Throughout independent league baseball, the field manager often doubles as the team’s player personnel director. For St. Paul Saints manager George Tsamis, that means a long winter with the phone in his ear, searching coast to coast to find players to fill the 23-man Opening Day roster, plus a couple extra for contingencies.
That task, Tsamis said, has grown more complicated and time-consuming each year. It’s been more than a decade since the Saints were the first choice for disgraced major-leaguers seeking another chance (Darryl Strawberry), former All-Stars trying to hang on (St. Paul’s Jack Morris), or highly drafted Scott Boras clients (J.D. Drew).
Last year’s roster featured players with less pizzazz, like ex-Atlanta Braves reliever Kerry Ligtenberg (a former Minnesota Gopher) and Tanner Scheppers, Pittsburgh’s second-round pick in 2008 who did not sign and went back into the draft, where Texas took him last June.
This year’s roster appeared on the same track until a miracle dropped in Tsamis’s lap. Kevin Millar, the charismatic former Boston Red Sox infielder and an original Saint from 1993 who had been released by the Chicago Cubs in spring training, decided to finish his career where it started. Millar should be in uniform tonight for the Saints’ season opener at Midway Stadium against Wichita.
Player recruitment harder than ever
But with eight independent leagues operating from Quebec City to California, even minor-league free agents have many more choices than in the 1990s, choices that often do not include St. Paul. Occasionally, Tsamis says, he talks to a player who never heard of the Saints.
“They’re more leagues, more teams, and you’re competing with everybody for the same players,” Tsamis said. “It’s tough, but I really enjoy doing it.”
Three days before the Saints’ first exhibition game, Tsamis lost one of his most promising newcomers when outfielder Drew Anderson signed a minor-league contract with Milwaukee’s Class AAA affiliate in Nashville. Anderson spent most of his career in the Brewers system and was a September call-up in 2006 but chose free agency after last season. According to the Saints, Anderson is the 97th player purchased by a major-league organization since the club’s inception in 1993.
“That’s how quick it happens,” Tsamis said. “Good for him, but that’s the way it goes.”
Busy off-season for manager
Although Tsamis said the search for players begins when the season ends, the heavy work starts in November. That’s when major-league clubs release lists of their minor-league free agents to independent league offices, who forward them to their teams.
Some lists, Tsamis said, include phone numbers for players. Then the mad rush is on, as managers review available statistics and go after players they want.
“Once that minor-league free agent list comes out, if you’re doing your job right, it takes a lot of time,” Tsamis said. “People don’t realize there are almost 600 minor-league free agents. It takes time to look up every single one of those guys, and if a guy’s a fit, to call him up and get a guy signed. It takes a long time.
“Sometimes it works out that if you’re the first guy who calls the player, you get him. Some guys you call right away, and they don’t want to hear from you. Sometimes it can take a couple of days, and sometimes it can take a couple of months.”
Or, in the case of Concordia University pitcher Jake Schmidt, a couple of hours. A 41st-round pick of the Cubs last June, Schmidt — the first Concordia player ever drafted, according to the school — pitched two scoreless innings in the Arizona Rookie League ball last season. This spring, the Cubs released him.
“I got signed the same day I got released, which was kind of nice,” said Schmidt, from Oakdale. “I got a couple of calls from teams in the Frontier League. Then George got a hold of me later in the day and asked if I wanted to be part of the team, and I said yeah. I grew up here, so I’ve always been around the Saints.”
It’s usually not that easy.
Players in California or Texas who prefer to stay close to home, can. And the Northeast-based Atlantic League, founded in 1998, usurped the Northern League (the Saints’ original home) as the destination of choice for many established major-leaguers. Jose Canseco and Rickey Henderson gravitated to the Atlantic League’s Newark Bears, now managed by Tim Raines, whose current roster includes Edgardo Alfonzo, Armando Benitez and Scott Spiezio, along with former Twin Willie Banks, a Jersey City, N.J., product. Henderson also hooked on with the Golden League’s San Diego Surf Dawgs when that California-based outfit started in 2005.
“You try to get them, but in a lot of those cases, it depends where the guy lives and whether he wants to do that,” said Tsamis, who also managed Waterbury and New Jersey in the Northern League before joining the Saints in 2003. “Now I think it’s a lot more difficult than when the [Northern League] started.
“In our league (the American Association), we can only carry four veterans, guys who played five or more years. The Atlantic League doesn’t have that rule, so they can get a few more guys like that.”
Saints still a big draw but …
Through it all, the Saints and their off-the-wall promotions remained one of independent ball’s best draws. But that may be changing.
Although St. Paul has led the American Association in attendance all four years of the league’s existence, and were always No. 1 or No. 2 in the Northern League, last season’s average crowd of 5,689 was the Saints’ lowest since their inaugural season (4,539). It’s not a huge drop. But it marked only the third time in 17 seasons the Saints averaged less than 6,000 a game, according to Northern League and American Association records. Midway Stadium’s listed capacity is 6,069.
Missing the playoffs last year didn’t help. And with the Twins moving into Target Field, the Saints lose the allure as the only outdoor game in town. Plus, let’s face it: Midway Stadium is getting dumpier by the day. Co-owner Mike Veeck fears Midway’s long concession lines and scarcity of restrooms, particularly for women who understandably refuse to use port-o-johns, are keeping some fans away. A new stadium in St. Paul’s Lowertown remains a dream.
“We sell usually the same amount of season tickets every year, but where you get nicked is the no-shows,” Veeck said. “Some days, it’s as much as 35 percent.”
Still, Veeck thinks Target Field may actually benefit the Saints. First, he said, blanket media coverage of the new stadium has people thinking baseball. And Minnesotans who aren’t diehard Twins fans, who recoil at paying $7.50 for a beer and $9.25 for a burger and chips at a Twins’ game, may accept a cheaper option. That’s what Veeck hopes, anyway.
“Those things may very quietly help us,” Veeck said.