Tag Archives: Swatson

Astros Making Sugar Land Skeeters a Farm Club Proves Nothing Gold Can Stay

When I was a senior in high school, I memorized the Robert Frost poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” as part of an English assignment. In the years since, I have often referred back to that poem during times when things I considered golden in my life became tarnished, or lost some shine.

Such was the case when I learned that the Houston Astros were nearing a deal to make the Sugar Land Skeeters their AAA farm team. As part of the deal, the Astros will own all or part of the Skeeters.

On the surface the idea that the Sugar Land Skeeters are leaving independent baseball and becoming an affiliated team should be good news. But when one digs deeper, they realize that all of the things that made the Skeeters appealing could be taken away as part of the larger effort to give Major League Baseball absolute control of the Minor Leagues.

As part of a massive realignment of Minor League Baseball the Sugar Land Skeeters are slated to go from an independent team in the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball to the AAA Affiliate of the Houston Astros starting in the 2021 season.
Photo R. Anderson

The desire for the Astros to keep their AAA team close to the big-league club follows a trend other clubs have followed over the past decade or so.

In fact, in 2013 when the Astros AAA club was based in Oklahoma City there were rumblings that the Astros wanted to relocate a team to the Woodlands, north of Houston to “expand the brand” and “counter moves made by the Texas Rangers,” according to Astros officials at the time.

Fast forward seven years and buying into the ownership of an existing team with a Ballpark is certainly easier than building one from scratch. The Skeeters would join the Astros owned AA affiliate Corpus Christi Hooks as Texas based feeder teams.

The Texas Rangers will likely move their AAA team back to Round Rock, which the Astros are vacating to move to Sugar Land. In the event that the Rangers move back to Round Rock they would join the Astros in having their AA and AAA teams located within the Lone Star State since the Rangers AA farm club is the Frisco Rough Riders.

I have written extensively this year about how I went from a supporter of the Astros to a former fan who wants nothing to do with them as a result of their trash can cheating scandal. But, if any of the other 29 MLB teams were buying into the Skeeters, I would be equally sad.

To be absolutely clear, although I despise what the Astros organization represents based in part on the lack of sincerity in their apologies for the cheating scandal, I would be sad at the thought of the Skeeters changing from independent to affiliated ball regardless of what team they were affiliated with. The fact that it is the Astros just makes it hurt a bit more.

With the exception of the pandemic year of 2020, I have been a fixture at Skeeters games since the team arose out of the former sugar cane fields in 2012. As mentioned, many times before, if Sugar Land was located just a few miles closer to the Gigaplex I likely would have been a season ticket holder and spent most spring and summer evenings at Constellation Field watching the Skeeters.

For the majority of my baseball loving life I have preferred attending Minor League Baseball to Major League Baseball. There is just something about a Minor League game that cannot be matched at the Major League level.

Much like a face palming mascot named Swatson, the news that the Houston Astros were going to be involved with the Sugar Land Skeeters caused my head to shake and my palm to be planted firmly on my forehead. It also reminded me of the words I memorized years ago that nothing gold can stay.
Photo R. Anderson

Part of the charm of going to see the Skeeters play was the fact that tickets and concessions were reasonably priced and the action on the field involved former MLB players as well as people who were trying to continue their careers for just a little bit longer.

As an affiliated Astros club, I fear that the owner of the Astros who famously said in the middle of a pandemic that he wanted fans in the stands so he could sell them “beer and t-shirts” will likely not keep the prices as low as they had been on the current regime. Of course, Skeeters tickets will hopefully still be cheaper than Astros tickets but Goliath has definitely defeated David in this example.

Based on the amount of people who wore Astros gear to Skeeters games, I know that I am likely in the minority when it comes to being sad that the era of Skeeters as I knew them is likely coming to a close. There is likely social distanced dancing in the streets at the news that the Astros will have their AAA team a mere 27 miles or so away from Minute Maid Park.

They may even try to make the Skeeters Ballpark, Constellation Field, look like a mini Minute Maid Park. Of course, the city of Sugar Land owns Constellation Field so they would have a huge say in any major renovations to the Ballpark.

Come next season, one of my favorite Ballparks will be home of the AAA farm club of the Houston Astros. As part of the new relationship Constellation Field could start to look like a mini Minute Maid Park with Astros fans as far as the eye can see.
Photo R. Anderson

But even if major renovations are not done, make no mistake the Ballpark will become a mini Minute Maid packed to the rafters with Astros fans cheering on the top prospects.

