Before home softball games, Minneapolis Southwest shortstop Anya London and her teammates would leave class early to prepare at nearby Pershing Park.
They'd pick rocks out of the diamond so they wouldn't hurt themselves when they slid. In lieu of a permanent outfield fence, they'd shovel holes in the grass to pitch sheets of plastic fencing.
It was embarrassing to host teams used to much nicer amenities — fields with regulation dimensions, baselines and dugouts — London said. "It's not what we want either, but it is what we have."
Except for Patrick Henry, which owns a baseball diamond, Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) baseball and softball teams rely on city fields run by the Park Board. Along with concerns about field conditions, parents and players also note that Park Board programs get first priority, Minneapolis students second. Sometimes school teams must end games early to make way for adult leagues.
London recalled when Southwest faced Washburn at Bossen Field in the final game of the Minneapolis City Conference in her junior year. A rivalry begot extra innings that stretched into the beer league's reservation.
Some adult players demanded that the girls vacate the field. Parents rose up to defend their kids. Ultimately a truce allowed the girls to finish playing, but the dust-up helped convince MPS families that the school district and Park Board are neglecting high school softball.
Parents complained to the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, which is investigating MPS under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
The complaint alleges:
- There are no high-quality diamonds sized and fenced specifically for girls softball anywhere in Minneapolis.
- Girls have to play on fields built for baseball, where the outfield fences sit 300-plus feet away from home plate. That's 75 feet farther than it should be for high school softball, making it nearly impossible for a female student to hit a home run.
- The lack of proper facilities undermines Minneapolis girls' statistics and their college prospects, placing them at a disadvantage compared to suburban peers.
There will be internal meetings among district officials "to ensure baseball and softball teams for each school have equal access to premiere fields," said Crystina Lugo-Beach, an MPS spokesperson.
They will consider locations of practice and playing fields, travel time to the fields, amount of practice time and amount of premier field time. "We will review and balance all those considerations in a way that reflects both equity and the needs of our students and teams," she said.
Title IX investigations can take years. The Office of Civil Rights will review MPS data and interview complainants. If it determines the district discriminates against female athletes, it will try to remediate issues voluntarily before referring the case to the Department of Justice for legal action.
High demand, finite land
Satellite images of Minneapolis parks show sports fields smashed together, baseball infields transposed over soccer markings and football fields wedged in sideways to make the most of limited space like a work of extreme cookie-cutting on a sheet of too-thin dough.
In the 1960s when most neighborhood parks were designed, community park leagues would play football in the fall and baseball in the spring. Now that a greater variety of team sports are being run by traveling clubs, everyone jockeys for field space year-round, said Adam Arvidson, the Park Board's director of strategic planning.
"From a planning standpoint, that's very challenging because while we have significantly increased the desire for that acreage, we don't have any more parkland," he said.
Complaints are common to every sport. There are no courts just for pickleball anywhere in the system for America's fastest growing sport. Not enough skateparks have been built despite a dedicated activity plan.
Between 2016 and 2020, the Minneapolis Park Board developed long-range plans for its 160 neighborhood parks across thousands of acres. They call for reducing baseball and softball diamonds citywide while improving the quality of those remaining.
The Park Board's team sports participation numbers show baseball on the rise — outstripping football and soccer — but softball on the decline.
Parents created the group Play Ball Minneapolis to advocate for diamond sports in Minneapolis parks.
Pat Smith, whose children play baseball and softball, contends interest in softball isn't waning — rather families are looking beyond Minneapolis to play on decent fields with dugout covers to keep kids from baking in the sun and the space to run a proper tournament.
"One of the things that drives me in this whole thing is just trying to have nice physical facilities for kids to keep as many kids in Minneapolis as possible," Smith said.
Urban-suburban disparities also undercut the Minneapolis girls softball club 612 Fastpitch, said vice president Mike Vanderscheuren. When families travel, they see mega sports complexes outfitted with pro locker rooms and other opulent amenities beyond the city. Some opt to join suburban clubs.
Vanderscheuren doesn't see Minneapolis winning the arms race against wealthier communities, but he does believe schools and the Park Board can invest in facilities that are "just comparable" enough to keep city kids playing in their own community.
Better fields available
Minneapolis Park Board offers "premier" diamonds that cost extra to rent.
The cream of the crop are at Parade (southwest of downtown) and Neiman (near Fort Snelling) sports complexes. Teams can play night games under the lights on collegiate-level fields kept in sterling condition by staff who are always present to change the numbers on the scoreboard while fans watch comfortably from bleachers.
Next come the multipurpose Bossen Fields north of the airport, the synthetic turf North Commons field in north Minneapolis and Rod Carew All-Star Field in northeast.
None are the exact dimensions for girls softball. But there are two adult softball fields at Neiman that come close with outfield fences at 250 feet.
Last year, Southwest rented space at Neiman for its boys baseball team, but not for girls softball. Roosevelt, South and Washburn rented space at Bossen. No public schools asked to rent North Commons and Rod Carew, said Jack Bartsh, who runs the Park Board's athletic field rentals.
"I have not had any representative from MPS or any of the private schools complain to me about lack of access to premier softball fields," Bartsh said. "I could put all MPS schools on premier fields for games if they so choose."
Last fall, Park Board commissioners formed a technical advisory committee to identify diamond improvements. Work could kick off this spring.
The Park Board has always been more focused on the character-building of team sports rather than creating elite players that go on to win state, Commissioner Billy Menz said. But there are kids in Minneapolis who aspire to compete at higher levels, and the Park Board needs to be accountable to them, he said.
"I firmly believe that we can capture the community element that youth sports can embody, and that's where we should hang our hat," Menz said. "If we don't ... we run the risk of losing public athletics, which is almost what has happened in softball."
Softball parents are counting on the Title IX investigation and Park Board review to set priorities that can inform private fundraising.
One opportunity to level the playing field is Todd Park, destined to get the Park Board's first premier softball field, sized and fenced specifically for girls. But the park isn't scheduled for capital improvements until 2026.
Minnesota Twins President Dave St. Peter offered the team's help.
The Twins give $100,000 each year to the Park Board, providing free programming, new uniforms and equipment. The team also built the Rod Carew baseball field to commemorate the 2014 All-Star Game for $500,000. They are "100 percent" interested in bringing the Todd Field softball diamond to fruition sooner, St. Peter said.
"We recognize there are some gaps on the softball side," he said. "And you know, girls softball is a huge part of what we're trying to do to grow the game."
Claire Bentfield, a St. Thomas outfielder who graduated from Minneapolis South in 2019, hopes the Title IX complaint forces change before more generations of girls leave the game or the city for want of regulation fields.
"Honestly, I'm surprised it took as long as it did for a report to be made, because my friends and I have been talking about this for so long."