As the Saints opened their season Tuesday in Omaha, the team opened CHS Stadium to fans who wanted an early taste of what Triple-A baseball in St. Paul will look like. For 5 bucks, 200 fans spectators got a beautiful, crisp night and their pick of seats to watch the Saints’ game against the Storm Chasers streamed on the screen in left-center field.
In the age of COVID, it seemed appropriate — baseball via Zoom. That won’t be the case next Tuesday, when the Saints open a six-game series against the Iowa Cubs. The Saints are expecting a “full house” of 2,100 for that game, the 27 percent allowed under current Minnesota Department of Health Guidelines. The team hopes that will grow as the season progresses and vaccinations rise.
For those who attended Tuesday, more of a small party than a baseball game, a little is enough right now. Some watched from the outfield, playing catch while the sun remained out, and they were the first to hear the name of the official 2021 ball pig. It’s Space Ham.
All in all, a very St. Paul Saints night in Lowertown.
Only the game was a bust. The Saints lost, 8-2, to the Kansas City Royals’ top affiliate at Omaha’s Warner Park. Right-hander Jackson Kowar, the Royals’ No. 4 prospect, fanned a career-high nine in 5.1 innings and retired 10 consecutive batters until infielder Zander Wiel singled with two out in the fifth inning.
Saints starter Andrew Albers gave up seven earned runs on eight hits — three of them home runs — in four innings. Catcher Ryan Jeffers hit a two-run home run in the seventh inning for St. Paul’s first runs of the season.
That’s OK. Tuesday was less about watching a game on a (relatively) big screen and more about being out of the house and at the ballpark. “It’s a beautiful night. It’s just wonderful to sit in this ballpark,” said Richard Rousseau of St. Paul. “And of course, the whole pandemic thing, everything couldn’t be better in terms of getting out. Everything is far more enjoyable than it ever was.”
Rousseau and his wife, Paulet, have been attending Saints games since the team started at Midway Stadium in 1993. Big Twins fans, they’re eager to see Twins prospects, and the occasional rehabbing big leaguer, at CHS Field.
“I’d come here anyway,” Richard said, “but the idea of being able to see people at the Triple-A level, and perhaps some of them that are going to go over and play in Minneapolis, that’s really big. It’s tremendous, because this ballpark is just beautiful.”
For others, the new affiliation won’t change much.
“We’re really excited for the Triple-A association, but mostly we just love all the antics of the Saints,” said Ashley Keul. “It’s just a blast; we have so much fun. It’s affordable hometown baseball. We love local ball.”
Keul and Beth Bundy have been Saints fans since moving from St. Peter to Minneapolis. Before that, it was the Mankato Moondogs. “We just love everything about this place, the smaller stadium, it’s just so cozy and fun,” Bundy said.
In an early indication that the Saints will remain local, the team officially named its pig, something the Saints have done since “The Saint” first lugged balls to the umpire in 1993. There were about 1,2000 official suggestions submitted for the annual contest to name the pig, and from here Hamala Harris and Squeal-On Musk seemed better than Space Ham. But note that there is a second “Space Jam” movie scheduled for release on July 16.
Also note that Saints co-owner Bill Murray was a star of the original “Space Jam” in 1995 and wore a Saints while helping Michael Jordan and the Looney Toons beat some monsters in basketball and save a princess or the Cartoon World or something. It feels a little corporate for the Saints, but it’s also a cartoon with Bill Murray in it, so it’s on brand.
“I’m not worried about the Saints’ dynamic changing at all,” said Joe Lawrence of Savage, who was at the park with his son, Brody, on Tuesday and also moonlights as a Saints usher. “I work here. I know how it works, and I like being a part of that.”