Level the playing fields

THE synthetic football field under my Bass casuals made me feel like I was walking on marshmallows. Yes, it was definitely soft, springy even. The faux grass surface is bright green with black specks those are the cryogenically produced rubber granules. The fields adorned with drop-shadowed yard markers and bright endzone markers in school colors.

Come up here and take a look, directed Bassett Unified School District Athletic Director William Baca. I followed him to the top of the new aluminum bleachers where I could see the scope of the new $3.4 million Bassett High School football stadium.
He wanted me to see the golden Olympic rings and the words B-A-S-S-E-T-T O-L-Y-M-P-I-A-N-S that adorned the 50-yard line.

Also, in full view was the salmon-colored polyurethane, EPDM rubber-embedded track that encircled the football/soccer field.

One needs to gain perspective when writing about million-dollar stadiums for, well, a high school whose API score is 633 (out of 1,000) with a school rank of 3 (out of 10). To be fair, Bassett schools (in unincorporated La Puente and portions of La Puente, Whittier and Industry) have improved their test scores; Torch Middle School was recently named a California Distinguished School. An enthusiastic superintendent and a new high school principal are making positive changes.

Still, the $64,000 question is: Can new athletic fields be the catalyst that produces community respect, student pride and higher academic achievement?
That remains to be seen. But one thing is certain. Bassett is not alone in using athletics to polish a schools image.

Baldwin Park High School and its cross-town rival, Sierra Vista High School, just put the finishing touches on brand new synthetic football/soccer fields. West Covina High School is about to unwrap its new state-of-the-art football/track turf. San Marinos multi-million renovation includes an artificial track. Maranatha High School in west Pasadena installed its artificial football/soccer field atop a parking garage a few years ago. Monrovia High School will be undertaking major improvements to its gym and fields thanks to a $45 million high school bond just passed by Monrovia voters.

Call it the second wave of bond dollars for schools. After new classrooms, science labs and air conditioning/heating units, schools are getting around to improving or in some cases replacing out-of-date athletic fields and stadiums.

Going, going gone is grass and dirt. Fields and tracks are being torn up and replaced with synthetic surfaces. New scoreboards and public address systems are gravy.

Some have criticized this sea change. But I think the movement is fantastic. It represents the public investing in children, which is never a bad thing and is something the San Gabriel Valley does not do enough. We could still use new libraries and new parks, more soccer and baseball/softball fields, basketball and tennis courts.

All this emphasis on recreation and sport can be part of an anti-gang strategy something very much needed today. The new tracks and fields could also raise property values and more importantly, they can raise morale of the students attending these schools.

Why should Bassett, a low-to-middle class Latino area, invest more than $3 million in a new football stadium? Well, even the question is racially offensive. When San Marino or Arcadia did it, no one blinked an eye. But suddenly, when Latino kids get a new stadium to play football and soccer on, it is wrong? No, that is a racist argument. Baldwin Park and Bassett students deserve high quality fields and facilities just as much as west Pasadena private school kids or San Marino students.
Theres evidence that kids from the Valleys blue-collar neighborhoods are holding their heads a little higher these days.

I think it is motivation, said Matthew Rodriguez, 17, a senior and varsity football linebacker for the Baldwin Park High School Braves. He also spoke of the better stance he gets on the artificial turf.
BPHS will play Sierra Vista in its annual city football classic at the Braves new stadium this year. I cant wait to play on this field. That will be a really big thing, he said.

Baca, who also teaches science and AVID (a program aimed at introducing students to college earlier through positive reinforcement) at Bassett High, said having quality athletic equipment and playing fields sends a positive message to all students. A lot of students can only tell me the college they know based on sports. They know USC, UCLA because they know of their sports (programs). Yes, academics are No. 1 but people judge us by our athletic programs.

Earlier this month, Bassett hosted an All-Star football game in which parents from all over the region came to its new field. Baca stood at the gate and overheard one woman from out-of-town say: Wow. This is a very nice field but thats good … for a private school. I interrupted her and said, Thank you, maam. But we are a public school, Baca recalled.

