PASADENA — In a city thirsting for baseball fields, stumbling on Karl Johnson Field is like finding an oasis in the middle of the Mojave Desert.
Consider the statistics: about 340 adult and youth teams and only 30 diamonds to play on.
"It's a most desperate situation," said Ed McNevin, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's 60-team league and a man who is always looking for an empty field.
But while the rest of the city's ballplayers jostle each other for diamonds, there is one spot no one is competing for--Karl Johnson Field.
That field is reserved during baseball season for the private use of municipal employees, although since 1984 the city has spent at least $47,990 in public funds to build and maintain it. The employees have reimbursed the city for $8,565.
The 11 municipal teams not only have a diamond to themselves during the season, but also have what some say is one of the city's finest fields, including a storage room with a refrigerator, a water fountain, picnic benches, a scoreboard and restrooms. A city employee serves as full-time groundskeeper during the season.
It's enough to make some fans cry: "Foul ball!"
"It's like a jewel sitting out there," McNevin said. "If it's paid for with public funds, then everybody should have equal opportunity to use it."
The field is in an intentionally obscure spot on the edge of Devils Gate Reservoir basin. Some ballplayers are infuriated because they were never told of its existence.
"It seems hypocritical to have people telling us that there are no fields available, and here they have their own field anytime they like," said Aldo Mascheroni, commissioner for the Parson Corp.'s five-team league.
Most members of the Board of Directors were aware that the field existed, but all of those interviewed were surprised to hear that public funds had been used to maintain it.
"I've always been told that this was not done at public expense," said Director Jess Hughston, saying that he would like to see the park opened up for public use.
Mayor John Crowley added: "We should examine how to make it more available. Any city asset of this kind should be available to the public under limited circumstances."
Unlike other city fields, which are run by the Parks and Recreation Department, Johnson Field falls under the control of the Water and Power Department, which built it in 1984.
Henry Lee, the city's power system administrator, said the department has never publicized the field because of potential liability problems and the need to protect nearby water pumping equipment.
"It's not meant to have people walk through," Lee said.
But he said another reason the department has kept quiet about the field is that it has always been considered a private area for municipal employees.
Lee said employees, including firemen, secretaries and city officials, volunteered to build the field. He considers the public funds spent on it a small investment in view of how it has boosted employee morale.
"The dollars are really small if you put it in the right perspective," he said. "There's much more cooperation between people now. The employees are really happy."
Lee said having a reserved facility for the municipal employees' 11 teams has helped ease the shortage of playing fields because those teams don't compete for the other fields in the city.
"I haven't heard any negative remarks," Lee said. "People who know about it have no problem accepting (that) it is not a public park."
But Mascheroni dismissed Lee's explanation, saying: "What they're doing is just saving this nice area for themselves."
And concerning the lack of complaints, McNevin said: "Who knows the field is even there?"
In fact, it isn't easy to find Johnson Field, which is not noted on maps and is surrounded by trees and bushes so that it can't be seen from city streets.
The only way to reach the field is on an access road off Windsor Avenue that is usually blocked with a steel gate in the evenings and on weekends.
The right fork of the road leads to a JPL parking lot. The left, called Karl Johnson Parkway, follows the base of a cliff into the usually dry Devils Gate Reservoir. It is marked with a sign that warns of "up to $500 fine or 6 months imprisonment" for trespassing.
The field is about half a mile down the road. The building housing the restrooms and storage facilities is marked "Johnson Booster." The backstop has a sign saying "Johnson Field," and a rock protruding from the ground is labeled "Johnson's Rock."
The field was named for Karl Johnson, a former general manager of the Water and Power Department who urged the city to help employees build the facility.
Lee said Water and Power employees who were having a hard time finding a place to play softball came up with the idea.
"They were always booked solid," he said. "Whenever we wanted to play, we couldn't."
The Devils Gate site was chosen because it was secluded, empty and owned by the city, he said.