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.”
That makes sense to 14-year-old James Garcia, who once played ball in the Garvanza Park Little League. “We need a place to skate,” says Garcia. “We’ve got nowhere to go.”
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.
The league moved to the undersize field behind the local Boys & Girls Club, until then-Councilman Mike Hernandez championed a youth baseball facility in Bishop’s Canyon, near Dodger Stadium. But at one point, the Little League had to fight off adult baseball — which also needed playing space.
“You can tell everybody those same stories,” responds Tony Coroalles, Parks Department assistant general manager. “And I’m not saying they’re not true, but that’s not the issue. Molina has got his park. He’s got his little gem.” Coroalles also defends the city’s park maintenance. “In some places, the bathrooms are very clean. We clean them all two or three times a day. When our crews walk out of those bathrooms, they’re clean. Then, it’s a function of how the community treats the bathrooms.”
The chance to create the Garvanza diamond came about when Little League International offered to build another field, located — at Molina’s urging — in the crater of the old, abandoned Garvanza Reservoir.
The property belongs to the Department of Water and Power, which provided some $250,000 for landscaping, an irrigation system, perimeter fencing, a parking lot and a scoreboard. Little League International oversaw a $285,000 Weingart Foundation grant that paid for the field, snack bar, bathrooms and bleachers. The contractor, local businessman Jess Esparza, donated upgrades for the snack bar and bathrooms, including wrought-iron railing, porcelain fixtures and a terra cotta roof.
The city Recreation and Parks Department became the official park leaseholder for the DWP, but contributed few capital resources.
Molina’s crew trims hedges, mows grass, and has planted bougainvillea, jacaranda, queen palms and hibiscus. Molina, a retired railroad-station agent, planted a redwood near the entrance, perfect for decorating with Christmas lights. Parents and big brothers installed security lights, and restocked towels and tissue. They added outfield bleacher seats, a batting cage, and tarps to cover the field. They trucked in Dodgers mix for the infield dirt and carted it from the parking lot one wheelbarrowful at a time.
Retired engineer George O’Connor, 72, often unlocks the gates. He carries a small oxygen tank because he’s lost 40 percent of his lungs. “We gotta take care of the kids,” he says.
Molina’s mother-in-law, 86, likes to tend the snack bar. “I donated all my dishes and everything,” says Mary Tinker. “The city never did anything.”
But a park official did take time to remind Molina that everything in the park belongs to the city. And now, the city says, despite a 10-year contract with Little League International (with two additional three-year options), L.A. officials have the right to take over, because the local league failed to complete paperwork for an annual operating permit. This contention has the whiff of a convenient technicality to volunteers willing to work so hard to do things right.
The city could buy its way out of this impasse. League parents could probably live with the skate park if it had its own bathrooms, especially if the city laid down turf on a portion of the park that is now a grassless dirt expanse. The girls would then have their practice field.
But Parks officials say tight finances limit them to the skate park. They anticipate settling on a design early next year. This week the department floated a new compromise — closing off the baseball field from the bathrooms when the field isn’t being used by the league. But to parents, the entire proposal remains all risk and no benefit, something that threatens to turn their long-sought dream into one more L.A. nightmare.