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Auburn-area Babe Ruth baseball park abandoned, faces uncertain future

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What began as a dream more than three decades ago is now, as former Auburn Babe Ruth League President Dick Gagliardi described it, a ghost town. 

Veterans Memorial Park in Aurelius sits idle. The ballpark, which opened in July 1986, hasn't been used for two years. There are weeds in the baselines and on the pitcher's mound. The infield and outfield grass is overgrown. 

The facility is a casualty of declining participation in baseball. During its heyday, the Auburn Babe Ruth League fielded several teams. On the park's opening day 33 years ago, there were four games scheduled. 

Now, the league exists in name only. 

The park's future is uncertain. Gagliardi, who led the effort to build the field in the mid-1980s, is hoping for a rebirth. 

"It hurts to see it abandoned," he said. "It's just sad. It really is." 


The Past

Gagliardi couldn't believe what happened. 

It was the summer of 1983 and there were two Babe Ruth games scheduled to be played on fields behind Auburn High School. He noticed two maintenance workers walking toward the field. They told him there was a men's softball game that was rained out the week before and the men's teams needed one of the fields to play a makeup game. 

The maintenance workers asked for the Babe Ruth teams to leave the field so the men's softball teams could play their game. Gagliardi wasn't happy. 

"From that moment on, I said to myself as long as I'm president of this Babe Ruth league, never will these kids ever be thrown off of a field again because they're going to own their own park," he recalled. 

Gagliardi set out to establish a home for Auburn Babe Ruth baseball. To construct the field, he needed land. 

Enter General Electric. 

In the first of several acts of generosity that helped bring the park to fruition, GE donated a seven-acre plot near Veterans Memorial Parkway and Ellis Road in Aurelius.

The deed for the property signed in April 1984 states that the "conveyance is made upon the express condition that the premises herein described shall be used solely for the purpose of conduct baseball games and other related activities thereon under the auspices of Auburn Babe Ruth League, Inc." 

Local companies made financial donations to help advance the construction of the park. There were several fundraisers, including an antique car raffle that netted more than $3,600. 

To play night games, the league received poles to install stadium-style lighting. New York State Electric and Gas employees volunteered to install the poles. GE donated the lights. 

Gagliardi said they were told at the time the lights were worth more than $100,000. The league paid $10,000. 

Members of the local carpenters' union volunteered, too. Gagliardi recalled that the league paid for the construction of the main building that houses the concession stand, an office, the press box, restrooms and storage space. 

"There was a lot of interest in the community and a lot of support when it was built," said Paul DelPiano, who was involved in the Auburn Babe Ruth League during Gagliardi's tenure as president. 

The ballpark opened on July 26, 1986. According to The Citizen's archives, the festivities included the dedication of a veterans memorial, which still stands on the property, and an on-field ceremony.

Veterans Memorial Park

The opening ceremony at Veterans Memorial Park on July 26, 1986. 

The next day, a photograph of Gagliardi throwing out the first pitch appeared on the front page of The Citizen's sport section. The image accompanied then-sports editor Gary Piccirillo's column about the ballpark titled, "A dream, a reality." 

Piccirillo wrote, "Not lost among the speeches, the thank yous, the gun salute and the unveiling of the impressive monument which welcomes visitors, was the message that none of this would have been possible without Gagliardi. For as much as the ceremonies were intended to introduce the public to the ballpark, they also served as a tribute to Gagliardi, the Auburn Babe Ruth League president whose dedication to the project never wavered." 

Gagliardi saved a copy of the article. It's on display in his Auburn home. 

"It was a moment I'll never forget," he said. 


The Present

The field isn't playable. Some lights have fallen to the ground. There is a dumpster full of garbage on the property. 

Babe Ruth baseball isn't being played at Veterans Memorial Park — or anywhere else in Cayuga County. 

Until recently, Auburn had its own league and Cayuga County-area teams formed another. DelPiano and Gagliardi remembered when Auburn Babe Ruth had eight teams. There were teams for ages 13-15 and 16-18. 

Auburn didn't field a team in 2018 — there were only 12 players who registered, Gagliardi learned — and there won't be any teams this year. 

Michael Weller, president of Cayuga County Babe Ruth, said his organization won't field any teams this year. In 2018, the Cayuga County league didn't have a team for the 13-15 age group. There was a prep team comprised of 13- and 14-year-olds. 

"It's been a real struggle," he said. 

