Mike McHatton has a beautiful garden. Trees surround a lush, green lawn. Flower beds ring the yard and brim with multiple varieties of plants. Bee balm, monks cap, hostas, lilies, ferns, forget-me-nots, and even gunnera — a South American plant with leaves as big as an open umbrella and a spiky stem. There’s a tiered deck, a swimming pool and a fire pit. Birds chirp and bees buzz.
But McHatton can’t enjoy his garden because, every now and then, it rains baseballs. McHatton lives next door to Vessey Field in Montesano and the danger of getting hit with a baseball is real. Netting, strung across the light poles, is supposed to stop the balls but it hangs in disrepair, with large holes.
In July 2002, McHatton’s daughter was hit on the head with a ricocheting baseball as she sat outside roasting marshmallows. She was knocked unconscious, according to an article in The Daily World, and suffered a concussion.
McHatton sued the city for $325,000 in 2003, and later settled in 2005 for about $50,000. In the settlement agreement, the city agreed to maintain the existing system of nets, protecting the adjacent homes and their occupants from errant balls.
In the past year, McHatton has collected about 80 baseballs — pop flys and foul balls that escaped through the torn net and into his yard. From about March through September, during Monte High School baseball season and summer legion ball, McHatton schedules his outdoor activities around baseball. If he has a barbecue, he makes sure it’s not on a day when a baseball game is being played as the risk to his guests, including some young children, is too high, he says.
The nets are at least 14 years old, acknowledged Doug Streeter, chief financial officer for the City of Montesano. According to an October 2002 memo — the most recent parks and recreation document which mentions the Vessey Field nets — which states the parks and recreation department was able to locate lightweight, monofilament nets and funds were available to purchase them in the 2002 budget. The memo further states the nets would not interfere with the light poles and the department was requesting the work be completed through the small works roster, with bid information brought before the city council at their November 12 meeting.
McHatton and neighbor Sheldon Lukowski, who also lives next door to Vessey, went to the city council, in April 2015, asking the city to fulfill its obligation and maintain the park in general. The disrepair of the nets is not McHatton’s only complaint with the park’s maintenance. Parking issues, road congestion, kids coming over the fence and dust from mowing all were discussed. He and Lukowski were thanked for bringing the matter to the council’s attention and council members came to Vessey Field to witness the problems for themselves, McHatton said.
Signage was replaced but the nets were not fixed, said McHatton. Unsure of the exact date, around January or February 2016 he said, McHatton called a local morning radio show in which the new mayor appeared. He asked about fixing the nets before the next upcoming baseball season.
“The host was more concerned about the nets than the mayor,” McHatton said. His frustration with the city’s apparent lack of concern is evident and he has no qualms about expressing it. Neighbor Lukowski is just as discouraged but he is more reserved.
“Mike’s really frustrated and we just deal with it differently,” Lukowski said. “I give the baseballs back and I mow the grass in between the field and the fence. I’m trying to be nice.”
Lukowski said he was trying to be a good neighbor and do the right thing about how he approaches the city.
“I’m sad that they don’t try to be good neighbors,” Lukowski said. He and McHatton say they just want the city to maintain the ball field to a certain standard — where they can enjoy their homes and kids can play baseball.
“Yes, I’m a dumbass for buying a house next to a baseball field,” McHatton said, acknowledging his responsibility as a home buyer. It wasn’t supposed to be a permanent place but circumstances have made it his home for the past more than 20 years.
“Who’s going to buy this house now? I’d have to include a helmet for them as part of the sale,” he added. Further, McHatton said, he wouldn’t get back what he’s put into the house over the years and he would suffer a financial loss.
In early June 2016, current parks and recreation director Rocky Howard assessed the Vessey Field barrier nets and he sent a memo to Mayor Vini Samuel addressing the issues he encountered.
“The nets in general were of poor condition, loosely anchored to the anchorage points being used, ripped in the field areas of the netting and torn loose from the perimeter binding. These conditions are due to the age and environment the barriers are subjected to twelve months out of the year,” said Howard in his memo.
“Netting appeared to be greatly deteriorated at the higher reaches possibly due to higher wind loads,” the memo continues. Howard estimated the cost of new barrier netting and its associated anchorage accessories at about $8,400. While not noting how the nets will be installed or at what cost, Grays Harbor PUD has in the past donated time and equipment in assisting the city with net maintenance.
With weather a factor in deteriorating the nets, Streeter, in an email, said the city was exploring a rigging system where the nets could be removed in the off-season. Streeter also said Mayor Samuel met with Montesano School District Superintendent Dan Winters in May regarding the nets, and discussed the possibility of an inter-local agreement between the city and Vessey Field’s primary user, the high school.
Streeter said final costs and the scope of the project had not yet been determined, but the city was trying to fix the problem with the nets.
“We can’t fix the past,” said Streeter, regarding McHatton’s long-standing complaints. Streeter said the city is working on a long-term solution to address the problem, not a quick fix. Howard said the city, in an effort to make a better facility, was exploring funding mechanisms, including grants, to fund the work and the new nets possibly could be installed by next baseball season.
McHatton isn’t so sure. When asked what he thought of the city’s response, he pointed to the nets, still torn and rotted on July 6, and said, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”