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In the history of professional baseball in this city, nobody has worn more hats, experienced more highs and lows, than Tal Smith. He was an original employee of the Colt .45’s directing their farm system, was the general manager of the Astros in the late ‘70s, and then returned to the club as president of operations under Drayton McLane in 1994, where he served in that capacity until 2011.
Today, Smith serves as a special adviser to the management team of the independent Sugar Land Skeeters.
A brief primer on what exactly being “independent” in baseball means:
With affiliated minor league baseball teams, the one aspect of the operation that nobody with the team is allowed to mess with is, ironically, the team itself. All of the on field personnel (players, coaches, manager) are employed by the major league parent, so as a result, everything from the players on the roster to the in game deployment of those players trickles down from on high.
As a result, the on field product can sometimes fall victim to a “greater good,” with the final score of the game taking a back seat to players or pitchers being used in a rehab capacity or used to get “reps” so they can get ready for the majors. As a member of the independent Atlantic League, the Skeeters have no MLB affiliation and thus have full control over the composition of their own roster.
As you can imagine, Smith sees this as a huge advantage for the Skeeters.
“Whereas the primary emphasis in the affiliated minor leagues is on player development, here the primary emphasis is on winning the game. For older, more experienced players, and for aspiring managers, this is a superior option,” states Smith.
He points out that virtually every Atlantic League player has at least been to the AA level in the minor leagues, and about half of the players have had some taste of Major League Baseball. As a result, the Skeeters and the independent leagues have become an important avenue for MLB teams when they need a ready made, veteran hand.
That’s the big difference between the Skeeters and other minor league teams in the state. The Skeeters view themselves as an affiliate for all 30 major league teams.
And oh by the way, if the chance to sign Roger Clemens for a month or so presents itself, the have the flexibility to do that, too, as they did late last season.
Now, the similarities between the Skeeters and, say, the Express or the Hooks are readily apparent to anyone who’s spent an evening at Constellation Field, Sugar Land’s $36 million playground, complete with outfield bar, massive playground, and, yes, swimming pool.
The Skeeters’ focus on entertainment, creativity, and marketing have resulted in unprecedented attendance success, as in 2012 when they had the highest total attendance ever by a modern-day independent league team, drawing 465,511 in their first season in the Atlantic League. (In case you ever find yourself in an Atlantic League attendance trivia contest, the old record was 443,142 by Long Island in 2001. You’re welcome.)
For a baseball lifer like Smith whose original job with the Colt .45’s was running the minor league farm system, this new wave of majestic ballparks, these miniature versions of the new major league constructs of the 1990s and early 2000s, are what’s great about the game.
“When I was getting started in the late ‘50s and in the ‘60s, the facilities were flat out substandard, for players and patrons. That’s not the case any more,” Smith stated proudly, perhaps briefly recalling his instrumental role in getting voters to approve the construction of Minute Maid Park.
Of course, with the Skeeters continuing to set the pace for Atlantic League attendance and with the assumption that someday the Astros will once again be drawing 30,000 to 40,000 a night (Hey, it’s what I tell myself. What can I say?), the natural question is “Are there enough fans to sustain more baseball growth in the Houston area?”
Smith thinks unequivocally, yes.
“Look at all of the baseball in a high density area like the Northeast. You have New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington D.C., all the minor league teams for those clubs, and they continue to grow the game,” said Smith.
“Houston is a great baseball town. There’s room for a lot more baseball here.”
I ’m three tangents deep in my conversation with Andrew Seymour, and I feel like I’m talking to one of my old high school buddies. He’s that engaging.
Somehow, we circle back to the reason I called him in the first place, to talk about the “Big Three” ticket promotion.