MY VERO: Getting kids away from video games, and onto a baseball field

There are no bad guys here. Nobody has done anything wrong. Everyone involved seems to want what’s best for our kids and community.

Yet, as I embark on this column on the Vero Beach City Council’s unanimous approval last month of a five-year, $1-per-year lease of Michael Baseball Field to Indian River Sports Complex Inc., I can’t help but feel I’m being forced to take sides.

And I won’t.

As I see it, the two parties that submitted proposals to lease the city-owned property, located east of U.S. 1 at 26th Street, both presented compelling cases to the council, which was determined to trim its budget by turning over the costs of maintaining, operating and insuring the field to a private entity.

But the parties disagreed on how, exactly, the field should be managed and utilized.

Thus, the council members were confronted with a difficult choice between two good options, both of which provided them with a way to reach their desired goal, and they made it.

They awarded the lease to IRSC Inc., the non-profit company headed by former Sebastian River High School baseball coach George “Buddy” Young and Chris Thomas – the group that has run several baseball fields owned by the county and school district for more than a year and had formally inquired about taking over Michael Field in January.

“Actually, we had been working with the city for over a year on that facility,” Young said. “Before we got involved, the place was a mess. The grass was two feet high, and the field was covered with rocks and broken glass.

“We’ve cut the grass, cleaned up the fields and put in baselines and bases. We’re trying to keep youth baseball alive in our community.”

The side that didn’t get the lease had a different plan and an equally appealing goal.

Heritage Sports Park LLC, a non-profit group organized by Jason Redmon and Coogie Freedman, wanted to operate Michael Field as a multi-sport facility that would be open for public use. During daylight hours, there would be no charge. Anyone using the field at night would be required to cover the cost of lighting.

In addition to utilizing the baseball game field and four practice fields, Redmon said the Heritage plan also would’ve made the seven-acre property available for youth football, soccer, lacrosse, flag football and even Ultimate Frisbee leagues, as well as for local kids wanting to use the grounds for pickup games and practices.

“There’d be no locks on the gates,” said Redmon, who appeared before the council at its June 3 meeting and was given two weeks to present his business plan. “All you’d need to do was register on site or online, unless you were going to use the field at night. If you needed the lights, then you’d have to come up with money to cover the costs.

“Otherwise, all we’d ask is that you pick up after yourselves and leave the field the way you found it.”

Redmon said he had lined up a donor willing to cover the insurance costs and a lawn-maintenance worker who offered to cut and maintain the field.

Also, in its business plan, Heritage said it would work to build partnerships with groups such as Harvest Outreach, Buggy Bunch, the Mardy Fish Foundation and The Boys and Girls Club in an effort to promote after-school youth fitness programs.

“We were going to do what the county and city should be doing, and Michael Field was the perfect fit for us,” Redmon said. “We were going to serve a wide range of people.”

In fact, several people who attended the June council meetings and spoke against awarding the Michael Field lease to IRSC Inc. – passionate arguments were made on both sides – urged the city to consider Heritage’s proposal.

The council, however, opted to go with IRSC Inc., which operates fields for more than 500 youths playing in local Cal Ripken and Babe Ruth leagues.

“We never really had a shot,” Redmon said. “They gave us a chance to submit our proposal, but it was just for show. It was a done deal from the start.”

City Recreation Director Rob Slezak said the council chose to lease the field to IRSC Inc. because it was an “established group” that “seemed to be doing fine” maintaining and operating other local fields for the past year.

Young’s group also manages the county-owned 16th Street Complex, across from Vero Beach High School, and school district-owned Thompson Field, located behind Rosewood Magnet School. He said he’s working to enlist donors and raise the funds needed to improve and expand the 16th Street facilities. He plans to do the same at Michael Field.

“Most of the fields in Indian River County are for younger kids, but there’s not much for the older kids,” Young said. “So we’re venturing out a little bit, trying to provide the best baseball facilities we can for our kids.”

Nothing wrong there.

There’s nothing wrong with IRSC Inc. leasing Michael Field and saving city taxpayers as much as $10,000 per year.

There’s nothing wrong with IRSC Inc. locking the game fields it maintains and insures, controlling their use and scheduling, and charging teams and leagues that want to rent them – especially since Young said he has no intention of stopping kids from playing on the practice fields.

“If there are kids out there who want to play a pickup game or just throw the ball around, the practice fields are available,” Young said. “If a father and son are out there playing catch, we’re not going to run them off. But if a team or league wants to use our fields, they need to call and reserve them, and pay to rent them.”

That’s fair, considering that IRSC Inc. is responsible for the maintenance, insurance and operation of the facilities. It’s also considerably different from what the Heritage group wanted to do with Michael Field.

Which plan was better?

Personally, I might’ve gone with Redmon and Freedman, only because I like the concept of a free-of-charge, multi-sport facility at a time when fewer kids are playing baseball and an increasing number of them are migrating toward lacrosse and soccer.

But as someone who grew up playing baseball, spent several years covering major league teams as a sports writer and still enjoys the game, I support what Young and Thomas are doing, too.

I’m all for doing whatever it takes to get our kids away from those addictive video games and other mind-numbing, electronic devices – at least for a few hours – and get them on the field.

It doesn’t matter to me whether they’re swinging a bat, catching a pass, kicking a ball or cradling a stick, as long as they’re doing something athletic, something competitive, something that will make them physically, mentally and socially healthier.

So I’m not taking sides. I’m OK with the council’s decision. I’m hoping there’s some way the city eventually can find a place for Redmon and Freedman to put their plan into action, perhaps at Bob Summers Field and Leisure Square, which haven’t yet been leased and are still available to the public.

“We’d still love to get Jason and Coogie involved,” Slezak said. “We’ve left the door open.”

And they should.

There are no bad guys here.

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