‘The beginning of a great dynasty’
By Joe Southern
Nearly 250 diehard Skeeters fans crowded into the Insperity Club at Constellation Field Oct. 4 to celebrate Sugar Land’s first Atlantic League of Professional Baseball championship.
The celebration came just four days after the Skeeters swept the Long Island Ducks in the championship series to become the first team in league history to go 6-0 in the playoffs.
“Rarely as a broadcaster am I speechless but these guys really took my breath away this year,” said Ira Liebman, the Voice of the Skeeters and the only person to never miss a Skeeters game in the team’s five-year history. “What they accomplished here was really amazing.”
Liebman served as the master of ceremonies, introducing speakers and entertaining the enthusiastic crowd. At the event, fans signed a congratulatory poster, posed for photos with the championship trophy and bought championship T-shirts while enjoying drinks and hors d’oeuvres and reveling in the moment.
A common theme throughout the night was comebacks.
“I played 20 years in the big leagues, won a World Series, done the all-star stuff, all that kind of thing, coached in the minor leagues, coached in the major leagues, been to the World Series as a coach – this group of guys right over here, and they’re not all here, this is the best comeback baseball team I’ve ever been associated with in my professional career,” Manager Gary Gaetti said. “Now part of that that then could be because we were behind every night in the first inning.”
One of the greatest comebacks in baseball occurred during the second game of the Freedom Division series when the Skeeters went down 7-0 in the third inning against the York Revolution and came back with eight runs in the fifth.
“I was not worried when it was seven to nothing in that game,” Gaetti said. “I was not worried. I could just tell and sense what these guys are all about and what they have to do and what they actually go out and do.”
Liebman recalled the moment in his season recap.
“Gary really rallied the troops in the second half,” he said. “We were only a few games away from possibly being eliminated. But that didn’t stop them… In Game Two we were down 7-0 after the third inning. It didn’t look good. They scored eight runs in the fifth.
We went down 9-8. They still weren’t going to let us fold. Rene Tosoni hit a two-run homer to right field and we’re up 10-9.
“The Ducks on the other side were down two games to none. No team in Atlantic League history has come back two games to none. They wound up winning the next three and the championship was set, us against the Ducks,” Liebman said.
Sugar Land Mayor Joe Zimmerman also commented on the team’s never quit attitude.
“Coming to the games this year and watching, you guys never gave up,” he said. “The mark of a great team and of great leadership is that you never, ever give up and you didn’t. You swept the division you swept the championship and my hat’s off to you. What an outstanding effort!”
Another theme each speaker talked about was gratitude.
“Thank you to my host families who put these guys up so they are able to play,” Gaetti said. “Thanks to Brad Detmore and his grounds crew.”
Then he started tear up.
“I’ve got to say thank you to, uh … it’s going to be hard … my wife. The unconditional love she’s shown me, the support she’s shown me for always being gone. And really taking the girls and the wives and being the den mother of the stands and all that she’s done with the host family program. Just putting up with all the crap, it’s hard. But I just wanted to say thank you, Joni, for being the virtuous woman that you are and allowing me the chance to do what I love to do. Thank you very much,” he said.
He also thanked his players.
“Sugar Land is the greatest place in this league and one of the greatest places in America to play minor league baseball but you know I said it’s hard to play here. I appreciate you guys doing what you do and staying together like you did,” he said.
Of course, he didn’t leave out the fans.
“I’ve got to say to our fans and to our loyal season ticket holders, you guys are fun, you guys are awesome, you are involved, and have made it really, really special,” Gaetti added.
He said he knew the fans were committed when large crowds came out on weeknights in hot, humid Sugar Land to root for the Skeeters.
“When we went to Long Island and I saw about 500 people in the stands on a Friday night, I said this thing is over. It’s absolutely over,” he said.
Team owner Bob Zlotnik got the faithful fired up with a slight jab at the other professional baseball team in Houston.
“Can anyone tell me how long it’s been since a professional baseball team won a title in the greater Houston area?” he said. “Sixty years! The Houston Buffs used to play. They were a franchise team of the St. Louis Cardinals and they played in the Texas League and I think in 1957 was the last time a team from the greater Houston area won a title. They won the Texas League and then the Dixie League playoffs.”
He then went on to thank the coaches, players, staff and the various city officials who helped bring a team and stadium to Sugar Land. He then thanked the fans.
“The fans are really key, and I guarantee if you ask the players, when there’s noise in the stadium and they’re supporting you, it makes what you’re going through a lot easier,” he said. “The stands weren’t full during the playoffs but there was a lot of excitement.”
Former Mayor Jimmy Thompson also expressed his gratitude.
“Gary, thank you very much for what you have done over the five years,” he said.
“He told me early on, ‘Jimmy, this is a special group.’ And he said they would never, never give up and I think the results speak for themselves,” Thompson added.
Gaetti told Zlotnik the same thing.
“When the season started I was talking with Gary and he said, ‘we’ve got a championship team this year, I guarantee you,’” Zlotnik said.
His wife Marcie Zlotnik compared the team and the fans to family and said this is just a starting point for the Skeeters.
“I have no doubt, Gary, are you listening? I’m not going to mention the ponytail; I’ll let somebody else do that, but what started last Friday night is by far the beginning of a great dynasty,” she said.
Jason Burns of Constellation Energy said when the Skeeters win, everybody wins.
“It is certainly awesome to see the wins on the field. It’s also really awesome to see the wins that are happening in the community that this team and the organization have brought into the community,” he said.
Deacon Jones, a former major leaguer who helped found the team, talked about the steady hand it took to guide Sugar Land to a championship.
“With Jimmy Thompson, and the council and the people that they had, it showed a steady hand, leadership at the top … I’m so proud that I made my choice to stay here,” he said. “This is my hometown and we have become champions. This is special to me. This championship is really special, Gary, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart. … We went through some trying times, and you do that when you grow. Well we got it together now.”
Team President Jay Miller concluded with a litany of thanks for several people. He then singled out pitcher Roy Merritt. He said Merritt had been called up to the Dodgers’ AAA team, pitched well and got into the playoffs. Instead of staying, he came back.
“Roy asked for his release so he could finish things in Sugar Land,” he said.
He also thanked the fans.
“Finally the fans, you guys are unbelievable and you guys are what keep us going. You’re what it’s all about,” he said. “I love you guys. I’m relishing the moment and let’s do it again next year.”