The crowd was a socially distanced 1,489 rather than the usual 8,000-plus that the St. Paul Saints played in front of last season.
The fans wore masks and were spread out among six pods of up to 250 at CHS Field, another nod to the coronavirus pandemic.
And certain amenities such as the Craft Beer Corner weren’t open, aimed to keep people at arm’s length rather than in crowed lines.
Still, those new realities didn’t spoil the occasion, because there was live professional baseball in front of spectators on a beautiful, 77-degree Tuesday night. The Saints came marching home and beat the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks 3-2 on Alonzo Harris’ tying, two-out RBI single and an errant throw that plated the go-ahead run in the bottom of the eighth. This came after the Saints spent a month stationed in Sioux Falls as part of two-team hub in the truncated, six-team American Association.
This Little Piggy Stayed Home, the pig that delivers baseballs to the plate umpire squealed constantly Tuesday, finally had company in the form of a team.
“We’re so happy to be back,” said Saints pitcher Ryan Zimmerman, a former Eden Prairie High School and University of St. Thomas standout. “We would’ve played anywhere, but it feels great to be back. Nothing beats this place.”
Fans echoed Zimmerman’s comments.
“It’s the opener. We couldn’t wait to get out and see a game,” said Mark Sharockman of Minneapolis, who attended the game with his wife, Emily, and son, Matt.
“It’s a perfect night,” Emily added. “It just feels like summer when you can come and watch baseball.”
Tuesday’s game served another purpose. It enabled the Saints to puff out their chests a bit and celebrate their 2019 American Association championship, an occasion delayed until they got the go-ahead from the state health department and Gov. Tim Walz’s StaySafeMN task force to play in front of a maximum 1,500.
“We brought the city a ring,” said third baseman Chesny Young, whose grand slam against Sioux City in Game 3 of the best-of-five final secured the title. “We take pride in that, and we want to defend that title.”
Saints General Manager Derek Sharrer expects crowds close to the new capacity of 1,500 for the remainder of this six-game homestand.
“You can see the smile in their eyes, maybe just not through the mask,” he said of fans. “You know they’re smiling.”
The Saints got word that they were coming home before Thursday’s game against the RedHawks in Fargo. Manager George Tsamis gathered his players and told them he had some good news and bad news: “Then I said, ‘Well, I lied. There is no bad news. The good news is we’re going back home.’ Everybody erupted. It was a cool thing.”
Said Young: “There was a lot of whoops and cheers. It was good to hear, because we hadn’t heard a lot of whoops and cheers yet this year.”
Maybe being home provided a spark. The Saints improved to 13-15, 4½ games behind first-place Winnipeg and 3½ back of second-place Sioux Falls. The top two teams advance to the playoffs.
Though the Saints have work to do to defend their title, resuming a routine away from a South Dakota hotel is welcome to both the team and its fans.
“That’s what everybody’s looking for these days — some sort of normal,” Zimmerman said. “We’re happy that we get to provide that.”