Texas is one of the hottest of hotspots for coronavirus right now, and Governor Greg Abbott announced on Friday that the Lone Star State’s aggressive reopening will be rolled back some, with bars closing and river-rafting banned.
Baseball, however, is set to move forward, and not just Major League Baseball, where the season is slated to begin in late July despite coronavirus impacting every city where they’ll play.
July 3 is opening day for the Sugar Land Skeeters, a team that usually plays in the independent Atlantic League, but that this year will play nothing but home games, hosting a four-team league at their park outside of Houston set to play 56 games.
The headliner of the operation is Roger Clemens, who will join his son Koby in managing one of the teams. Regular Skeeters manager Pete Incaviglia and 17-year major league veteran Greg Swindell take charge of two of the other teams, with the final skipper set to be announced this weekend.
And, yes, there will be fans in the stands.
Deadspin spoke to Skeeters owner Bob Zlotnick about the plan. This interview has been lightly edited for length and flow.
DEADSPIN: How’s things in Texas right now?
BOB ZLOTNICK: Ah, a little hectic.
DS: I can imagine. So, I guess, with what the governor’s doing, is that impacting your plans at all?
BZ: No, we were exempted from that. They exempted professional sports franchises. We’re still planning to start our season July 3.
DS: What’s the capacity situation going to be like?
BZ: We’re going to start out at 25 percent. We actually have the right to go up to 50 percent, but at least for the first week or so, we’re going to be a little conservative. We’ve got all these safety precautions in place. We’ve never actually implemented them before, so we just want to have a handle on what we’re doing to keep the fans safe. So, we’re going to start out at a smaller capacity.
DS: And 25 percent of capacity, what is that number?
BZ: Around 1,750.
DS: Given what’s happening, is it fair to wonder if it’s safe at all to be doing this?
BZ: We had some infectious disease doctors work with us on the plan, and we’re in constant contact with them. They believe that if we require masks and have sufficient social distancing, it’ll be safe.
DS: How are you going to be able to enforce mask-wearing at the park? Is that up to ushers?
BZ: Yes. We have security people that we hire that will help us enforce it.
DS: What about players and staff? I don’t imagine that you have access to the same level of testing as Major League Baseball does, but how are you able to keep the players safe?
BZ: The first thing we’re doing is, every player has to show that they’ve tested negative within the last five days before they report on Monday. Then we’ll test all the players and coaches, and we’ve already tested our staff. They’ll be tested before they’re able to take the field, and then we’re going to test every week. We’re looking at doing potentially a midweek test, also. Then, we’ll also be doing temperature checks on a daily basis. Players will not be able to use the showers. They’ll just use the locker room to dress and undress, and our locker rooms are sufficiently large where we can keep social distancing while that’s going on.
DS: With Texas being in the middle of a real outbreak, I think it’s not just a question of concern when the players are at the park, but when they leave the park, how they’re going to be able to stay safe. With a virus that has an incubation period of up to two weeks, how are you going to be able to know that there’s not spread before you can catch it in a positive test?
BZ: I’m not an expert in this. We’re relying on the infectious disease doctors. If somebody is exposed, that we know about, we’re going to quarantine anybody that they’ve had close contact with. We’re hoping the players take this seriously, and we’ve got guidelines in place that are in the contracts with the players. We have a right to terminate the contract if we find out they’re not abiding by the safety precautions that our infectious disease doctors ask them to. You’re right, if somebody wants to sneak out at midnight — the good thing is the bars will be closed, so that’ll help our situation out quite a bit. But, you know, most of the players that are signed with us are hoping a major league team comes calling. They’re more mature players. We don’t have any 18-or-19-year-old players. Most of our guys, last I counted, about 60 percent are former major leaguers, and the large majority of the remainder are Triple-A players. So, the average age of these guys is, I would estimate, 27, 28 years old. They’re a little more mature than some of the young college guys.
DS: And they are incentivized, yeah, to be as safe as they can. I just wonder, and I’ve got to be honest with you, I’m skeptical about the ability of any league to conduct things safely. I don’t doubt your efforts. I don’t think the guidelines that you’re talking about are out of line. I’m glad you’re consulting with infectious disease doctors on this. I’m just skeptical of anybody’s ability to contain this at a time when it’s just all over. I feel like I saw what we went through in New York back in March, and it worries me. How do you deal with the fact that these guys are going to need to go out to the supermarket, or a restaurant, just to feed themselves? And to be where they stay, where they live?
BZ: They would have to do that whether they were playing with us or on their own. Virtually all of our players are working out every day. A lot of them are working in groups of five to 10 players currently, and they would do that whether they were playing with us or not playing with us. We’re giving them an opportunity to get in maybe a bit better shape. Do you go to the grocery store?
DS: Yeah, I do. I mask up. I go a lot less than I did before.
BZ: Now, in Texas, you have to mask up to go out. The general lifestyle will not change. They’re still gonna have to eat. We’re not traveling. We’ve put them up in the nicest hotel in Sugar Land. So, if everybody’s testing negative that comes in, they’ve been careful already, and we’re asking them to be careful. But you have to eat. So they’ll do the same thing they’ve been doing, and they’ll be tested now more often than when they were on their own.
DS: Has it been a struggle to get guys to come in to play, or has it been the opposite, with players really coming down and wanting an opportunity, especially knowing there probably isn’t going to be minor league baseball this year?
BZ: Our manager, Pete Incaviglia, is handling that, but we’ve had a great response. One of the reasons we started on this venture was because Major League Baseball had released so many minor leaguers, somewhere between 900 and 1,000. So, they’re looking for a place to play. We’re holding a couple of spots, because there are some players who, when the major leagues decide on their taxi squads, they’re on the fence, and when that decision’s made, we’ve had several players contact us who are on the bubble but haven’t been released yet. So, we’re holding a few spots open, but we’re going to have 22 players a team, for 88 players, and we’ve had a lot more than that contact us.
DS: To that end, it’s been a big issue for minor league baseball about what the players get paid, and it being less than a living wage. How are you handling the payroll situation for these guys?
BZ: We’re paying them more than minimum wage. As far as I know, of all the players that have contacted us, only one or two have actually said they wouldn’t play because it wasn’t enough. So, they feel they’re being treated fairly. We’re providing hotel rooms as part of the package, and a small per diem. So, from what I’ve heard, they’re happy we’re doing this. It’s giving them a chance to keep their skills sharp. The sport is so much on timing and repetition. For a lot of these guys, if they didn’t play for 12 months, their baseball career would be severely hampered.
DS: Further to that, and related, they’ve got this plan to eliminate 40 minor league teams, and that’s a big part of why they wind up shortening this year’s draft and releasing all the players they’ve released, because they don’t plan to have space for them in the future. What do you think that means for the future of the Skeeters in general and independent baseball as a whole?
BZ: I think it’s a boon for independent baseball and the Skeeters. In Sugar Land, these boys have pretty good talent. Our field is really nice. Sugar Land’s not a bad place to hang out. So, we’ve never really had a problem getting players. But I think the quality of players will go up. Last year, we had 17 of our players signed away by affiliated teams. So, we’ve always had high-quality players in Sugar Land, but independent baseball as a whole will probably see the quality of play go up.
DS: Thank you very much for taking the time for this conversation. I’m very nervous on your behalf. I hope it all goes off without a hitch.
BZ: We’re keeping our fingers crossed and working with the doctors. Our team doctor is extremely knowledgeable, and he’s working with the infectious disease doctors. I talked to him yesterday afternoon for about an hour about some other items that have come up, and we’re trying to keep the players as safe as we possibly can, and the fans also.