I could even envision a scenario where they try to adjust the schedule to ensure that the Skeeters home games coincide with when the Astros are on the road to maximize the amount of dollars that can be made.

Like Mulder told Scully, I want to believe that the worst-case scenario I am picturing will not take place. I want to believe that come Opening Day 2021 COVID-19 will be on the way out and Swatson and the Skeeters will be there like a warm binkie reminding me of a time before the world went bat guano crazy.

Although I want to believe, I am also not naïve. There will be changes to the way the Skeeters operate. Some will be good; some will be bad. Time will tell whether the changes are something I can live with, or if I need to find another Ballpark to call home.

I really do not want to leave the Skeeters behind. They were my oasis and anti-Astros representing all that I remembered about baseball growing up. Unfortunately, that form of baseball is getting harder and harder to find.

Each year the game of baseball gets more commercialized and sanitized. The days of baseball being an afternoon or evening escape where on can just absorb the sights and sounds are fading. Efforts to streamline and modernize the game will continue until baseball as it once was may cease to exist. There are already examples of that, but the years to come are likely to involve some of the most radical changes to the game that have been seen in centuries.

As part of the musical chairs that is Minor League Baseball the Houston Astros and Texas Rangers appear to once again be swapping out calling the Dell Diamond home for their AAA ballplayers.
Photo R. Anderson

I am too young to be the cranky old guy chasing kids off of his lawn and rambling under his breath  about the way things used to be back in the day.

However, I am old enough to remember that baseball used to be a lot less commercialized and people did not need a million distractions in the Ballpark to keep them amused. Back then people actually went to the Ballpark to see a baseball game from their seats.

Back in high school when I was just kicking off my professional writing career, and attending Southern League games at Tinker Field, baseball was still in a nostalgic era. It was also in the middle of the golden age of the baseball movie.

As for the poem that started this all, memorizing the Robert Frost poem senior year was tied to S. E. Hinton’s novel The Outsiders. In the book, and for those with shorter attention spans that seem to be the target audience of the new era of baseball, the movie, Johnny Cade tells Ponyboy Curtis to “Stay gold.”

In the same way now I am asking, pleading, begging even, for the Skeeters to stay gold and not become just another cookie cutter affiliate where fans are mere commodities to be monetized and fleeced for beer and t-shirt sales.

Sadly, my rarely wrong gut knows that nothing gold can stay. As Robert Frost wrote nearly a century ago:

Nature’s first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold.

Her early leaf’s a flower;

But only so an hour.

Then leaf subsides to leaf.

So Eden sank to grief,

So dawn goes down to day.

Nothing gold can stay.

Another Robert Frost poem that I often think of is The Road Not Taken. Two paths are in front of me as I decide whether to accept the road that the Skeeters appear to be heading down, or if I choose another one. But that is a poem, and a column for another day.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a sudden urge to reread The Outsiders. Stay gold, Swatson.

Copyright 2020 R. Anderson

 

Sugar Land Skeeters Delay Start of Summer League as MiLB Cancels Season

A couple of weeks ago, the Sugar Land Skeeters, of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball (ALPB), announced their intention to form a four-team professional baseball league at Constellation Field, beginning July 3 and running through Aug. 23.

On June 30, the team announced that they were delaying the start of the league by a week to July 10.  The delay comes as cases of COVID-19 soar to new heights in Texas leading to serious questions about whether the start will be pushed back again when July 10 rolls around.

To be clear, in lieu of a miracle, it is highly unlikely that the state of COVID-19 in Texas will be better in a week. In fact, if the spike in cases that followed Memorial Day is any indication, displays of patriotism and group gatherings for the July 4th Weekend are likely to send COVID-19 cases soaring like a roman candle reaching for the heavens.

I get that the Skeeters want to have their league succeed. I want their league to succeed as well. But the outlook is not too favorable for that to happen in the current COVID-19 climate.

The Sugar Land Skeeters, of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball (ALPB), recently announced their intention to form a four-team professional baseball league at Constellation Field, beginning July 3 and running through Aug. 23.
Photo R. Anderson

The same day that the Skeeters announced the seven-day season slippage, Minor League Baseball (MiLB) made the announcement many people already knew was coming, and said that there would be no MiLB season this year.

As noted many times before, MiLB is my absolute favorite form of baseball, and the fact that the season has been cancelled makes me truly sick to my stomach because of all of the employees who will get laid off, as well as knowing that many of the players and some of the teams may not be around when the 2021 season rolls around next April.