Theres talk that rival Bishop Amat High, the private school athletic powerhouse down the road, may get a synthetic turf football field as well, just like Bassett High Schools.

It’s not your lucky day

THE call from my father went something like this:

“Paul, this is your father. Are you sitting down? I won!! I won the lottery!”

My brother knew my father was a devoted lottery player for years. He knew that he took this as seriously as Canadians at a hockey game. Paul also knew my dad would meticulously match up the numbers on his stubs against the winning numbers in the newspaper. And, he never hit the jackpot.

Convinced, he left work and drove to my fathers house. When he got there, he noticed my father was reading the wrong ticket it was last weeks ticket. He hadnt won anything.

To me, the lottery is more nightmares than dreams. It is a world of unfulfilled expectations, where wishing on a star leaves your eyes so full of stardust you cant see straight. Where longing for riches replaces healthy pursuits, such as learning to play the guitar or piano, going back to school and getting an advanced degree, or planting a vegetable garden and waiting with anticipation for those first green shoots to poke through the soil.

Not only is the lottery a waste of time, it is based on luck, something that doesnt exist, like leprechauns and pots of gold. That, and very, very long odds, about 1 in 18 million.I bring up this story because today is July 7, 2007, or 07-07-07 or 777. Since some people believe triple 7s are lucky, theyve gone out and bought SuperLotto Plus tickets (the jackpot at this writing stood at $24 million). Theyre heading for Indian casinos or Vegas gambling halls and hoping to hit the three sevens on the slot machines.

No matter what the date, your luck remains the same.I think my father truly was fortunate, however, but not at the lottery. It was as a 19-year-old fighting for the allied forces against Germany during World War II. After a fierce firefight, all the other soldiers in his regiment were killed. Wounded, but still alive, he played dead among the corpses while Nazi soldiers came through using bayonets to stab each fallen soldier in the heart just to make sure.

They missed him, or mistook him for dead. For that he was very glad. So am I, or I would not be here writing this. I cant call that luck. Maybe good fortune. Or just circumstance. Perhaps that was the reason my father never won the lottery. He had already used up all his good luck.

Flash back to July 7, 1977 or 07-07-77. It was a hot day in New York where I lived. I was going to my car and saw glass on the street. Someone had broken in and stolen my tape deck/stereo.

Birds of a feather
I received several responses to last weeks column on the de-listing of the bald eagle from the federal Endangered Species List.

Ann Croissant, one of the San Gabriel Valleys leading conservationists, wrote that recovering the bald eagle numbers across the United States is really a great tribute, not only to coordinated conservation efforts, but also to stewardship and teamwork of a caring America.

Birder Milt Blatt of Covina said he had seen a bald eagle at Bonelli Park in San Dimas but that was more than 10 years ago and had not seen one there since.

Others spoke of declining bird populations. The Audubon Society reported from its national Christmas Count that the populations of about 20 common North American birds had halved since 1967. The evening grosbeak, which used to crowd backyard feeders in the 70s have declined 78 percent, from 17 million to 3.8 million.

Urban sprawl and large-scale farming are to blame. Some are also saying the West Nile Virus is thinning bird populations. Kelly Middleton, information officer with the San Gabriel Valley Mosquito and Vector Control District, said crows, sparrows and finches took huge hits during the 2004 WNV epidemic.

Other bird species skated by, even thrived, but bird varieties are dwindling. Backyard survivors include jays, cardinals, robins and in the SGV, the infamous wild parrots.

At precisely 5:43 a.m. outside my bedroom window in Temple City, the noisy green winged creatures are on the seen, loud and clear. Even on my morning run, the Pirate companions whoop and holler as they dive down from higher lofts to lower branches of parkway trees, not a black crow in sight to bother them.

Yup, the parrots are back, the crows and raptors (hawks, eagles) are dwindling. Im not sure this is a good thing, unless you happen to be a pirate.