Who can play on public ballfield? Dispute bars travel team from park

DELRAY BEACH — So many players in caps and T-shirts lined the commission chamber that February night that Delray Beach City Hall looked like a youth baseball dugout.

That night, the kids had no place to play, no diamond to call their home.

They had come with their parents and coaches to call foul over their XLB Training travel program’s ouster in late January from Miller Park, the city complex that features a replica of Fenway Park, down to its “Green Monster” left-field wall.

“It feels like something out of a movie,” said Gus Ross, a member of the Little League board that works with XLB and the father of an XLB player. “A bunch of 8- to12-year-old children were told they weren’t allowed on a public baseball field.”

Not so, says ELEV8 Baseball Academy, which under a longstanding agreement with the city, sets the rules for who plays at Miller Park.

For years, ELEV8 Baseball Academy co-existed with Delray Beach’s Little League teams and XLB, a pay-to-play program that works with Little League and through that relationship had long had free access to the park.

Then tensions between ELEV8 and XLB rose to the point of ELEV8 blocking XLB from using the fields for the last months of its season.

“This is not a story about Delray Beach kids being denied the right to play baseball on their local ballfields,” wrote Todd Moser, ELEV8’s head coach, in a statement to The Palm Beach Post. “This is the story of XLB Training, a for-profit, Boynton Beach travel baseball company, trying to play for free on city-owned ballfields that are maintained by our local nonprofit.”

City officials urged the two programs to find a solution, but talks produced none. Now XLB is looking at playing elsewhere until 2028, when ELEV8’s lease is set to expire and the city can revisit the issue of Miller Field.

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ELEV8 is an academy, calling itself a top-performing program for players with the talent to play in college or professionally. Its website says it offers “world-class training strategies” to help athletes, “guided by MLB and global league-experienced coaches.”

Tuition, room and board for those who live there and competition fees cost about $25,000 per year. Students can also opt for more expensive housing or add on schooling with Grandview Prep in Boca Raton for $12,500 more.

Since 2003, ELEV8 has had a lease with the city that allows it to set the standard for who plays at Miller Park. In exchange, it has maintained and improved the ballfields there and at Currie Commons parks and said it has spent more than $1.7 million on those tasks since 2017.

ELEV8’s lease gives it the use of five fields from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and the use of another field from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. every weekday. It allows the Delray Beach Little League to practice and play on weeknights. Little Leagues — recreation programs open to boys and girls — typically use city parks for little or no cost.

Headquartered near Boynton Beach, XLB has long partnered with the Delray Beach Little League to offer advanced training to its players. Its website says its packages start at $360 for four hour-long or six half-hour sessions.

Pay-to-play travel programs often work with Little Leagues to save on field expenses, said Samuel Mettot, Delray Beach’s parks and recreation director. ELEV8 took issue with that practice in its statement to The Post.

“XLB used its relationship” with the Little League, Moser wrote, “to sneak its players onto ballfields reserved for Little League. XLB, which charges players $350 per month, was trying to play for free.”

Ross acknowledged XLB might save on expenses if it books field times through the Little League but said it provides free services to Little League players.

“XLB was at Opening Day and throughout the season gave free player clinics, both hitting and pitching,” Ross said. “ELEV8 never offered any of that.”

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Representatives from ELEV8 weren’t at the Feb. 6 City Commission meeting, either, leaving XLB leaders to speak after their Jan. 26 ouster from Miller Park.

Ryan Lamb, XLB’s owner, told commissioners his program learned it had lost access not from ELEV8 but from a city employee late on a Friday afternoon. XLB had to cancel games it had scheduled, and it didn’t have a field for a week or two, before securing space at Caloosa Park in Boynton Beach.

Lamb and XLB representative Greg Murray said the Little League approached XLB, asking for a partnership to improve training.

“We’ve benefitted from ELEV8’s maintenance of the fields,” Murray said, “but it is in my opinion very nonsensical at this point.”

“This is not ELEV8 versus XLB. We both can exist there on good terms. We’ve been doing it for years.”

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Former Mayor Shelly Petrolia thought they had a point and asked why XLB couldn’t use fields that were vacant. She urged the leagues to negotiate.

“Why would we not allow our children to have a travel team based on our children and our fields?” she said. “Why would ELEV8 have an issue with it?”

ELEV8’s lease recently had its third and final renewal. City Attorney Lynn Gelin said early cancellation would require just cause and 60 days’ notice. The city and ELEV8 must agree to any changes before then.

When the time comes to decide whether to renew the lease, “this information will factor into the determination,” Vice Mayor Juli Casale said.

Lamb said he accepts the situation — “an agreement is an agreement” — but added that ELEV8’s move affected families and players more than XLB.

The money XLB charges, he said, is to cover the cost of coaching and “in turn, Little League gets better.”

Ideally, Lamb said, all the leagues would have stayed at Miller Park. “We would have liked to have a home where we’ve co-existed for the last six or seven years,” he said.