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

Social Experiment on Value of Social Distancing to Face Biggest Test as Sports World Watches

Throughout the worldwide timeout brought about by the COVID-19 virus, there have been two main schools of thought related to the value of people social distancing to avoid spreading the virus.

One school of thought, let’s call them science, maintains that the best way to mitigate the spread of a virus, that has no cure, and no proven treatment, is to stay six feet apart, wear masks when around other people, wash hands constantly, and avoid touching the mouth and nose area.

The other school of thought, let’s call them Sweden, believes that the virus that has killed over 109,000 Americans, and over 330,000 people worldwide, will go away on its own, and that people should just roll the dice and go about their lives as if a huge global pandemic was not hanging over their heads in an effort to establish herd immunity equipped with the knowledge that one has to break a few eggs to make an omelette.

There are of course nuggets of truth to each side’s position, since no one really knows for sure how this brand-new virus will finally ramp down. Team science is right in saying that smaller gatherings of people mean less opportunities to spread the virus. At the same time, team Sweden is also right in saying that one cannot stay isolated forever.

While the two camps differ on the value of social distancing as a whole, one thing that both sides should be able to agree on, is that minority populations, elderly populations, and populations with underlying health conditions should take extra precautions related to how they respond to the threat of COVID-19.

To a certain degree, each and every one of us is free to decide which camp we want to belong to, sort of like the people of Los Angeles have the choice between rooting for the Angels, or the Dodgers. One team wins a lot, has a storied history, and has their own unique hot dog. The other team is the Angels.

To a certain degree, each and every one of us is free to decide which camp we want to belong to when it comes to social distancing, or not social distancing during the time of COVID-19, just like the people of Los Angeles have the choice between rooting for the Angels, or the Dodgers. One team wins a lot, has a storied history, and has their own unique hot dog. The other team is the Angels.
Photo R. Anderson

Starting today, the two COVID-19 camps are likely to see which approach to social distancing was the right call. The data points come courtesy of 14 days of coast to coast protests acting as a major case study in what happens when thousands of people occupy the same space for extended periods of time in the midst of a pandemic.

Although many people have been seen wearing masks during television coverage of the protests, there are also many people who are not wearing masks. Additionally, with additional law enforcement and media members on the street in close proximity many cities are facing the equivalent of filling several Ballparks multiple times each day.

The widely agreed upon incubation period for COVID-19 is around two weeks. So, with today marking the 14th day since the protests began, any wide-spread outbreaks of the virus should start to materialize any day now, and will last for up to two weeks after the last protest. There are very few historical data points for what happens when one protests during a global pandemic, so a lot of new ground is being plowed on both the social justice front as well as on a medical front.

This is where the world of sports will be sure to take notice as they try to determine when, and how to reintroduce players onto the field, and fans into the stands. If team science is right, the numbers of infections will spike as a result of the proximity of protesters, and a lack of adherence to social distancing guidelines. This would show to the sports leagues around the world that the risk of bringing fans into the stands is still very high.

If team Sweden is right, cases will not spike and calls to open everything up the way they were before the middle of March 2020 will grow louder. Of course, the wrinkle to solely relying on visible symptoms of COVID-19 in determining a path forward is that many of the cases of COVID-19 do not lend themselves to outward signs of symptoms. So, even if there is a widespread outbreak, it would likely not be revealed unless people partaking in the protests were tested for the virus.

With several professional and collegiate sports teams reporting COVID-19 cases after players have started returning to practice, it becomes clear that there is risk even without fans in the stands.

Scott Dixon, shown following the 2013 Grand Prix of Houston, won the first race of the delayed 2020 IndyCar season at Texas Motor Speedway. Although fans were not at the race in Texas, series officials have said that fans will be in attendance when the crown jewel Indy 500 is run even if that means delaying the race beyond the current August time frame.
Photo R. Anderson

The desire of professional sports leagues to pack as many fans into the stands as quickly as possible is both a financial need, as well as a psychological need.

Although the Indy Car Series returned to action for the first time in 2020 this past weekend with a fan free race at Texas Motor Speedway, series officials went on record as saying that the Indianapolis 500, which has been moved from May to August, would be delayed again in the event that fans cannot attend an August race.

The message being sent is loud and clear, the Indy 500 will not happen without butts in the seats, even if that means there is no Indy 500 this year.

While the Indy 500 is a significant race, allowing some races to be held without fans in order to generate revenue, but saying that the INDY 500 is too important of a race to run without fans seems like an insult to the other races on the schedule.

That would be like Major League Baseball saying that the Yankees are too important to the history of the game to play in an empty Ballpark, so fans can pile into Yankee Stadium, but the other 29 Ballparks need to remain empty.

The Indy 500 is the largest single-day sporting event in the world, and with room for over 400,000 spectators, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is often recognized as the largest sports venue in the world. It is hard to imagine any scenario where 400,000 people are going to be allowed to congregate anywhere, anytime soon during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even at 25 percent capacity, an Indy 500 with 100,000 people seems like a bit of a stretch and would be something that would certainly make team science cringe. On the other hand, team Sweden would likely say, “och förarna startar dina motorer,” or roughly translated as “drivers start your engines.”

That is why the infection rates coming out of the weeks of protest will be so crucial in planning the next front in the battle against the COVID-19 virus.

Sports and science are both driven by statistics. The near-term future of professional and collegiate sports is very likely to be determined by what the rate of infection looks like over the coming weeks. It is a case study that no one could have envisioned at the start of the pandemic when the world of sports shut down one league at a time. Now that it has happened, the numbers cannot be ignored, just as the issues behind what led to the protests will also need to be addressed in the sports world, as well as the world as a whole.

COVID-19, as well as the protests for social justice that are occurring in the middle of a pandemic will both shape the direction of the world both in the short-term, as well as the long-term. There is no question that history is being written. Time will tell what those history books end up saying when all is said and done.

Now if you’ll excuse me, all of this talk about team Sweden has me wanting to build an armoire using a tiny wrench that can also double as a meatball skewer.

Copyright 2020 R. Anderson