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The first time Carl Maybin walked into Big League Dreams Sports Park, the 68-year-old retiree thought he had died and gone to heaven. What he saw was a three-quarter-scale replica of Wrigley Field, with ivy beginning to creep across the brick outfield wall. He also saw a similarly shrunken twin of Yankee Stadium, with the famous facade crowning the bleachers, and a similarly reduced version of Fenway Park, with its signature Green Monster in leftfield.
Soon Maybin found himself experiencing nirvana: He was actually playing in the faux Fenway. "I couldn't believe it," he recalls. "I'm from Boston originally, and to play in Fenway...it's just awesome."
Big League Dreams is the brainchild of Ron Odekirk and his sons, Rick and Jeff. They designed and built this fantasy playground for softball and youth-baseball players to indulge their major league fantasies on natural grass. Located in Cathedral City, Calif., 120 miles east of Los Angeles, the complex has been packed since it opened in January 1998. Indeed, the only thing better than gazing at replicas of the three beloved stadiums is playing ball in them.
"I've played on fields all across the country, and I've never seen a park as good as these," says Maybin, a resident of nearby Desert Hot Springs and the proud owner of two senior softball world series rings.
The three Odekirks brought more than 50 years of collective baseball experience to the project. Ron, 68, played in the New York Yankees organization in the early 1950s and reached the Class A level with Victoria in the old Western International League. Rick, 41, was an undersized lefthanded pitcher and bit player on USC's 1978 national championship team; he was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers and spent 13 years bouncing around the minor leagues with the Milwaukee, Kansas City, Oakland, Cincinnati, Texas, Baltimore and Cleveland organizations. Jeff, 34, was a shortstop prospect, but knee injuries ended his career while he was still at USC.
The family says the idea for the sports park came from a desire to provide weekend warriors with a major league environment to play in. "Whether we played professionally or didn't make our high school teams, all of us have the same dream to play in the big leagues," says Rick. "We give softball players and Little Leaguers a place to play out their dreams."
After his sons came up with the idea for the fantasy park, Ron, a real estate developer, pored over photographs of the actual stadiums to capture their unique features. The fields were built to softball league specs. The $6 million complex was funded by the Odekirks, private investors and the municipality of Cathedral City.
The replicas have the originals' quirky dimensions. For example, Fenway Park's playing field measures 310 feet to left, 390 in center and 302 in right; the bullpens are in right center, and the Green Monster, in left, is 37 feet high. The Cathedral City Fenway measures 280 feet to the leftfield pole, juts out to 310 in left center, evens out at 295 feet where the bullpens are located and finishes at 270 feet down the rightfield line. The mini-Green Monster stands 25 feet tall. "We want the average guy to be able to hit one out," says Rick Odekirk. "You don't have to be a 6'3", 250-pound giant—like your average fast-pitch softball star—to clear the wall."
There's even a crowd in the bleachers. Actually, the lifelike fans are vinyl prints taken from panoramic photographs of spectators at the real ballparks. Thus, it appears that thousands of sun-drenched fans are watching from Cathedral City's Wrigley Field bleachers and from apartments on Waveland and Sheffield avenues. (Real spectator seats are located behind each backstop; they were in Anaheim Stadium until its renovation, completed in 1998.)
The Big League Dreams park is a multi-sport facility that also has batting cages, beach-volleyball courts, a roller-hockey rink, basketball courts, soccer fields and a restaurant. A 10-game season costs soft-ball teams $300 per club to play at one of the fields, and admission for a full-day ticket to the recreational areas is only $1. Companies and groups can rent out all or a portion of the park for private functions at costs ranging from several hundred to several thousand dollars a day.