Independent Organization Of The Year

Fun is good motto pays off for St. Paul





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ST. PAUL--After their inaugural 2006 season in the new American Association, the St. Paul Saints went to Japan for a series of exhibition games. That journey sparked a new promotion that will be unveiled at a Saints home game in 2007: Japanese Heritage Night, which will provide both serious and humorous angles.

"One of the most interesting things about that one is going to be when we ask people to take off their shoes as they enter the ballpark," Saints general manager Derek Sharrer said. "We'll have about 12,000 shoes somewhere near the front gate, which should be interesting."

ST. PAUL SAINTS
Principal Owners: Marvin Goldklang, Mike Veeck, Bill Murray
Chairman: Marv Goldkang. President: Mike Veeck.
Executive Vice President, General Manager: Derek Sharrer. VP, Business Development: Tom Whaley. Assistant GM: Eben Yager. Community Relations/Customer Service Director: Annie Huidekoper. Sales/ Marketing Director: Dan Lehv. Promotions Director: Jack Weatherman. Director, Ticket Sales: Matt Bomberg. Ticket Sales Manager: Matt Teske. Ticket Manager/IT Coordinator: Ryan Wiese. Special Events Manager: Amy Heimer. Media Relations Director: Dave Wright. Promotions Director: Mike Nachreiner. Group Sales Director: Jeremy Loosbrock. Merchandise Director: Amy Alt. Concessions Director: Curtis Nachtsheim. Controller: Wayne Engel. Business Manager: Leesa Anderson. Stadium Operations Director: Bob Klepperich. Groundskeeper: Connie Rudolph.
That brand of goofy fun is the essence of the Saints, who have been named the first-ever Independent League Organization of the Year by Baseball America. The Saints were the keystone franchise in the development of independent baseball, and after 14 years they continue to set a pace for others to follow.

The players who have worn the Saints uniform include Leon Durham, Darryl Strawberry, Jack Morris, J.D. Drew and female pitcher Ila Borders. A pig brings baseballs to the umpire, a nun gives massages in the stands. In the midst of a major league work stoppage, fans were given seat cushions with the face of Bud Selig on one side and Don Fehr on the other.

But the Saints' success goes beyond fun and reaches to the games. The Saints have been a playoff team 10 times, won four Northern Leagues titles and lost to Fort Worth in the 2006 American Association championship series.

They routinely sell out 6,069-seat Midway Stadium, a no-frills municipal bandbox that was built in 1981 mainly as a place for high school baseball.

Tailgating has become a lost art in the Twin Cities (home of the sterile Metrodome), but fans arrive hours before Saints games to barbecue and relax. Players and coaches routinely stroll through the parking lot to mingle with fans who become friends.

"We know we're not putting the top players in the world on the field," Sharrer said. "But if a fan wants to come to a quaint, outdoor venue where it's affordable and the focus is on family and they can get a few laughs, I think that's always been our approach."

Fun Is Still Good

Indeed, laughter is the key to the Saints. Mike Veeck, whose professional credo is "Fun is Good," helped plant the seeds of the club's success in 1993 by attracting media attention and selling the concept of independent baseball, inevitably with an eye on a good gag. Veeck is one of the owners of the team along with Marv Goldklang and actor Bill Murray, and the Goldklang Group also owns several other franchises in indy and affiliated ball.

"It's always about the laughs," Veeck said. "Going to a baseball game should be about 35 percent for the baseball, 65 percent for a good time. No matter what level, if you're appealing only to the baseball purists, you're going to have a lot of empty seats."

Saints' promotions in 2005 included Comb-Over Night and Pillow Fight Night. Sharrer said one of the most memorable promotions was a night devoted to space exploration.

"I think we called it, 'To Mars and Back,' " he said. "We lined up our starters from home plate out to center field in a row and introducing them as planets in the solar system. (Outfielder) Adam Olow was unhappy at being placed in the Uranus spot. It just didn't roll off the tongue to say, 'And Uranus, Adam Olow.' "

But, of course, everyone thought it was hilarious.

"It starts with an approach of no idea is a bad idea," said Sharrer, who previously worked for other Goldklang teams, the Fort Myers Miracle (Florida State) and Charleston RiverDogs (South Atlantic). "We have any number of scheduled meetings where we sit down and brainstorm and bounce things off the wall, but probably the more important time is the everyday interaction between the staff.

"Someone walks in after listening to the radio and has heard something that triggered an idea, or there's something in the news or current-events-wise. We just try to communicate every day all day, and as something pops up we throw it out. Once the idea goes through five or six different filters, it comes out the end as an idea that hopefully will work."

Standing Out In The Crowd

Some promotions are more off-the-cuff, usually as a response to breaking news. The best example came in 2002 after Selig declared the major league All-Star Game a tie. The Saints had a home game the next day, and when fans entered the ballpark they were given neckties bearing Selig's face.

Part of the Saints' challenge is to maintain a profile in the crowded Twin Cities sports scene. With the Twins, NFL Vikings, NBA Timberwolves, NHL Wild and University of Minnesota all competing for fans, the Saints have had to carve out a niche that goes beyond winning, losing and big-name, big-money athletes.

"When I was younger, I didn't really follow the Saints that much," said Nick Gretz, a Saints first baseman/DH and Twin Cities native who retired this fall after three seasons with the Saints. "I didn't know any of the players. But I knew a lot of the Twins players."

The team drew the scorn of its big league brother in those days, with Twins executives calling it little more than a beer league team, but over time the Saints have earned their place in the market. They're still the irreverent little team in the shadow of the big leagues, but they've proven their staying power.

Saints manager George Tsamis, who was a relief pitcher for the Twins in 1993, said he believes his club is equal parts baseball and entertainment.

"I think it's a little bit of both," he said. "We have great fans and they get into every game. They're baseball fans who are here to have a good time."

In their crowded offices at Midway Stadium, Sharrer and the rest of the Saints staff is already thinking about ways to maintain that balance in 2007 and make sure fans continue to have a good time.

"We like to think if it's going to make us laugh, it's going to make fans laugh," Sharrer said.

And when the fans laugh, everybody wins.