For someone with one of the more secure jobs in baseball, St. Paul Saints Manager George Tsamis hasn’t spent much effort personalizing his office at CHS Field. Other than a panoramic photo of the ballpark behind his desk and a flatscreen TV tuned to the MLB Network, the walls are bare. Nothing identifies the space as his. It’s almost like he’s renting the place.
And yet, in the crazy history of the independent Saints — formed in 1993 and still yucking it up after all these years — no one has managed the club longer than Tsamis. He arrived in 2003, won a Northern League title in 2004, and never left, even as the Saints changed leagues (joining the American Association in 2006) and stadiums. This is his 16th season with the Saints, the longest tenure of any active pro coach or manager in the Twin Cities.
Tsamis has a contract, but club co-owner Marv Goldklang isn’t sure when it expires, and plans to renew it whenever Tsamis tells him it’s up. That’s the kind of relationship they have. Tsamis won his 1,000th game back in June, the fifth manager in independent ball to reach that milestone. More than 800 victories have come with the Saints, whom Tsamis just guided to the playoffs for the third time in four seasons and ninth overall.
“You’re not going to find a better situation,” he said before a game last week. “I’ll be managing here as long as they let me. I have no desire to go anywhere else.”
Said Goldklang: “We love having him here, and he loves being here. I don’t know why you would break up that marriage.”
The volatility of independent ball, a low-paying grind where leagues, franchises and players come and go, can be daunting. Tsamis was fortunate to land with the Saints, one of independent ball’s signature franchises, known for their goofy promotions (Bobblefoot Night, anyone?), outrageous usher-tainers (that means you, Seigo Masubuchi) and ball-carrying pig mascots (this year’s entry: Porknite).
Fun still draws, though it took moving to new CHS Field in 2015 for the Saints to reverse a downturn in attendance. The last four seasons the Saints averaged better than 8,000 per game, by far the best in the Association. The Saints lost outdoor exclusivity when the Twins opened Target Field in 2010, and a certain charm leaving aging Midway Stadium, but so far haven’t lost their quirky appeal.
In the midst of the madness, Tsamis tries to assemble a winning team. Managers in independent leagues double as player personnel directors, recruiting and signing players, and that’s the part Tsamis loves. It’s different in the affiliated minors, where MLB parent clubs supply the players, and managers are often told who to play and where. Tsamis is under no such restraints. Most days, he still throws batting practice while the aroma of grilling meat fills the ballpark.
“Putting the team together in the off-season, I really enjoy that,” said Tsamis, who lives in central Connecticut and keeps a seasonal apartment in St. Paul. “That’s half the fun, man. Most of the guys we sign, we’ve never seen them play. You’re going on what they’ve done in the past. You try to get as many reports as you can from people, but sometimes they’re not even accurate.
“Once they get here, if they’re not the right guys … you need the right guys to win, man. At this level, you don’t need the best guys. You need the right guys, not the guys who are here to get two hits and then just go to the bar. You want the guys who are here to win games and do well.”
Three in-season Tsamis additions helped this year’s Saints jell. Free agent Burt Reynolds signed in late June and hit 15 home runs. An early July trade brought former major-league infielder Zach Walters (.300, nine homers) from the Kansas City T-Bones. And in early August, shortstop Joey Wong (.272) cold-called Tsamis after being released by the Mets’ Class AA club in Binghamton. He got Tsamis’ number from Binghamton teammate Josh Allen, who began the season here.
The Saints won 20 games in August, tying the franchise record for a month. Center fielder Kyle Barrett finished the season on a 27-game hitting streak, second longest in club history. Third baseman Dante Bichette Jr., a former Yankees prospect and the son of the former major-leaguer, had a 24-game streak through much of August. Right fielder Max Murphy’s 136 hits for the season set a club record, and first baseman Brady Shoemaker (.309, 14 homers) and catcher Justin O’Conner (17 homers) were named Association post-season All-Stars.
“I really like how he’s a win first, and really win only, mentality,” said Bichette, a first-round pick in 2011 who never rose higher than Class AA and signed with the Saints this spring. “It can be taken a lot of different ways. He’ll piss people off, and sometimes he’ll piss me off, but at the end of the day he wins games. You’ve got to love that. It’s good for the team. It’s good to have a bottom-line type of guy running the team.”
Tsamis sensed his players tiring late in the season, so he made batting practice optional. The the Saints faltered anyway, losing three straight the final week to blow a two-game lead in the North Division to the Gary SouthShore RailCats. Both teams finished 59-41, but Gary won the season series to claim the division title and home field advantage in their best-of-five Association semifinal. Rain on Tuesday postponed Game 1, giving the Saints a badly-needed day off, and the club responded the next night with a 4-0 home victory. They also won Thursday night, 8-2, to go up two games to none. The series shifts to Gary on Friday night for remaining games.
It’s been 14 years since the Saints won the last of their four league championships, the only one under Tsamis, and the inability to add to that gnaws at him. Three times — in 2006, 2007 and 2011 — the Saints reached the deciding Game 5 of the championship series and lost.
“It’s been way too long since we’re won a championship,” Tsamis said. “Been plenty of opportunities. It’s my job to put the best team out there and try to get a championship. We feel our guys are playing well, especially the last month. They got hot at the right time, but we’ve got to keep it going.”
If it doesn’t work out, Tsamis should be back next season to try again. Goldklang believes only a major-league coaching offer could pry Tsamis from Lowertown.
“Whether it’s baseball or any other field or endeavor, if you can be doing what you really love doing in a place where you enjoy doing it, working with people who you like working with, and earning a living that can support your family at the same time, why look for anything else?” Goldklang said. “My own sense is that George has found a home. After 16 years, he has a sense of security.”
Even if his office decor suggests otherwise.