George Tsamis had spent 18 summers in St. Paul managing and finding players for the independent Saints. The team's transformation to becoming the Twins' Class AAA affiliate for 2021 put Tsamis on the job market, although not for long.
The Kane County Cougars, located in Geneva, Ill., were bounced from the Class A Midwest League when the affiliated minor leagues shrunk from 160 to 120 teams last winter.
Kane County wound up filling the vacancy created by the Saints' departure from the independent American Association. The announcement was made in early February, and Tsamis was hired three weeks later to duplicate his Saints role with the Cougars.
Tsamis is 70 games into the 100-game schedule with his new team and he has come to a dramatic realization:
"We start our night games at 6:30 and it's the greatest idea of all time,'' he said. "The team loves it and, better yet, the fans love it. I didn't know what to think at first, but most games are done by 9, 9:30 at the latest, and nobody is in a hurry to leave. Every team should do this.''
Tsamis' fondness for the earlier start could reach its highest level on Wednesday night. The Cougars will be hosting the first-place Milwaukee Milkmen, and once his duties are complete, George has this task:
Driving the 5 ½ hours from Geneva (located 45 miles west of Chicago) to St. Paul, where on Thursday night, there will be a ceremony to honor the 2019 team that won what will stand as the Saints' lone title in the American Association.
These Saints were original members of the Northern League from 1993 through 2005, winning four titles. They joined other members of the league in 2006 in snatching the name "American Association," which had gone dormant as a Class AAA League after the 1997 season.
"There was no chance to really honor the 2019 championship last season because of the pandemic," Tsamis said. "The Saints looked at our Kane County schedule, saw Thursday was a day off, and set it as the date. I don't know anything else."
Remind us, George. What number do you wear?
"It's always been 22," he said. "I grew up in California as a Giants fan and Jack Clark was my favorite player. I even managed to get 22 when I pitched with the Twins in 1993."
Tsamis paused, then said: "All I've been told is the Saints wanted me to be there for the 2019 celebration."
We'll stick with that, too. We won't dig deeper into speculation rampant among loyal Saints fans that Marv Goldklang, Mike Veeck and the rest of the crew that led this franchise from funky Midway Stadium to Triple-A have something more in mind for Tsamis than hoisting championship hardware from 2019 in front of a full house.
The current challenge for Tsamis has gone well beyond changing locations and organizations. The chaos of a historic downsizing of the minor leagues in the midst of a world-changing pandemic has immensely impacted player procurement.
"This is my 23rd season in independent baseball and by far the toughest year," Tsamis said. "In the past, there would be 400 to 500 players released from the minor leagues in the last couple of weeks of spring training.
"This time, it was more like 50. There were fewer players in camps. And pitchers? There are more on rosters from Triple-A to low-A than ever before. It seems like every time a pitcher gets released, he's getting picked up by another major league organization.
"We have a rule that you're supposed to have five [professional] rookies on your team. We have nine rookies on our pitching staff right now.
"That's just the way it is. We're a few games under .500. We have to win more games."
Vance Worley, the "Vanimal" who was the Twins' Opening Day starter in 2013, came back after two years off and made five starts for the Cougars. Then, the Mets signed him for Class AAA Syracuse.
The third- and fourth-chance guys getting signed and perhaps making it to (or back to) the big leagues are the glorious stories of independent baseball. None more so than Caleb Thielbar, now the No. 1 lefty in the Twins bullpen with Taylor Rogers injured.
"We had Caleb three times with the Saints, and he got signed all three,'' Tsamis said.
Thielbar was getting ready to leave for the Cincinnati ballpark on Tuesday when asked by phone about his three-time manager, Tsamis.
"Honestly, George was really good at putting a team together," Thielbar said. "He wants guys to play hard and enjoy the fact they are still playing the game.
"He wants to win, for sure, but the players also come first with him. George was genuinely excited for a player when he was signed by a major league organization."
Caleb is a qualified expert on that Tsamis reaction, having experienced it three times.