For local softball players, this is the dark side of the calendar. The final pitch of the 1990 season is three months past. The first pitch of '91 is five months hence. So softballers are spending November as they always do -- greasing their gloves, catching up on bad movies and gaining the usual five off-season pounds.
But to Frazier Botsford, a softball aficionado from Northeast Washington who manages a team called the Brookland Dodgers, November is the time to put on the pressure.
For the last several years, Frazier has been complaining to federal officials about the dangerous state of the public softball diamonds near the Mall. He has learned that if you wait till April to demand smoother base lines and rut-free batter's boxes, you'll never see them.
So Frazier is once again making war-not-love in the direction of the National Park Service. This time around, he has an ally: an aging infielder named Levey.
No one disagrees with Frazier's basic contention: The fields in East Potomac Park and West Potomac Park are used so often from April through August that they soon show dangerous signs of wear. But no one in authority agrees with Frazier's proposed cure: regular maintenance in the fall, and throughout the season.
National Park Service Superintendent Arnold Goldstein says he probably won't be able to arrange maintenance on the softball fields this fall because of "weather and scheduling problems." As for regular maintenance during the softball season, that would mean taking fields out of play at staggered times for reseeding and rerolling. Arnold says his department tried that with one field last season, "but there was so much pressure to use it that it necessitated putting it back in play."
"We're doing pretty much what was done in past years," Arnold said, which means filling holes with dirt at the beginning of each softball season, rolling the new patches smooth and hard and then doing nothing else until a year later.
Frazier Botsford says that policy amounts to benign neglect -- and leads directly to injuries that are anything but benign.
The infields down by the Mall "look as if the Army practiced its tank maneuvers there before departing for sunny Panama," Frazier wrote to Arnold in May 1989. The phrase may strike you as purple, or dated. But Frazier says he has seen several serious injuries on the Potomac Park fields, including one incident in which a woman was hit in the throat by a bad-hop ground ball. She nearly choked to death. If the fields had been rolled properly, Frazier contends, the injury would never have taken place.
Meanwhile, I took a tour of the East Potomac Park fields last week. The tank-maneuvers metaphor applies just as neatly today as it did 18 months ago.
Almost every batter's box has a deep rut in it. Most of the base paths are littered with stones. Many of the base lines have been so badly eroded by rain that a sprint from one base to the next would mean picking one's way among gullies -- not recommended when you're flying at top speed.
You might argue that repairs are unnecessary before April because no one will use these fields for softball until then. But the same fields are used year-round for soccer, rugby, cricket, lacrosse, jogging, frisbee-ing, even golf. Those athletes have tender tendons and harm-prone hamstrings too.
To the credit of the Park Service, most of the softball fields are kept free of boulders and holes, in season as well as out, and the grass is mowed once a week or so. But the public fields in Virginia and Maryland are mended with dirt and rerolled regularly throughout the softball season. "All they've got to do," says Frazier, "is call Maryland and Virginia and find out how they do it."
Meanwhile, the D.C. Department of Recreation and Parks isn't doing any better at one of its most heavily used softball fields, Guy Mason Recreation Center at Wisconsin Avenue and Calvert Street NW.
Many Guy Mason games are played at night. The field is equipped with arc lights for that purpose. But since late June, the lights in deep left field have been out of commission.
Age may be the enemy of softball players (chapter and verse from Levey on request). But semi-darkness means that every batted and thrown ball is potentially a lethal weapon.
Sharon Henery, a spokeswoman for the recreation department, said the agency simply didn't have enough money to fix the lights during the 1990 season. Last Friday, a contractor was scheduled to deliver an estimate for rewiring the left field lights and repairing the circuit breakers inside. The contract is scheduled to be let by the end of December, Sharon said.
Will Mason's left field be fully lighted in time for the new season in April? It should be, Sharon said.
Let's hope so. Because if Mason's games have to be shifted to East and West Potomac parks, ruts will soon be Ruts, and fury will soon be Fury.