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Southern Oregon Fields making spirited comeback

WHITE CITY ­ Taking visitors on a tour of Southern Oregon Fieldson Tuesday, caretaker Mike Roberts sounded a little like a bachelor caughtwith dirty dishes in the sink whose mother just showed up for a visit.

The scattered patches of brown grass in the outfields were a clear sourceof embarrassment to Roberts, who explained that a recent breakdown of thesprinkler system left portions the 10-softball field complex without waterfor more than two weeks.

There's still a lot of work to be done, he says. Tryingto get the water system working right is a big chore.

The same could be said for reviving both the overall condition of SouthernOregon Fields and the interest in playing there.

A decade after the softball complex was built on 33 acres at the JacksonCounty Sports Park off Highway 140, only a last-minute agreement preventedit from being closed by the county last fall.

Almost a year later, the condition of the fields has steadily improvedand officials are hopeful that the historically troubled complex is on theverge of a new era.

We feel pretty good about what's going on out there at this point,says Paul Korbulic, the county parks manager. It seems to be working.

With closure only a month off, Little League District 6 commissionerJim Shine approached the county in September about taking over managementof the facility in order to provide a home field for the growing Upper RogueLittle League.

After winterlong negotiations, the county signed a management agreementwith a financially independent corporation called District 6 created byShine and overseen by the Little League district in March.

The $1-a-year lease gives day-to-day control to the corporation, whilethe county retains ownership and long-term maintainence responsibilities,according to Korbulic.

Shine and Roberts ­ a volunteer who lives at and cares for the fieldsin exchange for free rent ­ are determined to revive the fields forboth Little Leaguers and adult softball players.

Hopefully, the future will be that we have a nice place to playfor Little League and softball, Shine says.

In recent years, nice place to play hasn't been includedin the same sentence with Southern Oregon Fields by many people.

nSports Marketing Northwest Inc. ­ a private firm that operates fieldsin Eugene and Salem ­ managed the fields for the past two years beforetheir contract with the county expired last year. The firm left owing thecounty $11,000 and has until February 1998 to repay it, Kobulic said.

Many were critical of the way Sports Marketing Northwest managed thefacility.

Dave McDonald, who headed a softball league at the fields this summerand is organizing a fall league, said the condition of the fields beforethis season made playing there hell.

From the beginning, everyone was out there with the idea of makingas much money as possible with as little work as possible, says McDonald,whose played softball in the area for five years. They let the fieldsget rundown. They didn't replace sprinkler heads and the fields went brown.

So far, both McDonald and parks manager Korbulic have been impressedwith the efforts Roberts and other Little League volunteers have put forth.

He's doing a hell of a job out there, McDonald says of Roberts.

From all outward appearances and from the use this year they arebeing pretty successful, Korbulic says.

Shine and Roberts both insist more improvements are on the way.

The fields are still pretty rough, Shine says, adding thatthe fields were in no condition for play when he took them over.

Slowly we are getting it put together, he says. Wedon't have the fields anywhere near where I want them.

It'll take time but it will eventually get there, Robertssays.

The county spent $7,000 this spring to improve the sprinkler system atthe fields, but keeping it running properly remains a challenge. Findingfunding to pay for the irrigation ­ power bills have been in the $600-a-monthrange ­ purchase needed equipment is another.

It's a learning year, Roberts says. It's going to takethree to five years to get all the equipment. We've been trying to do iton a budget of $5,000-$6,000 a year and it's just hard to do it.

Unlike past management groups, Shine says making money isn't the goal.

We're not looking to make any profit, he says. We arehoping to keep our heads above water.

Korbulic said that attitude ­ one of community service rather thanenterprise ­ could be the key to the group's success.

The feasibility of that being a self-supporting softball facilitywas not very strong, he says. It's been proven through bothcounty and private management that making a profit is pretty doubtful. Ithelps when you have a passion for a certain activity.

No money from the Little League is used to manage the fields. That fundingcomes from donations of money and time ­ along with some help from thecounty.

Adult softball has been ­ and will continue to be ­ another keysource of revenue. Shine rents the facility for $1 a game or $600 for tournamentsand says a steady flow of softball leagues and tournaments are crucial tothe future of the park.

But as McDonald has found out, getting softball players to return tothe facility hasn't been easy.

It's been a battle, he says, noting that where 60 teams onceplayed in summer leagues only seven teams played this summer. Everyoneis so down on the fields. It's going to be hard to get people out.

McDonald has 16 teams signed up to play in three divisions ­ men's,women's and co-ed ­ for a fall league at the complex.

The league was scheduled to begin Saturday but was pushed back a weekin hopes of adding a few more teams. It costs $280 a team and interestedplayers can contact McDonald at 826-7665.

Roberts understands the softball players' frustrations but is sure they'llreturn if the condition of the fields keeps improving.

If we get it back into shape, they will start coming back out here,he says. The fields had been let go for so long that many teams decidedthey would rather play in Medford than come out and play on this field that'sgoing hard on them.

Unless that changes, the future of Southern Oregon Fields could onceagain be in doubt.

Shine says his agreement with the county is on a year-by-year basis andhe wouldn't be able to continue managing the fields if the corporation islosing money.

We'll take a good long look at it in October, he says. I'mpretty sure we are going to go for around for another year. I foresee stayingin the black with it and going on into next year.

Caretaker Mike Roberts has a lot of work to do at Southern Oregon Fields, but keeping the softball complex open was a task in itself. - Photo by Steve Johnson</P