Despite opening the season with high hopes and great potential, the Lake County Fielders minor league baseball team has frustrated players, fans and even employees within the organization.
After several canceled home games and road trips, a new midseason roster, rumors of leaving the North American League and financial troubles, the remainder of the 2011 season is up in the air.
Team owner Richard Ehrenreich partnered with baseball fan and Academy Award-winner Kevin Costner to form the minor league baseball team.
The season has not lived up to its expectations, however, as the team ownership and the city of Zion are at a standstill. The Fielders home field in Zion is still incomplete, because the city said the team owes $185,000 in rent for the stadium. Team officials said they will not pay rent until the field is complete.
The team was supposed to play in a tournament in Maui last week, but backed out the day they were to leave. The Independent North American League threatened to kick the Fielders out of the league but then relented.
These and other public controversies hit the players and their Lake County host families the hardest.
"It was a field of dreams for so many of us,” said Greg Koeppen, the public address system announcer for the team. “To see it crumble how it has lately is just so sad.”
Koeppen, of Grayslake, has gotten to know many of the players on the Fielders, opening his home to several.
“You really bond with these guys,” he said. “They just want to play baseball and it’s so tough to see them not be able to fulfill their jobs.”
Koeppen’s most recent player left Aug. 12. “For him it just wasn’t right," Koeppen said. "He just wasn’t getting enough playing time.”
That and other problems in the organization seem to be driving the players away.
A Player's Perspective
For 27-year-old Colin Moro of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, it was a very short season. The left fielder joined the team with the second wave of players mid-July. Three weeks later, he asked for his release.
“I’ve played with four different teams now and this is just so poorly mismanaged,” Moro said, clearly disappointed with how his season ended.
“It just seemed like every day they were giving us the run-around," he said. "Some days everything would be great, and then it would all change.”
He said the troubles ranged from playing with T-ball caliber baseballs to having to dress in trailers at the Zion stadium with no access to post-game showers.
Moro recalled one road trip to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, when the team struggled to find a ride home, eventually making it 24 hours later by bus.
His final straw was last week, at the last minute, when the team canceled its trip to Maui. “We got calls the night before that we were all good to go," Moro said. "Then we go to the field where we were meeting and it was called off. It’s just so disappointing.”
“The team had no choice," said team spokesman Bernie DiMeo of DiMeo Communications. "No independent minor league team could financially survive the expense of flying to play every opponent, and to Hawaii, no less.”
The schedule had called for three separate trips to Hawaii for the Fielders. “That just makes no sense, and no team should be held to a schedule that is so financially inequitable," DiMeo said.
Whatever the reason, the host families still find the demise of the team hard to accept.
“It makes me sick to my stomach,” said Donna Freitag of Grayslake, with whom Moro lived for the few weeks he was here. “Every day it’s something new with the Fielders, and it just makes you so sad.”
“They all hang in there and do their best, and they don’t get to play or they don’t get paid,” Freitag said.
Moro said he was just paid for the first time since he’s been with the Fielders, but he hesitates to cash the check for fear it will bounce.
“We didn’t know how a league of this size could work,” Koeppen said. “Just the practicality of the budget was going to be tough from the beginning.”
The Fielders said they are taking all creative measures to support the market and the stadium project. DiMeo said Monday, "we’ll continue what we started — professional baseball in a family-friendly environment at an affordable price. This little minor league team has made more comebacks this season than Rocky Balboa, and we're going to finish this marathon!"