Jim Souhan
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A pig didn't deliver the ball to home plate for the St. Paul Saints on Tuesday night.

A big-leaguer did.

If the Saints hadn't had former and future Twin Randy Dobnak on their roster, they might have invented him.

Dobnak started the Saints' first game as the Twins' Class AAA team at CHS Field, christening the Saints' return to affiliated baseball with a 92-miles-per-hour strike to Iowa Cubs center fielder Ian Miller.

After the history came the mystery — how Dobnak, so efficient for the Twins the past two years, has lost his command. The Cubs scored five earned runs off him in 4⅓ innings, and Iowa beat the Saints 11-1.

Dobnak unwillingly and unwittingly provided a preview of life as a Class AAA team. The Saints will host rising stars — and big-leaguers mending injuries or mechanics.

CHS Field is a nice place to climb, or convalesce, and even a struggling version of Dobnak embodies the Saints' evolution.

Let's venture a guess that this was the first time a momentous Class AAA home opener was started by an alumnus of Alderson Broaddus University who went undrafted, played independent baseball (but not in St. Paul), drove for Uber and Lyft to make ends meet and was at the beginning of a five-year contract that could pay him as much as $30 million.

A long shot. An indy-league survivor. A guy who loved baseball so much he worked odd jobs to stay in the game. And a guy who finally made it to the big leagues, only to find himself back in AAA to stretch out his arm for the long summer ahead.

Now all he has to do is control his fastball, and become accustomed to the Saints' brand of constant entertainment.

"It was different from what I'm used to," he said. "There were just some things that were kind of weird. I don't know how to explain it. Some guys said it was like being at an NBA game, where there were weird things between every inning."

Dobnak said the constant banter between innings, and pitches, was "different." "The fans were awesome," Dobnak said. "It was an experience, I guess you could say."

The notion of the Saints as the Twins' top affiliate was always sound, and now that it is reality it seems absurd that it didn't happen earlier. Now, if the Twins suffer an injury or burn out their bullpen, a replacement player can drive over. Or take the Green Line — the modern manifestation of Minnie and Paul's handshake on the famous Twins logo.

"Absolutely, it makes our lives significantly easier, me having my wife up here and the ability to have one apartment for an entire season," said Brent Rooker, who has already bounced between Class AAA and the Twins. "Having a home base is a huge relief."

When the Twins' Class AAA team was in Rochester, N.Y., sometimes players being called up would have to wait until morning to fly to Minnesota or wherever the Twins were playing.

"This is a lot easier on guys with families," Rooker said.

The Saints created a niche by aggressively marketing their lighthearted atmosphere, and by luring the occasional underdog prospect or big name looking for a path back to the big leagues.

There is a difference between an AAA team and an independent league team, though, and the difference was obvious Tuesday. The ball moves faster.

The Saints aren't abandoning their "Fun Is Good" philosophy.

"Everything was good," Saints manager Toby Gardenhire said with a smile, "except for the baseball."

There was pomp and circumstances to go with the upgraded baseball. Gov. Tim Walz visited in the afternoon and CHS Field offered free one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccines in the afternoon. The Sounds of Blackness sang the anthem, and St. Paul mayor Melvin Carter threw out the first pitch — to Saints mascot Mudonna.

The Twins had their bosses in attendance. There was the usual wackiness between innings, bookending the serious business of developing baseball players. Dobnak likely will see Mudonna again.

Jim Souhan's podcast can be heard at TalkNorth.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. jsouhan@startribune.com