as well as its own outdoor athletic fields.
DCRP officials balked at the idea and still do. “She just wanted to run and run that soccer field into the ground,” says Neil Rodgers, chief of staff to Director Betty Jo Gaines. “It’s not just a field that belongs to that school….This is a public field, and 4 to 7 p.m. is a priority use time for the community.”
Norberto Torres, a former varsity baseball coach for Bell, says that the pissing match over the field meant his players had to trek a mile or so, to Banneker Field, across from Howard University. Sometimes it wasn’t worth the effort. “There were so many footprints and craters [from soccer use] that we would have to postpone games,” Torres notes.
Soccer scuffs up fields, making them unusable for baseball. Unlike the suburbs, D.C. does not designate fields for specific sports or rigorously check the residency of players using the fields. Which brings into play the DCRP soccer conspiracy.
As the day wears on at Takoma Field Saturday, Babe Ruth outfielders are gradually crowded out by teams of soccer players creeping onto the field. D.C. baseball advocates fume over the fact that many city fields get turned over to soccer programs, such as Snickers City Soccer and Stoddert Soccer, which, they say, have residents from Maryland playing on their teams.
In fact, youth baseball advocates claim, DCRP aggressively pushes soccer and gives the elbow to the more complicatedand expensivegame of baseball. “Dockery’s a soccer guy,” says Mary Ann Floto, president of the Babe Ruth League. “He gives all the fields for soccer.”
Dockery denies any kind of plot against America’s game: “Even though I am chair for citywide soccer, my job is to be as diplomatic as possible.” He notes that, while only 3,000 District kids at most swing baseball bats, more than 12,000 kick soccer balls.
King, meanwhile, still clings to a vision of baseball bringing people together. Right now, the epicenter of that alternative future is the Marie Reed Field in Adams Morgan.
Where empty Colt 45 40-ouncers and McDonald’s cheeseburger wrappers now sit in the wooden bleachers, King envisions cheering parents and siblings. “The field right now is used for dog walking [and] pick-up soccer, and at night it’s a place where people drink,” notes King. “Our vision is to transform that field into a youth athletic field.”
In past years, when Babe Ruth applied for permission to use the field, it was denied by DCRP. Both recreation and the D.C. public schools share jurisdiction over the school’s fields, even though DCRP lists Marie Reed as a recreation center. Schools officials insisted that Babe Ruth needed permission from DCRP to use the field, though DCRP officials say it’s not their jurisdiction. Last week, the two departments finally granted permission for Babe Ruth to use Marie Reed Field.
Yet, according to DCRP, King’s vision of wholesome sandlot baseball in Adams Morgan is already alive and wellofficiallyon the trash-strewn field: A DCRP schedule lists a department-sponsored Little League team playing there, too.CP