While Utah courts MLB, little leaguers in Salt Lake City face future without the sport

The Beehive State is ready to spend big on baseball, but youth leagues in Utah’s capital face a murky future due to rising field rental rates.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Evie Gaisford, 9, bats during baseball practice at Oak Hills Ball Diamonds in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, March 19, 2024.

Nearly a billion dollars of public money is waiting in the Beehive State for the big leagues — if the big leagues come.

And in the shadow of the Wasatch Mountains — just a fly ball from where Brigham Young supposedly declared, “This is the right place” — a deeply discounted sliver of Sunnyside Park will go toward helping the state’s flagship university build the ballpark it wants.

But in baseball-hungry Salt Lake City, where money is flowing for the higher and highest levels of play, it’s the little leaguers who are on the cusp of being cut.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Graham Moore, 10, throws a ball back to his father as they practice at Sunnyside Park in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, March 19, 2024.

Nonprofit youth leagues have been dogged by soaring rental rates for fields and skyrocketing registration fees to cover the added costs. The problem is simple, but the consequences are dire for the sport.

“If we have to pay $20,000 a year, our league will not exist,” warned Foothill Youth Baseball Association President August Wachter. “Or we’ll have to raise our prices so much that families are not going to be able to afford to play and we’re going to lose participants, and our league is going to fail.”

Since 2015, field rental rates for youth nonprofit baseball leagues have climbed from $2 an hour for each field to $16 an hour, creating untenable conditions for the sport’s survival in Utah’s capital.

Wachter said he and his league — made up of players ranging from T-ballers to 12-year-olds — will feel the sting even more this year when rental rates tick up another dollar to $17 an hour. He anticipates spending 20 grand between his spring and fall seasons.

Salt Lake City officials say they did a cost analysis in 2015 and boosted rental rates based on the consumer price index. The city later was forced to jack up prices substantially because, according to the city’s chief financial officer, offering discounts to nonprofits for field rentals runs afoul of state law.

Decrepit facilities

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Oak Hills Ball Diamonds on Thursday, March 14, 2024.

Despite those increased fees, though, Wachter said his teams are stuck playing on dilapidated diamonds.

“It’s just really frustrating that the city has raised our fees so much and hasn’t invested any money whatsoever back into our complexes,” Wachter said. “It’s not equitable. It’s not fair. It’s just really not been a priority for the city, and it really needs to be.”

At Oak Hills Ball Diamonds, Wachter said parents have to sit on old, rickety, splintering wooden bleachers. The paths around the fields are plagued by potholes. The building is in disarray. The fields he rents at Sunnyside Park aren’t much better.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dan Moore, an assistant coach for Central City Baseball, rakes the infield before practicing with his son Graham Moore at Sunnyside Park in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, March 19, 2024.

The extra dough nonprofit teams are paying into city coffers doesn’t get earmarked for dugouts. It goes into the general fund while improvements to fields slip down the list of priorities.

Meanwhile, Wachter said he’s coughed up more than $20,000 in the past year on bases, anchors for securing those bases, pitching mounds and scoreboard controllers.

“That’s definitely something,” he said, “the city should be paying for.”

It’s not just the Foothill Youth Baseball Association that is feeling the squeeze of rising costs and run-down facilities. Rose Park Baseball, a nonprofit league that has served the west side for decades, also is on the hook for ensuring its diamonds at Riverside Park are in shape to play ball.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A baseball field in Riverside Park on Friday, March 15, 2024.

James Walje, the league’s president, said the grass doesn’t get mowed enough to be playable, the league takes on the responsibility of chalking the infield, and volunteers have to prep the dirt, all while paying more to use the facilities.

“For that kind of price,” Walje said, “we should be able to walk into a fully functional, pristine, groomed, ready-to-play-on baseball field, and that’s not the case.”

Tom Millar, planning and design manager for the city’s Public Lands Department, said his department’s mission for a long time was to focus on maintenance of operations, but in recent years has expanded its scope to make significant facility upgrades.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Graffiti and a beer can on the bleachers at Riverside Park in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, March 19, 2024.

When the department shifted its focus, Millar said, it realized it faced an extensive list of needs.

It’s not that the ball diamonds aren’t a high priority for the city, he said, it’s that crews have only started chipping away at the backlog.

“If it were up to us and we had all of the money to do all of the things, we would have these perfect, shining examples of every type of asset,” he said. “Trail, ball field, pavilion, playground, whatever it might be.”

Rental fees threaten leagues’ existence

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A baseball field in Riverside Park on Friday, March 15, 2024.

Both the Foothill Youth Baseball Association and Rose Park Baseball run the risk of folding under the current pricing structure, the leagues say.

Walje said that possibility isn’t far off. He’s going to be challenged this year to cover the anticipated $13,000 in rental fees for his spring season.

