On the Little League diamonds of Santa Monica, the great American pastime clashes almost nightly with a great American problem--homelessness.
It's a bad mix, parents and league officials say.
"I feel sorry for the homeless, but I feel sorry for the children who are put at risk," said Diana Doyle.
Doyle is one of many parents who are complaining to the city about a growing number of homeless people camping this spring at Memorial Park, where the Santa Monica Little League has played since 1950. League officials say they were warned by city officials even before the season began to be on the lookout for guns, criminals and drugs.
"I feel a lump in my throat when (my son) has to walk through there alone," said another mother, Susan Kleisley. "It's not a nice, safe environment for Little League kids."
Homeless people disagree, saying Little League parents would simply rather ignore the appearance--and plight--of the poor. Said one homeless man: "We're reminders to them that they could be here on the streets anytime."
The conflict at Memorial Park, located about a mile from the ocean on Olympic Boulevard, is the latest flare-up in this liberal city's longstanding battle over the impact of homelessness on the rest of the residents.
Parents have long complained that most parks are generally unusable by their children. To many, encroaching on the Little League is the last straw.
No one has been hurt, but a few parents have complained to police that their kids often encounter homeless people in the park's public restrooms, and on a few occasions have been hassled by them. Homeless people also wander onto the field during games and practices, sleep under the bleachers and urinate in full view of the children, league officials say, and drug dealing and drunkenness are a common sight.
One night, during an adult softball game, a transient man brandished a gun when he was asked to leave the field.
"The whole memory of their youth will be of playing baseball on a Skid Row baseball field," said Larry Mollin, the league's president. "Does anybody care about the next generation of Santa Monica kids?"
Mollin, who presides over a league that has almost 1,000 players, blames the problem on city policies that he terms pro-homeless. "The city is strangled by its homeless policies and the kids are losing," he said.
When he complained to police before the start of the season, Mollin was informed in writing that his problem was "of a political nature" and could not be resolved by them.
City officials say they are doing everything they can to monitor the parks, but concede that the homeless population in Memorial Park has risen of late. Between 35 and 70 transients a night stay there. Some sleep on the tennis courts. The small park has several baseball fields, a gymnasium, a playground and a grassy area. The homeless count is up at Memorial because two other city parks where homeless people tend to congregate are closed for renovation.
Additionally, Memorial Park has showers open in the evenings and the city's only public bathrooms open around the clock. The bathrooms were opened as part of a deal made with homeless people last summer to get them to end a months-long protest at City Hall.
Santa Monica is building a 100-bed homeless shelter as part of its periodic efforts to address the conflicts involving homeless people and residents who say their parks have been taken over by transients.
In a few months, when the shelter is up and running, the City Council plans to enforce a ban on transients living in the parks. This represents the latest in a series of crackdowns that have so far failed to make a dent in the problem.
At Memorial Park on Thursday night, park rangers and police officers were out in full force, responding to a spate of complaints by Little League parents.
The scene at the park was of a city divided.
The Little League fields, on the 16th Street side of the park, looked like a Norman Rockwell tableau. There, the first-place Padres were playing the Mets, their parents cheering or groaning with each crack of the bat.
The players' younger siblings hopped up and down on the bleachers. One small boy in an oversized baseball cap stood on tiptoes to reach the counter at the snack stand, where hot dogs went for a buck.
"We love this world," said Mollin, a television producer and writer. "It's magical here."
At the other end of the park milled dozens of homeless men and women, surrounded by their bedraggled belongings. A Santa Monica police officer, on his last night on the homeless detail, was hosting a barbecue for the park regulars.
A lone baseball player and his coach sat among them. The player was David Greenberg, whose mother, Asha, a Santa Monica city councilwoman, ran on a public safety platform two years ago that she is still trying to implement.