Pay to Play 

Nonprofit youth baseball league irked over rising city fees

click to enlarge Tom Green - JOHN TAYLOR
  • John Taylor
  • Tom Green

In the life of would-be baseball players, there’s a progression from T-ball to Little League to the big leagues. And along the way, players’ skills, determination and abilities grow in tandem with the size of the field they dig their cleats into.

In Salt Lake City, only two city fields—Sherwood Park (1400 W. 400 South) and Herman Franks field (1371 S. 700 East)—offer regulation baseball fields with pitchers mounds exactly 60 feet, 6 inches from home base. For the past few years, Tom Green, director of the Greater Salt Lake Babe Ruth nonprofit league, has made it his mission to help rehab Herman Franks field to give young players who have moved past Little League their first introduction to actual baseball.

“We are the bar mitzvah of the American rite of passage for young men,” Green says proudly.

But now, Green says, after his organization rallied the local community and helped gather more than $10,000 in donations—working tirelessly to put amenities and improvements into the field—Salt Lake City has announced considerable increases in user fees that threaten to price Green’s organization out of existence.

The Babe Ruth league holds its first games in March, and Green says his organization invests heavily at the beginning of each season in umpires, uniforms, cleats, insurance and other costs to cover the league—and that doesn’t count money spent on the field itself.

“We’re in the hole thousands of dollars right off the bat, and now the city wants to jack up the rates,” Green says. “It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Park user fees for 2013 are going up to cover park maintenance expenses, according to Art Raymond, spokesman for the office of Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker. While Green and other park users previously paid $100 per year in concession fees, they will now pay $100 a month. Organizations could previously pay $15 a week to reserve blocks of time in the park for baseball, soccer and other activities, but the city now plans to charge $2 an hour for park use.

The city believes that an hourly rate will allow more users to use the fields than could under the old schedule, which allowed groups to reserve fields for weeks at a time and pay the same rate, even if they didn’t use the fields on days they had reserved.

For Green, the rate increase comes as quite a shock following the improvements he and his organization raised money for over several years. Green says the city has done rehabilitation on the field “incrementally” over the past few years and says their efforts were a “real shitty job.”

Since 2010, Green has been making improvements to the field—largely without approval from the city, Raymond says.

In 2010, Green helped rally community support to raise $1,100 to rebuild the clay on the pitchers mound. Community support also helped put benches in the bullpen and repaint the bleachers. A new scoreboard was donated to the organization. Green went to small local businesses, hat in hand, looking for donors to give $100 each to fix up the field in exchange for their business name on a banner. He helped place protective netting on the outfield fence to keep players from injuring themselves while catching fly balls.

When the city informed him they couldn’t spray to kill dandelions in the field, Green went to the 3rd District Courthouse and coordinated to get jail inmates and individuals sentenced to community service to spend hundreds of hours pulling the pesky weeds.

Green says his organization is unique and deserves an exceptional field. The Babe Ruth league offers true baseball opportunities for underprivileged youth, those who might not have made their school’s team and need more practice on a regulation mound, and those whose junior high school doesn’t have a baseball team.

Raymond says the city supports the opportunities Green’s organization provides but also points out that his approach is just as unique as the organization. Raymond says, for the most part, Green never got approval for work he put on the field and therefore can’t expect to be compensated or credited for that work. As for the fee increases, Raymond says they are part and parcel of covering the expenses of field maintenance for numerous users.

The field-use fee being increased to $2 an hour, Raymond says, is a matter of opening the fields up to more users. He points out that organizations in the past could block out a field for a week and pay only $15, even if they didn’t use the field for all the times they had reserved.

“We found we were leaving a lot of people out of the loop,” Raymond says. “To open up more opportunities and get more users engaged with the use of city fields, we switched to an hourly rate.” Raymond notes that Green’s organization enjoys a nonprofit rate, with for-profit groups paying $4 an hour.

As for concession fees leaping from $100 a year to $100 a month, Raymond says the Herman Franks field has undergone a “complete renovation” at city expense, and says Green’s contributions have been minimal in comparison. The city completed work on the field in 2012 that included grading, irrigation, a new dirt infield and the addition of dugouts with covers, Raymond says. The city also did the wiring on the donated scoreboard.

Salt Lake City still has some of the lowest rates in the valley, Raymond says. Sugar House Park, for example, charges $12 an hour for youth access to fields.

Green eyes the future warily since he’s not yet willing to push the new rate costs onto his players, many of whom come from low-income and disadvantaged neighborhoods.

“We’re going to let the kids play ball—that’s the first thing that comes out of my budget,” Green says. “And if there’s no money for the city at the end, well, that’s tough shit.”Â

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