The Dodgers are winning, but the Little League next door is dying thanks to City Hall inaction

The Dodgers are winning, but the Little League next door is dying thanks to City Hall inaction
Sergio Villaseñor, president of the North East Los Angeles Little League, at the Bishop Canyon baseball fields at Elysian Park. They've have been closed for more than a year, after the removal of the leaning snack bar, caused by sinking soil. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

This has been a banner season for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

But it's been a bust for their Little League neighbors and admirers just up the hill from Dodger Stadium, thanks to bobbles and blunders at Los Angeles City Hall.


When his work schedule permits, Sergio Villasenor begins his days with a trek up to the Northeast Los Angeles Little League fields above the Los Angeles Police Academy. He aims his camera, shoots a photo, and posts it on Instagram so that the league's families can follow the progress of the ball field reconstruction project being done by L.A. city crews.

Lots of photos. Not much progress.

"Believe me, Steve, I just don't even know how to deal with the city anymore," said Villasenor, a construction worker who serves as president of a league that has had as many as 300 kids playing on 14 teams. "I'm not a politically inclined person. I'm just a blue-collar worker."

I first wrote about the league's problems in 2012. The fields are at Bishop Canyon, which was once a landfill. The snack-shack and bathroom building, next to one of three diamonds, was sinking, and it had been for years. The league asked for some attention from the city, but didn't get it.

In the shadow of greatness

The right field area of one of the diamonds was also sinking. It looked as though it was being sucked into quicksand along with the tilted snack shack.

"Eventually, the building will have to be demolished," a staffer for then-Councilman Ed Reyes told me in 2012.

At the time, a team of high rollers had just bought the Dodgers for $2 billion, and I suggested that if they had a few bucks left over, maybe they could bail out the Little Leaguers.

But that didn't go anywhere. The sinking continued, meetings were held in 2014 and holes were drilled in the outfield to test the soil. But nothing of consequence happened.

That brings us to the spring of 2016. One week before the season was to begin, Villasenor says, the city ordered the snack shack shut down and fenced off.

The timing was disastrous.

Food sales are a big part of the income the league needs to pay for insurance, equipment, uniforms, the rights to the Little League name, and the privilege of renting the field from the city. But the league managed to struggle through the 2016 season with a portable food outlet.

"They said they would demo the snack shack in the fall and try to have us ready to go in the spring of 2017," said Bohnie Avanzino, who helps Villasenor because even though her own Little Leaguers have moved on, she thinks the program is a valuable community asset worth supporting.

Team had to bail

But the demolition did not happen in late 2016 or early this year, so the 2017 season was lost. Villasenor said 12 of the 14 teams folded for the season. The two others managed to find slots in a league in Alhambra.

So here we are, more than five years after I wrote the column about the sinking shack, and the demolition is not yet complete. The shack is finally gone, although, based on his construction experience, Villasenor can't understand why it took months to get that job done. On Tuesday, tractors and trucks were still at the site, pushing and hauling dirt.


A spokesman for City Councilman Gil Cedillo said the removal of dirt and debris is part of the demolition and is expected to be completed by the end of November. Then the Recreation and Parks Department will contract out for field renovations that will take six to eight months. Which means that this spring, more than 200 Little Leaguers could lose their second straight season.

"We'll be lucky to get back out there in the spring of 2019," said an exasperated Avanzino.

She said she wishes that the Dodgers would see the PR value in sponsoring a scrappy Little League next-door neighbor, or that city officials who have shown some interest in helping out would do a better job of following through.

"I just kind of get the runaround," said Avanzino, who has kept a log of phone calls and emails she's made. "I'm so flustered."

Among the unanswered questions: Why did it take so long, after the kids had been run off the field for an entire season, to demolish the shack?

The Cedillo spokesman said there was a funding gap of $90,000 to hire the contractor. "So there was a transmittal from the mayor's office to council and back" to get some Community Development Block Grant funding.

What about the discretionary funds each council member gets to spend on pet causes? Couldn't Cedillo have tapped that?

Spending priorities

While the Little Leaguers were out of commission this summer because of the funding gap, the mayor and City Council had no trouble awarding Department of Water and Power workers a contract calling for six raises in five years, and the utility's employees have the bonus of paying nothing toward their healthcare premiums. So now the other unions will belly up to the trough for their haul.

Is there a money shortage in Los Angeles, or a mismanagement of existing funds and a busted bureaucracy, despite Mayor Eric Garcetti's reelection vow to focus on basic services?

Last month I wrote about a 12-year battle by a Hollywood Hills neighborhood to fix a dangerous intersection that also has one of the most ridiculously uprooted sidewalks in the city. Frustrated residents raised the money for the project themselves, but City Hall still can't get the job done.

Despite all this, we keep reading about how Garcetti might like to graduate to governor, or U.S. senator, or even president, which might explain why he's been globe-trotting more than Dora the Explorer. My colleague Dakota Smith reported that Garcetti, who hasn't committed to completing his current term as mayor, traveled out of California 112 days over the last 12 months.

How about taking a short trip up the hill, Mr. Mayor? The Dodgers aren't the only ballplayers dreaming big up there.

The kids can't vote, but they wanna play ball.

Get more of Steve Lopez's work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez