Mudonna was there, the St. Paul Saints mascot doing her best to entertain the fans at Sioux Falls Stadium. However, the ongoing coronavirus kept the team’s live pig — the aptly named This Little Piggy Stayed Home — from making the trip to deliver baseballs to the home plate umpire.
The Saints’ promotional creativity also was on display — fan-focused contests, fireworks after Friday night home games and Saturday’s salute to the 40th anniversary of “Caddyshack,” with a bobblehead of assistant greenskeeper Carl Spackler as a giveaway.
Missing, though, were the crowds that normally would pack CHS Field in St. Paul.
Instead, the defending American Association champion Saints are camped out 250 miles to the southwest in Sioux Falls. They’re part of a two-team hub with the Sioux Falls Canaries, playing their home games in the Birdcage. They hope to return to St. Paul if Gov. Tim Walz and the state health department ease restrictions on the size of outdoor gatherings.
“It’s a way to play,” Saints General Manager Derek Sharrer said. “We’ve understood all along [that the] best opportunity to play home games at CHS Field is to get a season started somewhere. It’s been as good as it possibly could be, being a road team playing home games in a hub city.”
Added Sean Aronson, the team’s radio broadcaster: “We’re making the most of it. … Everybody wants to be home, and that has nothing to do with the city of Sioux Falls or the ballpark. If the roles were reversed and Sioux Falls was playing in our ballpark for two months, they’d like to get home, too.”
Social distancing was not a problem in Sioux Falls on Friday and Saturday. Announced crowds of 312 and 726 greeted the Saints for the opening two games of a three-game series against the Milwaukee Milkmen at the Birdcage, which seats 4,462 and is set up to allow 50% capacity.
Saturday’s crowd was helped by the “Caddyshack” theme night, something Sharrer and his staff promoted in both Sioux Falls and St. Paul. “It was fun to see a lot of familiar faces, to see a lot of Saints gear at the Birdcage,” Sharrer said.
Still, Sharrer and others in the American Association are dealing with COVID-19 and its impact on attendance.
Last year, the Saints averaged a league-best 8,061 at CHS Field. In Sioux Falls, they’re drawing 7,791 fewer per game. Their home average of 270 ranks ahead of only the 228 by the Winnipeg Goldeyes, who are playing their home games at Newman Outdoor Field, home of the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks.
With one-fourth of the 60-game season complete, the Saints entered Tuesday’s road tilt against Sioux Falls with a 7-8 record, sitting in fourth place in the six-team league. They’re hitting over .300 as a team and rank second with a 4.84 team ERA. But they have committed a league-high 20 errors.
Players and staff are housed at a hotel about 1½ miles from the stadium. The team has a spacious clubhouse in the Sanford Premier Center, across the parking lot from the ballpark. They aren’t living in a bubble, but they are instructed to be cautious.
“They’re handling this entire endeavor with a positive attitude,” Sharrer said. “… A memo came out from the league during our spring camp. It implored the players to not let this virus take the jersey off their back.”
Longing for home
Will the Saints be able to join This Little Piggy Stayed Home at CHS Field this season? That’s to be determined. The team adopted a social-distancing plan in which the ballpark would open at 25% of capacity. Sharrer said that attendance figure — about 2,000 — is needed to make economic sense for the team to play at home. With the Saints not receiving ticket revenue from games in Sioux Falls and having their expenses covered by league members, they are better off financially playing in Sioux Falls until they can play in front of 2,000 or more at CHS Field.
Minnesota guidelines allow outdoor gatherings with separate groups of no more than 250. Canterbury Park, for example, can allow an attendance of 1,100 with groups of 250 in different areas.
Sharrer remains optimistic of a return to St. Paul but said there’s no timeline. “We have remained in contact with the governor’s task force as well as the governor himself,” he said. “We’ve had great communication with that group, and I feel they’re becoming more and more comfortable with our ability as an 8,000-seat venue to host limited-capacity events safely.”
Sharrer noted three Films & Fireworks nights at CHS Field used space both on the field and in the stands to draw up to 800. “We’ve found that up to 95 percent of our crowd coming to those events have worn a mask virtually at all times, without us requiring it,” he said.
“These events are allowing us to at least in some manner showcase our ability to host fans safely and responsibly. We hope that’s going to help us move toward hosting Saints games.”