Entering the 2021 season, the St. Paul Saints find themselves facing a bit of an existential paradox. Have the rebels gone mainstream?
After 28 seasons of independent existence, first in the Northern League and then in the American Association, the Saints have signed on to serve as the Triple-A East affiliate of the Minnesota Twins. From a fan and player-development perspective, the move was a proverbial no-brainer. The Saints' CHS Field, built in 2015, is an amenity-laden facility located less than 11 miles from Target Field in Minneapolis. Fans attending Saints games can root for the Twins' stars of tomorrow, today. Players and team personnel, meanwhile, can travel between the two locales with unrivaled ease.
Nonetheless, the Saints' new era still has a whiff of the improbable. The team, whose ownership group includes baseball mavericks Mike Veeck and Bill Murray (yes, that Bill Murray), was formed as a distinct alternative to the nearby Major League status quo. An anything-goes operating philosophy has prevailed, resulting in a ballpark atmosphere populated by pigs, costumed dancing ushers and a beloved nun masseuse.
The Saints' affiliation with the Twins is, perhaps, the baseball equivalent of a beloved underground band signing with a major label. Will a boundary-pushing rough-hewn past give way to an anodyne corporatized future? Are they losing their edge? Saints general manager Derek Sharrer, entering his 18th season with the team, expresses no such concerns.
"From a marketing perspective, the thing we're most excited about is the improved level of play between the white lines, immediately offering the opportunity to see the top prospects in all of of Minor League Baseball. Not just with the Twins, but also our opponents," he said. "We'll be able to do all that without changing who we are, without changing the ballpark and fan experience. The Twins have said since Day 1 that they don’t want to see anything change. They understand who we are. [Twins president] Dave St. Peter used the term 'special sauce,' saying that the last thing they want to do is have us enter into an affiliation and have us lose that special sauce. He also commented on the impact that we could have on the Target Field experience, rather than the reverse of that.
"With the Saints, three terms come to mind. Irreverence is one, counterculture is another and anti-establishment is the third. We've always been seen as those three things, that's the core of who the Saints are and what the Saints experience is about. The response from our fans and baseball fans around Minnesota has been overwhelmingly positive. But for anybody who did have concerns, we're committed to not changing and the Twins are not committed to having us change. ... It would have taken an absolutely perfect situation for us to give up our independence, and that's exactly what this is."
Interested in learning more about the Saints as they prepare for their affiliated Minor League Baseball debut? Sharrer took the time to explain more about who they are and why. What follows are his words, lightly edited for length and clarity.
The team name and logo
"The Saints name is historic. The original Saints were owned by Charles Comiskey, before he moved the franchise to Chicago and became the White Sox. So when [team owners] Marv Goldklang, Mike Veeck, Bill Murray and Van Schley decided to be charter members of the Northern League, leading into that 1993 inaugural season, they felt that it was important to connect the team with the City of St. Paul. Every other team in the state carried the name 'Minnesota.' Nobody carried the name 'Minneapolis.' Nobody carried the name 'St. Paul'.
"Our logo design is derived directly from previous Saints logos. For 20 or 30 years, they were the Triple-A affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Our branding is classic and fits directly with the community we represent."
"We did everything that we could to make [CHS Field] a ballpark that celebrates the neighborhood, more so than the reverse. We let the neighborhood be the star of the show. If you park a couple blocks from the ballpark and walk to the main plaza entrance, you don’t realize a ballpark is there until you're walking through the gates. We did not want a ballpark that dominates the neighborhood.
"We're in a historic district. The buildings adjacent to the facility are now artist lofts and condos, but they're redeveloped former warehouses. ... What we allowed the design team to do was pull elements of the interior of these warehouses. We wanted to connect to our history without it looking like history. If you're on the concourse and look up, rather than pipes and steel work and infrastructure, you'll see cedar timber soffit. That motif carries throughout the ballpark.
