It’s about 200 feet from the bullpen to the pitching mound in Atlanta, or less than 1 percent of the 5 miles between Target Field and Midway Stadium. Yet Caleb Thielbar seemed to cover both distances on Monday as he jogged in to make his major league debut for the Twins.
Practically, the 26-year-old lefthander proceeded to retire six of the seven hitters he faced, giving his new team two shutout innings of relief. Symbolically, Thielbar represented the new partnership, or at least cooperation, between the Twin Cities’ major league behemoth and independent league upstarts. Thielbar, out of minor league baseball and looking for a way to get back in, spent most of the 2011 season with the Saints, then became the first St. Paul player ever signed by the Twins.
“There’s a player we both can claim — across the aisle, as it were. We’re thrilled about Caleb,” said Mike Veeck, founder and minority owner of the St. Paul Saints, which has operated in the shadow of the Twins since 1993. “Saints fans have been Twins fans, and maybe more Twins fans will be Saints fans now.”
That wasn’t always the case. When the independent Northern League was formed in 1993 and a team placed in Midway Stadium, Andy MacPhail, Twins president at the time, publicly ridiculed the newcomers, Veeck said, calling it a “beer league” and predicting that the team would go out of business within 45 days.
That attitude eventually trickled down to team employees — on both sides, Veeck admits.
Veeck fought back the only way he knew how: with even more silliness. He dreamed up promotions to tweak the Saints’ crosstown rivals, and advertisements trumpeting outdoor baseball, as opposed to the Twins’ indoor home at the Metrodome. “I’m not going to deny that I had some fun at their expense. There were no innocents on either side” of the rivalry, he said. When the Twins staged a nightly animated “tire race” on Dome scoreboards, Veeck held a live one, for instance.
But things changed about a decade ago, Veeck said, “and really, it’s all a tribute to Dave St. Peter.”
When St. Peter became president of the Twins in 2002, he tried to defrost relations between the teams. “There really wasn’t much of a relationship at the time. You could tell there were some hard feelings on both sides,” St. Peter said. “I think some people felt [the Saints] had an anti-Twins, anti-Major League Baseball attitude, but we’re both in the business of baseball. We speak the same language.”
More than ever now. St. Peter helped lobby for funding for the Saints’ new Lowertown Ballpark, scheduled to open in 2015. The Saints, who moved to the independent American Association in 2005, are a part of TwinsFest each January. Kris Atteberry, the Saints’ radio play-by-play announcer for five seasons, now hosts pregame and postgame shows for the Twins.
And Saints players — Thielbar first, and Rochester reliever Dan Sattler last summer — are being signed by Twins scouts.
“I had a lot of fun playing there. I’m really grateful the Saints gave me the opportunity to get picked up by a major league organization,” Thielbar said. “There are a lot of loyal Saints fans. It’s great to be part of both teams.”
The Indians may be first in the AL Central standings, but they are last in the majors in attendance, the only team drawing fewer fans than baseball’s anemic Florida franchises. A franchise that sold out 455 straight home games in the late 1990s is averaging just 16,166 per game this year, despite an 18-6 surge.
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Could the White Sox be for sale?
Jerry Reinsdorf, the 77-year-old owner who bought his first stake in the team in 1981, told Sports Business Journal last week that he has recommended to his heirs that they sell the White Sox when he’s gone and keep the Bulls, which he also owns. That’s sparked speculation in Chicago that Reinsdorf is actually interested in finding a buyer while he’s alive.
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Tigers ace Justin Verlander has adopted a “back-to-basics” approach as he tries to sort out why he’s been getting hit hard lately.