The St. Paul Saints are full of hope...and mischief. Before the first pitch is even thrown, the team mascot--a live, oinking pig named Tobias--waddles out to home plate carrying a supply of baseballs for the umpire. Up in the bleachers at tiny Midway Stadium, a Roman Catholic nun named Sister Rosalind is offering back rubs to work-weary fans--$10 for fifteen minutes or half an inning, whichever is longer. Behind third base, fans try to calculate which home game this June will signal the arrival of the Saints' one-millionth paying customer ever. Why? This is Minnesota, after all, and one of the prizes if you turn out to be Fan Number One Million is a new snowblower.
Sure, but is there any time left over for actual baseball?
Oh yah, Hon. Last season, for instance, Darryl Strawberry played 29 games in a Saints uniform, batting a healthy .435 and slugging eighteen home runs en route to his astonishing return to the big leagues. A pinch hitter who was born without legs also got to the plate for the club in 1996. Alas, he struck out both times.
Is there time for baseball? Absolutely. And time for Ila Borders, too. This week the five-foot-ten-inch, 165-pound left-hander, out of Southern California's Whittier College, will go to training camp with the St. Paul Saints--in the hope of becoming the first woman to play professional baseball on a men's team in more than half a century.
Is Ila Borders another wacky Saints publicity stunt, like Tobias the pig or the barber who sets up his chair behind home plate and lowers your ears for ten bucks?
Absolutely not, says the team's general manager, Bill Fanning. At Whittier Christian High School, he points out, Borders wasn't just the only girl on the baseball team; she was also named Most Valuable Player. At Whittier College, pitching against men, she compiled a 4-5 record with a 5.22 earned-run average in 81 innings of work. Her fastball has been occasionally clocked at 83 miles an hour--not exactly the Ryan Express. But watch out for her curve, which she throws in the seventies, and for her "out" pitch, a nasty screwball.
"This is a legitimate opportunity to make our team," says Fanning, who was born and raised in Denver. "That's what we told her father, who is Ila's agent. They were looking around for the best opportunity for her to play, and they decided on the Saints. Her dad didn't want to turn her tryout into a circus, and we told him, 'Don't worry, this is already a circus.'"
The fellow who's been raising the big top for the last five summers has a surname familiar to longtime baseball fans. He is principal team owner Mike Veeck, son of the late and legendary innovator Bill Veeck--the master of shenanigans who erected the first exploding scoreboard at Chicago's Comiskey Park, who once sent a midget named Eddie Gaedel to the plate for his moribund St. Louis Browns, who tried to integrate major-league baseball three years before Jackie Robinson's debut in Brooklyn.
Arguably, the world is a much different place than it was in his father's day, so Veeck the Younger has never parachuted a team of tiny invading "Martians" into center field or presented a baffled fan with a tub of chocolate-covered butterflies. But in terms of father and son, the apple hasn't fallen far from the tree. Under Mike Veeck, St. Paul Saints baseball has a distinctly surreal tilt. It doesn't hurt that his co-conspirator, the club's co-owner, happens to be comedian Bill Murray.
"The game is supposed to be fun," GM Fanning says. "A lot of the time, major-league baseball forgets that and takes itself too seriously, like a matter of life and death."
Despite the laughter, baseball in St. Paul can be the same thing. Life and death. Fans across the country who've tuned in the FX cable channel series Baseball Minnesota, chronicling one season in the life of this quirky, unaffiliated Northern League team, have seen yearning rookies rise and fall and have witnessed the heartbreak of grizzled veterans failing in their final swing at immortality. Former World Series-winning pitcher Jack Morris took his last baseball breath with the Saints last year, at the age of 41. Ex-slugger Glenn Davis, who hit 78 home runs for the Houston Astros between 1985 and 1987 before a severe neck injury brought him low, returned from a stint in Japan last season to last-ditch it as a Saint. The team's other notable reclamation project was Leon "Bull" Durham, once the Chicago Cubs' star first baseman, who played out the string in 6,329-seat Midway Stadium in 1993.
