A card-carrying soccer mom, Patrice Gallelli, loves to watch her 8-year-old son, Dominic, run up and down the fields at Lake Fairfax. But at a weekday practice last Wednesday evening, Gallelli found her attention occasionally drifting towards the adult softball match going on directly behind her perch along the sidelines.
"To be honest," Gallelli of Reston, said, "I hadn’t given it much thought until I was almost hit by it just a few minutes ago. That has changed, now."
"It" is a softball and at last Wednesday’s practice, two home run balls, neither one particularly soft, came flying over the 8-foot fence in left center field and onto the sidelines, narrowly missing Gallelli and fellow spectator Pam Duffy.
"They yelled ‘heads up’ when it was hit," Duffy said. "But that barely gives you enough time to react."
"It could have easily hit one of the kids," Gallelli said. "You think the county might do something then?"
<b>THE COMBINATION</b> of hard-hitting competitive adult softball leagues and peewee soccer leagues in such close proximity to each other is a potentially dangerous union, soccer parents and coaches say.
Dave Winfree, a coach in the under-9 league, says something needs to be done about the problem. "If they are not careful, they could seriously kill or injure someone very badly," he said. "They hit it that hard."
At the upper reaches of Lake Fairfax Park, there are two softball fields that back up to soccer fields, but only one has a protective 20-foot net behind the existing 8-foot outfield fence. "It’s just a matter of time before something bad happens," said soccer coach Randall Bolanos, who would like to see netting added to the western most softball field. "I am just afraid what is going to happen here if nothing is done. These kids are little guys."
In fact, because of their smaller size, the Lake Fairfax soccer fields, where Gallelli and Duffy watch their sons practice during the week and play games on the weekend, are reserved for the younger ages. In addition, the field without a net, is traditionally scheduled with men-only leagues, whereas, the field with a net, often hosts co-ed league games.
"That’s the most aggravating thing about it. This is the little kids field, and we have 8-year-olds dodging softballs," said Rich Lennon, a coach and the Reston commissioner for the National Capitol Soccer League. "It’s a minefield out there. These are, by far, the most dangerous fields in Reston. We are talking about large grown men who routinely hit it out of the park."
<b>WHILE WATCHING </b>his son at practice, Tim Dennison of Herndon, said the softball leagues should look at using "limited fly balls" to keep the problem to a minimum. Another parent, Brad Phillips of Ashburn, worries that because the soccer players, and fans, are concentrating on their game and practice, they will forget about the possibility of danger despite the loud ping from the metal bats. "The kids don’t have a clue," he said. "They never see it coming."
After watching the problem get worse in the last couple of years, Winfree was one of the first coaches to express concern about the proximity of the fields. "The worst part is that the kids, and some of the parents, are oblivious to the dangers," he said. "They say ‘heads up,’ but that gives you like a second to duck, if you hear it."
Todd Johnson, who manages the Lake Fairfax complex including the fields for the Fairfax County Park Authority, says he is aware of the problem and he has spoken with softball players about warning soccer players and fans if a ball is hit in their direction. "I know that isn’t adequate, of course," Johnson said. "I will work with Reston-Herndon Softball to see if we can figure out a more permanent solution."
The president of Reston Soccer, R.J. Dunne, understands the budgetary constraints that Johnson, and the county, is facing. "I know Todd is aware of the problem and I know they haven’t got it in the budget to put up nets," Dunne said. "Baseball and soccer should look to tackle this problem together for safety on both sides. I don’t know if this is a $5,000 fix or a $20,000 job, but something needs to be done, no question about it."
<b>AFTER BEING</b> contacted about the potential hazard last week, Johnson sounded optimistic that a solution could be found. "I just need a little to time to investigate all options," he said. "We can sort this thing out, I promise. I am positive of that."
Lennon said he has lost track of how many times a sharply hit ball has landed on one of his soccer fields. He estimated that about four or five home run balls make it over the fence during a typical day. "I’ve seen kids get hit, including one kid who was hit in the head," Lennon said. "And the thing is, these softball guys don’t care. They get belligerent when you tell them about the problem. Instead, we sometimes have 50 nervous parents trying to form a line to protect the field from an errant home run. It creates for an unnecessarily hostile environment."
Justin Jenkins of Ashburn, and Matt Kentfield of Fairfax, play softball for a local Chantilly-based team and they agreed that it would be nice to have a net on the far softball field, but they cautioned that the existing net on the neighboring field is not a perfect solution. "If you put a net on this field here," Jenkins said pointing, "there are still going to be guys who routinely will crank it out of the park and over the net."
"The county should put something up, anything up," Winfree argued. "It would help a little."
The fields are just too close, the softballers said. "If they are so worried," said Kentfield, "Tell those soccer moms to take their games elsewhere."