Now that summer is here and the sun is shining after a rain-soaked Spring, thousands of adult softball players have been anticipating for the crack of the bat.
But according to some softball league commissioners, they’re being denied playing time because the Parks Department is currently reconstructing several Manhattan fields in the middle of the busy season, and they’ve said that the Parks department is outright denying them permits to replacement fields. More alarmingly, they added, some fields that used to be multi-sport have been transformed in a one-sport field only.
For the past four decades hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers have been playing softball and baseball in the nearly 800 athletic fields that make up the New York City Park system that is overseen by the Department of Parks and Recreation.
They’ve been able to play thanks to the entrepreneurial gusto of adult softball league commissioners that have organized hundreds of corporate league teams made up of employees from some of the city’s leading companies in finance, legal, entertainment and sports, which commissioners say goes a long way to help corporate employees build camaraderie, boost morale and contributes to wellness.
One of those league commissioners is Al Morales, whose story of building out and organizing corporate softball leagues is a story unto itself. He practiced psychotherapy for eight years back in the 1970s before taking a sabbatical for one year. He didn’t return to his practice because he purchased a candy story in upper Manhattan that he eventually converted into a sporting goods store selling his favorite childhood items—baseball gloves and mitts, bats and cleats.
He was selling a lot of gear back then to a few corporate league teams when he spotted an ad in the paper calling for more leagues; he realized that he could transfer his love for selling baseball and softball gear into running his own league. In 1978 he started the Yorkville Sports Association with 10 teams that eventually ballooned to a whopping 350 teams by 1998.
We met him recently on a beautiful Saturday morning at the Frederick Douglass Field on 101st Street and Amsterdam Avenue to get a first-hand look at the field’s reconstruction that left Morales utterly dismayed because the field had been transformed into a soccer field.
He grew up playing all kinds of sports on that field—baseball, dodgeball and kickball—and his league’s teams have been playing there for over 30 years. It seemed that they would be playing the entire season as usual when they were suddenly informed by the Parks Department that the field would be undergoing a reconstruction in June.
Morales was annoyed that play at the field would be interrupted, but he and the leagues’ players were willing to forgo play in anticipation of playing on brand new Astroturf. But he became concerned when he visited the field to view its progress only to find that the new Astroturf had been installed but there was no additional work continuing such as the placement of backstop pads and home plate.
His staff reached out to the Parks Department, sending an email inquiring when the work would be completed and the park would reopen.
A Parks Department staff member, Ken Conyers, who works in Manhattan permit office, the office responsible for distributing permits for fields in Manhattan, replied on June 14, telling Morales that “technically the contractor has 18 months” to complete the park’s reconstruction, adding, “we are not going to rush and allow them to turn over poor work. Although when you go by, it may look it is complete and all is done….that is not the case,” said Conyers.
But Morales’ worst fears were realized when he revisited the field again after receiving the June 14 email and saw two large soccer goal nets on both ends of the field and in the middle of the field a center line that cuts the field in half and a center circle.
“After numerous emails to Parks over the last three weeks for more information as to when we would be allowed back onto the field of Frederick Douglass Park, it turns out that baseball and softball will not return to this field. If that is the fact, and we’re not allowed to continue our season, and if we lose yet another field without an open discussion and input from the softball leagues it is time for a public hearing,” exclaimed Morales, shaking his head in disbelief.
Morales isn’t the only one expressing frustration. Other league commissioners and their players are telling Morales that they’re angry that a field that was available to them for the past 30 years to play softball is suddenly unavailable.
We contacted many soccer and baseball commissioners to learn if they’re experiencing displacement from fields, but many did not want to talk, let alone talk on camera, because they’re afraid of alienating Parks Department staff that could result in the loss of field permits.
Steve Jimenez, president of Gotham City Sports, also runs a corporate softball league, and while he did not want to say whether or not his league is losing play time due to the reconstruction of fields or the inability to play on replacement fields using permits he’s already paid for, he did note that the transformation of fields from multi-sport use to single-use only directly impacts the youth who live within an arms-length of the field but will not have access to play the sports they used to.
“Here’s a field [Frederick Douglass] that is surrounded by kids from public housing projects, what is going to be the availability to those kids, is it going to be something that is just going to be visible to them to see other kids playing on, what are the opportunities going to be for them? I think this is a concern throughout the city,” said Jimenez.
Just as we were about to go to press, however, Crystal Howard, Assistant Commissioner, Communications for Parks, said that Frederick Douglass would reopen this weekend, and will remain a multi-sport field.
