For 28 years, Denver's Police Athletic League has honed the athletic skills of inner-city youth and taught them the value of competition and fair play. But when it comes to locking up city park sites for its ballgames, PAL doesn't mess around; the well-connected group has no interest in competing on a level playing field.
Ed Ward found out about PAL's nice-guys-finish-last maneuvering last month, when he visited the offices of the Denver Parks and Recreation Department to inquire about the availability of summer baseball permits for the Catholic Youth Recreation Association. Traditionally, such permits have been awarded on a first-come, first-served basis--up to five permits per applicant per day. But days before anyone else could even apply for the permits, PAL had already secured hundreds of prime locations and time slots around the city--and apparently without paying the permit fees required of other applicants.
"Every field I asked for was gone," says Ward, chairman of the CYRA. "The clerk told me that PAL had a stack of permits sitting on the supervisor's desk."
Although it used to operate its baseball league only in the spring, this year PAL is expanding into summer in a big way. The move has backers of other youth baseball programs--and city council members--fuming over the city's preferential treatment of PAL, which has always enjoyed close ties to the Denver Police Department and now claims a unique "co-sponsorship" by Parks and Rec.
Ward and others say they've been aced out of their traditional claims on the city's most popular ballfields; for example, CYRA managed to hold on to its game times at Congress Park (where its teams have played for twelve years) but can no longer practice there. Other baseball leagues have had to try to reschedule games and even tournaments at fields far from their regular haunts; a rugby organization that's played in Observatory Park for thirty years had its field usurped by PAL, too.
"I don't have an ax to grind with the dads who coach PAL teams," says Ward. "But why should they get to go ahead of everybody else?"
He isn't the only one asking the question. "I've got people calling me from every organization you can imagine," says indignant Denver City Councilman Ed Thomas. "This kind of arbitrary decision affects everybody who uses the parks, yet not one bit of information was shared with us. Why were we not informed?"
Parks and Recreation manager B.J. Brooks did not return repeated calls from Westword on the matter. But permits supervisor Kay Spring confirms that PAL was allowed "to jump in front of the other [organizations] to program their expansion. That was done because it's a co-sponsorship; it's a program that's come down from the mayor's office."
Spring notes that certain city agencies, such as recreation centers and the Denver Public Schools, have always had first claim on the park ballfields; even non-affiliated groups such as CYRA have had a certain number of permits allotted to them on a "grandfathered" basis. PAL was allowed first pick because the organization had agreed to launch summer baseball programs in Montbello and other areas where the fields "weren't really being used that much," Spring says, and to take on players referred by Parks and Recreation at no charge. "In order to do that, they had to be assured of having enough fields for their whole program."
The department's decision to co-sponsor the summer program also resulted in a waiver of permit fees--although Spring adds that "there's a budget somewhere" that is helping to finance the expansion.
Jim Martinez, an assistant to Mayor Wellington Webb who also sits on PAL's board of directors, says the lack of a summer baseball league was "a big gap" in the organization's offerings--one that was driving talented inner-city players to suburban fields, alarming their high-school coaches. "Sometimes when they'd leave, they wouldn't come back," Martinez says. "They'd find greener grass. We wanted to keep the Denver city kid in Denver over the summer to play baseball and develop his skills."
Martinez, though, denies that he or anyone else in the mayor's office intervened on behalf of PAL in the permit coup.
"Jim Martinez didn't go in there and tell the Parks and Rec people that PAL gets in line first," he says. "That would never happen."
"The decision was made by B.J. Brooks, period," says Ed Thomas, who charges that the parks department is trying to use the mayor's office as a "backstop" for the controversy. "But the parks aren't the property of B.J. Brooks. They belong to the City of Denver."
Ward argues that the co-sponsorship arrangement ends up favoring one kind of ballplayer over another, since PAL is a competitive league--and not easily accessible to less talented players. Having coached recreational baseball for years and having had a son in a PAL league, he describes the latter as "a very insular organization."
"CYRA is a much groovier league," insists Ward, a well-known local poet. "Our philosophy is, every kid plays. If the city's sponsoring PAL, then they're sponsoring an exclusive program for the better boys. Girls can't play in PAL, and they never invite the fat kid back. Politically, I don't see how Denver can justify it."
Martinez stresses that PAL is still in negotiation with the city over the final number of permits and that the arrangement may be "massaged" to accommodate permit requests from other leagues. Thomas says PAL scored more than 3,000 permits free of charge and is backpedaling only because of the questions that have been raised by outraged parents and coaches. "It's not a done deal only because they got caught," he says.
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Ward says that he tried to discuss the situation with PAL executive director Nick Arcuri back in December but that Arcuri never returned his calls until two weeks ago--"after he had gone to Parks and Rec and sucked up all the permits." Arcuri (who did not return Westword's phone calls) then suggested that CYRA ask its applicants if they were interested in playing competitive ball.
"He shined me on for six weeks, and then he had the nerve to ask me to recruit for his organization," Ward says.
Last week Parks and Recreation deputy manager Rod Lister sent a memo to city council members explaining that "PAL is, in fact, acting as an agent to the city in providing league play" to inner-city youth. Thomas and other skeptical councilmembers want B.J. Brooks to explain the arrangement in more detail at a hearing to be held this week.
"The only thing I've gotten from Parks and Recreation," Thomas grumbles, "is a lot of nonsense.