There is always high turnover in any MiLB season as some players move up, and others just quietly retire having never reached the pinnacle of playing in the Show. This year the normal ebb and flow of player movement has a new element called contraction.

In November 2019, before the world was gripped by a global pandemic, MLB announced that it wanted to eliminate around 42 minor league affiliates and keep about 120 affiliates tied to 30 MLB clubs, or roughly four MILB teams per MLB club, as a cost savings measure. The COVID-19 pandemic just sped that process along and meant that some Ballparks would not get a farewell season.

Of course, MLB said a few years back that they wanted to get rid of a few teams and placed the Expos and the Twins on the chopping block. Although the Expos left Montreal and became the Nationals, the last time I checked we still have 30 MLB franchises.

Congressional leaders are also likely to weigh in on any plan that would take baseball away from their constituents.

So, I am cautiously optimistic that MLB will back off of their plan to reduce the ranks of MiLB, but something tells me they will keep their foot on the gas.

From a big picture MLB perspective, I understand that they want to streamline the operation to have fewer players and better facilities across the board in the farm system of the future. In recent years, MLB clubs even started owning their farm teams as a means to control costs from Rookie ball to MLB. As such, the MiLB owners were already getting pushed aside in many markets.

I know that baseball is a business. One need only listen to MLB owners complain about lost revenue during the 2020 season to know where many of their heads are at. But, for many of the smaller communities that are served by MiLB teams, baseball is an extension of the community and a part of the lifeblood that pumps from generation to generation.

The last MiLB game in Orlando was played in 2003 and it left a void for baseball fans in the region. Granted, the loss of a MiLB team in Orlando is not going to have the same effect as the loss of a team in a smaller community. While they currently do not have professional baseball, Orlando has college sports at the University of Central Florida, the Orlando Magic, the Orlando Solar Bears, Orlando City, and Orlando Pride. Of course, if Pat Williams has his way Orlando will become an MLB city someday.

Contrast the sport heavy balance sheet of Orlando with say Billings, Montana. Billings, and many other cities where MiLB is played, do not have other professional sports nearby. So, a night at the Ballpark is literally the only game in town when it comes to professional sports in many markets. Besides offering entertainment for fans, the Ballparks offer employment for everything from ticket takers to ushers.

If the teams go away, the jobs will go away as well.

If MLB really does go through with their plan of reducing the ranks of MiLB as a way to save a buck, I really hope that non-affiliated baseball leagues like the ALPB and others can fill the void and keep baseball in the towns affected by the loss of their MiLB franchise.

I know there are people who will stand up and shout that independent baseball is not the same as affiliated baseball. I will not argue that point, other than to say that if I had a choice between having an Independent League team in my town, or no baseball team in my town, I am going to go with having the Independent League team every time.

The baseball fan in me wants to see the Sugar Land Skeeters summer league succeed. However, as much as I love Swatson, the reporter in me cannot justify putting fans and players at risk of catching COVID-19 just to play ball.
Photo R. Anderson

Of course, the reality is that some owners may not have the resources to run an Independent baseball team without the support that went along with being affiliated with MLB.

That is why the baseball fan in me wants to see the Skeeters summer league succeed so that the players and staff don’t have to worry about losing their jobs.  Of course, when I put on my reporter hat, I still cannot justify putting fans and players at risk of catching COVID-19 just to play ball.

MLB is still planning a return at the end of July for their 60-games in 66 days mini season, but many more players each day are choosing to opt out of the season.

It is a tough calculus that I really hope we are not faced with again once the COVID-19 pandemic is finally defeated thanks to either a vaccine, or effective therapeutics, that allow the world to fully reopen again.

When that day of reopening does occur, I will be one of the first people in line at the Ballpark to see the game I love played once more. Sadly, the residents of up to 42 communities may not be as lucky.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I am off to celebrate Bobby Bonilla Day.

Copyright 2020 R. Anderson

 

Sugar Land Skeeters Form A League of Their Own to Play Ball During Global COVID-19 Pandemic

The Sugar Land Skeeters, of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball (ALPB), recently announced their intention to form a four-team professional baseball league at Constellation Field, beginning July 3 and running through Aug. 23.

The idea of a four-team quick summer league sounds great on the surface. Of course, as one peels back the layers of the onion, they are reminded of the fact that we are still in the middle of a global pandemic caused by a virus with no known cure or standard treatment.

The news of the league comes as the number of COVID-19 cases in Texas continues to rise to record numbers on a daily basis. As a result of the rising numbers of cases and hospitalizations, some businesses that had reopened, like bank lobbies, are starting to close again.

