Saturday, May 18, 2024

Lauren McAuliffe, a longtime advocate for sports equity, Steve McAuliffe, Ruby Red athlete Julia and her mother Kathyr at Danehy Park on Oct. 8. (Photo: Emily Piper-Vallillo)

Avery remembers hitting her first home run. Her softball team, the Ruby Reds, ran onto the field, cheering.

“It was such a special moment,” the sixth-grader says.

She also remembers when a storm and poor drainage at Danehy Park – her team’s home field – created a huge puddle. Her playoff game was canceled, so she watched her younger brother, Dylan, play baseball at the newly renovated Glacken Field. That field had no puddles. It also had dugouts, lights and batting cages.

“And we got two new scoreboards,” Dylan adds.

“See?” Ruby Reds coach Steve McAuliffe says. “He’s 7, and he already knows there’s a difference … he’s a little more favored in the system.”

An issue of equity

Avery and her Ruby Reds teammates play for Cambridge Girls Youth Softball, a recreational league run by the city for girls under the age of 12.

Participation in baseball and softball is divided largely along gender lines. Invented by men, youth softball in the United States is considered the girls’ alternative to youth baseball. While Cambridge girls can play baseball, a very limited number do.

“The boys won’t pass [the ball] to you,” Avery says.

Since its founding in 1995, the softball league has requested various improvements to its fields, citing poor infrastructure and a lack of maintenance compared with Cambridge’s baseball fields.

They are not alone.

Between 2012 and 2021, nearly half of federal Title IX complaints about high school sports programs nationwide cited differences in the conditions of facilities between boys’ and girls’ teams. Parents from Oregon to Tennessee argued that baseball players got more resources than softball players, describing superior dugouts and the presence of locker rooms and stadium seating.

The Cambridge league can’t file a Title IX complaint; Cambridge isn’t bound by Title IX to provide equal facilities. Nonetheless, the softball players are advocating for better fields and, for the first time, city officials and recreation department staff are beginning to listen.

But it took a lot of work to get here.

An uphill battle

When Sara Breen was a Ruby Red back in 2009, what caught her attention were little differences – a field without bases; a practice cut short when maintenance turned off the lights, while the baseball diamond across the way remained lit.

“Eventually, enough small things become a big thing,“ says Breen, now 27.

With the help of her mom and McAuliffe, Breen – who was 13 at the time – documented differences in the baseball and softball fields throughout the city and presented them at a meeting with Paul Ryder, director of recreation at the time, and Kim Sansoucy, the executive director of the Cambridge Commission on the Status of Women.

“That meeting was not well received,” she recalls. They told Breen and her mom that they couldn’t do anything to better the softball fields until they could demonstrate community support.

“That was really devastating,” Breen says. “Especially knowing that someone from the commission on the status of women was there … Getting told that we needed to get support and not [being] told how to do it was really frustrating. We realized this was going to be an uphill battle.”

Breen created a petition for equal treatment for the softball league. With the help of teammates, she knocked on doors, secured signatures and returned to Ryder and Sansoucy with the results. In response, the city designated Danehy 3, a softball field Breen’s team already used, as the official home of the youth softball league. There was no mention of improving the facilities or infrastructure.

“It very much felt like, okay, we are going to humor the girls by giving them Danehy 3,” Breen says. “None of it ever really felt like there was seriously going to be a big change.”

The process took three years. By the end, Breen was 17 and had already aged out of the league.

The tundra

Danehy Park’s softball infield is covered in gravel, so players can’t slide to bases. (Photo: Emily Piper-Vallillo)

Danehy Park is a 50-acre complex with nine fields for various sports. It was built in the 1990s above a landfill.

At the apex of the hill are three softball fields, two of which are now home to the softball league.

The Ruby Reds refer to Danehy as the “tundra” because its elevation makes it windier and colder than other areas of the park. The fields are about a five-minute walk from bathrooms and parking lots, and parents and coaches worry about being unable to see the players.

Danehy has no scoreboard or batting cages. It also has no lights, meaning teams must finish games before sunset, which is especially challenging early in the season. The infield is covered in gravel, so players can’t slide to bases.

Without any major renovations since opening in 1992, Danehy is also worn down.

“It’s pretty old,” director of recreation Adam Corbeil says, “and in need of a facelift.”

Teams can play on other softball fields, but when requesting permits they compete for playing time with the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. The high school gets priority.

The other fields aren’t much better. According to a report by the Department of Recreation, as of 2022, Cambridge has an equal number of softball and baseball fields. But the softball fields have fewer amenities. Baseball fields in Cambridge are two times as likely to have dugouts and five times as likely to have batting cages, and while only a third of the softball fields have lights, more than half the baseball fields do.

To Avery, it feels hypocritical.

“In Cambridge, there’s so much talk about equality,” she says. “But this is not equality.”

Glacken Field

Steve McAuliffe in the dugout of Glacken Field, where boys’ sports fields got improvements long wanted by girls’ sports advocates. (Photo: Emily Piper-Vallillo)

Over the years, the Ruby Reds preferred playing at Glacken. It didn’t have batting cages or dugouts. Divots peppered the infield and foul lines had faded. But the dirt allowed players to slide, and parents could see the diamond from the road.

“I remember us liking it,” Breen says. “Because it was flat, it wasn’t usually flooded.”

In 2019, though, the city proposed renovations to the combined campus of the Tobin and Vassal schools. The redesigns would expand the building into three baseball fields where the West Cambridge Little League played.

