Infield Fly Rule

Soon, the only things flying over East Richfield will be airplanes
Jim Skuldt

To the outsider, the stakes seem small. But that is appropriate; that, in fact, is the point. Everything at the East Richfield baseball diamonds is small--by design. Each of the six fields, built in 1955, features a tiny cement dugout on the first and third baselines, so 6-to-12-year-old players can pace and fret just like their big-league idols. The infields are shrunken just enough that the slightest of hitters can hope for a hit, and lilliputian fielders can snag a line drive. The pitching mounds are a little lower than the adult variety, just like the backstops and the stilts that hold up each field's digital scoreboard. Even the back fence--200 feet from home plate on fields one and two, 185 feet on three, four, and five--is reachable with the swing of a lightweight bat.

On the first Saturday of August and the season's last weekend, the only athletes who seem ill-fitted for East Richfield's miniature landscape are a dominating team of 12-year-olds from Eau Claire who look like they're 15. When they step to the plate, their smaller opponents send outfielders to the warning track and tell their wide-eyed pitchers to bear down. "For us, this is the biggest tournament of the year," Eau Claire manager Ted Joas says after his team wins its third game of the three-day tournament. "This is a great facility with beautiful fields. After coming here last year we couldn't wait to come back."

That kind of praise is common among the players and coaches from the 16 teams participating in the East Richfield Baseball League's tournament for 12 year-olds. "This place is for the kids," West St. Paul manager John Pelano says, his voice hoarse from competing with planes landing just a few hundred yards away. "You don't find places like this anymore, tailor-made for younger players, where you don't have to beg some adult softball team to let you finish your game or schedule a practice."

A few minutes later Pelano walks over to tournament director Del Meyer, who's surveying the action from a wobbly lawn chair strategically placed to view three fields. "Your kids need somewhere to play next year, you give us a call. We'll work something out," Pelano says, his hand on the 68-year-old's weary shoulders. Meyer, his head down, just nods.

For 37 years, Meyer has been the manager of these fields. He remembers when, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, they were a national treasure. He recalls the features in national magazines, the visits from then Minnesota Twins President Calvin Griffith, and the annual write-ups in the then Minneapolis Tribune. Now he's just waiting for the bulldozers and cement trucks to take it all away.

Two years ago the Metropolitan Airport Commission informed the city of Richfield it would be building a new runway straight through the diamonds. The news, while bad, was not surprising. MAC has been leasing the land to Richfield since 1978, without charge; that they would eventually take it back was a given.

It was also a given, at least to city leaders, that this unique park could not be replaced. There is no room for a new facility, they say. No money. Fine, some of the players and parents say: It wouldn't be the same anyway. What East Richfield League supporters can't understand is that with two years' lead time, the city hasn't been able to produce a straight answer about where the kids will play next spring. A Richfield Ball Replacement Task Force has been working with city staff since 1996; in early July it recommended that existing adult fields be spruced up for youth baseball. A $2 million-dollar grant from the state is available for refurbishment, but it's not clear whether the work will be done in time for the '99 season. "The youth programs are so important that somehow we have to accommodate this," says Richfield Mayor Martin Kirsch. "Unfortunately, they may have to start playing a tad later in the season. But we're going to get something done."

But that's not good enough for Jerry Millette. A former docksman who was injured on the job, the 55-year-old father of two has been involved with baseball in Richfield since 1973; six years ago, he led a drive to separate the East Richfield Baseball League from the National Little League. Millette, who now serves as league president, says he was tired of the national organization's rigid rules, top-heavy structure, and emphasis on the bottom line. "If a kid wants to play, he's going to play," Millette likes to say. "If some people don't like it, tough."

The East Richfield league, which serves 1,000 boys and girls between the ages of 6 and 12, still competes in and hosts tournaments, but does not play in Little League-sanctioned events. Funding for the program comes from parents and tournament concessions; if a kid can't afford the fees, Millette does some creative bookkeeping or sells a few more bags of popcorn. Forty kids from poor families, and some from outside Richfield, are playing baseball this summer as a result.

But because East Richfield baseball is frozen in time, Millette contends, it is also very fragile. If the program disappears for a year, he and Meyer say, it will die. If it is spread all over town, it will die slowly. Similarly dire predictions come from player parents such as Tom Velasquez. "This is a one-of-a-kind place," he says. "If you don't try to duplicate it or at least try to make things happen in one place, these kids will get lost in the shuffle. They'll end up playing Nintendo next summer."

Velasquez, a single parent who's put four kids through East Richfield's baseball program while studying at North Hennepin Technical College to be a tool and die maker, claims the city would be much more responsive if MAC's runway were taking over a park in West Richfield. "There's more money in West Richfield," he says. "Over here we're just blue-collar, working-class folks. So we get snubbed. Then those same politicians will bitch that our kids are out on the street causing trouble." (Mayor Kirsch, a GOP endorsee, says claims of a citywide caste system, while commonplace among east siders, are more about perception than reality.)

Truth be told, the boosters like Velasquez might not mind being snubbed by the city--as long as they had a place to play. "Right now, we can maintain our own fields and do what we want with them," Millette says. "When the city starts dictating things, if they actually get their act together and find these kids somewhere to play, then it all becomes about money and schedules and that's when the problems start. That's when kids get turned away because they can't afford a glove or there isn't enough room on the team. And I'll tell you something, once that starts happening, the city council is really going to get sick of seeing my face."

As Millette talks, a group of parents from Mankato are cheering their team to victory. This is the last weekend they'll spend at this ballpark, and they're taking full advantage. One mother is razzing her outfielder son who, each time an airplane starts its landing approach, turns his back to the game, blocks the sun with his glove, and gazes into the sky.

"C'mon Stevie," the mother shouts, laughing. "Get your head in the game. There will be plenty of time to watch the airplanes later. Get your head in the game.

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