The Coastal Bend Aviators may be folding less than five years into its 20-year contract with Nueces County.
County Judge Loyd Neal said last week that the Aviators still owed the county $20,000, or $5,000 a month, for the use of the baseball stadium at the Richard M. Borchard Regional Fairgrounds during the 2007 season. The team had owed the county $40,000, about two years of rental fees, but paid that amount before the 2007 season began, Neal said.
The Aviators have struggled to keep attendance up since the inaugural game at Fairgrounds Field, which saw over 4,000 people in attendance. This season, Coastal Bend averaged just over 1,400 attendees a game, third worst out of the ten American Association of Independent Baseball teams.
The Shreveport Sports, who averaged about 1,300 attendees a game, and the St. Joe Blacksnakes, with attendance averaging about 640 a game, had lower attendance figures than the Aviators.
Christy Montano, director of community relations with the team, said she had not spoken with anyone from the Aviators front office in more than two weeks, but acknowledged the team did have trouble with attendance this season.
"We struggled this year and I don't think that's a big secret to anyone," Montano said.
Precinct 3 Commissioner Oscar Ortiz, whose precinct includes the fairgrounds, said the county has not been able to contact anyone within the organization since the Aviators' season ended in August.
"They haven't given us any notice that they're leaving," Ortiz said. "To me, it looks like they're gone. I haven't talked to anyone over there and their phones are disconnected."
Calls made last week to the Aviators' office by the Record Star were met with a message stating the phone number had been disconnected.
"They caught us by surprise also and we're trying to track someone down from their organization who can tell us, 'They're out of here,'" Ortiz added.
Attempts to reach Aviators owner Horn Chen were unsuccessful, but if the team does end up folding, it would not be the first one owned by Chen to do so.
A May 2006 article in the Ottawa Sun highlighted, in part, Chen's two-year tenure with the Ottawa Rough Riders, a team that was part of the Canadian Football League.
"I'm happy to own this team and plan to be here a long time. Losses won't be a factor," Chen said after taking over the team in the early 90s. Two years later, Chen said he regretted the decision as a bad business move.
"I lost more than $4 million the first year. It kept on climbing the second year," Chen said. "I was not listening to my wife. She told me not to buy the team. I never listen."
The team folded in 1996 and has since been replaced by the Ottawa Renegades, which was formed in 2002.
At a league meeting in Pensacola Friday, the American Association gave the team a month to decide if they will remain with the league. The team will use that time to gauge "community support," league officials said. St. Joe is also on the "wait-and-see" list with Coastal Bend.
County officials said replacing the Aviators with another baseball team, possibly an affiliated minor league team, is plausible for the area, but can't negotiate or announce anything until the Aviators come to a decision.
"We've had some inquiries, but we're in limbo right now, so we don't know what to tell anybody," Ortiz said. "We want to make sure we follow all the proper, legal procedures."
Legal measures could end up being taken, Neal said, to recoup the money owed by the Aviators.
"Honor your contract, pay your bills," he said. "There are a lot of legal actions that could be taken."
Still, county officials expressed frustration with the lack of contact with team officials, which they said is unacceptable in this situation.
"You'd think they'd act a little more professional," Ortiz said.
A public meeting will be held Thursday to discuss the county's legal options against the team. The outcome of that meeting will be posted on RecordStar.com as soon as more information becomes available.