Thanks to the money-fighting between baseball owners and players, the feel-good opportunity for Major League Baseball to return to play over Independence Day weekend went by the wayside.

No matter. There’s a minor league that will gladly try to fill the void locally. The American Association, including the defending champion St. Paul Saints, begins play in an abbreviated season on Friday. Of course, it wouldn’t be 2020 without a coronavirus-related twist: The Saints will be playing their home games in South Dakota, at least to start the season.

“‘Safety is Good’ as well as ‘Fun is Good,’” said Derek Sharrer, the team’s executive vice president and general manager, putting a spin on the Saints’ motto. “We need to combine the two.”

That means leaving their palatial CHS Field in St. Paul to bivouac 250 miles to the southwest in Sioux Falls, joining the hometown Canaries as one of two hub sites in an American Association slimmed from 12 to six teams for a 60-game 2020 season.

“The last thing we ever wanted to do was not play games in St. Paul,” Sharrer said. “We felt the best path to playing games in St. Paul was to start a schedule as early as possible to allow time to continue to work with the relevant state agencies to prove we can play games here safely in front of fans.”

Minnesota health officials have limited crowds to 250 people. Until those restrictions ease, the Saints will play up to 42 games at Sioux Falls Stadium. “The Birdcage,” which holds 4,462 fans, will be open for 2,200 to maintain social distancing. If the Saints can return to CHS Field, the team’s plan is for it to be at 25% capacity to begin.

“Minor league baseball is a business model that just doesn’t work without fans,” Sharrer said.

The American Association is comprised of independent teams that are not affiliated with Major League Baseball. On Tuesday, MLB announced it wouldn’t be assigning players to its minor league teams, ending the possibility of a minor league season.

In Sioux Falls, the Saints will play the Canaries 24 times. St. Paul will have three trips to Fargo to face hubmates Fargo-Moorhead and Winnipeg, two to Milwaukee to play the Milkmen and one to Rosemont, Ill., to meet the Chicago Dogs.

“We’re excited to be out here,” Saints manager George Tsamis said. “It’s been a long, long offseason for everybody across the country. Some teams aren’t playing, but we’re fortunate we’re getting the chance to play.”

The Saints will live in a Sioux Falls hotel in hopes of quarantining. The team returned to CHS Field last week for training camp, and Sharrer reported no positive COVID-19 tests. The league plans intermittent coronavirus testing throughout the season.

Looking for more success

When last seen in action, the Saints were putting the finishing touches on their first American Association championship, sweeping the Sioux City Explorers in a best-of-three series. Chesny Young’s grand slam capped the clinching 6-3 victory at CHS Field.

Young, a 27-year-old second baseman and former Cubs minor leaguer, considered calling it a career after that finish but was drawn back to the Saints.

“I would’ve been nice to wrap it up on the note I left it on, but I wanted to give it one more year,” Young said. “I still believe in myself as a baseball player.”

One of the Saints newcomers is pitcher Brian Glowicki, a former Gophers closer who was released on May 28 by the Cubs organization. He’s looking to keep his career going.

“There’s a sense of home here, even though I’m in a new stadium with new coaches and teammates,” Glowicki said. “… It’s baseball, and there’s thousands of players who unfortunately can’t play right now, whether they got released or their teams just aren’t playing.”

Yearning for home

In Sioux Falls, the Saints will have 30 home games and will try to create a home atmosphere. A crew of front-office staff will be embedded there, helping the Canaries staff, too.

“The voice of Lee Adams will be heard in Sioux Falls Stadium,” Sharrer said, referring to the Saints’ public address announcer. “Our in-between innings promotions will take place.”

One thing that the Saints won’t do in Sioux Falls is commemorate their 2019 American Association championship. They’ll wait until they get back to CHS Field to do that, Sharrer said.

Sharrer is hopeful the South Dakota stay won’t be long, but he praised help he’s getting from the Canaries, led by GM Duell Higbe. Sharrer is most thankful that his team will play again.

“It’s great to hear the crack of the bat and the pop of the mitt,” he said. “It’s been the most unique experience that any of us have had to go through and hope to never go through again.’’