The Salt and Peppers are an easygoing bunch, 10 middle-aged guys who like to unwind on brisk spring mornings by indulging their common passion, slow-pitch softball.
But ask the team's players--who include two government lawyers and an office supply dealer--or its restaurateur sponsor about Montgomery County's plan to charge them, and 14,000 other players, to use the county's softball diamonds, and the mild-mannered professionals turn into scrappy gladiators.
"Wild dogs run free, so why can't we," Rod Ficker was chanting last Saturday as he and other team members practiced their batting and fielding in a muddy Rockville park. Like hundreds of other players in the Montgomery softball league, the General Services Administration lawyer from Bethesda was less than enthusiastic about recently proposed fees for users of county-maintained fields.
"We realize there's supposed to be austerity," said Ficker, who has been in the league for 10 years, "and maybe we should have expected some kind of fee.
"But not fees that are this high."
Planning Board Chairman Norman L. Christeller, who oversees the maintenance of more than 200 parks, announced earlier this year that starting April 1, the county would charge $11 for each game played in local parks. The fee for games at the county's three flagship parks--Olney, Wheaton and Cabin John--would run $36. Fees would be split by competing teams and would apply to 700 league and 500 unaffiliated teams--"all scheduled users," in Christeller's words.
"We have to spend the money on park maintenance or cut the games out entirely," said Christeller, whose board postponed the new fees until July 1 after dozens of county league members objected to the charges.
User fees, which now are required at the county's indoor tennis and basketball courts, will give the parks badly needed cash at a time when county politicians are clamoring for a reduction in the local property taxes that help fund the parks department, Christeller said.
The $11 and $36 game fees are lower than the actual cost of maintaining Montgomery's playing fields--a $10 million annual chore that gets increasingly expensive as more open land is converted into parks, Christeller added.
"User fees are a standard policy, a rational policy," said Christeller. "This is happening all over the country."
But in Montgomery County, where softball is king for three months out of the year, players are deriding the user fees as, well, an insult to the sport itself.
"They figure that since we're all half-fanatics about this game, we'll pay up," said Mike Tucker, 32, an office supply dealer who has been in the county's B league for seven years. Most county-affiliated teams are in the C league, leaving about 100 in the B and A leagues--where faster pitching and more polished teams make for fierce competition.
"Softball is a family thing," said Ficker, who lives in Bethesda. "Most of the guys who play are over 30. Their wives and kids come out to watch 'em play. And they want to charge us for that?"
To play in the county leagues, teams already must pay steep franchise fees ranging from $300 for C league teams to roughly $700 for the elite A league members. The franchise fees, which defray the cost of league supervisors, umpires and trophies, are up dramatically since last year: the Salt and Peppers' fee soared from $500 to $610. Players say they are reluctant to pay any more for their recreation.
"Montgomery already has some of the highest fees around," said Gary Brooks, another GSA attorney who plays on the team. Rockville's franchise fee is $250 for a 22-game season in a comparable league; Prince George's is $355 for an 18-game season and Fairfax County's is $380 for 20 games, Brooks said.
"We figure our fee for 28 games will go from $610 to $1,100 next year," Brooks said. "When that happens, you'll see teams leaving this jurisdiction for someplace else."
"I was shocked when I heard they wanted to charge us another $400 a season in user fees," said Phil Manganello, whose Salt and Pepper restaurants paid the team's franchise fee. "You play so long on these fields and now they stick you with this. How can they do that?"
Christeller said he sympathized with the players and agreed that the $36 fee was too high. "I don't want to do something that will make people say, 'I won't play baseball,' " Christeller said.
"But these fees were inevitable," he added. Some Montgomery government observers predicted that the County Council may establish the ball field fees after most of the softball season has passed--approving them just in time for the county-sponsored soccer, rugby and football seasons.