Build it and they may not come
Rules on permits complicate picture at memorial fields
On an idyllic 70-degree weeknight in June, most of the city's baseball fields bustled with activity, with one notable exception: the Teddy Ebersol playing fields.
Situated on the banks of the Charles River, the three pristine ball fields were empty. No one sat in the aluminum stands that offer a panoramic view of the ballpark or the sun setting over the river. The scoreboards, modeled after Fenway Park's, were blank.
That such an emerald gem would sit empty on a summer night bewilders Little League officials such as Mike Kudisch of the South End Youth Baseball league. When he and other league commissioners at South End Youth Baseball see an unused field, they half-jokingly call it "a felony."
"Anytime there's a baseball field that's open in the city or anywhere on a playable evening, that's a mistake," Kudisch said. "Every baseball field in the world should have kids playing on it every evening of the spring and summer."
Two years after their much-heralded opening, Teddy Ebersol's Red Sox Fields - 3 1/2 acres on some of the city's most prime real estate - often sit unused.
Named for the son of NBC Sports executive Dick Ebersol and his wife, actress Susan Saint James, the fields were supposed to be a living monument to their son, a Red Sox fan who died in a plane crash in 2004 at age 14.
Red Sox chairman Tom Werner raised $1.8 million in donations toward the effort. Ebersol, his close friend, donated $500,000. The state chipped in more than $200,000. When contacted yesterday in Martha's Vineyard, Ebersol said that he felt grateful to those who made the fields possible and that he's seen crowded soccer games there.
He expressed surprise that Little Leaguers rarely use it.
"Wow . . . we're for 100 percent utilization of these fields as long as it's by kids," Ebersol said. "It's supposed to be used."
Schedules from the state Department of Conservation and Recreation show the fields are emptiest on summer weekends. The West End Community Center has booked the field on Saturdays from 3 to 5 p.m. and a smattering of adult softball teams have booked the space on weeknights, most of them from well-heeled investment and law firms such as Lee Munder Capital Group and Ropes & Gray.
A reporter visiting the field complex on a dozen occasions in June, including weekends and weekdays when games were planned, found it empty all but once.
On that occasion, there was no ballgame. Beacon Hill resident Allen Gustafson was on the grass throwing a Frisbee with his teenage son. Gustafson said he had tried to play Frisbee on the fields several times in May, but the gates were padlocked.
"It could be a beautiful, sunny, 70-degree day and the expanse of greenery calls to you, but unfortunately, you can't get in," Gustafson said. "I've seen two baseball games here in six weeks."
The 2006 groundbreaking was a momentous public event.
The Red Sox Foundation, the Hill House Inc. community center, and the Esplanade Association donated the bulk of the money to create Teddy Ebersol's Red Sox Fields at Lederman Park.
Sportscaster Bob Costas hosted the dedication. Ebersol, Werner, and then-Governor Mitt Romney spoke, as did Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Teddy Ebersol's namesake. Hundreds attended. It may have been one of the largest crowds to date at the fields.
Currently, most of the state permits for the fields this summer have been assigned to Hill House, a Beacon Hill nonprofit. David Beardsley, its executive director, said the group donated about $300,000 to the project and uses the fields for its youth sports camps and other agency activities. The group holds permits for all three fields from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday through the end of August. The fields are closed Mondays for maintenance.
Beardsley said the agency does not use all the time slots and is "very willing to give them up" to other groups. Hill House employees have reached out to public school groups, he said, trying to get them to use the fields.
"One of our biggest priorities is getting more youth users," Beardsley said.
Yet Rick Sullivan, DCR commissioner, said his agency is not supposed to issue blocks of permits to one agency and vowed to change the practice. Unless there is a rainstorm and the gates are locked to preserve the playing grass, the fields should be open to the public from 7 a.m. to dusk most days. Permits should be granted only for specific games or events.
"These are public fields . . . and ought to be open for use, so you could walk down and enjoy the afternoon playing catch," he said.
Unlike at other state-run parks, DCR officials work with an eight-person advisory committee before issuing permits for the Ebersol fields. Board members include Beardsley; Meg Vaillancourt, executive director of the Red Sox Foundation; Danielle Toppi, a clerk for the Somerville Recreation Commission; Ruth Ellen Fitch, president and chief executive of Dimock Community Health Center in Roxbury; and Jose Ruiz, director of Returning Baseball to the Inner City, a Red Sox-funded charity. The state accepts applications for permits only from Dec. 2 to Jan. 15 for summer games and from March 1 to April 15 for fall games.
Ruiz said his group has used the fields only for occasional clinics.
The group's girls' softball division will play at Ebersol fields next year. Earlier this year, he brought 60 girls to Ebersol fields so they could see them.
"They were very happy," Ruiz said of their reaction. "They couldn't believe there was that much grass."
Vaillancourt said that Hill House does not monopolize the fields and that many agencies, including the Friends of Teddy Ebersol's Red Sox Fields, have tried to get the word out about the fields. Last month, for example, Hill House sponsored a two-day, multiteam tournament there, inviting teams from South Boston, the South End, Mission Hill/Roxbury, Charlestown, and Jamaica Plain to play. Hill House paid all the costs. DCR officials followed up with an e-mail to participating team officials reminding them that the fields are public and theirs to use.
"Our reputation is a city too often divided by race and class and even ZIP codes," Vaillancourt said. "The idea of this facility is to tear down those barriers and say, 'Here's a great asset we can share together.' "
But Jared Blandino, executive director of the All Dorchester Sports League, said many players and their parents don't want to travel the distance to the field. He said he had never set foot on Ebersol fields, only driven past them, and admired the expensive lighting and immaculate, if barely trod upon, grass.
"I wish all the fields in the city could be like that," he said.
Megan Woolhouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.