Its press box charred by a suspicious fire, and its lighting and irrigation systems crippled by copper wire thieves, Sacramento's historic Renfree Field underscores just how grim the city's financial state became in the past few years.
For decades, the ballpark in Del Paso Regional Park was the jewel of Sacramento's amateur baseball scene, serving as the grooming field for generations of ballplayers who went on to play professionally.
That legacy was abandoned last summer, when the facility on Auburn Boulevard was shut down. The city, officials said, just didn't have the money to repair the damage inflicted by vandals.
Now, in a first for a Sacramento parks facility, the city is enlisting a private company to take over the ballpark.
City voters this month passed a sales tax increase expected to generate $28 million a year for basic services, including parks maintenance. But that windfall represents a fraction of the more than $200 million in cumulative deficits the city has addressed during the economic downturn.
What's more, officials see bringing in a private company to operate Renfree Field as a test model for a city exploring new ways to be cost-effective and avoid some of the financial pitfalls of the past decade.
"This is the wave of the future," said Shannon Brown, a city parks maintenance manager. "We don't have the money for infrastructure, we don't have the resources to dedicate to that facility. I never imagined my job would shift to contract management, but I just hope parks will move into that, because it can save money."
Following a City Council vote last Tuesday, the city will negotiate for the next six months with a local sports company seeking to lease Renfree Field. That company, Hobo Sports Inc., will also be asked to renovate the facility, a process that city officials said could cost as much as $300,000.
Howard Bowens, president of Hobo Sports Inc., said he hopes to sign a 20-year lease, long enough to help him recoup the upfront investment he plans to make to get the facility in working condition. Bowens would make money by operating a baseball training academy at the park and renting out the ballpark to baseball leagues and tournaments.
Faced with a parks budget that has been trimmed by more than 50 percent, the city has turned to volunteers to maintain some large parks and to nonprofit organizations to operate community centers. This would mark the first time the city has turned over a parks facility entirely to a private company.
Brown said the decision to lease out Renfree Field is part of the "new normal," in which the city experiments with novel ways to provide services, at times turning to the private sector to take on roles once handled by the government.
"We can't wait (to start fixing Renfree Field)," said Councilwoman Sandy Sheedy. "The longer you wait, the more work that leaves for you to do."
A visit to the field last week found weeds standing 2 feet high on top of what were once the base paths and pitcher's mound. Graffiti covered the restrooms and storage building. Two empty liquor bottles were left on the faded bleachers, which are surrounded by chain link fence.
"It's a field with a lot of history and it needs to be turned around," Bowens said.
Bowens, a former major league baseball scout, said he plans to install batting cages and operate baseball academies for young players. The ballpark would be rented out to leagues and teams, just as it had been since it was built in 1967.
Developer and former U.S. Rep. Doug Ose has also expressed interest in operating Renfree Field. Ose, who lives in a neighborhood of ranches and large homes bordering Del Paso Regional Park, signed a 10-year lease to operate Gibson Ranch Park in Sacramento County last year and said private control of public amenities can work.
"Every organization struggles with certain things," he said. "There are certain things you do well, there are other things you don't do well. If you don't do something well, you need to go find somebody who can. And there's nothing the matter with that."
Ose said Renfree is a worthwhile case for private operation because it's "a historical landmark."
Many prolific ballplayers from the region who went on to professional careers played there, either in night leagues or in American Legion and high school tournaments. That list includes Jeff Blauser, Larry Bowa, Jerry Manuel and the Sax brothers, Dave and Steve.
"We grew up with Renfree, it was our field of dreams," said Leon Lee.
Lee played for seven seasons in the St. Louis Cardinals' minor league organization, followed by 10 years playing in Japan. But he got his start at Renfree, which opened when he was pitching and roaming the infield for Grant High School.
"It needs to be refurbished so we can relive the memories," he said. "And kids today, they should know a bit about history."