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Jerry Davich: Little League politics has future plans in a pickle

Jerry Davich. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media

Jerry Davich. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 15, 2012 6:04AM



Field of dreams or field of disagreements?

That’s the hot-corner issue in Lake Station involving the future of Little League baseball in the city.

For more than half a century, kids played under Lake Station Little League, with parents and supporters serving as volunteers for the program to work the concession stand, mow the fields, hire umpires, and so on. But that grass-roots tradition is coming to an end on Opening Day next spring, if city officials have their way.

Lake Station Mayor Keith Soderquist is convinced that running the program through the city’s Parks Department — which other municipalities are doing successfully — is the right thing to do for Lake Station youth, too.

“This is absolutely, without a doubt, the right thing to do for our kids,” Soderquist told me confidently. “We can offer the kids so much more through the Parks Department.”

Parks Department Director Dewey Lemley echoed the mayor’s confidence: “It makes all the sense in the world.”

Instead of relying on parent volunteers to run the program, mow the fields, man the concession stands, buy insurance, and operate the program, the city will use money already allocated in next year’s budget to do all this. And then some, including new equipment and uniforms for the players, city officials said.

“This will provide a very stable program for our children at a better reduced cost with better equipment,” Soderquist said. “All that the kids would have to do is show up and play ball.”

Sounds like a no-brainer, right? But, like a nasty spitball painting the corner of home plate, here’s the rub.

The leaders and supporters of Lake Station Little League are adamantly against the move.

“We do not need another league coming into Lake Station,” said league president Karen Knight. “Why should the mayor go against what has been around for almost 50 years?”

Here is where the issue gets complicated, with allegations of dirty politics.

For years, the mayor has been working on developing the Field of Dreams sports complex, located east of Four Winds Park. It’s a former compost site that will someday not only house Little League baseball, but also other youth sports as well.

Earlier this year, back in April, two of the baseball fields there were to be used for Opening Day of Little League baseball. The mayor said city personnel worked hard to ready the fields for the “partial-completion ribbon-cutting” ceremony that day. Although the full complex was still under construction, city officials were ready to unveil the new park.

Two days before that date, however, Lake Station Little League officials called Soderquist to say “we’re not coming,” he said. He was floored and surely offended.

“They kept giving me a new excuse, but it comes down to them wanting to keep some of the concession (stand) money,” Soderquist told me.

Little League officials disagree — sort of.

At issue — money or kids?

Roughly 330 kids play Little League baseball each season in the program, though not all of them pay to play.

“Whether kids pay or not, they’re always allowed to play,” said Knight’s husband, Noel, who’s been doing maintenance work at the current fields for years.

“That’s how it always has been,” said Stanley “Grandpa” Patterson, who’s been involved in the program for decades, even having the current field named in his honor.

Concession stand sales raise roughly $15,000 each season, Karen Knight said, and umpire salaries alone eat up roughly $10,000 of those funds.

Even if the league plays on the new fields, it would still need to use the current fields at Union Street and Marquette Street for the time being.

“My impression when the new fields were built was that Lake Station Little League would be able to play there,” said Knight, who met me at the current baseball field complex off Union Street. “The mayor had promised that the fields would be open by certain days but it did not happen.”

Knight, her husband, and league vice president Crystal Chabes say the two fields at the new complex were unsafe and not completed nearly enough for a new season.

“There was holes in the fences, rocks in the fields, no roofs over the dugouts,” Noel Knight said.

“The grass sod even came up, which is dangerous for our kids,” said Chabes, whose 19-year-old son now umpires in the league.

“The fields were laid out wrong for Little League standards — no bathrooms, no fieldhouse and overall bad set up,” added one volunteer.

Soderquist disagrees, saying the complex is a work in progress and the city can’t afford to skip using it yet another year.

“The city cannot wait for a not-for-profit to decide if the new fields will be used by our children,” he said.

So he is considering using a different Little League program at the new fields, possibly either a Cal Ripken or Babe Ruth league from outside the city.

“At this point, the Park Department has reviewed the different programs available and will decide the best program for our children,” he said. “Regardless of which program the Parks Department chooses, the program will be through the Parks Department and not independent from the Parks Department.”

In other words, not through Lake Station Little League any longer.

“We can’t take our league there just for us to sink after 55 years of hard work,” Chabes said.

“If there’s a flaw with our league, make it better, don’t kill it,” Karen Knight said. “Why can’t he spend that city money to help our league?”

“He wants us to surrender our league and files for city use with no compensation,” said one long-time supporter who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation.

“As a group, this Little League has overcome some really bad things and survived and grew,” the supporter said. “With one blow, the mayor plans to destroy us so he can have his way. His pride has been wounded and he’s playing dirty politics.”

Soderquist says he is simply looking out for the kids in his city. His critics say bull.

“The main issue is money. It is always about money,” one volunteer said. “We would cooperate with him if we had 50 percent of concessions.”

The mayor asks, 50 percent of concessions for what exactly? The city will be supplying everything needed for basic ball-playing, he says.

Both sides, not surprisingly, say the main issue is not the money or politics or bad blood. It’s the kids.

“The town is divided and the kids will pay the price,” one volunteer aptly said.

But, from my view as a spectator in the bleachers, this issue is teaching those kids nothing about the main tenet of baseball — teamwork.

Find more of Jerry’s writings on Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In, and jerrydavich.wordpress.com.



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