TERRE HAUTE —
The future of the Terre Haute Rex is up in the air like a shattered wooden bat.
The team just finished its fourth season as a member of the Prospect League, one of many collegiate summer leagues around the nation. The team is owned by the Indiana State Foundation and president Ron Carpenter has publicly said, both before and after the season, that the Rex is no longer part of his organization’s mission.
On the field, the Rex provided a solid baseball team that finished with a winning record for a fourth straight season. Behind local talent such as shortstop Tyler Wampler — his .341 batting average was tops on the team and fourth in the league — Terre Haute posted a 32-28 record. But the Rex finished in third place in their division, 2 1/2 games behind second-place Quincy, to miss the playoffs for the first time since its inaugural 2010 season.
While the final record was positive, 2013 was the second straight season the team was not profitable, Rex general manager Casey DeGroote confirmed Thursday. DeGroote said the team struggled financially in 2013.
“Were we making money? No. We just need to invest more in it. We need more people selling it and beating the door down for businesses to be a part of the Rex. There’s a lot of unique ways to get involved,” DeGroote said.
Efforts to reach Carpenter were unsuccessful Thursday.
Companies like Great Dane became more involved in 2013, having two corporate parties and sponsoring the inaugural cornhole tournament on a Saturday afternoon in between two Rex games at Bob Warn Field.
The Rex reported attendance totals of 29,261 fans to the league, for an average of 975 per game that ranks fourth best in the league. Season tickets sold dropped from 415 in 2012 to 360 in 2013. Extreme heat in 2012 caused the team problems, but the 2013 summer was mild in comparison.
“We just didn’t have those big nights. We’d have 1,200 to 1,500 fans on five or six weekends in the past and we really didn’t have that until our last [home] game,” DeGroote said. “With our promotions, and we had some new businesses coming in, we’re still laying the groundwork for continuing to build.”
The Rex hit a previous high, according to intern Julius Smith in the ticket office, of 900-plus fans for the “Strike Out Breast Cancer” night in late July. Paid attendance that night was 1,446.
Prospect League commissioner Dave Chase is hopeful that Terre Haute can remain a key piece of the 11-team league.
“I think they’ve been unbelievable in Terre Haute,” Chase said. “I’ve seen kids running the bases on the field, and they can’t distinguish between the Terre Haute Rex and the New York Yankees. That’s the value of community baseball.
“I remain optimistic. Terre Haute is one of the star franchises in our league by the way they present the game. We’ve held them up as a model franchise for a long time. I loved the idea of the Foundation owning the team. I have talked to other schools urging them to look at it. I’m not privy to the internal workings of how it worked. I think it’s a viable opportunity. Perhaps it needs to be tweaked to make it work.”
Chase said that Aug. 1 was the deadline for teams to inform the league members that they would not be a part of the league in 2014 and that he has not been told the Rex are folding.
But a change in ownership could be coming soon.
Former Rex manager Brian Dorsett is researching the possibility of working with partners to own the team.
“I’ve had people approach me about getting involved with a group. I’ve not said no. I’d have to really look at how it would actually work. There’s a lot of unanswered questions that we’ve not been able to obtain answers to,” said Dorsett, a former major-league catcher and owner of Dorsett Hyundai and Dorsett Nissan dealerships in Terre Haute.
“From Terre Haute and for the players, and for the fans most importantly, I want to see it work. It’s going to take a big commitment, not just financially, but from the time perspective.”
Terre Haute mayor Duke Bennett has been a regular at least 10 Rex games each summer, he said.
“It’s been great entertainment,” Bennett said. “I love sports anyway. It’s been exciting to have a local team, a Terre Haute team, that people have rallied around. It’s nice to see people from Marshall, Rockville and towns around the area. They’re all kind of drawn here to see the Terre Haute team.”
Steve Witt, president of the Terre Haute Economic Development Corp., said he’s enjoyed seeing local businesses partner with the Rex. Witt said bringing baseball fans into the city is a good thing because those people could become aware of other amenities to make a return visit, providing the Terre Haute Children’s Museum as an example.
“It’s certainly a marketing tool. That’s why they participate in partnership. There’s a myriad of benefits that the team brings to the community,” Witt said. “The Rex are certainly a positive amenity for the community. They bring a great deal of pleasure to local baseball fans. It helps market the community in general.”
Chase said summer baseball and profits don’t always go hand-in-hand.
“Some make more money than others. Most are hanging around the break-even point. The real goal is to keep baseball in their community. We have some owners that are able to operate at a small loss and others are able to profit,” Chase said. “For almost 10 years, I was general manager of the Memphis Redbirds. We were a not-for-profit. We made millions and just put it back into the community.”
DeGroote remains hopeful that the hard work he and countless volunteers have put into the team can pay off under new ownership.
“I think we’ll be around. There’s too many people that want it to be around. Hopefully we can make it happen,” DeGroote said.
The mayor agreed, having seen quality people collaborate to bring a positive venture to the city’s summer landscape.
“You see the quality of the kids and it’s fun to watch. I’m hopeful that somebody will be able to pick this up and carry it forward. It’s turned out to be a positive thing for the community,” Bennett said.