Photo credit: Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press
Arts & Culture Featured Sports


The International League’s new addition

By Andrew Kulyk and Peter Farrell

The St. Paul Saints are in Buffalo this week for a six game series against the Buffalo Bisons. Long time Bisons fans who have been familiar with the league and its teams and rivalries are probably still trying to figure out… just who are the Saints?

So we recently traveled to St. Paul, Minnesota, another Ultimate Sports Road Trip adventure, to check out their ballpark and learn more about this franchise. What we found was a city and team steeped in baseball tradition, a history that goes back even farther than that of the Buffalo Bisons, and a history of independent baseball that helped transcend the game, the event and the covenant with baseball fans everywhere.

The Saints joined the International League in 2021, this happening when Major League Baseball condensed their minor league footprint into 120 franchises spanning A, AA and AAA. St. Paul made the cut, thanks to its brand new ballpark, CHS Field in downtown St. Paul. The venue more than met the stringent new facility standards required by their MLB partners, and helping their cause was its proximity to Minneapolis and the Minnesota Twins, who were looking for a new home for their AAA affiliate after ending things with the Rochester Red Wings. Combined with the world emerging from Covid and a committed ownership group ready to join organized professional baseball, the St. Paul Saints officially joined the AAA level as the Twins’ top minor league affiliate.

Yet even now, the Saints are still synonymous with independent league baseball. We’re talking crazy and zany entertainment based events where the game itself was secondary to the promotions and antics of game day presentation which helped propel this team and its brand to one of the most noted teams in all of baseball.

Mike Veeck, whose father Bill Veeck was the marker of the “Fun Is Good” mantra, owned the team. That slogan was the rallying cry for teams he ran back in the day. Add co-owner, comedian Bill Murray to the mix, and the things they did were quite outlandish, even more so by today’s standards.

Want examples? Back in 2003, a team giveaway was a “Randy Moss hood ornament”, commemorating the former Minnesota Viking player who was involved in a fender bender with a Minneapolis police car. Four years later it was a “Michael Vick chew toy” a memento right in the middle of all the uproar over Vick’s involvement with a dogfighting ring.

Disgraced politicians haven’t gone unscathed either by Veeck’s promotion happy crew, who held a “tweeting wiener” boxer short promotion, referencing former New York congressman Anthony Weiner. But the top prize from this corner has to go to the “Bobblefoot Dolls”, 2500 of which were passed out to lucky fans in May of 2008. What’s that, you wonder? A former United States Senator, Republican (yes a Republican, we’re shocked!) Larry Craig of Idaho was arrested in a men’s room toilet stall at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, allegedly looking to hook up between connecting flights by tapping his feet to signal interest from like minded men. So what do the Saints come up with… But of course a giveaway depicting two feet peeking out from under a bathroom stall.

All this took place at the old Midway Stadium, a honky tonk neighborhood stadium halfway between Minneapolis and St. Paul, That since demolished stadium was quite a different experience than today’s CHS Field, a gleaming new ballpark which anchors the historic Lowertown District of downtown St. Paul, a neighborhood which is much of a collection of restored and renovated brick buildings converted into lofts, office and shops. Just two blocks away is St. Paul’s Union Depot, an incredibly restored train station now serving as a transit hub for Amtrak, bus lines and the light rail Green Line which connects to downtown Minneapolis (think Buffalo’s central Terminal on the east side, just not dilapidated).

“We’re umm, probably more of a bit more buttoned down experience today than back then, being in organized baseball and AAA and all,” stated Andy Helwig, who is on the St. Paul Saints broadcast crew and works in the team’s public relations department. “That being said, about the only thing that has really changed is our players now come down here from the Twins. We have to stay within the lines of Major League Baseball guidelines, for instance we can’t paint the field in crazy colors like they used to. Otherwise the shenanigans are still fair game.”

Helwig is a Buffalo native, grew up in Alden, attended Canisius High School and then Canisius University, and got to call his first broadcast while still in high school, a volleyball game of all things.  While still in college, he interned with the Buffalo Bisons, helping with the team’s radio broadcasts, and eventually landed this gig with the Saints.

Yet Helwig still keeps strong ties to his Buffalo roots, coming home each winter to serve as the radio voice for Canisius College men’s basketball. And if you’re trying to reach Helwig by phone at his apartment, just a short walk from CHS Field, you have to start with the numbers 7-1-6.

CHS Field, one of the newer ballparks in AAA baseball, is a far cry from Buffalo’s Sahlen Field, which is the oldest. Seating capacity is listed at 7210, a single concourse with resplendent views of the field wrap the entire infield and baselines, with an upper level offering amenities such as suites, party decks and an exclusive premium supper club. “Lowertown is a very arts oriented district, and here at the ballpark too we have a gallery where local artists display their works. And even during last season, we had artists in various outfield positions painting their versions of the game in real time. So this has been a good working relationship between the Saints and the artists community.”

A walking tour of CHS Field is not unlike many of the newer peer venues that dot the national landscape. Yet there are some unique features… Most of the outfield seats are sold in groupings surrounding propane operated firepits, offering warmth on a cold Minnesota night. Fans purchasing tickets in these seats are provided kits that contain warm wool caps, and ingredients to prepare their own s’mores right at their seats.

Then there is a homeplate concourse area display aptly named “Monument Pork”, paying homage to the generations of pigs, yes pigs, that delivered baseballs to the home plate umpire at the games, a tradition that continues to this day.

This year’s mascot is named “Ozem Pig”, a takeoff on a well known and popular diabetes drug now being put into use for weight loss. That mascot name has caused quite a stir on social media, with some calling it clever while others claim it to be hurtful to those desperately seeking therapies for obesity. The team has stuck by the name.Yet if there was one takeaway from this ballpark experience that we could bring back to Buffalo and to the Bisons front office, it was this… a full museum, situated down the third base side, named “City of Baseball”. There the great story of St. Paul baseball is told through interactive exhibits, artifacts, murals and displays. It was one of the most comprehensive collections of baseball memorabilia that we have seen anywhere in Minor League Baseball, save for Huntington Park in Columbus. Says Helwig, “For the lifers here who were so integral to Saints baseball, this is so meaningful to have this collection here that tells such a story. It really ties in the people who have just been here in the AAA days to those who put this franchise on the map and built it across the generations.”

Helwig is in year four of his affiliation with the St. Paul Saints. “It’s been a wild ride” he says, while sharing how his entire path to St. Paul began with a reply to a job posting seeking a media relations assistant. Yet Helwig seemed a bit embarassed when we rattled off the names of other baseball broadcasters who cut their teeth with the Buffalo Bisons and went on to greater things… Jim Rosenhaus, Pete Weber, Greg Brown, Ben Wagner. “I think I got a ways to go”, Helwig laughed. “Buffalo will always be home base. Sahlen Field will always have a home feeling for me.”

So this week, Andy Helwig will be making the trip to Buffalo and help call games to his hometown listeners back in the Twin Cities. But the next time the Buffalo Bisons make the journey to St. Paul, we’d suggest they take a contingent of front office people on that trip. To listen, to explore, to experience, and to glean ideas as Sahlen Field continues its reimagination and refurbishment in the short and long terms.

The firepits. The museum. The downtown district. The art. All good. A live pig trolling home plate? Not so much!

About the author

Jamie Moses

Jamie Moses founded Artvoice in 1990

Add Comment

Click here to post a comment