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Wednesday, Nov 4 1998
Little League vs. Bush League
Neighborhood development is San Francisco's public Rorschach test. When spade hits soil, we exhibit our better or more lunatic angels.

Sometimes, neighbors get on the Internet, organize politically, and without asking for government intervention, forestall yet another Rite Aid chain drugstore from further eroding the singular character of a neighborhood.

Which was very cool when it happened this year in North Beach.
Sometimes, though, the possibility of change makes San Franciscans lose all perspective and act like selfish, misbegotten creatures. When this happens, all sense of scale and all adherence to any social contract fly out the window, to be replaced by the strange priorities of NIMBYism. Even the most innocent and wholesome of projects, viewed through NIMBY glasses, become hated focuses of neighborhood ire. Sunshine, puppies, and ice cream are suddenly viewed with high alarm.

Recently, in the Inner Sunset, Little League baseball and disabled kids have become Neighborhood Enemy No. 1.

Since March, the San Francisco Unified School District and San Francisco Little League have had to navigate serious neighborhood opposition as they've planned the construction of two diamonds -- one of regulation size, and another, smaller one for disabled kids -- on a slice of school district land east of the intersection of Seventh Avenue and Lawton.

I try hard to use the following words as infrequently as humanly possible, but I fear that only in San Francisco can something as legitimately decent as Little League run into organized political opposition.

The situation at Seventh and Lawton is truly strange and disappointing. About 20 residents of the area near the proposed ballparks consider the people from the Little League and the school district to be dangerous and destructive interlopers. If the neighbors, most of whom are members of the Sunset Heights Association of Responsible People, or SHARP, would pull their heads out of whatever dark holes they currently inhabit, they would see that the project is actually a thing to be celebrated, a way to keep kids from falling into gangs or less severe forms of aimlessness.

But the neighbors think of the project only as a potential disruption, never as a possible asset.

The opposition of the Sharpies could not only stall the construction of Little League parks; it could cause San Francisco Little League to lose its charter. At least, that's what General Manager Jesse Tepper says.

Here's why:
Right now, the Little League doesn't have even a single adequate field to play on in San Francisco, so the eight Little League teams play all their games on fields in Marin County. This has led to overuse of the fields; the director of the Marin league has threatened, politely, to kick the S.F. teams off the North Bay playing fields when they aren't playing North Bay teams.

If that happens next year, the S.F. teams will be forced to compete with school and adult teams for time on the lousy, torn-up baseball fields maintained by the school district and the Recreation and Park Department. But there isn't all that much free time on those pathetic diamonds, and the Little League almost surely would be unable to complete a full season of games -- and that failure would, Tepper says, cost the league its charter.

The neighborhood opposition to the baseball fields seems all the more small-minded because it is confounding the bighearted efforts of so many others to accomplish something genuinely good, at very low cost.

Tepper says several contractors have promised to donate their services toward construction of the fields. The school district stands ready to strike a deal to share the fields, and the cost of their maintenance, with the Little League.

When the fields are finished, the Little League would not just have a regular place to play. There would also be a field designed specifically to allow disabled children the opportunity to participate in the national pastime.

On the disabled field, for example, a kid in a wheelchair could hit a baseball and be wheeled around the bases. And if you don't know how important circling the bases can be, you've forgotten what it was to be a child.

The neighbors of Seventh and Lawton are concerned about many things. One of them is, well, inherent to the national pastime.

Specifically, the neighbors object to the noise of baseballs hitting baseball bats.

That's right.
"Those empty metal bats have an ugly ping to them," says John Barry, a 54-year-old Realtor and vice president of SHARP. "I played with wooden bats, and when I got out of college, I heard this ping. I looked around, and there was this kid with an aluminum bat, and it was making this ping."

Barry played and enjoyed playing Little League ball as a kid. In the intervening years, however, he has apparently developed an animus for the sport and its local proponents. He has a special problem with allowing the Little League diamonds to be served by a public address system.

Barry has only contempt for announcements like Now batting for the San Francisco Pallidans, second baseman Timmy Rodrigues.

"The amplified sound system is just an adult fantasy of playing at the old Yankee stadium," Barry says. "We all grew up with that image of Lou Gehrig saying, 'I am the luckiest man alive.' The adults want to replicate that for their own enjoyment. This isn't a mini-Yankees stadium. Kids don't need a PA. Kids just want to have fun. They aren't doing it for the kids; they are doing it for themselves and their own fantasy lives."

Besides, he says: "It's going to destroy the livability of the people in the homes across the street."

I'll give Barry and his allies this much: The fields will adversely affect the quality of life in the surrounding area from 4 p.m. until 9 p.m. a few nights a week, when the fields will need to be lighted for a few hours. The cheering of crowds and announcements on the public address system will fill the air intermittently. Traffic congestion will increase somewhat; parking will be more problematic during that time.

About The Author

George Cothran


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