Joplin's city manager and the president and chief executive officer of the Joplin Blasters exchanged email barbs recently over whether the professional team will stay in Joplin for a third season under a renegotiated five-year contract to lease Joe Becker Stadium.
A curt exchange took place June 23 in emails between the city manager, Sam Anselm, and the president and chief executive of the Joplin Blasters, Gabriel Suarez. It was one of a number of emails and letters obtained by the Globe in an open records request filed after asking the city manager on July 20 if the city had been contacting other leagues to find another stadium tenant.
"Hey Gabe, I'm hearing rumors that you guys are selling off contracts and that you don't intend to come back next season. Any truth to that?" Anselm asked Suarez in an email June 23.
Suarez responded that he let players Winston Abreu and Evan Bell go because they had other offers.
"And what about the rumors that you're leaving after the season?" Anselm asked again.
Said Suarez: "I have heard rumors the city has been in contact with the Pecos League teams courting them." He said the city shut down High Avenue next to the stadium as the Blasters season started for paving, and had no intention of fixing field drainage and other problems.
"Sam, I have a team to run. We are in the middle of our season and play every day. I don't have time for this. Everyone can see there are low attendance numbers. Instead of doing things that make it as difficult as possible for the professional baseball team in your city, make an effort to help. If you can't do that, then just please stop."
Responded the city manager, in part, "We have contacted no one involved with any league. I have heard rumors that other leagues are possibly interested in playing in Joplin, but if the rumors I'm hearing about your exit after the season are true, I will do my job and find a tenant to occupy the stadium next season. I just need to know whether you plan to leave or not so I can get the ball rolling." He received no direct answer.
The Globe asked the city manager July 20 if there had been a problem at the stadium with the irrigation system being left on in the outfield before the start of the Premier Baseball Junior Championships. That tournament was held July 20-24 at Becker.
Report on stadium problems
Anselm said then that a report on problems found at the stadium was being compiled by city staff. That report was obtained by the Globe on Tuesday in response to the open records request.
Joplin city workers documented what they described as damages to the stadium.
"When we came in on Monday, July 18th, the field conditions were not what we hoped," reads a written report. It is not signed by the writer.
Suarez, in answering questions posed by the Globe regarding details in the documents, said city officials gave him no idea they had any issues with conditions at the stadium.
During an unofficial walk-through, city officials said they were satisfied with the field, Suarez wrote in an email.
Under a renegotiated lease between the city and the Blasters signed in January, the Blasters have possession of the stadium from May 1 to Sept. 30. In exchange for lower rent this year, reduced from $150,000 last year to $75,000, the Blasters are to provide field maintenance and stadium cleaning. The city is responsible for those costs when it uses the stadium.
The lease specifically provides the right to the city to use Becker when the Joplin Sports Authority is the host for the Premier tournament, held annually in July. It is a signature event that draws about 50 quality baseball teams to compete. It provides college and major league scouting opportunities.
The report shows that the city found the stands littered with trash, trash bins full, restrooms unclean, and numerous problems with the field. The city assigned extra workers from the parks and public works departments to the cleanup, using 24 people to provide a total of 220 employee hours of labor on Monday and Tuesday before the tourney's start.
Those workers mowed and trimmed grass in and around the stadium, edged the infield and base paths, and repaired home plate, the pitching mound and infield skins areas. The warning track was overgrown with weeds.
"We could tell the infield lips had not been taken care of due to the large dropoff to the infield and outfield," the report reads. The outfield irrigation system was being left on for up to two hours a day and had been left on Sunday "for a long period of time, which caused the outfield to become saturated."
There was a list made of repairs that are needed, including the pitching rubber, two broken boards on the foul line fence, two holes in the brick veneer by the bleachers, and a loose hand rail on the party deck.
"Two of the bathroom signs were missing and instead of buying new signs, they wrote in chalk on one door 'Ladies' with a smiley face and then on the other door they wrote 'Restroom' on the door with a (felt marker). We went to Lowe's and put up new restroom signs."
About the restrooms, Suarez wrote, "Door signs have been missing since the stadium was built as they fell off because they were not installed permanently when the stadium was built. I believe a two-sided tape or something similar was used."
The report said there was no toilet tissue or paper towels in the restrooms, but Suarez said it is up to the city to provide its own supplies when it uses the stadium. He also said that, "A cleaning crew went through the stadium after our last game."
The city's report disputes that, with the writer saying, "I know the Blasters had a game that Sunday night but it appears they did no cleaning after the game." No total costs are given for the cleaning work or the expected cost of the repairs.
Craig Hull, director of the Joplin Sports Authority, said the JSA has had a good relationship with the Blasters management and has had no problems cooperating with cross-promoting JSA events at the stadium with the Blasters.
"Joplin parks and city departments pitched in to get Joe Becker Stadium in a condition so it was playable, and they did a great job of getting things picked up and cleaned," Hull said. "We heard no complaints from our customers and heard nothing but positive response from the Premier Baseball officials and the teams that were here."
