Not So Minor League

Cheap beer, affordable tickets, swanky surroundings — what’s not to like about minor and independent league baseball parks?

As a result, the on-field product can sometimes fall victim to a "greater good," with the final score of the game taking a backseat 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.

BALLPARK NAME: WHATABURGER FIELD; MAJOR LEAGUE AFFILIATE: HOUSTON ASTROS AA; OPENED IN 2005
Courtesy of Houston Astros
BALLPARK NAME: WHATABURGER FIELD; MAJOR LEAGUE AFFILIATE: HOUSTON ASTROS AA; OPENED IN 2005
BALLPARK NAME: DR PEPPER BALLPARK; MAJOR LEAGUE AFFILIATE: TEXAS RANGERS AA; OPENED IN 2003
Courtesy of Texas Rangers
BALLPARK NAME: DR PEPPER BALLPARK; MAJOR LEAGUE AFFILIATE: TEXAS RANGERS AA; OPENED IN 2003

"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," Smith says.

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 anymore," 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 whether there are 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.

I tell him that if you Google "Fort Myers Miracle," the first story that comes up is a Yahoo! blog post about his "Big Three" promotion, and proclaim that it must make him happy to see that.

Happy? He's ecstatic.

"We are minor league baseball, so we don't have a big budget for advertising. We have to be creative, and if we are creative enough we can piggyback publicity like this. There's nothing better than coming up with that idea that hooks people in. That makes them smile, makes them chuckle."

As it turns out, Twins bonus baby Byron Buxton, the second overall pick of the 2012 MLB Draft, is making his Fort Myers home debut Saturday, and I want to ask Seymour about that.

But before I can get the words out, Seymour jumps in and tells me, "You know this Saturday we are having Craig Sager Bobblehead Night? How great is that? We have two versions of the bobblehead with two different ridiculously colored sport coats, and Sager is actually going to fly in and sign autographs! How good is that?"

"That's incredible!" I said, my Byron Buxton question completely forgotten, and my brain racing to find a way to ask for a Craig Sager bobblehead doll of my own without sounding desperate.

"Yeah," Seymour smiled. "I tell my people, this is our time. This is our time in sports."

Craig Sager Bobblehead Night at Byron Buxton's home debut on a balmy Saturday night in Fort Myers, Florida.

This is your time, Andrew.

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