Sailors Hang Up Mitts After Navy Cries Foul

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A ban on sailors using a San Diego park threatens to disrupt an organized adult softball league that raises money for underprivileged and disabled youths.

Blaming gang- and drug-related violence, Navy officials declared Southeast Athletic Field off-limits last week. But the area, as well as being an urban battleground, also serves 500 ballplayers of Sports America, a nonprofit group raising money to build a sports complex.

Sailors have hung up their mitts because of the off-limits ban, and three games have been canceled so far, said Gary (Ike) Isakson, president of Sports America.

"Unless there's some resolution, and quickly, this will force Sports America to close," said Isakson, a former center fielder with a Chicago White Sox minor-league team. The group has been unable to obtain permits to play in other parks, frequently crowded with Little League and other youth groups, he said.

In its first year, Sports America raised $17,500. Of that money, $12,000 has paid for equipment and renting ball fields through next year, and $1,250 was donated to Southeast Recreation Council of San Diego to help organize sports for poor children, Isakson said.

But Navy officials say the trouble-ridden park warrants a ban. After six months of investigation, officials concluded that the park, at 45th Street and Logan Avenue, and another one at South Mission Beach, known as the South Jetty, are too dangerous to permit sailors to use. On July 29, six sailors from a frigate were shot at by a gang in the Southeast Athletic Field. The sailors dived into a car and drove a block away, where the driver got out to inspect his car for damage--not realizing that the gang was in hot pursuit. The sailor was shot in the shoulder.

The commanding officer of the frigate complained that his crew had survived deployment in the Philippines and the Western Pacific, only to be attacked in San Diego.

"Normally we put bans on places for selling drug paraphernalia--this place sells rock cocaine every few feet," said Lt. Steve Rogers, a Navy attorney.

"This is not your basic place to throw Frisbees and walk your dog," said Cmdr. Doug Schamp, a Navy spokesman. "I'd rather explain to a guy why he can't play ball there than explain to the guy's mother why her son got shot."

The Navy has asked Isakson to send them a letter about the softball league, Schamp said. Officials could exempt sailors from the ban for the specific purpose of playing in the league, he said.

Sailors say that, until the final call, they won't play ball.

Chris Neiffer, a petty officer 1st class, said he doesn't believe the park is dangerous. In fact, when he plays, he usually takes his wife and children, ages 19 months to 9 years.

"The ban shocked me. It's sad--I have no place to play now, and that was basically the only way I stay in shape," said Neiffer, who has lived in San Diego seven years. "We've got to honor the ban. I'm not going to jeopardize my career just to play softball."

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