Socks slouching, clad in athletic shorts and a T-shirt, George Tsamis wraps up an end-of-practice simulated game by a pitcher making a bid for a spot in the St. Paul Saints starting rotation, weaves through the dugout and plops himself down in a prime CHS Field seat just behind home plate.
The Saints’ manager, now in his 16th season at the helm, is approaching a milestone. After Sunday’s 4-3 victory over the Gary SouthShore Railcats, he needs just 14 more triumphs to reach 1,000 for his career. Most of those victories, 803 to be exact, have come while piloting the Saints, the most famous independent league baseball organization in America.
His mannerisms are casual, right down to his easy baseball drawl. It’s downright impossible to tell that the 50-year-old Tsamis, relaxed and comfortable in this environment, spent the fall and winter at his home in Connecticut bedeviled by coulda-beens.
“The only thought I’ve had about it,” Tsamis said of his approaching milestone, “is that I wish it would have happened last year. Because that would have meant we had a good season, and that didn’t happen.”
Winning has never been the biggest chapter of the St. Paul Saints handbook. The team routinely sells out CHS Field, its fabulous four-year-old home in St. Paul’s trending Lowertown neighborhood, and has always leaned heavily on promotions from ball pigs to neck-rubbing nuns to Friday night fireworks to draw a crowd. Ask fans how the Saints fared last year and there’s a good chance they won’t know.
But Tsamis knows. He may project an old-school acceptance of baseball’s fickle nature, but 2017’s 48-52 record has weighed on him since the day the season ended. “It was embarrassing,” Tsamis said.
Fun is good. Winning is better.
What eats at Tsamis is that his managerial career arc was front-loaded with success. He won back-to-back Northern League championships while managing the New Jersey Jackals in 2001 and 2002. He made his return to Minnesota baseball (he pitched in 43 games for the Twins in 1993) a triumphant one when he led the Saints to a championship in 2004, his second year back.
It remains his sole title in his current job. The Saints have lost in the American Association Championship Series three times since, in 2006, 2007 and 2011, losing in Game 5 of a best-of-five format each time. In 2015, the Saints set a franchise record with 74 victories, only to lose in the first round of the playoffs.
“Won three championships in my first four years and haven’t won one since. That’s been pretty disappointing,” he said.
Every year that passes without a title just cements his resolve. It’s what keeps him focused during a season of St. Paul Saints sideshows. “It takes a special manager to put up with all the outside distractions here,” said Sean Aronson, vice president, director of media relations and also the radio voice of the team. “Other independent teams, they’re not as crazy as we are. So he’s got to handle that.”
Tsamis’ drive to win is what made Brady Shoemaker want to return. The stocky first baseman led the team in home runs last season with 21, but the way the Saints finished the 2017 season, losing 39 of their final 60 games, left him feeling unsettled. An offseason talk with Tsamis convinced Shoemaker to spend another season in St. Paul.
“All George wants to do is win. Everything else doesn’t matter,” Shoemaker said. “That was one of the first things he said this year. He’s not about developing guys. He’s going to put the best nine on the field.”
Aronson has seen Tsamis’ obsession with success and knows how personally the manager takes his inability to bring another championship to St. Paul.
“He genuinely cares,” Aronson said. “He’s loyal, to a fault sometimes. I’ve seen how much losing tears him up.”
After spending the past 11 years building a relationship, Aronson acknowledges the need to keep an objective distance from the team but admits that he has become Tsamis’ biggest booster.
“I’d rather lose with George than win it all with someone I don’t like,” he said. “He’s not just a great manager, but he’s a great guy.”
A large part of Tsamis’ passion stems from his affinity for the Saints and the Twin Cities area. He’s turned down the occasional offer to go into coaching affiliated baseball, feeling it would be tough to top what he has here.
“This is a great place,” he said. “I love what I’m doing and this is the best place out there. Great crowds, great atmosphere. I tell guys when they get here that, unless you get to the big leagues, they’re not going to find a nicer place. I really have no desire to be anywhere else.”