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  • Unsung Heroes of Lowertown: The St. Paul Saints Grounds Crew


    David Youngs

    There's been plenty of pomp and circumstance surrounding the marriage of the Minnesota Twins and St. Paul Saints. If there's any group that deserves more love in the relationship, it's the St. Paul Saints Grounds Crew.

    Image courtesy of Erik Franke, St. Paul Saints

    Mid-morning rays of the Minnesota sun christen the back of Marcus Campbell as he plays fetch with his dog Maverick. Birds are chirping, luscious green grass tickles the air with a carefree aroma, and there couldn’t be a worry in the world. 

    A man, his dog, and... CHS Field. 

    “Mav likes to run along the warning track with players. Last year he’d always run with Danny Coulombe, and he’s in the big leagues now,” Campbell chuckled while launching another saliva-glossed tennis ball towards the right-field corner of the Saints' ballpark. 

    Maverick may serve as the unofficial conditioning coach for the Twins organization, Campbell serves as Director of Field Operations for the St. Paul Saints.

    And while fun moments with his shop dog make for moments of bliss and calm, Campbell and the hands of the Saints’ grounds crew have been nothing short of full in the inaugural season as Triple-A affiliates of the Minnesota Twins. 

    Campbell, who has been with the Saints for a few years will tell you that this year has been pretty similar to prior years when St. Paul was an independent team.

    “I keep telling people that baseball is baseball. You might have better players but so does the other team. As far as operations go, not much has changed.”

    Don’t let the modest Minnesota-Crookston graduate fool you. This year has featured the most games, double-headers, and events that CHS Field has seen since its inception in 2015.

    Yet through all the late nights, early mornings, and constant demands, there couldn’t be a better team to garner CHS Field as one of the top facilities in all of professional baseball. Heck, they even have a bit of fun while doing it. 

    Early to Bed, Early to Rise

    Walk through the back gates at CHS Field on a game day and you’ll catch nostalgia of a small town café crossed with a fully functioning hardware shop. A half pot of coffee sits on a counter below a TV with the news all in front of a lunch table filled with lunch bags, soft drinks...and more coffee.

    The caffeine is essential. After nights that keep Campbell and his team at the ballpark until unthinkable hours, the crew makes sure that 4-6 members are at CHS by 9:00 am the next morning to prep for that evening’s game. Day game? That’s a different story. 

    "Turnaround games and doubleheaders are the most challenging days,” Campbell said. “We work all day for a 7 pm game, keep going until 2 am, and are back at 7 or 8 am for a 1 pm game. Lots of caffeine.”

    Regardless of the start time, the routine stays the same. Campbell’s right-hand man Cody Pamperin stirs a concoction of pearly-white paint that will be used to chalk the baselines.

    Cody and Marcus go back quite a ways. The two played college baseball together at Minnesota-Crookston and took different routes following graduation. A few years later Pamperin was on the job market and gave his old friend a call. 

    “He had helped towards the end of season last year and was looking for work and I knew that he’d be a great addition to our team,” Campbell said. 

    Campbell and Pamperin are short-staffed, as many of their interns have returned to college with the summer waning. The two and the rest of the full-time team start the day by patching both bullpens to mend the divots created by pitchers and catchers. When the clock strikes 10 am, Pamperin heads to the infield to garnish the mound with clay, a product that the crew purchased 40 pallets of last year. $11 per bag, you do the math. 

    The top priority of every morning is keeping the grass lush and the infield moist; something that can be difficult during one of the driest summers in the past 30 years.

    “We’ve had to water quite a bit this season, even in our landscape areas,” Campbell said. “Normally we can get by with watering those just once a week but this summer it’s been 2-3 times a week.”

    IMG_5886.jpg.b6984a1319079a8e493949e849a115d0.jpg
    Cody Pamperin waters the infield grass at CHS Field, something that is done every morning. (David Youngs)

    On top of keeping the field in top shape, the grounds crew also maintains all the flowers, plants, and greenery surrounding the ballpark. Not to mention the sidewalks, artscapes, and dog park that snuggle the boundaries of CHS Field. In fact, the acreage outside of the playing surface surpasses that of the field. 

    After morning duties are completed, the mecca of ballparks takes place; mowing the outfield. 