“I’m going to go above and beyond to try to cover that fee, if we have to pay that whole fee, just to be net zero at the end of the year,” he said. “And then that really stinks for next season, because it’s hard to get started up again for 2025 when you’re broke.”

The added expense, Walje said, could bankrupt Rose Park Baseball.

Because of the increasing rental costs, the west-side league now charges $65 for T-ball participants after raising the registration fee $10 last year. Fees for other divisions soared from $135 to $155 — an amount that doesn’t even cover the added expense to rent the fields.

“I’m a super-small league,” Walje said. “I couldn’t raise fees enough to pass that on just to the families. You know, nobody would play.”

Elizabeth Yanez has seen registration fees rise and participation levels dwindle over the years she has spent with her two sons playing in the Rose Park league.

She recalls when her son Xavier started playing for Rose Park Baseball a decade ago, she paid about $50 to sign him up for the league. Now she’s paying more than triple that to keep her 10-year-old, Thomas, out on the field.

“It’s stressful in the fact that I’m like, ‘OK, do I pay, say, my water bill or, you know, dinner for the week or something because I’m going to pay these fees?’” she said. “Because I really want my kids to play. And then we have to buy equipment on top of that because it doesn’t come with that, so, say, cleats, maybe baseball pants, a bat; it just affects that all around.”

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Evie Gaisford, 9, pitches during baseball practice at the Oak Hills Ball Diamonds in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, March 19, 2024.

On the east side, the Foothill Youth Baseball Association has also raised its registration fees to offset some of the new expenses.

Three years ago, Foothill’s T-ball division cost $50 a participant. Now it’s up to $90, and only because Wachter couldn’t stomach charging $100. Upper divisions, meanwhile, have seen fees shoot up from $150 to $175 since Wachter joined the league’s board last year.

Those rising rates are pricing out parents, from working- and middle-class families to more affluent ones who may want to sign up multiple children for the league.

“Maybe they have four or five kids who want to play baseball; they can’t afford it,” Wachter said. “It’s ridiculous.”

Unless the city reduces its rates, he said, the price to play will continue to climb.

Mayor open to options

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A baseball field in Riverside Park on Friday, March 15, 2024.

The city’s chief financial officer, Mary Beth Thompson, said she doesn’t know of any plan to help the leagues and is unaware of a time the city has ever reduced its fees.

In fact, she said, the city is already charging less than what it could to rent the fields.

“Never in my 29 years here,” she said, “have we ever charged the actual cost of the service we provide.”

For her part, Mayor Erin Mendenhall seems open to exploring solutions for youth baseball and opportunities for kids. Making Utah’s capital more family-friendly was a major theme of her State of the City address this year.

“What we’re talking about is a greater subsidy than the current tax dollars to reduce the costs of youth engagement in sports and arts,” she said, “and I am not opposed to these conversations.”

The city does offer a program to allow renters to get a lower rate in exchange for manual labor they perform on recreational facilities, but both league presidents say it does them little good.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Paint chips away from a dugout at Riverside Park in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, March 19, 2024.

Wachter said for the program to make a difference, he would have to donate more time than he is capable of contributing as a dad, husband and business owner. Walje said the program only gets him back to square one.

“They doubled the prices and then they offered us a 50% discount if we put in a whole bunch of work,” Walje said, “which we’re doing anyway, and always have done.”

Wachter said he’d like to see a rate structure similar to what Salt Lake County offers — nonprofit leagues pay $10 a participant to rent the fields for a season. And, he said, the county prepares the fields for games.

The Foothill president suggested the city create a baseball account with some of the proceeds it will get from a recently approved plan to let the University of Utah lease a discounted strip of Sunnyside Park for construction of a new ballpark. Part of the deal calls for the U. to give the city more than $4 million for improvements at the park.

Youth teams would pay into the account with rental fees, and the city would use that money for field upgrades.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Baseball fields at Riverside Park on Friday, March 15, 2024.

Wachter wants to see existing complexes modernized and maintained, and field lighting similar to the fixtures that were recently installed at Riverside Park, thanks to a joint project by Salt Lake City and the Larry H. and Gail Miller Family Foundation.

But those lights, the Rose Park Baseball president said, won’t be much help if there’s no one to play under them.

“The way things are going, they’re going to have this fancy lighting shining down on a pig of a field that needs a lot of love,” Walje said, “or nobody’s going to be playing baseball there because we get run out of business.”

Something needs to change, both presidents agree. The city’s future big-league sluggers depend on it to stay at the plate.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gershon Gaisford, a coach with the Foothill Youth Baseball Association, concludes his first practice with a cheer at the Oak Hills Ball Diamonds in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, March 19, 2024.