From their inception in 1993, the independent St. Paul Saints gained a nationwide reputation for quirky characters and zany promotions — the pig mascot, a nun giving massages, usher-tainers on the dugouts, snarky theme nights, all that stuff.
In between the funny business the Saints played actual baseball, some of it really, really, good – at least, it used to be. The Saints won three Northern League titles in their first four seasons under manager Marty Scott. They added another in 2004, the second season for current manager George Tsamis.
But once the Saints bolted the Northern League with three other teams in 2005 to form the American Association, the championships stopped. The Saints won their only A.A. division title in 2006, lost back-to-back league finals in ’06 and ’07, then made the playoffs only once the next seven seasons – another championship series loss in 2011.
Lately, playing even .500 ball has proven problematic. The Saints closed out Midway Stadium with back-to-back losing seasons, blowing a playoff berth last year with an epic 4-21 nosedive from August 8 on. Nothing funny about that, particularly to Tsamis.
“Last year we were doing well for the first three months and then we just collapsed,” Tsamis said in his office before a game earlier this week. “It was as devastating as (anything in) all my years of managing. We just didn’t get it done. There are no excuses.”
A lot more blame falls on managers in independent ball, since they’re responsible for finding and signing players. It’s much more challenging now than 10 years ago. Independent leagues operate coast to coast, giving players more choices. Better players gravitate to newer ballparks, not deteriorating facilities like Midway.
Still, losing is losing. Did the Saints consider firing Tsamis, the former Twins lefthander, after 12 seasons?
“The short answer is, no,” Saints board chairman Marv Goldklang said in a telephone interview. “I hired George. I loved George, and I still love him. When you look at the passion and the effort George brings to the ballpark every day, I don’t think you can do any better.”
So Tsamis moved with the Saints to new CHS Field in Lowertown. Upgraded facilities begat upgraded talent. Tsamis assembled a team that ran away with its first North Division title in nine years; set club records for victories, homers and runs scored; didn’t lose a series until August; and entered Friday a remarkable 71-25. That’s two more victories than the Twins, who started the season a month-and-a-half earlier.
Will a championship be next? The Saints open the best-of-five Association semifinals next Wednesday in Sioux City, Iowa., against the only team with a better record (72-23). Game 3 will be Sept. 12 in St. Paul, with Games 4 and 5 if necessary on Sept. 13 and 14. The winner advances to the championship series beginning Sept. 16.
“George put together a great group of guys that focused on winning as the main goal, as opposed to doing as great as I can so I can go on to other things,” said catcher Vinny DiFazio, a former Texas Rangers farmhand who leads the Association in batting (.365) and OPS (1.059). “I think the guys in the locker room this year, the chemistry was palpable from Day 1. We knew that we had a kind of a bond here, and everyone had that same goal – win, above all.”
Wednesday night the Saints won their 70th game dramatically, obliterating a 4-0 second-inning deficit in a 10-4 pounding of the Gary Southshore Railcats. DiFazio (three RBI) and Angelo Songco (one) finished the night as the Association co-leaders with 80 RBI, matching David Kennedy’s 1997 club record. Each has 16 homers, with Songco batting .338.
The Saints win with balance. Six players hit at least 10 homers. Four pitchers have won 10 or more games, topped by Kramer Sneed (15-3, 2.83 ERA), who tied the Association record for victories, and Dustin Crenshaw (14-2, 2.42), whose three shutouts set a club mark. The Saints lead the Association in homers and fielding percentage while ranking second in ERA. The .980 fielding percentage will be a club record if it holds up.
That’s a far cry from last year. A nine-game losing streak began the collapse, and the season ended with six straight losses. That left Tsamis worried about his future.
“You always think that when things don’t go right,” Tsamis said “You hope it doesn’t happen, but you know it’s a possibility. It’s the business. In baseball or football, when things don’t go well, it’s the manager or the head coach that gets fired.”
Goldklang said he always admired Tsamis’ intensity, which isn’t always evident in his unassuming manner. For a former major-leaguer, Tsamis carries himself with surprisingly little self-importance.
For decades Goldklang owned a minority stake in the New York Yankees, and he once invited Tsamis and his wife to a game at the renovated Yankee Stadium. As Goldklang walked to meet them, he noticed Tsamis gesturing toward the right field roof where the facade used to be. Goldklang presumed Tsamis was showing his wife the spot where Mickey Mantle nearly hit a ball out of the Stadium in 1963.
“He said, ‘That’s where Matt Nokes took me,’ “ Goldklang said.
Goldklang thinks last year’s finish bothered Tsamis for weeks, if not months. Last winter Tsamis said he dug deeper into the backgrounds of potential players, searching for more like the selfless DiFazio and Songco, who were among a handful Tsamis retained.
“We’ve had some good years. We’ve had some bad years. But I don’t think I turned into a dummy overnight,” Tsamis said.
“This year, we had the right group of guys. We have guys who care about winning. They hurt when we don’t win. Those are the kind of guys you want, not guys who go out there and care if they got two hits, and it doesn’t matter what happens during the game.”
Did Tsamis lack those guys last year? “It appears that way,” he said.
All this happened with a roster in flux. Even now, three key players are questionable for the playoffs.
Outfielder Mike Kvasnicka, the former University of Minnesota standout, left the team when his wife gave birth. Songco’s wife is due any day. And Hamline graduate Dan Kaczrowski, the second baseman Tsamis coaxed out of retirement to fill an early-season need, will miss the first two road playoffs because he’s a schoolteacher. So at the Aug. 28 trade deadline Tsamis swung two deals and signed three free agents, wrapping up final details via cell phone from the dugout during a game.
“We didn’t just do it for the hell of it,” Tsamis said. “We did it because guys could be gone and we need to replace them. All the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve never had a crazier, busier deadline day. Right now I’m so happy with the team we have.”
Wednesday, Tsamis was in his element. In mid-afternoon he watched the Yankees-Red Sox game in his office with Pink Floyd pumping through the speakers on his computer. Then, with the Saints facing a lefthander that night, Tsamis threw batting practice to the entire team, wiping sweat off his forehead with the front of his T-shirt as “Good Times Roll” by the Cars played on the public address system. (Tsamis loves classic rock.) A few hours later, the Saints wrapped up another victory.
“From Day 1, we knew everyone had the skill set and the work ethic to want to win,” Songco said. “That’s what George looks for. Luckily this year we put it together the way we wanted. All that’s left now is to win a championship.”