St. Paul Saints’ Snowball Classic brings back old faces

By February 3, 2014Fox Sports, MLB

Feb 03, 2014 by Phil Ervin From : FoxSports.com

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Kevin Millar stepped into the Midway Stadium batter’s box, sizing up the opposing pitcher as he got set in his stance.

This wasn’t May 1993, when the former Major Leaguer and World Series winner made his professional baseball debut with the St. Paul Saints. This was Feb. 1, 2014.

Home plate was masked by a sheet of ice. And when Millar peered toward Midway’s ad-adorned outfield fence, he saw white, not green.

In a fashion only appropriate for a former Saint, Millar’s latest return to the place his career began and concluded came in the zaniest of settings. He, Saints coaches and former players and a handful of contest winners gathered Saturday for a game of slow-pitch softball played in nearly two feet of snow and 20-degree temperatures.

Perfect, Millar said.

“This is that time of the year that you’re waiting,” said Millar, who played in the Majors for 12 seasons and was on Boston’s 2004 World Series championship team. “It’s an unbelievable day to come out here and kind of get baseball back in your blood.”

Now 42, retired and the co-host of MLB Network’s “Intentional Talk,” Millar played for four different Major League franchises — Florida, Boston, Baltimore and Toronto. But years before he worked his way up the affiliated minors system, the first baseman and outfielder cut his teeth in St. Paul for a summer.

After the Chicago Cubs signed and released him ahead of the 2010 season, Millar inked with the Saints again for a six-game swan song before calling it quits on his playing career.

“There’s certain things in life that you go through that become a part of you; playing for the Saints was a part of me,” Millar said. “I’ll never forget it, and I always love to get up here as much as I can.”

Even if it means trying to swing through an oversized softball then trotting toward first base as fielders try and dig it out of the snow.

The Saints’ Leinenkugel’s-sponsored “Summer (Shandy) Snowball Classic” lasted only five innings — a blessing for the bundled players and reporter-estimated 800 spectators who hiked over to Midway during the annual St. Paul Winter Carnival. Saturday’s game was the third of its kind and first since 2010.

One year, the team had to cancel because there wasn’t enough snow. Another year, there was too much.

“This is a great thing,” said Saints manager George Tsamis, who pitched, fielded and took some cuts Saturday. “You don’t see this every day, right?”

No, you don’t. Fifteen-person fielding lineups — neither of which ventured far outside the infield, given the ball’s lack of velocity — plowed base paths and power alleys, snowmen in left and right field and kids sledding on their backsides down snow-packed bleachers aren’t patented facets of the St. Paul Saints experience.

But outlandish eccentricity is, and that was in full supply Saturday — even in the dead of winter.

Layered-up versions of the team’s in-arena hosts and “usher-tainers” were on hand. Concession and beer stands were open — though some of the Summer Shandy was cooled with snow rather than buckets of ice. The scoreboard was up and running, and the organ belted out notes between pitches.

It’s the atmosphere to which Millar became endeared in 1993. When he and the Red Sox swept the Cardinals in the 100th World Series more than a decade later, he remembers recalling his days making $600 a month and sitting through overnight bus rides from Northern League town to Northern League town.

“I loved every minute of it,” said Millar, who took some swing Saturday but didn’t play in the field.

A guy with aspirations similar to Millar’s plowed his way through the powder Saturday, too. A lifelong minor-leaguer that sipped a five-game cup of coffee with the Texas Rangers in 2011, Mark Hamburger signed a Double-A/Triple-A deal with the Twins in September.

It’s a second dream come true for the Shoreview, Minn. native, whom the Twins signed as an amateur free agent in 2007 and traded a year later. It’s been a rough road, too; in the past year, Hamburger earned a 50-game 2014 suspension for violating baseball’s minor-league substance abuse policy and suffered a strained triceps in his throwing arm that ended his winter-ball season in Venezuela.

The injury was due in part to his heavy consumption of Pepsi. A doctor found there was too much sugar in his pancreas — the result of drinking mass amounts of the soft drink — which weakened muscles in his upper body and caused soreness in the arm.

“There were a lot of struggles that came along with it, but at the end of the struggle, it was the best thing that could happen,” Hamburger said. “Most of the time, that’s how struggles are. You get through it, and it makes you stronger.

“I’ve lived my life, I’ve done things that a kid would do, and I’ve paid the consequences for it. Now, I’m growing up because of it.”

But first, a tip of the hat — stocking hat, that is — to the organization that served as his bridge to another chance at the Majors.

Hamburger played some outfield and pitched an inning Saturday. He mockingly threw high and behind Tsamis several times when his former manager came up to bat.

“That’s so uncalled for,” Tsamis joked. “He should be ashamed of himself for trying to blow by me, brush me back, throw over my head more than once.”

Said Hamburger, who ranked fourth in the American Association this past summer with a 3.26 ERA: “It’s awesome. This is exactly what the Saints represent.”