Tuesday, August 9, 2011

High and Inside

For all you baseball fans out there, let me tell you about a bizarre situation that’s playing out in the north Chicago suburbs. In 2010, an independent league baseball team called the Lake County Fielders began play in Zion, IL. The team owners brought pro baseball to the north ‘burbs under the condition that Zion and the county would fund a stadium. The Fielders’ selling point is actor Kevin Costner, who holds minority ownership but doesn’t contribute to day-to-day operations. Construction on Fielders Stadium was supposed to begin in Fall 2009, but it stalled shortly after because of funding issues. As it stands, the Fielders play in a makeshift facility across the street with temporary bleachers and party decks.

After breaking even financially in its inaugural season, the Fielders’ second year of existence has been a comedy of errors. Team paychecks started bouncing and corporate credit cards were being rejected. The coaching staff had to pay for hotel accommodations and players’ meals on road trips out of their own pockets. In late June a revolt began; the Fielders’ radio play-by-play man quit on-air in mid-ballgame, citing money owed. Eventually the manager resigned, and 11 of the 23 players on the roster gave up and quit too. Nine of the 12 remaining players demanded trades and were shipped off for cash and cheap replacements. Chris Thompson, a failed top draft pick with the Diamondbacks and the Fielders’ closer, has stepped in as interim pitching coach.

If you think that’s bad, the Fielders’ saga gets even more bizarre. Last Friday, a home game against the divisional rival Calgary Vipers was suspended in the middle of the second inning because the balls used in play weren’t approved by the league. As it turned out, the balls were bought on clearance at Wilson Sporting Goods by the clubhouse manager mere hours before game time. In attempting to defend his organization, principal owner Richard Ehrenreich steered away from apologizing or justifying his actions by ranting about American patriotism in the wake of the helicopter crash in Afghanistan that killed 30 of our troops. Though his love of country is noble, it had nothing to do with the matter at hand.

As I write this, it has been speculated that the Fielders will suspend the remainder of their 2011 schedule, than cease operations and liquidate whatever assets they still have. The economic downturn has not been kind to professional sports, especially the lowest ranks of pro baseball, but the Fielders’ situation takes it to a new, absurd extreme. Ehrenreich has blamed Zion for the team’s myriad struggles, but the mayor and village council are unilaterally fed up; the owners owe $185,000 in back rent and won’t pay. In reality, their whole existence has been a miscarriage. Everything about the Fielders feels slapped together, right down to their web site. I don’t live in the north suburbs —Downers Grove is about 45 minutes west of the city— but I am compelled to drive up to Lake County to see a ballclub that gives fledging a capital F. I don’t want to watch the Fielders out of pity, but to observe a group of athletes not only playing for a dying dream, but for their own lives and well-being.

Other notes:

+ Everyone should’ve seen the ramifications of last week’s “compromise” from a mile away. Action had to be taken, but the consequences are decidedly worse. A lowered credit rating, mayhem on the stock market, and empty “woulda coulda shoulda” posturing have the greatest short-term effects of the passed legislation. In short, temporarily raising the debt ceiling merely exposed our partisan, ineffectual government to our most crucial global partners and investors. Our national exasperation is now the world’s problem, too. I will not pretend to be a financial expert, but you’d be surprised by the number of Americans that have claimed to be economic connoisseurs in the past couple of weeks (especially in Congress, hint hint). At any rate, every elected official in the last five years that has claimed to “clean up Washington,” regardless of where they lay on the political spectrum has been ousted as a phony. My doubts about the Tea Party Republicans that so many saw as saviors last year have been all but confirmed. I’m beyond speechless.

+ Improv Update: for those of you that aren’t on Facebook or haven’t added me yet, I had reason to celebrate last Wednesday. After seven tries, I was finally accepted into the Second City Conservatory. For the uninitiated, the conservatory is the unofficial grad school of improv; you have a short audition where you perform a series of short scenes, and usually the top 30% get in. Suffice to say, after six near-misses it feels good to no longer be part of the “other” 70%. My first session is September 4th and I’m chomping at the bit.

Next week: thoughts on my 27th birthday.

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