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A softball field near the Minami Center and a Little League baseball diamond at Simas Park are undergoing alterations.

The Santa Maria Recreation and Parks Department is currently converting both those dirt-covered fields to all-grass surfaces.

The city of Santa Maria hopes the conversions will allow those fields to be used for multiple sports, such as soccer, football or even lacrosse, along with baseball or softball, instead of just being one-sport surfaces.

Some Santa Maria residents argue the American pastime won't return those fields once the changes are complete. 

Nearly 100 young baseball and softball players, along with parents, coaches and youth league organizers, marched in front of the Recreation and Parks Department building in Santa Maria on Monday, protesting the changes to the area fields. 

Young baseball and softball players carried signs and posters, with some reading 'The grass isn't always greener' and 'It's not too late to give us back our fields.'

The movement was organized by Michaela Melena, a senior at Santa Maria High who has played softball at the field near the Minami Center nearly all her life. 

"I've played at the field since I was 5 years old," Melena said. "My family has Fourth of July there every year, we play games there, we have scrimmages and practice. We were the last team to practice there Saturday, right before they started tearing into it. It's being put to good use, they just don't see it.

"We can't understand why they're deciding to take away our fields to give them to somebody else."

Melena organized the protest in hopes of getting members of the City Council or those at the parks department to listen to her concerns.

Melena is aware that those fields will still be open to her favorite sport of softball, but isn't so sure that will actually be the case.

"With enough of us here, they're going to have to listen," Melena said. "What they're thinking now is that soccer is bigger in this community than softball and baseball. They think we aren't represented and we don't matter as much.

"We just want to represent baseball and softball and let them know that we do matter."

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Multiple attempts to reach city representatives and Director of Recreation and Parks Alex Posada were unsuccessful Monday afternoon. The department initiated a community survey earlier this year, sending out nearly 4,000 questionnaires to city residents in hopes of gathering information on what types of playing surfaces were in demand.

With these changes in effect, it appears turf is the answer.

Eddie Navarro, who has spent most his life either playing or watching baseball on dirt fields throughout Santa Maria, had a measured approach to the changes coming to Santa Maria diamonds.

"It doesn't matter to me what the kids want to play, even if it was Jacks, I would want to make sure they have a place to play," Navarro said. "So if it's soccer, softball or baseball, no matter what, I would hope that no fields would be taken away from any kids."

On Monday, a mound of dirt was piled high on the infield at the Little League field used for Minors Division games at Simas Park. The softball field at the Minami Center had a similar large pile of dirt.

Though the city hopes these changes won't keep softball and baseball players off those fields, area residents point to similar changes at Atkinson Park in Santa Maria where a baseball diamond was changed to an all-grass surface about 20 years ago. Baseball hasn't been played at Atkinson for years.

Baseball and softball diamonds have also disappeared from Preisker Park and Rice Park and a number of area schools, including Fesler and Miller. Diamonds on school campuses are now closed to public use.

That's created a shortage of viable fields to practice on for young players.

"They're taking all these fields down, there's nowhere to practice anymore," said Henry Peinado, whose children have played multiple sports in Santa Maria. 

Peinado travels all over California with a club baseball team and has seen a solution while one the road: A multi-sport complex built in Santa Maria.

"I've gone to Chino Hills and they have softball fields that baseball players can use and the outfield is a soccer field with paint-outs," Peinado said. "It's all turf and we're fine with that. We went to Sunnyvale for a tournament and they had 12 fields with paint-outs for soccer, lacrosse, whatever. I'm OK with multi-purpose fields as long as everyone has a fair chance to use it.

"Santa Maria is a great place, it's a nice place to come, and if we had a nice complex like that more people would come."

Over the summer, Posada, the Recreation and Parks Department Director, said new energy-efficient lighting was coming to several parks in Santa Maria as a way to create more recreation opportunities for the city’s youth by increasing the time existing fields are available at parks that currently lack lighting. Artificial turf is scheduled to replace existing grass at Atkinson Park as well. 

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Joe Bailey is the sports editor at Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Contact him with tips and story ideas at jbailey@leecentralcoastnews.com or (805) 739-2239. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jbaileysmsports

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