“I don’t know what to call it,” said Hall of Fame center fielder Richie Ashburn, about his final major league team, the 1962 Mets, “but I know I’ve never seen it before.”
Ashburn should only have lived long enough to see the Lake County (Illinois) Fielders, an independent minor league team, playing in the North American League, whose 2011 season can be called surrealistic only in the most polite terms possible.
Can you name one other professional baseball team, major or minor league, that ever traded nine players and released fourteen more, as payback for a team protest that hooks around the club’s failure to meet its payroll? A failure that may or may not have been seeded in large part by a season-opening 32-game road swing, denying the team revenues enough?
And, if you want to phrase it this way, it gets better. The Fielders’ investors include actor Kevin Costner. He’s made a partial career of making baseball films transcendent (Field of Dreams), excellent (Bull Durham), and merely exemplary (the underrated For Love of the Game). Costner isn’t even close to the management of the Fielders, but the team’s doings and undoings just might prove to be a small field of nightmares for him.
In Field of Dreams, Costner as amiable young farmer Ray Kinsella plowed his corn crop under to forge a baseball field offering extraterrestrial aid and comfort to ballplayers whose crimes—done mostly, if not exclusively, by men perhaps more foolish than felonious (you couldn’t call first baseman Chick Gandil and shortstop Swede Risberg, the ringleaders of the World Series fix, merely foolish)—were inspired at core by their odious owner.
Now, Costner may find himself in the peculiar real-world position of having to answer for a managing partner, Richard Ehrenreich, who seems to be earning an image as something close enough to the minors’ Charles Comiskey. He has had other trouble, too. He once owned another independent team, the Schaumburg (Illinois) Flyers, who were evicted from their home ballpark after reports of unpaid rent and fees mounting to the hundreds of thousands, if not more.
Comiskey was merely penurious with his players, but not even his worst enemies ever accused him of failing to meet a payroll or tanking on stadium fees and local taxes. Oh, he might renege on a bonus clause in a hapless pitcher’s contract now and then. (The famous story of Eddie Cicotte promised a bonus for a 30-win season only to pull up short at 29 and lose out on the ten large, about which there’s more to the story than the legends have had it.)
But pittance though they might have been those checks went out on time to one and all White Sox players. Ehrenreich and his minions seem to have see and raised Comiskey foursquare. And the players and manager decided to make a statement about it in a game last week, against the Yuma Scorpions, whose staff includes player-manager Jose Canseco, the apparent Johnny Appleseed of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances in the Show, and his twin, Ozzie, as a player-coach.
When the Fielders failed to meet its recent payroll, manager Tim Johnson resigned in protest and eleven Fielders elected to boycott the Scorpions game in a protest of their own. Hitting coach Pete LaCock took command in Johnson’s stead and decided to make his own statement. He sent his pitchers out to play fielding positions and his position players to the mound. Laugh if you must about Canseco, steroids, and unleveled playing fields accordingly, but this time Canseco took the concept seriously. The level playing fields, that is. Catching on quick to LaCock’s gambit, Canseco did likewise with his Scorpions . . . and even sent himself out to start the game on the mound.
That must have drawn a sad laugh from people who remember Canseco having worked the ninth inning, for the Texas Rangers, while the Boston Red Sox were blowing them out (the final score: 15-1), surrendering three earned runs by walking the bases loaded and then giving up an RBI infield single, a sacrifice fly, and an RBI single to center, and blowing his throwing elbow enough to need Tommy John surgery.
This time, however, Canseco used some of the brains he’s reputed to have been born with. He tried out a newly-developed knuckleball, pitched six innings, surrendered one earned run, and got credit for the win as the Scorpions beat the Fielders, 8-3, “with it being apparent,” said BallparkDigest.com, “that [North American League] pitchers hit better than NAL position players, except for Jose Canseco.”
Then, LaCock quit after the game to complete his own protest. The Fielders’ management responded by releasing fourteen players and trading nine more, not to mention dumping LaCock’s interim successor, Chris Thompson. The Scorpions probably couldn’t decide whether to be amused, bemused, or completely paralyzed by the strange game. General manager Jose Melendez told the Chicago Sun-Times he’d never seen anything like it. “And I’ve seen a lot of strange things I haven’t seen before with Jose and [twin brother/player-coach] Ozzie aboard.”
