ST. PAUL -- Justin Byrd spent months preparing. He built a gym in his garage at his Texas home. He put up a batting cage in his backyard. He found accountability partners in other baseball players nearby to keep him on track.
But despite the work he had put in, he still found himself without a job just weeks ago. The Texas AirHogs, the American Association team he had signed with and played for last year, decided it would not be operating this season.
For a week, the outfielder was jobless. And then the St. Paul Saints called. He got the call last weekend and after two full days of packing, he said goodbye to his wife and hit the road Tuesday morning, en route to Minnesota.
“It’s tough but we got through it,” Byrd said. “And it’s all worth it once you get out here. It makes every bit of it worth it.”
That’s the sentiment from the Saints, who began their “spring training,” on Thursday after months of wondering whether they would even have a chance to return to the field. Minor League Baseball does not yet have a plan to return. Six of the 12 teams in the American Association won’t play this year. Other independent leagues are having trouble launching, too.
That leaves the Saints especially thankful to be back on the field — even if they’re going to have to start their season away from their home park. The Saints are scheduled to play a 60-game season beginning on July 3; for the time being, they will play their home games in front of some fans in Sioux Falls, S.D.
“This (has) obviously been the longest offseason for everyone with everything that’s happened with the COVID-19 and it’s been rough for everybody but … guys are excited to be back here,” manager George Tsamis said.
The Saints don’t plan on returning home to CHS Field in St. Paul until they get approval to host games with fans in the stands. Unlike Major League Baseball, which plans to play games without fans in attendance, the Saints do not have a lucrative television deal and need to play with paying customers in attendance for financial reasons.
“We’re hopeful that soon we’re allowed to play home games, and for now we’re just going to kind of focus on the fact that we’re playing baseball,” pitcher Brian Glowicki said. “There’s not a lot of people playing baseball right now, so regardless of where we have to play, we’re just excited for the opportunity.”
Glowicki signed with the Saints recently after being released by the Cubs. The former University of Minnesota pitcher had been training in the Twin Cities after leaving Cubs spring training in Arizona in March.
The Cubs made cuts last month, and Glowicki was part of that group. A couple days later, he got a text from Tsamis inquiring about his interest, and he jumped at the opportunity.
“Right around the time I got released from the Cubs, there was, across Minor League Baseball, over 1,000 players getting released,” Glowicki said. “So for us to be some of the few guys that are actually playing this year and have the opportunity, (we are) extremely grateful for that just continuing to further our careers while unfortunately there’s a lot of people who want to be playing but just can’t.”
While the Saints didn’t even know if they would play — or have a chance to defend their American Association championship this year — Tsamis told his players to be ready to go at any moment.
Once the American Association made its decision, players sprang into action, making their way to CHS Field. All of the Saints had to be tested for COVID-19 — and all tested negative, Tsamis said — before training began. Testing will continue throughout the season and other health protocols will be put in place to ensure safety throughout the season.
“There are a lot of people across the country here that aren’t able to play, that are not playing, but we’re fortunate enough to be the ones that are playing,” Tsamis said. “The guys that are here, they’re excited.”