Yuma was the most organized franchise in the four-team American West Baseball League’s fragile lineup. Now they are gone and the league is struggling to keep the appearance of viability. On Saturday, independent Examiner sources confirmed some of the details of a league that seems to be chasing its’ tail.
The Yuma Desert Rats were the only team in the league to have a stadium lease, strong local support, and a stable ownership group. Tim Ferguson, the principal owner of the team had hired former big-leaguer and long time respected independent league skipper Hal Lanier to manage the team. Local fans and businesses had formed a booster club and were ready to purchase season tickets. Businesses were lining up to sponsor the team. Everything appeared to be a go for a May or June opener of the inaugural season for the Desert Rats. By the end of January it all came crashing down as concerns about the other three franchises came to light and the legitimacy of the league was questioned.
On January 24 Ferguson and the Desert Rats pulled out of a franchise agreement with Michael Cummings and the AWBL. While Ferguson refused comment citing a non-disclosure clause signed by the two parties, Cummings statement shed light on the reasons for Ferguson’s exit. “We knew there was a problem financially with Tim to fulfill his obligations to the league and so forth….,” said Cummings. “I think at the end of the day he decided he couldn’t or wouldn’t honor those, so he is no longer here.” The Examiner has learned that the Desert Rats withdraw from the league was caused by the club’s refusal to make further payments to the league because of questions about the viability of the other three franchises and not because Ferguson and his investors were unable to make payments to the league.
Red flags have been sprouting for the league from the beginning. In a cashless 2012 takeover, Cummings and Godfather Media (now Embark Holdings) acquired two dormant franchises that had played in the Golden Baseball League. Although they were technically part of the new North American Baseball League, the two teams never threw a pitch as part of the NABL. Neither the Fullerton (Orange County) Flyers nor the Yuma Scorpions (later renamed the Panthers) played for Cummings 2012. The NABL folded after the season. The infrastructure was there for the Panthers to take the field in 2012, but Cummings pulled the plug less than five weeks before Fullerton and Yuma were to play their first games. The move left manager Gary Templeton and 35 signed players out of jobs. Fullerton’s chances to play were doomed by continuing problems caused by the lack of a stadium lease. At the time, Cummings ironically told the Yuma Daily Sun, “Things just seemed unstable, so the best decision was to go dark and we’ll have a new league after a couple of months.” The new league, the AWBL, announced that it would play an inaugural season in 2013 with 4-6 franchises.
In addition to the Yuma and Fullerton franchises, the AWBL raised banners in Mesa, Ariz., Long Beach and San Diego. The five announced territories were all sites where independent baseball had previously been tried and had failed.
Investors and owners have been announced for all five franchises, but three of those investors have already pulled out. DC Sports and Entertainment purchased the Long Beach Franchise but withdrew after refusing to make further payments to the AWBL because no facility could be found for the team. Long Beach State University operates Blair Field which was the home to the Long Beach Armada of the Golden League. The university has no interest in hosting independent baseball.
In Mesa, a similar situation developed for the ownership team of former big league pitcher Albie Lopez and Mesa sports agent Eddie Marin. The pair were unable to find a facility to play at. Mesa’s Hohokam Park, which hosted the Golden League’s Mesa Miners in 2005, is unavailable because of commitments to the Chicago Cubs Arizona League team. Lopez and Marin are said to have refused to make a $15,000 payment to the league unless a park could be found. Sources at facilities in Mesa and Tempe confirm that Cummings contacted them about stadium use but they were unable to accommodate the AWBL. Lopez and Marin withdrew from their AWBL agreement and Mesa was removed as a league city.
In October Ferguson purchased ownership of the Yuma Panthers and later changed the team’s name to the Desert Rats. That same month, retired Marine Jim Hoynes paid a franchise fee for the North County Cannons to be located in the San Diego area.
The North County Cannons were to play at Cal State San Marcos, but apparently that deal has fallen through. No facility has been announced and the team is rumored to be looking at options that include local high school fields. Hoynes payments to the league at this point are believed to be in the neighborhood of $50,000, leaving him little choice but to hang on and hope that the league eventually takes the field.
In Fullerton, former big league star Edgar Renteria and his brother entered a nominal investment agreement for the Flyers franchise but it is believed that the agreement did not include any cash consideration. That franchise is also plagued by the lack of a ball park. The previous Fullerton franchise of the Golden League played at Goodwin Field, home to Cal State Fullerton. Several GBL teams, including the Flyers, were to be absorbed by the new North American Baseball League. The Flyers ownership sat out the 2011 season while working on a proposal to build a new downtown stadium when the NABL also folded. At the time of their dissolution, the Flyers owed $75,000 in stadium rent for Goodwin Field. That amount has still not been paid. No stadium agreement has been announced for the AWBL edition of the Flyers.
By January serous questions about the stability of the league came into focus. On January 8 the AWBL notified the City of Yuma that the league was canceling a facility reservation for the Ray Kroc Sports Complex that was to be the site of a scheduled 30-day winter league. Two weeks later, the Desert Rats pulled out of the league.
In full damage control mode, the AWBL announced a spring developmental league at an undetermined Southern California site to replace the scrapped winter league. On January 28, the league announced that they were adding a team in Las Cruces, New Mexico where the independent Pecos League had failed to gain a following. No ownership group has been announced for the Las Cruces team. A league press release reported that the team would play games at Apodaca Park which seats 1,200 fans. The desperate move by the league preserves the illusion of viability by keeping a four team circut.
Phone calls and emails to the American West Baseball League for comment have gone unreturned.
A review of the American West Baseball League exposes a league that seems to exist only on paper. There are four franchises, one announced ballpark, one team owner, no schedule and a lot of unanswered questions. With each passing day, it looks more and more like the AWBL will never play a game. The Examiner will continue to follow this story as more details become available.