Bringing baseball back to Lodi wasn't a tough sell for Lodi GrapeSox owner Stevie Mac.
A community passionate about the game welcomed Mac and summer collegiate baseball with open arms, and he delivered with a winning product on the field.
However, after a financially disastrous first season in which he struck out in his business dealings, many in the community remained sold on baseball but few embraced Mac's return.
Among those pushing for Mac's ouster was Rick Souza, a local businessman and dissatisfied investor who pulled his stake in the team after learning that Mac had a criminal past. Concerned that Mac was unfit to run the team and wouldn't be able to pay employees and vendor's debts, which now total more than $50,000, Souza decided to take matters into his owns hands, forming his own team and essentially running Mac out of town.
"It's a classic example of someone hiding behind their religious beliefs, but it's simple greed," Mac said of Souza, a missionary and former pastor. "(Souza) made a deal with me and then leveraged my past against me to get his own club in Lodi.
"He hides behind the guise of a Christian man. He systematically set out to destroy my business and my family, and he's going to be held accountable," said Mac, adding that he has filed a $850,000 lawsuit against his former co-owner.
Souza said he has been in Lodi for a long time and that his reputation speaks for itself. "How do you respond to that?" he said of Mac's comments. "If he had been honest and did his business with integrity and didn't pull the things he did, I would have been a happy investor and the team would have been back next year. Not one person involved with the GrapeSox this year would have been back next year if Stevie were involved again."
When asked if he was worried that people may perceive that he intended to take over the team all along, Souza said it wasn't a concern.
"It was in the back of my mind, but it really comes down to reputation."
Souza recently formed the Lodi Baseball Club and the Delta Dawgs, another summer collegiate team, applied for the use of Zupo Field next summer and put down a $6,390 deposit. Mac also recently applied and put down a $3,000 deposit.
Souza learned on Thursday that the city approved his request, which ensures Mac and the GrapeSox will not return to Lodi next year.
Lodi recreation supervisor Mike Reese, who oversees field rentals in the city, said that Souza's request was approved because he submitted his application first.
"It's first come, first served," Reese said on Thursday afternoon. "I called Stevie and let him know that we chose not to accept his application for next year."
Mac says Reese told him that priority would go to whoever paid his deposit first, and that after speaking to Reese late Tuesday night and learning that Souza had yet to pay a deposit, he showed up at the Parks and Recreation department early Wednesday morning with a $3,000 check.
Reese said that he did receive a $3,000 check from Mac and that it will be returned. He also denied telling Mac that he would get first priority if he paid his deposit first.
Mac said that he will ask the city to reimburse him for improvements the GrapeSox made at Zupo Field, including a $6,000 sound system that was installed before the season.
When reminded that Dynamic Audio owner Carlos Chan had yet to be paid for the equipment, Mac said that it's still the GrapeSox's property.
Thursday's decision may come as bittersweet news for former GrapeSox employees, umpires, equipment providers and vendors who have yet to be paid tens of thousands of dollars nearly seven weeks after the GrapeSox clinched a championship in the final game of their inaugural season.
For those left wondering if they will ever be paid, baseball's return to Lodi was anything but priceless.
"We're a family trying to get by," said Branda Stanfield, a mother of two who says she and her husband, Jeremy, both worked for the GrapeSox and are owed $986.
Stanfield says Mac twice issued bad checks, and that she and her husband are now on the hook for the money after taking out a cash advance prior to receiving one of the checks.
"We're getting hounded every day because of it," Stanfield said.
According to information provided by former GrapeSox community relations director Duane Simpfenderfer, who helped Souza spearhead an effort to drive Mac out of town, as many as 18 employees are still owed amounts totaling as much as $8,642, and vendors are owed as much as $37,000. (The News-Sentinel contacted numerous employees and vendors, and all confirmed that they are still owed money.)
Those figures don't include $8,000 that umpires are still owed, according to Sarjeet Singh, who assigned umps for GrapeSox home games.
"I want to see these people get paid," Simpfenderfer said.
Mac disputes the numbers. He says he still owes four employees about $900, and his total debt is around $36,000. He said the umpires were paid for the first half of the season and are still owed $3,200.
Mac purchased the San Luis Obispo Blues last March for $500,000, and that team is also facing financial difficulties. He says the Blues are currently $11,500 in debt.
"The basic fact is we ran out of money," said Mac, who attributes the GrapeSox's fiscal shortcomings to lower-than-expected attendance figures, a lack of sponsorships, a bloated payroll and a severe underestimation of start-up costs.
Mac has also said that the purchase of the Blues was bad timing, and that the GrapeSox were mismanaged while he was tending to business in San Luis Obispo.
"For someone to make more of it is wrong," Mac said. "We didn't have enough money. There's no excuse for it."
He insists that the franchise was beset by struggles encountered by most start-up businesses, and says the fact that he paid out more than $15,000 in recent weeks proves that he's making every effort to repay his debt.
Lodi city spokesman Jeff Hood confirmed that Mac recently paid the city the remaining $6,597 owed for the rental of Zupo Field. Hood also said that the payment was late and that Mac had previously issued a bad check.
Linda Fitzgerald, a recreation manager in San Luis Obispo, confirmed that last week Mac paid off the remaining $11,300 owed for the rental of SLO Stadium. She said that while the payment was late, Mac never bounced a check. She added that the previous ownership had struggled to pay the rent and had issued bad checks.
