Beach, ball, Baltimore

Tournament at Rash Field attracts players, but many worry plans might change game

August 26, 2007|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,Sun reporter

What does it take to lure a yuppie from Washington up to Baltimore on a 96-degree day?

"A pool and some beer and some volleyball," said Jen Collins, 33, hoisting her tumbler of Labatt's Blue Light and wriggling with evident pleasure around the cloudy, leaf-choked water of a kiddie pool on the southerly banks of the Inner Harbor.

The bikinied banker with PNC Financial Services Group and her three teammates had hijacked the inflatable pool to cool off between matches at the fourth annual end-of-season beach volleyball tournament at the Rash Field sand courts.

The Baltimore courts are better than those at the Washington Mall, Collins said. "We call those the gravel pits."

Undeterred by the brutal sun, which kept pedestrian traffic light on the harbor's more touristed promenades, volleyball players dived in the sand and served up spikes on seven courts all day. Between matches, they rested in tents, listened to music and rehydrated with water and beer.

The official high for the day was 96 degrees, one degree shy of a record set in 1968, but humid conditions made it feel much warmer. Later, play was temporarily suspended during an evening thunderstorm.

"On a day like this, you stand back and look at the skyline," said a shirtless Andy Reitz, 50, of Lutherville, who plays downtown every Tuesday in a league with his wife, Iris. "This is the city pumped up, and it's a good feeling."

While beach volleyball organizers basked in the strong turnout of about 200 recreational and "semipro" players to the two-day fundraiser - which continues today - they also worried about the future of the courts and 1,000 tons of sand, which they say are used by about 1,500 people every week, mostly in weeknight league play.

A planned redesign of the waterfront parcel between the Maryland Science Center and a new Ritz Carlton Residences development incorporates eight sand courts, more than currently exist. But Baltimore Beach founder Todd G. Webster, who established beach volleyball in the city about six years ago, said he was still concerned.

Webster said he has heard that there is resistance from some members of the Rash Field redesign team to maintaining the eight courts in the plan.

Officials with the city's economic development agency, which is overseeing the long-anticipated makeover of the public park, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

A spokesman for Sheila Dixon said the mayor was committed to preserving beach volleyball in Baltimore but stopped short of saying the Inner Harbor would play permanent host to what some critics have called a giant sandlot that ought to be replaced by green space.

"We want a long relationship with beach volleyball, and if we can't continue in that venue, rest assured an even more exciting and more appropriate venue will be found," said Anthony McCarthy.

After yesterday's tourney ended, City Councilman and mayoral candidate Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., stopped by the luau-themed after-party.

Mitchell gripped and greeted voters and said he "would commit to keeping volleyball here. ... Rash Field has always had a recreational component."

Dixon was expected to make an appearance later in the evening.

Earlier in the day, volleyball player Brian Reamer of Columbia proclaimed himself mighty skeptical of officials' stated support of supporting beach play in Baltimore.

"I doubt they'll rebuild the courts," Reamer said, sucking on a Merit cigarette while bathing his feet in the kiddie pool.

The plan calls for the development of a 600-car underground parking garage where the volleyball courts are, and then to top the garage with a green lawn. The sand courts would be moved closer to the Rusty Scupper restaurant, according to architects' renderings.

Reamer, a pharmaceutical chemist from Columbia who has been playing competitive beach volleyball in downtown Baltimore for about five years, said the volleyball community would be hurt if the courts were relocated off the water.

"The water is completely important," Reamer said. "You have a good breeze. It's almost like being on the beach. That's huge - you don't want to be in the middle of the city."

Baltimore Beach's Webster said he would likely relocate the courts if the city reduced the allocated number from eight, but that he hoped it wouldn't come to that.

"Look at our Inner Harbor," he said, gesturing at the shops and restaurants that ring the harbor on three sides. "Some people call it a tourist trap. There's a lot of tourist dollars poured into the Inner Harbor to accommodate tourists' needs."

"This is the only place in the Inner Harbor that geared to the public's needs specifically, where people from the area can come and play in their neighborhood."

About 60 percent of the 230 teams that play in the beach volleyball leagues are made up of city residents, said Webster, who lives in Federal Hill. But not all of Webster's neighbors think a sand-filled lot is the best use for a waterfront park.

"We want more grass and trees," said Chris Ploetz, 26, who lives with his wife on downtown's west side. And if there were more of it there," he added, pointing at the volleyball courts, "it would be nice."

gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

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