Riverside Little League will be able to perform routine field maintenance and will be able to use its own judgment in calling off games due to field conditions this summer after the organization and the Riverside Parks and Recreation Board inked a one-year agreement addressing those longstanding issues.
While Little League receives more autonomy in dealing with field issues, the agreement will free up the Riverside Recreation Department's two-person park to focus on general maintenance at all of the village's playgrounds and parks instead of spending so much time maintaining baseball fields.
Recreation Director Ron Malchiodi said he approached Riverside Little League officials in February to discuss a possible arrangement.
"I knew the issue existed, and this would be a way to address [Little League's concerns] and do more preventive maintenance for other areas we're responsible for," said Malchiodi.
The recreation department has just one part-time employee and one seasonal employee to do all the park maintenance in Riverside. In the past, those employees would attend to the ball fields as much as possible, but they weren't available on nights and weekends. Whenever the village experienced any soaking rain, games routinely were canceled because there was no one to get fields in shape.
The new arrangement means Little League volunteers can get wet fields ready for play and avoid the raft of game cancellations the league saw last year.
"We figured we had to try this," said Riverside Little League President Michael Gentile. "We knew the recreation department wasn't going to say, 'Here you go, it's all yours,' but to be a significant, large participant in the daily maintenance of the fields has been a win-win for both of us."
The partnership is something neither the village nor Little League could have dreamed of as little as five years ago. In 2009, Little League bristled at new fees the village imposed on them to rent field time, which caused the league to raise it participation fees.
In the last couple of years, however, the relationship between the village and league — which serves more than 430 children, age 5 to 14 — has improved.
"I think both recreation and Little League decided to be in partnership rather than yelling at each other," said Gentile.
Part of the change is due to the fact that people involved in the recreation board and Little League were invested in both entities. For example, Mike Murphy, a former recreation board member, is on the board of the Little League. And Tracy Sloan, another former recreation board member, is the wife of Jim Sloan, who is on the Little League board of directors. Other members of the recreation board, such as President Katie Leander, have children who play in Little League.
"We have really been naturally, organically building a good relationship over the last couple of years," said Leander. "At the end of the day, we both want the same thing."
And part of the change has to do with a recognition that each group has something the other lacks. Riverside, for example, has the fields but lacks the resources to maintain them to the level Little League would like.
While the Riverside Recreation Department continues to do some minor field maintenance, like dragging the infields once or twice a week, Little League volunteers can devote more time to the fields.
Each field is equipped with its own drag net, so coaches can smooth infields after every game. If the field is wet, volunteers can apply a drying agent themselves. They can also fix holes in batters' boxes and pitchers' mounds.
"The fields are in the best shape ever since I've been involved," said Gentile. "We have great, dedicated people out there on a daily basis."
The league also has a "field liaison" who communicates weekly with Malchiodi about issues related to the fields.
According to Malchiodi, the new arrangement also allows Little League to prioritize field improvements — such as enlarging the dugouts at Indian Gardens — and allows them to seek project bids on their own. The village can also seek bids, a two-part effort that Gentile says ends up saving money.
"Little League and Rec really expanded the vendor pool," said Gentile. "Whoever cuts the better deal, we can use that vendor. We've been able to save money on things like drying agent and chalk."
The village has the final say on whether a physical improvement will take place, but Little League has a place at the table.
"We're not relinquishing ownership of the fields," Malchiodi said, "but we have limited maintenance staff, and Little League wanted to control their own destiny."