The term “home team” will have extra meaning as the St. Paul Saints open their 2013 season Thursday night at Midway Stadium.
From St. Anthony to Edina to Rochester, nine players — more than one-third of the team — have Minnesota roots. That includes pitcher Mark Hamburger, who played for Mounds View High School and Mesabi Range Community College and makes his Saints debut against the New Jersey Jackals at 7:05 p.m.
Hamburger, who also played in the Twins organization after being signed out of a tryout camp in 2007, remembers his first visit to Midway Stadium as a 6-year-old, chasing a foul ball with his brother until his dad roared “No! … ”
As the boys hit their brakes, eight large men with bellies full of beer sprinted by and dived toward the souvenir.
“I got out of the way before the dog pile,” Hamburger said. “Those must have been the tailgaters.
“You’ve got cave men running around. You can get buzz cuts, and that was my thing when I was young. It’s a kids atmosphere.”
The team is stocked with an unusual amount of Minnesotans, according to manager George Tsamis. One was added only 24 hours before the first pitch. Mark Radmacher, a former Rosemount High School and Hamline player, will join the team as its third catcher.
Unusual aptly describes most of those players’ introduction to the Saints. Here is a look:
Donald Blunt, utility player, Richfield High School, Augsburg College
As a 12-year-old, Blunt remembers what happened in between innings rather than the game itself.
“Another version of professional baseball that’s not on television,” he recalled. “I thought it was … well, I guess I’m not really sure.”
He began to pay more attention while in college. Blunt attended the 2011 open tryout, got a call to join the team in July and has been a part of independent baseball since.
Dan Kaczrowki, second baseman, St. Anthony High School, Hamline University
With a driver’s license in hand, Kaczrowki never gave a thought to playing for the Saints when he and his high school friends went to games at Midway Stadium.
“It was great for high school kids ’cause it’s inexpensive,” he said.
Kaczrowki, after a brief Saints stint in 2009, is back in a St. Paul uniform for a second time in his career. After four seasons in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization, he hopes this stay is a short one, too.
Cole Nelson, pitcher, Edina High School
Nelson spent many Fourth of July nights with his family watching fireworks at Midway Stadium.
“I really enjoyed them,” Cole said.
The 6-7 lefthanded pitcher was part of a trade that sent former Twins outfielder Delmon Young to the Tigers, and Nelson and another player to the Twins. He was released by the Twins this spring. This season is his first chance to pitch in front of friends and family since high school.
Matt Meyer, pitcher, Rochester Mayo High School
On Meyer’s first trip to Midway Stadium in 2001, his high school team lost the Class 3A state championship in a 13-2 mercy-rule thrashing by Cretin-Derham Hall and a catcher named Joe Mauer.
Meyer didn’t return until he signed with the Saints in 2010, after his release by the Cleveland Indians. After 21 innings with the Saints, he was picked up by the Angels organization and eventually rose to Class AAA before his release. He’s back in St. Paul looking for a third chance.
George Jensen, pitcher, Eastview High School
Jensen’s first Saints game ended early. His Eastview baseball team attended a game, but the then-sophomore and his dad headed for the parking lot well before the final pitch.
“It was fun, but it was different,” Jensen said. “When I thought of baseball [at that age], I thought of huge stadiums, tons of fans. I just wasn’t used to something this small.”
He’s used to it now, having spent the past three years playing in the minor leagues.
Luke Anderson, pitcher, Prior Lake, North Dakota State University
At a neighbor’s invitation, Anderson and his family took in his first Saints game when he was in third grade. He didn’t return until he signed with the team a year ago.
“I never got the gist of what [independent league] was,” said Anderson, who signed with the team out of college. “I never really heard about [the Saints]. I still find myself explaining to my friends the types of players that are here. It’s kind of difficult to explain.”
Dustin Klabunde, pitcher, McLeod West High School, University of Minnesota
For all of the trips in Klabunde’s youth to the Twin Cities that ended at the Metrodome, including his years with the Gophers, he said he “hadn’t been to a Saints game until they signed me.”
After throwing a bullpen for the Saints coaching staff last summer, he and a friend stayed for a game. He described what he saw as a “circus.” The promotions continued for his first appearance with the team. It was “Mighty Ducks” night and he was proud to wear a Ducks jersey. “It’s a great [movie] trilogy,” he said.