SPRINGFIELD, Mo. It was 16 years ago (2004) when Hammons Field opened and a year later when the Springfield Cardinals made their debut thanks to the efforts of John Q. Hammons and the St. Louis Cardinals, the Springfield franchise's owners.
At the time baseball fans were enraptured.
"It will really revitalize this city," said one fan at the opening.
"It's the best stadium we could ever hope for," said another.
"One of the important events in the history of our community," proclaimed then-mayor Tom Carlson.
The highest average attendance came in that first year (2005) at 7,523. But by last year the Cardinals had their second-lowest average attendance in history. The all-time low came in 2016 at 4,731 followed by 4,801 in 2017, 4,781 in 2018 and 4,757 in 2019.
Fan dissatisfaction in 2019 was stirred up in part when parking lot prices next to the stadium skyrocketed from $7 to as much as $20.
"It cost more to park than it does to go the ballgame," a fan commented in expressing his displeasure.
That parking lot situation proved to be the tipping point as the Springfield franchise is now suing the JQH Trust Fund and the investment firm, JD Holdings, that took over as landlords for the stadium and parking lot following Hammons' death and subsequent bankruptcy proceedings.
The lawsuit accuses the trust holders of "gauging fans" for parking and letting the stadium upkeep lapse to the point where it is no longer in the top 25% of Texas League ballparks. That stipulation was part of the Cardinals agreement with the JQH Trust Fund.
The long list of improvements that the Cardinals have been asking for from their landlords would total more than $8 million.
Mike Whittle, the general counsel for the St. Louis Cardinals, admits that what constitutes a first-class facility is subjective but that the stadium is definitely in need of some renovation.
"If you go around and look at the other teams in the Texas League it will be very obvious we have fallen very far behind in terms of the amenities," Whittle said. "The landlord has an obligation to reimburse us for certain expenses and they've failed to do that. There's also that obligation to provide parking at a reasonable price. In those areas are where we've been very disappointed with our lease. We even feel like there are some things that are even substandard in accordance with the minor league standards such as field lighting."
Whittle also pointed to the need for fixing up the suites that have not been renovated since the stadium opened and improvements to the player clubhouse, meeting and dining areas.
The city of Springfield has also been involved in the bankruptcy proceedings and mayor Ken McClure released this statement:
"“Springfield is proud to be an integral part of the St. Louis Cardinals family. Both the Cardinals and the Hammons Trust have been key to the redevelopment of downtown Springfield and the quality of place and economic vitality of our community. This is an unfortunate turn of events and one that reflects poorly on Mr. Hammons’ long legacy of business development and philanthropy in our community. We hope that the issues identified in the lawsuit are resolved quickly by the Trust and JD Holdings.”
Whittle said the problems have definitely gotten worse since the JQH Trust bankruptcy plan was approved in 2018.
"It seems like there might have been a change in the decision making after that plan was approved as far as who the decision makers are," he said. "We clearly saw there was a pattern following that plan's approval that has been very disappointing to us in that there was a failure and refusal to honor contractual obligations under our ballpark lease at Hammons Field."
As for the possibility of the team leaving, the parent Cardinals say no. But they admit that if no improvements in the ballpark are made they may have to consider it.
"That's a tough one," Whittle said. "We probably would have to look at our options but we have no current intention of relocating the team from Springfield. We love our fans in Springfield and we're committed to bringing a first-class experience. Unfortunately the landlord for Hammons Field has, since the end of the 2018 season, consistently fallen short in its own obligations. We hope for a swift resolution to these ongoing issues with the landlord."
The Cardinals also claim that the trust owes them $555,000 in reconciliation payments over the past two years.