Just in time for Independence Day, independent baseball is back.
Once upon a time, the plan was for Major League Baseball to make its triumphant return to play this weekend, but when the labor talks took longer than expected, the wait on MLB will last until the end of this month.
And talk about no joy in Mudville: Earlier this week, Minor League Baseball’s 2020 season was officially canceled.
But six clubs in the 12-team American Association, a league that is not affiliated with MLB, will start play. The league’s 60-game season starts Friday, and for now, the league will use stadiums in four cities in states where ballpark attendance between 25% and 33% of capacity is allowed — Illinois, Wisconsin, North Dakota and South Dakota.
So the Fargo-Moorhead Redhawks and the Sioux Falls Canaries will play host to the Winnipeg Goldeyes and the St. Paul Saints, respectively, on Friday. The Chicago Dogs and Milwaukee Milkmen will both also be able to use their home stadiums.
“It is not about just coming back to play,” said Mike Veeck, the co-owner of the St. Paul Saints.
“I’ve had clubs that have lost a lot of money and this might beat them all. That’s not what is important. What is important is that we try to find a way out of this morass. It is a dark time and fun is the only light I know.”
Veeck knows fun – his motto, “Fun is good,” is also the title of his 2005 book. And if his name sounds familiar, it should. He has successfully run minor league and independent clubs for decades, with fan-friendly promotions a specialty.
His father, Bill Veeck, is in the Baseball Hall of Fame as an owner, in part for his own reputation for innovative promotions. (The elder Veeck also signed Larry Doby to his Cleveland Indians, making him the first African American player in the American League.)
Of course, Mike Veeck is also known for the Disco Demolition promotion when he worked for his father’s White Sox in 1979. The combination of cheap beer and rock and roll disc jockeys blowing up disco records in between games of a doubleheader led to forfeit of the second game.
But Veeck grew up in an environment where there was no bad idea, and with the Saints, he has Veeck has carried on his family’s fan-friendly tradition, including third-inning pillow fights, with 8,200 people bashing each other on the head, and food fights like in the movie “Animal House.” The Saints held the world’s largest Twister game, with 56,000 dots placed in the outfield, and Veeck came up with Lawyer Appreciation Night, when attorneys were charged double to get into the ballpark.
Veeck is hopeful the State of Minnesota will allow his Saints to return to their home, where last year the team played to 115% of capacity in the 7,200-seat CHS Field. And if they can play ball in St. Paul, the Saints’ pig mascot, who delivers the balls to the umpires, will be back.
The annual name-the-pig contest is underway, and over the years the winners have included Garrison Squeallor, Justin Bierboar and Daenerys Hoggaryen. In 2012, to commemorate the celebrity marriage between a reality star and an NBA star, the Saints had two pig mascots — Kim Lardashian and Kris Hamphries.
The delay in getting back to baseball and back to their home state has not stopped Veeck and the Saints from thinking of ideas. In a dig at the Houston Astros and their sign-stealing scandal the Saints are selling “Astro the Grouch,” a talking bobblehead trash can who lives on Sesame Cheat.
Independent baseball is about fun, and, just like the minor leagues, it is about chasing dreams — Washington Nationals Cy Young award winner Max Scherzer spent time in indy ball with a team in Fort Worth, Texas.
It’s also about the accessibility of fans to players, and the connection to communities.
“Our success is not just about trying to be marketing wizards,” said Veeck. “In the last five years, the Saints have contributed on average to 2,000 charities and groups around town. That’s what the game does, and that’s the grassroots connection that is so important.”
Starting this weekend, things will be different, but baseball will be back in the American Association.
Veeck said he believes it is important to try and play, and to share ideas to figure out the best way to safely go forward with some entertainment options, all while still dealing with the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic.
“If the government or the CDC in a month says we can’t play, we will still have achieved what we set out to do,” said Veeck. “If we can safely play, then it is important to try, because we want to laugh with each other.
“We want to have a beer together. If we have to do it 6 feet apart, that’s fine. But we need the human touch, to steal from Springsteen. I think we take from this the very best of the human spirit: One, our will to survive, and two, our will to gather together.”