"Many ballparks have 360-degree concourses, but that's really a key to this facility. If the crowd is 8,000, 4,500 are in their seats and the rest are wandering around the park. A favorite place to watch the game is the standing-room-only right-field home run porch. We have an 18-foot high wall on the right-field side, because [the dimensions] are a little bit short in order to fit the ballpark footprint."
Signature concession items
"Fried cheese curds are a staple of Minnesota and the upper Midwest. They nearly outsell hot dogs and always have. Cheese curds would be the first thing that comes to mind."
"Our craziest fans are those employed by the Saints, the Ushertainers. The concept was originally implemented in 2003, to hire people who would literally serve as ushers and entertainers. Over time they came to do more ‘taining' than ushering. We interview and audition a new crop of characters every year, but there are some staples.
"Chef is a favorite character, a French chef with a French accent. He's never out of character. We include him in food-related promos. Then there's Coach. He’s your high school coach, wearing the tightest bike shorts you’ve ever seen. He's got mirrored sunglasses, a Saints hat, wearing high tube socks with stripes, blowing his whistle between innings. Another favorite is is Gert the Flirt, a woman dressed up as an older lady. A young senior. She has an inflatable bat that she'll whack people over the head with. And she's got lipstick on, leaving a mark on a bald guy's head after she kisses it.
"These characters, as much as anything, dictate the entire experience. The Ushertainers and the PA announcers, a team of two who sit at a table in the seating bowl directly behind home plate dropping one-liners and coordinating conversation between sections."
(Even more) beloved gameday employees
"There are two that every Saints fan knows. Sister Roz has been with us since 1993. She is a Catholic nun who does massage. She runs her own massage school and is still a practicing nun. She has given massages to fans for each of our 28 seasons in existence. She is incredible.
"The other one changes every year, and that's our mascot ball pig, who is in charge of delivering baseballs. The pig farmer who we work with has also been with us since 1993. We signed a contract with him prior to signing any player. The history behind this is that the City of St. Paul was historically known as Pig’s Eye Landing. One of the first settlers was named [Pierre] "Pig's Eye" Parrant, a French trapper who opened up a pub for trappers.
"We didn’t have a mascot until 2003, when we introduced fluffy, huggable Muddona. We wanted to make sure there was a connection with St. Paul and Pig’s Eye, connecting to the live pig. Muddona, obviously there's a connection to the singer. The decision was made earlier on that we wanted a female mascot, rather than having an angry animal, the fighting-whatever mascot. We wanted someone that was loving, fun, and for lack of a better term, a be-boppy pig."
"Mime-o-vision, from earlier in our history, was one of Mike [Veeck]'s most successful failures. Midway Stadium [the Saints home from 1993-2014] didn’t have a Jumbotron, so he decided to replace videoboard replays with mime replays. Mike hired several mimes to reenact plays on the dugout, but what Mike didn’t realize was how much people hate mimes. As soon as they did the first reenactment, fans threw hot dogs at them. The night turned into a giant display of hot dog throwing, virtually a riot. We sold tens of thousands of hot dogs that night.
"Another memorable one was at CHS Field a couple years ago [in 2018]. It was the 40th anniversary of 'Animal House,' and we decided the best way to celebrate was to do a ballpark-wide food fight. We put together 6,000 food kits with things like mashed potatoes, popcorn and mini-donuts and also handed out sponsored rain ponchos to the first 6,000 people through the gates. We created a safe zone over the right-field wall for anyone that didn’t want to take part, and in the middle of the fifth inning, we ran the John Belushi video where he yells 'Food fight!'
"Six thousand-plus people threw food at each other. It was surreal and incredible and horrifying at the same time. One mistake we made. ... Well, there were two mistakes. We shouldn’t have done it in the fifth inning, because people were walking over food for the next four innings. The other mistake was that it was a night game prior to a day game. The cleaning crew showed up half-staff the next day, so the entire front office was cleaning right until the game started. But we had an absolute blast. The video of the food fight itself is worth its weight in gold."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.