Aaron Gretz grew up playing catch with his older brother, Nick. Nothing uncommon about that. However, when Aaron and Nick would toss a ball around, often it was on the field at Midway Stadium, the former home of the St. Paul Saints, who happened to be Nick’s employer from 2004 through 2006. That part is far from common.
“I used to think that was so cool,” Aaron said. “Not many kids get to do that.”
Aaron, a graduate of Apple Valley High School and Ohio State, is following in his brother’s footsteps. The first-year catcher is one of nine Minnesotans on the 2016 roster for the Saints as they begin regular-season play Thursday at CHS Field.
Those strong Minnesota ties are only one of many reasons the Saints hope baseball fans give the team a long look, particularly with the major league team on the west side of the river struggling.
The Saints won 74 of 100 games in 2015, finishing first in the American Association’s North Division. They play in an award-winning stadium in downtown St. Paul that, in its second season, is the envy of the league. They will host the American Association All-Star Game in August. And, of course, the Saints organization is well-known for its irreverent approach and cheeky antics off the field.
“We think we’ve got something pretty good here,” longtime manager George Tsamis said. “We always want to make it fun for the fans, and I think we’ve put together a pretty good group.”
Five pitchers will be familiar to local fans. There’s Randolph High School grad Caleb Thielbar, back for his second go-round with the team. He set a franchise record with 29 ⅔ consecutive scoreless innings in his first stint in 2011 and spent the past three seasons with the Twins organization, making 109 major league appearances. Chaska’s John Straka was acquired in a trade with the Sioux City Explorers last week. Mounds View’s Mark Hamburger made 21 starts for the Saints in 2013 and spent the past two seasons in the Twins minor league system before re-signing with the Saints. Reliever Alec Crawford is a University of Minnesota grad who was drafted by the Colorado Rockies in 2014. And the team recently signed Kody Knaus. who recently finished his senior year at Concordia (St. Paul).
Four position players have Minnesota roots: Gretz, Eden Prairie’s Nate Hanson, Northfield’s Sam Maus and Tanner Vavra, the son of Twins bench coach Joe Vavra.
“It’s good for me to get to play 50 games at home and I think it’s good for the fans,” said Hanson, a former Gophers player who was drafted by the Twins in 2008 and spent nearly eight seasons in their minor league system. “I think it does help them connect with the team.”
Hamburger said he could have played for more money in Mexico this season, but the chance to play for the Saints was too good to pass up. “I’m a single guy, so I don’t have the expenses other guys have, and I get to live at home and play in front of family,” he said. “It wasn’t a hard choice to make.”
While the Minnesota contingent is strong, veteran pitchers Robert Coe and John Shields combined for 25 victories in 2015 and are expected to top the rotation, with Hamburger, Straka and possibly Thielbar joining them.
The top of the lineup features speed in outfielders Alonzo Harris (.298, 15 HR, 62 RBI, 39 SB in 2015) and newcomer Breland Almadova. For power to drive them in, first baseman Angelo Songco (.339, 17 HR, 82 RBI) is back after having been released by the Dodgers organization after spring training. He joins outfielder Willie Argo (.287, 12 HR, 49 RBI).
“I’m excited,” Tsamis said. “I hope people will come out and see us. Of course, it’s not like we didn’t have any fans. We got 8,000 a game last year. But it would be nice to get a few more.”