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Little League battling needle epidemic

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Hector Aguilar uses a claw grabber extension bar to remove a hypodermic needle from one of the fields at Atrisco Park on Wednesday evening, prior to an Atrisco Valley Little League ball game. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

It’s the last safety hazard a Little League ballplayer or a parent thinks about when a child dives for a line drive or scrambles to get under a pop fly.

Nevertheless, Atrisco Park, home of the Atrisco Valley Little League, is fighting a battle against discarded syringes with attached hypodermic needles.

Earlier this week, an 11-year-old girl was practicing base sliding when a hypodermic needle pierced her foot, said Hector Aguilar, president of the Atrisco Valley Little League for the last 11 seasons. The child was taken to a hospital and tested and “will have to undergo further testing in three months to see if she was infected with anything,” he said.

Aguilar said he and other coaches and volunteers walk the six baseball fields before practices or games looking for and picking up syringes as they find them – often 20 to 30 on any given day. Of course, it’s not possible to find every errant syringe or needle, particularly in the tall grass, leading to incidents like the one involving the child who got stuck while practicing base sliding.

Before a game on Wednesday evening, Aguilar armed himself with a claw grabber extension bar and walked the park. Within steps of uncovering a multi-colored Easter egg, hidden so well that it remained concealed until that moment, he removed the first of 18 syringes and three times that many needle caps and cotton swabs used to mix drugs, all of which he placed in a plastic flower seed bucket.

When the seed buckets are filled, the Bernalillo County Fire Department is called to pick them up and dispose of them, “because we don’t know what else to do with them,” he said.

The park has been part of the community for decades, “and every now and then you’d find a needle, but last year and this year have been the worst. I’m not sure why, but I can tell you there’s a whole lot more homeless people hanging around.”

Aguilar said that when he goes to the park to prepare for Little League games, he finds homeless people sitting in the bleachers, under a metal canopy by the concession building or sleeping on the floor of portable toilets, having broken the locks to gain entry.

Marlena Gurule and her sons, ages 11 and 13, were at Atrisco Park recently to play a scheduled Little League game. “A man who was obviously homeless had made his home in the third-base dugout and showed no signs of leaving,” Gurule said, but it was syringes found throughout the field that forced the game to be moved to a different field at the park.

“It was very sad, disgusting and, above all, disappointing,” Gurule said Wednesday. “As a mother, safety is my biggest concern, of course. But another consideration is that the Little League operates off of concession sales. It’s what allows us to purchase equipment. If Atrisco Valley Little League has to shut some of its fields, it financially impacts the league as a whole, and that impacts the children in the league.”

Atrisco Park is owned and maintained by Bernalillo County. During an average season about 20 games are played on each field and more than 350 kids rely on those baseball diamonds, Aguilar said.

“The needle problem affects all the fields. We even find them in the dugout, where kids sit, and under the bleachers, where the parents and spectators sit. There is one field at the west end, the very back of the park, that we can no longer use because it’s just saturated with needles,” Aguilar said. “It is completely out of commission for us.”

These hypodermic needles, needle caps, cotton swabs and other drug paraphernalia were removed from Atrisco Park. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

A fence separates that field from a now-covered drainage arroyo, where homeless people frequently camp. A gate along the west end remains unlocked at the request of neighbors who wanted easy access to the park, Aguilar said, even though the main vehicle entrance on the east side of the park is gated and locked shut at night.

In March, Aguilar said, he notified County Commissioner Steven Michael Quezada, who represents the area where the park is, as well as officials at the Bernalillo County Parks and Recreation Department, about the growing needle crisis at the park. He was assured that a tamper-proof “sharps” box for syringe disposal would be installed at the park, that a trained crew would regularly walk the park and remove syringes, and that Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputies would be asked to step up patrols in the area.

County spokesman Larry Gallegos walked the park with Aguilar on Wednesday and saw for himself the abundance of syringes. He assured Aguilar that the county has ordered a custom-built needle disposal box that he expected to be installed within a week. Sheriff’s deputies have stepped up patrols, and a county maintenance worker, generally responsible for two parks, regularly cleans up the park – which on the surface appears tidy.

Gallegos also said that the county has a new program in which people are trained in how to locate and safely remove needles and related paraphernalia. “It’s a small group, and they are responsible for all the county parks and county property, so they’ve only been able to get out to Atrisco Park once every two weeks,” he said.

In the meantime, Aguilar and the others will continue to scour the ballfields for syringes, and kids will continue to launch their bodies in pursuit of line drives and slide into bases, concerned only about being called out or safe – really safe.

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