Valley baseball fans enjoyed yet another spring training stint, and the Diamondbacks are seen by some sports mavens as possible playoff contenders this year.
But among the parents of Tempe junior ballplayers, serious discontent is brewing.
Leaders of Tempe South Little League, which puts more than 500 local kids on the diamonds every year, contend that the city refuses to heed their complaints after cutting the league’s field usage and hiking its utility costs in the last few years.
President Scott Novis said the city surprised the league’s officers two years ago with a substantial increase in field-light utility fees, totaling as much as $22,000 annually. That hit, he said, threatened to make the league insolvent.
“This year, we have been forced to radically reduce the number of practice hours, double-up on fields and overall create a diminished baseball experience for our kids,” Novis said via an exchange of email.
The league primarily operates at Tempe Sports Complex at 8403 S. Hardy Drive, just north of Warner Road and west of Kyrene Road.
Novis also accused the city of forcing south Tempe residents to use ball fields in the north part of town.
He said the city has steadily reduced availability of the fields to increase access for adult soccer and beer league softball.
In 2009, Tempe South had access to all seven fields at the sports complex with base-path cutouts. The league now has access to only three fields, some with poor accommodations, according to league board member Dan Crawford.
After being told to leave their usual fields, Crawford said the league hoped the city would provide some additional services in exchange.
“We wanted a reduced light bill, real dirt base paths, and dugouts that are not mud pits due to poor irrigation drainage,” he said.
Crawford said Mayor Mark Mitchell heard the league’s complaints and put league officers in touch with Tempe Community Services Director Kathy Berzins.
Crawford responded that Berzins and her facilities head, Shane Isabel, have continually denied their requests.
Novis contends that Berzins portrayed the league’s reduced usage as evidence it does not need the additional facilities and financial leeway.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “The reality is we cannot make effective use of the fields the city is willing to make available.”
Isabel said the community services department is not at liberty to change utility fees, which were increased for every user group by the City Council in 2011.
Crawford said the league aims to use the sports complex’s Dawson fields, which have dirt infields, concrete dugouts, fan seating, a concession stand and fences.
“We consider the grass infields at [the complex] to be a safety issue as wear patterns develop in the base paths, causing unpredictable hops and perhaps player injury,” Crawford said.
Novis said the league cannot make effective use of the fields the city is willing to make available.
“How is a mother with two kids in the league supposed to go to [another] field in north Tempe and be at the sports complex is south Tempe at the same time?” he said.
Isabel said the city had to limit use of certain fields at Tempe Sports Complex for maintenance purposes this year, but that the league will get additional fields next year.
For now, the league will be allowed use of three Tempe Sports Complex fields and Matt Mantei Field at Clark Park on Broadway and Roosevelt Roads.
“The City values Little League and all that it stands for,” Isabel said. “As far as meeting their game and practice needs, I believe that’s probably doing it.”
By Chase Kamp