Will troubled season be the last for Lake County Fielders?
As the Lake County Fielders' disappointing second season draws to a close, a spokesman for the baseball team admits a third season is uncertain.
"We don't know the answer to next year," team spokesman Bernie DiMeo said. "We don't know yet. We just don't know."
Part of the independent North American League, the Fielders stopped playing league games in the middle of last month after they failed to travel to Maui, Hawaii, for a series against the team based there.
All the games the Fielders have played since mid-August have been against a makeshift squad dubbed the Kenosha County Fielders, a team of semipro players from southern Wisconsin.
Those games will conclude Monday with a 7 p.m. matchup at the Lake County Fielders' unfinished stadium in Zion.
The other North American League teams have been involved in postseason playoffs without the Fielders. The league cut its season short one week, reportedly because of financial problems.
Looking back, DiMeo said, team officials expected the Fielders would be in the playoffs this time of year, not playing a band of semipro athletes.
"Not in a million years," he said.
League CEO Kevin Outcalt said the Fielders remain in the league despite their problems. When asked about next season, he said the league will talk with all the teams' owners about 2012.
"It certainly was a difficult season for the Fielders," Outcalt said. "Hopefully everything gets resolved so they'll continue (to play in the league)."
Having already sold season-ticket packages and single-game tickets for games through Monday, the Fielders opted to play baseball against the Kenosha County team rather than cut its sophomore year short, DiMeo said.
"That's how long we said we'd keep playing, so that's how long we're playing," he said.
In a stadium with seats for 3,000 fans, attendance was weak during the Fielders' regular home games against other North American League teams. It's been worse against the Kenosha County team.
Fewer than 200 people were in the stadium for the first matchup between the two teams, according to an unofficial Daily Herald head count that night.
When asked about the low numbers, DiMeo tried to paint the situation brightly.
"I think the ones who came out have enjoyed some good baseball," he said.
Last year, the Fielders went 41-59 in their inaugural season in the independent Northern League.
After jumping to the North American League, the team went 27-36 this season. The games against Kenosha County were dubbed exhibition games and don't count in those standings.
The Fielders' problems haven't been limited to the quality of their play.
Zion officials have said the Fielders owe $185,000 in back rent for use of the city's ballpark, which received $1.3 million in state funding but has yet to be completed.
Team owner Richard Ehrenreich has said he stopped paying rent on the diamond because there is no hint of a permanent stadium as promised.
In July, manager Tim Johnson and a radio announcer quit over allegations they weren't fully paid.
An Aug. 4 game was suspended after the Fielders were accused of providing subpar baseballs for the contest against the Calgary Vipers.
And after the Fielders skipped the early-August series against Maui, a message on the Hawaiian team's website said the Fielders will be fined $25,000 for each of the four missed games.
DiMeo scoffed at that statement.
"They didn't come here, either," he said, referring to a series scheduled in Zion last month that the Maui team blew off. "If we have to pay them, they have to pay us."
After the Maui controversy, the North American League announced the Fielders no longer were in the league, then quickly rescinded the statement.
Actor Kevin Costner has been touted as a Fielders co-owner, with his image on pocket schedules and the team's website. But the "Field of Dreams" and "Bull Durham" star has distanced himself from the team.
Despite repeated interview requests from the Daily Herald, he has not commented on the team's controversies. A publicist for Costner last month said the actor is not involved the team's operations.
That hasn't stopped some fans from demanding Costner step in and refund ticket fees for unplayed games against North American League competition.
A largely critical unofficial Facebook page called "Save the Lake County Fielders" sprang up, too.
DiMeo blamed the Fielders' problems on Zion officials, who he said broke promises and didn't complete the stadium for the team.
"It's a shame, because we weren't able to do any of the things we planned to do," DiMeo said, referring to planned promotions and other activities. "We know it could have been a different story if a stadium was in place as promised."
Zion Mayor Lane Harrison has not responded to repeated interview requests.
The North American League's Outcalt acknowledged the Fielders have death with challenges this season unlike any faced by the league's other teams.
"I don't fault the team at all for lack of effort," he said.