The Circus Surrounding Baseball in St. Paul

Anthony VarrianoAnthony Varriano is a writer, editor, and podcast host at Grandstand Central. He spent six years as a newspaper journalist, columnist, sportswriter, and photographer. He is also editor of Go Gonzo Journal and host of Foul Play-by-Play, a podcast about the week’s cheats, cheap shots, and alleged criminals in sports.

Culture

The American Association of independent professional baseball will play its 2019 All-Star Game at CHS Field in St. Paul, Minn. on Tuesday. But there will be three All-Star rosters announced prior to first pitch: the North Division All-Stars, the South Division All-Stars, and the St. Paul Saints’ Entertainment All-Stars.

The St. Paul Saints draw more than double what the next best American Association (AA) team draws per game in paid attendance. And it’s not simply because the baseball team is good (first overall in the AA) and the ballpark is new (opened in 2015). The Saints dominated the AA in attendance at their previous ballpark, and they fielded a good baseball team back then, too. But playing good baseball doesn’t guarantee consistent attendance. Just look at the Tampa Bay Rays.

The Saints have seven All-Stars, five of whom were elected by league managers, media members, and executives. Fielding almost an entire All-Star team is going to win some games, but without good chemistry and a respected leader, it’s easy to lose the tough games that matter most. 

A Hall of Fame executive also needs to put a coaching staff in place that’ll get the best out of players. That means preserving health and chemistry to keep morale high. These athletes are playing the cruelest of sports in a league that for most is a last chance to make it to “The Show,” a massive misnomer for Major League Baseball given the suffocation of showmanship that breaks unwritten rules. Given the game’s ugly history, preserving its integrity via assault with a deadly weapon is as oxymoronic as calling the big leagues “The Show” when baseball’s best show is in the American Association of independent professional baseball.

CHS Field: The House that Ringling Bros. Built

A baseball stadium is a circus without the big top, or at least it should be, which is why CHS Field features a climbing wall beyond the center field wall. While Saints players perform feats of speed and strength like circus performers, children can do the same when the three-plus hours of baseball featuring almost an hour of inaction between pitches fails to hold their attention.

There’s also a new “City of Baseball” Museum at the ballpark where you can learn about that time the local newspaper saved baseball in St. Paul during the Depression.. Did you know the first woman paid to play baseball, Toni Stone, got her game playing in St. Paul—with and against men? Museums might not be a circus attraction, but having lions and elephants at the ballpark wasn’t an option, even though Bill Veeck often gifted live lobsters, chickens, and even horses to fans arriving early. A circus without animals can be done and has. A circus without clowns, however, is no circus. 

Clowns remain the cornerstone of the entertainment industry. I’m not talking about your typical clowns in makeup and red noses, but people acting like clowns generally. Reality television exists because of clowns. YouTube is a publishing platform sustained by clowns. And the news and sports media often rely on clowns like Donald Trump and Lavar Ball for content.

The only business in the entertainment industry not embracing clowns seems to be MLB, with teams employing one mascot to entertain more than 40,000 people watching a “show” featuring almost an hour of nothing and two or more sometimes amounting to next to nothing. Clowns make the moments between circus acts something rather than nothing, keeping customers engaged and contributing to the chemistry between customers and performers. The more someone watches nothing between somethings, the less likely they are to enjoy the somethings. 

As part owner and operator of the Goldklang Group of baseball franchises that includes the Saints, Mike Veeck (pronounced like “wreck), son of Bill, understands that chemistry “is just as important as talent and work ethic.” He also understands that catalysts are often required to facilitate chemistry, which is why the Saints “ushertainers” exist. They are catalysts facilitating a healthy chemistry between customers and the organization, and like the Saints, it’s a team with all the elements of a championship contender.

St. Paul Saints’ Entertainment All-Star Team

The HOF Owner/Operator: Mike Veeck

It couldn’t be easy being the son of a Hall of Fame owner with one leg who might be second to only Don King when it comes to promotional innovation in or out of sports. Players have names on the back of their jerseys because Bill Veeck once asked a woman in attendance what would make the game more enjoyable for her. The baseball business was unavoidable for Veeck. Not because his father put him to work in ballparks as a child, but because Mike wouldn’t have it any other way. Baseball’s in his blood, but at one time, he tried to replace baseball with alcohol and cocaine.

