At game time, the sparse crowd of 924 clearly reflected the state of Mavericks baseball in Columbia.
When the team left the field after Monday night’s game, a 9-1 season-ending loss against the Rockford RiverHawks, it did so in last place in the independent Frontier League, and with the second-lowest total attendance of any of the league’s 12 teams.
The loss put the team at 28-66, finishing a season that team president Gary Wendt would love to forget. The team’s total attendance was 45,511, and if not for the Richmond Roosters, who are based in the basketball-crazy state of Indiana, the team would have been last in average attendance.
Considering that most of the Mavericks’ revenue comes from ticket sales, it should come as no surprise that Wendt has found himself in a financial hole, leading to speculation that the team’s game Monday night could have been its last in Columbia.
While Wendt would not go into specifics, he said Sunday that the team has lost a “significant” amount of money this year. He estimated that the Mavericks needed to produce an average daily attendance of 1,800 to 1,900 this season to break even. It finished with an average of 1,011.
“We obviously haven’t delivered the kind of competitive team that we initially wanted to,” Wendt said. “Our opening-day players just didn’t form a competitive roster, and that immediately set us back.”
The fans who did show up this season were quick to dish out insults at the team’s apparent lack of effort. Boos became commonplace during the course of the season, according to many players. Pitcher Danny Shuck remembers walking back to the dugout after a game at Taylor Stadium earlier this summer and hearing a fan shout obscenities at the team from his seat in the stands.
“People would ask us if we even cared, if it even mattered to us if we won or lost,” Shuck said. “And this is happening at home. They don’t see how much time we put in and how much we actually do care.”
Monday’s game brought more of the same.
In the seventh inning, the crowd showered second baseman Dustin Hillman and right fielder John Wright with boos after they missed a shallow pop fly to right field, letting the ball drop between them.
Carmen Bleckburn of Columbia cheered enthusiastically for the Mavericks from a seat along the first base line Monday. But she found it hard to be optimistic about the team’s future.
“You want to know the truth? The truth is they’re no good,” she said. “They sleep during the game, look at that. I’d like to be there for them.
“It bothers me because I know they can do better ... they’re supposed to have heart.”
Shuck couldn’t help but notice the fans’ attitude this season.
“I don’t think being out on the field was as exciting as it should have been this season,” Shuck said. “I guess it helps if you’re winning, but just from being at other fields and playing other teams, the fan support is so much greater at other parks, and that makes it a lot more fun to be playing the game.”
The Mavericks’ front office has found that attracting fans is tough when the team has a winning percentage, .297, that reads more like a batting average.
John Rinaker, an MU student who attended his first and only Mavericks game last spring, said the team’s uninspired play has kept him away ever since.
“I went to a game last year to see what it was all about,” Rinaker said. “I won’t be going again. The game was boring ... I played against better high school teams.”
Not all Columbia residents have been so harsh. The team’s primary fan base, which is made up mostly of friends and family of players and mid-Missouri residents who don’t want to travel to St. Louis or Kansas City to see a professional game, has continued to support the team.
On Monday night, Joyce McCurdy did what she’s done countless times this summer. Along with her husband, Bill, she walked upstairs to the second story of the couples’ Houston home, pulled a chair in front of her computer, and using AOL Broadband technology, sat in silence as Jeff Johnson doled out radio play-by-play for the Mid-Missouri Mavericks.
Since her grandson, Shuck, joined the team in July, Joyce has become one of the team’s staunchest supporters. While shunning her hometown Astros and the playoff-contending Texas Rangers, Joyce has instead concentrated her cheering efforts on the Mavericks. McCurdy rarely misses a Mavericks game and never misses one when Shuck is scheduled to pitch.
“We’ve enjoyed listening to these games immensely,” Joyce said from her home earlier this week. “We’re very close to our grandchildren. We’ve been very excited about Danny’s summer, and we’re sorry to see it end.”
Henry Klaus, who sells Mavericks hats and other souvenirs at the games, said the Mavericks have a following.
“The fans are actually pretty loyal,” he said. “They come and buy the stuff. I see the same faces pretty much everyday and try to say hi to them to get to know everyone.”
Three and a half years ago, Mavericks president Gary Wendt scanned the state in search of a home for the Mavericks. He considered Cape Girardeau, Hannibal and St. Joseph before finally deciding on Columbia.
“At the time, and I think this is still true today, Columbia was the fastest-growing market in Missouri,” Wendt said. “And obviously we were looking for a good market to start out in.”
The city welcomed the team with open arms when it arrived in 2003. Sponsors were happy to have their names associated with a team that was receiving so much publicity. A general buzz surrounded the city, with Columbia set to get its first up-close look at professional baseball. On opening night, Gov. Bob Holden was on hand to witness the Mavericks’ first victory, a 6-3 victory against the Kenosha Mammoths, much to the delight of the game’s 2,685 fans.
“Our goal was to provide the town with fun, affordable family entertainment,” Wendt said. “And I think we did that.”
Then things started to go downhill. The team started to lose. Players began getting traded. In the first season alone, the team changed managers twice. The Mavericks ended their inaugural season 33-57 for last place in the league’s West Division. It didn’t help when a 22-year-old woman fell to her death while scaling a portable climbing wall at a Mavericks game in July 2003.
After starting this season 3-25, the team again made numerous player moves, basically rebuilding its roster one player at a time. By the end of the season, only one player, catcher Matt Oakes, remained from last year’s squad.
Wendt says he wants the team to stay in Columbia and there is an 80 percent chance the Mavericks will return next season. Taking into account the league’s history of moving financially unsuccessful teams, those odds might be optimistic.
In 2003, after struggling with poor attendance, the Canton (Ohio) Crocodiles moved to Columbia and the Dubois County Dragons moved to Kenosha, Wis. While Frontier League commissioner Bill Lee said that on-field performance doesn’t necessarily affect whether a team relocates, he said a poor financial state does.
“The main factor is what the financial aspect of the club has been,” Lee said. “Marketing, sponsorships, those kinds of things. Attendance plays a big role, and so does the president of the team.”
If the team does return next season, Wendt said it will do so with only 10 to 12 players from the team’s current roster. There has been talk about bringing back manager Jack Clark, the former St. Louis Cardinals slugger and Los Angeles Dodgers hitting coach, and Wendt agreed that finding a permanent manager will be a top priority in the offseason.
Clark managed the Mavericks during the first weeks of the 2004 season, but after a 4-26 start, was reassigned to head of baseball operations, leaving the job to current manager Jim Gentile.
“We feel like there are some talented players on this team, and those 10-12 guys are going to make up the nucleus of this team,” Wendt said. “… We continue to believe in the community and we’d like to be here a long time, but right now the responsibility is on our shoulders to prove that we can put a competitive team out on the field.”
— Matt Allen and Zachary Ewing contributed to this story