The financial struggles facing the North American Baseball League's Lake County Fielders, who are partially owned by actor Kevin Costner, have been well documented both here and elsewhere.
Over the course of this season, numerous entities have come forward claiming the franchise hasn't paid them for their services. In July, most of the players quit because they claimed they hadn't been paid, putting the team in a possibly unprecedented position of having to assemble an entirely new roster (including hiring new coaches) in the middle of the season. The players' walkout was promptly followed by the team's broadcaster, Qumar Zaman, quitting on the air in an epic rant because he too hadn't been paid. Then it was revealed that the team owed the city of Zion more than $300,000 in rent, money the team said they weren't going to pay because the city failed to build them a permanent stadium.
Now, at least one vendor has come forward claiming the team hasn't paid him what he's owed either, something the team didn't exactly deny in an e-mail from their generic front office address this morning.
Arnald Swift is the National Sales Manager for BaseballTips.com, an online store catering to high use/high end clients including professional teams. He contacted us last week after seeing this post on our site about the Fielders being kicked out of the North American Baseball League. He claims he furnished the team with equipment including tarps, a batting cage and protective screens last year for their inaugural season. A year and a half later, he still hasn't received everything he's owed.
"Under the contract he paid 1/2 up front (approx $8000) and signed a contract for the balance to be paid on delivery," Swift told me via e-mail. "This is what he has never paid for plus the interest. I did put enough pressure here about 4 weeks ago he paid a $1000 dollars but that was really just the interest."
Swift claims the Fielders still owe him more than $8,700 "with interest to be added". He says owner Richard Ehrenreich contacted him after finding him on the internet last year because he knew Swift could get him the equipment he needed quickly. While his initial meetings with Ehrenreich were productive enough to the point where the two discussed the Fielders possibly buying more equipment from Swift, their working relationship has since devolved drastically.
"What has made me mad along is I get these false promises and no communications, it is only when I went to his sponsors and now when I tell him I am going to expand the circle of who I am writing to and telling my story does he get excited, and answer me and one payment in September, but then no answer to email or phone," Swift said.
His claims are the latest in a sea of public relations maladies plaguing the Fielders.
In addition to allegedly not paying their rent, their players or their play-by-play guy, the team had to forfeit a game in August because they didn't have adequate baseballs with which to play. Days later, the team was kicked out of the North American Baseball League for failing to travel to Hawaii for a four-game series. The team would in fact play out the rest of their schedule -- but not against opponents from the NABL. No, the team finished up the season in front of sparse crowds at the second iteration of their temporary stadium by taking on a local semi-pro team that was rebranded as the Kenosha County Fielders. As for Costner's involvement, he has repeatedly declined to comment on the state of the team and hasn't been seen at the ballpark in Zion since the summer of 2010.
Since Swift hadn't got much of a response from the Fielders regarding his concerns, he thought we might be able to.
I e-mailed Lanaya Gutowski who, while listed on the team's website as their Client Services Manager, had been responding to many of the concerns brought by fans and observers on the team's Facebook page. The team has no official designated Director of Media Relations.
This morning I received an unsigned response from the club's generic front office e-mail address responding to Swift's claims without acknowledging him directly.
"Like many teams, we have both outstanding receivables and payables, and in this business we all try to find that balance where we meet payables primarily through the revenues paid to us," the team's statement read. "It's certainly tougher collecting receivables in a poor economy, and the last 18 months have been exceptionally tough in that regard. We also have the unique situation of enduring through 2 seasons with no stadium, which is a difficult position from which to generate revenue."
It's entirely possible that if the team were to come back for the 2011 campaign, they still wouldn't have a permanent stadium then either. The permanent stadium was supposed to be funded by taxpayer money in the form of a grant from the state of Illinois. That wound up falling through, and plans haven't been announced to try to find other sources of public funding to build the stadium. For their part, the team hasn't announced whether they've lined up private funding either, leaving open the very real potential for the Fielders to play another season in a temporary facility if they choose to come back in 2012.
As for concerns raised by other vendors and fans about the team's financial struggles, the team paints a rosy picture about the future.
"The vast majority of our vendors have been very understanding, and in the spirit of our long term partnership have indicated that they remain in our corner, and recognize that they will bear the fruits when the stadium is built," the team said.
The statement doesn't address Swift's claims that the team wasn't returning his e-mails or calls though.
Swift said the incident has left a bad taste in his mouth. He says he only thinks there's only a 50-50 shot the Fielders are going to be back next season (the team's statement didn't give a definitive answer to that question), and he's not exactly optimistic that the team is going to make him financially whole either.
"I was thinking about lawyers and collection but after reading all the text about the cities, rent, and etc that (the team) owes, I don't think my $8,000 would cause much of a dent and would get sent pretty far to the back of the list," Swift said. "I could be in a world of hurt as it looks like I am a small fish in a big pond."