Lawyer and amateur softball player Daniel Chapaitis was standing in right field ("That's the one behind first base, right?") near the Washington Monument on Thursday, amazed that his team was finally winning a game, when a U.S. Park Police sport-utility vehicle rolled up.
Two or three officers got out and handed an official-looking letter to the players. Game over.
As Chapaitis slowly trotted in, the taste of potential victory fading with the setting sun, the cops moved further down the Mall to break up the next contest.
In all, nine usually legal playing areas were cleared, plus one softball game that was taking place in an area where play is permanently banned because of heavy pedestrian traffic.
The National Park Service said police were responding to a complaint about the game being played in the pedestrians-only area. They halted the other softball games, too, because they were being played in areas declared off-limits this year for the week before and the week after July 4, Park Service spokesman Earle Kittleman said.
But to the softball players, who equate their right to swing a bat or shag a fly on the Mall with this country's most cherished freedoms, the action was downright unconstitutional.
Games had been played on the same fields the night before without incident. Also, the players couldn't understand a confusing Park Service letter, which suspended all softball permits between June 28 and July 11 "due to scheduled set up on the Washington Monument Grounds" for the July 4 festivities.
"They need to get their story straight," Chapaitis said yesterday, noting that the set-up for the Fourth of July was long over.
"It did seem a little arbitrary, out of the blue," said Greg Golden, whose law firm Baker & Botts was playing Chapaitis's firm. "We kindly informed them the celebration was last weekend, but it didn't make any difference."
Chapaitis asked that his law firm not be identified in this article because "no law firm wants to be identified with pure silliness."
Steven Kopelman, whose organization, Sportsleagues Inc., secures permits and schedules games for dozens of adult leagues, said the new July 4-related ban had not been enforced every day. The Park Service has lots of policies about who can play where, Kopelman said, and they often conflict.
"I get a different story depending on which person is working," Kopelman said. "It's basically playing at your own risk."
Kittleman said much of the confusion stems from a June 19 letter in the Washington Post that erroneously said all softball on the Washington Monument grounds had been banned. The author's team, he said, was rousted because it was playing in the pedestrian-only area. The author of the letter could not be reached yesterday.
Halting softball games the week before and after July 4 makes it easier for the Park Service to set up for Independence Day festivities and to fix any damage to the grass afterward, Kittleman said. A letter explaining the temporary ban was sent to all softball permit holders. But because of staff shortages, he said, the ban has been enforced only when someone phoned in a complaint.
Last night, confusion at the ball fields continued. The 6 p.m. start of a Senate League game was delayed when Officer C.M. Bergo showed up waving the letter. Heidi Mohlman, who had the permit to use the area, told Bergo she figured it was all right to play since there were no holiday activities going on.
Bergo agreed to move on but warned that he would be back if he received an official complaint. "If they say you gotta go, you've got to go," he said. All three games at the site concluded without interference.
Staff Writer David Fallis contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Heidi Mohlman carries out bases for Senate League baseball on the Mall. Park Service has halted some games.