Call it gimmicky, silly, whatever. Anyone who regularly attends St. Paul Saints games at Midway Stadium knows what to expect — mayhem occasionally interrupted by baseball.
Though attendance is down after a 16-year run as the flagship franchise of the independent baseball movement, the Saints’ brand of fun continues to attract its share of fans and families to a cozy ballyard in an industrial park about halfway between the Minneapolis and St. Paul downtowns.
The brainchild of Mike Veeck, the son of legendary baseball impresario Bill Veeck, the Saints endure with goofy promotions — from Sen. Larry Craig-inspired “bobblefoots” for National Tap Dance Day to the Count Von “Re”Count swivel-head doll giveaway (riffing on the 2008 Senate race) to the Randy Moss Hood Ornament Night.
If it’s out there, the Saints will make fun of it.
If you’ve ever wondered how the Saints come up with this stuff, pull up a chair. MinnPost tracked a Saints promotion start to finish, from the genesis of an idea in the cold of winter to the last-minute scrambling on the day of the event, complete with mugginess, mosquito-swatting interns and a wedding proposal in a bag.
THURSDAY, FEB. 4
It’s overcast, cold and snowing. Plowed mountains of the white stuff tower over the parking lot at Midway Stadium. Besides the wind, a freight train rumbling west on the tracks beyond left field provides the only other noise.
Thursdays at 4:30 p.m., Saints staffers gather in their second-floor office cubicle space for their weekly promotions brainstorming meeting. The space is not much to look at — tattered gray carpeting, folders stacked upon filing cabinets, memos taped to the air conditioning ducts overhead. The clock on the wall runs seven minutes fast.
This is the second meeting of the off-season. A handful of staffers are missing, but the rest — seven men and two women — grab chairs. Food and beverage director Curtis Nachtsheim takes the one to my right and introduces himself. “If you’ve got any good ideas, we’ll be happy to steal them,” he said.
Actually, for the Saints, the only bad ideas are those left unspoken. As youthful promotions director Jack Weatherman says later, no idea is too off-the-wall for the Saints to tweak, massage and make their own. Weatherman passes out sheets listing the home schedule with corresponding promotional ideas from the first meeting. Someone asks about the July 10 listing: St. Julio Day.
Weatherman laughs and explains. There is no such feast; it’s a made-up holiday based on something he stumbled across on the Internet. Gamers chose March 10 as Mario Day because the abbreviation — MAR10 — looks like the name Mario. Weatherman checked the calendar and found the only month and day during baseball season that worked was July 10, or JUL10. Then he stuck a “Saint'” on the front.
Then Weatherman, a 31-year-old Kansas City product and lifelong Royals fan who calls himself the “ringmaster” of these sessions, asks for four or five fresh ideas to fill holes in the schedule.
The one rule: No one ridicules or demeans anything someone says. “It’s an understanding that some of the best ideas come out of ideas that may seem ridiculous,” Weatherman said. “We want to induce creative thinking, because it may lead to the next big thing.”
Over the next hour, the group offers dozens of ideas. Some go nowhere. A handful of them are intriguing but require further discussion. Media relations director Sean Aronson proposes a clever turn on the phrase, “The game isn’t played on paper,” but no one is sure how to play a game ON a paper-covered field without sending half the players to the hospital.
Some ideas are instant grabbers. Ticket sales director Matt Teske notes that 2010 is the 160th anniversary of the kazoo. Bingo, a winner. Weatherman proposes Be Your Own Fannypack Night. “I’ve been asking interns, if you were a fannypack, what would you put in yourself?” Jack said. Teske likes it. “Our fans are so crazy they’d go, ‘Sweet!’ ” he said.
Then Aronson chimes in with this: “This may be sacrilegious around here, but can we take a shot at the State Fair?”
Several people gasp. Weatherman grins. That’s all the encouragement Aronson needs. “Gluttony Night,” he said. “Our shot at what the State Fair stands for.”
Now the room is buzzing. Taping a figurative “Kick Me” sign to a sacred cow, from baseball commissioner Bud Selig to the Minnesota Vikings, cuts to the heart of the Saints’ best promotions.