The Sugar Land Skeeters, of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball (ALPB), recently announced their intention to form a four-team professional baseball league at Constellation Field, beginning July 3 and running through Aug. 23.
Photo R. Anderson

With that in mind, the team ownership noted when they announced the league that they would be working with local and state health officials to provide as safe of an environment as possible for fans, staff and players.

Among the steps being taken is following the guidelines from the state of Texas as well as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in regards to stadium capacity and social distancing. Players will be tested for COVID-19 at least once a week, as well as prior to their arrival in Sugar Land.

In regards to fans in attendance, the plan calls Constellation Field to allow up to 25 percent of its 7,500-seat capacity to be full for each of the planned 56 games in the season.

According to a press release from the Skeeters, there will be a total of seven games played at Constellation Field each week from the Opening Day on July 3 through the conclusion of the season on Aug. 23.  The schedule is subject to change, but single games are anticipated to be played on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, and doubleheaders will be played on Saturday and Sunday.

The names for the four teams have yet to be announced. In the spirit of helpfulness might I suggest such timely names as, the Pandemics, the Social Distancers, the COIVD-19’s, and the Doc Faucis.

The four teams will be managed by Skeeters manager Pete Incaviglia, seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens (along with his son Koby), and former Cleveland Indians pitcher Greg Swindell. The fourth team will be led by a manager to be named later. It should be noted that both Roger and Koby Clemens played for the Skeeters.

Former Sugar Land Skeeters player Koby Clemens will manage one of the four teams in the Skeeters Summer League alongside is father, Roger.
Photo R. Anderson

Open tryouts for the league are scheduled to take place at Constellation Field on June 24. It is expected that the teams will consist of former Major Leaguers and an assortment of professional players who’ve appeared at affiliated minor league levels as well as independent leagues.

Despite the best efforts of social distancing and testing, it is extremely likely that there will be people associated with the league who contract COVID-19. In the event that occurs, team officials have noted that the show will go on as the league takes the posture of accepting a certain level of risk in order to play baseball.

This is the magic question faced by all sports leagues, and in fact all individuals, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. How much risk is one willing to take in order to do the things that were done in the olden days of pre-March 2020?

The answer depends on the individual’s level of comfort, as well as whether the individual involved belongs to one of the identified high-risk categories of greater susceptibility to the virus.

Years ago I saw this sign at a Pensacola Pelicans game. It is unknown whether the tickets to the Sugar Land Skeeters Summer League games will include small print waiver language stating that fans in attendance assume both the risk of getting hit in the head by a foul ball, as well as assuming all risk if they contract COVID-19 at the ballpark.
Photo R. Anderson

It is unknown whether the tickets to the games will include small print waiver language stating that fans in attendance assume both the risk of getting hit in the head by a foul ball, as well as assuming all risk if they contract COVID-19 at the ballpark.

I can picture the wording going something like this, “Sorry folks, you can’t sue us for getting sick. The lime green mosquito up front should have told you that.”

The Skeeters are not alone in trying to find creative uses for their Ballparks this season. According to the ALPB, the High Point Rockers, Long Island Ducks, and Southern Maryland Blue Crabs are working with several professional baseball clubs, towards finalizing a 70-game schedule of play that would begin in mid-July and wrap up at the end of September with a five-game championship series.

Other ALPB teams that are not able to host baseball games due to crowd size limitations in their regions are hosting movie and music festivals in their Ballparks as a means to generate revenue.

And of course, Major League Baseball is still trying to hammer out an agreement to play baseball without fans in attendance for the 2020 season.

Personally, I would love to see baseball at all levels sit the season out. I do not believe the short-term gains of unfurling those Opening Day banners in 2020 outweigh the long-term risks to player health, as well as overall league health.

The last thing anyone should want to do is have a short term pebble drop ripple turn in to a tsunami with unforeseen consequences down the road. One should not sell their soul for a shortened season.

And just because a Ballpark is open, it does not mean that fans need to go to it. If the movie Field of Dreams was filmed in the era of COVID-19 it is likely that the voice heard in the corn field would tell Ray Kinsella to “build it and they will come after the threat of the COVID-19 virus has been eliminated by the invention of either a vaccine or a therapeutic treatment.”

