FLETCHER — John Fiveash, a coach for the Rock Rounds Express, bellowed encouragement to his pitcher from behind the backstop on opening day of youth baseball Saturday.
"You got a good catcher, throw it at his mitt. He'll catch it," he shouted to the pitcher.
The advice worked. Noah's next pitch smacked into the catcher's mitt for a perfect strike. "That's where you should be living at all day long, Noah, right there."
The sounds of baseball filled the air as parents seated on aluminum bleachers cheered on their charges and coaches reminded players what they'd been learning in just three practices of the young season. But the great American pastime in a community that became a town in part because of its devotion to baseball this spring opened under a shadow a little like the cloud cover that blocked the sun.
Parents, and the organization that runs the league, are crying foul over Fletcher park fees.
In a letter he emailed last week to Fletcher Youth Baseball parents, league president John Mangone ticked off a series of grievances about the fee, which totaled $5,634 this year. The 2012 total is based on a contract between the town of Fletcher and Fletcher Youth Baseball that charges Fletcher boys $9 and non-Fletcher boys $15. The total take for the town of Fletcher went up 31 percent — from $4,300 last year — mainly because the league has more players. The individual fee that families pay went up $1 per player.
Mangone said in an interview that the league's Board of Directors asked the town to lower the fee or let the baseball organization operate concession stands to make money for the teams.
"The answer we get is 'you have more kids you have to pay more.' This is really not fair since it takes no more prep on fields whether we have 200 kids or 450 kids as we do this season," he wrote in the email. "They also keep all the revenue from the concession stand which does the most business when our kids are playing ball. So they charge us on the front end, and then make money selling our kids drinks and snacks on the back end."
Parents in the stands on Saturday all said they'd heard about the league's appeal, and agreed with it.
"The problem is that the fees that they're charging to use these fields are ridiculous," Cindy Davis-Bryant said as she watched her 9-year-old son, Miles, who plays shortstop for the Groce Funeral Home team. She said she does not object to paying a reasonable cost but has heard that Fletcher's rate is out of line.
"There's other towns that don't charge their baseball leagues anything, or they charge very little," she said. Like Mangone, she said the fee ought to remain the same even though more players came out this spring. "It's the cost to the league that's the concern," she added.
Fletcher Parks and Recreation Director Greg Walker responded with an email of his own, which he sent to Mangone last week. The town and the league entered into an agreement several years ago that set the per player fee. The fee went up $1 a year per player for three years for both in-town and non-Fletcher.
To verify residency, the town asked the league to submit a roster of all the players. "From our verification, the league has 271 non-residents registered to play, and 161 town residents playing," Walker wrote.
It's untrue that the town makes money off youth baseball, he said.
"The town has direct expenses regarding providing field space for Fletcher Youth Baseball & Softball leagues," he wrote. "For this current season we have already incurred $2,714 in materials for the fields and we have also purchased a $2,100 field groomer to help prepare the fields for games and practices."
Over the course of the March to July season, the town will spend at least $2,400 to mow, drag and paint fields, he added. "This totals over $7,214 directly committed to youth baseball and softball by the town not including other incidental costs of the program" such as gas for mowers and renting port-a-johns. "As you can see, the town is actually subsidizing the (baseball) program," he said.
The park concession stands last year netted $3,594.73, which goes into the Park Development Fund. "This fund is used to re-invest in our park facilities in the Town of Fletcher," Walker said. "In regards to what they pay for the lease agreement, our operating costs are about $1500 above that."
Mangone, a retired New York police officer, acknowledged that the contract gives the town the legal right to charge the higher fee.
"I never saw the full contract until they posted it," he said. "I don't think we have anyone left over from the old board. We're just comparing to other leagues around, what they're getting. It seems like we're really penalized for growing out the league. We approached them and asked for a flat rate which they shot down."
Among the league's grievances is that the town has reserved fields two nights a week for adult flag football, "which again takes two prime nights away from us," he said. "The second problem with flag football on a baseball field is that they are allowing grown men to tear up the outfield that our kids play on."
Parents praise Mangone and current league directors for their work. Fletcher Youth Baseball is now sanctioned by the Cal Ripken/Babe Ruth organization, meaning its teams can advance to playoffs.
The league's board of directors will meet with the Fletcher Town Council Tuesday night.
"I'm not sure what the council intends to do," said Walker, the recreation director. "I don't believe they're going to change anything. The mayor requested the meeting with the Little League board. I'm just supposed to be prepared with the facts in case I'm called on to address anything."
Mangone said the dustup should not detract from the good the town has done for baseball and for kids.
"We're not accusing them of profiteering," he said. "I've even looked into grant money for lights, and a grant with the Scott Turf company to redo our field. I have four kids, we love playing ball there. We'd like to have a really good working relationship with the town."
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