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Deep in the heart of Texas

Deep in the heart of Texas.

This might not have been the first locale where a younger Noah Blackwell would have envisioned cutting his teeth in the world of professional sport, when he first realized his passion for the setting a few years back.

His was an interest that would lead, quite understandably, to the Sports Administration program at Laurentian University, and lead, more recently and perhaps a little more surprisingly, to the Sugar Land Skeeters of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball.

That would be as in Sugar Land, Texas, a city of some 80,000 residents located less than twenty miles southwest of downtown Houston. Sugar Land, the place that Blackwell would call home for a stretch of some three to four months this past summer.

"I knew this would be a very beneficial experience, not only from the job perspective, but also from an independence experience," said Blackwell, who was anxious to spread his wings, so to speak, even if not originally with the thought of extending himself to essentially the furthest reaches of North America from his home in Sudbury.

"I needed to go out and experience something like this if I want to work in this industry," added Blackwell. "It made me appreciate the sort of opportunities that are out there." In fact, the 21 year old third year student parlayed his internship with the Skeeters into an offering with the Charlotte Hornets of the NBA, back south of the border now through until mid-December.

Blackwell's summer could not have gone much better.

From strictly a baseball standpoint, there was much to love about Sugar Land. "The independent leagues are almost like a redemption league, and the Atlantic League is one of the better independent leagues," Blackwell explained.

"On our team, there was a good mix of Houston natives, maybe a little bit older, trying to find their game, playing in their own backyard and living at home again. That's a nice feeling for some guys. We had a few former Houston Astros, guys like Willy Tavares, and even a former Blue Jay with Chris Collabello."

From time to time, on relatively rare occasions, this last chance outpost will produce a real good news story, as was the case for Ryan Court, a 31 year old journeyman who had his Skeeters contract purchased by the Seattle Mariners, making his major league debut in July and actually hitting a home run against the Tampa Bay Rays in August.

But there is far more to the Sugar Land story.

"One thing that attracted a lot of attention, some positive, some negative, is the partnership that the Atlantic League has with MLB to do rule testing," said Blackwell. "Our league featured the first professional game of baseball to use automated balls and strikes."

"I didn't get a chance to talk to any of the umpires that worked with it, but I heard that some of the umpires really liked it. The home base umpire is still there for a play at the plate, a judgement call, but the balls and strikes are a voice automated relay using the Trackman software."

That said, Blackwell would garner by far the most value from his time in Texas by virtue of the variety of tasks that he undertook, taking full advantage of a setting that was relaxed enough to allowed one to be fully rewarded for possessing a healthy amount of initiative in their character.

"When it came to game days, the interns were responsible for co-ordinating and working all of the in-game promotions, whether that be 50/50 sales, or the baseball equivalent of chuck a puck," said Blackwell.

"They were very accomodating on other roles during the game. I did colour with our play by play announcer and for three games, I served as the P.A. announcer. In our office, they didn't have set roles for the interns, beyond in game promotions."

"I did a stint in stadium operations, just seeing how a stadium operates and what needs to be constantly fixed, the process involved with that, but also from a life skills perspectives, just the regular interaction with our fan base."

While the top level of any pro sport might be the ultimate goal for a large number of the SPAD grads, Blackwell suggested that there is something to be said for an environment that is naturally much more easygoing and open.

"They like to have fun and there's never a bad idea, so it was good to get the creative juices flowing," said Blackwell. "Everyone is there for the right reasons. I immediately saw Sugar Land as not only an excellent experience, that first step into professional sport, but also a building block on everything I have done up to this point, with the NOJHL, working with the (Sudbury) Nickel Caps."

From hockey in the north to baseball in the deep south, Blackwell has already travelled quite the route in his young career. Somehow, one can sense that this is only the beginning.

Orendorff and Associates