Fields of Dreams

Think your kid could be the next Shea Hillenbrand or Curt Schilling? Hook him up with the major leaguers in metro Phoenix youth baseball.

Surprise has already built a new library near the stadiums. The city's new town hall will soon be there, as well as numerous other civic amenities within walking distance of each other.

"It's going to be an amazing place for the residents of the city to come and get out and get involved with all kinds of activities," he says. "It's going to be a genuine town core. And right there in the middle of it is baseball."

Indeed, with the new Cardinals and Coyotes stadiums getting added to the plethora of state-of-the-art pro baseball facilities, the West Valley, perhaps more than any swath of suburbia in the nation, is being built on a foundation of sports.

Lou Klimchock, who played 12 years in the majors, 
coaches a club baseball team that includes his grandson, 
Mitchell Nay. Klimchock is also director of the 300-
member Arizona Major League Alumni Association.
Lou Klimchock, who played 12 years in the majors, coaches a club baseball team that includes his grandson, Mitchell Nay. Klimchock is also director of the 300- member Arizona Major League Alumni Association.
Former Diamondbacks and now Red Sox pitching great 
Curt Schilling played at Shadow Mountain High School.
Former Diamondbacks and now Red Sox pitching great Curt Schilling played at Shadow Mountain High School.

Though the promise has not become a reality, note that Bank One Ballpark and the birth of the Diamondbacks was sold to taxpayers as the key to revitalizing the urban core of Phoenix.

Scottsdale's baseball stadium, spring home of the San Francisco Giants, was also designed to be an integral part of that city's downtown experience.

"What brings people together in the Valley?" asks Van Le, a Harvard researcher who is a consultant for the Arizona Tourism and Sports Authority. "It's sports -- whether you're watching pros or playing or watching your kids play. What that means is that sports needs to be part of any planning to build a more livable city and city core."


Here's the perspective from Harvard University:

Too many Arizona kids are fat.

Obesity is one of the leading causes of health problems in the United States.

Researchers blame much of the increase in child obesity on video games, cable television, computers and the increasing inability of most children to stray and play far from home.

While suburban Phoenix may be drenched in sun, it also is inhospitable to foot or bike travel. It is a city built on the car. Here, kids need a ride most anywhere they might think of going.

One way to make fat kids thin is to make sports part of their lives. To do that, you need to build sports facilities and, more important, establish organizations that promote and organize those activities at the facilities you build.

Two top researchers in the field of youth obesity and youth sports are Greg Johnson and Van Le of the Sports Philanthropy Project in Cambridge, Massachusetts, an offshoot project of Harvard.

One of their most exciting and innovative programs, they say, comes from their partnership with the Arizona Tourism and Sports Authority. Their job: to figure out the most productive way to spend the Authority's $1 million to $2 million a year of taxpayer money that's earmarked for youth sports.

"You aren't going to change the world on one or two million dollars a year," Le says. "But with some smart planning, you can make that money go a lot farther toward the goal of helping youth sports in the Valley."

Le approaches the task from the community health perspective. Arizona spends $752 million a year on obesity-related illnesses, he says. His goal, then, is to attack childhood obesity with expanded recreational facilities and activities. And to make the TSA's limited money go much farther, he is enlisting the help of communities and health-related businesses and philanthropy groups to create partnerships that aim toward giving Valley kids more alternatives to video games.

"We've designed physical activity out of our communities," Le says. "Our goal is to design them back in. To do that, we've got to partner with everyone with a stake in the issue, everyone from hospital leaders to health-care providers to city parks-and-rec people. Then we've got to build more than just a park. We've got to build the organization around that park to make it a vibrant part of the community."

The TSA will soon complete development of a massive database of all existing recreational facilities in the Valley. Le and others hope to use that information to better target areas of the community that need the most help. That database will also help area coaches who need to find a field.

In February, the TSA gave out $1.32 million to 13 projects, many of which are renovations of existing public school rec facilities. In most cases, the TSA was providing a fraction of the total cost of the project, with cities, businesses and philanthropies adding matching funds and services.

In addition to the TSA efforts, the Diamondbacks' "Diamonds Back" program has built or refurbished 13 more baseball fields around Arizona since 2000. Nine of the fields are in the Valley.

But even with the TSA, Diamondbacks and individual cities working to upgrade and increase the number of ball fields in the Valley, area coaches say that most parts of the Valley are still far from having enough fields for all the emerging leagues and club teams.

"The only thing holding a lot of us back is the field issue," says Tom Kingery, one of the coaches of the Ahwatukee Cardinals, a 10-and-under club team that will be traveling to Japan this summer as part of Phoenix's Sister City program. "Sometimes it's just a nightmare trying to get a place to practice or play."

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