In the fervid debate over the Long Lots Elementary School building project, and possible impacts on the Westport Community Gardens and athletic fields, one voice has been silent: the baseball community. Today, they offer their perspective:
Westport Baseball & Softball (WBS) and Staples High School Baseball (SHSB) have observed with much interest the deliberations and decision-making process of the Long Lots Elementary School Building Committee, along with the debate regarding utilization of the Long Lots School property and Community Gardens.
We are the only 2 town-operated baseball programs in Westport. While there have been preferences attributed to “Westport Baseball” and considerable conjecture regarding our views, neither WBS nor SHSB has been formally contacted by the Committee, the Board of Education, Westport government officials or Parks & Recreation, and neither organization has stated publicly any position regarding Long Lots Elementary School and the surrounding land.
Neither WBS nor SHSB has any interest in, or has ever proposed, removing, replacing or otherwise displacing the Gardens from their current location. Today we present our joint position with respect to the baseball field at Long Lots and the Community Gardens, and respond to unfounded criticisms and speculation regarding such position. We welcome the opportunity to be included in the discussion going forward.
WBS is a non-profit organization led by volunteers. It offers baseball and softball programs to Westport children ages 3 through 19. These programs include Little League Baseball, Little League Softball, Travel Baseball, Babe Ruth Baseball, Legion Baseball, Advanced Baseball and our cherished Challenger program.
SHSB fields 3 teams: freshman, junior varsity and varsity. As with Westport’s superior schools and support services, Westport’s diverse offering of sports and recreation programs, including baseball, attracts families to our town.
Repeated references to the surfeit of baseball fields in Westport by participants in the discussions regarding a baseball field at Long Lots are not only not true, but completely miss the point.
The numbers of players for each of the WBS baseball programs varies each season and year, for a variety of reasons. Grade sizes vary; children cease playing sports, switch sports or favor a sport in its primary season, but switch sports in its offseason. Players also leave our programs to play on teams operated by third party, for-profit AAU organizations.
Nevertheless, program leaders need to plan in advance before each season for organizing their programs. This includes budgeting, resource allocation and scheduling of fields. It is a red herring to try to project the number of players across WBS’s various programs. SHSB can more easily estimate the number of players on each of its teams, and it consistently fills rosters for all 3 teams.
Scarcity of Fields
WBS and SHSB programs have distinct needs and serve different baseball and softball audiences, and participants play on different size fields based on age and league.
Westport has baseball fields in 3 sizes. Little League baseball and Travel baseball players up to age 12 play on 46/60-foot fields; Intermediate and Travel baseball players up to age 13 play on 50/70 diamonds, and Travel, Babe Ruth, Legion and Advanced Baseball, and high school players, play on 60/90 fields.
Our Babe Ruth, Legion, Advanced Baseball and SHSB teams are not private “Travel” teams, which have been criticized in this Long Lots debate, and WBS’ Travel baseball programs are town operated and non-profit.
Westport has 4 60/90 fields: Doubleday, Staples, Wakeman and Long Lots. One 60/90 field is intended to be exclusive to baseball: Wakeman D. However, even that field now hosts lacrosse practices in the outfield during the week.
Doubleday baseball diamond at Kings Highway Elementary School, and nearby PJ Romano Field. (Drone photo/Brandon Malin)
The Staples field on which our highly regarded high school team plays is also not exclusive to baseball. A temporary fence is erected for a period of time during spring and summer. During the remainder of the year, the outfield is used for soccer and other sports.
Doubleday and Long Lots fields are mixed use — shared by baseball and other sports.
In summary, WBS alone (not including SHSB) has up to 5 teams, with approximately 70-80 players sharing one field (Wakeman) in the fall. This is untenable from a scheduling perspective.
In the spring/summer, WBS has up to 4 teams (approximately 65-75 players) that play on the 3 full size fields. During the high school season the varsity team practices at Staples and the junior varsity practices at Wakeman. The freshman team is relegated to finding their way to Long Lots, presumably on foot.
Regarding the Long Lots diamond: It is carved out on only a fraction of the available space. The rest of the area is lined for soccer.
Long Lots Elementary School and parking lot (bottom), with baseball diamond and adjacent upper and lower soccer fields. (Photo courtesy of Westport GIS Map System)
For most of the day (9 a.m. to 3 p.m.), this open space is used exclusively by Long Lots students. After 3, it is used for after-school activities. Only from 4:15 to dark (as early as 6:30) does Parks & Recreation determine which town program has access to the field.