A friend of Teske once put together a list of 30 things that annoyed him about the Fair; he’ll mine it for ideas. “If he’s got 30 things on the list,” Jack said, “we’ll probably take 15 off.” Someone suggests a scavenger hunt, with a nice prize for the winner. Aronson, rolling, adds another layer:
“What I really want to make fun of is, there’s the birthing center, and five feet away you can buy hamburgers and hot dogs. You can see your food being born.”
Weatherman loves this. And with that, the State Fair Preview Show begins to take shape.
THURSDAY, APRIL 29
The snow, mercifully, is gone. With Opening Day less than two weeks away, the promotions schedule is almost set. Twelve staffers, more than last time, convene in the upstairs room to brainstorm about the State Fair Show (on the calendar for Aug. 20) and two or three other dates.
This time, Saints Vice President Annie Huidekoper — an original club employee whose duties include rallying support for a new Saints ballpark in St. Paul’s Lowertown neighborhood — sits in. Big news is brewing quietly on another front: At Huidekoper’s urging, the Saints are close to signing original Saint Kevin Millar, who had been released by the Cubs in spring training. But no one says anything with a reporter in the room.
Instead, over the next hour, another freewheeling session ensues. Before staffers pass around chocolate-chip cookies, Harmon Killebrew root beer and other goodies — it’s group sales rep Erin Luethi’s birthday — Weatherman encourages everyone to consider the day’s promotion in choosing their game-day wardrobe. “It’s really not lame to dress up for the promotion,” he said. “It really helps sell the idea.”
I’m imagining Weatherman dressed like a cow but decide to keep that one to myself.
When the State Fair date comes up, the suggestions came so quickly and from so many corners of the room that it’s difficult to keep track of who said what.
“How about crap art?” (That’s a riff on crop art.)
“What about stick horses?
“We should jack up our prices.”
“Sell anything on a stick.”
“Can we deep-fry air?”
Weatherman, taking notes furiously, also solicits scavenger hunt suggestions. When the meeting breaks up, he’s got plenty. He files them away; he won’t need them again for four months.
SUNDAY, AUG. 15
At the end of each homestand, Weatherman convenes a small group at Gabe’s Roadhouse, a sports bar about two miles from the ballpark, for a script meeting to flesh out promotional spots for the next homestand. Four people pull up chairs at a round table: Weatherman; promotions assistant Abby Sunderman; Midway public address announcer Joe Wiener; and Andrew Crowley, the Saints’ musical director, organist and sound technician.
Wiener is the cutup of the group. An actor in local theater whose speech and mannerism recall “Saturday Night Live” cast member Phil Hartman, Wiener once recited birthday announcements as Marlon Brando playing Don Corleone in “The Godfather.”
He often drives the creative process by suggesting bits, lines and “business” for the Saints’ troupe of characters known as “ushertainers” — Wiener started with the Saints as one.
State Fair Preview Night, which opens the homestand on Friday, Aug. 20, is first up. For each game, Weatherman scripts 17 bits, one for each half-inning from the middle of the first to the middle of the ninth (if played). Twelve are sponsored or standard every night, such as “What’s in the Bag?” — a takeoff on “Let’s Make a Deal” — where contestants choose between a coupon and something hidden behind a prop supermarket bag. That leaves five half-inning breaks to fill.
Weatherman, remembering Aronson’s idea from six months earlier, throws out, “Can we do something with live birthing?”
“We should,” Wiener said.
They kick it around. Besides ushertainers, the Saints have more than a dozen game-day interns to use as extras or contestants for various bits. Wiener, with a dog-eared five-subject notebook beside him, suggests putting two interns in a cow costume. As Wiener imagines it, the “cow” slides behind a screen, and after a few moments a “vet” removes five unexpected offspring, the last being Japanese ushertainer Seigo Masubuchi. Weatherman likes that; it’s in the show.
Abby, brainstorming, expounds on her State Fair pet peeve — oversized baby strollers, which she says should be banned from the Fairgrounds. That gives rise to a running gag fitting the theme: In breaks featuring races, contestants must navigate around a woman slowly pushing a stroller, oblivious to the people around her.
