The city has shut down all four diamonds in Legion Memorial Ball Park after a maintenance person lit one of them on fire.
Emergency crews rushed to St. Albert's mosquito diamond last Friday afternoon after police spotted a column of smoke rising from it. They later learned that a maintenance person had poured diesel and gasoline over the diamond's bases and pitcher's mound and lit them on fire to dry them out for a tournament.
About five teams were scheduled to play on the diamond that day, many members of which were present for the fire. The diamond, as well as the three others in the park, is leased and operated by the St. Albert Minor Baseball Association (SAMBA).
The fires were out by the time crews arrived, but the city ordered the diamond closed as it had been contaminated by fuel. When SAMBA could not guarantee that it had not previously spilled and ignited fuel on its other diamonds, the city ordered all four diamonds closed until they could be tested.
The city has removed the contaminated soil from the mosquito diamond, said city environmental manager Leah Jackson, and hopes to test the other diamonds this week.
"We want baseball to go on too, but we're trying to make sure it's safe."
The closure leaves the St. Albert Tigers without a home field, says Brad Wolansky of Baseball Alberta, which oversees amateur baseball leagues in the province, and threatens two provincial tournaments scheduled at Legion park in early August.
"Those kids may not have a place to play," Wolansky said.
SAMBA officials declined to comment on the matter. Sources familiar with the situation said digging up the diamond and closing the others was an overreaction.
Wolansky, who plays for the Tigers, said he understood the need to clean up the mosquito field, but didn't understand why the others were closed.
The closure means many teams will have to rent fields in other cities for practice. "It's going to have a major effect," he said. "We're supposed to have a practice tonight and a game tomorrow, [but now] we're just sitting here waiting to see what happens."
SAMBA and Wolansky were not sure how long the mosquito field would be out of commission, or what it would cost to repair. If the sod was damaged, Wolansky noted, it could be closed for a year.
This was a fuel spill that happened on city property, Jackson said, and staff handled it just as they would anywhere else.
"You don't just leave [the contaminated soil] there saying it's just minor. We clean it up."
Diesel spills always leave some residue in the soil, Jackson said, residue that can easily spread to nearby forests and waterways. It's also illegal to have an open fire in city limits without a permit, she added.
"This is not an acceptable practice."
The city is still investigating the spill and fire, said peace officer Jason Bates, and has not laid any charges.
Drying bases using fire used to be common practice in baseball, said Mayor Nolan Crouse, who saw it happen many times as a child, but never in St. Albert.
"That doesn't make it right," he said.
Crouse declined to take a side on this issue until all the facts were in. "Our staff responded based on the principles and values of good environmental stewardship. Baseball has responded based on the need for young people to play baseball."
The city and SAMBA officials will meet this week to figure out what to do, Jackson said. If the tests go well, most of the Legion diamonds could reopen within a week.
Wolansky, who said he had played baseball in St. Albert since he was a kid, hoped the season could still be saved. "It really is a shame to see that all of a sudden there's no baseball there at the end of the year."