He does not have figures yet for the economic impact of the tournament, but there are games held in Pittsburg, Kansas, and Miami, Oklahoma, as well as Joplin. Last year, there were more than 2,800 motel room nights sold during the tournament, and in 2013, the number exceeded 3,200 room nights, Hull said.
Field conditions, however, may not have been good when the stadium was turned over to the Blasters this year.
A Heart of America Athletic Conference baseball tournament was put on by the JSA at Becker in early May, little more than a month after the Blasters took possession this season.
Lori Thomas, the commissioner of the Heart of America Athletic Conference based in the Kansas City area, wrote a letter to Hull on May 11, after the tournament. She said the experience at Becker deflated the excitement of coaches and umpires in the conference who, before arriving, "felt it was a true championship venue."
Instead, she said, it took too long to prep the fields between games and there was a hole in the pitcher's mound that made it hard to throw strikes. Also, the infield was regarded as too dry and the grass was uncut and uneven. "As a matter of fact, coaches and players laid out the tarp and watered the field at one point."
Suarez said the number of tournament games played on the surface so early in the season made it impossible to keep up with field dressing. "The playing surface has always been uneven but it was taken care of as best it could considering the number of games that were played on it," Suarez wrote in the email. Both he and Hull said there were problems beyond the control of those in charge of Becker that slowed play as well.
The conference umpires also sent the sports authority a letter of complaint.
Sean Bolte, the umpire coordinator for Heart of America, wrote to Hull that when they arrived they asked that the outfield grass be cut and were told it would be done. "The outfield grass was not mowed once during the tournament, and this led to several plays where the expected path of the ball was altered due to being slowed or changed due to the length of the grass."
Play was stopped in one game because of a hard pitching mound, but roughing it up with a rake still did not give pitchers solid footing. Batters also were not able to dig into the batters' box, he said. "Requests to rebuild the boxes were not honored at any point during the tournament."
He also said the umpires were provided with small quarters where there was not enough room for all of them and their gear, and it was not air-conditioned. Suarez said he moved them to a larger and air-conditioned locker room generally used by visiting teams.
Additionally, the umpires were accused of tampering with a lock leading to an equipment room. "I don't know if there was any equipment missing, but rather than work with the UIC (umpires) and the staff to resolve this, we were immediately suspected of performing this vandalism," Bolte wrote to the sports authority.
Bolte said in his letter to the sports authority there was a security camera recording that showed a man who was not one of the umpires tampering with the door lock.
Suarez said, "Umpire crews were given the same locker room as the American Association umpire crews. They asked to move because it was too hot so they were moved to the visiting locker room. A lock was broken in the visiting locker room that led to the back room. Video did show a male go through the locker room but no one could identify who it was."
Bolte wrote that while he hopes complaints from tournament participants don’t preclude coming to Joplin for future events. “Not having any field crew there on Sunday, sans one person, and having them dress their own field was a particularly stand-out slight.”
Suarez said he was given short notice that the Blasters would have the responsibility to take care of the field during the tournament.
"The Blasters did not want to host this tournament because it was right before, and during the time, our team would start playing in the stadium," Suarez wrote. "That many games will damage a field but because it was already scheduled and JSA said they had to play at Joe Becker, per their deal with the tournament, we agreed to rent it out. The Blasters did not want to do the grounds work either, and in the original agreement with JSA, JSA said they would take care of field maintenance during the tournament. Shortly before the tournament was going to happen, the Blasters were informed they would have to do it."
Emails obtained by the Globe between Suarez, Anselm and Hull show that the city declined to do field work for the tournament since the Blasters had possession of the stadium and Suarez agreed to do what he could.
Hull said the Joplin Sports Authority had a three-year contract for the tournament and this was the third year. He said he was told that the conference will soon discuss locations for the upcoming three years and there is no commitment currently to bring it back to Joplin.
The owners of the Blasters sought renegotiation of the lease for Joe Becker after their season ended last year, saying they could not afford to pay the $150,000 lease payments on top of their other costs because attendance was not as much as they thought it would be based on representations of Joplin officials.
Last year's average attendance was reported at about 1,500 paid admissions, according to the Ballpark Digest website. This month, it was listed at 666 on the league's website, the American Association of Independent Baseball.
Anselm mentioned it in his response to Suarez's comment about the city contacting other teams.
"You can try to pin the lack of attendance on actions or inactions performed by the city, but we weren't the ones that asked to renegotiate the lease. And we don't control your advertising, ticket sales, promotional events or anything associated with your operation," Anselm wrote.
Suarez, while not addressing a question about attendance by the Globe, did say that he had been told someone had contacted the Pecos League, based in Houston, Texas, about interest in coming to Joplin.
Andrew Dunn, commissioner of the Pecos League, said he did hear from a Joplin baseball fan. "The city has not contacted me, that's a fact. That doesn't mean some fan hasn't contacted me."
The Blasters have made their monthly $15,000 lease payments for the stadium on time this season. The August payment is due Monday.