Sky Sox a welcome distraction for fans

Colorado Springs offers free tickets to wildfire evacuees

Colorado Springs offered free tickets to evacuees of the nearby fires. (Sky Sox)

By Benjamin Hill / | June 29, 2012 6:17 AM ET

Colorado Springs is in the midst of what has been, and continues to be, an immensely difficult week. The out-of-control Waldo Canyon fire has swept into residential areas on the outskirts of the city, resulting in the destruction of hundreds of homes and the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents.

Against such a volatile backdrop, the performance of the local Minor League Baseball team -- in this case, the Pacific Coast League's Colorado Springs Sky Sox -- becomes a hopelessly irrelevant issue. The phrase "it's just a game" is thrown into sharper focus when contrasted with real-life tragedy and turmoil on such a grand scale, and that's a good thing. It's certainly an attitude that the Sky Sox have embraced.

"Minor League Baseball has always been a great distraction for the community," said Sky Sox president Tony Ensor, speaking on Wednesday afternoon. "The community's hurting, so one thing that we immediately wanted to do was to have evacuees come out to the ballpark, to spend three hours not looking at the fire, just enjoying Minor League Baseball and America's game at its best."

This offer applied to Sunday and Monday's ballgames, with all evacuees receiving free tickets at the box office. The team partnered with the local Care and Share food bank during each of these days as well, eventually collecting what Ensor describes as "two palletfulls" of donations (all fans who donated received ticket vouchers for a future Sky Sox contest).

"At the time what we were looking for was water and sports drinks for the firemen. These guys are doing an amazing job, and what they are being confronted with just can't be described," said Ensor.

Security Service Field is located in the northeast portion of the city, while the fires have raged in the northwest. The team ended up postponing Tuesday's ballgame, with Ensor remarking that, though "the weather was fine, once the wind shifted it became a no-brainer [to postpone]. The air quality and visibility weren't good, and we didn't want the fans to have to deal with that."

Tuesday's postponed contest was the last of the homestand, as the Sky Sox then embarked on an eight-game road trip. During Wednesday evening's game against the Tucson Padres, the team provided a Facebook status update that, once again, served as a reminder of the positive role that sports can play within a beleaguered community. Call it the power of diversion.

"Today has been another difficult day for our city," read the message. "Our thoughts are with those displaced from their homes, and the brave men and women battling the fire 24 hours a day. Here's some good news -- the Sox just put up three runs in the fifth in Tucson to make it 4-0 for our home team."

Meanwhile, the people of Colorado Springs will continue to cope with one of the most significant natural disasters to ever befall the region.

"This is the sort of thing that you have to confront in a mountain community," said Ensor. "And the great thing about Colorado Springs is the willingness of the community to help one another out. It's truly amazing. We have restaurants feeding [evacuated] families, and perfect strangers offering up their homes. The way that people open both their hearts and their purse strings has been amazing to witness."

Destruction at The Diamond

Flying Squirrels pitcher Justin Fitzgerald Tweeted this photo of The Diamond's outfield fence.

In Colorado Springs, baseball is serving as a momentary distraction from far more serious events. But fans in Richmond had the opposite experience on Monday, when an afternoon contest at The Diamond culminated with a reminder of just how devastating Mother Nature can be.

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New Britain was holding a 6-2 lead over the hometown Flying Squirrels with two outs in the top of the eighth inning when a thunderstorm swept in, and its severity caught nearly everyone off guard. A torrential downpour was accompanied by 60 mph winds, which decimated a large portion of the fence in left-center field. The outfield area was reduced to a jumbled mess of splintered plywood and strewn signage, but this didn't seem to perturb team president Todd Parnell when I spoke with him on Wednesday.

"No one was hurt, and that's the important thing," said Parnell. "Because while you can fix a fence, you can't always fix people."

The fact that the storm rolled through in the late innings of the ballgame turned out to be a significant positive, as many of the 4,500 fans in attendance had already left The Diamond.

"Maybe it was because the Squirrels were losing, or because the clouds were rolling in or because it was hot, but for whatever reason, one-half to two-thirds of the crowd had already left. The situation was more manageable that way," said Parnell. "Everyone held hands through it all, working together for the good of the cause."

Another silver lining amid this (literal) cloud is that the Squirrels left for an eight-game road trip immediately following Monday's rain-shortened contest, meaning that there will be plenty of time to make the necessary ballpark repairs.

"We work 365 days a year on the relationships that we have in the community, so when things go awry, as they did in the case of the outfield fence, it becomes a situation of friend helping friend," said Parnell.

"[After the storm], our general contractor was here in 15 minutes and the electrician was here within 25. The owner of the security company we work with was actually at the ballgame, so within half an hour we had 24-hour security at the ballpark. Because once you have a gaping hole in the left field wall, the facility became pretty accessible."

But soon such concerns will be a thing of the past.

"We just want to get the fence back up, have another sellout crowd on July 4, and just keep bringing in the numbers we've been having all year," said Parnell. "And, ironically, we've been blessed with unbelievable weather. We're still the only team in the Eastern League without a rainout."

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for and writes Ben's Biz Blog. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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