September 14, 2019: Unlikely hero leads St. Paul Saints to American Association championship
An unlikely hero steps to the plate with the bases loaded on a comfortable fall night at an award-winning ballpark. Moments later, when the batter delivers one of the biggest hits in a team’s history, fans at this game are once again reminded of baseball’s ability to provide lifelong memories. On Saturday, September 14, 2019, the St. Paul Saints erased an early deficit to beat the Sioux City Explorers 6-3 and capture their first championship in 15 years.
The Saints, playing in the 12-team independent American Association, are perhaps best known for their offbeat promotions and famous owner. (After Minnesota Vikings football player Randy Moss bumped a traffic cop at a Minneapolis intersection, they announced “Randy Moss hood ornament night.” Actor Bill Murray, star of such movies as Caddyshack and Ghostbusters, is part owner, listed on their website as “team psychologist.”) In 2015 the Saints moved into CHS Field, a sparkling new addition to the capital city’s downtown that was named Ballpark of the Year by Baseball Digest.
Despite reaching the final series four times since joining the American Association in 2006 (the Saints had previously played in the Northern League since the franchise’s founding in 1993), they had not won a championship. In 2019 they finished 64-36, one game ahead of the second-place Fargo-Moorhead Redhawks. Throughout the summer and in the first round of the playoffs, the Saints set the stage for their come-from-behind victory in the championship game, after garnering 24 of them in the regular season1 and battling back twice to take the lead in the deciding game of the Division Series between the Saints and the Redhawks.
In the American Association, both the Division Series and the Championship Series are best-of-five affairs, with one team hosting Games One and Two and the other hosting Game Three (and, if necessary, Games Four and Five). After winning the first two in Sioux City, the Saints came home for Game Three, needing only one more win to secure their first championship in 15 years. On that fall day, a few stray raindrops pelted the concourse before the game, causing many fans to duck into the ballpark’s new “City of Baseball” museum, just opened in 2019. America’s pastime has a long history in Minnesota’s capital, with the city being home to another Saints franchise in another league known as the American Association from 1901 to 1960. Those Saints were at times a farm team of the Chicago White Sox, Brooklyn Dodgers, and Los Angeles Dodgers.
The sky soon settled into a partly cloudy evening, with the temperature reading an enjoyable 71 degrees at first pitch. New Minnesota Wild hockey team general manager Bill Guerin threw out the first pitch and soon after the Saints “ball pig,” Daenerys Hoggaryen, made her first appearance of the night. (In another ode to quirkiness, the team has a real live pig deliver the baseballs to the home-plate umpire and holds a naming contest each spring — the 2019 winner was a play on a character from the television show Game of Thrones.)
The Saints roster often features many native Minnesotans and local collegiate players, and the championship game was no exception, with Eden Prairie, Minnesota, resident and former University of St. Thomas pitcher Ryan Zimmerman on the mound for St. Paul. Right-hander Taylor Jordan, who pitched in the major leagues for the Washington Nationals, started for Sioux City.
The night started inauspiciously for the Saints: After a walk and an error put runners on first and second in the top of the first, Explorers right fielder Jeremy Hazelbaker worked the count to 3-and-2 and deposited the next pitch over the right-field fence, giving Sioux City an early 3-0 lead. “Whatever,” said Saints public-address announcer Lee Adams to the crowd of 5,353. In the bottom of the third, Saints shortstop Chris Baker, who had made the error in the first inning, got one run back for St. Paul with a home run to left. After Baker’s home run, Jordan retired nine of the next 12 Saints batters. Zimmerman also settled in, retiring 14 of 17 Sioux City hitters after Hazelbaker’s home run, ultimately throwing 103 pitches before being replaced by former University of Minnesota left-hander Jordan Jess after five innings.
In the bottom of the sixth, Saints designated hitter Brady Shoemaker and first baseman John Silviano started the inning with back-to-back singles and, after a fly out to center, Jordan surrendered his only walk of the night, to second baseman Josh Allen, loading the bases. Sioux City manager Steve Montgomery brought in All-Star reliever Nathan Gercken, who had been drafted by the Minnesota Twins in 2015 and had given up only one home run to the 195 batters he’d faced previously in 2019.2 Saints third baseman Chesny Young, who had hit just six home runs in his professional career of 505 games entering the season,3 crushed Gercken’s first pitch to him over the left-center-field fence for a grand slam, giving the Saints a 5-3 lead.
“I don’t normally cheat pitches, but I thought they were going to come fastball in,” said Young, a former Cubs farmhand. “He missed and left it middle. That’s a pretty big dagger. … I almost fainted coming around home plate.”4 “That perfectly describes your 2019 Saints,” St. Paul broadcaster Mike Drew announced in calling the play. “It’s not a question of if — it’s when.”5 Although the ball had traveled an estimated 410 feet, it had bounced back onto the field and at first Young stopped at second base, seemingly unaware that it had cleared the fence, until the umpire ran toward him and gave the home-run signal.
For that and also for garnering three hits and three runs batted in during the first game of the series, Young was named the most valuable player of the championship series. In a remarkable coincidence, Minnesota Twins third baseman Miguel Sano also hit a grand slam off the first pitch from Cleveland reliever Nick Goody at Progressive Field minutes before Young’s hit, en route to helping the Twins sweep a late-season doubleheader against the division rival Indians.
Although it was Gercken who gave up the grand slam, the loss went to Taylor Jordan, who was responsible for the runner on base who ultimately proved to be the winning run. The win went to Jordan Jess, who was the pitcher of record when the Saints took a lead that they would not relinquish. St. Paul added a run in the bottom of the seventh after Silviano hit a double down the right-field line against another Explorers All-Star, reliever Matt Poberyko, scoring right fielder Michael Lang, who had walked with one out.
Leading 6-3 going into the top of the ninth, the crowd was on its feet as Saints reliever Tanner Kiest came in from the bullpen seeking the save. The right-hander walked two of the first three batters he faced, bringing up Kyle Wren with one out as the potential tying run. After going to a 2-and-0 count, the Explorers center fielder grounded into a double play and the ball settled into first baseman John Silviano’s glove for the final out. A celebration ensued both on the field and in the stands in a game that lasted 3 hours and 20 minutes.
Afterward, even Sioux City manager Steve Montgomery commented on the Saints never-say-die attitude. “The biggest thing is I thought coming off that Fargo series they had so much momentum,” said Montgomery. “We could never stop it. Not only momentum, but they felt as though they were never out of any game.”6 For a team whose motto is “Fun is Good,” the 2019 championship game will forever be etched in Saints lore.
In addition to the sources listed in the Notes and the author’s own scoresheet and personal experience at the game, she also utilized the following resources:
1 Sean Aronson, email correspondence with the author, October 9, 2019.
2 Terry Hersom, “Sioux City Explorers’ Season Ends with 6-3 Loss to St. Paul in Championship Series,” Sioux City Journal, siouxcityjournal.com/sports/pro/sioux-city-explorers-season-ends-with---loss-to/article_7e7a9372-0c85-52f0-b07d-5c6e82d0c8b3.html, accessed September 22, 2019.
3 St. Paul Saints website, saintsbaseball.com/team/news/champions-saints-claim-first-title-15-years-6-3-victory-sweep-series, accessed September 22, 2019.
4 Randy Johnson, “St. Paul Saints Sweep Sioux City to Win American Association Championship,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, m.startribune.com/st-paul-saints-sweep-sioux-city-to-win-american-association-championship/560372012, accessed September 22, 2019.
5 St. Paul Saints broadcast video, americanassociationbaseball.tv/event/3508/american-association-finals-game-3, accessed September 22, 2019.