In its current form, the Long Lots baseball field is deficient. It suffers from disproportionate dimensions between left and right field, and a steep drop beyond center field to the lower fields. It lacks dugouts and adequate space on the sidelines.
The alternative is asking parents or hiring buses to drive in peak traffic to other towns’ fields that can be as far as 90 minutes away, forgoing the home field and last at-bats advantage.
We need a field for these older players. Attempting to discredit the use of a grass field because of the lines drawn on it is akin to discrediting a classroom based on the subject being taught in it. Unfortunately, this has occurred in certain of the dialogue regarding a Long Lots baseball field and the Gardens.
Scheduling; Domino Effect
Westport suffers from tremendous field stress, given the paucity of fields available to various sports. Existing fields are carefully rationed by Parks & Recreation before each season, at a meeting with leaders of various sports. This meeting follows months of considered planning by Parks & Recreation leaders on how to share fields. WBS and SHSB collaborate closely with Parks & Recreation and other sports programs regarding scheduling and field utilization.
Soccer at the Long Lots lower fields. (Photo courtesy of Our Town Crier)
In contrast to when many of us grew up, historically seasonal sports are now played year-round. Westport children play baseball and lacrosse in the fall, and soccer players play in the spring as well.
We can debate the pros and cons of this evolution, but it is the reality.
Full-year participation is also fueled by many students’ desire to play sports at the collegiate level, including to gain admission to a better academic school in a highly competitive admissions environment. Athletic scholarships have helped many families carry the financial burden of affording college.
The loss of access to Long Lots fields during the contemplated construction will make a daunting scheduling and field sharing challenge for Parks & Recreation and Westport sports program leaders nearly impossible.
The permanent loss of a full-size field will make it virtually unfeasible for Westport baseball teams to practice and play games at home in the fall (when earlier sunsets and later dismissal from school for younger players already limits availability of fields to a few precious hours), render spring play exceedingly challenging, and leave the SHSB freshman team homeless.
The Long Lots baseball diamond lacks dugouts and seating.
Similarly, a domino effect vis-à-vis other Westport sports will occur. It will for example severely impair the ability of the Westport Soccer Association to operate soccer practices and games in the spring.
A displaced team will in turn displace another team, and so on, ultimately creating acrimony between teams and among Westport sports programs, ending only when the last domino falls on the teams deemed least worthy of standing.
We strongly believe that there is a crucial link between youth sports and children’s mental and physical well-being. The social, psychological, emotional and medical benefits to children being outdoors and on a team with friends are well documented.
COVID highlighted the importance of offering children these opportunities. For example, when the pandemic shut down social activities, mental health-related emergency room visits increased by 24% for children ages 5 to 11 and 31% for adolescents ages 12 to 17. Dependence on cell phones and playing video games makes involvement in team sports even more beneficial.
Long Lots Elementary School field day. This is the outfield of the baseball diamond.
The plantings at, and maintenance of, the Gardens are similarly outdoor activities with team building aspects that provide countless benefits to the caretakers of the Gardens and the community.
WBS and SHSB do not seek to disrupt or displace the Gardens. We simply want to retain the availability of a full-size field.
Our town’s population continues to grow, with families driving that growth. These families are attracted to Westport for its schools, and the diverse offerings inside and outside of the school building.
This population applies pressure on schools to accommodate larger populations. Outdoor space available to our children for sports and other recreational activities should not contract in the face of this growth.
The benefits to children continue long after elementary school. Participating in youth team teaches many skills including socialization, sportsmanship, collegiality, discipline, teamwork, and collaboration to achieve a common goal.
A full-size baseball field requires at least 6 acres. There are scant parcels of available land this size, especially near Staples to provide a logistically convenient home for the SHSB freshman team. The cost to purchase such a parcel of land would be exorbitant. WBS and SBHS are open to learning of other locations for a field in lieu of Long Lots that is available now, or no later than the commencement of construction at Long Lots Elementary School.
Elementary School Student Use
We understand anecdotally that field space at Long Lots was originally donated with the intent that it would be used for athletics and recreation for children. But team baseball play at the current Long Lots field, which has commanded considerable attention in the commentary regarding the best outcome for the space, constitutes only a small fraction of its use. In the fall for example, Westport soccer appropriately has priority for the upper and lower fields at Long Lots.
Our outstanding elementary schools are fortunate to benefit from expansive outdoor grounds where gym classes are taught, recess is enjoyed, after-school activities are conducted, playdates, picnics and field days are held, and team sports are played.
