Thursday, August 28, 2008

Fields of dreams, dreams of fields

Laguna Park circa 1940. They paved (baseball) paradise, and put up a (bus) parking lot.

During the dark days of the Depression, Santa Barbara gained more than its share from the Federal program known as the Works Progress Administration. Local civic leaders lobbied for Federal tax dollars to restore the Sheffield Reservoir and build the Los Banos Pool, the Main Post Office Building, and the Santa Barbara Bowl—all civic jewels still standing. Another local WPA gem, the grandstands, fences and outbuildings that graced the grand old Laguna Park baseball stadium was, in 1970 unceremoniously plowed under to make way for a parking lot for the city’s fleet of buses and administration buildings.

Located on six acres of green—between Garden and Olive, Cota and Ortega—Santa Barbara’s legendary field of dreams was a full-sized slice of Americana dedicated to the national pastime. Designed by the acclaimed local architect Winsor Soule, it was a full-sized stadium built in a small-sized city in 1938. Bigger than Ebbets Field or Wrigley Field, Laguna Park was a place where minor league teams associated with the Brooklyn and later the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets honed their skills. Teams called the Santa Barbara Dodgers, Saints, Rancheros and Channel Cities Oilers called it home; Willie Mays once played there in an exhibition game; Santa Barbara High School Coach Fred Warrecker pitched there for the Santa Barbara Foresters. And the children of Santa Barbara learned to play baseball at Laguna Park from Pee Wee League up through high school.
All that and a view of the Riviera; it must have been a glorious place to watch a baseball game, and even a better place to play it. But where many saw dreams come true in a place of open air and a leisurely pace, others saw only potential for “development.” It was the kind of development that paradoxically requires demolition and destruction—and leaves citizens shaking their heads and wondering how it ever could have happened.
When citizens who recognized the value of Laguna Park—including Jerry Harwin, Cesar Uyesaka and Pearl Chase—including parks directors Bill Bertka and Mike Pahos—took offense to the plan to destroy the ballpark, the city went on defense and played the game to win. Mayor Gerald Firestone, City Administrator Cliff Petrie, and Council Members Gus Chavalas and Frank Arguelles shut out the opposition with their studies and memos and recommendations to support their position; the only way to save the ballpark was to destroy it. And they won.
Those folks should be remembered for their singular destruction of a historic city landmark—some of which was built with Federal WPA funds. And it should not be forgotten that at the time they also promised the Santa Barbara citizenry they would build another baseball facility. Nearly 40 years later, the promise made by these politicos remains unfulfilled.
Strangely enough, today, City Hall has a golden opportunity to keep that long-broken promise and create another place for kids to play ball.
Now the Federal government is offering the City of Santa Barbara the opportunity to purchase the Army Reserve property bordering MacKenzie Park—the location of the only youth baseball fields in town. The Army’s parking lot crowds right field where young sluggers routinely hit homers over the barbed-wire-topped fence and onto camouflage and khaki-colored Army jeeps and trucks parked by the dozen on the asphalt adjacent to the field.
Before City Hall starts planning for the future use of that Federal property, they better honor the promises of the past: There’s a debt still owed to the sizable Santa Barbara baseball community that hasn’t forgotten its glory days and understands the benefit of this sport to local families.
By all accounts and despite far too few facilities, Santa Barbara is still a baseball town. The Santa Barbara Foresters recently won another world championship. The grandstands are packed at every Santa Barbara High School home game at Eddie Mathews Field (named in honor of the late local hall of famer). This summer, a Santa Barbara teen PONY All Star team (coached by Joe Guzzardi, Bob Brontsema and Rob Crawford among others) played deeper into its playoffs than any other team in our City’s history; and a couple new youth club teams—among them the 12U Santa Barbara Riptide, on which my son and his friends play—have made waves from Santa Barbara to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and all the way to Cooperstown, NY.
And this weekend, thanks to the efforts of our selfless baseball ambassador, Chuck Rose, some thirty teams from across Central and Southern California will once again participate in the annual Santa Barbara Labor Day Tournament for some first-class competition. They will be traveling with their families, staying in hotels, eating at local restaurants and spending their hard-earned cash in ways that benefit the local economy, while supporting the game and players they love.
Stop by, grab a hot dog and enjoy a game; appreciate the efforts of talented kids and dedicated coaches. It’s also the perfect opportunity to realize the value of turning a parking lot back into a park, after a park was turned into a parking lot. Santa Barbara can finally make up for the short-sighted squandering of a precious diamond that once glittered with multi-faceted benefits to the entire community. Let the box score record a present-day hit to make up for yesterday’s error.

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