Fields of Dreams Shared by Many

Interest among baseball-playing Visalia families is already heating up over who will be assigned the playing rights at four baseball diamonds at Visalia’s popular Riverway Sports Park. The only real problem, according to city leaders, is that the baseball fields won’t even exist for at least another 3-5 years.

The four as-yet-to-be-developed diamonds are at the heart of the fourth and final stage of development planned for the family-oriented multi-sport complex covering 83 acres on the city’s northern edge. The baseball fields will eventually be developed in the southwestern corner of Riverway where a pending basin currently sits.

Plans for the final phase of development were put on hold when the recession dried up funds for developing areas around the park which are critical to plans for providing permanent and reliable drainage for the nearby Target shopping center that currently relies on the Riverway ponding basin to prevent potential flooding.

The two groups vying for playing rights at Riverway are Visalia’s Adult Softball League (currently using four lighted fields at Plaza Park, along with one unlighted field), and the 375 girls ages 4-13 who make up the teams of the city’s girls’ youth league (currently playing on makeshift, unlighted fields at Whitendale Park).

Representatives of each group say they have a legitimate claim to the playing rights based on previous promises and/or commitments from current and former city leaders. And though it appears true that each group has at some point in the past been promised playing rights for the diamonds at Riverway when they become available, it will eventually fall to the five members of the the city council to vote on and decide the issue once and for all.

At the heart of any discussion concerning the Adult League possibly moving to Riverway or anywhere else, according to city officials, is the insistence by representatives of the Adult League that a promise of official sanctioning of alcohol be made a part of any new location for the league. Current official blanket policy at all of Visalia’s city parks expressly forbids smoking and possession of alcohol.

Although it is universally acknowledged off the record by city officials and administrators, Adult League players and fans who attend the games played at Plaza Park that alcohol is brought to the park in private ice chests and commonly consumed after the games, nonetheless Visalia city leaders balk at the notion of officially sanctioning the consumption of alcoholic beverages at any city park, and especially the high profile and youth-targeted venue at Riverway Sports Park.

Long-time players and their representatives in the Adult League maintain that the city itself conducted alcohol sales at Plaza Park during Adult League games during a period of time in the 1990’s, but Visalia’s Parks and Recreation Director Vincent Elizondo said that was before he took the helm at Parks and Recreation and therefore he could neither confirm nor deny the claim.

The last official action by the city council concerning future plans for the proposed diamonds at Riverway Park was a May 3, 2010 vote by the council of 4-1 in favor of reducing the plans for the design of outfield fences to a distance of 225 feet, thus assuring eventual use of the diamonds to the girls’ youth league whose fences are officially set at 225 feet. Adult League softball is played on fields with a setback of 300 feet for the outfield fences.

According to city records (minutes for the meeting), immediately following the council’s 4-1 vote, Elizondo, addressed the council and informed them that the Master Plan adopted by the Visalia City Council in 2001 stated that the Adult League would be moved from Plaza Park to the Riverway Sports Park. He urged the council to further explore the issue of previous commitments made to the Adult League and the council agreed to send the matter to the Parks and Recreation Commission for further study of the records and a recommendation.

Although Elizondo maintains that “No official decision has been made regarding eventual use of the diamonds”, city records do not reflect any official changes subsequent to the council’s 4-1 vote in favor of moving the outfield fences in to 225 feet.

The Parks and Recreation Commission will examine the issues, including the feasibility of a possible special exemption from the ban on alcohol at Riverway Park for the Adult League games. Council members are not bound to follow recommendations made by the commission.

An informal Valley Voice poll of the current council members was 3-1 in favor of maintaining the current ban on alcohol within the city’s parks, with former mayor Bob Link undecided pending a recommendation from the Parks and Recreation Commission.

Link said he “would support staff recommendations” even to the point of allowing alcohol in the park at Riverway under tightly regulated circumstances along with a requirement that Adult League members each sign a code of conduct that is, excepting conditions relating to the proposed alcohol use, similar to the one they are currently required to sign.

