Culture / Sporting Life

Sorry Skeeters — Why Sugar Land’s Space Cowboys Fit the Juggernaut Astros Much Better Than a Silly Mosquito

Turning Away From Minor League Baseball's Typical Wackiness for Jim Crane's More Driven Approach

BY // 01.31.22

Minor league baseball is known for embracing the silly. Wacky team names are part of its DNA. Often the more out there the better. The newly rebranded Sugar Land Space Cowboys went a different way. And for that, the manager of the Houston Astros’ Triple A affiliate is grateful.

“I like it,” Mickey Storey says of the Space Cowboys moniker. “I like it more than (some) others. Minor league baseball, they tend to go with bizarre names or different names. I didn’t think this one was that far off. I was like Wow. That actually resonates with the community. And it resonates with the affiliate.

“Space Cowboys, I get it right away. It’s not corny. It’s not goofy. That’s going to be a good name.”

The Sugar Land Skeeters name that this minor league team had since it debuted as an unaffiliated Independent League Team in 2012 screamed zany hijinks. And became beloved by many in Sugar Land. Where else could you name a team after a mosquito than in the humid Houston area?

But once Astros owner Jim Crane purchased the Sugar Land club in the 2021 season, the Skeeters were endangered. The Astros methodically built one of Major League Baseball’s true power teams — a near modern dynasty with three World Series berths in five seasons — by taking things seriously. Sure, the Astros can have fun, but it’s built around the winning.

Space Cowboys — complete with the logo of an astronaut in a cowboy hat gazing up with star dust on his helmet — fits that more than Skeeters. At least in the organization’s view.

“Obviously Jim Crane went out and bought this team,” Tom Jennings, the Astros vice president of merchandising & retail operations, tells PaperCity. “He made an investment and it’s a definite effort to say this is going to be one family.

“Future stars up through the organization.”

The Sugar Land Skeeters were about offering a place that Roger Clemens could come back a pitch as a 50-year-old, taking on the had beens and never have beens that largely fill independent league baseball. A place where a 50-year-old Rafael Palmeiro could come back and play alongside his son.

The Sugar Land Space Cowboys will be about preparing top prospects on the cusp — like 23-year-old catcher Korey Lee — to be Major League Astros. The Astros’ current all-star talents also complete rehab assignments in Sugar Land. Like Alex Bregman did last year in Sugar Land’s first season as the Astros’ Triple A affiliate.

You get the idea that elite players like this never really loved being called a Skeeter.

“I love it,” Lee, who is considered the No. 1 prospect in the Astros system, says of the new Space Cowboys name and look. “It’s representing Houston. It kind of ties into the Big League uniform. So I really, really enjoy it.”

The Houston Astros held a launch party to reveal the Sugar Land Space Cowboys in a re-branding for their Triple A franchise at Constellation Field
Houston Astros catching prospect Korey Lee showed off one of the Space Cowboys’ new hats. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Space Cowboys comes across as a little more serious. A little more Big League. As silly as that may sound to some.

Which does not mean things are suddenly start to get super serious around Sugar Land’s baseball team. The official Space Cowboys “reveal” day this weekend reinforced the idea that while the team’s name is changing, the fan fun is not. There are giant bouncy houses in right field, lawn games in left field (including cornhole and giant Connect 4), a ballon artist creating animals and hats for kids and several selfie stations.

This is still minor league baseball.

And there’s Orion, the Sugar Land Space Cowboys’ new furry blue cosmic dog mascot, running around. Being chased by a pack of squealing kids.

“Space Cowboys, I get it right away. It’s not corny. It’s not goofy. That’s going to be a good name.” — Sugar Land manager Mickey Storey

During the three hours of this Space Cowboys intro event, 5,672 fans come into Constellation Field for the party, having paid $1 each (which is donated to the Astros Foundation). For most of the three hours, there is a long line outside of the team store.

Even those who are still unsure over the new Space Cowboys name appear eager to scoop up some of the rebrand’s new merchandise. Which is also part of what minor league baseball is all about.

“This ties into the community and it’s something people really love,” Jennings says of the rebrand. “We also think NASA has visitors from all over the world. So we think this is actually going to have global appeal.

“Not just for the City of Sugar Land. Not just for the City of Houston. We think there’s going to be people outside the state of Texas who are also going to love this.”

The Houston Astros held a launch party to reveal the Sugar Land Space Cowboys in a re-branding for their Triple A franchise at Constellation Field
Space dog Orion — the Sugar Land Triple A team’s new mascot — drew a crowd. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Jennings tells PaperCity that Space Cowboys came out of 10 internal possibilities. This is the second rebrand of one of its minor league teams that the Astros have done completely in-house under Crane, relying on the expertise and talents of the people in its organization rather than turning to outside consultants like many other clubs have.

The Astros’ Low A affiliate got rebranded as the Fayetteville Woodpeckers in 2019 — and in that first Woodpeckers year, the club shot into the Top 10 in all minor league baseball merchandise sales.

Sometimes the swag — and sales — speak loudest. But in this minor league renaming, trying to make a different type of statement also mattered.

“We wanted to be fun and feel representative of development level baseball,” Creighton Kahoalii, the Astros senior vice president of affiliate business operations, tells PaperCity. “But at the same time we’re a major market with our home club. We wanted it to feel like a major brand.”

The tie to the home club will be driven home if the Sugar Land Space Cowboys can play their first game as planned. The Astros are scheduled to visit Constellation Field to take on the Space Cowboys on March 28. Though the current Major League lockout — which shows no signs of ending anytime soon — seems to make that game actually taking place (at least on that date) very unlikely.

Whatever happens with the lockout, it’s a safe bet the Astros will be playing an exhibition game in Sugar Land at some point.

Will Sugar Land Embrace Space Cowboys?

Sugar Land certainly already sees itself as big time, from its elaborate holiday displays to its Mayor Joe Zimmerman, who is known for wearing cowboy boots almost everywhere. Silly doesn’t really reflect this ever growing town that’s long been making a name for itself outside of Houston’s shadow.

Triple A baseball is a very serious business for the Astros. Just look at how former Sugar Land players Jake Meyers and Jose Siri  made an impact for Dusty Baker’s squad during last year’s World Series season. Guys like Korey Lee and pitchers Chad Donato and Brett Conine – the other two Astros minor leaguers selected to be Space Cowboy uniform models on reveal day — are chasing that vision.

With a sense of purpose. Maybe that’s more cosmic cowboy than buzzing mosquito.

“We also think NASA has visitors from all over the world. So we think this is actually going to have global appeal.” — Astros VP Tom Jennings

“They scream,” Donato says of the new unis. “They’re loud. But I’m very excited. To incorporate the colors from the Big League level (blue and orange) down here in Triple A to make us more comfortable. Not having to change equipment, change colors.

“I’m all for it. It needs a little time to grow on some people. Just give it a shot Give us a chance. When you see us on the field, I think it will be something special.”

Guys like Donato want to be Astros as soon as possible more than anything. But being a Space Cowboy isn’t so bad either.

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