“We talked about putting [the little league] in a couple different places,” Corbeil says. “Ultimately, Glacken was the spot that they decided.”

It isn’t clear how that decision was made or who made it.

According to Corbeil, the Department of Recreation reviewed use data to see how frequently the field was booked for softball.

“Five years prior to construction, some softball teams, specifically the Ruby Reds, used Glacken field,” he said. “But in the last couple of years, they played there a very limited amount.”

McAuliffe says he would have played at Glacken field more frequently if he was able to book it.

“Eventually, they were only letting us play there one night a week,” he said, “and for the last few years we weren’t able to play there at all.”

The Department of Recreation tracks only bookings, not requests, according to Corbeil.

Former city councillor Jan Devereux recalls the decision to choose a field was made quickly by the City Manager’s Office to avoid disrupting the Little League schedule. Then-city manager Louis A. DePasquale has been a West Cambridge coach for Little League for more than 35 years. He did not respond to requests for comment.

Ultimately, two Little League fields replaced the soccer and softball fields already at Glacken. Cambridge sought public input on the redesign of Glacken’s playground, bike paths and sidewalks through community meetings. But the decision to remove the softball field was not on the table.

Glacken has lights

One of the scoreboards installed in 2021 at a refurbished Glacken Field. (Photo: Emily Piper-Vallillo)

What was particularly painful to former softball players such as Sara Breen and Lauren McAuliffe was the speed with which the city acted and the size of the city’s investment in Glacken now that it was meant for baseball.

When it was a softball field, the city rated Glacken a “C,” the second-lowest field rating, indicative of “worn conditions.” But no investment was made to improve it.

Once the City Manager’s Office designated Glacken a baseball field, DePasquale requested $2.7 million in free cash for site preparation, a natural grass field, drainage, athletic equipment, fencing, bleacher removal and lights.

When the softball league had requested lights, according to McAuliffe, the Department of Recreation had denied them, saying nearby residents would complain. When West Cambridge Little League players advocated for lights, though, city councillors Alanna Mallon, Marc McGovern, Tim Toomey and Patty Nolan wrote a policy order requesting additional funding for lights at Glacken.

The order passed unanimously. Now, Glacken has lights.

“I think it’s because they’re boys,” McAuliffe says. “Boys get their way. It’s the old boys club.”

The new Glacken Field opened on schedule in 2021. When McAuliffe’s daughter, Lauren, a former Ruby Reds player, saw the manicured grass and scoreboards, she called her father.

“Dad,” she said. “You didn’t tell me the girls had their field renovated!”

McAuliffe remembers the anguish in her voice when he broke the news that the field wasn’t for the girls. “The pain is still there.”

Breen feels it, too.

“What happened at Glacken made me feel like what I did meant nothing,” Breen says. “It was such a personal slap in the face. What was all that work for?”

It’s a start

T-shirts printed as part of a recent drive for equity for Cambridge softball. (Photo: Emily Piper-Vallillo)

By the summer of 2022, McAuliffe was tired of requesting improvements from the Department of Recreation. The Ruby Reds partnered with other softball teams to circulate a petition requesting the city provide a brand-new field for softball with the same amenities as the baseball fields.

McAuliffe also wrote a letter and gathered a group of parents, softball and baseball coaches and players to speak at a June council meeting.

“It’s evident that the fields and facilities used by girls’ softball have been overlooked,” Tigers softball coach James Selvitella said during public comment.

“The unfairness for the softball fields makes me and my teammates feel softball is undervalued,” 10-year-old Tiger Anna Laura Chavez said.

City officials ordered the Department of Recreation to submit a report detailing the state of all sports fields in Cambridge by Aug. 1. The policy order made no mention of gender or equity.

But later that year the city appropriated $600,000 for short-term upgrades to the Danehy softball fields. This money will be used for small projects such as new fencing, repairing benches, replacing the gravel infield with a mix of sand and clay and lining and leveling the fields. Some of these upgrades can be expected by the start of softball season in April. Others may take longer.

There have been no decisions or funding for longer-term projects – such as improving drainage or finding a new field for softball.

“We know very much that that’s not the long-term solution,” Corbeil says. “That’s not the full equity standard that people were talking about, but it’s a start.”

Jumping through hoops

For Breen, the impact of field inequities reaches beyond softball.

“Even if these girls are not deeply impacted by this right now, it’s setting a tone for what’s okay for them to experience in any other situation for the rest of their life,” says Breen, now a preschool teacher. “The place where you live has some responsibility for how you learn to navigate your experiences.”

Over the years, the city has taken steps toward supporting girls’ sports, creating the Girlx in Sports Committee, which offers programming to help anyone who identifies as a girl get involved in sports.

Breen sees value in these efforts, but argues they don’t address the real issue.

“How much good does it do if you talk to a fifth-grade girl one time,” she says, “and then don’t provide the things they need to have a successful sports career?”

“It’s a Band-Aid approach,” McAuliffe says. The issue isn’t interest or morale; it’s resources and to whom city officials and the department of recreation direct them.

Breen describes her advocacy as jumping through hoops. She finds it frustrating that to improve their fields, softball players must advocate for change, while baseball players are spared.

And, with the renovation of Glacken, she feels all her work has been erased.

“I can’t carry what I’ve done with as much pride knowing that in just a different way, we were swept under this other corner of the rug,” Breen says. “It’s been over a decade now, and we’re still talking about inequity.”