Festival Wreaks Havoc With Softball Schedule

Posted June 23, 2009 at 4:27pm

At about 5:30 p.m. on the average Thursday, the National Mall transforms into a massive cluster of softball fields where hundreds of Capitol Hill employees convene for their weekly dose of exercise and friendly sport.

[IMGCAP(1)]But starting today, tourists walking along the Mall will have fewer fly balls to dodge. The ball fields are being taken over by large tents, exotic art and everything else that rolls into town with the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

The festival, which celebrates the artistic and culinary traditions of different cultures each year, kicks off today and runs through July 5, with a hiatus on June 29 and 30. The celebration will cover the width of the Mall, extending from Seventh to 17th streets, and though it is a long-standing Washington tradition, it also sends the Hill’s softballers looking for greener pastures.

Marty Montorfano, coach of the Congressional Softball League team Raising Arizona, knows the problem well. He has been playing Congressional softball for seven years, with each summer becoming more of a space crunch.

“I’d say anywhere from a fifth to a quarter of the fields will be lost during the Folklife Festival,— Montorfano said. “There is starting to be a lot of competition for those fields.—

[IMGCAP(2)]Becky Haberacker, who works for the Smithsonian, acknowledged that the festival significantly reduces the amount of field space for softball, but she doesn’t seem to be losing sleep over it.

“Obviously we understand that it takes away some of the fields,— she said. “But this festival is a great event every year. I think it is an appropriate use of the Mall.—

When asked whether the Smithsonian might consider celebrating softball as one of the festival’s selected cultures, Haberacker said there were no plans at the moment, but she didn’t rule out the idea.

“I’m sure if somebody wanted to suggest that, we would think about it,— she said.

Increasing the competition for limited field space is the rise in “squatters,— Montorfano said — teams who come out to play without receiving a permit.

“Sometimes we have to form these little brigades,— Montorfano said. “We get the people with their bikes to ride around in different directions, and people communicate back when they have found a field.—

This festival certainly makes available green space a commodity. But there are other factors, too, said Patrick Breiding of the All Vols. And unlike the festival, they aren’t going away anytime soon.

Softball has long been the dominant sport on the Mall, Breiding said. But lately, other sports, such as kickball and ultimate Frisbee, have become more common, making space for softball more scarce.

“There is just so much competition for space on the Mall,— Breiding said. “So we try to save space as far away from the main Mall as possible.—

He noted, though, that lately he has seen more teams encroach on his favorite spaces.

“It’s like we will play a team so they see our spot, then they are back there the very next week,— he said. “We have to fit like two or three teams in the same space now.—

To add to the confusion, Montorfano said, the process of acquiring permits for Mall space is disjointed and often too complicated. Some of the permits are issued through the National Park Service. Others, mostly just off the Mall, are issued through D.C.’s Department of Parks and Recreation.

“D.C. is the capital of the most bureaucratic nation in the world,— he said. “It only makes sense that getting these permits would be a bureaucratic nightmare.—

But Montorfano said using the vast majority of the space doesn’t even require a permit. Players are allowed to simply find space and start playing. This makes finding a spot easier for teams without permits, but less predictable for everyone.

The upcoming festival will undoubtedly force overpopulated fields into an even tighter squeeze.

But for all the inconvenience that it causes for Congressional softball, Montorfano acknowledges one positive element that the Folklife Festival adds to the game.

“There are always those trucks out there, those 18-wheelers,— he said. “They make a really nice outfield wall. Sort of like the Green Monster.—