There’s something magical that happens on Sunday afternoons in the summer at Dias Field in New Bedford.
That’s when the players of the Vladimir Guerrero League show up in full uniforms to play a game of power softball not often seen in the city anymore.
The four-team league is open to anyone who has the skill to play, but it is primarily populated by the Latino island peoples of New Bedford.
Baseball, not soccer, is the sport of choice in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, and that’s where the majority of the players come from.
It’s an entirely different Latino scene at Dias Field than the Soccer Sundays that are popular with the Central American immigrants at nearby Riverside Park.
At Dias Field, it’s all softball and these players — many of them immigrants themselves — are good athletes.
Jerry Gil, the captain of Guineitos, the team that won the league championship a few weeks ago — played pro baseball for seven years for mostly minor league systems including the Arizona Diamondbacks, Cincinnati Reds and Toronto Blue Jays.
It’s hard to oversell what this league means to these players.
“When I come here, I reset for the whole week,” said Anthony Joaquin, a mechanic who is the captain of Los Unigados, which was runner-up to Guinetos in a seven-game championship series that finished in late August. Joaquin works six days a week and has responsibilities for his family but his wife, he said, knows this is what he needs to unwind.
The Vladimir Guerrero League is not just a fun time for the guys. It’s a festive and family Sunday with the players’ wives, partners and children milling around the field. Many of the team members are associated with an Iglesia de Dios pentecostal church that sponsors them. The league is named for the first Dominican player to be named to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
In some ways, the Vladimir Guerrero scene benefits from the fact that Dias Field — unlike better-tended city parks like Buttonwood and Brooklawn and even Riverside — is almost out of sight and out of mind of the New Bedford English-speaking community that runs the city. It is not easily visible from the adjacent main roads because of the commercial development that surrounds it and because much of the park is below grade level. It has not received the attention other city parks have in recent years, if ever.
So on warm summer afternoons in July and August, the Guerrero league spectators drive their cars up onto a bluff that overlooks the outfield and use the vehicle’s batteries to fill the park with celebratory Salsa music.
They dance and party and watch the Sunday doubleheaders from the high ground that gives the best vistas of the field.
The vehicle arrangement is illegal according to the city’s Recreation and Parks officials, but you can see why the fans do it. The Guerrero League at Dias Field is a high-quality recreational experience for this immigrant community but it is located in a low-quality public park with very few amenities.
The city’s rec officials do not make a big deal of the errant vehicles but suggest that when the park is eventually rebuilt, they can install picnic benches and/or bleachers in the high bluff area so that people can watch from there without the cars. How they will solve the desire to bring music in during the games is another matter.
The city does not appear to have any infrastructure to play the music, and the park’s current configuration has not been conceived well enough to function in the way the Guerrero League community wants to use it.
There is a sign in very small print at one of the entrances to the park that says in English that “operation of unauthorized vehicles on park property” is “prohibited.” The relatively small number of vehicles don’t appear to be doing any damage to the park.
The cars on the bluff are just one small part of the success of this league.
Around the field’s backstop, women set up canopies for shade and keep water and sports drinks for the players. Some of the kids play on an adjacent former youth baseball league diamond that the players would like the city to make into a second softball field. Mothers walk the small children to the other end of the park, where a rusted and outdated swing set passes for a tots’ playground. It’s located in what looks like a man-made valley inside the park that the spectators say frequently floods.
The Vladimir Guerrero League has been looking for its promised land for a while now.
Six years ago, it played its first year at Ashley Park before the city moved it to Buttonwood Park for a year and then to Dias Field for the last four years.
There were lights at Ashley and Buttonwood but none at Dias. After merchant and motorist complaints about foul balls, the softball field was eliminated from Ashley. There is always a lot of competition for Buttonwood fields, the city’s premier park.
As part of the effort to build the new softball field at Dias, the city, by way of a pilot grant, installed solar/wind powered lights — near home plate and in left and right fields — but the players say they don’t operate properly.
If they had lights that worked, they say they could play on Wednesday nights and the league could field as many as 16 teams, particularly if they could convince the city to enlarge a small adjacent former youth league baseball field into the second softball field.
Dias Field, as I’ve written in other columns, is very much a park in transition.