    After sharing childhood attempts to mow my backyard with the trademarked ‘crisscross outfield’ design (if you didn’t do this as a child you didn’t live) Marcus breaks down the process. And while the design was never mastered in my Fargo yard, Campbell delivers the process like he’s done it his whole life. 

    “We change it up sometimes but it’s just a checkerboard,” Campbell said. “If you mow a pattern too much the ball will snake. We’ll test it sometimes by rolling a ball through the outfield. If the ball snakes, we‘ll change our pattern.

    IMG_5892.jpg.ec32cdecb582f04c799b518d469b0918.jpg
    The hallowed 'crisscross outfield' pattern. Often imitated, rarely duplicated. (David Youngs)

    In addition to mowing every day and testing the grass themselves, Campbell and his crew get constant feedback from Saints players on how the field is playing.

    "I’m posted in the dugout during the game so I communicate with the guys to see how the field is playing,” Campbell said. “We’ve changed things a few times from the feedback they’ve given us. There are certain things that I notice and things they notice because they’re the ones who are actually taking ground balls on the field.”

    As batting practice and first pitch approach the crew removes the tarp that covers home, still moist and freshly nourished from the night before. Tasks upon tasks keep the Saints crew busy until the last fan has left the stadium. Yet during the game, there’s one member of the staff that manages to make ‘fun good’ through 280 characters.

    For the Fans
    Field Operations Manager may be an official job title for Erik Franke. More importantly? He’s the heart and soul of the St. Paul Saints Grounds Crew Twitter

    Inspired by his extensive background in fan relations and marketing Franke debuted one of the most interactive accounts in professional baseball earlier this season.

    Yet it isn’t just his experience in working social media and marketing at places like Harvard and UMass that prompted Franke to put pen to paper. It was a best practice for showcasing the work that his team does. 

    IMG_5893.jpg.a8764d7d431bf8cdabf7f08fdff13dda.jpg
    After stints in collegiate athletics marketing and fan promotions, Field Operations Manager Erik Franke gets to 
    channel his creativity through the St. Paul Saints Grounds Crew Twitter account. (David Youngs)

    “So much of working grounds crew revolves around creating and showcasing the best product possible,” Franke said. “What better way to do that than a Twitter account?”

    From interacting with fans to showcasing new machinery to flat-out stunning shots of a pristine ballpark, Franke keeps one thing in mind when running the account. 

    Fun. 

    “Fan relations portion is so important and it’s been so fun interaction with fans through Twitter,” Franke said. “Sometimes I’ll just search ‘St. Paul Saints’ to see who is at the game so I can thank them for coming.”

    A Child’s Game
    Bound by the ‘fun is good’ mantra, the joy of the St. Paul Saints is perhaps perfectly personified by the Saints grounds crew. A group that crafts their skill to perfection, has fun doing it, and genuinely cares about the people that get to enjoy baseball with them. 

    Franke first experienced the ‘fun is good’ culture as a Gameday Operations Intern in 2013 during his college days at St. Cloud State. Eight years later, the phrase couldn’t ring more true. 

    “I knew how much fun the Saints were from prior experiences and it turns out that is just as true for the grounds crew,” he said.

    That doesn’t take away from the grueling hours, nasty elements, and ever-changing tasks that the team endures. For Campbell, it’s the people in the organization that leave him fulfilled at the end of the day. Not just his team, but everyone from the top to bottom, regardless of status. 

    “One day Nick Gordon showed up on an off day at the box office to buy a ticket for a game,” Campbell recalls. “He could have just walked through the back door but bought a ticket to go watch his boys play but that just speaks for the type of guys in this organization.”

    And at the end of the day, Franke and Campbell just enjoy the pureness of being able to spend their days and nights around America’s pastime. 

    “Watching the players, playing baseball my whole life, it doesn’t seem like work when you’re around a child’s game,” Campbell said. “You get to watch guys play a game that they love. There’s something about that that makes our job fulfilling.”

    And as someone who’s been to the coast and back, Franke couldn’t be happier to work for an organization that values the people.

    “There’s not one thing that makes the Saints special but there are a whole lot of small things the organization does on all levels,” Franke said. “We’re putting out a good product but at the end of the day, there are fans coming to these games. They're spending their money, time, and energy to be here. To make that experience the best that it can be is something that everyone in this organization understands.” 

    The Saints begin their final homestand tonight against the Iowa Cubs at 7:05 pm. Purchase tickets here! And be sure to follow @STPGroundsCrew on Twitter!

     

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