After all, those players may have been ghosts, but they were certainly in a high-risk category based on their ages. Speaking of that Iowa corn field, the New York Yankees and Chicago White White Sox are scheduled to play each other at a temporary ballpark adjacent to the field from the movie on August 13. It is unknown whether the game will be played, and if it is whether the people will be allowed to come, or if only the corn will have ears to hear the game.

Baseball, and the rest of life as we knew it in the golden days of pre 2020 will hopefully return next year. We will reach the other side, and when we do, the Ballparks will once again be full of fans and games of dizzy bat. Until then, teams and leagues will continue to seek creative solutions to “go the distance” as they navigate uncharted waters like a 21st century Lewis and Clark to ease our collective pain.

Now if you’ll excuse me, all this talk about shortened summer baseball leagues has me in the mood to watch Summer Catch.

Copyright 2020 R. Anderson

With MLB Players and Owners no Longer Negotiating it is Best to Try Again Next Year

With a little under a month to go until the 2020 Major League Baseball (MLB) All-Star Game was set to be played at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, the first pitch of the regular season has yet to take place.

Historically, the All Star Game marks the midpoint of the MLB season. This year, it is likely that any All Star Game played will take place after the conclusion of the season. Assuming that there is a season.

The blame game for why the season has yet to commence is in full swing. Players blame owners. Owners blame players. Over the weekend the MLB Player’s Association, and the MLB owners halted negotiations on what a 2020 season would look like and tossed the ball over to the Commissioner’s Office to end the stalemate. It seems like the only thing both sides can agree in is that COVID-19 is to blame.

Speaking of COVID-19, on June 16, 2020, Florida and Arizona, the regular season home of the Rays, Marlins and Diamondback, as well as the home of all 30 spring-training facilities, reported their highest single-day total of positive tests for the virus. The Sunshine State of Florida counted nearly 2,800 positive cases. The Grand Canyon State of Arizona tallied in at 2,400 new positive cases.

With a little under a month to go until the 2020 Major League Baseball (MLB) All-Star Game was set to be played at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, the first pitch of the regular season has yet to take place thanks to COVID-19.
Photo R. Anderson

In baseball terms, the launch angle for the COVID-19 spike in those states is headed for the upper decks and may clear the ballpark. Or, as Crash Davis, of Bull Durham fame, would say, “Man that ball got outta here in a hurry.”

In Texas, here at the gigaplex, we are also seeing daily increases in the number of positive COVID-19 cases, the number of hospitalizations, and the number of deaths.

Overall, 17 U.S. states reported weekly increases in the spread of COVID-19, as well as an increase in the percentage of people tested who are positive. If the virus was stable, the percentage of people who test positive would remain stagnant regardless of how many people were tested. Higher percentages of positives mean that more people are catching the virus, not that more people are getting tested.

But you don’t have to take my world for it, just follow the science.

The COVID-19 virus is real. It is deadly. It is not going away any time soon. And no, despite what some people try to say, the virus will not just magically disappear if we stop testing people for it. Social distancing and wearing masks are the only ways to control the spread until a vaccine is developed and widely distributed.

Still, with rising numbers from sea to shining sea, there are still rumblings that what the world needs right now is baseball. Unless baseball is code for a vaccine, or therapeutic treatment, for the COVID-19 virus, I am pretty sure the last thing the world needs right now is baseball.

As I have said many times, and in many ways, I miss baseball. I want baseball to return. I want to go see new Ballparks. I want to revisit old Ballparks. I want to eat hot dogs in the club level of Constellation Field next to a lime green mosquito mascot named Swatson.

I miss baseball, but I am perfectly content to have the 2020 Season cancelled, and wait for a return to action in the spring of 2021. One of my first stops when baseball does return next spring will be Publix Field in Lakeland, FL.
Photo R. Anderson

So, when I say sit this season out to the MLB powers that be, I am not saying it as someone who could take or leave baseball. I am saying it as someone who loves baseball but also sees little value in a regular season lasting about as long as the postseason. Proceeding with baseball at this point will likely do more harm than good for the baseball brand.

The owners will say that baseball needs to happen this year in order for people to not forget about it. The owners will also say that they need a long postseason lasting deep into October so they can make money from the television rights.

But having a 50-60 game MLB regular season, and then going to the postseason, stains the spirit of the game worse than a steroid tainted home run record chase, or a trash can banging World Series run.

It is okay to sit this one out baseball. One of the worst things that can happen is to force a season to occur and then see a majority of the big-name players sit the season out in order to protect their health.