MONDAY, AUG. 16
Weatherman realizes he needs to incorporate one more thing into Friday’s bits: a marriage proposal. Jesse Wozniak and his girlfriend, Krissy Haltinner, are Saints fans, and Jesse is game to be part of something memorable. Weatherman and Wiener scuttle their plans for “What’s in the Bag?” and rework it to make Haltinner the contestant, with Wozniak popping out behind the last bag with the engagement ring. Beautiful.
The Saints facilitate a handful of proposals every year; Weatherman said this will be the third this season. Some are more memorable than others, and not always for the right reasons. According to Wiener, several years ago, a Saints player proposed to his girlfriend during a between-innings promotion. The staff later learned this player, whom Wiener declined to identify, had done this before, proposing to different women on the field at previous minor-league stops. The wedding never happened.
FRIDAY, AUG. 20
Tonight’s the night. Huidekoper procured a stroller, though it’s small. Whatever, it’ll work. But at 4 p.m., Abby still needs a cow costume. So she calls Twin Cities Magic and Costumes in St. Paul, a Saints sponsor that often lends the team specialty clothes.
There’s a brief snag. The Saints borrowed their cow costume last week, and the person Abby called complains it was returned dirty. Wiener, sitting nearby, disputes this and ad-libs Plan Bs, but Abby secures permission anyway, saving the bit. Before leaving to pick up the costume, Abby also volunteers her boyfriend as a contestant for the Sun Country Airlines East Coast Showdown, which will feature three people chugging half-gallons of milk.
“You mad at him?” Wiener said.
At 4:30 p.m., Weatherman and Wiener meet in the laundry and storage room, overlooking the infield via a garage door, with 14 of the 17 interns working tonight. (Three are coming later.) To get there, Wiener leads me through an open space underneath the stands, past clothing and equipment the Saints use for certain promotions. The ceiling above us is choked with bizarre fuzz that Wiener identifies as asbestos. I hope he’s joking. “We really need a new stadium,” he said.
The interns volunteer for various assignments, and Weatherman briefs them on the “What’s in the Bag” proposal. Wiener then heads for his base of operations, a folding table on top of the Saints’ dugout near third base. He brings one plastic container filled with nine-volt batteries — the wireless microphone he uses goes through one every five innings — and another with his dinner of salad and fruit.
Wiener tapes sheets of printed paper to the table for easy reference and to keep them from blowing away. Promos go on the right side, rosters and a scorecard on the left. Intern Ken Woolums, a 19-year-old from Green Bay who will be a sophomore at the University of Minnesota this fall, is assigned to assist Wiener by keeping score and pointing to the next hitter on the scorecard.
“I’ve really enjoyed it,” Woolums said. “The game-day interns, there are about 30 or so of us, and you get to do a lot of different jobs — getting in promotions, working with Joe, doing a lot of different aspects.”
The goofiest? In one bit, someone in a sumo wrestler costume who was supposed to roll over Woolums jumped on him instead, breaking Woolums’ glasses.
At 6 p.m., Wiener meets with Drew Ailes, aka Mr. Vegas, the night’s lead ushertainer whose character is two parts Elvis and one part Wayne Newton. Ailes, 27, describes himself as “a man of many faces, all of them bald.” In reality, he works for the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, helping the homeless and people with disabilities. “It’s interesting to go from that to here, where my day is not serious at all,” he said.
Because only two of the Saints’ three hand-held microphones are working, Wiener and Ailes hash out a complicated relay system so ushertainers get mikes when they need them. When Wiener tells Ailes about the marriage proposal, his eyes brighten. “Oh my God. That’s adorable,” he said. About 30 minutes later, Ailes briefs the rest of the night’s ushertainers in the cramped locker room downstairs.
Weatherman decides that The Lumberjack, 25-year-old Sam Soule of Minneapolis, will inform Krissy she’s been chosen as a contestant. But, Ailes said, he needs to tell her in the top of the first inning, six outs earlier than usual, giving Jesse time to slip downstairs. Soule nods. Game time is less than an hour away, and the ushertainers must be in the stands by 6:40 p.m. to greet fans. “All right, let’s stink up the joint,” Ailes says.
