The Pioneer League has a long and wonderful history in our city providing opportunities for thousands of young boys and girls to play both baseball and softball. Hundreds of parents, including myself have volunteered to serve as coaches and managers. The league was so well managed and really evolved through years because of the dedication of so many people — two in particular come to mind: John Pepe and Mike Barry.
The organization was always self-sufficient through registrations and corporate team sponsorships. The fields were always beautifully maintained and fundraisers were organized to plan and meet the capital needs. The Diamond Dreams Campaign was the latest capital campaign and many may not know that Mike Barry, Registrar for decades, donated a large percentage of the sale of his home to the Diamond Dreams effort.
The City, whenever it was asked, has always stepped up to help in coordination with the Pioneer League on projects such as infrastructure work that include drainage, water/sewer issues and other tasks that were beyond the scope of the league’s resources.
The new president of the Pioneer League who has personally decided that it is the City’s sole responsibility to maintain on-going care of the fields, regardless of Pioneer’s almost-exclusive use of the park’s fields, and unfortunately has taken to social media to relay misinformation that has upset many parents who are new to the league. To start, the City has only begun to build our first Park’s Department over the past four years to take care of 24 City Parks, the City’s new rail trail and school fields. The City currently has two full time staff and a limited amount of seasonal employees. Despite these lean numbers, the Park’s Department stepped in to help out with the field conditions last year whenever the department was asked and has yet to receive any payment for these services which the Pioneer League has always paid a contractor to complete.
It has been a brutal winter and all of our fields and parks have been impacted. Efforts are being made across the city with Park’s Department, Parks Commission, and volunteers to move as quickly as possible to get our parks and fields in the best possible shape for all of our residents and guests to enjoy. It certainly has never previously occurred where the president of the Pioneer League would respond in such a derogatory and disparaging way to the city as well as former leaders of the league.
If he had bothered to reach out to the city regarding our plans for major upgrades to our fields or even taken time to speak to former presidents, he would have learned that all school and youth teams were represented and in agreement in 2013 when we developed a priority plan to address the long list of field needs. The top four were the multi-purpose turf field at the high school, full size varsity baseball field, Fuller track and a new soccer field.
As Mayor, I have made a commitment that as we renovate and develop new fields we will never let them deteriorate to the poor level they were in when I took office nine years ago. We have made great progress here and the only Pioneer Field that should be the park’s responsibility in collaboration with the schools is the softball field, Pepe Field. We have recently cost-shared the repair of the fence here and fully prepped the field for the season.
Another major piece of misinformation is the permitting process. Each year the Newburyport Parks receives more requests for field use than it can accommodate from a number of groups including private leagues such as the Pioneer League. We do our best to give some playing time to all those who request space, but do end up turning some groups away. It is not accurate to say, as some Pioneer League board members have suggested, that we have prioritized other leagues, such as Northeast Hurricanes and adult softball, over Pioneer. This year, Pioneer was permitted for 327 two-hour time slots at Perkins and Cashman ball fields, in addition to which they have almost exclusive use of three fields at Lower Atkinson Common Park. Pioneer leadership became upset this year when the Northeast Hurricanes were permitted for 27 slots (two-hours, twice a week) for practices on Perkins Ball Field. They have since given up those slots, so Pioneer has all weekday evenings and weekends at Perkins. The greatest adult league use has been permitted for a total of 144 slots, still less than Pioneer. So, as you can see, if any organization is getting priority treatment, it is the Pioneer League. That said we do give the schools and Youth Services first priority on the schedule before we permit outside organizations.
The Pioneer League president has also made incorrect statements that we “go out to bid” for the highest paying field space- this is an absolute falsehood. We do not charge fees for field use or use of parks in general due to State law because parks fall under Article 97 which prohibits collecting fees unless we decide to assume much higher liability. The process has been to ask for donations, but the donations are voluntary and not meant to discourage use of the park or field should the applicant be unable to pay. We do not ask for any evidence of financial hardship, we simply ask for a donation ($10/time slot for youth leagues and $20/time slot for adult leagues) and leave it up to the applicant as to whether or not they feel they can pay it. Pioneer is a case in point; they do not make a donation to support field maintenance of Cashman or Perkins fields, yet they received 327 permitted time slots this year and 448 in 2017.
To be clear, there is a shortage of field space in Newburyport but we have made great gains in the past several years. Our Parks Department works diligently each year to allocate field space in a fair and balanced manner but this does result in turning away some applicants, often in favor of Pioneer’s field use. But, we continue to work toward solutions to alleviate the field space crisis. We continue to provide better field maintenance than ever before on both parks and school fields, making our existing fields safer places to play.
We have also been fielding multiple calls and numerous emails regarding the startup of water in our parks— bathrooms and water bubblers. Each year the Water Department determines when we can startup water systems in the parks. These buildings are seasonal and the interior pipes are subject to freezing. Despite efforts to begin coordinating this process in March, we have still had freezing temperatures until this past weekend. We have been given three days between April 25 and May 1 when we can work with the Water Department to turn on all our systems. We are responsible for turning on water at 24 parks, including 13 athletic fields, irrigation systems, 5 bathroom facilities, the Inn Street fountain, Atkinson Lily Ponds and a dozen drinking fountains. The Parks staff do not idly sit by wondering when the water will be turned on, nor do we have the time or desire to conspire against the Pioneer League to intentionally delay the turning on of water systems at the park as reported by the president. We understand it is inconvenient to be without bathrooms but we cannot control the weather and temperatures; renting portable restrooms is always an option during the interim.
One of the most egregious accusations put forth on social media relates to a new annual fundraiser, Show Your S’Port that began last year. We initiated this fundraiser when the Richie Eaton Foundation offered a challenge grant to help us complete the baseball field and also complete the first phase of upgrades to Fuller field. Both have been completed with great fanfare from the teams using these fields. The Pioneer League president stated that no money from Show Your S’Port will go to youth sports; once again another complete misstatement. The youth in our city benefited from every penny that was raised last year including those who have been involved in the Pioneer League. This year the planning committee for Show Your S’Port will decide how funds are spent. If the league president wanted to have a say in how those funds were spent, he should not have asked to be taken off the planning committee mailing list.
At this event we recognize outstanding coaches and champions of youth sports. At our Show Your S’Port event this year on May 4th at 7 pm at the Senior Community Center, one of Pioneer Leagues greatest champions is being honored- Mike Barry. That the Pioneer League would do anything to discourage attendance at this event is appalling. Every member of the Pioneer League both past and present should make an effort to attend this event to applaud Mike Barry’s decades of dedication to the league.
The purpose of any youth sports organization should be to promote teamwork, develop a sense of fair play, and encourage physical activity. Our children listen and learn from those who teach them; their parents, their educators and their coaches. I have some doubts about certain members of the Pioneer League leadership team that allowed the misleading and highly inappropriate social media campaign of hostile behavior in a public youth league.