Care to know what these former big-leaguers got paid? Well, the entire St. Paul team earns a grand total of $78,000 for three months' work--84 games.
For sheer drama (and for uplift), nothing quite measures up to the saga of Darryl Strawberry, a player no one would have dubbed a Saint before his visit to St. Paul. Befogged by white powder, the once-great New York Mets basher quickly wore out his welcome in San Francisco in 1994 and got bounced from Dodgers Stadium the next year. His career in ruins, he asked for one more chance. Veeck and Saints manager Marty Scott gave it to him. By the end of 1996, the Straw Man had risen from the dead to join the New York Yankees, who went on to win their first World Series in eighteen seasons.
While he was in St. Paul, St. Paulians say, Strawberry transformed himself. "It was unbelievable," Fanning reports. "He was 180 degrees opposite from everyone's expectations. He had a tremendous influence on our young players. He set a club record for home runs (eighteen) in just 29 games. And he did all the little things."
For instance, Opening Day up in Duluth, when the game was postponed due to heavy fog. "We asked Darryl if he would mind signing autographs for half an hour or so. Well, guess what? He stood out there in the fog with those kids for two hours."
Something else, too: When the club gave Dave Stevens, a thirty-year-old ESPN producer who was born without legs, a turn at bat in a pre-season game, he fanned. It was his friend Strawberry who in mid-season took himself out of the lineup in Madison, Wisconsin, so that Stevens could get a second shot as a pinch-hitter.
When Strawberry left for the Yankees, Fanning says, the Saints he left behind--a collection of raw youth and fast-fading glory--watched him with pride and wistfulness, every chance they got, on the TV set in the clubhouse. He was their teammate.
That emotion was a two-way street. Strawberry cherishes the glamorous World Series ring he earned with the Yanks last year, but rumor has it he's equally proud of the second championship ring he got last winter after the Saints beat the Fargo-Morehead Redhawks for the Northern League title.
It was another wake-up call to those who think the Saints are a bunch of no-playing clowns: In their five years, they've won the title three times. And even if you can scare up $4 for a grandstand seat (three bucks for kids and seniors), you'd better get to the park early. Almost every game's a sellout, and sometimes there's a waiting line for haircuts.
"We have fun and we try to entertain," Fanning says, "but we also care about the quality of the baseball played on the field."
Now pitching: Ila Borders.
Has a nice ring to it, doesn't it? As far as the Saints can tell, the last woman to compete in men's pro ball was one "Tomboy" Toni Scott--a St. Paul native, as it happens--who played two seasons as a first baseperson in the 1940s for several old Negro League teams. In camp, Borders will have her work cut out for her if she hopes to follow suit. "There are five other rookies also vying for the one rookie spot on our pitching staff," Fanning reports. He declines to name names, but among these non-major-league draftees are male pitchers from some pretty fair college baseball programs--Oklahoma State, the University of Miami and the University of Washington.
So, how good are Ila Borders's prospects to make the team?
"Pretty slim," Fanning admits. "But who knows? One thing we always say around here: This club is the first chance for some players and the last chance for others."
Just ask Darryl Strawberry.
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Wouldn't you like to have the leg-splint-and-ambulance contract this week over at McNichols Sports Arena?
If past is prelude, the Colorado Avalanche and Detroit Red Wings will be going at each other like Visigoths and Romans when their battle for the NHL's Western Conference title gets under way Thursday night. Ever since the controversial Lemieux-Draper collision last season, the teams have been busier dashing each other's brains out than playing hockey whenever they meet, and there's no reason to believe the boys will now suddenly make nice with so many marbles at stake.
This raises a couple of questions. Are those red road unis the Wings wear calculated not to show the blood? In view of the team makeup, how well does the average hockey fan in Motown speak Russian? And: Will this year's Red Wings, following their stunning playoff collapse against the 'Lanche in 1996, call up enough heart and soul to get revenge this time?
For Patrick Roy, Joe Sakic and (especially) marked man Claude Lemieux, the questions loom brutal. Let's hope the answers--for both teams--are found on the ice and not in the emergency room. But don't count on it.