The 2011 Lake County Fielders: The Worst Season Ever

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The troubled Lake County Fielders dropped the first game of a double header against the Calgary Vipers. Only a few hundred fans joined local campers at the first game of the double header. | Rob Dicker/Sun-Times Media

Actor Kevin Costner flipped the switch on the lights towering above the temporary ballpark in Zion where the Lake County Fielders soon would play their first home game. It was July 23, 2010, a perfect summer night – 75 degrees with a light breeze.

Costner, part owner of the independent minor league club, sipped champagne and tossed the ball around in the outfield, surrounded by gawking locals and star-struck suburban officials.

The Academy Award winner compared the place to a certain ball diamond in Iowa – the setting for his epic baseball flick, “Field of Dreams.”

A fan caught Costner’s attention and – borrowing an iconic line from the movie – asked, “Is this heaven?”

“No,” Costner said, tweaking another line from the film. “This is Zion.”

Clever, but there would be no Hollywood happy ending on this field.

The ballpark, well, the city didn’t build it. And the fans, they didn’t come.

By the Fielders’ second season – 2011 – the stadium dreams became more than a nightmare for the team, its fans and the taxpayers who footed the bill but never got a permanent stadium.

A Chicago Sun-Times investigation uncovered a tale of lust, greed and clout that undermined bush league baseball in Zion, a lakefront town halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee.

The cast of characters includes a connected French Canadian developer, a Bible-quoting economic development director, an uninformed mayor, a demonized team owner, and Costner, well, at least for that one summer night.

Like the best of dreams, the Fielders stadium deal had a whimsical beginning several years ago. And it happened by chance.

Delaine Rogers, then Zion’s economic development director, was inspired to bring a professional baseball team to her hometown.

She went to Schaumburg to meet with Richard Ehrenreich, principal owner of the Schaumburg Flyers. She pitched the Zion ballpark idea.

Ehrenreich, who would later fold the minor league team in Schaumburg and be ordered by a Cook County judge to pay its host town more than $500,000 in unpaid stadium rent, already owned rights to start a Northern League team in Lake County. Through mutual friends, Ehrenreich also had met Costner, who had agreed to be a minority partner in a future team.

Zion didn’t have much cash, but the city had the rights to purchase land where a stadium could be built – a parcel on 9th Street near a new industrial park, Rogers said she told Ehrenreich.

All Ehrenreich needed was a place for a team to play.

If Zion built it, well, they’d work out the details in writing later.

‘Being like Moses’

The Fielders played their inaugural season in a stadium of temporary grandstands.

Before the troubled sophomore season, Zion leaders never hinted publicly that they might have trouble building a permanent ballpark.

In fact, Rogers made a promise on the radio that the stadium would be ready for Opening Day. Pre-cast concrete panels were already being prepared, she said.

Rogers asked listeners on WKRS-1220AM, the Home of Fielders Baseball, for their trust.

“You gotta believe. It’s a field of dreams,” Rogers said on the Jerry and Nick Morning Show in March. “I’m serious, it comes right out of the ground and you will be amazed.”

Rogers, a former city councilwoman who resigned to become Zion Mayor Lane Harrison’s go-to person for economic growth, compared the stadium project to a biblical miracle.

“It’s sort of being like Moses standing there, looking at all that water and not knowing what’s going to happen,” Rogers said on the talk show. “And you have to believe it’s actually going to open up and walk through and take a nation to freedom. It’s all about faith.”

By then, Ehrenreich’s faith was being tested.

With no sign of stadium construction, season ticket holders demanded refunds. Advertisers didn’t buy ads. The team bank account was depleted. Ehrenreich warned city officials in emails that if construction of a stadium didn’t at least start by spring the coming season would be a bust.

“My confidence level in a 2011 season is approaching an all-time low. If we don’t have firm financing and a public announcement this upcoming week, I just don’t know how we are going to pull this off,” Ehrenreich wrote in a January email. “I’d rather field a travel team in 2011, lose $200K, and look at my options for 2012, than continue to flounder and lose another $600K on this project in 2011. . . . Let’s just be honest with each other and admit it’s not viable for the city or the team. I’m not going to put the team in a bad deal it can’t afford.”

Zion leaders – especially Rogers, who liked to call herself the city’s “head cheerleader, dreamer and the ‘Zion Rocks’ chick” – reassured Ehrenreich that the stadium deal would work out. Fear not.

‘Lame excuses’

As the season approached it became clear that even temporary seats would not be ready for the home opener. That forced the Fielders to start their season on an epic road trip across the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii, then to Yuma, Ariz., across the border to Canada, back to Hawaii and then to Chico, Calif. They played 32 games in 39 days.

The team’s financial troubles surfaced almost immediately.

