Independent league baseball is often thought of as a purgatory amongst baseball fans. People think of publicity stunts – a nearly 50-year-old Rickey Henderson suiting up for the now defunct San Diego Surf Dawgs or the many misadventures of Jose Canseco. The cheap beer, theme nights and promotions designed to provide an entertainment experience, rather than a baseball game in the traditional sense.
However, for many players, it presents an opportunity; one final shot to play baseball professionally, and perhaps serendipitously, make it back to the Big Leagues. Jason Lane turned a stint with the Sugar Land Skeeters into one of the best stories of 2014, when he made it back to the big leagues as a pitcher.
For many former Padres prospects and players, the Skeeters have provided a refuge from falling out of baseball, a chance to continue their journey.
The Sugar Land Skeeters play in the Atlantic League, widely considered to be the finest of all the independent leagues. Sugar Land is a suburb of Houston, and the small town has managed to grab headlines on several occasions. Roger Clemens suited up for the Skeeters back in 2012. Current Astros starter Scott Kazmir found his way back to the All-Star Game after spending some time in Sugar Land. Former NBA All-Star Tracy McGrady attempted to reinvent himself as a pitcher with the club. The team has had several former big leaguers grace the roster each year.
In just their four seasons of existence, the Skeeters have had 20 players who have spent time with the Padres organization, either in the minors or in San Diego. Current El Paso Chihuahuas Chris Smith and the aforementioned Jason Lane had a stint with the Skeeters. Former Padres first-rounders Cesar Carrillo and Allen Dykstra have suited up for Sugar Land. One-time big league Friars like Sean Gallagher, Tim Redding, Colt Morton, Clay Hensley and Jared Wells have also suited up for the Skeeters. The connections between Sugar Land are numerous and start at the top of the Skeeters’ organization.
Current Skeeters general manager Chris Jones held the same position with the Lake Elsinore Storm from 2007-2013, and he has been instrumental in acquiring former Padres property.
“Some of the guys who have come through Lake Elsinore have contacted me. I got them in contact with Gary Gaetti, our manager. I’ve also seen a few guys get released over the last few years, so I have reached out to them, “said Jones.
One of the players looking to battle his way back to the big leagues is former Padres pitcher Josh Geer. Geer, now 32, spent 10 seasons in the Padres’ organization after being drafted in the 3rd round of the 2005 draft, out of Rice University. Geer pitched in San Diego during the 2008 and 2009 seasons, and produced a 3-8 record, with a 5.22 in 24 games. Geer beat cancer a few years ago, and is now using a stint with Sugar Land to get himself back into affiliated ball.
“After finishing the 2014 season, I looked around for other opportunities. A few other teams in the Atlantic League made offers, but I chose Sugar Land because it is close to home, and I had heard good things about the organization,” said Geer.
Geer spent the entire 2014 season pitching for the Padres Double-A team in San Antonio and despite the adversity he has faced throughout his career, Geer is not looking at Sugar Land as his last stop.
“I really believe that I can get back into affiliated ball, and even the big leagues. Other guys have been signed out of the Atlantic League, so as long as I feel good, and as long as I feel like I can help a ball club, I am going to keep going,” said Geer.
In his first season with the Skeeters, Geer is throwing strikes and making an impression on those who cover the team.
“Geer, along with (former Padre) Sean Gallagher, have been our best pitchers all year. Geer has displayed excellent control and has given the team an excellent start each time out,” said Ira Liebman, the play-by-play man for the Skeeters.
Geer has pitched well for Sugar Land this season, and has a 4-3 record, with a 3.60 ERA in 14 starts this season.
While Geer has flown under the radar in Sugar Land, former Padre Tim Stauffer made headlines when signed with the Skeeters on July 14th. Stauffer was released by the Minnesota Twins a few weeks earlier, and came to Sugar Land to reestablish himself after a rough patch with the Twins. Stauffer was the first Major Leaguer to sign in the Atlantic League, right after being released from an MLB club.
“When I arrived in Sugar Land, I hadn’t really pitched in the last 5-6 weeks, so I was looking for a situation where I could allow myself to get stretched out. I didn’t see an exact opportunity with big league clubs. My agent suggested playing here and they offered me flexibility, so I decided to pursue the opportunity,” said Tim Stauffer.
Stauffer battled through injuries and ineffectiveness throughout his early career to become an important and popular member of the Padres’ pitching staff. Stauffer started for the Padres on Opening Day in 2011, and had a solid campaign that saw him start a career-high 31 games that season. After missing much of the 2012 season, Stauffer battled back and was a valuable contributor to the Padres’ bullpen in both 2013 and 2014.
Stauffer signed in Minnesota, hoping to contribute, possibly as a starter. While it didn’t work out, Stauffer has kept a positive attitude.
“It certainly has been a humble experience to say the least and wasn’t what I drew up, obviously, but there was a great group of guys there. I was able to pitch and pitch well, and I was thankful for the opportunity”, said Stauffer.
Stauffer pitched well enough in his brief time with Skeeters, going 1-1, with a 1.60 ERA in three starts, to sign a minor league deal with the New York Mets on August 1st. He hopes to make it back to the big leagues.
“I want to finish strong. I know that I can fill a variety of roles at the big league level, so I am willing and hoping to do whatever I can to help a team win,” said Stauffer.
Both Geer and Stauffer are just two examples of veteran players attempting to rediscover themselves – to get that one last chance. The Atlantic League isn’t the end – it is merely another obstacle these two players must move past to achieve the difficult, but not improbable goal of reaching the big leagues once more.