August 30, 1993 isn’t a date ingrained in most people’s minds. But as the St. Paul Saints transition from independent ball into Class AAA as the Twins’ top farm club, that date is worth examining, because it may offer a peek at the future of minor league baseball’s most irreverent franchise.
That’s the night The Late Show with David Letterman debuted on CBS, three months into the Saints’ first season. (Letterman’s first guest? Bill Murray, coincidently a Saints minority owner.) CBS was probably the most buttoned-down of the three major networks at that time, and viewers and critics wondered how Letterman’s freewheeling wackiness, honed over more than a decade hosting Late Night on NBC, would transfer.
It didn’t take long to see things would be different. Letterman walked out in a slick double-breasted suit and dress shoes instead of his usual blue blazer and white sneakers, and a dispute with NBC rebranded The World’s Most Dangerous Band as (ugh) The CBS Orchestra. The jig was up. To these eyes the show lost a little of its edge, and New Dave was never as funny or clever as Old Dave. That’s what happens when corporate overlords cast a shadow.
The Saints, meanwhile, forged a popular path far from the mainstream. Co-owner Mike Veeck’s Fun Is Good slogan, copped from Dr. Seuss, emphasized gags and entertainment over the steely machinations of baseball. Though the Saints usually fielded good teams, winning three league titles their first four seasons and five overall (the last in 2019), they made their name in entertainment.
Fans loved it all — the pig mascot, the nun giving massages, the usher-tainers, the smartass MCs. Not counting the pandemic-ravaged 2020, the Saints led their league in attendance seventeen times in 27 seasons, including five straight after moving from Midway Stadium to CHS Field in 2015. In 2019 the Saints averaged 8,061 per game, eighth-highest in all minor-league baseball, topped only by seven Class AAA teams in larger stadiums. Most minor league teams stole something from the Saints’ playbook.
“All I was trying to do in ’93 was position the Saints away from (affiliated) baseball,” Veeck said. “We’d have gone out of business in 45 days, as Sid Hartman predicted, had we said, ‘Come and see some great baseball. Come and see guys play baseball the way it should be played.’ Anything like that would have doomed us. But fun, affordable, family, that’s what Fun Is Good stood for.”
Last week, in a Zoom video conference with reporters, Twins president Dave St. Peter and principal owner Jim Pohlad insisted they want the Saints remain the Saints. “Over time, I predict we will see more Saints influence on the Target Field experience than we will Twins influence on the CHS Field experience,” St. Peter said. Added Pohlad: “I’ve always admired the Saints…We have no desire to change the personality of the club at all, because I like it.”
That was interesting, since one of the Saints’ longest-running gags features club interns dragging the infield dirt twice a night dressed in, well, drag. The chances of the Twins incorporating that into the Target Field experience? Zero. (Not to mention that particular bit is tired and needs to go.)
Then again, the Twins would be foolish to mess with a crowd-pleasing formula, especially after buying a minority stake in the Saints as part of the 10-year affiliation agreement. (An industry source believes the Saints will turn that cash around to pay MLB’s required multi-million fee to join Class AAA.)
Though the Twins made the Saints part ways with longtime manager George Tsamis and his coaches to assign their own field staff, they left general manager Derek Scharrer, executive vice president Tom Whaley, promotions director Sierra Bailey and the rest of the front office in place.
“That’s the strength of the Saints,” Veeck said. “I would put this group of people who have run the Saints since we moved into CHS Field up against any organization in the country, in terms of their marketing prowess and their capability. They know what a good show is.”
The Saints nickname and primary uniforms aren’t changing, either. Sharrer said the club considered color scheme changes before the pandemic hit, and may incorporate a Twins-themed design into an alternate set of uniforms. Ticket prices will also remain the same. Minor-league baseball scrapped the 10,000-seat requirement for Class AAA stadiums, so there’s no need to expand CHS Field beyond its listed 7,210 capacity.
“We’re grateful with the approach the Twins have taken in this entire conversation,” Sharrer said. “In a conversation I had with Dave, he used the term ‘special sauce.’ The last thing we want to see happen is the Saints lose their special sauce because of an affiliation with anyone in major league baseball, let alone the Minnesota Twins. They want to see us be successful as the Saints because they’ll benefit from that.”
At least the Saints came out of this in a better position than some minor-leagues clubs and leagues, left out in the cold by MLB’s unprecedented power grab.
Remember, it was MLB, not the Saints, who floated the affiliation notion in a document Baseball America obtained in October 2019. With the Professional Baseball Agreement between MLB and Minor League Baseball expiring this year, MLB proposed a major restructuring, trimming affiliated clubs from 160 to 120 while reorganizing leagues to reduce the distance between MLB clubs and their top affiliates. MLB thought the Twins and Saints, with stadiums about 10 miles apart, made perfect partners.
“It came completely out of left field,” said Marv Goldklang, chairman of the Goldklang Group, the New Jersey-based sports entertainment firm that owns the Saints and two other minor-league clubs. “I think MLB was simply looking at the map and saw what made geographic sense. When the list came out, it caught us completely by surprise.”
No other major-league club and Class AAA affiliate are that close, and the proximity not only figures to save the Twins $500,000 or so in airfare and hotels for callups, it will give fans the chance to see the club’s top prospects, like shortstop Royce Lewis and outfielder Trevor Larnach, and established stars in St. Paul on rehab assignments. St. Paul hasn’t had a Class AAA franchise since 1960, when a previous incarnation of the Saints — then a Dodgers farm club— moved to Omaha to make way for the Twins.
The Goldklang Group formerly owned the Twins’ Class A club in Fort Myers, so Goldklang and Veeck know Pohlad, St. Peter and Twins management. That familiarity helped when formal negotiations began in late spring, around the time Saints agreeing to let the Twins use CHS Field as their alternate training site.
From their arrangement with the Twins in Ft. Myers, Veeck expects some limitations on bits and gags, like not involving players. But he takes Pohlad and St. Peter at their word. Baseball desperately needs to attract a younger audience, and Veeck suspects MLB will be too busy managing the pandemic and negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with the players to pay much attention to the Saints.
And if the Saints cross a line? Veeck, with a chuckle, says they’ll ask for forgiveness. “For two years we’re going to have a honeymoon period with Major League Baseball.,” he said. “They’re going to have their hands full. And if we do our jobs the right way, we’ll have convinced them how important an element we can play.”