Fielders, Zion must play ball with fans

When the Lake County Fielders arrived two years ago along with plans for a new stadium in Zion, it was one of those feel-good stories about minor league baseball coming to town.

For added panache, actor Kevin Costner of "Field of Dreams" fame, was announced as a co-owner. He even was on hand to throw the switch when the lights were ready for the first night game at the uncompleted facility. "If you build it, they will come," a theme of the movie, had a special meaning for fans.

Some of that luster is gone these days, and it has less to do with the team's play on the field than with other distractions. Loyal fans are rewarded with the unfinished city-owned stadium at Route 173 and Green Bay Road, and a recent spate of finger-pointing and player pay disputes.

It's time for Zion and Fielders officials to start acting like pros and get their stadium and finances in order. In the past week, the Fielders' manager Tim Johnson quit the team before a recent home game, and 11 players refused to take the field in what was described by team officials as a pay dispute. Management responded by essentially firing the team — releasing many players and coaches, and trading others.

Team officials then lashed out at city officials for having to start a second season with an unfinished stadium — an abrupt about-face from a few weeks earlier, when team officials were positive about the amenities in place to start the home season July 3. Now, we learn that the team's radio announcer, Qumar Zaman, abruptly quit with an on-air rant over a pay dispute.

An extended road trip — to Hawaii, Canada, Arizona and California — while work on the stadium continued meant the Fielders couldn't generate money to start the season and led to cash-flow problems, team officials said.

"Had the Fielders known they would be forced to take a 32-game opening road trip and come home to another temporary stadium, they would have taken a year off until the stadium was built," Fielders spokesman Bernie DiMeo told the Daily Herald's Bob Susnjara. While that's likely a factor, this isn't the first time Fielders owner Richard Ehrenreich has struggled to pay the bills with a minor-league baseball franchise.

In February, his Schaumburg Flyers were evicted from their lease at publicly owned Alexian Field. A judge ordered the return of the lease to the village of Schaumburg and the Schaumburg Park District and required team ownership to pay more than $550,000 in overdue rent. So, we have to wonder if, in Hall of Famer Yogi Berra's famous phrase, this is déjà vu all over again.

Zion Mayor Lane Harrison and other officials, who have blamed stadium issues on the lack of promised state funding, haven't addressed the complaints or a completion date. The fans, especially season ticket holders, deserve better from their hometown and their hometown team.