Reds revamp diamonds
Neglected city baseball fields fixed for kids
BY DUSTIN DOW | ENQUIRER STAFF WRITER
Bill Blevins pours sandy-colored rocks from two paper cups onto a boardroom table at the Cincinnati Recreation Commission headquarters.
Some are small pebbles; others are the size of a golf ball or a cell phone - all collected in minutes from a local baseball field.
Blevins explains his goal: For 18 once-downtrodden inner-city baseball diamonds, he wants to find clay far superior to the dirt that contained the rocks on the table.
Blevins' inspiration comes from the men sitting across the table, who control $130,000 that the Cincinnati Reds Community Fund is supplying to restore the fields.
The money is giving 1,300 kids ages 5-15 on 85 inner-city teams safer, more enjoyable and better-looking fields that can be used more frequently.
Reds owner Bob Castellini has pushed for the organization to be more community-oriented, which is why the nonprofit arm of the Reds initially donated $15,000 this spring, enabling the commission to get unsightly fields ready for play in April.
"We want these fields to become so good that they become the staple for the 130 other CRC fields," Blevins, supervisor of outdoor maintenance, told the dozen or so people May 23. It's one of several meetings in the effort to rehabilitate fields that coaches used to call "unplayable," and "dangerous."
The commission now can maintain the fields - with treatment two to three times per week - through the mid-July end of youth baseball.
Before the Reds Community Fund came along, the CRC did not have the money to pay the overtime hours necessary to regularly service the fields.
Fields that used to be mud pits, strewn with broken glass and tire marks, are now dragged smooth, and clean of debris.
"You used to get cut on your legs if you slid," says Ivan Powell, 12, of the Walnut Hills Six Men Tigers before a game at Hoffman Field in Evanston. "I wore shorts so I would know not to slide. But now they fixed it so the fields are nice, and you can slide into the base."
But drainage problems still arise.
So Reds Community Fund executive director Charley Frank and Mike Hartmann, an RCF board member energized by the project, went back to the board last month and managed to free $115,000 to make permanent improvements to 14 of the 18 fields by August.
About $60,000 of that will be spent on new clay - preferably without the big rocks in it - to allow fields to dry quickly after rain.
Some $20,000 will go toward paying workers overtime.
NO MORE BLACK EYES
One weekend in May, CRC staffers prepared Hoffman Field at 5:30 a.m. the morning after a rain for a Sunday afternoon game. Their presence and insistence on getting the fields in good shape didn't go unnoticed.
"They've done a marvelous job," says Six Men Tigers coach Charles Kelly, who's been coaching youth baseball in Cincinnati for 29 years. "These fields haven't looked this good in 25 years. The kids are loving it. They can go for a ground ball now without having to worry about getting hit in the face with a ball. They're still a little gun-shy because they're used to getting busted lips and black eyes from bad hops on bad fields."
Response from most coaches has echoed Kelly's. But Frank heard from one coach - whose team plays most games on fields not part of the improvement program - who called the project "racist" because all of the fields are in predominantly black neighborhoods and the teams that use them are made up mostly or entirely of black youths.
"The individual told me we were coming across as looking exclusive," Frank says. " 'When are you going to spread the resources?' Well, nobody is going to apologize for spreading resources to inner-city kids.' "
Eventually, Frank hopes to expand the work beyond the current 18 fields. Owl's Nest Park, wryly known as "The Swamp," near the Evanston-O'Bryonville border, is a target for 2007, for instance. A separate $3 million field-building project is under way in Western Hills.
"The field feels really good," says 10-year-old Andre Taul, about to play at Hoffman Field. "Before, it was real soft. You'd run, and it would be real muddy and the ball would be bouncing all over."
'WE SERVE THE KIDS'
The Reds Community Fund is relying on Blevins' expertise to keep the fields in top shape even after this summer with preventive maintenance. Costs are projected to be lower each year, making room for future donations to go toward rehabbing untouched fields.
"What they are doing is a blessing for us," Blevins says, pointing to Frank and Hartmann. "I appreciate all of their help. Because at the end of the day, we serve the kids. And they deserve to have the best playing conditions possible."