PLAY BALL! ACTUALLY DON'T

"Skydome", Trinity Bellwoods Park by  PJ Mixer

"Skydome", Trinity Bellwoods Park by PJ Mixer

This is the first season adult softball players are banned from Trinity Bellwoods’ southern diamonds, their pop flies deemed too dangerous for picnickers and passersby

It’s a Sunday evening in Trinity Bellwoods park, on the first real spring day of the year. For the first time in 2019, the park is full: full of children in the playground, full of the usual aspiring circus performers, full of people in their 20s and 30s blasting Blind Melon and not even trying to hide their booze.

What you don’t see a lot of in Trinity Bellwoods – one of the largest parks in western Toronto – is sports.

Sure, there are a few folks kicking a soccer ball around. The odd Frisbee. And the tennis courts are almost full. But this is a park with three softball diamonds. And for most of the day, two of them lay dormant. That’s because despite its size – and its existing infrastructure – Trinity Bellwoods is now considered too small for softball. Adult softball, anyway.

Last August, the city decided that adult softball leagues would no longer be allowed to play in the park’s southern two diamonds, located in the heart of the park, where picnickers are most likely to colonize the outfield. Softball does require a lot of real estate, after all.

Steve McLean started playing in the park 20 years ago for the Horseshoe Tavern’s team, and has been the commissioner of the West End Softball League since 2010. He says last year his teams “started to get a few complaints that people were getting hit by balls, or were afraid they would be. People were getting in arguments when we asked them to move because we had a permit for the field. There haven’t been any fisticuffs, but there have been threats. Last year a couple of guys playing soccer on the field told us they had guns in the trunk of their car, and that they were going to get them.”

Rumour has it that one person pushing a baby stroller was actually hit by a stray ball, which was the final straw for the city to restrict the southern two diamonds for use by youth leagues only. The city did not define “youth” – teenage batters can certainly pack more of a punch than those in middle-aged beer leagues. In response to a direct question, a Parks Department representative assured us: “The youth baseball leagues recognize the pressures on the park and reserve those fields for their youngest age groups who do not hit the ball as far.” Everyone else who wants to play in Trinity is now relegated to the northern diamond, which for years has hosted a makeshift, hand-painted sign attached to the fence that reads “Sky Dome.”

Ask anyone who plays hockey how hard it is to book ice time in this city. Softball could be the next to feel the crunch: As the population of downtown intensifies, it’s not like any new parks are being built. (The 9.5-hectare, $1.66-billion Rail Deck Park, proposed and approved by council in 2016, would be built over the train tracks south of Wellington between Bathurst and Blue Jays Way; it’s currently entangled in a court case with developers.) Intensification won’t just mean greater demand for park use; condo dwellers and park users could clash in more direct ways.

“At MacGregor Park [College and Lansdowne] they’re building a condo along the one park fence,” says McLean. “It’s not that big a park, and when we hit a ball over the fence it’s hitting the construction. I imagine we’ll get some complaints when the building is finished. We talked to the city about that, and they said because the park predates the condo, it will be up to the developer to come up with a solution, like a higher fence or netting.”

The West End Softball League has already been bounced out of Coronation Park, by the waterfront across from Fort York, in favour of for-profit leagues. Bickford Park (west of Grace, between Bloor and Harbord) was turned over to youth leagues a couple of years ago. But McLean has fought city hall before and won. “In 2010, the city decided to put a dog park in Stanley Park, near King and Strachan,” he says. “The dog park would have originally taken up so much space that it wouldn’t be feasible for adults to play softball there anymore. Eventually they changed the dimensions so that we could still play, but that took a lot of lobbying” from the West End Softball League and others. “At Trinity Bellwoods last summer,” he says, “there was no consultation at all; it was just sprung on us.”

In addition to Trinity, Stanley, and MacGregor, McLean’s league can play in Dovercourt and Sorauren parks. Scheduling has become a bit trickier after losing two of the Trinity diamonds. It’s not likely to get easier in coming years. He says he might have to start looking to less densely populated neighbourhoods – across the Don River.