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Thursday, October 20, 2011
Kevin Costner's team in turmoil

Associated Press

CHICAGO -- The Lake County Fielders may be through playing for the season, but it looks as if there's a bench-clearing brawl in the works. With its own hometown.

The Fielders, so named because actor Kevin Costner of the movie "Field of Dreams" is one of the owners, is battling the city of Zion in northeastern Illinois over the team's flamboyant collapse this year in a debacle that exposed the downside of the recent minor league baseball boom.

Even for the minor leagues -- where promotions such as "Ted Williams Popsicle night," in honor of the cryogenically preserved Hall of Famer, are part of the show -- the final days of the Fielders were downright strange.

There was the play-by-play announcer who quit on the air in a huff, followed by the manager who quit via email. There was a player boycott, and a game in which position players were sent out to do the pitching -- including former star Jose Canseco -- outraging baseball purists. And when the players weren't running the bases, they were racing to the bank to cash their checks before the money ran out.

Lake County Fielders
Qumar Zaman, former announcer for the Lake County Fielders quit on the air because he says the team wasn't paying him.

"I can't make this stuff up, this stuff is real," said Pete LaCock, a former major league player and Fielders coach.

Now, the team and the town are threatening to sue each other. The team says it was forced to play on a diamond about as inviting as the cornfield Costner plowed under for Shoeless Joe Jackson and his long-dead buddies. And Zion says the Fielders owe $340,000 in back rent.

After years of watching cities scramble to attract minor league baseball as a way to revive downtowns, attract businesses and pump money into local economies, Zion's struggles show the financial problems some franchises are now facing.

The number of independent clubs -- those not affiliated with major league organizations -- has dropped from 64 to 52 in the past four years, with the number of leagues falling from eight to five. Attendance that climbed steadily for years flattened out during the recession. And officials say advertising and sponsorship dollars are tougher to come by.

"After we were successful beyond our wildest dreams, of course, in come the geniuses.who say, 'We can make a killing,' " said Mike Veeck, a veteran baseball entrepreneur, referring to the recent boom in minor league start-ups.

Veeck said the fact that some independent teams are disappearing is proof things grew too fast.

"Now I think what you are seeing are the operators who aren't good are being exposed," Veeck said.

Like most troubled teams, the Fielders' problems began and ended with money. Team president Rich Ehrenreich, a lawyer who had been part-owner of another Illinois franchise, said Zion elders wanted a new attraction for the woodsy town of 26,000 on Lake Michigan and invited him to set up a team.

In 2010, the Fielders debuted with a roster of young players hoping to catch the eye of scouts, and older pros who wanted to keep playing. The team was an instant hit, drawing 3,500 fans a game.

A special feature was Costner, who showed up last season for a game and switched on the lights -- "Field of Dreams" style. Team spokesman Bernie DiMeo said Costner promised to make an appearance once or twice a season.

"See a ballgame, see Kevin Costner, you can't beat it," he said. Costner's publicist said the actor, whose picture appears on the team website, would not comment.

But the new stadium the team expected was never built, and Costner didn't go back.

Ehrenreich said the city reneged on the park, but city councilman Frank Flammini said the city only promised to build one by 2013.

"They staged equipment like they were going to build something and never did," Ehrenreich said. "It was like a prop."

Said Flammini: "We met our contractual obligations."

Whatever happened, things got bad in a hurry. For starters, after other teams switched leagues, the Fielders found themselves without any local opponents, forcing them to travel as far away as Hawaii and Canada for games. At one point last season, the Fielders embarked on a six-week, 12,000-mile road trip.

The players realized there were money issues when team-issued debit cards suddenly didn't work on the road.

"Guys were skipping meals (and) they'd wait till they got to the clubhouse and eat the peanut butter and jelly," said Qumar Zaman, the announcer who told listeners that he was quitting because the team didn't pay him. The players' mothers were calling to complain.

The situation on the field wasn't much better.

One game was canceled when the umpires found out the team was using non-regulation baseballs, which had been bought at a local store.

Then there was the night in July, after manager Tim Johnson quit, that LaCock took the helm, only to learn that several players were refusing to play. LaCock decided that for that game, he'd use the pitchers as position players and have the position players pitch. The other team's biggest attraction, former major leaguer Canseco, got into the act and pitched.

The league levied a $2,500 fine and suspended LaCock -- who had resigned after the game anyway.