By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
Photo by Ted Soqui
Call Joe Molina a believer:If he built it, he thought, they would come.
So he and fellow Highland Park dreamers started a Little League, even though they had no regular field to play on. And then, on the site of an abandoned reservoir, with the city’s permission, they built a Little League ballpark — with a grass infield, yellow-painted foul poles, a batting cage and sparkling bathrooms — that has no equal for miles around.
And, yes, the children did come. And they still come, by the hundreds, year-round, to pitch, hit and throw at diminutive Garvanza Park.
Now some less-welcome adults have entered the picture. City officials suddenly want to assert their authority over the public land on which the ball field and bleachers rest. They say they have the right to kick out the Little League and claim everything paid for by a charitable grant from Little League International, despite what the league thinks is an ironclad 10-year contract. The league has already hired an attorney and staged a demonstration, although the city insists that eviction would be a last resort. All the city really wants, say officials, is public access to those sparkling bathrooms, along with the league’s acquiescence to building an adjacent facility for skateboarders, who need elbow room to pursue their own dreams.
City bureaucrats contend that they are being inclusive, that their vision of an improved Garvanza Park would better serve neighborhood children who choose not to play baseball, softball or T-ball. But Molina and league parents fear the worst based on past dealings with the city. “This just goes to show that if you build it,” says Molina, “and if you build it nice enough, the city will come and take it away from you.”
The Little League field at Garvanza Park looks like a post card of 1950s Norman Rockwell Iowa with its trimmed lawn and chalked base paths. Except that the sprites in ponytails and ball caps have brown skin, and they buy tacos for a dollar from the snack bar as well as $1.25 hot dogs. Parents raise scholarship funds for families who can’t afford the $50 league fee.
Around the park a distinctly non-Rockwell cityscape unfolds. Small houses, many with barred windows, snake up rolling hills. On one side sits a water-storage tank. Concrete-intensive Burbank Middle School abuts another side. Local gangs established themselves a few generations ago. And Molina can point out street corners where youths died in gunfire. Graffiti sometimes mars nearby walls and curbs for weeks before it’s painted over.
But not at the Little League field, where parents and community volunteers protectively tend their sanctuary. When they depart, they lock up the entire facility behind 10-foot perimeter fencing, though the field’s in use during most non-school daylight hours.
City officials don’t comprehend why some 200 parents and children turned out this month to demonstrate against proposed park improvements, which also would include new playground equipment. The officials have explained that the skate park would be staffed when open and fenced shut at night. “We in no way are trying to remove the Little League from this facility,” says Lisa Sarno, deputy chief of staff for new City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, who inherited the nascent park project from predecessor Nick Pacheco. To make matters stickier, league parents once were promised a girls’ practice field during Pacheco’s tenure. The conundrum is an early test for Councilman Villaraigosa, the former state Assembly leader, who must now resolve a neighborhood conflict.
“The council member supports all activities for youth,” said Sarno. “This is a very dense area. That park needs to service the entire community. Lots of people don’t play baseball. We have to find a way to accommodate the entire community. There’s not enough for our children to do after school.”
Molina and league president Ralph Zavala respond by pointing to a graffiti-filled section of streetscape they say is frequented by skateboarders. They question why the skate park has to go into Garvanza, where it could threaten their hard-won child’s paradise. They note that their spotless bathrooms — the ones the city would insist on using — sit at their end of the 5.69-acre park, well beyond the sight and supervision of a skate-park attendant.
Years ago, Zavala says he tried coaching in a city recreation league, but he cringed when coaches shouted at kids and when parents yelled at coaches. “There was no structure, no philosophy, no common goal,” he says. “The parents would watch the games drinking six-packs of beer. This,” he pauses, looking over his pristine diamond, “is what I was looking for, and the people run it. Our managers take an oath. They will teach the children character, loyalty and courage.”
Molina, 52, recalls an evening practice session at a Montecito Heights park in the early ’90s, when gunfire erupted and killed a bystander as his players were leaving the field. Zavala recounts how local toughs would grab costly aluminum bats right out of players’ hands. In 1995, Molina and other league organizers, including his wife, Cathy, got permission to hold games in San Pascual Park. The field was full of gopher holes, says Molina, and the bathrooms were kept locked. Even then, they lost San Pascual to a city recreation program.