Mayor Amy Shuklian also tentatively supports the concept of an agreement allowing alcohol for the Adult League games if they were held at Riverway under tightly regulated circumstances along with a revised and signed code of conduct from each league member.

“I could see myself supporting some sort of special exclusion for alcohol at Adult League games played at Riverway,” Shuklian said. “Just so long as we got the assurances that we would need and everybody acted responsibly. I don’t think that we should rush to rule it out without first taking a long look at what is possible.”

“I could not morally support the idea of having the consumption of alcohol in such close proximity to the kids there,” said Councilman Steve Nelsen, while pointing out that the outfield fences for an Adult League configuration of the new diamonds would place them just a few feet away from those of the field where the boys play their games.

He added that “I support the concept of Riverway being primarily a youth-oriented park and a place for the families of Visalia to go and have a good time. And I have a difficult time seeing how the use of alcohol could fit in as a part of all that.”

Nelsen pointed to long range plans for a new city park on east side of Visalia and north of Highway 198 close to the flea market out there as a much more suitable setting for the Mens’ League and any possibility of allowing alcohol in a city park on a tightly restricted basis.

“They’d be out there all by themselves in a park envisioned at well over one hundred acres,” said Nelsen, “with plenty of room for any possible future expansion of their league.”

“I could support the adults playing at Riverway,” said Councilman Warren Gubler, “but not along with the consumption of alcohol and especially when the alcohol would be consumed so close to where the kids are playing. I believe that Riverway was intended to serve primarily the young people in our community.”

Visalia has invested much money in recent years in what many see as a losing and wasted effort to improve the aging facility at Plaza Park that the Adult League calls home. $225,875 for new backstops, dugouts and foul line fencing as well as esthetic upgrades around three fields that was paid for in part with monies from the $8.50 per team surcharge the city collects for the self-supporting program.

Many of the league’s members believe falsely that the funds have gone toward securing the proposed new fields at Riverway for the use of the Adult League. “That is false,” said Elizondo. “The truth is the money has been applied toward paying off the league’s portion of the bill for upgrades and improvements.”

The city recently spent an estimated nearly $650,000 for improvements to the irrigation system and playing fields at the Park. It is hoped that the irrigation upgrades will result in improved turf quality on the fields, another complaint of the Adult League teams.

But nobody knows where the money for a badly needed new state-of-the-art athletic lighting system will come from, estimated to cost around $350,000 to $500,000, will come from. The city and the Adult League administrators both agree that the lighting upgrade is a critical and necessary tool for successfully enticing more teams from out of the area to attend potentially lucrative weekend tournaments hosted at Plaza Park. As for the girls’ league playing for the past 25 years out of barely adequate facilities at Whitendale Park, there is very little opportunity to host money-raising team tournaments at a facility with no amenities, no lights and poorly maintained playing fields.

For Carl Bivens and the numerous other parents of baseball-playing children of both sexes, the usual issues a baseball-parent is faced with are magnified many times over simply due to the considerable distance separating the inner-city facility used by the girls’ league from the almost rural location that is Riverway Park.

“What it means is that on occasions when both my boy and my girl are scheduled to play on the same day, me and my wife are forced to decide who will go to Riverway in support of our son, while the other parent is left to attend the girls’ league game at Whitendale Park. And it doesn’t and shouldn’t have to be that way,” Bivens pointed out.

“If our girls are given the diamonds out at Riverway, a well placed chair somewhere between the two diamond complexes would allow every parent the opportunity to watch both a son and a daughter playing at the same time just a few feet apart,” said Bivens, now serving his third year on the board of directors for the girls’ league, along with two years as a volunteer coach. “Riverway is a family park, so let it be for the families.”

“With the diamonds out at Riverway for us to use,” said Visalia Youth Softball (girls’ league) President Britney Bly, “we could hold some very nice tournaments and raise money for scholarships and equipment for our girls.”

Who will take the highly prized playing rights for four as-yet-to-be developed baseball diamonds at Riverway Park? The answer to this question has at least four years to take shape in a community that has quickly become enamored of its state-of-the-art multi sport complex.

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