Team credit cards were declined at the airport before a flight to Hawaii, said Fielders hitting coach Pete LaCock, a platoon outfielder for the Cubs in the ’70s. He had to charge the team’s extra luggage fees on his personal credit card.

“I did that all year and it was a real hassle getting money,” LaCock said.

The money troubles got worse. Hawaiian banks wouldn’t cash team paychecks. In California, team paychecks bounced. The team didn’t send cash for player meals. A few opponents had to pick up the meal tab because Fielders players threatened not to play, LaCock said.

“All we got was a bunch of lame excuses,” LaCock said. “These kids on the team make $600 a month and $20 a day in meal money. We’re in Maui for nine days and they have no freaking money.”

When the team returned to Zion in July, front office financial woes started unraveling on the field. The manager and hitting coach quit. Players refused to play. The radio play-by-play announcer quit on the air. The Fielders skipped road games and later stopped playing Northern League games altogether. Instead, they took on a semi-pro team from Kenosha for their final 19 games.

The Fielders were a joke.

Ehrenreich shielded Costner, who is not involved with day-to-day team operations, from the mess. He took the heat and didn’t make public statements. Ehrenreich, to some, became the “evil” figure lurking in the background. The guy who, as a Fielders’ coach said, “screwed everybody.”

Now, the stadium standoff seems destined for a Lake County courtroom.

Zion city officials have said they are prepared to sue the Fielders’ parent company, Grand Slam Sports, LLC, for more unpaid rent.

Ehrenreich says he plans to fire back at the city with a breach of contract lawsuit.

On Sept. 7, Zion officials offered the Fielders’ ownership a settlement deal: Pay the city all outstanding debts – which total at least $340,406 – and the operating agreement will be terminated.

Ehrenreich didn’t accept – and he’s not going to remain silent anymore.

“The struggles we had in Zion were largely not our fault. The city created the problem for us and turned their back on us. And we warned them that it would happen,” Ehrenreich told the Chicago Sun-Times. “Publicly we’re fighting for our reputation and people need to know what really happened.”

‘Running a circus’

The Fielders organization was an embarrassing three-ring circus – even for a minor league baseball team without big league affiliation.

But on the road to start the year, the Fielders played pretty good ball.

On July 3, the team returned to Zion in 2nd place with a 20-12 record.

But the home stadium they returned to was a morale buster.

After a few games the outfield grass was nearly dead. The team locker room was a rented trailer. Players sat on the floor to change, went to the bathroom in Port-o-Potties and cleaned up under portable showers that only occasionally worked.

After the first weekend homestand, Fielders manager Tim Johnson, a former Toronto Blue Jays skipper, told his team he’d had enough of the bounced checks, unpaid meal money and the home stadium conditions, LaCock said.

“He said, ‘I’m outta here. I’m resigning.’ And when that happened, guys said they weren’t going to play, either,” LaCock said.

With Johnson out, LaCock agreed to step in for the game against a Yuma team coached by former big leaguer and admitted steroid-user Jose Canseco.

Since the Fielders didn’t have enough position players, LaCock and Canseco agreed to play bullpen pitchers in the field and send fielders to the mound. Canseco pitched for Yuma. For the players, the ballgame was a rare treat during a frustrating season.

“The players had a ball. It was a close game. One of the pitchers hit a home run. Jose pitched well,” LaCock said. “It was fun.” The Fielders lost 1-0.

The fun stopped there. Almost immediately, Ehrenreich either traded or fired most of the team. Even the groundskeeper quit.

A week later, the voice of the Fielders, Qumar Zaman, who claimed he was owed money from the team, wrapped up his post-game report with a professional wrestling-inspired rant announcing his resignation.

“In my opinion those in charge really don’t care and they don’t give a damn,” Zaman said live on WKRS-1220AM. “My problem is I care too much. . . . I did not need this job and because of the circumstances that affect former coaches, former players and myself, I do not want this job anymore. Good night and good luck.”

LaCock, who claims the team still owes him more than $3,000, resigned, as well. He blames Ehrenreich for the team’s meltdown.

“This is a bad man,” LaCock said. “Rich knows all the ins and outs. He’s got no respect for the game of baseball, no respect for players. He’s a scumbag. Quote me on that. He’s a scumbag.”

Ehrenreich said the Fielders’ troubles spiraled out of control because of the stalled stadium deal, which caused a revolt by season ticket holders who demanded refunds. Paychecks bounced when credit card companies withdrew season ticket payments from the team bank accounts without notice, Ehrenreich said.

“With no stadium, it created a cash flow crisis. It created a morale problem with the players who were all told they were coming home to a stadium and when they showed up their lockers were trailers with showers that worked sometimes. . . . It wasn’t fair to our organization to put us through that,” Ehrenreich said. “It looks like we’re running a circus. But we could see it unfolding for months when the city wasn’t building the stadium and it was killing us financially. . . . We warned the city for months.”

