Ducks, league enjoying Skeeter invasion

Kraig Binick tries to break up a double Kraig Binick tries to break up a double play as Skeeters shortstop Iggy Suarez makes the throw. (June 28, 2012) Photo Credit: George A. Faella

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If the University of Houston can join the Big East Conference, then it makes perfect sense that a Lone Star state baseball team from the same area is playing Atlantic League games against the Ducks this week.

Meet the Sugar Land Skeeters.

Located about 25 miles southwest of Houston, the league's newest franchise plays its home games at the $37-million, 7,500-seat Constellation Field.

Although Sugar Land is approximately 1,700 miles, or a 28-hour drive, from Bethpage Ballpark in Central Islip, visiting-team logistics require air travel and longer-than-normal homestands. When the Ducks went to Texas in mid-May, they played six consecutive games against the Skeeters, splitting the series.

The Skeeters replaced the league-owned Road Warriors, a stopgap franchise that replaced the Newark Bears following the 2010 season and played all of its games during the 2011 campaign on the road.

The Skeeters have proved to be an instant success in the community, averaging a league-high 6,571 fans through 30 games. Corporate sponsorships and skybox rentals were lined up long before the park opened.

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"Wherever you go, you see the schedules in the convenience stores and signs in people's yards," said Skeeters manager Gary Gaetti, who hit 360 home runs during a 20-year MLB career. "Everybody knows about the Skeeters, and it's not just Sugar Land. It's Katy, Houston and all of the surrounding communities. It's a real big deal right now."

Ducks owner and Atlantic League Founder/CEO Frank Boulton said he wants to see the eight-team league expand to 12 or 16 teams, including a four-team Texas division. Skeeters president Matt O'Brien says multiple town officials within a four-hour radius of Sugar Land have toured Constellation Field and he believes the league's Texas expansion will not end with Sugar Land.

The challenge for the Skeeters will be to ensure financial viability beyond the opening year. The Atlantic League is dotted with former franchises such as Newark, the Nashua (N.H.) Pride and Atlantic City Surf, all of which struggled with attendance before moving to the shorter-season Can-Am League (the Pride and Surf are defunct).

Boulton believes that Texas represents "smart expansion," in which corporate sponsorships and signage will help keep ticket prices affordable ($12 for a field box seat at Constellation Field). But it is up to the individual franchises to keep people buying tickets long after the novelty has worn off.

Until more Texas teams are added, the Skeeters will continue to face unique challenges. Each road trip requires a commercial flight, often with a layover. Thursday, the players woke up at 4 a.m., trudged through long lines at the airport and stopped over in Orlando before arriving for a four-game series on Long Island.

Gaetti, though, would not blame the team's record (26-35 going into last night's game) on travel fatigue. The Skeeters have had five players from their spring training roster signed by affiliated organizations. But wins and losses are often secondary in minor-league baseball, where affordable family entertainment is the name of the game.

And by that measure, the Skeeters, and the Atlantic League's grand Texas experiment, are off to a promising start.

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