Early summer, beer, and love of the game — 1996
Darryl Strawberry hit a long, looping home run over the center field fence, and stood just a moment to admire the arc. Jack Morris leaned out from his dugout seat, and Sister Rosalind paused to look up from the massage she was giving a fan.
The Saint Paul Saints of the Northern League were enjoying two months of halcyon days. Jack Morris took the mound in his rotation, and Darryl Strawberry was relaxed and enjoying baseball after being blackballed in the majors for his recurrent problems with substance abuse. He had hit a 522-foot home run against Duluth.
I was with a couple of girlfriends at Midway Stadium in St. Paul, Minnesota. We were with our sons, in the 9 to 12 age range of ultimate baseball fans. We had seats in the first row along the third baseline, bleachers that were more reminiscent of Little League than the Big Leagues. I had three beers, more than my typical one, but we were mere feet away from the fence and within shouting distance and eye contact with the players close to us on the field. The batting circle was in front of us.
We took up the chant “Darr-rryl, Darr-rryl” whenever Strawberry was on-deck, at the plate, or close enough to turn around and flash a grin.
My son was embarrassed by his mom. That doubled the delight for me.
Bill Murray and Mike Veeck owned the team, and the objective for us and many fans was to enjoy a day of baseball and shenanigans, and who cared who won or lost.
Bill Murray showed up randomly at the games to take tickets or pour a few beers, and Mike Veeck was Disco Night’s famous (or infamous) promoter from the Chicago White Sox.
Disco Night was the promotion in 1979 that made 98-cent tickets available to White Sox fans who brought a disco album to the stadium to blow up in between games of a doubleheader. Instead of attracting a few extra fans to a game in a losing season, 20,000 fans over stadium capacity showed up.
The disco explosion at mid-field tore up the turf so badly that the White Sox ended up forfeiting the second game to the Detroit Tigers. Chicago’s riot police were called in as disco anti-fans swarmed the field.
So it is that Mike Veeck who had ownership rights to the St. Paul Saints. The Saints were a fun time and a good day at the ballpark. A pig brought baseballs out to the home plate umpire, and a nun, Sister Rosalind, offered massages to fans. But in 1996 for a couple of brief months, their lineup had big league names and big league draw.
Veeck had signed Darryl Strawberry when no major league team would pick him up. Strawberry looked at time with the St. Paul Saints as his opportunity to redeem himself, to demonstrate he could stay straight and still loved the game. He later attributed his success to the relaxed atmosphere of the games, the “no pressure” of a Northern League backwater team compared to his time on the roster with the New York Mets and the Yankees.
Jack Morris was from Minnesota, and inevitably native sons returned for a nostalgic ride with the home team, the Minnesota Twins. Jack’s 1991 return had been a tour-de-force, ending with the nail-biting 10-inning complete Game 7 of the World Series. He won four games in that World Series and was named the Series MVP. We loved Jack Morris.
I don’t remember the date we were at the Saints game. I do remember laughing a lot and razzing players and floating on the buzz of three beers. I enjoyed that game more than many major league games I had attended as a fervent Minnesota Twins fan.
By early July, the Yankees scout had watched Darryl Strawberry and seen enough to offer him a contract with the Yankees. The Yankees went on to win the World Series in 1996, with Strawberry a key part of that team.
The Yankees also offered a tentative contract to Jack Morris, who was 41 at the time. Jack didn’t want to play three games in the Yankee’s minor league system, and suddenly the contract was withdrawn.
By the end of July 1996, Jack Morris had quietly retired as an active player and Darryl Strawberry was making a comeback in pinstripes.
But for a few months in the early part of the Saints season, they were enjoying the game, Strawberry swinging easily, Morris finding the sweet spot over the plate for the infamous forkball.
We fans were bantering with Hall-of-Fame players and working-class players and all was good with the world.