While MLB still tries to decide if a 2020 season will occur, the NBA is set to resume their season July 30 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at the Walt Disney World Resort. All eligible playoff teams will be kept in three hotels and will play all of their games inside the borders of Disney World.
Photo R. Anderson

Why would a player risk their health from both the COVID-19 virus, or a freak injury, for an abbreviated season at prorated pay if they have the means to sit out four months and return to Spring Training in February of next year?

Still, the MLB powers that be seem determined to proceed regardless of the consequences, or the optics. Instead of following the herd and just being another sport to try and play, while hoping their star players do not get sick, MLB has a chance to be the sport that puts safety over profit if they choose.

When I was the Sports Information Director for a college, one of my main tasks was helping coaches and athletic department personnel craft statements and stay on message. I always told the people I was working with to consider the long-term impact of their words, and to not look at short term gratification. I also told them to make sure they knew the temperature of the room. If I was tasked with advising MLB during this current climate, I would suggest they release the following statement:

“We have the best fans in the world and we want more than anything to get back to work giving you our best effort on the field and off. COVID-19 gave us all a gut punch and forced the early termination of Spring Training. As much as we want to return to the game we love, the numbers of the virus infections just do not support us playing right now. Even with all of the safety precautions we have outlined, we cannot rule out members of the MLB family getting sick. It would be irresponsible for us to risk spreading the disease by traveling from city to city just to play games in empty ballparks without you our cherished fans there to cheer us on.

The short-term desire of playing baseball in 2020 cannot cloud our vision. The long-term health and safety of our players, trainers and other team employees is far more important to us than trying to rush things in order to try to squeeze in a season this year just to say we had a 2020 season. We will return when the science tells us it is safe to do so. Until then, take care of yourselves, and our players and staff will do the same.  Stay home, stay safe. Wear a mask if you have to go out and about, and we will see you next year if it is safe to do so.”

I would then include a link on the press release to the official team masks of MLB which allow fans to show their team spirit, and keep their spit from going airborne.

Sadly, now that other professional sports have returned to action, it is likely adding to the pressure of the MLB to make this season work. Unfortunately, I think the desire to “play ball” will overcome the rationale to try again next year.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I feel the need to lollygag over to the kitchen and make a Ballpark inspired snack.

Copyright 2020 R. Anderson

Baseball is Still Trying to Save Season as Other Sports Hit Cruise Control

As Major League Baseball’s owners and players continue to haggle over the parameters of what a 2020 season would look like in terms of number of games played and percentage of compensation, NASCAR and IndyCar are up and running, and the NBA is about to be up and running.

NASCAR which became the first major professional sports league to return to action last month, is set to hit another milestone on June 14 when it allows some fans into the track to see the action in person. Welcoming of fans into the facility comes with restrictions, and is also occurring during a time when nearly half of the states in the United States are seeing the number of cases of COVID-19 go up. It is also occurring as other states are being questioned about whether they are providing an accurate count of the total number of COVID-19 cases within their communities.

Make no mistake, these are truly uncharted waters, and the entire process is just one big wave away from capsizing faster than the ship in The Poseidon Adventure. Still, for many it is full steam ahead, into the great wide open.

The fact that other sports leagues are resuming their interrupted seasons is placing added pressure on MLB to start their 2020 season, which was originally scheduled to begin on March 26. While the main issues preventing the MLB from playing ball seem to be mostly financial, not all of the players are being affected the same way.

Established MLB players, and recently drafted Minor League Baseball (MiLB) players, can easily sit out the season if it comes down to it since for the most part their jobs are safe.

The fact that other sports leagues are resuming their interrupted seasons is placing added pressure on MLB to start their 2020 season, which was originally scheduled to begin on March 26.
Photo R. Anderson

For other players, a lost season could cost them their last chance to make it onto a Big-League roster and leave the long bus rides of MiLB behind.

I have been thinking a lot about those players in both affiliated and independent baseball lately. As I have noted several times before, I cut my Ballpark teeth by mostly watching Southern League baseball when I was growing up. In recent years, despite being located closer to an MLB Ballpark, than an Independent League Ballpark, I have found myself driving the extra 20 minutes and spending more time watching the Sugar Land Skeeters of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball (ALPA) than the Houston Astros.

Nothing says Ballpark fun quite like a mascot adjacent box seat near the dugout. Isn’t that right Swatson?
Photo R. Anderson

For me, Minor League Baseball is a purer form of the game and allows me to be closer to the field for the same price as a nosebleed ticket at an MLB Ballpark. With Minor League Ballparks being about a third of the size of their Major League counterparts, one can really get up close and personal to the action.