Canseco was also said to have matched LaCock’s gambit out of respect for Tim Johnson, who managed him in Toronto. Do you remember Johnson now? The former major league utility infielder (he might have been the Milwaukee Brewers’ regular shortstop except for a kid named Robin Yount) managed the Jays to third in the American League East in 1998 (he’d succeeded Cito Gaston) despite tension on the team, only to lose his job the following spring training, after swelling controversy around his habit of using trumped-up tales of his Vietnam War experience (he was a Marine reserve and mortar trainer stateside during the war, while he was a Dodger farmhand) to motivate his players.
However, Canseco maintained respect for Johnson then and in the years since, right up to the moment when he fielded his own inside-out team against the Fielders the better to keep anyone from getting hurt, either physically or in a possibly humiliating blowout.
Come to think of it, Pete LaCock’s name should resonate a bit, too. Once a marginal Chicago Cub, LaCock may be remembered best for convincing Bob Gibson his retirement decision for 1975 was the right one. Dogged by knee trouble and a painful divorce, the Hall of Famer in waiting was brought into an early September game in the seventh, and after wild pitching the tiebreaking run home, LaCock shocked him—and probably everyone else in the park, too—by hitting a grand slam. “I knew it was time to quit,” Gibson would remember; it was the next-to-last pitch Gibson ever threw in major league competition. (He got Don Kessinger to ground out, Gibson himself covering first on the play, to retire the side. His season was over then and there, with less than a month to go and the Cardinals headed for a third-place finish.)
But I digress. The surrealistic Scorpions-Fielders game and its underpinnings provoked Fielders general manager Mike Kardamis to move drastically enough. You can take his remarks to the Sun-Times as you will: We want to start fresh. It’s a privilege to play professional baseball. If these guys don’t want to play here, we will find guys who want to play here. We could have put them on the suspended list, but we don’t want to ruin their careers. The players weren’t happy, and it wasn’t going to be good to make them stay. They can cash their checks tomorrow once the Bank of Waukegan opens. I’ve been in this business fifteen years and never gone through anything like this.
And if you think it ends there, you haven’t heard from play-by-play announcer Qumar Zaman. Or, at least, you weren’t within earshot when Zaman resigned himself . . . on the air. The Fielders’ missed payroll included Zaman, who said he took the play-by-play job two months earlier when his predecessor walked, perhaps in similar circumstances.
The NAL’s commissioner, Kevin Outcalt, expressed both admiration for Canseco’s handling of the game and confusion, apparently, over the circumstances that provoked it. “Instead of playing his regulars and trying to pound them 30-0,” Outcalt told reporters, “he said, ‘We need to have a fair ball game,’ so he moved his lineup around. I’ve never heard of an opposing manager doing something like that. Certainly, there are financial issues Lake County is working out. The team started on the road with 32 games. They didn’t have any revenue until July 3. They’ve had great crowds and they’re trying to catch up. But I do not know all the details. All I saw from Tim Johnson’s resignation was that he was leaving for ‘issues that were not resolved’.”
Chris Thompson, the Fielders’ pitching coach, managed the club for a 10-4 loss the following day. Then, he was released himself the day after that. And it gets even crazier: LaCock was fined $2,500 for making “a farce of a game,” which just so happens to be in the NAL’s bylaws, but Outcalt is investigating the entire circumstances. Those should include figuring out just why Ehrenreich, the managing partner, the majority owner, was so without means to make his payroll even with a season-opening marathon road trip.
For that matter, Outcalt should be investigating who’s doing the NAL’s scheduling, and under the influence of which controlled substances they were doing it. You can’t imagine anyone scripting this kind of schedule when stone cold sober. While we’re at it, is there anyone (Costner, perhaps? Other Fielders investors?) who can investigate how the NAL—forged out of a combination of clubs from three other folded independent leagues—could have organized in such a roundabout/spread-out manner that their way of life includes haphazard traveling schedules, and still make any kind of money with barely 2,500 fans a game, which is the figure by which the Fielders, ironically, are leading the league?
If Melendez has anything to say about it, LaCock wouldn’t have to face a fine. “Pete had a case. The league has to get to the bottom of it. If players don’t get paid, they can file paperwork to obtain free agency.” There might lie one curlicue animating the mass releases. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time players got dumped before they could stand to draw a nicer pay day elsewhere, and possibly for arbitrary if not transdimensional reasons.
Among the players the Fielders released was shortstop Rex Rundgren. He just so happens to be the son of music legend Todd Rundgren. His father’s best-selling album bears an only too appropriate title to match the Fielders’ Bizarro World doings of late. Something/Anything?