"The only problem we had this year was that bills were not paid on time. The condition of the stadium was better and the relationship with the team was better," said Fitzgerald, who added that she is aware that Blues employees were not paid on-time and that the city will consider that before negotiating another lease with Mac.
Jason Minatre, the owner of Party Works, a Stockton business that supplied bounce houses at GrapeSox home games, said that he recently settled with Mac for $1,200, about 60 percent of what he was owed. The payment did little to soothe Minatre, who had aggressively pursued the money.
"He's a snake in the grass," Minatre said of Mac. "These are hard times, and anything you can get out of a scam artist like that, you have to feel lucky."
When asked why he would pay rental fees and Minatre when he still has unpaid employees, Mac said there are discrepancies about how much the employees are owed.
History repeating itself?
Mac, who lives in Sacramento with his wife and three daughters, struck a deal with the city of Lodi in June of 2007. He says he used money from the sale of his sports talk show, "The Sports Attack," to found the GrapeSox and the Sierra Baseball League. (The GrapeSox were scheduled to join the SBL next season.)
However, station officials at KMYC 1410 in Marysville and 1380 AM in Sacramento recently confirmed that Mac was never an employee at the stations, but instead purchased air time, or block programming.
When asked how that was profitable, Mac said that he sold the air time he purchased to other people who wanted those slots.
"We did well with that, and we were happy with that," he said.
Calls to the stations to confirm Mac's assertions were not returned.
Souza first met Mac after Souza and his wife purchased the first pair of GrapeSox season tickets. Souza says Mac would drop by his office and the two would talk baseball. Souza, who fondly remembers taking his family to see the Lodi Dodgers when the city had a minor league franchise, was excited about the prospects of a new team.
Souza, who has called Mac a con man, agreed to purchase a 25 percent stake in the GrapeSox for $125,000 last April but quickly became unhappy with the direction of the team and backed out of the deal in June, after learning of Mac's criminal past. (Souza says Mac has repaid him $9,000 of his initial $35,000 investment.)
According to court records, Mac, whose real name is Steven McPherson, pleaded guilty to eight counts of theft and check fraud after he and his former wife bilked investors out of $160,000 when he managed a golf club in Port Townsend, Wash. in the mid-1990s. He served time in prison or on work release from September 1998 to January 2002.
Mac, who in dealing with the city signed all documents with his full name, insists that he never intended to deceive anyone and that Stevie Mac was his radio persona.
Souza says he learned of Mac's past from a person who had ties to the GrapeSox, and that he kept quiet about Mac's background until the end of the season because he didn't want it to become a distraction to the team. He says that that Mac had repeatedly promised to pay all the employees and vendors.
"I don't think I hurt the team," Souza said of his decision to pull his interest in the team. "Seeing his history, I didn't want to be financially liable for something I didn't have control over."
Souza said that by the end of the season it became obvious that Mac's promises weren't being fulfilled, so he decided to go public with the information.
Looking to get paid
The Stanfields aren't alone in their pursuit to get paid. Employees and vendors alike say they have constantly been lied to and misled by Mac.
Christy Bennett-Head, who did advertising work for the GrapeSox and claims she is owed $3,800, says she eventually became fed up with the run-around and filed a complaint with the Department of Industrial Relations (DIR), a stage agency that handles labor disputes.
She said that Mac failed to show for the first hearing in Stockton last week, and that another hearing has been scheduled.
Mac, who says he had a business meeting in Phoenix that day and called in to reschedule, disputed the amount owed to Bennett-Head.
According to Adria Wells, an employee in the communications office at the DIR, there has been only one case filed against the GrapeSox in San Joaquin County, and it remains open. She said eight cases have been filed in Santa Barbara County against the Blues, and that two remain open.
Mac says that Bennett-Head was fired for a "blow-up in the office" in a confrontation with another employee.
Bennett-Head admits that she had an angry exchange with another employee, but says she was told she was let go because she was no longer needed. Regardless, said Bennett-Head, who is married with two children, she should be paid for the work she did.
"I've had to borrow money," she said. "That's three house payments for me."
Lodi High senior Jill McMillen's first job was with the GrapeSox, and she is still waiting for her first paycheck for the 25 hours she worked.
McMillen's mother, Jeanne, said it was a bad experience for her daughter but a good life lesson.
"It was the first job for many of the kids, and they basically ended up dealing with a dishonest person. He couldn't even be up-front and say he didn't have the funds."
Mac's biggest debts are owed to vendors and local businesses.
Maureen Grogan, owner of Athletic Supply of California in Stockton, says her company is owed $2,794 for bats and balls it provided to the GrapeSox. She says Mac always talks about making it good but never does anything about it.
Grogan said she may have to take legal action, but she doesn't want to.
"It's not common to go this long," Grogan said. "You don't like it to happen to you at any time, but it has a greater impact now. You don't expect people to stiff you."
Meanwhile, Mac says that he will move forward with the SBL without a Lodi team.
He claims that 11 clubs have paid a $5,000 founder's fee and signed a three-year contract with the SBL heading into next Tuesday's league meeting in Sacramento.
When asked which teams have made commitments to the league, Mac declined to answer.
"The SBL is still strong," he said.