The stuff of childhood fantasy is not make-believe for nine-year-old Sam Picha. His family actually built a baseball field in their spacious, three-acre yard here in the Pacific Northwest.
"I think it's better than a swimming pool," says the little slugger, enthused with his plentiful practice opportunities.
Sam can play whenever he wants, but his parents, Doug and Cassie Picha, consider this diamond a community resource for Bainbridge Island, a semirural Seattle suburb.
Like many communities across the United States, Bainbridge Island has felt the squeeze on playing facilities from soccer's growth and greater girls' participation in sports. So when youth coaches asked the Pichas if their field was available for Little League practices and games, they were happy to oblige.
Because the five-year-old field is so well-maintained, it is very popular.
"It's used almost every night in March, April, and May," says Mr. Picha, the executive director of the Children's Hospital & Regional Medical Center Foundation in Seattle. Even after the official youth-league season is over, friends, neighbors, and guests congregate for sandlot-style games and sometimes picnics, too.
"You know that expression: 'Build it and they will come'? Well, it's really true," says Picha, citing the line from the movie "Field of Dreams" about a magical baseball diamond in the middle of an Iowa cornfield. (That field has since become a tourist attraction in Dyersville, Iowa.)
The Pichas' field not only predates this campaign, but was built from the ground up with no fanfare.
At the time, their oldest children, Teddy and Joe, were Little League age, so the parents decided it would be fun to convert a chunk of pastureland on their property.
"There's something about baseball that brings out the kid in you," Picha explains. "We said, 'We can do this [build a diamond].' "
A bulldozer was brought in for the heavy earth-moving, but the field is largely the work of the Picha family, with the help of friends and volunteers. The work began in early spring, and several months later a well-manicured diamond, with a backstop using netting made by a local fishing-net company, saw its first action. (The backstop, by the way, carries a "Picha Field" placard mounted by grateful Little League parents who appreciate the family's generosity.)
"The Pichas are always doing something for the kids," says neighbor Jon Kuchin while chasing flyballs during a casual Sunday afternoon practice.
These are community-minded folks in a family-oriented community, he says, citing Doug Picha's service on the local school board.
Picha grew up on a farm in Puyallap, Wash., and his prize raspberries grow at the edge of a short right field.
"Balls hit into the raspberries are a double; the Christmas trees [in center field] are a home run," Mrs. Picha says, explaining some of the ground rules.
Wearing a fielder's glove, she cheers everyone's efforts. Signs of her own handiwork, however, make her the unsung heroine, for the charm of Picha Field is in the scenic surroundings, which evoke a country estate.
"Cassie is an exceptional gardener," says her husband. Her horticultural passion, he believes, helps the Picha children, including daughter Allie, appreciate the beauty of the outdoors.
The grounds, anchored by an inviting, country-style home, are fit for the pages of any house-and-garden magazine. They're not only a showplace, with a winding gravel driveway, a small orchard, trellises, etc., but a playground too, concepts that don't seem incompatible to the homeowners.
"The kids end up hitting balls into the yard," Mrs. Picha says. "When the season is over and the perennials die back, I might find 25 balls in the plants." A neighbor also periodically returns buckets of balls that have flown over the backstop into his paddock.
Relations are good. In this setting, a "front yard" baseball field works. It is not a lightning rod for controversy, as sometimes is the case
Several years ago, for example, a Little League field in Snoqualmie, Wash., had to be moved at great expense when it caused problems for neighboring families. "People had to use our phones, our toilets, our water," one homeowner protested. "Garbage was everywhere, and our neighbors had people urinating in their garden."
This summer, in Tewksbury, N.J., a superior court ruled that Bill Ingraham must limit playing time on the regulation-sized baseball diamond in his backyard. Neighbors consider it a nuisance. In one response to their complaints, aluminum bats have been banned as a noise-reduction measure.
The Pichas, on the other hand, love the baseball sounds that drift from their field, positioned about 100 yards away and shielded from the house by trees.
"You can hear the kids out there," Mrs. Picha says, "You can hear the bat on the ball. You hear the 'go-go-go' yelling and occasional applause. It's really fun. It just sounds like summer."
Picha says he's not unaware of potential "home field" disadvantages, especially given today's litigious society. He checked his own and the local park district's insurance, and has been told he's covered.
But what about having so many people around? "Sometimes it's weird to drive up and see like 20 cars parked in the driveway," says Teddy, the oldest child at15, "but it's fun."
Picha says things have worked out very well. Those who use the field have been respectful of the property and owners. "I think this brings out the best in people," he says.
They seem appreciative of the sweat equity lavished on the field. The children all are involved in mowing, weeding, and lining it and their dad has installed the pipes for an irrigation system. In appreciation for these efforts, teams usually rake the field before leaving and coaches sometimes return to mow it.
As for privacy?
"The fact that the house is on the back [of the property] and kind of separate is nice," Picha observes.
"We've never had a child come to the house and ask to use the bathroom," Mrs. Picha says, adding, "I assume they use the woods."
Surveying the grounds, Teddy leaves no doubt he likes this field of dreams, even if he's outgrown it.
"When I'm older I want a place like this," he says. "It's worth it."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society