Lake County Fielders gather for Maui trip, then are sent home
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Lake County Fielders starting pitcher Steve Junker says playing baseball is his dream, so he puts up with not getting paid and a lack of functioning showers in the team's clubhouse at Zion's temporary stadium.
"We're kids that come from good backgrounds who just want to play baseball," said Junker, 24, who was selected in the 32nd round of the major league draft by the Colorado Rockies in 2009.
But Junker's opportunity to play is on hold. In yet another twist with the troubled independent baseball league team, it scrapped a planned trip to Maui for a four-game series that was to begin Wednesday evening.
Manager Chris Arago said the team gathered outside the makeshift ballpark Wednesday morning with the intention of heading to Hawaii for the games against the North American Baseball League's Na Koa Ikaika Maui.
But, Arago said, the trip was scrubbed because the entire team apparently could not be accommodated on the same flight. Arago said he and the players were disappointed.
"We're all ready to go (Thursday) if we can work it out," he said.
Fielders owner Richard Ehrenreich did not return messages seeking comment.
Maui Assistant Chief Operating Officer Aaron Emery said he was assured the Fielders would send 13 players for Wednesday's game, with the other nine following on Thursday.
But Maui released an announcement to its fans Wednesday: "Tonight's game will be postponed. The Lake County Fielders did not board their flight to Maui as planned. ... We apologize for the inconvenience. Mahalo!"
Then the Maui team played an intrasquad game and welcomed fans to attend. Emery said the team is making contingency plans for their scheduled games Friday and Saturday, assuming the Fielders won't be there.
If the Fielders don't play any games in Maui, Junker said, he'll lose a scheduled start. He said each game is valuable to players in independent leagues who are trying to make favorable impressions and climb the baseball ladder.
Junker said while he plans to finish a sports management degree he started at Omaha's Bellevue University before signing with the Rockies, baseball is his dream and he still believes he can reach a higher level as a pitcher.
He was released by the Rockies' rookie league team in Casper, Wyo., in 2010. The left-hander had no record and a 14.29 earned-run average last year.
After starting 2011 with former Fielders manager Fran Riordan's Florence Freedom independent league team in Kentucky, Junker went to the Lincoln Saltdogs in Nebraska and then to Lake County in mid-July.
Junker said he agreed to play for $700 a month with the Fielders, but he hasn't been paid since joining the team. In his time with Lake County, the clubhouse showers haven't worked, he said.
"It is an opportunity, but at what cost?" Junker said.
Controversy has enveloped the Fielders since early July when manager Tim Johnson and a radio announcer quit over allegations they weren't paid all they were owed. Arago — a former manager of an independent team in Georgia — replaced Johnson.
Moreover, Zion has served a default notice to the Fielders seeking $185,000 in back rent officials say is owed for use of the city's temporary ballpark dating to the 2010 inaugural season.
Ehrenreich has said he stopped paying rent on the temporary diamond because there is no hint of a permanent stadium as promised. He also has said the Fielders may suspend operations and not finish the season.
About $1.3 million in state taxpayers' money went toward infrastructure and utility work for what's supposed to become a permanent stadium at Route 173 and Green Bay Road.
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