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UCLA's Jackie Robinson Stadium as contested VA territory

LOS ANGELES — For most of the years since 1933, UCLA baseball players have peered into the stands at their home field and smiled at their usual assortment of fans.

Moms, dads and girlfriends for sure. But many times, they also nod to disheveled retired Marines, ex-Navy officers with oak-leaf "scrambled eggs" on their caps and proud veterans still wearing camouflage.

"When I was there in the '60s, watching us was an outlet for veterans," former Bruins first baseman Rick Ganulin recalled. "We used to kid around about them, but we also would talk to them and reach out to them."

The baseball team and military veterans became friends and neighbors through an unusual arrangement. When they lacked space to play on campus, the Bruins were welcomed by the Department of Veterans Affairs two miles to the west to a tree-shrouded, hillside lot now off the roaring 405.

But that land lease, the prized Jackie Robinson Stadium that has risen on it and one of the reasons players love the university are all under siege with a possible outcome that could leave the Bruins baseball team without a place to play.

Two years ago, homeless veterans challenged the lease and nearly a dozen similar ones at the West Los Angeles VA campus, which is large enough to house 52 stadiums. A lawsuit alleged that federal land that could be fitted with permanent homes for veterans had become, among other things, a home for the Bruins. The "wants of students" have disgracefully come before the "needs of veterans," said Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

A college baseball stadium — even one some veterans appreciate — has nothing to do with caring for veterans, lawsuit backers argued. Neither does a parking lot for a private bus operator, a sports field for grade-schoolers or an athletic complex for a lavish prep school.

The VA said Congress had never challenged the leases and that veterans were technically benefiting from the rent payments, $60,000 a year during the last decade from UCLA.

But a federal judge ruled in August that the veterans were right: The department erred when it leased land for uses unrelated to veterans' healthcare. The Bruins, weeks after pasting a 2013 national champions emblem on their scoreboard, would need to find a new home by the start of the season in February.

The university was caught off guard. The first-time national champion Bruins soon would be "homeless," university lawyers wrote as they pleaded for a chance to appeal.

In mid-October, the judge chastised the university for sitting on the bench for the last two years but ultimately granted the request. UCLA, Brentwood School, the VA and the ACLU of Southern California are all appealing parts of the August ruling. That all but ensures that the Bruins' 2014 season will be unaffected.

Attorneys said no settlement talks have been held. But former players and baseball boosters said they hope UCLA's entrance into the battle will spur a compromise that preserves the landmark.

"If they lose the field the way it is now, it would be devastating to the program," said Gary Adams, the Bruins' coach from 1975 to 2004.

Players typically carpool the two miles from campus to Jackie Robinson. Adams remembers that trek as disappointing some recruits, such as eventual USC pitcher and current Dodger J.P. Howell.

"When there was traffic on the way there, I knew when his mom asked, 'Will my son have to do this everyday?' that we wouldn't get Howell to our school," said Adams, now retired.

But for many players who committed, the drive that takes five minutes — on a good day — offered a chance to separate work from play.

"School time and baseball time," said Jeff Gelalich, a Bruins outfielder from 2010 to 2012. "If you were to take that stadium away, I think that would take away from the feeling of having your own spot."

He also appreciated one of the new features — batting cages built behind right field in 2009 that are the envy of even minor leaguers.

Rhodine Gifford — who with her late husband, Jack, a former Bruins first baseman funded the batting cages — said it would be a shame to see the stadium abandoned and the program suffer.

"To lose not only what my family's foundation and other alumni have put into it, but also the benefits for veterans themselves who follow the team and the players," she said.

Eric Byrnes, a Bruins right fielder who played in the major leagues for a decade, was one of several former players who said they took pride in having their field on the VA campus.

"We weren't packing Jackie Robinson on a Wednesday night, but to have the veterans come out and watch us meant something to us," he said. "I would like to think that meant something to them too."

Many university supporters note that veterans receive free admission to games. And during the off-season, veterans play their own games there. Though all of that may be beneficial to veterans, the judge said it wasn't enough to consider the stadium a "healthcare resource" for purposes of approving of the lease.

The university has told the court that the team at present has "no place to practice or compete should it be evicted." Adams worried that the controversy could weigh on players and recruits if officials are slow to have a backup plan. UCLA did not make Coach John Savage, who turned down a lucrative offer to defect to USC this past summer, available for comment.

Officials at several Los Angeles universities said UCLA has not approached them about sharing ballparks. Finding space on the Westwood campus has been impossible in the past.

After athletic director J.D. Morgan hired Adams in 1975, they strolled to the intramural field. Morgan posed in a hitting stance and promised that home plate of a glorious stadium would soon rest there. But campus leaders opposed removing the intramural space or paying fees to support a small team just as complaints from nearby residents nixed other possibilities on the edge of campus, Adams said.

The push-back relegated the team to Sawtelle Field on the VA campus, where players never knew when a gopher might pop out of the ground or a cockroach might join them for a shower. A classmate of Jackie Robinson donated money to rebuild and rename the stadium in 1981.

At least $5.3 million in improvements beginning in 2006 have transformed it into a place worth appreciating, former players said. The Bruins have reached the NCAA tournament every year but one since then.

"It's kind of neat that it's in its own nook of L.A.," Gelalich said. "You didn't feel you were in the middle of the city."

Last season, the Bruins drew about 800 fans a game. At 1,800 seats, the stadium is the smallest in the Pac-12 Conference. It's also one of four conference ballparks located off campus.

Since the 1981 construction, the team has won 60% of its 965 home games.

"We transformed it into a real first-class stadium that is for UCLA baseball and the community," Bruins Hall of Famer Ganulin said. "And now, they finally reached a pinnacle — this national title — and some ACLU lawsuit is undermining what they are doing."

paresh.dave@latimes.com
 

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