The Greater New Bedford Youth Baseball League played at Dias until it went out of business two years ago. The Parks and Recreation department’s current plan is to convert two of the park’s former baseball fields into the city’s first regulation-size soccer field. A second phase of a Dias rebuild would address the problems in the tots’ playground and a third phase the ones at the softball field and remaining youth league field.
But the Vladmir Guerrero players say they are sure the league could expand right now if they could play in the summer evenings. They say city police officers will be fielding a softball squad in Vladimir Guerrero next year. “If we can get lights, we can get more teams to play in this league,” Gil said.
Parks and Recreation by press time was not able to give me a definitive answer on what is wrong with the lights. They think it might be a timer and they are not sure if they provide enough light even when working to play at night. Mary Rapoza, the director of Parks, Recreation and Beaches, said an electrician will look at the lights and get them working. But she acknowledged they will not provide enough light to play baseball under.
Rapoza said the three lights on the field cost about $10,000 each and were paid for out of the pilot government program. I asked what it would take to see how much light they provide and install two or three additional ones, if necessary, by next softball season. It’s really not a whole lot of money. I got no response or commitments.
According to Rapoza, it currently costs about half a million dollars to install the kind of lighting that athletes need to play under but she provided no documentation of that estimate. The solar/wind lights were simply meant to give a little illumination to the park at night, she said.
The Guerrero league at Dias, thriving as it is, could use a lot more help than just the lights.
The team captains say the league needs a net along its left field sideline to prevent foul balls from being lost in a treacherous-looking adjacent wooded area. The wooded area slopes steeply down to a swampy strip of land that shows evidence of being used by street people.
There are a series of large holes cut into a very old looking and rusted fence that divides the softball field from the slope. It’s a narrow strip and is abutted by an industrial area. Purity Linen Services, located on the adjacent Myrtle Street, is the largest property owner there.
Street folks have apparently left their trash and debris in the spots where the holes have been cut.
A spokesperson for the city said it is the owner’s responsibility to “maintain their property in a way that doesn’t create a nuisance” However, it appears the conditions along this fence are caused by the presence of homeless or other individuals so the city generally works with the owner and homeless providers rather than through code enforcement.
An official with Purity Linen said the company would be happy to have someone clean up any trash on the property but that the problem is that the city has never maintained the park’s fence.
“I’m aware of the holes in question,” said operations manager Chris Deneault. “Frankly, they’ve been there for decades and the city just doesn’t do anything about it.”
People evidently hide out in the wooded area, he said. “I would love for the city to repair the fence.”
Asked to confirm her statement that people keep cutting holes in the fences, Rapoza said the city would work with the abutting businesses to address the vandalism.
Part of the problem may be that when the city leases park space to athletic leagues, it generally expects the leagues to take care of the parks to some extent.
The Greater New Bedford Youth Baseball League that played at Dias was long the most financially-challenged of the city’s youth baseball leagues. What’s more, it’s hard not to notice that the park is located in one of the lowest income sections of the city and also exists in an in-between area (Ward 3) that residents have often complained is an afterthought for the city’s attention.
The players also say that if the city could install a separate fence on the border between left field and the park’s basketball court, that would save them from having to erect a temporary snow fence every Sunday to prevent them from disturbing players on the b-ball court.
The players are further frustrated by the city’s fees, which Gil said have jumped sharply over the last year.
Why, I might ask, are the fees for a park with such minimal facilities equal to the fees for a park like Buttonwood or Brooklawn that have so much more, or leagues that are so better financed?
The Vladimir Guerrero teams now keep score by hand — the players don’t use the field’s electronic scoreboard any more after they say the city increased its price this year. The players, primarily Spanish-speaking, seem to think it’s $25 per week but Rapoza said she understands that the price is $20 for the whole summer. There is a $400 penalty if you lose the scoreboard remote which Rapoza said is just a fraction of the cost.
Rapoza theorized that it may be an issue of communication with the Spanish-speaking players and said the city works with groups that cannot afford the fees, and also has translators.
Parks and Recreation is happy that Vladimir Guerrero is doing well, Rapoza said.
“We want leagues on our fields,” she said. “So we work with leagues” on things like prices and conditions. And the league players say Parks and Recreation has, in fact, provided anything they have asked for when it comes to mowing the lawns or fixing things. A volunteer from the old youth league normally mows for them.
