Public Comment

Commentary: Berkeley High Baseball: A Field of Reams

By Neil Cook
Tuesday April 25, 2006

Much has been written in these pages about the prospect of a regulation baseball diamond for the Berkeley High baseball team. Reams of articles and opinions have been written as a matter of fact. Others have been written as a matter of fancy. Few articles or commentaries have, however, addressed the perspective of what results from not building such a field. What happens, of course, is that things stay the way they are. With San Pablo Park being the practice and game field for the team. So what’s that like?  

But first, a disclosure. I reside across from San Pablo Park where the team currently practices and plays its home games. I have seen the alternative of leaving things as they are. When the Romans were faced with such an alternative, they called it the status quo. Easy for them to say, they probably didn’t have foul balls. 

Foul balls are a reality of life—of life around a baseball field at least. It’s more of a reality when home plate is too far from the backstop and when the backstop has no overhang. Because of these factors, many of these foul balls end up in the street or in neighbors’ yards. Or through car windows. Or through home windows. Oddly enough, the diamond at the opposite end of the city’s park has an overhang to reduce the number of foul balls. It’s just the backstop where games are played and where batting practice takes place that has no overhang. It’s all about the integrity of the game, you know.  

It’s not as if the City of Berkeley is unaware of the foul ball issue. Numerous claims have arisen over the years (some mine) and promises have been made to improve the situation. Another season; no improvement. A few years back a wire mesh was placed over the dugouts to protect players, but nothing has changed for the public.  

Apparently, it will only become an issue of concern to the city and to you, its taxpayers, when one of those round orbs launched from the playing field lands on someone’s head. It may then end up costing taxpayers more than the cost of a real baseball diamond being built on school district land.  

Not surprisingly, there are people at this (ostensibly) public park who use it for things other than to play baseball for the local high school team. Like walk. Or push baby strollers. Or sit in the grass. Or ride bicycles. In short, some people treat San Pablo Park as though it were a public park!  

Unfortunately, the Berkeley High baseball team holds no such point of view. It is, after all, their home diamond and practice field. Not just after school in the afternoon and not just on game days.  

Coaches come with individual team members or with groups of players for instruction throughout the day. Or on the weekends. Whenever. Because it’s their field, after all.  

But it’s only fair. The City of Berkeley is appropriately compensated by the BUSD for all the additional grooming and care the diamond commands. Isn’t it? You’ve seen the numbers reported in stories about this subject. Haven’t you?  

So how ‘bout a description of a typical practice day?  

Because of where their current practice and home field is located, players and coaches travel from the campus to the park in private vehicles. Never, in the brief history of high school student automobile driving, have testosterone-loaded competitive young men been tempted to drive recklessly. At least it certainly doesn’t happen on these trips back and forth. That’s probably because the school has firm written rules about driving and other conduct by players and coaches. Shirley, (and those of you with other first names as well) in all this debate, you’ve read those written rules for yourself in these pages. Haven’t you?  

Just like you’ve read the written rules issued to players urging them to respect the property rights of people living around the park. You know, the ones about not leaving trash in the dugout or not tramping into people’s yards without permission to retrieve foul balls. Rules like those are a part of any quality organized sports program, of course, because sports builds character. And because, without such instruction, boys will be boys. Which is to say they’ll dash across a street without looking in order to snag a foul ball from somebody’s bushes without first asking permission.  

Why? Well (as stories from the world of sports remind us on a daily basis) male athletes have a strong, almost hormonal, attachment to their balls but somewhat less regard for other people’s bushes.  

But I digress. Back to a typical practice day.  

Once the players arrive, they have to change into uniform. Given the absence of a locker room, they, naturally enough, change on the street beside their cars or in the dugout. It’s just all part of the friendly family atmosphere of a public park.  

There is a restroom in the park, but walking all that distance to change would, apparently, require too much exertion. The same could frequently be said of the effort required to walk to the restroom for another purpose as well. The supply shed near the baseball diamond is thus frequently used as a urinal. Not inside the supply shed (which is locked) but the side of the shed. 

Speaking of wet grass, the rain this year has presented a real difficulty both for baseball practice and for games. Last Friday (April 7) was an example. The park had been closed to the public for days on end because of standing water and soggy grass. That didn’t, however, stop efforts to play a BHS game. It was raining virtually from the onset and that’s when it hit me.  

Not another foul ball (that went into a neighbor’s driveway and hit a parked car). But the realization of what Berkeley High baseball really needs. Not just a dedicated-use open-air baseball field but a domed stadium! A sports arena with room for serious fans and air conditioning too. And concessions. And maybe practice games against the Oakland Athletics. A place untouched by weather.  

After all, we’re talking about a high school that already has an indoor swimming pool. Water polo, crew, badminton, golf, lacrosse, tennis, mountain biking, swimming and baseball are a vital part of the learning experience. Just like dance studios. And like not simply having a cafeteria but a “food court.” Which is almost as essential as having a state-of-the-art library just blocks from the newly renovated Berkeley Main Library.  

As I recall, the latest bill for updating the Berkeley High School campus was around $13 million. Not a dime too much either. I’m sure those beautiful exotic wood tables and chairs are still in pristine condition without a scratch or single wad of bubble gum under them. The point here is that the quality of education is determined entirely by the cost of physical facilities. There is just no legitimate argument about it: If Berkeley High is ever going to become the baseball dynasty this region deserves, a domed stadium is the only answer.  

Forget nonsense like closing that vital transit artery called Derby Street. What nitwit could have conceived such an idea? In Berkeley no less—a city that prides itself on maintaining open streets free of obstructions or other impediments to straight navigation. It’s particularly loathsome to consider closing a street which has proven itself so vital to travel that it is now closed only once a week for a farmer’s market.  

A farmer’s market which, by the way, could never possibly exist in any other location on the planet except for right where it is. Except for the other days of the week when it’s located elsewhere. Mere facts, however, should not stand in the way of building a domed stadium. Nor should existing buildings stand in the way of such a project.  

I understand some of the space on the BHS campus is currently being wasted on classrooms. Has the school board even considered the close relationship between classrooms and poor student achievement? Most high school drop-out have spent time in a classroom. Eliminate classrooms and you eliminate academic failure.  

The (lighted) football field (with artificial turf), the track, softball field, building M (gymnasium), Donahue Gymnasium, Building E (Jacket Pool, Jacket Gym), the Community Theater...these are all essential parts of the school campus. But what about the other parts? There’s enough brick just in buildings C, D, and G to make a fine domed stadium.  

Look at reality folks: My plan doesn’t require closing any streets with so little traffic that people park RVs there to sleep at night. And, my plan will practically pay for itself through ticket and hot dog sales. Include beer sales and you could soon also afford to build an on-campus ski slope.  


Neil Cook lives near San Pablo Park.