When Tracy McGrady announced that he was trying to pitch in professional baseball games, it had the obvious stain of a cheap gimmick in which a former elite athlete was trying to keep his name in the headlines.
But a funny thing happened along the way for McGrady: He actually showed enough promise to make the roster of a high-level independent league team.
Gary Gaetti, manager of the Sugar Land Skeeters, told Mark Berman of Fox 26 Sports in Houston that McGrady made the team's Opening Day roster:
Tracy is on the team. He's just done what needed to be done since the idea came about. He showed enough progress. He showed enough ability and we're going to see where this goes.
If the name of that team sounds familiar, it's because the Sugar Land Skeeters also gave Roger Clemens a chance to pitch professionally in 2012. That was mostly a gimmick, as the then-50-year-old made two starts, with the second one coming when his son Koby started at catcher.
But McGrady is something different. He's not going to pitch in Major League Baseball, unless the Houston Astros or some other team in the tank right now gets so desperate for a headline or two that it gives him a chance.
T-Mac made his debut April 23, throwing one inning in relief and allowing a run on three hits. Not the best performance in the world, but certainly not bad considering this is a 34-year-old who hasn't played organized baseball since high school.
Tracy McGrady made his pro baseball debut Wednesday with Sugar Land Skeeters, allowing 1 run on 3 hits in 1 IP. » http://t.co/YDozveoE2D— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) April 17, 2014
The bigger picture here—even bigger than a former NBA All-Star hanging up his basketball shoes for baseball cleats—is what McGrady's presence means for the independent minor leagues.
Attendance at these games isn't exactly dire, but it's not such that teams are making money hand over fist. Here are the 2013 figures, courtesy of Ballpark Digest:
|2013 Atlantic League Attendance Figures|
|Rank||Team||Total Attendance||Avg. Per Game|
|1||Sugar Land Skeeters||382,059||5,537|
|2||Long Island Ducks||371,186||5,303|
|6||Southern Maryland Blue Crabs||242,894||3,520|
In fact, money is so tight that Clint Longenecker of Baseball America wrote in August 2012 about how the average player in one independent league makes less than minimum wage when you break down his pay by the hour:
They make $600 a month. Teams mandate players arrive two hours prior to the game, which typically lasts three hours. Coupled with required early day workouts, players often spend up to nine hours at the ballpark. Solely using the five hours required for their 28 games this month, they make $4.29 an hour. The United States federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.
The Atlantic League, which is what the Sugar Land Skeeters play in, pays its players $850 per month, according to Longenecker's report.
The point being that no one playing for these teams makes a livable wage. That's where the importance of someone like McGrady, who made $162 million during his NBA career, comes in handy for these leagues.
With the exception of being able to fulfill his lifelong dream of pitching in professional baseball, McGrady isn't gaining anything from being on the Sugar Land Skeeters. But he may be indirectly helping everyone on his team and the players in the Atlantic League.
Fans are going to come out hoping to see McGrady pitch and get an autograph. More fans in the stands means more revenue for the team, which ostensibly means more money going to the players' pockets.
Who really knows if things will improve for the players. Perhaps the owners just take the extra revenue to line their own pockets, which isn't far-fetched.
Yet better revenues will always help the game. McGrady serves a purpose for the Skeeters and Atlantic League. Hopefully he is around long enough to make a real difference.
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