A called third strike on José Canseco earlier this summer prompted a Fort Worth Cats official to charge onto LaGrave Field, argue the call, and — according to the umpire — demand that Canseco be shown favoritism in future at-bats.
The league’s supervisor of umpires resigned after the incident and accused the Cats front office of pressuring umpires to cheat.
[Team official] Rod MonDragon … physically walked on the field and told the umpire not to call Canseco out on strikes,” A.J. Wendel wrote in his May 28 letter to the Cats.
The supervisor withdrew his resignation a week later, but the incident revealed yet another crack in the web of fractures that have destabilized the historic minor league team in recent years.
Byron Pierce and John Bryant bought the Cats in January 2012 from cash-strapped owner Carl Bell. The team and stadium were in disarray. LaGrave Field was in foreclosure, maintenance was spotty, and the ballpark looked worn out. The new owners gathered up every dollar they could find and bought the stadium at auction later that year, spending about $5 million and leaving themselves short on cash.
Later, vendors complained about not being paid. Several front office executives walked off the job, including former general manager Chris Hart and former director of baseball operations Steve Maddock.
Former first-base coach Art Senato wrote a comment on the Cats’ Facebook page that compared working for the team to “riding in a limo with the driver asleep at the wheel.”
The Cats play against five other teams in United League Baseball, all of them owned by Pierce and Bryant. Earlier this month, two of the six teams ceased playing.
So what does Pierce have to say about all this?
He’s never sounded more enthusiastic. Attendance is up about 30 percent over last season, new sponsors are on board, the team made a profit this season, and “We’re going to make a better profit next year,” he said.
The Canseco incident resulted in a round of apologies, as well as a reprimand and demotion for MonDragon.
Canseco is the former Major League Baseball star who wrote a book in 2005 about rampant steroid use among players. He signed a contract with the Cats this summer to be a player/coach during the first week of the season, but he didn’t exactly destroy the ball during the team’s four-game home series (one homer from a guy who still harbors dreams of returning to pro ball).
After the called third strike during a May 26 game against the Edinburg Roadrunners, Canseco walked back to the dugout without argument. But stadium operation director Rod MonDragon got in the ump’s face
Wendel assigns two umpires to each United League game, but he wasn’t at the Cats game during the dispute. Both Cats umpires from that day said their paychecks weren’t waiting in their lockers after the game as usual, and when they went to the front office to collect, MonDragon challenged the plate umpire to a fight.
Wendel tried calling MonDragon several times that night, but his calls went unanswered. Later, MonDragon texted him and began an apology that quickly turned into another clash.
I will call u tomorrow I was out of line but I need guys to give Canseco benefit of the doubt called strike 3 way outside won’t cut it not right but it is what it is!” he wrote. MonDragon did not respond to an interview request for this article. He’s in his first season with the Cats after spending the previous 14 years teaching special education classes and coaching high school baseball, football, and wrestling, according to his online biography.
Canseco can handle his own battle,” Wendel texted back. “He didn’t say a word. Get the guys their checks. We won’t cheat and you can’t umpire from the field much less the stands.”
Number one they got their checks!!” MonDragon replied. “Number 2 not asking them to cheat asking them to give him the benefit of the doubt!”
MonDragon then wrote that umps “get paid no matter what,” “we have a packed house to watch a guy hit the long ball,” and “is it right prob not but that’s what I want.”
After Wendel sent in his resignation letter, Pierce and others scrambled into damage control.
The next day, everybody from the league — every general manager, investor, league owner, league president, everybody — called and said they were definitely disapproving [of MonDragon’s actions],” Wendel told Fort Worth Weekly.
Pierce wanted him back, but Wendel wanted to think awhile before making a decision. A week later, he withdrew his resignation and is currently assigning umps to Cats games again.
Mr. Pierce never asked us to do anything unethical,” Wendel said. “It was just one bad apple who didn’t have any authority to say what he did. The rest of the league changed my opinion on them, and they’ve been nothing but professional since then.”
The Cats website still lists MonDragon as assistant general manager and director of stadium operations, but Pierce said he “severely reprimanded” MonDragon and reassigned his duties.
He was the liaison between the general manager and the field manager, making sure the players were housed in hotels and so forth,” Pierce said. “He’s completely been removed from all baseball responsibilities. He shouldn’t have been around the field to start with.”
Emotions can run high during baseball games, and the employee got carried away, but “I promise that won’t happen again,” Pierce said.
Asked if he had cut MonDragon’s pay as well as his duties, Pierce said, “I wasn’t paying him enough to cut his pay.”
Low pay and being slow to pay are complaints that former employees and vendors have leveled against the ball club. As recently as this month, several payroll checks bounced. Pierce said a sponsor’s check was deposited in a bank that required a three-day waiting period, and the team wrote checks before that deposit cleared.
The league’s two teams that ceased play in midseason — the Alexandria [Louisiana] Aces and McAllen Thunder — were an aberration, he said. The Aces played in an old field with rickety stands and weren’t drawing customers. Once they stopped playing, Pierce had to drop the Thunder because the league requires an even number of teams.
Next season, the United League will be back to six teams and possibly eight, he said.
Money is still tight, but Pierce seemed relaxed and almost giddy about the Cats’ future.
We took a little whupping up front, but that’s part of it,” he said. “This year we’ve had a very successful year at the gate and on the field. We can feel the momentum … that we didn’t have last year.”
The club has hosted several concerts at LaGrave Field during the off-season, with more booked in the future, including the South By So What?! music festival in October. And the parking lot is being booked for events such as swap meets.
We are totally focused on our off-season,” Pierce said. “We hope to have the Fort Worth Cats in a hugely profitable position by the end of the year.”