Just when Lake County Fielders officials thought their troubled season couldn't get any worse, they are left trying to explain the early-inning suspension of a home game over claims they provided inferior baseballs for the players.
Friday night's suspended game against the Calgary Vipers prompted an angry response from Fielders owner Richard Ehrenreich.
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Ehrenreich said Monday the baseball-quality gripe originated with the Vipers' starting pitcher, and he called it "the most childish nonsense" he's encountered in his independent baseball league ownership tenure dating to when he launched the Schaumburg Flyers in 1999.
The recreational baseballs purchased at a sporting goods store were not the ones officially manufactured by Rawlings for professional play, Ehrenreich said, but they weren't so bad as to cause the sudden suspension of the game.
"They were brand new. These weren't Little League balls," he said.
Umpires suspended the game after 1½ innings, therefore agreeing with the Vipers' protest about the balls. An official box score for Friday's contest was unavailable, so it's not known exactly how many fans were at the city of Zion's temporary baseball stadium.
Calgary General Manager Patrick Haas declined to comment and directed inquiries to the North American Baseball League. Officials from the California-based league, including Chief Executive Officer Kevin Outcalt, didn't return telephone and email messages seeking comment.
The baseball complaints were the latest in a series of events involving the Fielders in the past few weeks that have included a manager and radio announcer quitting amid allegations of not being paid all the money they were owed.
Last week, Zion officials announced Ehrenreich's Grand Slam Sports and Entertainment, the Fielders' parent company, owes $185,000 in back rent for use of the city's baseball facility dating to the team's 2010 inaugural season. Zion went public after responding to a Daily Herald Freedom of Information Act request for Fielders-related documents.
But Ehrenreich said he's stopped paying rent on the temporary diamond because there is no hint of a permanent stadium coming. He said Zion must commit to starting work on the permanent ballpark this month because the Fielders are in the second year of playing in a temporary facility, which is causing financial stress.
State taxpayers funded $1.3 million in infrastructure and utility work for Zion's makeshift ballpark. The facility has 4,500 temporary seats and permanent elements such as lights, the playing field, dugouts and a parking area at Route 173 and Green Bay Road.
As for the baseball controversy, Ehrenreich said he was compelled to issue a stern letter that was posted in the clubhouses for the teams and umpires before Saturday's game.
Ehrenreich wrote the players and umps needed to search their souls for what's important in life if they believed suddenly ending the game was justified or proper for the fans and community. He said it's likely the crowd included parents visiting children at nearby Great Lakes Naval Station.
"Last night, something tragic happened," Ehrenreich wrote. "No, not a baseball game that was suspended because some ballplayers thought the quality of the baseballs was subpar. (Thirty) American soldiers were killed in Afghanistan in the deadliest day for American forces in the last 10 years."
Teams typically purchase baseballs in bulk. However, Ehrenreich said, the uncertainty about the Fielders' future is why the team didn't place its usual order for the Rawlings professional model last week.
League officials approved the Fielders providing professional-model baseballs sold by Diamond Sports and Wilson Sporting Goods for games through Monday with the Vipers, Ehrenreich said. He said the official Rawlings balls were unavailable over the weekend.
Ehrenreich's now-defunct Flyers were evicted from publicly owned Alexian Field in February, with the village of Schaumburg and Schaumburg Park District alleging the team owed about $920,000 in overdue rent and other payments.
Flyers ownership, per a judge's order in that case, was directed to pay $551,829 in overdue rent. Ehrenreich said the Flyers were a limited-liability corporation and don't have assets to pay.
Ehrenreich said he expected to announce Tuesday whether the Fielders will complete the season. The team is supposed to begin a four-game series in Maui on Wednesday, then return home for the final 25 contests.
An announced crowd of 6,800 attended the Fielders' inaugural home opener on July 2, 2010. The box score from Sunday's home game with the Vipers listed attendance at 149.