Now That's Hardball | Essay | Chicago Reader

Now That's Hardball 

There's at least one guy in town who's willing to defy the mayor. Too bad it's over Little League baseball.

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Ever since he took office in 1989, I've been under the impression that Mayor Daley was the most powerful man in Chicago.

Boy, was I wrong.

Meet Kenneth Schmidt, president of the Illinois Medical District Commission, a seven-member board that oversees the hospital district on the near west side. The commission has been letting a baseball Little League for hundreds of poor and working-class west-side kids play on its land, and Daley has signalled his support for allowing them to continue. Schmidt has basically told Daley to bug off. The City Council could learn a thing or two from this guy.

The dispute has to do with a lovely little baseball field built 12 years ago at Polk and Leavitt by a near-west-side resident named Robert Muzikowski, a former trader at the Chicago Board of Trade who decided to organize a Little League in the area. (The movie Hardball was loosely based on his story.)

Muzikowski worked out an agreement with David Livingston, then the president of the commission, and recruited some friends to clear the lot, remove the rubble, put in sod, install a pitcher's mound and an infield, and build a dugout. They got Bill Lavicka, the well-known preservationist and artist, to build a sculpture for the field--a mitt at the end of an arm, reaching up about 15 feet to catch a fly ball. Muzikowski estimates he and his supporters spent $200,000 on the field.

The Near West Little League now has 600 kids, 42 teams, and about 100 volunteer coaches. "We don't take any public money," says Muzikowski.

But in March, Schmidt ordered the Little League to get out. Why? The commission intends to build a 40,000-square-foot research center and greenhouse there.

As Muzikowski sees it, the commission has other options. The district covers roughly 560 acres bounded by Congress, 15th Street, Ashland, and Oakley, including dozens, if not hundreds, of vacant lots, many of them created after the commission used its power of eminent domain to force out poor black residents. There are several vacant, weed-filled commission-owned lots just across the street from the baseball field. Why not build the research center there?

Schmidt didn't return calls for comment, but the commission's executive director, Sam Pruett, says the district had no choice. The land is ideal for the greenhouse because it has unobstructed southern exposure. "We have no ulterior motives," says Pruett. "This is where it has to go."

Pruett says the commission has offered to let the Little League build a field on another vacant lot at Taylor and Seeley. "We have nothing against baseball or Little League," says Pruett. "We're not doing this to be mean."

Muzikowski and his supporters aren't convinced. They say there's just as much southern exposure on the vacant lots across the street from the baseball field. In fact, if the commission were to make the baseball field permanent, they'd never have to worry about any buildings blocking their greenhouse. As they see it, Schmidt and Pruett are just being obstinate.

"It's their land," says Lavicka. "And they're not going to let us tell them what to do with it."

In May, Schmidt and Pruett gave the league an ultimatum. They would be allowed to play one final season, but after it ends on August 8 the Little League would have two weeks to clear the land and get out.

In their efforts to persuade Schmidt to reverse the commission's decision, the Little League has enlisted the support of 20th Ward alderman Danny Solis (who lives around the corner from the lot) and Mayor Daley.

The mayor's been a longtime supporter of the Little League, throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at 12 of 13 season openers. At the start of this season in June, Daley signed a petition calling on the commissioner to "save our Near West Side Little League Field."

Let's think about this. Daley, one of the most powerful mayors in the country, pretty much gets whatever he wants in Chicago. When he wanted to get rid of Meigs Field, he didn't sign a petition asking the airport's operators to please leave Northerly Island. He sent in bulldozers after midnight to rip up the runways. He rebuilt Soldier Field and is expanding O'Hare Airport over howls of angry opposition, not to mention lawsuits. He has virtually complete control over every department head in the city. He appoints two of the seven commissioners who sit on the medical district's board (four, including Schmidt, are appointed by the governor; one is appointed by the president of the Cook County Board). And the best he can do for the Near West Little League is to sign a petition?

This is not a frivolous matter. As many aldermen and the mayor himself have noted, the lack of sports programs may be one of the reasons for the spike in gang violence (34 public school students have been killed in the last ten months). You can see the results on the playing fields as well. In football, wrestling, volleyball, soccer, baseball, track--any sport other than basketball--suburban schools typically clobber the public leagues. The city kids just don't know how to play, largely because there's no place to learn and no one to teach them. The Park District is too broke to provide adequate staffing and facilities. It's a pay-to-play sports world out there.

That's why kids on the west side have to rely on the kindness of philanthropists like Muzikowski and his pals in the first place. But that kindness isn't without its limits.

"They're saying, 'Move to this other field,'" says Sandy Albecker, a coach in the league. "But we have a field--we spent $200,000 on it. Where are we going to get the money to build another?"

Albecker and Muzikowski don't have a bad word to say about Mayor Daley, whom they consider a valuable ally. Neither does Solis, one of the mayor's closest City Council loyalists. "The mayor has been very busy," Solis says. "But I'm sure he will address this issue."

But time is running out for the Little League. If Schmidt doesn't respond to Daley's signature on a petition, I suggest our curiously passive mayor do something a little more proactive. Maybe a call to Schmidt's boss, Governor Blagojevich, would do the trick.

Daley Changes His Tune on Taxes

The city announced this week that it's facing a $217 million budget shortfall and may be forced to raise taxes in the coming year.

Big surprise.

Last year at about this time Daley was assuring us that his managerial expertise had left the city flush and there would be no need to raise taxes. On the campaign trail last fall he announced that the city was facing just a $65 million shortfall, the lowest in five years. Now he's blaming the economy, saying that it was worse than expected. After all, as I've noted before, budgets are simply projections.

I don't think the economy's the big difference. The difference is that last year Daley was running for reelection and this year he's not. Think of the increases in taxes and fees as Daley's way of saying, "Thanks for your votes, suckers."

And the city did hit you with tax increases last year--officials just didn't tell you about it. I know, I know, in an article about the looming deficit, the Tribune claimed that "taxpayers escaped any increase a year ago." The Sun-Times reports much the same.

But the dailies aren't telling you the whole story about your property taxes. Every time the city creates a tax increment financing district it effectively raises them, as the other taxing bodies are forced to raise their tax rates to compensate for the loss of revenue. There are now 153 TIFs in Chicago, diverting over $400 million a year. And the city keeps creating new TIFs almost every month.

In a month or two the second-installment property tax bill will come out, and scores of home owners on the west and south sides will be clobbered with tax hikes approaching 100 percent. In addition, the soaring taxes will make communities like Washington Park, Woodlawn, Garfield Park, and Lawndale unaffordable for many of the poor or working-class people who live there.

The only mystery is who will bear the blame for the coming tax hike. I predict the mayor will continue to point to an economic downturn, disparage Cook County assessor James Houlihan for the high assessments, and fault the general assembly for failing to give him enough money for the schools. I guarantee he won't say a word about TIFs.

For more on politics, see our blog Clout City at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by A. Jackson.

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