It was the uniform that hooked 7-year-old Todd Van Steensel.
The native of Sydney, Australia, followed his brother, who was looking for a sport to play in the summer, to a baseball practice and couldn’t tear his eyes from what the players were wearing.
“I thought, ‘Wow, that uniform is cool,’ ” said Van Steensel, now a relief pitcher for the St. Paul Saints. “The stirrups, the high pants, the jersey. It was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. My dad said, ‘If you want the uniform, you have to play.’ ”
Never mind that baseball barely ripples the consciousness of a country enamored with soccer, rugby, cricket and Australian Rules Football.
Van Steensel was sold. If he had any doubts, they were erased when he first swung a baseball bat.
“My first memory is of the coach of my underage team saying, ‘Hey, do you want to come have a go?’ ” Van Steensel recalled. “So I get in the box, the ball’s on a tee and I hit an inside-the-park home run in practice. I remember hitting and running and thinking, ‘This is the best thing ever.’ ”
He took to pitching quickly, having developed arm strength as a bowler in numerous backyard cricket games.
“It’s the same concept,” he said. “I just put it on the baseball field.”
Fast forward 21 years. Van Steensel is one of seven Saints players selected to play in the American Association All-Star Game on Tuesday at CHS Field. Through the season’s first half, he has 2-2 record with 15 saves, a 3.56 ERA and 38 strikeouts in 30⅓ innings while helping the Saints to a league-best 40-21 record and a two-game lead on Fargo-Moorhead in the North Division standings.
After Van Steensel’s six minor league seasons and three stints with the Twins organization aimed at eventually playing in the Twin Cities, it took the Saints to finally bring him to Minnesota.
It’s the latest stop on Van Steensel’s tour of America, courtesy of a right arm that can throw a baseball well over 90 miles per hour.
Once projected to be the next in the Twins’ growing line of pitchers from Australia (Grant Balfour, Brad Thomas, Liam Hendriks), Van Steensel never made it past Class AA. He was released last August and was picked up by the San Diego Padres, who let him go late in spring training.
But Van Steensel’s arm and reputation as an individual thinker caught the eye of George Tsamis, the Saints manager and director of player personnel, who didn’t wait long after Van Steensel became a free agent to offer him a job.
“I was driving back to my apartment in Arizona when I got a call from George, asking me to come play for the Saints,” Van Steensel said. “I said, ‘Sounds like a good fit. Let me talk to a few guys I know that played there.’ ”
Reviews were glowing.
“They were like, ‘Dude, if you’re going to play anywhere in [independent baseball], you’ve got to play for St. Paul. They take care of you, have great fans, a great stadium,’ ” Van Steensel recalled. “They treat you like a human being, which is a strange concept after being treated like a number for so long.”
Stacks of quirks
Having gained a reputation for quirkiness while in the minor leagues, Van Steensel and the Saints were a perfect fit.
He never steps on a baseline when he takes or leaves the field. He only picks up the baseball from the third base side of the mound. He won’t throw a pitch if the umpire is the last person to touch the ball.
“I’ll drop it on the mound before I throw the next pitch,” he said. “I feel like the ball’s tainted if it’s been touched by the umpire. If I drop it, it’s my ball again.”
Between innings, his glove is always to his left, facing the field, with his hat on his glove, facing the wall. He drinks two cups of water, stacks the empties, then adds to the stack by drinking two more when there’s two outs.
“If I throw two innings, there will be a stack of, like, eight cups next to me. I tell people ‘Don’t touch it.’ ” he said. “They usually don’t. When you’re pitching, people will go to crazy lengths to make sure you stay in the zone.”
He is proud of being a huge Taylor Swift fan and wears a wristband from the singer’s “1989” tour. His enthusiasm at a Swift concert during her “Red” tour earned him and a friend backstage passes.
“There were 46,000 people at the concert and 25 people got to go backstage and meet Taylor,” he said.
As the only man in the group, he caught Swift’s attention.
“I stood out like a sore thumb. When she got to me and my friend, who’s a girl, Taylor thought she dragged me along. My friend goes, ‘Actually, I came with him.’ So Taylor started talking to me,” Van Steensel said.
“She asked me if I ever get nervous pitching in front of all those people. I said, ‘I’ve never been more nervous in my entire life than I am right now.’ It could be bases loaded in the ninth with a one-run lead, and I still wouldn’t be as nervous as I was meeting Taylor Swift.”
And now Van Steensel has landed in St. Paul, which he has come to love, especially since the weather has warmed up.
“Baseball in the states has taken me to places I never thought I’d be,” he said. “The only thing I knew about Minnesota was ‘The Mighty Ducks.’ Here, I know they love the Saints. It feels like on this side, the St. Paul Saints are their big league team and they don’t care about the Twins. It’s really cool.”