Nine lives? The Fort Worth Cats must be on 11 or 12 by now, particularly after former owner Carl Bell ran out of money and lost LaGrave Field to bank foreclosure last year.
Things seemed to be looking up after new owners John Bryant and Byron Pierce took over. The Cats played well. The summer wasn’t as brutally hot as in previous years. Fans returned slowly.
But signs of money troubles remain. Vendors say the team is dodging debts. Local sporting goods dealer Reuben Rice said he’s owed money for baseballs he supplied last season. He wouldn’t reveal how much he’s owed, but he provided 20,000 baseballs at about $2 a pop. The math is easy.
Rice tried to collect but had difficulty getting owners to return his calls. In December, he threatened a lawsuit unless team owners worked out a payment schedule.
Rice met with officials recently and is feeling more optimistic.
“They’ve agreed to some terms about getting things paid off and operating aboveboard again,” he said. “We’ll see over the next couple of weeks if they start paying.”
Bryant said the Cats still owe suppliers about $60,000 from last season. He attributed the money crunch to the ownership group’s unanticipated purchase of LaGrave Field in October at a foreclosure auction. Team owners had planned to lease the stadium. Buying it at auction required payment on the spot.
“The challenge for us was we had to grab every last dollar we could find as fast as we could to get it purchased, knowing that if we didn’t, there was a good chance a developer might buy it, and we could have a baseball club with no home,” he said. “We had less than three weeks to put together what ended up being over $5 million to acquire the stadium.”
A personnel change toward the end of last season indicated other trouble in paradise. Cats officials touted the hiring of General Manager Chris Hart last March, just before the 2012 season began. A longtime account executive at the Texas Rangers baseball organization, Hart arrived with high expectations.
“Chris Hart comes to us with a decade of experience in Major League Baseball and an understanding of quality, family entertainment,” then-team president Mike Stone told NBC News in March.
Hart’s expertise was in sales, and he was expected to give the team’s marketing and sales a major boost. However, he quit in August before the season ended. At the time, Hart characterized his departure as a mutual agreement with team owners. He lived in Frisco, was tired of the long commute, and wanted to spend more time with his family.
But he hinted at problems with Bryant and Pierce, saying only that he “wasn’t on board with part of the direction they were going.” He also said he thought the team would be fine, regardless.
Loss of the popular Hart didn’t sit well with fans. Some speculated that the owners didn’t give him enough of a budget. Signs of money troubles are easy to spot.
“This is exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about,” said longtime season ticket holder Peter Fletcher, pointing to three flags flying above LaGrave Field. The Fort Worth city flag was torn and ragged. The American and Texas flags looked weary as well.
“It’s emblematic of how they’re just letting things go to tatters,” he said.
Fletcher has been a season-ticket holder for 12 years and an enthusiastic pitchman — he’s called and e-mailed Fort Worth Weekly numerous times over the years to suggest stories about the team.
Hart was a genial general manager, hobnobbing with fans and soliciting feedback during games, Fletcher said. “I liked him, and he seemed credible, then all of a sudden he was gone.”
Meanwhile, a couple of games were canceled after the team failed to cover the field during rains, said Fletcher, who had invited groups of friends to accompany him to both games. Another time, the field crew left the tarp on too long, and after the sun came out, the grass was burned brown, Fletcher said.
He sent an e-mail to team officials outlining his concern but received no reply. He did, however, receive an invoice for 2013 season tickets. Fletcher figures he and his wife have spent about $1,000 a year for season tickets, not counting concessions and parking fees.
The Fort Worth resident sent the team another e-mail this week, characterizing the last couple of seasons as “very disappointing,” and expressing dismay at having his e-mail ignored. He is relinquishing season tickets this year and blaming the disorganization of the new owners.
“It seems to me they have bitten off more than they can chew,” he said.
Bryant sees things differently. Owners have solidified the team’s future, he said.
“We’re solid as a rock, particularly now that we own the facility,” he said. “It just slowed us down on our bill-paying. We had to get the stadium, or we might not be playing baseball.”
The Cats hit the skids after Bell struggled during the recession of the late 2000s. He’d bought the team in 2001 and reestablished LaGrave Field on 13 acres. But he was overextended after buying nearby land in hopes of profiting from the billion-dollar Trinity River Vision project.
Bell was facing foreclosure on LaGrave when the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball booted out the Cats in 2011 for falling short on operating capital. Bryant, a former congressman, and his business partner Byron Pierce aligned with former Texas Rangers President Mike Stone and others and bought the team, paid off debts, and replaced almost the entire staff and team roster.
Cats owners were chipper last summer when the Weekly wrote a cover story on the team (“Stray Cats Doing Well After Rescue,” Aug. 1, 2012). Vendors said they liked working under the new owners. The team, meanwhile, played well and finished in second place in the North American Baseball League.
Owners are vowing to settle vendor debts soon, and Rice is giving them the benefit of the doubt.
“My feeling about those guys is they are going to try to do what’s right and get square,” Rice said. “I just think they’ve gotten pretty deep into this and are trying to find a way out.”
The team has been hosting player tryouts during the off-season, and earlier this week the Cats hired former Major League Baseball player and manager Jim Essian as the new field manager.
Fletcher will attend a few games once the season begins in May, he said, and see how things go. If owners get the team on track, improve customer relations, and spruce up the stadium a bit, he’ll consider buying season tickets again.
He’s skeptical for now.
“Notice the clock isn’t fixed,” he said, eyeing centerfield, where the faded scoreboard clock has been missing both hands for several years.
Cosmetic improvements may have been slowed by the cash-flow crunch of buying the real estate, but Bryant said the team’s overall finances are stronger than ever.
“We have a real strong balance sheet, and the property is worth more than we paid for it,” Bryant said. “We’re just about back on top of [the cash flow problem]. And ultimately it’s a good thing because … we’ve secured a home for the Cats from now on.”