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Editorial: Little Leaguers shouldn’t have to dodge dirty needles

Things Albuquerque Little Leaguers have to worry about in 2019:

• Keeping their eyes on the ball.

• Wondering if Mom will cheer that loud every game.

• Avoiding hypodermic needles at home plate.

According to a Journal story Thursday, the problem of dirty needles on the diamond has become so pervasive at Atrisco Park that Atrisco Valley Little League coaches and volunteers make a habit of walking its six baseball fields before practices and games to clean up drug paraphernalia.

For all their efforts – and thank heavens for the responsible adults in our community – it’s not a perfect system: Last week, a needle that escaped scrutiny pierced the foot of an 11-year-old practicing base-sliding.

While we don’t know the exact path that needle took en route to becoming embedded in a child’s body, league president Hector Aguilar reports groups of homeless people hang out under the park’s bleachers, by the concession stand and in the portable toilets.

Does it really need to be said this is unacceptable?

Atrisco has abandoned its back field because “it’s just saturated with needles.” Even more unfortunate, Atrisco is not alone. Lobo Little League has the moniker “Hobo Little League” because homeless individuals have been found sleeping in the dugouts. The city has had to pull mattresses out of the restrooms at Petroglyph Little League. The list goes on.

Aguilar and his Little League compatriots are doing everything that can be expected to keep kids who just want to play safe. Besides walking the fields himself – he found 18 needles and an unclaimed Easter egg one day last week – Aguilar said he has assurances a needle disposal box will be installed, a county team will start helping with needle clean-up, and Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputies will be asked to step up enforcement in the park.

The macro issue, of course, is the massive behavioral health and homelessness problems plaguing the metro area. Bernalillo County continues to take in millions in gross receipts taxes annually for the cause. Mayor Tim Keller will ask voters in November to build a $14 million 24/7 no-barrier homeless shelter.

But homelessness and drug addiction are complex problems with no quick or easy answers, and in the meantime the state’s most populous area has this on its welcome mat?

It joins the issues that evoke a visceral response among anyone considering moving their company or family here – or staying here. Propose a drilling moratorium on the oil and gas industry, threaten to yank film subsidies, float selling the Spaceport for $1, stick Facebook with a surprise $39 million bill and warn families about the dirty needles at the Easter egg hunt.

We can provide economic incentives until the cows come home. We can argue about the civil rights of all. But who wants to live in a place where kids can’t even play baseball without risking a needle-borne illness? The girl who got stuck now has to undergo repeated testing to check for infections.

This is a serious public safety problem. Our kids deserve better. And city, county and law enforcement officials need to do more than install a needle drop box and call it good. They need to address it as one of their top quality-of-life concerns.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.