The Lodi GrapeSox were an indisputable success story between the base lines in their inaugural season, as evidenced by their championship-clinching victory over the Nor-Cal Longhorns last Sunday night at Zupo Field.
However, what transpired off the field was an entirely different story.
Sunday's celebration was short-lived, as allegations levied against GrapeSox owner Steve Mac in recent days have shed light on the financial struggles that beset the first-year franchise and jeopardize the return of summer collegiate baseball to Lodi.
Mac's critics contend he repeatedly lied to and misled employees, sponsors and vendors and grossly mismanaged a franchise that ended the season around $35,000 in debt.
Suspicions surrounding Mac's handling of the team were heightened when details from his past recently emerged and revealed that he served time in Washington state in the late 1990s after pleading guilty to theft and check fraud.
Rick Souza, a local businessman who agreed to purchase a 25-percent stake in the GrapeSox for $125,000 last April, eventually became dissatisfied with the way Mac operated the team and backed out of the deal in mid-June. Souza, who is still owed about $26,000 from his initial investment of $35,000, says he supports the GrapeSox returning to Lodi, but not Mac returning.
"I would like to see a baseball team with the quality we had this year be in Lodi for a long time," Souza said. "I would like to see someone involved on the business side be a person of integrity and have no one be misled or lied to. I don't want Stevie owning the team. His track record precedes him.
"He's a likable guy; he's a con man," Souza said.
Duane Simpfenderfer, a longtime Lodi resident who was hired as the GrapeSox's director of community relations last October, says the community needs to know what kind of person Mac is. Simpfenderfer, who was with the team through the end of the season, claims employees were rarely paid on time, checks bounced regularly and that vendors and sponsors seeking payments for their services were given the run-around. (Simpfenderfer said he never had a check bounce and that he received the final $1,500 owed to him last Monday; he claims the money should have been paid to him on July 5 and July 20).
Simpfenderfer says Mac even fired employees for asking about their checks too often, an allegation that Mac strongly denies.
"The last couple of months working with him were very difficult," Simpfenderfer said. "I wanted to see the season end so he could sell the team and get out of town and quit the havoc he's putting people through."
Mac counters that he's the victim of a witch hunt and that his past is being used as leverage to try and force him out. He says that the team, which he projects to lose $25,000 in the first season, encountered larger-than-expected start-up costs and that the GrapeSox's struggles at the gate - the team drew about 150 fans per night and needed to average around 300 to break even - only exacerbated the franchise's financial shortfalls.
Mac admits that checks did bounce and employees were paid late.
"We were struggling," he said. "We just didn't have the money."
Mac insists that he's making every effort to pay-off the team's debt. Local businessman Gary Markle of Gary's Signs, who is owed $18,000, said Mac seems earnest in his attempts to make payment arrangements.
"I take all the responsibility; I'm the owner," Mac said. "The bottom line is, we had poor leadership, and leadership starts at the top. I was absolutely caught off-guard about how much money we needed in the days leading up to the season."
Phil Swimley, commissioner of the first-year Sierra Baseball League (Mac founded the SBL, and the GrapeSox are a league member), says Mac has made positive things happen in Lodi and adds it's unrealistic not to expect first-year struggles.
"It wasn't my impression that (Souza) thought he would get his investment right back," Swimley said. "If I put in $35,000 and got $9,000 back already, I would be feeling good."
Despite the team's struggles, Mac has remained in good standing with the city, according to Parks and Recreation Director Mike Reese.
Reese, who helped negotiate a deal to bring the GrapeSox to Lodi and play their home games at Zupo Field, says Mac made his first two rental payments, both $3,000, on time and that he didn't foresee any difficulties in collecting the remaining $2,500. He also noted that the GrapeSox spent as much as $15,000 on improvements to Zupo Field.
"We all benefit from that, all the users of the park. I have no complaints," said Reese, who confirmed that Mac has approached the city about a long-term lease.
Ted Coffee, president of the Boosters of Boys and Girls Sports, which worked concessions at GrapeSox home games in return for a percentage of the sales, says the group had a good working relationship with the team and hopes to continue the arrangement next season. He said the BOBS took in about $5,000 to $7,000, and that two BOBS members who were employed by the GrapeSox were compensated in a timely manner.
Even as they push for his ouster, Souza and Simpfenderfer give Mac credit for bringing baseball back to Lodi for the first time since 1984, when the city's California League Class-A franchise ended an 18-year run.
Mac, 49 - a former radio personality who lives in Sacramento with his wife, Angela Tatem, and their three daughters - says he used money from the sale of his sports talk show "The Sports Attack" to help start up the SBL and a franchise in Lodi. He declined to comment on how much he invested in the GrapeSox alone, but did say he spent a combined $800,000 on the SBL, the GrapeSox and the San Luis Obispo Blues, a franchise he purchased earlier this year.
While his business decisions have come under fire, no one has questioned Mac's baseball moves since his arrival in Lodi.
Not long after striking a deal with the city in June 2007, Mac began recruiting college baseball players from across the country, many from top Division I programs. He also went out and hired longtime baseball man Leon Lee, the father of Chicago Cubs star Derrek Lee, to manage the team.