After a promotion his father said “worked too well” resulted in just the third forfeit in MLB history, Mike Veeck feared his life in baseball was over. He technically resigned after the season, but when he gives speeches he always says he was fired. Being fired by your father makes for a better story than resigning in shame. Veeck had reason to worry that all the bridges his father built in baseball had burned along with the vinyl, disco records demolished that night in 1979, that sent pot-smoking hippies down the foul poles and onto the field, leaving it in the same condition as those records: unplayable.

Baseball felt Veeck was unplayable, too. He was effectively blackballed by MLB for a decade despite pleading for jobs in countless letters to team executives. He hung drywall in Florida for a while and then worked for a marketing and advertising firm, but neither filled the hole that was once baseball, and for a Veeck, that’s a big hole. So he drank more and started using coke, reaching for a means to get that feeling only felt when you’re doing what you love. One night he was stopped for being suspected of driving while intoxicated; he was. Veeck pleaded with the officer to arrest him in order to take his life out of his own hands. The officer instead called him a cab, and Veeck barely had enough money to pay the driver. 

Obviously, Veeck turned his life and career around, first with AA and, later, the AA. He got back to “The Show” with four different teams, but none gave him the creative license to make “Fun Is Good” work in MLB. He did defy the odds in making the independent Northern League a success though. Now he owns a piece of multiple, million-dollar profit machines in his family business of baseball. And it’s really hard to make a profit in independent league baseball, let alone make it fun for employees working 15-hour days in scorching heat and longer due to rain. 

Veeck knows better than most how hard a business baseball can be, which is why he occasionally takes tickets at his teams’ stadiums to foster a mentality of “we’re all in this together.” It’s not just an act either, as fellow Goldklang partner Bill Murray demonstrated one hot day at Midway Stadium, which relied on porta potties at the time. The ballpark was basically at capacity, and so were the portas. The smell was so bad it could have convinced some attendees never to return, or worse yet, tell people about their awful experience at a Saints game. So Murray left the ballpark, which would be understandable for a Hollywood movie star surrounded by the smell of shit. But he returned burning incense in every overloaded porta, which might have exacerbated the odor. But the thought counts to customers. Of course, most thought it was just Bill Murray doing Bill Murray things for publicity. On another night featuring a post-game concert, a reporter asked where Bill Murray was. Veeck pointed him out. He was collecting cigarette butts with Veeck’s wife. That’s leading by example, and every team needs leaders like that.

To put it all in perspective, the Saints recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Disco Demolition promotion that sent Veeck into his downward spiral. But without that failure, Veeck could not have succeeded to the extent he has, which is why it’s worth celebrating. He says as much in his book, Fun Is Good: “it’s not only okay to fail; it’s imperative.” Since I failed to get an interview with Veeck, I bought his book at the CHS Field gift shop and read it. But first, Brian Kelly introduced me to the legend of Mike Veeck and the history of the ushertainers.

The Scout: Brian Kelly

The Saints former entertainment director, Brian Kelly, left, now serves as an on-field correspondent.

Brian Kelly had 20-plus years in theatre with Mystery Cafe and Comedy Sports amongst others when he was approached about becoming the Saints PA announcer. 

“The truth is, prior to working for the Saints, I didn’t know anything about baseball,” Kelly said.

The Saints executives in the room didn’t think that mattered. They were looking for a professional entertainer, and Kelly already had someone in mind for the job, which was pretty much the case for the entire entertainment team. Despite being pursued for the PA position, Kelly was hired on as the organization’s first entertainment director in 2012.

Kelly didn’t have to hold many auditions. He already had a long list of prospects he’d been scouting; he just didn’t know he was scouting or for what. Some prospects struggled with the interactivity aspect the performance required. They were used to improving with improvers who knew the rules, not audience members who didn’t. But everything couldn’t go right the first time around, even with all the scouting Kelly had done. Most of it did, though.

“You have to be willing for something to not work,” Kelly said, giving credit to management for allowing him to try things, make mistakes, and, eventually, choose his successor. The result is a baseball business that Kelly says not only appeals to families but is very much run by a family.

The Superstar: Lee Adams

The Saints PA announcer Lee Adams, center, chats with a fan between innings.