The sources who spoke to The Citizen for this story cite several factors for the decline of the Babe Ruth leagues. There are more children playing lacrosse than baseball, they said. Those who play baseball into their teen years choose to join travel teams instead of playing locally. This year, Little League will have a senior division for ages 13-16 — the same group eligible to play in the Babe Ruth league. 

Veterans Memorial Park 11.JPG

The field at Veterans Memorial Park.

The older Little League teams won't use Veterans Memorial Park. Steve Komanecky, branch executive director of Auburn YMCA-WEIU, said the league plans to use the fields behind Auburn High School. 

DelPiano believes the drop in youth baseball participation corresponds with the Auburn's population decline. In 1980, the city had 32,548 residents. As of 2017, the city's estimated population was 26,704.

"It's been sad for guys like Dick and I to see what's happened," DelPiano said. "If you don't have the participation and you don't have a lot of young people involved in pursuing the program and getting kids involved in baseball that's what happens." 

With declining enrollment over the years, it was more difficult to maintain the field. Weller said his children played at the field and a secondary fence was installed because the park's original fencing was in poor condition. 

After part of the secondary fence was stolen in 2016, then-Auburn Babe Ruth League President Mike Donovan told The Citizen that the original fence at the park "was all heaved up and it really was a safety issue." 

The field now has a smaller chain-linked fence in the outfield. There are parts of the original fence still there, but most of it is gone. 

"Back in the day, it was beautiful," Weller said of the field. "But it takes people and money for upkeep." 


The Future

There won't be activity at Veterans Memorial Park this year, but Gagliardi is developing ideas to use the facility in 2020 and beyond. 

He has been working with a small group of people to revive the park. He's had conversations with Kevin Crawford, who is president of the Auburn Babe Ruth League. He is, according to Gagliardi, the only remaining board member. 

Gagliardi said Crawford, who couldn't be reached for comment, was "dealt a bad hand." 

The league has an undisclosed amount of money in its bank account. Gagliardi, who plans to rejoin the organization and replace Crawford as league president, wants to use the funds to clean up the park. 

"The focal point is to keep that place in good shape and maintained," he said. "Then, we go into the field of play and see what we are going to put in there." 

Early discussions have centered on converting the park into a multi-use facility for lacrosse, soccer and softball. Gagliardi acknowledged that it might be difficult to attract those sports, especially lacrosse and soccer, because there are already several fields in the Auburn area. 

If the park is improved and a softball diamond is installed, Gagliardi hopes it also could be used for youth baseball. But the field would no longer host baseball for older boys.

"We don't want to be putting money into something that's not going to work," he said. "We'll come up with something." 

Veterans Memorial Park

After 33 years Veterans Memorial Park sits idle, overgrown and in despair, after the Babe Ruth League of Auburn discontinued play two years ago due to low player participation.

There could be an impediment to converting the ballpark into a multi-use sports facility. The deed states if the property is used for activities other than baseball games and "other related activities," then the "title to the premises herein described shall automatically revert to" GE. 

Gagliardi said he planned to consult with an attorney about the deed and whether the Auburn Babe Ruth League could use the property for other sports. 

Before Gagliardi's push to find a new use for the site, Aurelius Supervisor Ed Ide, Jr., told The Citizen that the town wouldn't intervene unless the property was abandoned. Even if that were to happen, the town's role would be limited. 

"We might informally try to play matchmaker and get somebody to buy it," Ide said. "But as far as taking it over and doing anything, no." 

While Gagliardi wants to bring sports back to the park, he knows that might not happen. 

When he posted a message and photos of the park's condition on a local Facebook group, he received a mixed response. There was those who shared memories of the park and hoped it would be used again. Others were more pessimistic and questioned why it would be worth investing in improving the park when there are several other facilities in the Auburn area. 

The park has faced doubts before. When Gagliardi led the effort to construct the field 33 years ago, there were critics who wondered whether it was a worthwhile venture. 

As he did three decades ago, Gagliardi is focused on a goal. He's received interest from local businesses and residents willing to assist with the park's rehabilitation. 

"If worse comes to worse, even if we don't have anything on that field immediately, as long as we raise enough money to keep the building and the grounds in good shape that's all that matters," he said. 

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Online producer Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or robert.harding@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.

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Online producer and politics reporter

I have been The Citizen's online producer and politics reporter since December 2009. I'm the author of the Eye on NY blog and write the weekly Eye on NY column that appears every Sunday in the print edition of The Citizen and online at auburnpub.com.

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