The 2011 independent league baseball season began with two very interesting names in key positions. Down in Arizona, former big leaguer Jose Canseco was named as player/manager of the Yuma Scorpions, a member team of the North American League. Jose's brother, Ozzie, was also named as the team's hitting coach. Meanwhile, in Zion, Illinois, another North American League team, the Lake County Fielders, began their second year in existence under the (partial) ownership of Field of Dreams star Kevin Costner. Things haven't exactly gone smoothly for these two teams this year, though it may surprise you to learn which team has had the roughest patches.
When Canseco was announced as Yuma's player/manager in April, the baseball world's curiosity was piqued. Many seemed to expect Canseco to become some sort of sideshow, taking his antics to independent ballparks all over the country. In fact, that has been very far from the truth – the Scorpions have been almost entirely uncontroversial this year. The closest they have been to controversy happened this month, when Canseco's ex-Oakland teammate, 52-year-old Tony Phillips (who Canseco signed to the team in July), helped instigate a brawl against the Chico Outlaws in northern California. The Scorpions ended up forfeiting the game when Canseco removed his players from the field and refused to come back out for fear of their safety.
Costner's Fielders, on the other hand, can't seem to go a week without courting controversy. They were even reportedly kicked out of the North American League last week before a "revised schedule" was agreed upon recently. Let's see if I can recap everything that has happened to the Fielders this season:
In early July, Lake County manager Tim Johnson resigned from the team because of payroll issues. Eleven players reportedly walked out with him. That night, while playing Canseco's Scorpions, interim manager Pete LaCock made a mockery of the lineup, placing pitchers in the field and fielders on the mound. Canseco went along with it, putting himself on the mound for the game. LaCock resigned from the team after the game, but that wasn't the end of it. The club traded nine of its players two days later and released fourteen others, leaving only one player on the roster from the week before.
But it didn't end there. A week or so later, Fielders play-by-play man Qumar Zaman quit his job while on the air, launching into a four-minute rant filled with catchphrases from both the WWE and CBS World News. Zaman also mentioned the club's failure to provide paychecks to its employees. Last week, a game in Zion was cancelled because the Fielders failed to provide adequate baseballs for the game. They then failed to make the trip out to Hawaii for a four-game series against Na Koa Ikaika Maui, which is what finally prompted the League to announce that the Fielders "had eliminated themselves from the league for failing to appear for their scheduled series".
Which brings us to where we are today. On August 14, the Fielders released a statement on their website saying that the team and "the North American League have vowed to stay together – with a twist for the remaining 2011 games." The statement goes on to describe the Fielders' remaining schedule, where they will essentially play out the season against the Kenosha County Fielders, a newly created team built exclusively for this purpose. The Outside Corner calls it a "low-rent Harlem Globetrotters" situation.
For their part, the Fielders blame the city of Zion for not building the stadium that was promised in 2009, when the team was announced (though the team has had the highest average attendance in the league so far this year). Costner, who was billed as a "primary owner" when the team was announced in 2009 – co-owner Rich Ehrenreich said Costner "owns enough to coach third base but not enough to play it" at the initial announcement – has distanced himself from the team. Many report that Costner has little-to-no involvement with the club and his publicist has said that Costner is "not involved in the team's day-to-day operations."
If there's one thing that can be said about the North American League this year, it's that the league has certainly provided a lot of entertainment this summer. Whether it's the kind of entertainment they were hoping to offer, even with Jose Canseco as a player/manager, is another question.