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It seems this project has been cursed since Tim Naehring, who was then with the Red Sox, came up with the idea more than 10 years ago to build a scaled-down replica of Fenway Park in Quincy dedicated to kids. But Naehring hurt his elbow, retired, and moved back to Cincinnati, where he built a Little Fenway on his old Little League field. He even laid the sod himself.
Now, in a wooded side of Ricciuti Drive near the old Quincy Quarries, there is a sign proclaiming the future home of Mini-Fenway Park as “Coming Summertime ’08.” That outdated sign has replaced four other signs, going back to 1999.
Despite the enthusiastic approval from the Red Sox and Major League Baseball in 2006, and the signing by Governor Deval Patrick of a $1.64 billion environmental bond bill with a provision stating that Mini-Fenway has “overriding public interest” becoming law in August, no shovel has broken the earth on the 11.44-acre site in the Blue Hills.
Ron Iacobucci, CEO of the nonprofit Kids Replica Ballpark Inc., who became involved in the project in 2001, said it has been “held hostage” by a host of state agencies for nearly two years because of environmental concerns. State officials say they are protecting the environment and enforcing the law, and that the proper paperwork has not been filed.
“Believe me, I get e-mails from kids every day that want to play up there,” said Iacobucci. “It breaks my heart we haven’t got this done. But whose fault is that?
“I’m probably as frustrated as anybody. We’ve put a lot of time and effort, we’ve reached a lot of milestones, but we haven’t got a shovel in the ground because they won’t give me the process for a final variance.”
The design calls for a miniature Fenway Park for kids ages 4-17, complete with Green Monster, Pesky Pole, Citgo sign, a 1912 replica facade and seating for 3,000 fans. Construction would be in stages. First the field and ballpark. Then a Legends Museum honoring players such as Carl Yastrzemski (the first Little Leaguer to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame), clubhouses, souvenir and pro shops, fan-fest areas, a theater, and even a dome to ensure year-round use. The first phase will cost an estimated $2 million. The final tally is currently $10 million-$20 million, according to Iacobucci, who says he has approximately $2 million in pledges awaiting final approval from several state agencies.
The project has netted more than $135,827 from the auction of low-number Mini-Fenway Park license plates and other contributions. Jim Holtzman, president of Ace Tickets, paid $31,000 for plate No. 1.
But Kids Replica Ballpark had just $10,481 net assets at the end of 2007, according to financial records. Iacobucci has also come under fire. Two environmental consultants are suing him in Norfolk Superior Court for nonpayment of bills.
“If you figure it out on an hourly basis over the years, it’s less than minimum wage,” says Iacobucci.
Blaming each other
Kids Replica Ballpark Inc. says it submitted a conceptual design to the Department of Conservation and Recreation in November 2006.
But the state’s Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program identified the site as a “priority habitat” of rattlesnakes and copperheads – which are protected by the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act.
The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife has also certified two vernal ponds near where first base would be. Vernal pools are temporary bodies of water devoid of fish – where wood frogs and yellow-spotted salamanders breed. Iacobucci says the state told him a variance was needed.
He says they promised him a letter mapping the next steps.
The variance requires the applicant to “avoid, minimize, and mitigate adverse effects on the environment.”
Now each side is blaming the other for the delay.
“They haven’t applied for a variance yet,” says Lisa Capone, a spokeswoman for the executive office of energy and environmental affairs. “There’s no letter sent asking for a variance. It is a process, but the way to get it started is to send a letter.”
Said Iacobucci, who worked in former Boston Mayor Kevin White’s administration, “Obviously someone’s playing games. They haven’t defined what the process is because they’ve never done this before. So what letter can I give them? They haven’t told me what they need.”
The Friends of the Blue Hills, a nonprofit environmental group, has already objected to Patrick signing the environmental bond bill giving preferred status to the project.
“We just said, ‘Look, if there are environmental regulations and procedures to go through, you should go through them,’ ” said Steve Olanoff, vice president of the group. “We never opposed the project. This may not be the best site. Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino has met with the Mini-Fenway group to discuss a possible relocation, according to multiple sources. At least three other suburban locations have expressed interest.
“We might have to go elsewhere, but we will never give up,” said Iacobucci. “My board has authorized me to look at other possibilities.”
Willing to help
At night, the Quincy site is eerie and pitch-black. Up over a hill, you can see the glow of Fenway Park, a burst of light spreading over the Hub. The Red Sox wait until the last pitch of the season is thrown and then rush in construction crews that work day and night on park renovations.
And Babe Ruth’s only living daughter, Julia Ruth Stevens, 92 – a Red Sox fan and board member for Mini-Fenway Park – says her legendary father wouldn’t be happy about the delay.
“I think he would be frustrated,” she said from her Arizona home. “I don’t think I could use the language that he would, but I think he would think it was just plain stupid.”
Stevens was in Quincy last summer for the Babe Ruth World Series, and toured the site.
“It’s a place where children can come and play and they have a wonderful place to do it in,” she said. “I just can’t see how they can hold up a thing like that.
“I’m all for nature and extending the lifetime of various little things of various species, but I really do think that people take precedence over that.
“This is a wonderful, wonderful project. Somebody needs to light a fire under them. Everyone concerned with it is ready to go, but the state government is holding them up.”
In a symbolic way, the Babe is wrapping his big arms around this project in other ways.
Rhode Island philanthropist Alan Feinstein bought the famous 1919 contract that sent Ruth from the Red Sox to the Yankees at an auction in 1993 for $99,000. Then he sold copies of the document for a $100 donation, raising more than $1 million for two Rhode Island universities. He sold the original contract in 2005 for $993,000 and donated the money to anti-hunger agencies in America.
Feinstein, who still lives in his original Cranston ranch house, has pledged $1 million for naming rights and a community service pledge to help make Mini-Fenway Park a reality. He grew up in Milton and refers to Fenway Park as the “Ballpark of the Gods.”
“They came to me because of my ties with Babe Ruth and the Red Sox,” said Feinstein. “To me, it’s a shame. They’ve made them go through so many hoops.”
Back in Quincy, Iacobucci found something from the state in his mail Saturday morning. The state offered its guidelines and requested a complete biological survey of the frogs and salamanders “during the active season.”
He was crestfallen.
“We’re going to miss at least another baseball season,” he said.