Skeeters are playing it safe at home

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Absence makes the heart grow fonder, creating a deep craving for human interaction.

When the coronavirus pandemic shut down the Houston Rodeo and the upstart XFL, I felt a sense of disappointment and loss. Most of us did, as not just sports but concerts, theaters, and innumerable other activities came to a sudden halt. Locking down and social distancing, along with the absence of the familiar and fun, have created an unseen but deeply felt sense of disconnection and loneliness.

I didn’t realize how profound those feelings were until Friday when I returned to Constellation Field to cover and enjoy live baseball games again. Even though capacity was limited to 31% and people had to wear masks when not in their seats and keep six feet apart, we were still able to enjoy the company of friends. We were there as the Skeeters, acting on their own, created a new league from scratch and over the weekend played the only live professional baseball to be found anywhere in the country.

I’ve been watching the Skeeters since the inaugural game in 2012 and have been covering the team as a journalist since 2016. The ballpark is my second home and the staff, players, and fans are extended family. Returning to the game filled my heart with joy. Actually, it wasn’t so much the game as it was the people and the atmosphere. As different as it was, it was also familiar.

Being out there with my family and my friends gave me a strong sense of belonging. It was the connection I’ve been craving. It felt like returning to school after summer break and seeing all your buddies for the first time in ages.

As for the game itself, the players are still a little rusty – as you would expect after months away from the game – but the level of talent and the quality of play are just a notch under Major League level. I have little doubt that some of these players will be on MLB rosters by the end of the two-month season or at least by next spring. With Major League Baseball canceling the Minor League season and limiting team rosters, this four-team league the Skeeters started is about the only chance these players will have to hone their skills and keep playing the game they love.

I don’t think most people fully appreciate what the Skeeters have accomplished here in the span of a month. The Constellation Energy League went from concept to first pitch in four weeks. Team owners Bob and Marcie Zlotnik and their son Kevin have made a very risky investment in the new league. They are footing the bill for all baseball operations, housing all four teams, and operating a stadium where they are highly unlikely to break even on the endeavor. On top of that, another shutdown order by the governor or an outbreak of COVID-19 amongst the players or staff could put a sudden end to everything.

Despite all that, the Zlotniks and the Skeeters organization have given the community something desperately needed – hope. We have a partial restoration of normalcy. We have community again. We have fun and a reason to get out and be together once more. We have hope that if this works it will clear the path for other sports to return – with fans in attendance.

On Sunday I went to Minute Maid Park to photograph the Astros at their summer camp in preparation for a 60-game season. Being one of about a half-dozen photographers interspersed across the lower bowl of the ballpark felt odd and isolated. The safety and security precautions just to get in were lengthy and confusing. Still, it was nice to be back there. It was great seeing the players once more, albeit from a distance.

While the MLB is preparing to play without fans in the stadium, it still remains to be seen what the National Football League will do. I’ve heard from Houston Texans season ticket holders who say they’re getting mixed messages from the team about attendance.

The one thing the big leagues can learn from the Skeeters is how to make live sporting events work during a pandemic. They’re doing it and quite successfully so far. It is a risk, but so far it is paying off big time in terms of fan loyalty and dedication. That’s something you can’t put a price on. The Zlotniks and the Skeeters are leaders in the community and in the sporting world. For that I will always be grateful and they deserve the support of every fan who feels comfortable and safe enough to venture out during the pandemic.

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