I saw Joe Mauer’s last game, and Derek Jeter’s last All-Star Game. I’ve seen Eddie Rosario hit three home runs in a game. I’ve seen comebacks and walkoff wins. But the time I’ve most enjoyed baseball is at a St. Paul Saints game, and it was mostly because of the performance of public address announcer Lee Adams.

Adams was at the top of Brian Kelly’s list of prospects he knew from the Twins Cities’ theatre circles. In fact, he was so high on the list Kelly didn’t think he could get him and didn’t bother calling at first. The way Kelly tells it, Adams being the ballpark voice of the Saints was fate. The theatre company Adams owned for over 20 years became unsustainable, so he started guiding fishing excursions in Northern Minnesota. But Adams didn’t live up north, and gave himself a week to find something that would make him stay in the metro area. 

“Brian called and said, ‘People keep telling me to get a Lee Adams-type,” he said. That was seven years ago.

Because it isn’t the big leagues, or even the minor leagues, and improv artists are on the mic, the PA system is used a lot more liberally at CHS Field. Remember that hour of cumulative time between pitches when nothing is happening at a baseball game? At CHS Field, much of it is filled with the hijinks of Adams and his PA partner, Rita Boersma. Together, Adams and Boersma make even foul balls fun by saying “foul ball” in weird, funny ways. That’s all it takes to breathe life into the many moments of literal dead balls in baseball.

“I feel like as long as I’ve been here I’ve never said ‘foul ball’ correctly,” Boersma laughed. She’s in her fourth season as Lee’s co-PA announcer and was also on Kelly’s list of prospects he’d worked with in the improv community, which she still does at HUGE Improv Theater.

Boersma’s favorite schtick (as well as mine) is the “Inning of Zen,” which is new this season. Imagine the moments between action filled with a relaxing soundtrack behind the wise, soft words of The Dude from The Big Lebowski. It’s the best inning in all of baseball.

But it’s not just comedy routines that make time fly during the world’s slowest sport. Even the reading of sponsors’ advertisements can lead to hilarious improvisation. Without the experience and encouragement to improvise, however, PA announcers using the PA system more often won’t improve the show in “The Show.” Adams gives a lot of credit to Veeck for allowing him and the ushertainers creative license, calling him a Hall of Famer and one of his idols.

“Mike doesn’t care who gets the credit. He just wants the attention on the product,” Adams said.

Adams and Boersma get people’s attention all right. Adams is especially beloved. Kids come down to “the booth” to see him like he’s their favorite player. The booth is a folding table next to the Saints’ dugout, and that accessibility has to create more lifelong fans than hiding the ballpark voice in some press booth above everyone, both literally and figuratively. Like Hank Azaria’s fictional character in the IFC show Brockmire, Lee Adams actually breathes life into baseball’s dullest moments, and in a family-friendly fashion.   

The (Marketing) Manager: Sierra Bailey

Adams called Sierra Bailey “the hardest working person in baseball.” She might be the first person at the ballpark everyday, starting with a workout at 6:30 a.m. Her workday starts between 8 and 9 a.m. On game days she writes scripts for the PA announcers and scheduling activities. If there’s no game, she sells group tickets because “everyone does everything here.”

“This place is special. We don’t have ticket calls just go to the box office. Everyone’s phone rings for tickets, so everyone picks up the phone, everyone sells tickets,” Bailey explained. “We never let the phone ring twice.”

The Saints interns are ready to drag the infield in drag. Sierra Bailey certainly found the right men for the job.

Bailey, once a Saints intern, is now tasked with hiring interns. The résumé review process and job interview are hardly typical, but are in keeping with Veeck’s recommendations in Fun Is Good. Instead of gaps in employment being “red flags,” they’re looked at as opportunities to learn more about the candidate as a person. Asking what the candidate did with that time can can uncover a skill, hobby, or expertise the candidate didn’t think was applicable to the job. But everything’s applicable, because Bailey’s hiring interesting, passionate people first and foremost, which is why interview questions and the order in which they’re asked surprises candidates. And that’s exactly the point.

“We’ll ask résumé questions, but we’ll also ask random questions to make people think and to see how fast they can think on their feet…It’s not like we’re looking for a specific type of answer. We want opinions of all types,” Bailey explained.

