Heavy Use, Lack Of Money Keep Athletes On Tough Turf
August 04, 2013
"Youths ONLY -- Police take notice" declares a rusted sign outside Hartford's Pope Park baseball diamond. Broken glass and trash litter the edges of the field, and home plate is under several inches of standing water. An aging scoreboard hasn't displayed a score in more than a decade.
Several of the city's private Little Leagues jockey nightly for time on one of Hyland Park's four baseball and softball fields, even though the diamonds there lack grass and safe fencing.
In the city's North End, the wide expanse of Keney Park hosts football and soccer players on bumpy, frequently unmowed fields. And some Hartford teams can forget about hosting visiting teams -- some suburban coaches refuse to play on city fields that aren't up to their standards.
For many children in Hartford, rundown athletic fields are an unfortunate reality that goes along with playing sports.
Hartford has 70 recreational athletic fields and 2,300 acres of park space, all under the management of the parks division of the city Department of Public Works. City officials say they work hard with the resources they have to keep up with demand.
But heavy use, lack of regular maintenance and lack of funding are compromising the quality of the fields. And, many in the community say, in a city where kids often lack backyard space and busy parents have limited resources, organized activities are vital for development.
"It's critically important for urban youth to have athletic opportunities, considering the health needs of the city. The resources of the city need to be able to provide that," said Marya Esquilin, executive director of the community group Hartford Areas Rally Together.
"If there aren't organized activities, statistically, we've seen the outcomes. These kids will create their own alternatives and, unfortunately, they're not positive options," Esquilin said. She added that when children are engaged in organized sports, they learn life lessons, like teamwork or how to take turns.
Courtenay Jackson, youth department manager at the Urban League of Greater Hartford and the vice president of the Hartford Wildcats youth football program, said that city sports leagues are the only place that many of his male players see a positive male role model.
And when games and tournaments can't be played in Hartford because of poor conditions, teams lose out on some parental support.
"If we had the facilities to host tournaments, it would build community because more parents would be willing to stay and watch. It becomes a family thing," said Jackson.
DOING OUR BEST?
The debate over the condition of the city's fields was reinvigorated recently by a Pop Warner football team.
The Hartford Hurricanes -- who went all the way to the national championships recently -- were forced to move their practices to Keney Park because their home football field, in Cronin Park, was unplayable and is being reseeded. But the Keney field isn't any better; in fact, conditions were so bad that the coaches held a press conference decrying the facility.
Phil Bryant, president of the Hartford Hurricanes, said he was told that the football field at Cronin would be redone and ready for play by early this fall. But work has yet to start, and even if it were completed on time, it would be too soon to play on the fragile grass.
After the city heard the complaints of Bryant and other coaches about the Keney Park practice field, they sent a maintenance crew to mow and line the field, but said they had no resources left to address the grooves and bumps that pose safety issues to young players.
Malik Cobb, a 13-year-old Hurricanes player, sprained his knee when he stepped in a hole during a practice at Keney last season. That same hole was still there when the team began preseason practices this year.
Bryant said that he, other coaches and volunteer parents have bought a couple of hundred dollars worth of dirt and supplies and will level the field and fill holes on their own because the city can't provide help.
Coaches of other leagues tell similar stories.
At Hyland Park, one of the softball fields features a lumpy, muddy diamond that looks like it hasn't been seeded in years. The outfields of a softball diamond and a neighboring Little League-size field appear to blend together, although it's impossible to know for sure, because there are no lines marking where one field ends and the other begins.
Kevin McKinley, president of Mayor Mike's Little League, says that the city is pretty good about basic maintenance on the Hyland fields, but that teams and coaches do a lot of mowing and upkeep themselves.
"During the season, it's kind of up to us to groom the infield. It can be tricky because we want grass in some places but not in others," he said.
Dirt on baseball fields has to be replaced every year or two, which hasn't happened, McKinley added.
"We've had cases where umpires come out and are concerned about the safety of the game," said McKinley, citing rundown fencing and exposed chain link that could injure players.
"It would be nice to have scoreboards and dugouts, but it comes down to basic stuff: grass, dirt coverage and fencing," McKinley said. "Hartford is a great resource ... but if we're trying to push our kids to be excellent, we have to look at ourselves and ask if we're doing the best we can do."
Little League fields must meet certain requirements, depending on the age of the players, to satisfy national regulations. Players older than 12 must play on regulation-size baseball diamonds, of which Hyland park has just one. McKinley said that in the busy spring season, his teams must compete with high school and adult teams for use of the big field.
Bill Howard, district administrator for Little Leagues of Greater Hartford, oversees standards in Hartford as well as Wethersfield, West Hartford, Glastonbury and other towns. He says the most basic requirement for holding an upper-level tournament or game at a field is a safety survey.
"I cannot remember the last time I ran any upper-level games at any field in Hartford," Howard said. "And I've been a [district administrator] for many, many years."
Brian Gallagher, president and founder of the Hartford Soccer Club, said the soccer fields at Cronin Park, which is on Granby Street, and at Colt Park are nothing more than expanses of grass; they were not built with proper sloping or pitching that would allow natural drainage and runoff, so they become muddy messes after a rain.
Gallagher said that the city is generally aware of maintenance problems, but that the lack of organization and supervision means that already spare resources are used inefficiently.
"They've been building new fields at Granby and Colt, but they don't maintain the facilities they do have, so it's kind of silly," said Gallagher, referring to the ongoing work at the Cronin fields and a $500,000 approval to start construction on two new soccer practice fields at Colt Park.
MAKING AN EFFORT
Park restoration and maintenance is a priority for Mayor Pedro Segarra, said spokeswoman Maribel La Luz, although she acknowledged that the city lacks the finances for all the projects that officials would like to undertake.
The mayor, La Luz said, recognizes the benefits of facilities and programming for youth athletics, and has sought to improve them in several ways, such as broadening the city's recreational fitness programs and building new fields.
The general parks budget -- which includes field maintenance -- has hovered near $1.9 million in recent years. Under Segarra, the capital improvement budget for parks has jumped from $2.5 million in 2009-10 to $4.75 million in 2011-12, and $6.85 million was budgeted for 2103-14, La Luz said.
That money will go toward two new soccer and practice fields at Colt Park, improvements to the ball field and cricket field at Keney Park, and the ongoing field restoration at Cronin Park.
City council President Shawn Wooden said the council approved funding last month, with a grant from the Cal Ripken Foundation, for new artificial turf fields at sites in the South End, North End and Quirk Middle School. They will be state-of-the-art facilities that will be able to sustain more players, Wooden said, who added that he hopes work will start within the playing season.
Kevin Burnham, director of the Department of Public Works, said the city tries to keep up with mowing and maintenance the best it can, given limited resources. Sometimes that means field maintenance is scheduled only on days when games are to be played.
He also pointed out that the mayor has hired more seasonal workers for park and field improvements this summer.
"We have a high demand for athletic fields, but that's a good problem to have," Burnham said.
Coaches and league administrators recognize this demand and try to make the best use of available resources. Many leagues rely on parent volunteers to manage their own basic field maintenance, and pool resources and share space with other teams, as well as communicate with the city about bigger issues.
"No one wants to be the squeaky wheel," Gallagher said. "We're doing this for the kids of Hartford. There are tons of kids who want to play. It's just a matter of making the spaces available and getting to them."
CORRECTION published Tuesday, August 6, 2013*Mayra Esquilin is the executive director of Hartford Areas Rally Together. David McKinley is president of Mayor Mike's Little League. Their first names were incorrect in a Page 1 story Sunday.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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