That time I saw Tracy McGrady pitch

On May 22, 2014, the Sugar Land Skeeters, the newest team in baseball’s independent Atlantic League at just two years-old at the time, hosted the York Revolution at Constellation Field in Sugar Land, Texas.

Their starting pitcher, a 35 year-old, 6'8" newcomer, finished his second-career start with a line of:

2.2 IP, 0 ER, 0 R, 1 H, 4 BB, 0 K. Not great, but not terrible. Certainly nothing to make Walter Johnson worry about his records beyond the grave.

The Skeeters wound up winning the game, 5–4, with the aforementioned starter not factoring into the decision.

The game itself, unremarkable almost by design, is notable for three reasons:

  1. It was my first Skeeters game.
  2. It was my dad’s birthday and also his first Skeeters game.
  3. Tracy McGrady was the starting pitcher for the Skeeters.

Independent league baseball, or just indy ball, is notable for its carnival-like atmosphere. Not just because of the universal sway towards being family-friendly and affordable entertainment, but because it often features things that are, appropriately-termed, bat-shit crazy.

From nutty-ass box scores to the team that’s just the traveling, semi-pro baseball version of the Washington Generals; existing only to keep the league upright and to get their heads kicked in, day after day, night after night, indy ball has a little something for every type of baseball fan.

Indy leagues are both a blessing and a curse to its participants, with cross purposes of extreme proportions presenting themselves on every roster of every team in every league, overall talent-level be damned.

It’s the place to hunt and the place to die at the same time. Players trying to earn another shot at the big leagues, or their first one, while others are just trying to squeeze out all that remains and maybe receive one, final call back up. Many baseball careers endure their death rattles in these leagues — their statistics the only residue of their existence within the game.

On any given roster, throughout the Atlantic League (indy ball’s most accomplished of unaffiliated pro leagues), American Association, Frontier League, Can-Am League, and beyond, there are rosters littered with names you’ve probably seen on Major League rosters before.

Reggie Abercrombie, Tony Campana, Julian Tavarez, Willy Taveras, Francisco Rodriguez, Derek Norris, Endy Chavez. Just a few names once wandering major league clubhouses, making highlights, setting records, making all-star rosters, and seeming like the furthest thing from indy league ringers.

Most indy players have a major league background of some sort, whether it was being drafted by an MLB team and playing in its lower levels for a bit, or actually reaching and having some success in The Show. Regardless of circumstance, they’re all there because they love the game and want to keep playing.

The same can be said for aging, disgraced veterans such as Rafael Palmeiro and Roger Clemens, who have both cashed in their fame for a chance to suit up one more time and play ball next to their sons, even as the fathers are mere husks of what used to be.

Indy ball’s premium isn’t on wins; it’s on staying in business and providing an alternative to the major league experience. They’ll do anything for a buck — whatever brings the fans.

So the Sugar Land Skeeters signing Tracy McGrady, right-handed pitcher-for-hire, isn’t so outrageous in hindsight.

The organization, founded in 2012, already had a notable history of publicity-fueled transactions.

In 2012, the Skeeters signed Roger Clemens, then-50 years-old, so that he could form a familial battery with his son, catcher and former Astros draft pick, Koby Clemens. The elder Clemens pitched two games and eight total innings, giving up no runs.

That same season, the Skeeters featured players like OF/RP Jason Lane, Clemens’ teammate with the Astros in 2005 and 2006, RHP Tim Redding, a former Astros pitcher, LHP Scott Kazmir, who made his appearance for the Skeeters before finding his way back to MLB and, eventually, the Astros for a brief stint, and other former Astros such as Daryle Ward and Scott Elarton.

The Skeeters would also eventually sign Rafael Palmeiro to a one-day contract in 2015 so that he could play with his son, Patrick. Both Palmeiro’s, the eldest being 54 now, are currently playing for the Cleburne Railroaders of the American Association.

Basically, if you have drawing power and, even better, some Houston ties, you’re a shoe-in for the Skeeters.

Still, to see a seven-time NBA all-star and two-time NBA scoring champion standing on the mound for a pro ball team just a few miles southwest of the NBA arena he once dominated, it was a bit unnerving.

I mean, to each their own. Tracy McGrady was a professional athlete who was robbed of his gifts far too early. Who am I, or we, to say that he shouldn’t have pursued a different path while his body still allowed it?

But it initially had all the feelings of a sideshow. Like a bearded lady who swallows swords. Or perhaps swords on fire.

Michael Jordan’s foray into baseball during his brief retirement in 1994 showed us that not everyone can be like Bo or Neon Deion. But he at least lasted a full season and showed marginal improvement over a long period of time with the Double-A Birmingham Barons.

While McGrady’s sojourn likely started as a hopeful path to, perhaps, a job with the then-unspeakably bad Astros, his career would last just four professional outings with an additional all-star game appearance, which would feature his lone career strikeout.

But on May 22, we didn’t know anything about what was to come.

All we knew was that for 2 2/3 innings, T-Mac looked markedly better than his first career outing 12 days prior.

His delivery was smooth, his pace was steady, and his mistakes were either missed or minimized. It always seemed like the ball was already on the hitter by the time he threw it; a natural observation to what seemed like a 50-foot wingspan.

T-Mac dipped and dived out of trouble, avoided runs, and kept the Skeeters in the game for what would end up being, if my memory serves me correctly, an extra-inning walk-off win.

I honestly don’t remember too much about the game beyond that.

My lasting memory will always be McGrady, standing on the mound, knowing full-well that the people in the crowd that night were more like scientific observers than they were fans; wondering if he could do it, or if he would embarrass himself. Imagining all this pressure on him after numerous cover stories and mainstream media coverage.

I think McGrady was just looking for a way to enjoy sports one more time before he put it all away for good.

His basketball I.Q. was completely intact, but his otherworldly ability had been cruelly stolen from him, and he had to learn to live with that through numerous stints on NBA rosters as the guy who used to be T-Mac.

We hate when that happens, as fans. To see an all-time great reduced to roster fodder is a bad way to go. I think McGrady wanted to give his ending a different spin.

Indy league baseball gave McGrady that opportunity and it was, if anything, fun to see.

He wasn’t ruining some team’s chances of winning a title, or ‘spitting on the integrity’ of anything. He found a fun, inoffensive way to reconnect with a sport he loved and he did it. He’ll never wonder or ask “what if?” He did it. He worked his ass off, trained with legends, and did his best to bring his best.

It wasn’t the intended ending, but it was a chance for all of us to see something rare and unique — two words often used to describe the rise and pinnacle of McGrady’s NBA career.

That’s the beauty of baseball and one of those rare times where the game’s lowest professional rungs can give us something its highest level never could — Tracy McGrady, baseball star. Fucking wild.

Joel Roza Jr. is an at-large writer covering a wide spectrum of subjects ranging from sports to politics and other special interests.

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