As for LaCock, Ehrenreich said, “I discount almost everything that comes out of Pete LaCock’s mouth.”

‘A very creative plan’

The thing about dreams is that they only seem real. Then you wake up.

For Ehrenreich, the Fielders’ proposed stadium was never the “Field of Dreams” that Rogers often called it.

It was business. He wanted to rent a ballpark to make money.

The reality, he says, is simple: No stadium. No profit.

And for the city, Ehrenreich had decided: No sign of a stadium. No rent.

He told Zion leaders in emails that until the city secured financing and made progress on a stadium they wouldn’t get another cent.

That’s where the Field of Dreams went wrong for the team and the town.

But a Sun-Times review of the stadium project – interviews and a search of public records that included contracts, lease agreements, property documents, tax bills, tax increment finance payments, memos, letters and emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act – found the stadium plan wasn’t such a nightmarish deal for everybody involved. At least not after Zion leaders, on Rogers’ recommendation, decided to relocate the proposed stadium away from the original site on 9th Street.

That land is adjacent to Trumpet Park, an industrial park developed by a company controlled by Richard Delisle, a prolific developer in Zion who also was listed as the city’s “development broker” on the stadium site.

Citing the $2.5 million purchase price for the land and the “smell” from a nearby landfill, Rogers – with Mayor Harrison’s approval and Ehrenreich’s blessing – pushed to move the proposed stadium to its current spot at Route 173 and Green Bay Road, owned by a separate company controlled by Delisle.

At first, Delisle said he turned down Rogers’ stadium proposal.

“I told her it would not work,” Delisle said. “I told her our site was too expensive to be just for a ball club.”

But Delisle said he reconsidered when the city’s proposal was reconfigured to include plans for additional retail development and a land swap that would allow the Delisle-controlled company that owned the land, Green Bay Crossing LLC, to profit from future retail developments.

The city originally planned a $17.6 million stadium project – funded mostly by TIF money and a $10 million state grant that Zion hoped to receive. Ultimately, the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity denied the $10 million grant request.

Zion “came up with a very creative plan that would be funded by the state of Illinois,” Delisle said. “This was when stimulus money was being doled out like crazy and our site pad was ready.”

On June 30, 2010, the Zion City Council unanimously approved a 25-year lease on the Route 173 property and an operating agreement with the Fielders. Zion city attorney Scott Puma said the terms of both contracts were negotiated by city officials without consulting him.

The lease required the city to pay $100,000 a year in rent and pick up the estimated $200,000 yearly property tax bill. Over the life of the lease, that amounts to more than $7.5 million in rent and taxes. If the city didn’t build the stadium in three years it could stop paying rent, but remained responsible for the property taxes, according to the lease.

The council, according to meeting minutes, passed an operating agreement that gave the city the option to cancel the deal if they couldn’t build a stadium after three years. There’s a catch. Mayor Harrison signed a different document – a 25-year agreement that included a clause stating “mutual intent” to start building a stadium in three years, but did not give the city an out after three years, according to public records.

Harrison told the Sun-Times he’s not sure how that document got signed.

“Obviously and apparently the wrong document was signed. I was given a document to sign. … There’s no way to know everything in every agreement,” he said. “What stands up is what the council voted on and what’s reflected in the minutes. What’s also in the agreement is to pay rent and we haven’t received a dime” since 2010.

Still, Zion leaders and Ehrenreich kept their disputes private.

Rogers and other city officials repeatedly reassured Ehrenreich they were moving ahead with stadium plans.

The city borrowed about $1.8 million from its own water fund to pay for stadium work done in 2010 and decided to build a smaller stadium with a $5 million price tag. The city council voted to borrow $7.5 million to build the stadium and repay the water fund.

But with the 2011 season fast approaching, the city didn’t borrow the cash. And even a temporary stadium wasn’t ready for Opening Day.

The Fielders were headed to financial ruin. The city wasn’t getting paid rent. But the landowner, Delisle’s company, wasn’t hurt by the stadium dispute.

In fact, the deals, specifically the lease with the city, helped Green Bay Crossing improve its financial position, the Sun-Times has learned.

Before the stadium was moved, the Route 173 site had a heavy debt and tax burden that put a financial strain on Green Bay Crossing, Delisle told the Sun-Times. But in Dec. 2010, Delisle’s company increased both the length and the amount of its mortgage with Johnson Bank from $6.5 million to more than $7 million, according to mortgage records. That loan made it possible to stay current on the stadium site’s mortgage payments, Delisle said.

Without the city lease, Johnson Bank would not have given Delisle’s company the loan, records show.