Unfortunately, those Minor League players that I enjoy watching the most are the ones who are finding uncertain futures, as well as uneasy presents. To their credit many MLB teams and players have offered to pay the salaries of the players in their farm systems. However, with efforts to reduce the number of MiLB teams, as well as reducing the number of players drafted, in the coming years, there will be far fewer people who will get to chase their dreams of making it to the Show.

Of course, less affiliated Minor League baseball should mean an uptick in players wanting to play Independent League baseball which may lead to the rise of new leagues and teams to fill the void left behind following any contraction of affiliated baseball.

When I was in high school, I had a friend who was a star pitcher on the school baseball team. The team made it to the state playoffs my junior year. The following year, it was not uncommon to see various pro scouts in the stands.

My friend was a southpaw pitcher, which was then, and continues to be a hot commodity sought after by many MLB clubs. My friend ended up signing with the New York Yankees in the second round of the MLB June Amateur Draft right out of high school and as Tom Petty would say, “the future was wide open.”

Setbacks on the field, as well as off the field, led him to bounce around the Minor Leagues like a fan trying to reach first base in a dizzy bat race.  My friend spent six years in the Yankees organization and never advanced above AA ball, as well as playing four years of Independent League baseball. Over 10 seasons he had a career .513 winning percentage, and a career 4.32 earned run average (ERA). After 10 years of chasing the dream my friend finally called it a career without so much as a cup of coffee in the show.

My friend spent six years in the Yankees organization and never advanced above AA ball, as well as playing four years of Independent League baseball proving that not every dream of playing MLB ball comes true.
Photo R. Anderson

There are thousands of players just like my friend who seek the bright lights of big-league ballparks only to find their dreams cut short. While the answer varies depending on who you ask, most people can agree that only about 10 to 20 percent of the people drafted by MLB teams will ever make it to the Majors.

So, the thinking goes that by reducing the number of teams and the rounds in the draft MLB is forcing people who wouldn’t have made it to the MLB anyway to start their post baseball playing days earlier.

Many will bounce along as long as possible chasing the dream until the realities of life and family commitments lead them to a steadier form of work. These players are the real Crash Davis types, in honor of the character Kevin Costner played in Bull Durham.

I lost track of my friend a few years before the end of his career but would still follow his career whenever I saw a blurb on one of the Minor League sites. I hope he is doing well for himself and that he landed on his feet after he hung up his glove for the last time.

Whenever baseball does resume it will be different on so many fronts. COVID-19 exposed a crack in the professional sports diversion that people have counted on to get them through so many other trying times in the past. Now that people know that sports are not the recession proof, tragedy proof, and pandemic proof light in a time of darkness that they thought they were, people will need to decide whether they will still put their trust in sports to distract and comfort them, or if they will find other ways to deal with whatever life throws at them.

In many ways, we are all Minor League players trying to hang on to the dream for one more season, while knowing in the back of our heads that at some point we will need to put our cleats away and face life head on.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a sudden urge to watch Bull Durham.

Copyright 2020 R. Anderson

 

NASCAR Provides First Look at What the Return of Sports Could Look Like as Other Sports Sit Impatiently in Neutral

Brad Keselowski started on the pole on May 17, 2020 when NASCAR returned to live racing after a nearly two month hiatus.
photo R. Anderson

When the history books are written to describe the era of COVID-19, it is likely that yesterday, May 17, 2020, will be remembered as the day that sports returned to America.

Okay, to be fair, all sports did not return yesterday. Declaring the “all clear, come and play ball y’all” is likely months away from occurring. Factor in a return to wide open, stadium rockin’ sports as they were prior to March 2020, and some experts say that could be a year or more away.

Still, yesterday will be remembered as the day that NASCAR told their drivers to start their engines, and the fans to stay home and watch. It is easy to see how NASCAR was the first sport to draw up a game plan for a return to competition.

Kyle Busch is set to run seven races in 11 days in all three NASCAR series as part of the sport’s return to live competition.
photo R. Anderson

Drivers sit alone in their 3,000 plus pound octane 93 fueled chariots. So, even during rubbing and bump draftin’, social distancing can be maintained.

Throw in helmets, and protective gear for the pit crew members, and you have yourself a ready-made example of responsible sport in the COVID-19 era. At least that is how the plan is supposed to work.

While social distancing works in NASCAR, other sports leagues will find it harder to show that the athletes are separated by the recommended Center for Diseases Control (CDC) guidelines of six feet of separation. The next sport on the clock to try to return a fan-free viewing experience to the world is Major League Baseball.

