Brooklyn Center parent Debbie Stoddard signed her two children up for Little League to help teach them to be good athletes, good team players, and perhaps most important, good people.
But this spring, the 130 boys and girls who signed up for Brooklyn Center Little League are seeing people at their worst. Parents were dismayed to find thousands of pounds of broken concrete, construction waste, yard clippings and household debris illegally dumped next to the league-owned baseball diamond.
"People have been dumping for a long time, but it's never been this bad," said Stoddard, the league's co-president. "There is blacktop pavement with yellow striping that is either [from] a street or parking lot."
The volunteer-run organization, consisting largely of working-class families, already operates on a shoestring budget, so the estimate of $18,000 to clean up the mess has put the entire program in financial peril. Games can still be played at the field this summer, but the league has to remove the debris from its property by December.
"It's very frustrating," said parent and board member Kristin Johnson. "You talk to some of the kids, and they can't believe people would do that. It's very clear you are driving into a baseball field."
Johnson said the big bill has the potential to shut the organization down. "We don't have $18,000 on hand to take care of this," she said.
Stoddard said the league is collecting donations and offers of equipment and manpower to complete the cleanup, in addition to seeking help from the Minnesota Twins' community aid fund.
The league also hopes to repair one of its diamonds that has sunk and fills with water at times. Efforts to fix that field last year, including bringing in some fill dirt, actually might have exacerbated the problem. Organization leaders halted those repairs when they discovered surveying and permitting were required because of the field's proximity to Shingle Creek.
People may have starting dumping waste after seeing the dirt piles connected with the diamond-repair project, Johnson said.
The Brooklyn Center Little League program has been around for 56 years, starting kids with T-ball at age 4 and extending to 12-year-olds who play in the "majors."
The Brooklyn Center National and American Little Leagues recently combined to form one organization. A Brooklyn Center team made a coveted league World Series appearance in 1994 after winning the Central Regions Championships.
In recent years, funding has been tight and the league has struggled to maintain the fields and find competitors for interleague play.
Two-thirds of the $12,000 the league collects in registration fees goes to pay for uniforms, Stoddard said. Some families rely on scholarships to play. And among those families who can afford the fees, many simply can't afford to donate more money toward a cleanup, said Stoddard, who works two jobs.
"We had struggled with people not wanting to play with us because we are from Brooklyn Center," she said. "For a while, the president before me had struggled to try to find interleague play. We had fixed that reputation a few years ago."
Police looking for dumper
Stoddard and others fear that if the dumping continues, the junk could eclipse the field.
At the start of the season, parents found an old couch abandoned by the bleachers and a massive television dumped by the concession stand. Volunteers hauled them away, with one parent cutting his hand so badly on the smashed TV he needed stitches.
"We want to keep it family-oriented and safe," Stoddard said. "Those piles [of junk] are not safe, especially for a 4-year-old."
The field complex is at the end of Vincent Avenue N. in a residential area bordering Shingle Creek. Its relative seclusion during the day may be part of the problem, Johnson said.
"It's not happening at night under the cover of darkness — it appears to be happening during the day," she said.
Recently, a dumper was caught on camera, and Brooklyn Center police are working to track down that individual, Stoddard said.
On Tuesday evening, Amy Berry, a mom from Rogers, was part of a cadre of visiting parents in the Brooklyn Center Little League's bleachers. She cheered as her son, leading off the batting order, hit a double.
Berry said the fields are in good condition but that she noticed the junk during an earlier visit.
"I drove up, and there was a couch sitting there," Berry said. "Little League is such an American thing — baseball, hot dogs and apple pie. It's just too bad."