But Gil also expressed concern that the price the city charges for leasing the field itself jumped from $600 to $800 this year, an amount that he says the league — which collects money from the players — needs help with.
Rapoza provided a price sheet on which it states that reserving a field for an hour costs $50 for one time. Since the Vladimir Guerrero League occupies the field for about eight hours on summer Sundays, that might come to $400. Rapoza, however, noted that the fee is for one season, so the league may be paying for a second spring season.
Gil also mentioned that there are no restrooms and it would cost the league $125 a week to bring its own portable toilet. The city’s facilities in the old youth league canteen are not currently open.
Rapoza said when the soccer field is rebuilt, the plan is to allow the softball league to use the facilities while they are leasing the field.
You can see the conundrum here. The players know what the park needs, but the city thinks it is already doing all it can.
The players also seem like they are going to have a hard time convincing the city on the foul ball nets in the near future. Rapoza said the city has stopped installing nets to prevent the loss of foul balls because they were constantly destroyed. That seems unreasonable for a park where home plate is located directly adjacent to a steep, fenced-off, trash-strewn hill that ends in a swamp.
The city doesn’t seem inclined to replace the border fence, which is tipped with barbed wire, any time soon either. “The folks who want to get into that area keep cutting holes,” Rapoza said, in apparent contradiction to the Purity manager’s statement that the holes have been there for decades. The state of the long rusted fence seems to indicate it is not a new fence by any means.
I’ve known Mary Rapoza a long time, and I think she does a wonderful overall job, but this seems like a defeatist attitude to me. The city long ago should have been working with Purity Laundry and find some way to clean up this area and make it more secure from street folks, even if that means bringing in cameras and more police presence, which Rapoza said is a possibility.
As for the improvements to Dias Field taking place in three phases, I’m not convinced the city needs to wait that long.
There’s just a ton of ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) money available in the wake of the pandemic. My understanding is that the city has still not earmarked millions of its share. But nowhere have I seen anybody proposing the tots playground or the softball field for any of that money. The relocation of a tots playground at Riverside, which also floods and is no doubt more heavily used, is ahead of it in line for funding.
Mayor Jon Mitchell is currently in campaign mode and announcing how the city just spent $1.7 million in Community Development Block Grant money to rebuild Ashley Park in the Portuguese neighborhood around Goulart Square. He ought to reach out to leadership in the Puerto Rican and Dominican communities and find some way to do a comprehensive rebuild of Dias Field more quickly.
An official in the mayor’s office said the entire $82 million in ARPA money has already been committed without upgrades to the Dias softball field winning any of it. Chief Operating Officer Christina Connolly said now that officials have learned there is a demand for an expanded softball facility, the city will look into it.
“It comes down to having to make choices,” she said. “Which is not to say any project will not get done.”
Freshman Ward 3 Councilor Shawn Oliver, who represents the area, said he thinks the city should upgrade the entire park.
“It’s going to be a draw to the whole park and solidify the whole area,” he said.
The potential political power of the community that uses this field is not lost on everyone. Guilmie Santiago, one of the first councilor-at-large candidates from the Latino community, was working the crowd at a recent game.
I suggested to Rapoza that a high-quality harpoon iron fence, like the ones that have been erected around Riverside and Clasky Common, should surround Dias and she quickly said it won’t be that. But it will get a new fence of some sort.
Even though the Parks, Recreation and Beaches Department has made tangible efforts for the league, like installing a first-class softball infield, no one would say that Dias Field is a handsome, well-equipped facility as other city parks.
The city of New Bedford has a long history of doing a great job of building parks and fields and supporting its recreational sports teams. But there is a new generation of New Bedford residents, and some spaces have infrastructure and amenities that are clearly better than others.
Joel Antonio, a New Bedford resident, watching Los Unigados and Guineitas in their championship game a few weeks ago, said through a translator that Dias Field could definitely be more beautiful.
Antonio also said he thinks it’s important to encourage sports at its parks and ballfields. It keeps people from being involved in more negative activities.
“If you keep it nice and maintained, people will play,” he said.
Email Jack Spillane at email@example.com.
Editor’s note: This story was updated on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023, to include the city’s response to why the Dias Field soccer facilities were not included in the federal American Rescue Plan Act funding. The response was inadvertently left out of the original column.
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