‘Catch 22′

Mayor Harrison said Ehrenreich can try to point fingers at everyone else, but he should only blame himself for the stalled stadium project. The city wanted to borrow money to build the stadium, but city bond attorneys recommended against it because the team hasn’t paid rent, the mayor said.

“We didn’t stop the project. You might say the project was stopped for us,” Harrison said. “Without showing a revenue stream, we can’t float a bond. We’d love to build a stadium and make a great success. How can we? [Ehrenreich] did not pay us because we did not build a stadium . . . can’t build a stadium. It’s a vicious circle. Catch 22.”

On July 6, as the Fielders’ financial troubles turned into an on-field meltdown, Zion attorneys sent a 10-day notice demanding the Fielders fork over unpaid rent.

Ehrenreich sent city officials an email outlining his stance on the rent dispute.“It would be naïve for any of us to ignore that the subject land is controlled by an individual with inside business ties to the City, which we now believe may have played a role in switching site,” Ehrenreich wrote in the July 7 email. “Had the Fielders known in 2010 what we know today, which was never disclosed to us by the city in 2010, this project would have never left 9th Street.”

Ehrenreich said that email was referring to the $7 million mortgage – which he said he never knew about – and the close relationship Delisle had with Rogers, who initiated changing the stadium location.

‘Taste saltwater on your skin’

Publicly, Rogers oversaw and approved millions of dollars in tax increment financing cash for at least three other projects – two hotels and an industrial park – developed by companies controlled by Delisle.

Privately, Rogers had a secret, personal relationship with Delisle, according to emails obtained by the Sun-Times.

In separate interviews, Rogers and Delisle each denied having a romance while working together.

“Delaine is a very good personal friend, a great business friend. We’ve worked together for a long time,” Delisle said. “It’s a professional relationship.”

Emails sent and received on Rogers’ city email account appear to tell a different story.

Rogers and Delisle exchanged notes and poems, sometimes written in French, on Rogers’ city email account.

In some of those messages, Rogers proclaimed her love, adoration and desire to share intimate moments with Delisle, who is French Canadian.

“You spent the last 13 days basking in the sun. . . . I’ve had the torture of not being able to think of anything but what it would be like to taste saltwater on your skin,” Rogers wrote Delisle on April 3, 2007.

At the time, Rogers was married to a Zion city worker. The couple was married for 26 years, had three children and filed for divorce later that year.

In others notes, Delisle, who is married with children, encouraged Rogers to show restraint and “discipline.”

Rogers responded on April 5, 2007, with a poem that ended, “I’m trying to be patient with this new discipline and stuff. But it seems a lifetime since I kissed you, never enough.”

When asked about the emails, Rogers said she initiated the email flirting – but insisted that’s all it was.

“It was a wonderful cyber kind of thing. It was stupid people getting carried away. It was fun. . . . I got stupid and reckless at 45 years old. I let it completely get out of hand. He was a very happily married man and still is,” Rogers said. “It was at my direction not his. . . . It was not reciprocal in nature. He was trying to be polite to me. It was a fantasy and it’s embarrassing. It’s like being caught in a car when you’re in high school.”

She said she apologized to Delisle, whom she considers a friend and has only a professional relationship. She said her relationship did not affect decisions about the stadium or other developments in town.

Delisle did not return calls for comment about the emails, which the Sun-Times obtained after interviewing Delisle.

From 2009 until Rogers resigned from the city in May to accept a job from Delisle managing the Best Western at Market Square just a block from Zion City Hall – a project funded partly by Zion tax increment finance funds that Rogers controlled – Delisle and Rogers exchanged about 7,500 emails, Puma told the Sun-Times.

In the emails, they also discussed city business, including the spending of city TIF funds and meetings with a representative of a company interested in Delisle’s development at Market Square on Sheridan Road.

“Which of us is the potential threat to the city, your greed for profit or my lack of desire to be judicious with public funds?” Rogers wrote to Delisle on February 10, 2007.

The ‘smell test’

Something stinks in Zion, Ehrenreich says.

He said he is concerned that Rogers’ personal relationship with Delisle and their past dealings together on Zion developments got in the way of his stadium deal.

“Look at the players, their history and where everyone stands today in this deal,” Ehrenreich said. “I’d like to see an investigation into what happened here. It doesn’t pass the smell test with us.”

Delisle said other development projects in Zion he was involved in did not influence the stadium relocation.

“There were not any favors,” Delisle said. “There were no favors, extra money or deals cut on the side.”

Delaine Rogers stands by her efforts to bring “Kevin Costner’s baseball team” to her hometown.

“Damn right we fought for it. And everyone pitched in and tried to save it including Ehrenreich, including Delisle, including the mayor,” she said. “And the state didn’t come through. We just couldn’t do it. And there’s going to be hard feelings and people pointing fingers.”

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