“Taking fields offline for reconstruction is a sign that much needed, community-requested investment is being made in our neighborhoods. These heavily used fields were among those in the worst condition in Manhattan, and when they re-open they will be restored to the best condition possible,” said Howard.
She added, “Frederick Douglass is and will remain a multi-sport field. Soccer and softball will be permitted.”
According to Morales, he’s had mostly a good working relationship with the Parks Department over the 40 years that he’s been organizing corporate softball leagues. Indeed, the Parks Department has benefitted from the proliferation of corporate softball leagues because they bring in revenue for the sometimes cash-strapped department while simultaneously conserving resources because it doesn’t have to invest itself in starting and organizing sports leagues.
But there was a time when corporate softball leagues were scrutinized by the media and Parks because there were stories published in the mid-1990s that the organizers of leagues were making a windfall from charging entry fees for corporate teams to join. So much so that then-Parks commissioner Henry Stern, who passed away in March, wanted to limit the number of permits granted to the leagues because Parks was considering organizing its own leagues.
Morales even made an appearance on the Fox News affiliate Fox Five morning show in 1996 to explain to the host that his league wasn’t making millions of dollars as was reported, but certainly was making a full-time living and employing up to 12 people to run the league’s day-to-day operations.
But within the last few years, noted Morales, his organization’s working relationship with Parks has deteriorated as his league has been experiencing the loss of permits and time slots in the primary Manhattan fields of Dewitt Clinton Park on the West Side, Baruch Field on the Lower East Side and Col. Charles Young on 145th Street and Lenox Avenue, in addition to the Frederick Douglass Field.
Some of the loss of permits to Morales’ league, however, is likely due to the proliferation of additional corporate softball leagues who are applying for field permits since he founded Yorkville Sports Association.
Indeed, Morales noted that as his own league was growing, several players, who worked for some big-name and well-known NYC-based firms, saw an opportunity to leave their 9 to 5 corporate jobs to start their own leagues and run them full-time.
Yet another factor is the growing competition from other types of sports leagues, such as soccer, frisbee, rugby and kickball. But according to Pauline Gambuto, president of EDSO Sports for the past 27 years, another corporate softball league, questions why Parks seems to be allocating more permits to the new upstart leagues when they aren’t as inclusive as softball.
“Everybody plays softball, both young and old people. Who plays frisbee? It just seems like you [Parks] is cutting out a lot of people’s participation with some of those sports,” Gambuto said.
She also seconded Morales’ observation that it has been more difficult working with Parks recently because on a whim, she says, the department can close fields and rescind permits.
For example, she paid for her 2019 permits for league play at the DeWitt Clinton Field on 52nd Street and 11th Avenue back in November, 2018 but the field is currently closed for reconstruction in the midst of the heavy season.
“I’m really caught between a rock and hard place this season, especially with all the rain it makes it very hard to reschedule games. This past week [the week of June 17] my teams played only on Monday because the fields were closed on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. So, there I am with almost an entire week of games to reschedule but where do I put them,” said Gambuto.
She added, “Parks also took back some fields from me in July because of a ‘large scale event.’ My question is: ‘how do you have a contract with me for the permit and then just decide you don’t have a contract with me anymore and go make arrangements with somebody else for an event.’ My contract doesn’t count?”
But back on April 30, 2018 First Deputy Commissioner of Parks Liam Kavanagh testified before the City Council about how the Parks Department has made advances in distributing permits, which formerly was a permitting system largely based on paper before transferring to a Web-based system known as the Citywide Event Management System.
In his testimony, he explained the decision making over how permits are currently distributed.
“Consistent with our mission to provide free and accessible opportunities for youth activities, our rules codified a long-standing practice of prioritizing youth league permit requests over requests submitted by adult leagues, and giving priority to applicants who have held a given permit in the previous season.
“Through our current permit distribution process, we grant priority for field permits first to youth leagues, followed by official school leagues such as Public Schools Athletic League, then returning applicants (including adult leagues) and then lastly, all who apply within the optimal season request period,” Kavanagh told the Council.
Morales seemed a bit more cheerful that his league’s team would eventually be back soon playing softball as we surveyed the ongoing construction at De Witt Clinton.
But he took issue with Kavanagh’s City Council statement about how permits are distributed.
Just as he emphasized at the Frederick Douglass Field, Morales expressed that Parks is not doing a fair job in rescheduling games in replacement parks while fields are reconstructed.
“Right now, my biggest problem is the Manhattan permit office and its staff. They’re not telling us anything and they’re showing a bias to the other sports leagues. If Parks can continue to take away permits from us, they’ll do that to anyone at any time. That’s against the rules,” said Morales.