Wielding a baseball bat, a coach chased a transient across the field while a group of 4- and 5-year-old softball players watched during a recent game. Jose Trujillo, coordinator for sports events at Salt Lake Park, got between the two men before anyone was hurt.
"I saved the guy's skin," Trujillo said. "I don't know what would have happened if I hadn't broken it up." The altercation began when the transient, who had removed part of his clothing, began screaming hysterically and chasing the children. Police eventually detained the transient briefly before releasing him. Neither man was arrested.
Last week, city officials met with concerned citizens to seek a solution to these sorts of problems at the park. They worked out a plan in which police will step up patrols and train a group of volunteers to observe and report criminal activity in the area.
Parents whose children play ball at the park said they are fed up with the youngsters being exposed to people making drug deals and men urinating in public at the 36-acre park at Florence Avenue and Bissell Street in Huntington Park. If the city didn't resolve to do something, the parents said they would.
Ron Ulibarri, a Little League coach representing the coaches and parents, asked the City Council for help at a recent meeting.
"We don't want to become vigilantes and take care of the park ourselves, but we will get something done, with or without your help," he told the council. "It could turn ugly. It could turn into a battlefield."
Council members said they were sympathetic, and city officials met Wednesday with a group of coaches at the park. The city's representatives included Mayor Raul Perez and Police Chief Patrick M. Connolly, as well as park commissioners and workers.
Huntington Park Little League President Rudy Comparan, who attended the meeting, said he has been watching the tensions grow between the parents and the drug dealers who frequent the ball fields.
"The parents are worried," he said. "You can see it on their faces; it could get out of hand, and who knows what will happen."
During the meeting, Connolly promised to assign more police during children's events and said police would be willing to teach a volunteer group how to patrol the area during softball and baseball games. The parents also would be taught correct procedures on reporting illegal activities to the police, and what they legally can and cannot do.
"When a man goes after another with a bat, it's a crime," Connolly said. "Under no circumstances will we tolerate that."
The training will include lectures and guidelines. Volunteers will be expected to obey a set of specific instructions, he said. The participants will be allowed only to observe and report.
Ulibarri is optimistic about finding at least 20 parents and fellow coaches who would be interested in participating. "We've been too complacent," he said.
There have been 93 arrests in and around the park this year, 79 of them drug-related, said Detective Robert Radeski of the Huntington Park police. There were 55 arrests for possession of narcotics for sale.
"We do have problems in that park," Connolly said. "We try to be as responsive as possible but we can't be there all the time."
The park is patrolled sporadically throughout the day and night, police Sgt. Ron Beason said, and officers answer at least one call for assistance there every day.
"By the time we get back to the station with a dealer, somebody else has already set up shop," Beason said.
The ballplayers and their families end up dodging people who have taken drugs, sidestepping drug deals and enduring leering transients during games played at the park's four diamonds.
"You can't even let your kids go to the bathrooms by themselves," said Teresa Carter, a coach whose 4-year-old daughter, Jessica, is a catcher for the Reds, a city-sponsored T-ball team.
During the winter, city-sponsored softball teams use the park's diamonds. Last year, 471 children, ranging in age from 8 to 12, played ball at the park.
"The bums are here all day long; they sit right on the bleachers," said Trujillo, who has worked at the park for 10 years. "This is an everyday thing; there are drug deals every day. The police are doing the best they can with the little they've got. There just aren't enough officers."
Because of Huntington Park's reputation as a high crime area, organizers fear other leagues won't want to come to Salt Lake Park to play ball, Comparan, the Little League president, said. Three new divisions are planned, organizers said, and more than 700 players are expected to use the park's diamonds when Little League season starts next spring.
"If things don't get fixed, there's going to be a tragedy," Trujillo said. "Somebody, maybe one of the bums, might get killed."