Like a baseball team consisting of players with diverse perspectives, a diverse Saints staff prevents groupthink from undermining creativity. If everybody on your ballclub knows the same one way to play baseball, the only way they’ll discover better ways is when they’re used against them in games. Diversity fosters creativity, and games are often won in the margins, which is why Bailey and the Saints pay so much attention to what many would consider marginal information. 

The (Never on the) Bench Coach: Joshua Will

Joshua Will looked like he had just finished playing the first game of a doubleheader when we first met. The game hadn’t started yet. Bench coaches tend do most of the work people believe managers do. They prepare the game plan and relevant statistical research to help the manager make in-game decisions, offering strategic suggestions when appropriate. During Spring Training, bench coaches create practice schedules for groups of players and then instructs them as they perform various drills. It might be the position with the most responsibilities on baseball coaching staffs, and you might only know one bench coach by name, because at 72, during a benches-clearing brawl in the playoffs, he charged Pedro Martínez like a bull would a bullfighter. 

Will has that Don Zimmer, “go-get-’em” attitude. He’ll do anything he can for his players and the team. Saints manager George Tsamis could probably put him at second base in an emergency, and Will would do it, too. He has a stake in the Saints performing to the best of their ability and the ushertainers putting on a good show, not because his job depends on it, but because his players’ success is his reward. That’s why you’ll see him running all over CHS Field assisting the performers of most any inter-inning acts. And it’s why you might not see him leave, because he’s stuck around to help the mascot get out of costume.

The Super-utility Player: Seigo Masubuchi

Seigo Masubuchi is an attorney who sings karaoke atop a dugout between one inning of almost every Saints home game.  Oh, and he dresses like a cowboy samurai. He’s also the Saints’ director of international business development or “International Ambassador of Fun.” He’s been an on-field entertainer with the Saints for 19 years, technically making him the original ushertainer.

After arranging an interview for Veeck to introduce the “Fun Is Good” philosophy to the Japenese media in 1995, Masubuchi has helped Japanese players transition to life and baseball in America, and vice versa in the case of Minnesota Twins World Champion Dan Gladden. 

Like Ichiro, Masubuchi is almost exclusively known by his first name, Seigo. When he isn’t singing atop dugouts, he’s usually taking photos with fans and chatting with them. He says those conversations are invaluable, just as Veeck indicates in his book. In fact, one of those casual conversations led to Seigo’s costume actually being improved by a Saints fan. Great teams still need a lift from the home crowd once in a while.

The All-Star Platoon: The Nerd and Nerdette

The Saints adorably nerdy Nerd and Nerdette display their undeniable chemistry.

Every baseball team, however great, has a position of weakness. There just aren’t enough good ballplayers to put together a team with All-Star caliber players at every position everyday. Some left-handed hitters just can’t hit left-handed pitching, and vice versa. For instance, the nearby Twins have gotten MLB’s best production from the catcher position by employing a platoon of right-hander Mitch Garver and left-hander Jason Castro. Neither has enough plate appearances to qualify in silly, official statistical rankings, but together they’re the best catcher in baseball. Kristoffer Olson and Erinn Liebhard are the Saints’ All-Star platoon performers.

Olson is the longest tenured ushertainer besides Seigo. He was already a full-time comedian/magician when he auditioned to be the Saints PA announcer, and while he didn’t get a callback, he did get a call back to see if he’d be interested in an ushertainer role. He had a character in mind, but no name. “Just introduce me as The Nerd for now,” he said. The character’s been a staple at CHS Field ever since.

On Nerd Night, a promotion encouraging fans to embrace their inner nerd, the Saints wanted the baseball sideshow to be The Nerd falling in love. Olson had known Erinn Liebhard, a dancer and teacher of dance, since high school 4-H Club. He asked if she’d perform with him, and she said yes. The Nerd and Nerdette have been a staple at CHS Field ever since.

Together, The Nerd and Nerdette might be the most popular player in the Saints’ game day theatrical productions. It helps that they don’t have to act much because “there’s a nerd in all of us.” But it’s their obvious chemistry that makes for an All-Star performance. The love they portray for each other as nerds isn’t just believable, it’s convincing, because they’ve since married. 