Wiener, in a Saints jersey and cap, spends 20 minutes before the first pitch introducing more than 100 youth league all stars and their coaches. It’s a thrill for the players but a thankless job for Wiener. One team listed its players but not its coaches, and one coach glares at Wiener when his name is not called. Finally, Wiener announces, “All right, fans, it’s time to play ball!”
Most of the 5,432 spectators are still walking to their seats when Lincoln’s Gavin Dickey cracks the first pitch of the game over the home-run line on the right field wall. On a muggy, overcast night, the energy level at Midway drops dramatically. Even though the Saints rally with two runs in the bottom of the first and go on to win, 5-4, the crowd remains subdued, making laughs harder to come by.
Two stock gags take up the first two half-inning breaks, the Regions Hospital Stretcher Race and the Casey’s General Store Human Pizza Toss. (The pizzas are fake). The middle of the second brings “What’s in the Bag?” Wiener and the Lumberjack sing the intro jingle, set to the tune of the theme from “The Price Is Right.”
Krissy, going along, twice picks the bag. Each time, the Saints’ furry mascot, Mudonna, steps out from behind an oversized bag, holding stuffed bears. The third time, Jesse appears in a Saints cap. “It’s a guy!” Wiener said.
Jesse, holding the second mike, delivers his lines like a pro. “Krissy, I know you don’t believe in the institution of marriage, but I want to spend the rest of my life with you,” he says before pulling the ring box out of his pocket and taking a knee. The crowd roars so loudly that Wiener has to announce, “She said yes!”
The East Coast Showdown after the second inning ends in a three-way tie. Neither Sunderman’s boyfriend nor the other two contestants come close to finishing their milk, and Wiener, feigning disgust, shoos them off the field.
Live birthing is scheduled for the middle of the third. About two hours before, Weatherman said he realized the Saints did not have enough screens to hide all of the cow’s “offspring” from the crowd before their “birth,” vital to preserving the surprise and integrity of the bit. Under the stands, Weatherman and the interns scramble to fashion a large wire box and cover it with a tarp. It takes half-a-dozen interns to carry the monstrosity onto the field, trailing another intern in the white-and-black cow costume.
Though the cow, walking upright, appears surprisingly svelte, Wiener says, “Bessie, I’d say she’s about to pop!” The cow mistakenly enters the box head first, drawing laughs and a quick correction by Wiener. After a few moments of “labor,” Weatherman, as the vet, reaches in and pulls out a hamburger, the exact gag suggested by Aronson six months earlier. Up next: A rubber chicken (“That’s not right,” Wiener said), a treadmill (“What kind of grass are you eating, Bessie?”), Saints mascot The Grizz, and finally a thumb-sucking Masubuchi rolling on the ground. “That can’t have been easy,” Wiener said.
Unfortunately, the crowd seems more confused than anything. Aronson watched the bit play out from the broadcast booth — he is also the team’s play-by-play voice — and shrugged off the reaction. “I think it’s like Dennis Miller’s act at times,” he said. “The first joke, 70 percent of the people get it. The second, 40 percent get it. The third, 10 percent.”
As the night progresses, only Masubuchi’s karaoke sing-along in the middle of the fifth to Weird Al Yankovic’s “Yoda” (inspired by the Kinks’ classic “Lola”) seems to inspire the crowd. It’s an uncomfortable night, and once the mosquitoes start biting in the seventh inning, the place empties out. Woolums earns Wiener’s gratitude by killing bugs landing on his table.
After the game, Weatherman meets with the interns and the staff to review the night. He’s upbeat, but frank. “The proposal was one of the best things we did all year,” Weatherman said. “Live birthing got some laughs and got some confusion. I don’t know what happened after that.”
Said Wiener: “I didn’t have the one-liners I needed to have for the birthing. But it was fun. All in all, it was a pretty good time.
“It’s hard to keep perspective. Zombie Night (where fans dressed the part) really stood out, and Recount Night last year. I wouldn’t say you get jaded, but you want everything to be at a high level, and of course it can’t. Everything went smooth, that’s for sure.
“The best thing of the night was the marriage proposal. People went nuts for it.”