Money Troubles Doom Lake County Fielders' Season

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The Lake County Fielders' shotgun marriage with the North American League is getting rockier by the minute.

The Fielders made national news when fill-in manager Pete LaCock decided to field a lineup with pitchers playing in the field and position players pitching on July 9. The visiting Yuma Scorpions, managed by Jose Canseco, decided to join in and made pitchers and hitters switch roles as well. Canseco himself got in on the act by picking up the win with six innings on the mound.

That may end up being the most routine thing the Fielders go through this season.

A week after the switcheroo game, the team hired its fourth manager of the season, replaced almost its entire roster, blamed the city for its financial problems—the same city that it also needs to complete its stadium—and again made national news when the team's radio announcer quit on the air after saying he had not been paid.

Just another week in independent baseball, to the dismay of indy ball owners, managers and players everywhere else.

LaCock, a former major leaguer, was managing the Fielders because manager Tim Johnson had quit that day. Johnson resigned because he said he had not been paid money owed to him.

Johnson's departure upset many of the Fielders' players, who were already in a surly mood because many of them were owed money as well. LaCock put together the upside-down lineup in part to get enough players on the field—11 of the Fielders' players refused to take the field in support of Johnson.

The league suspended LaCock and fined him $2,500 for "making a farce of the game." LaCock resigned instead. Pitching coach Chris Thompson took over as manager on July 10, the team's third manager in three days.

His reign lasted one day. The Fielders' front office cleaned house, firing Thompson and either releasing or trading all of its players. The team signed a new roster of players and hired new manager Chris Arango.

The Fielders, in first place before the troubles began, lost their first five games with their new roster.

Trouble Ahead

The Zion, Ill., club was supposed to be part of a four-team group of Chicagoland teams in the North American League. With four more teams in Texas and five or six more teams on the West Coast and Canada, the league would have been spread out, but teams would focus on playing their closest opponents, cutting travel costs.

That plan fell apart when the Joliet Jammers, one of the four Chicago teams, lost their lease in bankruptcy hearings early in the offseason. The Schaumburg Flyers, also owned by Lake County owner/president Rich Ehrenreich, also lost their lease, and the Rockford RiverHawks were sold and returned to the Frontier League.

At that point, the most logical step would have been for the Fielders to go dark, at least for 2011. With no other Chicago-area teams, Lake County was assured of having to fly to every road game.

"It's not cheap. It's just not practical. The business model explodes when you have to do that," Ehrenreich said.

Still, the team decided to go forward, in large part because Ehrenreich said he was under the impression it would be playing in a new stadium. He has a letter from the city dated in early March that said the city was on pace to begin building the permanent stadium with the goal to have it ready for Opening Day on June 2. By mid-July, no significant work on the permanent stadium had started.

"If we had known the stadium wasn't going up, we would not have committed to a 2011 season," Ehrenreich said. "In hindsight, financially we should have taken the year off and cut our losses. But by April we felt it was too late (to make that decision)."

The Fielders requested a 32-game road trip because the team's temporary facilities would not have be assembled in time for an earlier start. Veteran minor league operators told Baseball America that the toughest time for a struggling franchise is during a long road trip. Bills are still coming due, and the team piles up travel, lodging and food expenses, but with no fans coming through the turnstiles, little money is coming in.

In Zion, with no work being done on building a permanent facility, ticket sales and advertising slowed to a crawl. Ehrenreich said his ownership group expects to lose more than $1 million this year.

The Fielders will be at home for most of the rest of the season, which should improve the team's cash flow. They have an 11-day road trip at the end of July, and they play only four games on the road in August.

But the public airing of the team's problems resulted in a dip in attendance. Ehrenreich said he is confident the team will be able to pay its players and pay for its operations to finish the season. The team, and North American League president Kevin Outcalt, said that they believe all current and former Fielders' employees have been paid any money owed them.

At this point, it's an open question whether there will be any team in Zion next year, especially because the stadium situation is still unsettled. Even if a permanent stadium is built, it is unlikely that Ehrenreich's group will be involved. After the public problems the team has had this year, a new face may be needed to spur ticket sales and revitalize the brand.

"I'm not saying that for the next 10 years our group is the right group . . . We recognize it might be better off in someone else's hands," Ehrenreich said. "In the end, independent ball can be a grind. It's a good business. It's an enjoyable business, but it can be hand-to-hand combat. Especially last two to three years. I'm getting a little old to be talking calls from players' mommies. Sometimes you know when it's time to get out."