Tanner and Jon Townsend grew up together in Kentucky, but never played on the same team. The Saints are giving them that chance this season.
Tanner Townsend stepped in for batting practice Thursday at Midway Stadium and immediately felt a familiar stare to go along with a hot afternoon breeze.
But it wasn't his former Gary SouthShore teammates that got to the St. Paul Saints shortstop. Peering into the cage was his younger brother, Jon.
"I'm always more aware when he's watching," Tanner said of the brother who grew up five grades his junior. "And there has been a lot of watching."
This year, for the first time in more than two decades of playing organized baseball, they are scrutinizing each other as teammates.
Baseball-crazy youths in the small town of London, Ky., that otherwise bleeds Wildcats basketball blue, the two honed their skills years ago in the backyard with tennis balls. When it came time to play for keeps, logistics never matched up for the two to appear in the same game.
"I'd bug the heck out of them at practices," Jon said. "And we'd get to mess around and stuff. We had a lot of fun playing around, but that was the extent of it."
That changed Thursday in the Saints' 20th season opener against the RailCats, when the Townsend brothers were introduced as teammates.
"It's kind of funny that we had to wait this long," Tanner said. "It's been worth it. I have a lot of respect for my brother and this has been a lot of fun already."
Though Jon didn't play in the Saints' 5-4 loss because of bruised ribs suffered after he was hit by a pitch during the exhibition season, he did have a front-row seat for Tanner's three hits, including a fourth-inning solo home run. Just to be in the same batting practice as a fresh season loomed was satisfactory enough.
"I never in a million years thought this would happen," Tanner said.
After bouncing around with three different Atlantic League teams last summer following five strong years with Gary SouthShore, Tanner, 31, decided to call it a career.
Then Jon, 27, was released by the Anaheim Angels organization after hitting .262 in 53 games for Class AA Arkansas and Saints manager George Tsamis put in the first of two calls.
First Jon, also an infielder, signed with St. Paul on Feb. 23. Following an inquiry into a former foe by Tsamis, Tanner agreed to follow in little brother's footsteps 18 days later.
"Definitely something you don't get to see every day," said Tsamis, who said he hasn't played with or managed members of the same family since college. "I know they're both real excited about it, and we are in the clubhouse, too, because both guys can really play."
Tanner was named Northern League Player of the Year in 2008 after hitting .371 with 14 home runs and 84 RBI for the RailCats.
His offensive abilities are undeniable, and it turns out one of his biggest assets is guessing pitches.
"He'd make me pitch to him after he got picked up [by the Padres organization in 2002] and every time before I threw one he'd go, 'curveball,'" Jon said. "Drove me nuts, because he was always right."
Aside from usual sibling rivalry, it's about as close to actually fighting as the two came.
"Only because our dad would have let me have it," Tanner deadpanned.
At some point this season, relatives from southeast Kentucky will make the trek to St. Paul. If they want to see the brothers play together, plans better be made sooner than later.
"The next guy to get signed [by a major league team] will be our 100th, and Tanner told me it's going to be Jon," Tsamis said. "Both of them know what they're doing and they have each other's backs."
And if they get rowdy or lippy toward another?
"I don't see it happening," Tsamis said.
|North Dakota St||52||FINAL|
|San Jose St||53||FINAL|
|Marshall||12/23/14 5:00 PM|
|Navy||12/23/14 8:30 PM|
|San Diego St|
|Central Mich||12/24/14 11:00 AM|
|Fresno State||12/24/14 7:00 PM|
|Illinois||12/26/14 12:00 PM|
|Rutgers||12/26/14 3:30 PM|
|NC State||12/26/14 7:00 PM|
|Cincinnati||12/27/14 12:00 PM|
|Duke||12/27/14 1:10 PM|
|(15) Arizona State|
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|Boston College||12/27/14 3:30 PM|
|(25) Nebraska||12/27/14 7:00 PM|
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|Mount St Marys||49|
|William & Mary||51|
|South Dakota St||64||FINAL|
|(5) Notre Dame||64|
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|Sam Houston St||55||FINAL|
|Coll of Charleston||72|
|(19) Oklahoma St||66||FINAL|
|(6) North Carolina||85|
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|No Dakota State||54||FINAL|
|Cal State Fullerton||49|
|(18) Michigan State||89||FINAL|
|(21) Miss State||68|