“[Bell] had a lot on his plate,” Treadway said. “As things went awry with management, things weren’t the same. When you are a fan who started from the beginning, and you see what happened toward the end, it was so sad and so hurtful because you remember the good times.”
Bell was trying to sell the team and the stadium, but prospects were “hindered by the challenges of the current financial climate,” he wrote on the team’s website in November.
Speaking of climate, Bell’s negotiating power hadn’t been helped by the hottest summer in Texas history. Attendance dropped by half in 2011.
“Out of 50 home games, more than 35 had a first-pitch temperature of 100 degrees or higher,” Bell said.
The Cats played in the American Association, and the league was pressuring Bell to fork over a $200,000 letter of credit to prove he could keep the team going for another season. Bell failed to deliver proof of credit, the league dropped the team, and Cats players left for other teams and leagues.
Much of Bell’s acreage went back to his creditor, Amegy Bank. But in January he sold the team to an ownership group led by Bryant, Dallas businessman Byron Pierce, and former Texas Rangers president Mike Stone.
Amegy Bank foreclosed on the stadium earlier this year and listed it for auction. Nobody was buying. For now, Amegy is the landlord, and the Cats are the tenant. That’s fine with team owners.
“We’re just like the Rangers and baseball teams all over the United States — they are tenants in the stadiums, with few exceptions,” Bryant said.
The new owners needed to do a ton of work before opening day on May 23. They created a brand-new roster of players, moved the team to the North American Baseball League, and hired a new coach and staff. That left little time to prepare for the 2012 season and distracted from promotions and advance ticket sales.
Fans kept up with the Cats’ financial woes in the newspapers and wondered if a team would be fielded at all. Some, like Treadway, grew tired of the uncertainty and looked farther east to the Rangers, a perennially underachieving major-league team that had suddenly turned into a World Series contender.
“I had to make some kind of commitment to baseball,” she said. “My family loves baseball. We’d call down there [to the Cats], and they’d say ‘Yes, we’re going to have a season,’ but we’d read the newspaper and see Carl was losing the field.”
By January she was “disenchanted” with the Cats and bought season tickets to the Rangers for the first time. She has enjoyed watching the Rangers and “big- time major-league baseball” but isn’t thrilled about the increase in costs. Her great seats in the shade at LaGrave Field were $15 each, whereas her new seats at the Rangers Ballpark in Arlington cost $51 each and aren’t shaded. LaGrave Field parking is $5 compared to $12 at the Ballpark.
Treadway still has a soft spot for the Cats. She’s been to two Cats games this year and noticed improvements in the staff and customer service. Still, she doesn’t know if she’ll switch allegiance again. The Cats at the end of Bell’s reign left a bad taste in her mouth, and she’s been thoroughly wooed by the first-class treatment at Rangers games.
“Once you’ve seen Paris, it’s hard to go back to the farm,” she said.
In 2011, as the disillusioned Treadways were preparing to dump the Cats for the Parisian-like glory of the Rangers, another Fort Worth family was just beginning to discover the fun. Trina and Jeff Lieske took their two children to Cats games last year, and a family tradition was born.
“The kids really loved it even though it was 106 degrees during most games,” Trina said with a laugh.
So the Lieskes bought season tickets this year and are now enamored of minor- league baseball at LaGrave Field. How enamored? Well, friends gave the Lieskes free tickets to a recent Rangers game, and the family made the trip to Arlington. The only problem: The Rangers game started at 6 p.m., and the Cats game started at 7.
“My kids were throwing a fit,” Trina said. “They were afraid they were going to miss the start of the Cats game. We left the Rangers game in the first inning to get here.”
Their 12-year-old son, Trenton, prefers Cats games because the family has great seats on the front row near first base. The games are kid-friendly, with theme nights, Dodger the mascot running around the stands and throwing t-shirts into the crowd, players chatting up fans, children allowed on field at certain times, and the relative ease of nabbing a collectible. Already this season, Trenton has caught numerous foul balls and been handed several others by players and coaches. After players autograph them, he displays them at home.
“I’ve got 15 balls so far,” he said.
