Today is the home debut of the Sugar Land Skeeters—correction, the Sugar Land Space Cowboys. Man, that’s going to take some getting used to.
When the Skeeters announced in January that the team was becoming the Triple-A affiliate of the Houston Astros and changing its name to the Space Cowboys, I had a little tiff with Mike Vance, the Houston baseball historian and author. Somewhat to my surprise, he was vehemently opposed to the change, contending the former unaffiliated minor league baseball club had “an all-time great nickname,” probably among “the most place-appropriate nicknames in the entire history of nicknames.”
“Bonus points off since every wannabe comic in America has already made a Maurice joke and called them the Gangsters of Glove,” he joked, alluding to the Steve Miller song, “Space Cowboy.”
After going as far as calling the Skeeters’ team logo “an all-time classic,” Vance did make a good point about the team’s geography. Having grown up in Missouri City, he stressed that his hometown neighbor of Sugar Land is a very long way to NASA. According to Google Maps, it’s a shade under 40 miles from Sugar Land Town Square to the Johnson Space Center. Houstonians, myself included, love to tease Dallasites about the Arlington/Irving Cowboys, so we might be called hypocrites for allowing a similar situation to prevail.
If any town “deserves the space treatment,” Vance argued, it would be the NASA-area suburb of Webster. “And if you want Houston-area cowboys, I’m thinking Fulshear or Needville,” he added, referring to nearby ranching hubs.
In my attempt at a rebuttal, I pointed out that although city leaders in Sugar Land would be the first to tell you they are not Houston, I think of it as the most Houston of all the suburbs. Having visited the place many times, I find it to be as ethnically diverse as Houston, and it seems to have the most outposts of local Houston businesses. If there is one suburb I think of as mini-Houston, it is Sugar Land.
Furthermore, now that the baseball team’s roster consists of aspiring Astros, you have to go with Space Cowboys, as Space Cadets just won’t do.
For me, it’s a positive step in Planet Houston’s direction. (Hey, if DFW can be the Metroplex, we get to be Planet Houston.) Of all the Texas metropolises, Houston is the one that has yet to truly settle on a nickname. Dallas seems happy with Big D. Unpretentious Fort Worth loves Cowtown. San Antonio is fine with the Alamo City. And Austin loves it when you call them the Live Music Capital of the World.
Houston? Well, we cycled through quite a few nicknames before we came up with Bayou City—we are a city with bayous, so what?—and later with the hip-hop-influenced H-Town, which likewise does not describe the city in any way. But there is a nickname that deserves reconsideration.
Between the early ’60s to around the time of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, we were known by another name, the one Richard Linklater riffs so well off of in his new animated feature Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood. That, of course, would be Space City.
“[It] was a great time and place to be a kid,” narrates Jack Black in the film. “Living in the Houston area in the late ’60s, and especially near NASA, it was like living near where science fiction was coming to life. The optimistic technological future was now, and we were at the absolute center of everything new and better.”
That was not all: In 1965, construction was completed on the Astrodome, and not long after that, Astros owner Judge Roy Hofheinz threw open the gates to Astroworld, Houston’s wonderland to generations of children. Catty-cornered to both was Hofheinz’s Astroworld Hotel, a palace that sported an entire floor of themed suites, one of which was called the “Celestial.” It was the most expensive hotel room in the entire world. You could look it up in The Guinness Book of Records, and as a kid I did, every year when the new one came out, to make sure my city held that title.
Growing up, I remember “the Dome” was such a joy. Once you were accustomed to being in such an immense indoor cavern, it was a festival of color, noise, and light, especially on the somewhat rare occasion an Astro hit a home run, which was exceedingly difficult for anyone to do so there. When a player did, the scoreboard would explode with pistoleros firing their Colt .45s into the ground and crazy-eyed steers bellowing and expelling smoke from their nostrils. As Linklater pointed out in his film, these were not mere baseball home runs, but balls launched into Astro Orbit.
“When Apollo 8 snapped the ‘Earthrise’ photo over the moon on Christmas Eve, it gave us Earthlings a perspective we’d never had,” continues the narration in Apollo 10 1/2. “There we were, all together, on this floating blue ball in space. It was said that someday soon when humans fully grasped what this meant, there would be a shift in consciousness and there would be no more wars.”
And “Age of Aquarius” plays on the soundtrack and the planet lives happily ever after.
Or not. Definitely not. Especially not for Houston. The Astros developed a knack for squandering young talent and wandered in mediocrity for their first 17 years as a franchise. Hofheinz sold the team and died. Houston Oilers owner Bud Adams stripped the Dome of its exploding scoreboard and much of its joy. The one-time “Eighth Wonder of the World” now gathers dust, loomed over by the much larger Reliant Stadium. Astroworld was sold to a conglomerate, closed down, and razed in the 2000s. The Celestial suite still exists, albeit locked up on a publicly inaccessible floor of a generic mid-price chain motel, so obviously the most expensive hotel room in the world is no longer in Houston.
In spite of all this, Houston is still the most interesting and dynamic city in Texas. With NASA’s Artemis program to take us back to the moon well underway, it’s time Houston reclaims its title as Space City. The Houston Astros are on board, having released their “City Connect” uniforms with “Space City” emblazoned across each player’s chest in the same futuristic font made famous by NASA.
Still, those are alternate jerseys to be worn only on Mondays. That means it’s up to the minor league baseball team from the wrong corner of town to lead the way day in and day out. Even if the Sugar Land Space Cowboys named their mascot Maurice: the Pompatus of Gloves, it will be worth it.
Of course Vance can’t help but add: “There is no arguing that the whole wonderful, inspiring, diverse, dynamic, joyfully imperfect city is still overrun with skeeters.”