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Sent Right Out of The Park

Field Closed After Report of Errant Ball

By Stephen C. Fehr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 9, 2004; Page VA03

Fairfax County park officials have closed a popular Little League park in Springfield indefinitely until a 45-foot-high net can be put up to prevent home run balls from landing on a busy Interstate 95 ramp and causing an accident.

The shutdown of Trailside Park comes as the Central Springfield Little League is beginning its fall season and will force the league to schedule games at other fields until the $60,000 net is erected.

Trailside Park's fields border a ramp that carries northbound Interstate 95 traffic to the eastbound Capital Beltway. Until last winter, 30-foot-high sound walls there protected the highway from home run balls. (Hyosub Shin For The Washington Post)

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Beyond the disruption for about 900 children, the closing is another chapter in an unusual story of clashing bureaucracies and a 50-year-old youth sports league.

Trailside Park's fields border a ramp that carries northbound I-95 traffic to the eastbound Capital Beltway. Until last winter, the 30-foot-high sound walls there protected the highway from home run balls.

The Virginia Department of Transportation tore down the walls to allow construction trucks to haul materials through the park for the $676 million untangling of the Springfield Mixing Bowl interchange. VDOT replaced the wall with a movable six-foot-tall chain-link fence, hoping that would keep balls from going onto the highway ramp until new sound walls go up, which is scheduled to occur by 2007.

Central Springfield played its spring schedule and a postseason tournament without a home run sailing onto the highway. Only two of 15 dingers cleared the fence, but they were retrieved from an area between the fence and highway.

Then on July 11, an unidentified motorcycle driver who had been traveling on the I-95 ramp said he saw a baseball land within inches of his vehicle. He reported the incident to county officials the next day, prompting the county Park Authority to close the field. The Little League season had ended July 10, so whoever knocked -- or threw -- the ball onto the highway was not playing in a Central Springfield Little League game.

Park Authority spokeswoman Judy Pedersen said officials concluded the county could be held legally responsible if an errant ball caused a crash. The authority, working with league officials, shut down the field and brought in a consultant who said it was possible for a Little Leaguer to hit a ball 230 feet from home plate and over the fence. Park officials decided a 45-foot-high net would cover a ball hit 280 feet. By contrast, the shortest distance at Oriole Park at Camden Yards is 318 feet to right field.

"It's not their fault, it's not our fault," Pedersen said. "We're trying to do this as fast as we can."

Brian Midkiff, the Central Springfield Little League president, said he doubted whether any of the league's players, who range in age from 5 to 14, could hit a ball onto the ramp. A shorter, cheaper net probably would work, he said. No matter how high the net is, he added, kids horsing around when the Little League is not there might want to see who could knock a ball over first.

Midkiff said that until the net is installed, park officials should allow the league's youngest members, such as T-ball players, to use the field. Pedersen said the Park Authority would consider that.

"We're stuck in a situation we have no control over," Midkiff said, adding that youth sports keep kids from using idle time for endless video games and, in extreme cases, joining gangs. "We just want the kids to play baseball."

The Central Springfield league had advocated a higher chain-link fence earlier this year, not out of concerns over home run balls but because of worries that ballplayers would climb over the shorter fence and get hit by a car or truck.

Timothy K. White, deputy director of the Park Authority, said the agency wants to put up the net as soon it can.

"Our concern is getting the kids playing ball as quickly as possible," he said.

The authority does not have the money budgeted, nor does VDOT, which already spent $20,000 on the chain-link fence.

Park officials are scheduled to meet by the end of this week with contractors to determine such things as the exact cost, logistics and timing. The Little League fall season ends Nov. 7.

"It does take a little bit of time," Pedersen said. "How do you put up a 45-foot-high net?"

© 2004 The Washington Post Company