The Silent Leader by Example: Mudonna

Catchers tend to be coaches on the baseball field. They deliver the signs to teammates, not just the pitchers. They’re expected to sacrifice their bodies to block pitches in the dirt when runners are on base. They’re expected to protect the home plate umpire from being hit with the ball. They take foul tips to the head that force them to finish their careers at first base. Most importantly, they wear a suit of armor in scorching heat for three hours or more to do the dirty work that wins games. And all of them are team MVPs for that.

When it comes to creating lasting impressions with customers, especially young ones, there’s no more valuable player than a mascot who cares. Wearing a giant pig suit for three hours is easily worse than wearing catching equipment. And once it’s on, it can’t come off, at least in view of the public. In fact, the ushertainer performing as Mudonna did our entire interview in costume even though we were out of public view. She was even hesitant to share her name, fearing that some of the mascot’s magic would be lost by doing so. That’s how dedicated these performers are to their work and their audience, especially kids. They don’t need to be known or given credit. They put on the gear and the mask because they love playing the game and putting smiles on people’s faces.

The Face of the Franchise: Belle of the Ballpark

Belle of the Ballpark finds a fellow princess in the crowd.

Second only to Mudonna in putting smiles on kids faces is Belle of the Ballpark, portrayed by Lisa Fulton. She’s been the Princess of the National Pastime since 2004, only taking time away from her castle in the land of curveballs and cotton candy to perform in six national tours of Sesame Street Live

Baseball is Fulton’s favorite sport, so her character’s motivation is her own: to get kids interested in baseball. She’s doing the work MLB should be if it intends to create a new generation of fans to replace the old ones. One princess in St. Paul can’t do it all, or can she?

The Energy: Coach

It took a dozen pitches or so, but The Coach’s enthusiasm never wavered, and the Saints got the out.

Coach is portrayed by Steve Hoemann, who is one of the few ushertainers without a theatre background. He’s a method actor. Hoemann is an actual coach and teacher at an actual high school. He’s tasked with leading cheers and cheekily chastising those who aren’t participating. He is very good at his job, which he decided to pursue “after a couple beers” at a Saints game one night, saying to his neighbor “I could do that.” 

That same neighbor forwarded Hoemann an email announcing auditions the following season (2010). He didn’t have anything prepared, but his wife told him “you’ll figure it out in the car.” He ended up impersonating Pee-wee Herman well enough to get a callback.

After workshopping a blind umpire character, he went instead with “a coach from the ’70s” since he already had the costume in his closet. He calls himself an “overgrown cheerleader” who’s job is to “get people motivated.” 

“Everything I’ve ever wanted to say to…students at high school but really couldn’t because it would be considered abrasive, I can say here because it’s part of the bit,” he said, later adding that his performance is “healthy” and therapeutic. 

His new favorite thing is getting fans off their cell phones, yelling things like “you’ve got great seats” and “the game’s over here” until they put it away. They usually do, because Hoemann’s got talent you can’t teach: a loud voice. And he doesn’t get to use it in the classroom.

The Clubhouse Clown: The Chef

“You like hot dogs? Of course you do.”

Everybody’s got to eat, and everybody’s got to laugh. The Chef, portrayed by Dan Rooney, might be the funniest of all the Saints ushertainers. His character, inspired by a Brian Kelly play, allows for ample interactions because, again, everybody’s got to eat. Food is almost always a safe subject to discuss. Even if it isn’t, just try not to laugh at the French chef waxing poetic about his love of hot dogs and disdain for snooty, cooking schools. 

Rooney actually sold peanuts and popcorn at Minnesota Twins games “just for exercise.” Rooney couldn’t resist portraying characters while conducting business and found “people want to watch the ballgame in Major League Baseball.” The game has changed immensely since then, however. There’s never been less action in MLB. There’s a new strikeout and home run record every year, but not much of anything in between—a lot like the cumulative hour of time between pitches each game.

“Baseball is a boring game,” Rooney said. “It’s always been boring…Our motto is ‘Fun Is Good.’ There’s no mention of baseball. It’s about fun.”

Rooney believes baseball would benefit from the Saints’ approach to augmenting the entertainment between baseball actually being played. And he should know. Before Rooney met Kelly and became The Chef, he was with Ringling Bros. Circus.

Risky business is seldom worth the risk for big businesses like MLB. But if seasons of “The Show” continue to be crucified by critics and abandoned by fans, either by choice or natural causes, what’s wrong with having some fun for once?