SUGAR LAND, Texas -- Sugar Land Skeeters fans are no stranger to sellout crowds, long bathroom lines, or parking in far-flung dirt lots. Fifty out of the 52 home games played at the $37 million Constellation Field, just a 25-minute drive from downtown Houston, have been sellouts.
What’s new to them, however, is tickets exceeding $200 (according to StubHub, 33 of them eclipsed that mark) or the national media coverage. But that comes with the territory when Roger Clemens, a 50-year-old seven-time Cy Young Award winner, is making his Skeeters debut, five years after his last appearance on the mound with the New York Yankees.
The pregame fanfare wasn't your average entertainment before one of The Rocket's starts.
In front of the sellout crowd of 7,724, more than 100 Fort Bend Gridiron Youth Football League cheerleaders lined up for a pre-game dance routine to One Direction’s "What Makes You Beautiful."
Then all eyes turned to center field, where Clemens exited the tunnel and started throwing with Skeeters catcher Octavio Martinez.
Clemens didn't disappoint, allowing one hit, striking out two, and throwing 37 pitches (24 strikes, 13 balls) in 3.1 scoreless innings against the Bridgeport (Conn.) Bluefish.
While Clemens' past makes his return to baseball a controversial topic, the fans here in Sugar Land were overwhelmingly supportive of the former Astro and University of Texas star. Hecklers were nowhere to be found inside Constellation Field.
The mayor of Sugar Land, James “Jimmy” Thompson, touted what a huge day this was for the city.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think Roger Clemens would be playing here. If you look at our facilities and the people here, it doesn’t surprise me. I think people know where Sugar Land is right now and that’s exciting. Now people don’t need to ask me where Sugar Land is anymore," Thompson said. "I’m not a predictor of what will happen after tonight – I talked to Roger last night and he’s pumped and full of adrenaline. I think he’ll do this and come back again. He’s a hometown guy and now he’s a Sugar Land guy."
In honor of the national attention and prime-time television spot, the Skeeters made a few changes to their outfield, milking every piece of social media they possibly could by adding @SL_Skeeters and #SKEETERGAME directly in center field. In-stadium announcer Scott Denton even joined in as he announced, “Immediately following the game, kids can run the exact same bases seen tonight on national TV.”
Though Clemens may be the most iconic player to play minor league baseball since Michael Jordan suited up in a Birmingham Barons uniform back in 1994, he isn’t the only big-leaguer on the Skeeters roster. Their starting rotation features three other former big-leaguers: Scott Kazmir, Jason Lane and Tim Redding, with another six former big leaguers dotting the rest of their roster.
But Saturday night was all about Clemens, back on the mound after being acquitted in June of charges that he lied to Congress about using steroids.
“Think about the year Roger has had. I think he just wanted to relax, have fun and play baseball again, said Skeeters fan Paul Swilley. "I think it’s a great deal for him and definitely a great deal for us. I think he’s still got it. We’re going to find out here."
Wearing one of the brand-new No. 21 Skeeters shirts and a Red Sox hat, Boston native Dominic Soucie had kind words for Clemens’ return.
“We love Roger back home -– he left because of Dan Duquette’s reasons, not because he wanted to -- and he ended up going to the Yankees. As fans, we understand that. I think it’s great he’s coming back. I hope he gets into Cooperstown but I wonder what hat he’ll be wearing when he does.”
Soucie’s friend, David Krichmar, wasn't as optimistic for Clemens' baseball future.
“I think it’s great for Sugar Land, great for Clemens and his image, I just don’t think he can make it back to the big leagues. His age and being out of shape are going to hold him back, but he has nothing to lose and everything to gain with this return. He looked good tonight. It was definitely worth it and I think he’ll be back. I’ll come back to watch him – unless ticket prices go back to $200 like they did for this game.”
Outside the maxed-out press box (the first in Skeeters history), it was a typical minor league game, with or without The Rocket on the mound. With the newfound hullabaloo, the Skeeters opted to postpone the original pregame show with human fireball Ted Batchelor (now slated for Sept. 8) and hired a public relations firm to handle the influx of media requests.
The 20-horse carousel in left center field stayed lit and spinning all night, and the ZOOperstars! continued on-field entertainment with appearances by Clammy Sosa, Harry Canary, Ken Giraffey Jr., Yao Flamingo and No. 8, Snail Earnhardt Jr.
But Chris Savisky of Bridgeport, who travels to most Bluefish away games, including the nearly 1,500 miles to this Texas outpost in the league, was soaking up the scene that Clemens’ debut afforded, noting its benefits for the Atlantic League.
“It’s a great thing for Sugar Land to get on the map and I’m enjoying the circus around here. I think there’s 10,000 people in the stands -- Texas is big, you know? [Clemens] is a pitcher and he’s doing what he does. He’s not a painter; he’s not painting a house. What he does is throw baseballs for a living – as long as he can keep throwing I think he should.
"It’s fun to watch.”
Jayme Lamm is a Houston-based freelance writer and operates theblondeside.com.