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Making a Serious Pitch for Softball

San Clemente officials have big dreams for three fields they hope will lure diehards.

October 21, 2003|Stanley Allison | Times Staff Writer

San Clemente officials eager to draw serious softball players to town want to build their own fields of dreams -- three ballparks that reflect the looks of major-league stadiums.

The strategy has worked elsewhere, including in Chino Hills where kitschy replicas of Yankee Stadium, Wrigley Field and Fenway Park draw hundreds of ballplayers nightly, lured by the illusion of big-league ambience and the opportunity to play on fields manicured to professional standards.

San Clemente hopes its own transformed diamonds will be so attractive that softball league teams from throughout Orange County and beyond will pay a premium -- and spectators will pay an admission fee -- to use the facilities.

The ball fields' signature elements are studio back lot-style facades that are meant to resemble their namesakes and, inside, such real-life accents as championship pennants (think the Bronx), brick walls and ivy (a la Chicago) and the big green monster (thank you, Boston).

"It makes you feel like you're playing in a bigger game than you actually are," said ballplayer Matt Gross, 22, of Rancho Cucamonga.

"It's the greatest place I've ever played," said Paul Burkel, 26, of Victorville. "It makes you feel like you're somebody, like a big-leaguer."

Burkel pointed to an outfield photo mural depicting bleachers filled with enthusiastic fans. "I think they're cheering for me, 'Paul, hit the ball!' "

San Clemente officials want players to conjure such fantasies by constructing a similar facility -- three diamonds and a full-service, liquor-serving restaurant -- at Steed Memorial Park, a struggling complex with four fields. Officials hope to make it such an entertainment attraction that the facility will pay for itself over time. An existing fourth field will remain a generic diamond.

The San Clemente City Council last week authorized its staff to negotiate with the creators of the concept, Big League Dreams, to transform the facility by spring 2005.

The company has built similar fields in Chino Hills, Cathedral City and Jurupa in the Inland Empire, complete with a restaurant where players and fans can watch videos of their previous games or enjoy a view of the live action while chomping on Dodger dogs and swilling cold beer.

The City Council last week voted against renewing its contract with All Sports Communications, the company that currently maintains the field and operates its concessions.

"Over the years there have been four or five [concession operators at Steed], and they all have struggled," said Bruce Wegner, the city's director of beaches, parks and recreation.

The city plans to spend up to $4.5 million to remodel the park, and then turn its operations over to Big League Dreams. The company will pay the city up to $1.75 million over 30 years plus up to 2% of the park's gross revenue.

Big League will provide umpires, security and other services, operate the restaurant and maintain the fields.

The cost to softball teams has not been determined; in Chino Hills, teams pay Big League $600 for the right to play a season of 11 one-hour or seven-inning games and playoffs. San Clemente currently charges teams about $500 per season. Spectators will also have to pay, but the $2 admission comes with a $1 token for the concession stand.

Ron Odekirk, a co-owner of Big League Dreams, said he thinks the new San Clemente fields will attract about 150 teams, triple the current roster.

Each of Chino Hills' six fields accommodates four or five games nightly during the week, and more on weekends if they're not used for Little League play.

In addition to the big-league ambience, oldsters and young players will benefit from the professionally maintained fields.

Many municipal parks are so uneven from gopher holes and divots that "you can't run in the outfield," said Rey Morgado, 28, of Riverside.

Which is why teams travel to Chino Hills from Baldwin Park, Yorba Linda, Anaheim Hills and as far away as Huntington Beach, said Darrell Miller, general manager of the facility and himself a California Angels catcher from 1984-89.

Fourteen full-time groundskeepers maintain the same type of Bermuda grass found in the majors. It's mowed every other day, he said, and the infield clay is dragged and chalked daily. There are warning tracks in the outfield, just like the major league parks they mimic. The players sit in sunken dugouts on benches like the majors, and players practice their swings and stretch in on-deck circles.

"These are guys who appreciate playing on a replica," said Miller. "But more than a replica, they love playing on an immaculate, well-maintained field."

And San Clemente wants to build one, so they will come.

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