Even preseason is a frenzy for the Saints

Before arriving at Midway Stadium one morning last week, I was expecting a laid-back atmosphere at the field the St. Paul Saints call home.
Granted, the independent Northern League baseball team had signed such past major league greats as Jack Morris and Darryl Strawberry this spring. But come on. This is nothing in comparison to the major leagues, right?
Au contraire.
As I walked through the stadium, the smell of alcohol still lingered in the air from the team’s first exhibition game Monday night. Thatdidn’t surprise me. Tailgating and relatively cheap beer are reasons most fans flock to the 7,000-seat stadium.
Once I walked onto the field to interview some of the players, I was shocked to see several television cameras and a slew of reporters. Among the sports-crazed journalists were crews from ESPN and CBS. Dave Wright, the Saints public relations director, said many reporters attended last week’s exhibition games to do stories on Morris and Strawberry.
But reporters were also following the story of Dave Stevens, a former college football player and wrestler at Augsburg who was born without legs. Stevens, a catcher, was promised to play at least one inning during the Saints’ three-game exhibition season last week.
In a sense, the attention Stevens has received lately is degrading. During Wednesday night’s exhibition game against Fargo-Moorhead, one of eight teams in the Northern League, Stevens was hounded by the media. Whenever he attempted to warm-up near the Saints’ bullpen, camera operators promptly picked up their equipment to record his every move.
Yet his athleticism deserves attention. Stevens moves by using only his arms and for being so low to the ground, he can throw remarkably far.
Wright, who was hired as the Saints’ first employee when the team and league formed four years ago, said there has been more media coverage this year than ever before. Last week’s coverage was overwhelming, to say the least.
“It was hectic,” Wright said. “For three exhibition games, we’re trying to get our stuff together too. So (the media attention) came very close to getting in the way at times. But that’s a very good problem to have. Everybody was very cooperative.”
Placing Strawberry, Morris and Stevens on the Saints roster is Mike Veeck’s biggest coup of the year. Veeck, the team’s president and co-owner, has popularized the team with his creative and attention-grabbing gimmicks.
Fans can get massages during the games, and instead of watching the cartoon tire races on the Metrodome’s big screen, Saints fans watch live tire races along the warning track in the stadium.
This year’s media frenzy at Saints games made it impossible to accommodate all the reporters. This Daily reporter and other media personnel were not even offered a seat in the tiny press box at the stadium. But sitting in the stands with the rest of the fans was more enjoyable than any media accommodations could have been.
In addition to enjoying a good game of baseball on a cool spring evening, my colleague and I quickly learned how personable the Saints fans can be. Before we even realized it, free beer was being handed to everyone in Section A.
Evidently we were seated by a number of people holding a company outing. And when Wally the Beer Man, a popular vender in town, stopped by our section, some guy stood up and said, “Give beer to everyone in this section.” Of course, we didn’t object.
It’s all part of the atmosphere, and it’s the reason why attending a Saints game is so much more colorful than a Twins game. And this year, fans will not only enjoy the atmosphere, but they will actually know the names of the players thanks to Veeck.
Former Gophers baseball player J.T. Bruett, who is trying to play in the majors again after a short stint with the Twins in 1992 and 1993, said he doesn’t mind all the attention the team has received lately.
“Here with the Saints, it’s the love of the game that the guys are playing here,” Bruett said.