He began building the team's presence in the city and promoting his product to local businesses, and Simpfenderfer says he played an instrumental role in connecting Mac to the community.
"His desires seemed genuine, and he had a great idea in creating a league and bringing a team to Lodi," Simpfenderfer said. "But you can't go out and hurt the world with your great idea."
Souza, who remembers taking his family to Zupo Field to watch the Lodi Dodgers during the California League days, was so excited about the return of baseball that he and his wife, Sharon, purchased the first GrapeSox season tickets. Last April, Souza decided to buy into the team.
"It felt great," Souza said.
With the GrapeSox's inaugural season only a few months away, Mac purchased the San Luis Obispo Blues last March for more than $500,000. With Mac's loyalties and attention divided as the season neared, critics say the GrapeSox began to suffer.
While he took care of business in San Luis Obispo, Mac left former GrapeSox General Manager Bruce Gallaudet in charge of his Lodi franchise.
Several of the team's sponsors and vendors said they never dealt with Mac, including Markle and Phil Katzakian, who currently sits on the City Council and is the owner of Lodi Printing, which is owed $3,400 from the GrapeSox. (Katzakian said Mac recently contacted him to set up payment arrangements).
"That's when things began to get scattered," Gallaudet says. "Things (Mac) said he was going to do I would go forward with, and then he would change his mind. A lot of bobbing, weaving and misdirection."
With the season only weeks away, Gallaudet, who began to clash with Mac, said it became clear the team wouldn't have enough cash to get through the opening weekend in early June. Two weeks prior to the season, Gallaudet says he personally spent $8,000 to secure payroll and make critical vendor payments.
"I easily spent $10,000 to $15,000 that I'm not seeking to be reimbursed," said Gallaudet, who added that Mac signed an agreement to repay him $21,000 that was invested by two of Gallaudet's close acquaintances.
Souza and Simpfenderfer say that Mac blames all the team's financial problems on Gallaudet, who left the team in June.
Mac says the GrapeSox's finances began to deteriorate while he spent time in San Luis Obispo, but that he "refuses to throw Bruce under the bus."
He added that too many employees were hired and that he was unaware of many of the projects being approved during his absence.
Simpfenderfer says it's just more excuses from a man unfit to run an organization.
Souza became concerned about the direction of the franchise the week before the season started. He says he had a meeting with Mac and Gallaudet on June 7, the day after the season opener, and it was determined Souza would take over the daily operations in an effort to bring structure to the club.
But the following Tuesday, Souza said he learned from a personal contact that Mac's real name was Steven McPherson and that he had a checkered past. Two days later, Souza says, he called his lawyer and informed Mac that he was pulling his stake in the GrapeSox.
"Everything I was seeing here, it was a repeat," Souza said.
According to court documents, McPherson and his former wife bilked investors out of $160,000 when he managed the Port Townsend Golf Club in Washington state in the mid-1990s. He pleaded guilty to eight counts of theft and check fraud, and was sentenced to 29 months.
McPherson failed to show for his sentencing in June 1997 and eluded authorities for over a year before he was found in Southern California in September 1998. McPherson returned to Washington and was given a 60-month sentence. According to a story in the Kitsap Sun newspaper, the judge in the case characterized McPherson as a "con artist."
When asked about his past, Mac admitted his real name is Steve McPherson and said that he never tried to deceive anyone. (Reese said that he always knew Mac by McPherson and that he signed documents using the name.)
Mac says he served about 21 months at a minimum-security prison.
"I was young and stupid. Sometimes you're in a situation where you lose money and you become afraid," said Mac, who admitted that gambling problems led to his troubles.
"I was running with the wrong crowd, that was a bunch of gunslingers that drank and gambled too much. Now I have three young children, and I'm excited about the future. It was 10 years ago, and it never came up until a month ago when it was used as leverage against me.
"This isn't the same now," Mac said. "This is a start-up business trying to grind it out and make it."
Souza says he doesn't care about Mac's past and said his current issues with Mac extend beyond sports.
Of particular concern, Souza says, is Mac's financial dealings. He says Mac issued checks to GrapeSox employees using SBL, San Luis Obispo Blues and personal accounts. Souza also questions Mac's usage of a non-profit account that was funded by beer sales at the park, but says he has no proof that Mac misappropriated the money.
Mac said there were a few occasions when he loaned money from one franchise to another, but that the money was repaid. Mac also said there is $7,200 in the non-profit account that will be used to fund scholarships and make improvements to Zupo Field.
"We haven't used any of that money to run the team," he said.
Souza, Simpfenderfer and Gallaudet each say they stuck it out as long as they did to avoid becoming a distraction for the players, some of whom traveled thousands of miles to be a part of the team.
Each said they felt a responsibility to protect the interests of employees, host families, sponsors, vendors and investors, many of whom they personally advised to get involved with the team.
But none of the men questioned the team's success on the field and its value to the community, and they say they want baseball to remain in Lodi.
Lee, who declined to comment on off-the-field issues, says he had one of the most enjoyable experiences in his baseball career and would like to return as manager next year.
"Everyone on our club was glad for the experience. A lot of tears were shed when we left."
Mac says the team will be back, whether he's the owner or not.
"It's a perfect place," he said.