Thursday, July 31, 2003

Labatt Park's not just for baseball

By MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press

All this whining about a piece of land. Labatt Park might be one of the nicest minor league ball parks anywhere. It certainly has historic value. But watching and listening to the debate over what sport or activity should or shouldn't be allowed to use the park is ludicrous. It's a public facility. As long as the activity does no damage to the park, any sport or activity should be considered. As much as we want to make Labatt Park out to be the holiest of holies, it's only a park. The debate began with the suggestion by London City soccer's Mr. Everything, Harry Gauss, that he wouldn't mind putting a couple of soccer tournaments into the facility now that the Canadian Baseball League's London Monarchs have joined all the other minor pro baseball teams in that trash bin in the sky. Those tournaments are an open competition called the Canada Cup and the Canadian Professional Soccer League playoff tournament called the Rogers Cup. Well, one would have thought he suggested fingerpainting over the Mona Lisa. Baseball purists jumped out of their skin, almost as if allowing a sport still considered the domain of foreigners would somehow contaminate the site. The purists were worried about the damage that could be caused by actually having an active, fully mobile sport played on the site. Then there's the issue of priorities, with the suggestion made by some that even if a major tournament were to be held at the park, it should never supercede even the most minor of minor baseball games. The issue has reached the stage where supporters of both sports have debated the merits of the skills of each sport as if the difficulty of playing one over another should have any bearing on which one uses the facility. It doesn't. One can understand the sensitivity of baseball people. They've watched as soccer continues to grow in popularity and participation while baseball barely holds the line on the far smaller numbers who play. The invasion of the game of soccer on what some consider sacred ground might just be a little too much. Too bad. Labatt Park is considered a showcase facility. It has staged showcase events in the past. Soccer can provide that type of event, especially when there's a high level of competition involved bringing visitors to the park from outside London. Tourism London supports Gauss's venture. "We would love to see Harry Gauss get both those soccer tournaments," said John Winston, the city's general manager of tourism. "I think Labatt Park would be an ideal facility for the event." In fact, former manager of sports tourism Bob Graham suggested to Gauss he might want to consider Labatt Park as a venue for those tournaments, rather then London City's Cove Road field. Winston is quick to point out, though, that his department does not decide who can use the park. Even if Gauss gets both events, they wouldn't be held at Labatt Park this year. But if he got them on a yearly basis, that would be a different story. Having an event come to the city year after year is exactly the type of commitment Tourism London wants to cultivate. Ignore the "my-sport-is-better-than-your-sport" silliness. That isn't what this should be about. It should be about what's good for the city, the taxpayer and the park. Even though the park is used on a daily basis for baseball, there is still ample opportunity for other events to be held there, increasing its use. The more a facility is used, the better care it gets. The more care it gets, the more it will be protected. And if a major soccer event comes to Labatt Park, it should supercede baseball. Labatt Park is an attractive facility that can be a financial asset to the city, an attribute that will only get better the more use it gets.


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