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Pittsburgh Sports League pushes city for improvements to playing fields

Sunday, Oct. 20, 2013, 11:21 p.m.

Nearly every day Pittsburgh Sports League staffers scan city ball fields for deep divots in outfields, rocky baselines and pooling water — anything that might make beating out a grounder to first dangerous or difficult for its 22,000 recreational athletes.

Chuck O'Neill, assistant director of Pittsburgh Public Works, said the city needs at least $250,000 to complete a sprawling to-do list to improve the city's 140 fields.

“We want the city to allocate funds for making proactive improvements to city fields,” Greg Mitrik, PSL director, told City Council at a budget hearing in September. “This isn't just maintenance. This is about making these fields better for everyone.”

Through the Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project, a nonprofit young adult networking club established in 1996, PSL pumps more than $70,000 in permit fees into Public Works every year, Mitrik said, to reserve space on 16 fields for football, softball, kickball, Frisbee and volleyball, and 13 other indoor and outdoor sports year-round.

“PSL is by far our highest revenue source from ball field permits,” said O'Neill, who plays in a recreation league. “And they want more. We completely support their efforts, and so far, so does the Budget Office.”

Public Works this year received a combined $600,000 for light and tower replacements and maintenance on parks, courts and playgrounds, and $200,000 in federal grants for lower-income neighborhoods. Ideally, O'Neill said, the department will add a line item next year worth $250,000 to $500,000 for ball fields.

“A muddy infield needs dragging because of a weekend football game. Bees' nests are stuck in the rafters. The grass is too long in the outfield. A dugout bench is rotting. A few lights need replacing. A hole by third base needs filling,” Mitrik said. “Every field has its quirks, and these are little repairs that will make a huge difference for the people who pay to use the parks.”

At a recent softball game in Bloomfield, Richard Ernsberger, 34, donned Pirates gear in lieu of his usual red jersey. His team, MSL, didn't need the luck. The first-place contenders won 11-1.

“I've played softball, kickball, volleyball — when I moved back to Pittsburgh, it was a great way to meet a lot of people,” he said. “PSL is fun, but there are a lot of little things the city could do that would make the experience better,” such as soil and grass to cover bare spots on the field — nothing that would cost much time or money.

Council, the Budget Office and a new mayor each will weigh in before Public Works or PSL leaders get a go-ahead to clean up fields. Funding ball fields could eat into money for general park maintenance.

The project is not without precedent.

Several years ago, officials added play area improvements worth $220,000 and $133,000 in grants to the capital budget, despite playgrounds' inclusion in the Parks Department budget.

“Pittsburgh Sports (League) is a huge social networking opportunity for this city,” said Brian Magee, PUMP CEO. “People find friends here. They find jobs here. They travel to other parts of town they might not visit and spend money at bars and restaurants they didn't know were there.

“This is much more than running around a few bases.”

Megan Harris is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-388-5815 or

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