Mason Clark was rounding up neighborhood kids who wanted to play baseball this spring when he got the news from the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation: If you want to play at night on a city-owned field, you must pay a fee to have the lights turned on.
Based on regulations that District officials say went into effect in 2003 but are now being more strictly enforced, any group that is not a part of the recreation department must pay $25 an hour for lights after 7 p.m. Clark, who has coached the Woodridge Warriors in Northeast Washington since 1963, said he'd never heard about such a policy. No other jurisdiction in the Washington area requires nonprofit youth sports teams to ante up for lights at night.
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"What kills us about the light issue is that we are not a for-profit organization. We're just grass-roots folks trying to give the youths something positive to do," Clark said. "We have baseball teams on the field after school almost every day now, and we'll have football teams practicing in the fall, when there is no daylight saving time. We're looking at having to come up with almost $400 a week just for lights."
Recreation department officials wouldn't talk to me about this issue, but in response to my e-mailed questions, they said the fee is needed to offset about $1,147,350 in electric bills that the lights generate each year. And yet, as the Warriors and other teams scramble for ways to pay the fees -- on top of money they must raise for uniforms, equipment and trips -- city officials are reveling in a hot real estate market that has left them with $1.2 billion in extra cash, including a $318 million surplus for fiscal 2004.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams has proposed using some of that money to "strengthen our social fabric," as he put it in a letter to the D.C. Council, and City Administrator Robert C. Bobb says he wants to use some for "juvenile justice programs."
Meanwhile, kids have to pay $50 to play for two hours under the lights.
The return of baseball to the nation's capital is being celebrated, along with approval by the D.C. Council to spend nearly $600 million to build a stadium for Major League Baseball. Although the Warriors and other neighborhood teams have been playing baseball for decades -- often without support from the District government or coverage by the media -- the recreation department has teamed up with Major League Baseball to get more kids interested in baseball by seeking publicity for Pitch, Hit and Run competitions they plan to sponsor.
Clark was 27 when he became a coach with the Woodridge Warriors. The Washington Senators were still playing, and kids throughout his neighborhood were interested in learning the game. Clark, along with neighbors Nathaniel Briscoe and Chauncy Lyles, stepped up to the plate.
During the ensuing 42 years, those men and other volunteers helped steer thousands of youngsters safely through life in a city deeply scarred by riots, drug and homicide epidemics and a government that rarely made good on promises to put children first.
From day one, the Warriors took responsibility for maintaining the fields on which they played. Their turf has improved over time -- it's now called the Dwight Mosely/Taft Athletic Complex, at South Dakota Avenue and Perry Street NE. The tradition of keeping the grounds in tip-top shape continues.
Not only do the parents pay taxes that are supposed to provide lights on the fields, the kids themselves help save taxpayers money by doing the city's work.
The Warriors are one of the oldest youth sports organizations in the city and are renowned for their philosophy of giving every kid a chance at bat. As head coach, Clark watches over five Warrior baseball teams -- rookies, minors, majors, seniors and travelers -- and a T-ball team for the youngest children.
Come September, he'll have enough kids to field seven football teams -- with each player requiring about $300 worth of equipment.
When they travel to other communities -- in the Washington area and across the country -- they are welcome not just because of their competitiveness but also because of their sportsmanlike conduct.
"We are respected wherever we go," Clark said.
Everywhere, that is, but home.