Got Balls? Kevin Costner’s Minor League Baseball Team Apparently Doesn’t

The sad, strange saga of the independent Lake County Fielders somehow managed to get even sadder and even stranger over the weekend.

The Zion, Ill.-based North American Baseball League team (allegedly) partially owned by actor Kevin Costner was forced to cancel a game against the Calgary Vipers over the weekend after about an inning and a half. The official reason for the cancellation, according to the Fielders’ Facebook page, was due to unspecified “safety issues,” a cryptically worded reason if there was one. But given the lack of rain in the Chicagoland area that night, it couldn’t have been that the field was unplayable, right?

No, this game was reportedly cancelled due to a lack of adequate baseballs to play with. Really.

The team did not issue an official press release detailing the situation, nor has local media picked up on it, however at least one player who was in the thick of it all that night is speaking out.

Chad Ehrnsberger, an infielder for the Calgary Vipers, took to a popular independent baseball message board to explain to fans what happened.

“They had a great crowd there tonight but yes the baseballs were a joke,” Ehrnsberger said in a post. “They were like little league practice balls purchased at Dick’s.  I’ll put it like this…when I give lessons or throw BP to my travel team, if I come across these balls I throw them out.  And we were using them as game balls!”

In another message board thread on the same site, Ehrnsberger went on to describe the balls as being “the kind teams use as giveaways or sell in the team shop.  They had the real slippery cover and would lose their shape just by playing catch.”

Because of that, the Vipers wound up protesting the game after just an inning and a half. The umpires apparently agreed with their assessment and decided to postpone the game. 

Elias doesn’t keep records of such things to my knowledge, but this may be the first time in modern history that a so-called professional sports team has had to cancel a game because they didn’t have the most basic of equipment needed to play it, an adequate baseball. Even when I was playing little league ball for travel and in-house teams, I cannot ever imagine not having a proper baseball with which to play the game.

I asked Ehrnsberger via the message boards what player reaction was when they saw the balls that were supposed to be used for that night’s game. Here’s his response:

“At first we thought it was a joke.  They gave us a ball for our starting pitcher to warm up with and we just laughed,” he told me. “Then they said they were being serious.  Neither team wanted to play with those balls.  Of course safety was an issue, but so was performance.  My first at bat, I was actually telling myself to not hit the ball hard cause it wasn’t gonna go anywhere.  Instead I tried guiding the ball and dropping it in front of the outfielders.  We were all embarrassed, as were the umpires.”

No word has been given – from what I can find at least – on when or if this game will be made up, although the team was apparently able to come up with enough suitable baseballs to play two of three scheduled games over the weekend, falling to the Vipers 14-5 on Saturday and 2-1 on Sunday in game one of a scheduled doubleheader before rains came along and cancelled the second game. The team did say – again, via their Facebook page and not their official website – that all ticket stubs for the game postponed due to safety issues will be good for any remaining game this season including free parking.

It’s a nice gesture, but judging by fan outrage on the team’s Facebook page, a hollow one. It’s also just the latest in a string of maladies to plague this seemingly snakebitten organization.

Last month, we brought you the story of Qumar Zaman, the team’s former broadcaster who quit on the air amid allegations that he wasn’t being paid and growing frustrations with the off-the-field circus surrounding the team. The current roster is actually the second version the Fielders have ran out there this season. Prior to Zaman’s well-publicized on-air resignation, manager Tim Johnson and 11 players walked off the field because they hadn’t been paid either. Acting manager Pete LaCock subsequently quit as well, and the team either traded or released 23 players following that weekend.

Now, the team is reportedly threatening to fold because the city of Zion hasn’t followed through on initial plans to provide funding for a permanent ballpark. This is the second season that the Fielders have had to play in a makeshift facility, what basically amounts to temporary seating and port-a-potties around a field. But neither state nor private funding for the facility have ever materialized. Further compounding problems is the fact that the Fielders reportedly owe $185,000 in back rent. The Daily Herald is reporting that the city of Zion has issued a default notice ordering the team to pay what they’re owed. Team owner Rich Ehrenreich essentially goes on to say in the article that he isn’t holding up his end of the bargain – the rent – because the city hasn’t held up theirs – the funding.

Costner, for his part, has put a significant amount of distance in between himself and the fiasco involving the team that he is reportedly an investor in. With both the Cubs and “his” Fielders in town over the weekend, Costner chose to attend Sunday’s Cubs game rather than the Fielders’ doubleheader. Many, including Zaman and some players, have said that Costner’s level of involvement with the franchise is negligible at best and non-existent at worst. Through his publicist, Arnold Robinson, Costner has declined comment on all things Fielders-related, except to say that he is “not involved in the team’s day-to-day operations.”

None of this bodes well for the future of the franchise. With no permanent stadium, there are seeds of doubt planted in the minds of both corporate investors and prospective fans as to whether or not the team is a worthwhile investment of their time and money. Not paying rent – regardless of whether you’re an apartment tenant or a baseball team – will eventually get you evicted from the place where you have set up shop. And not having recognizable names on the field doesn’t engender loyalty to fans, who essentially find themselves rooting for laundry.