Whoops, spoke too soon. Just as Trenton was bragging on his ball count, a Cats players knocked a hard grounder near the first-base line, and it careened off the wall and into the hands of the first-base umpire. The ump walked over and tossed it to Trenton, who flashed a huge grin.
Sitting a few rows behind the Lieskes was Cats owner Byron Pierce. He seemed as thrilled as Trenton. Families having fun is the best advertising a team can hope for, and Pierce and his co-owners understand that part of their job this year is to erase some of the disappointment of previous years. They started with a bang, adding former Texas Rangers infielder Benji Gill to the lineup.
“We had Benji Gill here on opening night being pitched to by Alberto Reyes, who was a 13-year player in the big leagues,” Pierce said.
Pierce and his partner, Bryant, still get pumped up about baseball after all these years. They formed the Texas-Louisiana League about 20 years ago and helped re-establish independent professional baseball in Texas. Minor-league teams affiliated with major-league ball clubs provide the farm systems that are relied upon to groom future players — Triple-A, Double-A, Class-A, and Rookie League.
Indie baseball teams such as the Cats that aren’t affiliated with the major leagues are considered a notch below the Rookie League.
In 2006, Bryant and Pierce created United League Baseball, featuring a handful of teams from small Texas towns. Some of the teams struggled. So Bryant and Pierce bought them all. That league would eventually merge with two others to form The North American League. The Southern Division is composed of six Texas teams owned by Bryant’s group.
“You’ve got to have stability if you’re going to have a strong league,” Bryant said. “When you have a league in which a different person owns every team, you are only as strong as the weakest guy.”
Adding the Cats was the candle on the cake.
“The Cats are one of the best-known minor-league teams in America,” he said. “This is the jewel of our league.”
The team has also attracted corporate sponsors, including one that pays for underprivileged children to attend games.
“We took over Jan. 31, and we didn’t have a full staff until the beginning of April,” Bryant said. “We had no pre-season sales in the bank from the previous owner, so we started flatfooted. We’ve done real well this year.”
Baseball enthusiasts are taking note, even as far away as Thunder Bay, Canada. Devon Teeple is director of The GM’s Perspective, a website that analyzes the business side of baseball from the minors to the majors. He’s written numerous stories about the transition from the Bell era to the new ownership and has documented over the years the hit-or-miss nature of independent baseball teams.
“With a team like Fort Worth it’s great to see the new owners come in with a lot of experience,” he said.
Mike Welch managed the food and beverage vendors at LaGrave Field back in Bell’s heyday but left about six years ago. Now he’s back and sensing a spirit akin to the glory days.
“We’re trying to get the old feeling back,” he said. “Attendance is not where it was six years ago, but it’s headed that way. The word is out.”
The owners are contractually prohibited from discussing what they paid for the Cats. The investment seems to be paying after a shaky start. Opening day drew 2,184 fans, but only 672 showed up for the next day’s game. Since then, however, the Cats have been averaging about 1,400 ticket sales a game, which is almost double what the team averaged last year, media director Nathan Dwelle said.
Empty seats are still easy to spot, but the owners are feeling good about the team’s prospects. They’ve formed ties with local youth athletics, and several thousand softball girls and their parents showed up at a game on July 10. A softball tournament was being held at the stadium the next day, and the Cats owners created a package deal to get the participants out to a Cats game.
Fort Worth resident Don Grant, whose daughter was playing in the tournament, was taking in his first Cats game. He’s been to plenty of Rangers games over the years; the Cats are a different breed. He wasn’t impressed when he arrived. The parking lot contained litter still scattered from the previous day’s game. Inside the stadium, he cast a stink eye toward the field.
“It’s not plush grass,” he said.
The stadium has its charm, though. He noted the efficient layout, the easy parking, comfortable seating, and the family vibe. John Fogerty’s “Put Me In, Coach” blared through loudspeakers while children visited with players during warm-ups.
“This place should be jam-packed every night,” Grant said. “The price is right.”
He hadn’t even seen one of the stadium’s best features. Sundown. Watching the sinking sun sending its final vestiges of light over downtown’s skyline is about as good as it gets for longtime season ticket holder Pete Fletcher.
“What other team can you watch play and watch the sun go down on downtown Fort Worth and see the buildings turn pink?” he said.