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In Monrovia, it's Little League on a shoestring

In an era of tight budgets, the Monrovia Youth Baseball League plays in a worn-out facility, relies on volunteers and tries to deal with a rise in fees to cover rent. It's a long way from Williamsport.

August 13, 2011|T.J. Simers
  • Elijah Vance, 9, left, and his brother, Isaiah, 7, play baseball on an ungroomed Monrovia baseball field.
Elijah Vance, 9, left, and his brother, Isaiah, 7, play baseball on an ungroomed… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

Jason Vance is a troublemaker; he wants more for his children.

"Sorry," he says.

He wants lights at the worn-out recreation park baseball field in Monrovia, an outfield fence, grass in the infield, and he knows he's dreaming.

Jason, along with other Monrovia Youth Baseball League volunteers, rakes tons of brick dust across the field, chalks the foul lines. The league pays $90 for a new home plate every year, another $70 for the rubber on the mound.

No, this isn't Williamsport.

They carved out a tee ball field for the city's 4- and 5-year olds in the middle of the park. If the city mows the grass, it's sometimes possible to see second base from home plate. There's one bench for spectators.

This is the first baseball experience for hundreds and hundreds of kids. "It should be better," Jason says.

The Monrovia city manager says the youth league should count itself fortunate for being allowed to use the park for free.

Some of the Monrovia folks who live in bigger homes above Foothill Boulevard have taken their children to play baseball in Arcadia. They are the "haves," as Jason says, "in a city of haves and have-nots.

"From what I've heard they think MYBL is too ghetto," Jason says. "That angers me. We have some ghetto parts like most cities, but as a whole Monrovia is a great city. This isn't the ghetto. This is my city, my home, I grew up here and it's where I want my kids to play."

The baseball fields in Arcadia are what you would hope would be available to kids everywhere, fresh paint, outfield fences, well-kept grass infields, bullpens and batting cages.

Meanwhile in Monrovia, there is no place to practice except the local grammar schools. The youth league has been doing so for 20 years. In most cases a small backstop screen is the only indication baseball is played there, but now the Monrovia Unified School District wants $18,000 a year in rent.

This season MYBL had 31 teams playing on four fields with almost 400 kids participating, 40 of them on scholarship because they could not afford the $135 registration fee.

The registration fee will increase by $60 per child to meet the school district's demand for rent. That might not be all that much for some, but it is here.

No kid wanting to play baseball is turned away in Monrovia. Sometimes that means the league has to come up with a glove or cleats for a kid in need, or rely on a sponsor.

"This is about kids being kids and having fun," Jason says, while noting all the baseball fields in Monrovia are now located in the "safe zone," thanks to a gang injunction imposed a year ago.

"You know I don't think my city puts enough emphasis on youth sports," Jason says. "Sports help keep kids off the street and out of trouble. When you have kids doing nothing, the gangs come into play."

There are a lot of folks here upset with the shabby field conditions and now the rise in fees. They dedicate hours trying to improve the baseball experience for local kids, but wonder why the city's officials don't share their enthusiasm.

Dave Gomez, MYBL president, has been trying to convince the school district there's no reason to start charging for rent. He showed the district league tax returns, met paperwork requests but then heard nothing.

A call from The Times on Friday helped generate a response the same day. The school district has come up with a plan so MYBL will now pay closer to $12,000. Registration fees for each child will still be raised, but not by as much.

"I'm not happy," says Gomez, struggling with the notion that volunteers have built all the school baseball fields. The district only mows them and it would have to do that anyway.

District Superintendent Linda Wagner says she understands. But then she lists all the cuts the district has made and points to the increase in class sizes. She says the rent is one way to raise money to help what is going on inside those classrooms.

No bad guys here in these difficult economic times. But as Jason says, "I just think our kids deserve better."

Monrovia has been Jason's home all his life. There is a park in town named after his great grandfather, Julian Fisher.

As a kid catcher more than 20 years ago, Jason played in the MYBL. Last season he was a manager, his team winning the championship. He treasures a book made by his young players.

"I like it when you never get mad at me when I make a mistake," writes Andrew in the book.

"Thank you, coach, for picking me up for practice and games," writes Alex.

Next season Jason will help with the snack bar so he'll have the time to watch sons Elijah, 9, play Mustang ball, and Isaiah, 7, compete in Pinto. Then there's daughter Sophia, 3, who will be making her Shetland debut.

"She wants a pink glove, bat and helmet," he says. "You know everything has to match."

Jason works for the school district. He knows all about cuts, his computer lab assignment eliminated. He now helps special ed kids adjust to the jobs found for them.

"I've worked in group homes in L.A. and San Dimas, places where kids are the wards of the state," he says. "You see these kids with great athletic ability and they just had no outlet before winding up there. And they are there because their parents failed them.

"I'm not going to let my kids down. I'm proud of Monrovia, but I look at this city park and it could be so much more. I see the places where our kids have to practice and if it means everyone getting together to make it better, so be it.

"I'm here for my kids. And I want them to have everything."

So who tells him, and other parents like him, they are asking for too much?

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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