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Toby Gardenhire goes through the standard pregame managerial duties before St. Paul Saints games. There's filling out the lineup, batting practice, checking on pitchers. And there are meetings, Meetings with players. Meeting with coaches.

And meeting with Space Ham.

"I kind of like having the pig," Gardenhire said of the Saints mascot. "That's entertainment. That pig started off at like 10 pounds but now it is 200 pounds. So I feed it French fries before the game, pat it on the head. So I do like the pig."

Well, minor league baseball is all about development. Players are trying to reach the majors, or return after being sent down. Gardenhire's own development as manager continues as he made the jump from Class A ball two years ago to Class AAA this season.

And the pig definitely has developed during the summer.

This is the first season the Saints were the Class AAA affiliate of the Twins, a year after CHS Field was used as an alternate training site during the pandemic games of 2020.

That relationship got the ball rolling on a more permanent arrangement, as Major League Baseball overhauled the minor league system. Affiliates moved to different clubs and, in some cases, different levels. Class A Fort Myers, for instance, moved from High-A to Low-A while Cedar Rapids became the Twins' High-A club. And the Twins added Wichita — which had structured itself for Class AAA affiliation, hopefully with Kansas City — as a Class AA team.

Two independent teams, including the Saints, moved into affiliation status. The 10.8-mile driving distance is the shortest betweenany major league club and its Class AAA team, and the Twins invested in the future of the Saints, purchasing roughly 20% of the club.

It meant that the Saints would have to leave independent baseball, where they forged their "Fun is Good" mantra.

"I loved independent ball," Saints co-owner Mike Veeck said. "What it came down to was that two out of three fans felt it was the right thing. And I subscribe to the theory that he who is not busy being born is busy dying. And I think we needed a change."

Veeck sees it as an opportunity to have a seat at the table with MLB and possibly influence ways to improve the game.

"We need young fans," Veeck said. "And that's what we do better than anybody."

Still pandemic-hampered

The Twins saw the move as a chance to apply their resources more effectively. Front-office staff is routinely at games, checking on players.Player development staff was able to work with Saints players and coaches more closely. The Class AAA players could head over to Target Field to be seen by the major league medical staff.

"It makes the communication simple," Gardenhire said. "It makes the travel simple. It makes everything easy."

The Twins hope to take advantage of the proximity even more in 2022 once everything — probably — is normal, two years after the pandemic began.

"Next year, when we are back to full minor league coordinator travel and access to the major league environment, we expect the advantages to be even more robust," Twins President of Baseball Operations Derek Falvey said.

"Having our coordinators make a stop in St. Paul and then spend a few days with the major league club will really help us link up the major and minor leagues, something every team struggles a bit with when the season is in full swing."

Space Ham, the Saints mascot, received a treat at CHS Field from Bachelorette Michelle Young during the season.
Space Ham, the Saints mascot, received a treat at CHS Field from Bachelorette Michelle Young during the season.

Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

Next-door neighbors

Perhaps the best part of the St. Paul-to-Target Field arrangement: No more scrambling to call up players from the previous affiliate in Rochester, N.Y., when there are injuries. That often required a decision made at midnight on the health of a player, followed by a phone call out East, and a 4:30 am wake-up call to get to the airport for a 6 a.m. flight to the Twin Cities in order to be available for the next game.

Now the Twins can wait until the next day to make decision on a banged-up player or exhausted pitching staff, knowing reinforcements are a 20-minute drive away.

Saints players live in St. Paul and Minneapolis. Some stay at a hotel near CHS Field and ride scooters to the park. For a Class AAA player, it's easier to commit to housing during the summer since they know they will be either with the Saints or the Twins.

"Looking at it as an older guy, I had my fiancée here and our dogs and everything for most of the season," said infielder J.T. Riddle, who was called up briefly in April. "It's pretty nice when you can find a place to live and don't worry about moving if I get called up and the city is 10 hours away. Then the fiancée is stuck here packing the house up, the dogs and everything and then driving to that city or driving home and trying to figure it out from there."

Still the Saints

Saints games continue to be big draws, as they averaged 6,052 per game through 65 appearances at CHS Field. They are seventh in average attendance among all minor league teams.

Players are assured of playing in a palpable atmosphere. Fans might get to see Byron Buxton on a rehabilitation assignment. A pitcher on a rehab assignment won't have to drive to Cedar Rapids to get work in, which Ricky Nolasco once did as a Twins pitcher.

The Saints were 61-59 during the regular season and are 4-1 during the "Final Stretch," in which a regular-season champion will be determined based on win percentage.

And players get to see the Saints' gameday presentation, which includes bad singers, and an announcer who talks between pitches. And Space Ham.

"It's different," Riddle said. "It takes some time getting used to. When you are locked into the game you don't really pay attention."

He did have a suggestion for Space Ham.

"They need to put it in the visitors' dugout so we're not smelling it and we have a little extra room in our dugout," he said. "Make thevisitors feel a little less at home when they come to town."

The pig has even been a talking point for Twins manager Rocco Baldelli.

"You know what, I'm going to have to go meet this pig," Baldelli said. "I mean, I'm an animal lover. This couldn't get any better, right?"