It’s a cool late spring evening and the East York Bulldogs have just finished another baseball practice at the rutted, dandelion-choked diamond at Greenwood Park in Leslieville.
Douglas Perry, the AA rep team’s friendly assistant coach, likes to look on the bright side of training on the uneven field: At least the bumpy terrain teaches his 12- and 13-year-old fielders to snag errant balls.
“It’s actually like a handicap,” he says.
His son Jack, 12, has a different take – perhaps because he’s in the path of some of those unpredictable hops, especially over the lip of crushed gravel at the edge of Greenwood’s infield.
“When my brother played house league,” he says, turning to his dad, “remember the ball hit the dip and hit Liam in the face?”
“Yeah, the dip is kind of dangerous,” Mr. Perry concedes.
Like Greenwood, many of the City of Toronto’s 312 diamonds and 364 soccer and multi-sport fields are in poor condition.
It’s a state of play that tens of thousands of young athletes and their parents and coaches have quietly put up with for years because the fields have always been free for children and youth.
But when the city made a ham-fisted attempt to introduce fees earlier this year – the parks department failed to notify the leagues, slapping the East York Baseball Association, for example, with an unexpected $53,000 bill in February – Toronto’s minor sports world revolted.
“What the charging did was spark a rebellion among the associations,” said Janet Davis, one of the councillors who convinced the mayor and city council to temporarily cancel the fees for 2012.
Now the city’s parks boss recognizes the fees won’t fly if they don’t buy better field conditions, something that’s expected to be reflected in a new executive committee report on field permits to be released this week.
But bringing Toronto’s pitches and diamonds up to the standards of the fields of dreams in suburbs such as Richmond Hill and Markham will take more than the $1.5-million a year the new permit fees could raise, assuming they’re resurrected at the originally proposed rates of $5.31 to $10.62 an hour, depending on the quality of the field.
The challenges are legion: Toronto’s fields are old, overused and under-maintained by a parks department that doesn’t have the money or dedicated staff of turf specialists it needs to properly care for any but a handful of premier pitches and diamonds.
Right now, the same workers who cut the grass at parks care for the fields.
Jim Hart, the general manager of Toronto’s parks, forestry and recreation department, wants to change that by dispatching dedicated crews of turf specialists to manicure them.
“You wouldn’t have somebody who simply knew how to cut grass being a greens keeper at a golf course,” he said. “It’s a similar scenario with soccer fields and baseball diamonds.”
If the city does create teams of field gurus, they will have to revive fields rarely given a chance to rest.
Most of Toronto’s fields are unfenced and located in the midst of heavily used urban green spaces, meaning the turf is trampled down by the feet and paws of every casual park user.
That’s on top of the just under 350,000 hours of permit use time booked for Toronto’s outdoor fields in 2011.
“I don’t actually blame the parks department,” said Karen Pitre, chair of the Toronto Sports Council, an umbrella group for amateur leagues. “We’re increasing the density in the city left, right and centre and we’re not adding any more recreational infrastructure. [The fields]don’t get the proper time to recover after they’ve been used.”
The problem of exhausted fields is particularly acute in places such as Campbell Park, a rare scrap of green in the Dupont and Lansdowne area, a neighourhood young families have flocked to in recent years.
“If I’m not mistaken, this patch of non-grass has been here for as long as I can remember,” said John Regan, as he watched his son, Sean, 6, play soccer at the park Wednesday night. “They obviously never re-seed or sod it.”
Wednesday’s game was the first of the season for Sean and dozens of other young members of the Soccer Club of Toronto.
Already, Campbell Avenue Park’s four child-sized pitches are pocked with yellow grass and pits of dirt near the posts, where the tiny goalies kick up clouds of sand like Pig Pen from Peanuts.
“I was noticing it’s very dusty at the ends,” said Patrick Gostovic, who shrugged off the field conditions as he watched son Oliver, 7. “In general, I’m not terribly aghast or disappointed.”
(Other parents at Campbell Park were quick to point out that Toronto’s school fields are generally in far poorer shape. “The schools’ fields are way worse,” Ms. Pitre of the Toronto Sports Council said. “They’re used 24-7.”)
Of course, more money for aerating, grooming and top-seeding would help even Toronto’s most overused fields.
Extra cash is especially hard to come by in the Rob Ford era, but the parks, forestry and recreation department has always struggled, partly because of a financial hangover from amalgamation.
The old city of Toronto had a practice of charging next-to-nothing for recreation programming and that has carried on with drastically underpriced offerings that don’t come close to covering their costs.
Free access to fields for children and youth is a prime example of that. Mr. Hart said he knows of no other municipality that gives away field permits for kids.
In Richmond Hill, for example, adult permits cover 100 per cent of field maintenance costs, children’s permits cover 50 per cent, and out-of-towners permits cover 150 per cent.
Markham also charges for its children’s permits, as it does for adults.
It’s impossible to pinpoint how much of the field maintenance costs Toronto’s adult permit fees cover because field maintenance is rolled into the overall parks budget.
(Fees of $40.79 per hour are charged for children and youth who play on the city’s handful of “premier” fields. Adult fees range from $3.40 per hour to $40.79 per hour, depending on the quality of the field.)
When Toronto tried to introduce permit fees for children and youth this year, parks officials made it clear that the extra $1.5-million the fees were expected to raise would go towards meeting Mr. Ford’s cut target from as many departments as possible, not to fixing up fields.
Even if the new fees are implemented and dedicated to field maintenance in 2013, that won’t solve the problem of fields that need major capital repairs.
For that, the city occasionally turns to charity, sometimes from field users themselves.
When the incidents of sprains and fractures on the uneven soccer field at Withrow Park got to be too much for Downtown Soccer Toronto, the gay league partnered with its sister league, Pink Turf, to collect $10,000, and use it as leverage to get the city to cover the rest of the $37,000 fix-up bill.
“Since getting the new field, it’s a new game,” said Ed Van Ekeris, DST’s former operations manager. “All your energy can be spent on the game and not on avoiding twisting an ankle.”
More often than money, it’s time that the volunteers of Toronto’s sports leagues donate to lining fields, rebuilding pitchers’ mounds and cleaning dugouts.
“We have to work our own fields every night,” said Andrew Pace, president of the East York Baseball Association.
That’s one of the reasons he remains wary about paying for children and youth to use the fields.
“Where is the line that you draw? If you have a playground and your kids are able to go to a playground, should they be paying fees for that privilege?” he asked.
“They all need to be maintained and they’re all public property. So what is the difference between the playing fields and these other public spaces?”