Just outside the first base dugout, I found my first mound of poop. A real big green-brown pile, in fact—fresh and stinking despite being smeared during what must have been a very recent mowing, and surrounded by other, older but equally substantial piles.
Foul territory, indeed.
“I told you it would be there,” says David Pansegrouw, a coach of Los Leopardos de Oyster, a team of 9-to-11-year-olds that plays in the city’s Cal Ripken League.
The Leopardos have gotten used to such playing conditions at their home field, a mess of clumpy grass and dirt patches—and, yes, poop—at Harrison Recreation Center off 14th Street NW.
The team mostly comes from students at Woodley Park’s Oyster Bilingual School, and more than half of this year’s squad has been playing together for six seasons, since the day when they were a T-ball team and were invited to play their first game on the White House lawn as part of George W. Bush’s occasional baseball showcase series.
The only dog allowed on the field then was Barney, and the First Pooch’s poop was no doubt scooped up by a government employee before anybody yelled “Play ball!”
But dog poop is as much a part of the scene at the Leopardos’ current home park as bratwurst is at Lambeau Field.
“I’ve seen amazing amounts of poop there,” says Coach Rich Eisendorf.
Several midrise condo and apartment buildings have sprung up in the U Street corridor adjacent to the park in recent years, attracting probably hundreds of dog owners to move within blocks of the field.
And many of those owners have decided a run over the baseball diamond should be part of their dogs’ daily routines.
“I moved here from Chicago two years ago,” says John Bucciarelli, who lives in the Ellington, a luxury apartment building on U Street that overlooks Harrison, and regularly lets his two dogs go leashless on the field. “I chose to live in this building because of the available green space there. There’s not much in this city.”
The takeover of the Harrison field by owners of man’s best friend has come against the wishes of the baseball parents.
“We’re not against dogs; we just feel that kids shouldn’t have to look before they sit on a baseball field, just so they don’t sit in poop,” says Pansegrouw. “You can’t have a dog park on a baseball diamond.”
The use of Harrison as a dog park is also against the law. Dogs are prohibited on baseball diamonds owned by the city, among other places, and a sign declaring as much—no dogs allowed on athletic fields—hangs on some chain-link fence near an entrance to the park.
“There used to be a lot more of those signs,” says Ed Racobaldo, a Leopardos parent. “But the dog people have taken them down. And they ignore those that still hang. And every year, the conditions here get worse. There’s less grass all the time, and at the start of every season we have to go all over with bags and pick up an amazing amount of poop.”
The disappearance of the no-dog signs is but one sign that the squabble between baseball parents and dog-park advocates has gotten ugly.
Bucciarelli alleges Pansegrouw once threatened to hit two dog owners with the Club, the metal auto-theft-prevention device, just for walking on the field one evening.
“The baseball people are totally unreasonable, and [Pansegrouw] is one of the more militant,” says Bucciarelli.
Pansegrouw says any action he took was in self-defense.
“A few of [Bucciarelli’s] friends were coming through the gate with their dogs after the park was closed, and they weren’t taking kindly to me taking pictures of them,” says Pansegrouw. “His buddy stuck a hand in my car, tried to grab my face, tried to grab my camera. I made it clear to him that I was going to take care of myself. That wasn’t a threat. That guy looks at this park, he doesn’t see the backstop, he doesn’t see dugouts, he doesn’t see a baseball diamond. He sees ‘green space’ and a place to exercise his two dogs. But this is a ball field! What he’s doing is against the law!”
Bucciarelli and other Harrison dog walkers have been in discussions with D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham in hopes of getting the laws changed to allow the park’s use as a dog park. He and Pansegrouw were among those who attended a meeting with Graham to discuss the situation. Graham told the assembled crowd he has asked the Department of Parks and Recreation to do a study on feasibility of allowing Harrison to serve as both a ball field and a dog park.
Graham says he hopes the city comes up with a “Solomon’s decision” that will please everybody, but adds that for sanitary reasons hewouldn’t push for a ballpark and dog park on the same patch of grass.
“This is an example of incompatible uses,” says Graham, who has told the baseball parents that they aren’t at risk of losing their field.
Each side admits that the city has a shortage of both ball fields and dog parks—there’s currently only one official dog park in the city, at Walter Pierce Park in Adams Morgan.That’s about all they agree on.
Most people who use Harrison Recreation Center as a dog park live within a quarter-mile of it, says Bucciarelli. “You get home from work, and you want to take your dog for a walk. That works out well. We don’t want to take it over from the baseball team. But kids don’t use this park for a ball yard, except when the league is using it for a couple nights a week for a couple months a year. When there is a game on, no dogs. We all agree on that. But this is about common sense and sharing a public space. This city is changing, and the people have to change with it.”
Pansegrouw has other ideas.
“When I hear these people who moved here talk about this ‘green space,’ it’s like that comedy routine that Dick Gregory used to do in the ’60s, about Christopher Columbus coming to America and discovering something,” says Pansegrouw. “He’d say: ‘How can you discover something if somebody already lives there?’ Well, this ‘green space’ was already a ball field. Jim Graham just needs to tell these people what the law is, and that they need to stay off the ball field.”