Mystery of the Middle-School Ballfield

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Early last summer, fences went up around the baseball field at King Middle School, a few blocks from us in North Berkeley. Soon, work started. The entire field was scraped clean and graded. It looked like new drainage was installed, and a brand-new sprinkler system went in.

The project seemed a little odd from the outset. It’s true the old grass on the field was a little weedy. And drainage has never been great since the field was installed in the late ’80s or early ’90s. The right field corner got swampy during the winter rains. A couple years ago, water leaking from somewhere turned much of right field into an impromptu fen (though no one suggested the name Fenway). When the leak was fixed more than a year later, the accidental wetland went back to its earlier lawn-like state. The field was much as it always has been–not perfect, with a tangle of blackberry bushes along the left field foul line, but with nothing suggesting a major overhaul was needed.

But the field was closed and work commenced. After all the new drainage and irrigation was in place, the field was graded and seeded. It was evident that it would take well past the start of the school year before the grass would be well enough established to let the kids run around on it. My guess was early October, and we heard from a parent at the school that students had been told the field would be open by late October.

As it happened, one October evening before sunset I was able to get onto the field (with our dog) through a gap in the fence. I just wanted to see what the new turf felt like underfoot. I was surprised to find that large areas of the field beyond the old right-field problem area were very wet and soft. That was no doubt due to what appear to have been daily waterings–overwatering seems to be the rule in many Berkeley parks–but I guess I expected that with improved drainage that problem would have been addressed. Walking down to the field’s left-field corner, where there’s a grate over a drain, you could see the path water was taking to flow out of the field.

Long story short, the fences have remained around the field, and the field’s as soggy as ever after a very wet autumn. The outfield grass has been cut several times, but parts of the field are marshy enough that the riding mowers have left muddy tracks in their wake. a few weeks ago, a particularly windy storm apparently blew down several sections of the fence; at this point, most of the fence is down, and there’s been no visible attempt to either put it up again or remove it. It’s been long enough since anyone regularly used the field that grass is taking root on the dirt infield. Swatches of new sod have appeared around the outfield in areas where the seeded grass wasn’t flourishing.

So I guess the question is: what’s going on here? For a project that seems like it was entirely optional to begin with, it seems to have gone on for a long time without any visible benefit, and it’s removed a big piece of the campus open space from use. Yes, the kids will get their field back eventually, but I’m guessing in a year of so no one will know the difference between the old and new, improved versions.

Finally, I wonder how much the school district has spent on this. It’s easy enough to find out that it’s planning to spend about $1 million dollars to upgrade the track and field on campus–after years of back-and-forth with neighbors and runners, the district’s planning to install an all-weather track next summer to replace the existing clay and cinder oval–I haven’t dug far enough into the school board’s old agendas and minutes to find out how much money has gone into the baseball field.

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7 Comments

Filed under Berkeley, Current Affairs

7 Responses to Mystery of the Middle-School Ballfield

  1. jb

    Definitely the powers that be are in no hurry to finish the project. Might be interesting to find out who the contractors are–like is it a nephew of someone on the school board. The grass looks good though–at least from the photograph.

  2. Dan

    Yeah–I’m trying to figure out who the contractor is. The grass seems fine, except for the fact it’s real spongy. Maybe this field just can’t be made to drain properly, though.

  3. Pete

    Astounding.
    BTW, weren’t they talking about putting in an all-weather track when I lived in Berkeley nearly 20 years ago?

  4. Dan

    Astounding in a really small way, I guess. We were up there today, and a couple was out there with a toddler playing bocce on the infield.
    Was it really 20 years ago? Or just, like, 15? That’s what’s amazing.

  5. Eamon

    Definitely 20 because they were already discussing it when I was a student there 🙂

  6. Dan

    OK, Eamon–that puts it into perspective!
    I remember that there was plenty of opposition to this from some track users and neighbors. In fact, the school district this fall took note of the earlier lack of enthusiasm for an all-weather track; but the summary prepared for the board said that a large majority of people who came out to speak at a community meeting last year on plans for the track supported an all-weather surface,

  7. Pete

    Natural-surface tracks can be great, especially in accommodating climates, but they require a lot of upkeep. All-weather probably the way to go. Am I right in recalling that track was some odd distance as well, quite bit short of 440 yards or 400 meters?

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