Baseball has already returned in South Korea where the season opened in empty ballparks, followed by ballparks allowing up to 1,000 fans to attend from a safe social distance.

It is hard to imagine a scenario where Major League Baseball says the first 1,000 people to the ballpark are allowed inside. It is safer to say, that the only people sitting in the stands for the foreseeable future whenever baseball does return will be team employees.

While no exact timeline has been established for the return of baseball, when it does return it is likely that the pregame lineup exchange at home plate will be eliminated.
photo R. Anderson

I have said this before, and it bears repeating, I miss baseball. However, I do not miss baseball to the point that I want to see players, umpires, and other team personnel put at undue risk of exposure to a virus that currently has no cure just so I can have a few hours of live sports during my work from home time.

Blake Snell, the 2018 Cy Young Award-Winning pitcher for the Tampa Bay Rays, made waves when he commented on his Twitch channel last week that playing an abbreviated baseball season with a pay cut was not worth the risk to his health for future seasons. Based on estimates of the proposals being negotiated between MLB management and the player’s union, Snell would earn around $2.3 million instead of $7 million in salary for playing what would amount to at best an 82-game season.

To be fair, athletes risk injury every time they take the field. However, one can certainly argue that risking your pitching arm and needing to miss a season because you are recovering from Tommy John surgery is entirely different than risking your health because of a virus.

Snell’s candid assessment of needing to look at his life after this season, versus playing this year and risking his health, drew the usual round of negative comments with people calling him “entitled,” and that he should just “shut up and play.”

After Blake Snell drew criticism for voicing concerns about returning to play baseball, fellow All-Star Bryce Harper noted that Snell made public feelings that many players are pondering in private in regards to the risk of playing baseball too soon to their long-term health.
photo R. Anderson

A pair of All-Stars, in Bryce Harper and Nolan Arenado, came to Snell’s defense by noting that Snell went public with what many players are thinking in private related to needing to look long and hard at the risks associated with returning to play baseball this year.

As part of a return to the ballpark plan reported by ESPN, players and all other people involved in the games would be tested for the COVID-19 virus several times a week to allow any potential outbreak to be snuffed out at the source. Under the plan to mitigate the spread of the virus , according to the ESPN report,  players, would also be banned by fist bumping, high fiving, and spitting.

However, it is unknown whether players will still be allowed to bang on trash cans in the dugout. Too soon Astros fans?

MLB is targeting a return to play in early July. It is highly likely that the return will feature fireworks and other festive celebrations as the “Boys of Summer” play the National Pastime once more. Any return to play scenario needs to allow players to choose whether they want to return, or if they are willing to forfeit their salary in order to focus on their health for future seasons.

MLB is targeting a return to play in early July. It is highly likely that the return will feature fireworks and other festive celebrations as the “Boys of Summer” play ball once more.
photo R. Anderson

Assuming that MLB does the right thing and allows players to choose to sit out the season, that creates the question of why not just wait until next year to play at all.

Can an 82-game season with some of the top players on each team choosing to not play really be considered legitimate?

Of course, the answer, as it usually does, centers on money. Even without fans in the stands team owners and broadcast networks can make money on games.

Another footnote in the year of COVID-19 history book should not only include the day live major sports returned with NASCAR, but should also include the day that the MLB potentially chose finances over safety. Of course, that financial risk versus personal risk calculus is being performed across the globe as multiple industries look to reopen in the middle of a pandemic.

Millionaire baseball players aren’t the only ones who will need to perform a risk trade when it comes to returning to work. Employers at all levels need to be sensitive to the concerns raised by workers, and where possible accommodations need to be made to protect both their health and their jobs.

I miss going to see Swatson and the rest of the Sugar Land Skeeters. I look forward to a time when I am once again watching them from inside the ballpark.
photo R. Anderson

I am eternally grateful to the men and women working at the grocery store who bring my order out to my car and allow me the opportunity to stay safely socially distanced. Too often, some elements of society look down on workers in retail, transportation, healthcare and hospitality.

Society owes a huge debt to all of the people on the front lines. When the pandemic is over, the people who kept us safe, fed, and tended to health-wise, should be the first ones allowed inside the sporting venues as a show of thanks from a grateful nation.

Until then, sports leagues need to temper their enthusiasm for returning to play. We all miss sports. However, it would just take the death of one player to show that the risk was not worth it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, my work from home fury coworkers are meowing for some kibble.

Copyright 2020 R. Anderson