Fighting For Home Field Advantage

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:15

Girls' softball team on the Lower East Side struggles to find place to practice and play

Lower East Side Damien Acevedo knew he had a winning team in the Lady Furies after their first game against West Side Little League in April. The 22-3 score line was one indication, but the camaraderie he saw amongst the age 10 and under girls was what he was really proud of.

"They went from the Bad News Bears to a contender," said Acevedo, who mentioned that at least half of the team had never played softball before this year.

Acevedo started the team ? the first girls' softball team to represent the Lower East Side in the Little League World Series ? after realizing his daughter, who was interested in playing softball, didn't have a team to join. He joined forces with like-minded dads in the neighborhood last November and their inaugural season was a huge success ? undefeated in 12 games and a stint in the Little League World Series, where they were defeated in the second round by a well-heeled team from Long Island.

Overshadowing their great success, though, is one fundamental problem: the 13-member Lady Furies don't have a home field to practice and play on. The Furies' coaches, including Acevedo, told Our Town Downtown that they're constantly competing for field time with corporate teams and established Little Leagues on the eight diamonds along FDR Drive and the one at Corlears Hook Park.

If they do manage to snag a field, they're sometimes kicked off of it by the Parks Department for lack of a permit. If not, said one coach recently, they practice under the constant threat of eviction. All their games are away.

The Parks Dept. regulates field usage across the city through a permitting system on their website. Tanya Castro, a tenant leader on the Lower East Side and booster of the Lady Furies, said more established organizations in the area like Felix Millan Little League have a monopoly on field usage in the area going back decades. There are also corporate leagues and even private schools like the British International School of New York to compete with too.

"Permits are really difficult to obtain, corporate companies have access to the permits because they've been ongoing, and Felix Millan has the [Little League] charter on the Lower East Side," said Castro. "If we don't go through Felix Millan, we can't be a part of the charter. They obtain the permits right away."

Castro said the Furies have even been preempted by these more established organizations.

"When [Acevedo] tries to get a space, let's just say even a community center, somebody will find out like from [Our Lady of Sorrows sports league] or Felix Millan, and if they want the same program, they'll jump in and they'll get first rights to it because they've been around for so long," said Castro. "I guess us being a new team coming in, the [Parks Department] is not respecting us as they would somebody who has been there for so many years."

The Parks Dept. website shows the fields at East River Park booked up almost every day through November by youth football leagues, a lawyers co-ed league and a sports organization from the Upper East Side, as well as Felix Millan and a host of other organizations both public and private. The Parks Dept. says that Coleman Field is open for use, but the Furies coaching staff say it's booked solid, and it's not in usable shape anyway.

"Even if the corporate teams aren't there, if you don't have a permit for that field, the Parks Department will come, ask you if you do have a permit, and if you cannot provide one, they pretty much tell you to leave," said Acevedo. "The [fields] are constantly booked up, we're the only softball team in Manhattan that doesn't have a home field."

The Furies coaching staff recently met with a representative from Councilwoman Margaret Chin's office to discuss establishing Coleman Field, an unused diamond under the Manhattan Bridge, as the Furies home field.

"Our office right now is in the process of reaching out to [the Parks Dept.] to figure out if we can get these guys permitted to play their home games there," said a Chin spokesperson.

Acevedo said he didn't know why the field isn't being used, and though it needs some work, would be ideal for the Furies as it complies with Little League regulations that say fields must be enclosed.

"If you leveled that field out, that would be the perfect field for us to play on," said Acevedo. "Our girls can paint it, and it should be good to go."

The Parks Dept. did not respond to a request about why Coleman Field is out of commission.

The Furies' push for a home field comes after a wave of interest from parents and girls in the neighborhood looking to join the team, which was partly driven by their success this past season. Acevedo said next year the Furies will be launching three more teams in addition to the existing 10 and under team: 12 and under, 14 and under, and 16 and under.

"This year we practiced twice a week during the weekdays wherever we could find space," said Acevedo, who mentioned that the team will be holding a 26-week winter clinic in the coming months and is active year round. "If we have a field, we would bring all our teams to practice at least three times during the weekdays."

But the team is about much more than nine players, four bases and a softball. Acevedo said this past year, an entire community has built up around the Lady Furies.

Acevedo said when he was growing up on the Lower East Side, girls' softball was unheard of. Now he estimates more girls are playing Little League softball than boys are playing Little League baseball. He credits the Furies program with giving the girls something to do while working together towards a common goal.

"We don't live in a high income community, you find kids hanging out all day, you find kids really getting in trouble," said Acevedo. "With our softball program, it's team bond first."

Acevedo said that bond extends to the parents of players as well.

"Nobody knew each other, and now we're the best of friends," said Acevedo. "We do barbecues, we go camping, we go to the movies together, our girls have sleepovers together. It's a team bond and that's what we want all the girls to understand, and we're looking to make a very intense softball program on top of that."

Castro agreed and said the philosophy that underpins the Furies goes even farther than that.

"With our approach, it's not just about playing a game, it's about building yourself and empowerment and having a community of people who care about each individual kid. It's a movement, it's not just a league," she said.

The team is also about safeguarding a way of life and sense of community that's increasingly threatened by gentrification and development, she said.

"Growing up on the Lower East Side, it seems like there's an 'everybody for themselves' kind of attitude, especially in the schools. This team, just by themselves you see a sisterhood, you see them coming together as a family," said Castro. "We're trying to preserve whatever's left, that family feeling, preserving culture, preserving who you are as an individual, where you belong, you belong here, and just building them on that."

Now all the Furies need is a field.