Kings Highway and Saugatuck Elementary Schools share about 8.5 acres of open space, including a playground, PJ Romano turfed field (football and lacrosse), tennis courts, and baseball and softball diamonds.
Coleytown Elementary School features 3.5 acres that are home to 2 playgrounds and a basketball court, in addition to the smaller baseball and softball fields.
There is a Little League diamond, and other fields, behind Coleytown Elementary School. (Drone photo/Brandon Malin)
Greens Farms Elementary School offers 2 acres of open grass space used for baseball and other sports, a basketball court and playground. Extended access until mid-evening is feasible because of lights.
On the other hand, Long Lots Elementary School has a 2-tiered field complex, consisting of 2.75 acres on the upper level where the baseball diamond is cut into about a quarter of the grass, surrounded by multiple soccer fields. The playground and basketball court are separate from the field area being discussed.
We have already noted the shortcomings of the existing Long Lots baseball field. Construction of a new school on the upper level would supplant the full-size baseball field. Building a new full-size field on the lower level would displace the soccer fields which are already heavily utilized.
But these consequences pale in comparison to the impact on the students, families and neighbors of the Long Lots Elementary School community, which would be deprived of the current green space adjacent to the school where the baseball field is situated for the uses discussed above, which already is inferior to the open space available at the other Westport elementary schools.
False Narrative; Conclusion
The narrative of “Westport Baseball” versus the Community Gardens is a manufactured one that has engendered much passion and acrimony.
Neither WBS nor SHSB has requested that the Long Lots baseball field be relocated anywhere, including to the current location of the beloved Gardens.
Westport Community Gardens and adjacent Long Lots Preserve.
It is counterproductive and divisive to pit “Westport Baseball” or any other Westport sport against the Gardens, and vice versa, even if the perception is that the priorities and preferences of the groups differ and that they are necessarily competing for the same physical real estate.
It is especially disconcerting when the leadership of WBS and SHSB have never been formally approached for a discussion, or even asked for their views. Further, WBS is not conspiring with the WSA to replace or relocate the Gardens. WSA posted its thoughtful views earlier this month on this blog.
The characterization of Plan C-ALT exemplifies this effort to be provocative: “Plan C-ALT would allow the garden to remain at the expense of Long Lots’ baseball diamond.”
The actual narrative should be that Plan C-ALT would allow the gardens to remain at the expense of eliminating nearly half of the existing precious open space at Long Lots. As explained above, while Westport’s baseball and soccer programs would certainly suffer if the field was eliminated, the primary losers would be the children who attend Long Lots Elementary School, and their families and neighbors of Long Lots.
WBS’s and SHSB’s only objective is to not sacrifice one of Westport’s full-sized baseball fields for the reasons discussed above. We do not require that the field be located anywhere on the Long Lots property.
But if the field is to be eliminated at Long Lots, then we respectfully request that a new full-size field be built in close proximity to Staples.
Open space for sports fields in Westport is already highly limited. Neither WBS nor SHSB is aware of an alternative site for a full-size baseball field that would serve the needs of the members of their respective communities.
We do not want to lose the field, and be dismissed with a promise to find space in the future for a construction project and capital expenditure that needs to be planned and budgeted over many years.
We need it now, and the construction of a new Long Lots Elementary School will exacerbate an already challenging situation for Westport baseball and other sports.
WBS and SHSB’s official joint position is that we support any plan that the Committee proposes that maintains the current open space at Long Lots Elementary School and ensures that we continue to have access to a full-size baseball field, whether built at Long Lots or a suitable alternative location.
To reiterate: We admire and respect what the gardeners have achieved on the grounds of the Gardens, and in the Westport community more broadly, over the past 20 years. We hope that the Gardens are preserved and remain for generations to come.
We expect that WBS, SHSB, the Gardens, and perhaps anyone who enjoys the outdoors, have a shared interest in preserving and, in fact, seeking out and allocating more open green spaces in Westport.
WBS and SHSB defer to the considered judgment of the Committee, with continued input from the Board of Education, Long Lots Elementary School leadership and parents, the Gardens and Westport’s sports programs leaders, and its determination as to the future of the Gardens and where to resituate the baseball field.
We kindly ask for access to the formal discussion, dialogue and collaboration to identify and implement a solution that achieves these goals, rather than resigning ourselves to concluding it cannot happen, and engaging in polarizing and unproductive rhetoric.