Fourteen games into the start of the 2015 American Association season, St. Paul Saints manager George Tsamis has accomplished something that no manager had done in the club’s 23-year history; his team has lost just one time in its first 14 games. At 12-1, the Saints are already 6.5 games ahead of the next best team in the North Division and 2.5 games better than the next best record in the league. It has been a remarkable turnaround for a team that had not finished with a winning record since 2012.
George Tsamis is a very special manager, unique in many ways, especially in an age when ESPN and other sports outlets have tried to bring out the personality of coaches and managers as part of the game. News outlets are no longer satisfied with a guy just doing his job. They want a Pat Riley-like leader to be the head of each team, and in the absence of that will create the anti-Riley persona as a caricature to discuss; much like they do with Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
It may be fine for some managers and coaches to hog the limelight from their team, but that won’t fly in St. Paul, where the Saints manager is about business. Tsamis is not a guy who is looking for a gaudy resume of sharp witticisms. Instead, he lets the score of games and the record of his team do all his talking for him. It is just the way business is done under the Saints “Chairman of the Board.”
What makes the 12-1 Saints such an interesting spectacle is that they are a complete reflection of their manager. You are not going to see Tsamis storm into the locker room and challenge anyone’s manhood, ala Billy Martin, or create some epic meltdown after a game to shake things up. That is not the Tsamis style, and it is not the style of his team either.
His biggest stars are guys who lead by example, and that is a reflection of their manager, who is the same guy in the first inning as he is in the 12th. The St. Paul manager has the same steady demeanor whether his team is down by a run or up by 11. Tsamis is a true professional who teaches and guides his team using a very executive-like method that has captured the attention of his team, and vaulted them to their record start.
The Skipper’s demeanor has grown since his playing days, and even since his early years as a manager. Taken in the 15th round of the 1989 amateur draft, Tsamis worked his way up the system quickly, reaching AAA-Portland in just his second season. The left-hander had been predominantly a starter in the minors, winning 40 games from 1990-1992, but the Twins needed a reliever, so in 1993, he made his Major League debut with the club, earning his first win and save in the same season.
By 1995, Tsamis was out of affiliate ball, and had moved to independent baseball for three seasons. It is there that he found a home. “I liked independent baseball. Teams played to win, and that was a welcome change from affiliate ball.”
In 1999, George turned to managing, becoming the skipper of the Waterbury Spirit. In 2001 he moved on to take the helm of the New Jersey Jackals. In two seasons there he won the championship both years, but he always had a desire to manage in St. Paul, and in 2003 that opportunity arose.
According to Tsamis, while serving as the pitching coach for Team USA, Barry Moss, who was the hitting coach of Team USA and Tsamis’ roommate, got a call about the team’s vacant managerial position while the U.S. team was playing in Mexico. Moss was the hitting coach of the Saints, and when Tsamis heard the position was vacant he expressed his interest. In not time he was offered the job, and his 13-year run as the club’s manager was underway.
In his second season with the club, the Saints won the Northern League championship. Three other seasons the Saints went to the title series, but came up short. A bitter pill that has become the primary focus for Tsamis now. “I want to win more championships here. I have lost three here and that has left me wanting more.”
When the club won their 12th game of the season, that gave Tsamis his 630th career win as a manager. He is the winningest manager in franchise history, and ranks in the top 25 of winningest managers in independent baseball history.
Those are amazing statistics that a vast number of managers would be extremely proud of, but gloating over a successful career is not in this manager’s style. Instead, his focus is on what things he can do to change the fortunes of his team in a positive way. He is the guy who is seeking every edge to turn a bad team into a good one, a good one into a great one, and a great one into an all-time one. It is why he loves the challenge of recruiting and signing his own players.
“I love being able to put the team together. That is always fun to do. I pick the players, and it is my job to put together the best team out there. That is half the fun. What many don’t understand is that you’re going up against everyone else in recruiting players, and that makes it tough, especially when we were in the older stadium at Midway, but now with this place I would think down the road it will be better for recruiting.”
Being the manager of an independent league team gives Tsamis powers that most other minor league managers don’t have. In affiliate ball the manager is often told by the organization where a guy will bat, what position he will play, how many pitches he will throw, and when he will appear in games. A great deal of the managing is taken from the skipper’s hands, but not in the independent leagues. Here a manager plays to win and uses his players to accomplish that in whatever way he deems necessary.
This means that the skipper has a great deal of authority in recruiting the players he wants to build a winning club. The challenge is that many other managers are frequently looking at those same players. It is much like a college football coach going after the best high school players for to bring to his program. An independent league manager has the same kind of responsibility. This is an area that Tsamis loves deeply. The Saints manager is quite competitive in all aspects of the game and, like a corporate raider engineering a hostile takeover, his approach to recruiting is one of the aspects that makes him so good at what he does.
“The same guys I want are the same guys that managers in this league, and in the Atlantic League and in the Can-Am League are looking at. There are a lot of great independent leagues out there now, more than many know, and we all want the same guys. That makes it a real challenge to get across to guys that they should come here. We have to show them that this is the organization where they will have the best chance of getting back to affiliate ball.”
And what is the approach that Tsamis uses in attracting those players?
“We try to be as professional as we can be. We get out players to play the game the right way. We run a good operation and we are fair and honest. We also have the best fan base in baseball, where there will be 7000 fans or more here for games each night. It is also going to help that we have the most beautiful ballpark in the country now.”
The Saints moved from Midway Stadium, admittedly one of the toughest baseball stadiums in America to play in, to their new field in Lowertown St. Paul, CHS Field. The ballpark is as beautiful as it gets and Tsamis is excited about how this will effect recruiting in the off-season.
“It is going to be a great recruiting tool for next season. Guys will play here this year and the word will get out. Next season there will be a lot of guys who will want to play here.”
The passion for the game and a business approach is one of the things that George looks for when he is recruiting players to the St. Paul Saints. “You want guys who want to get back to an organization. You don’t want guys who want to play just to play. You want guys who want to win and who want to get back to affiliate ball. That is the kind of guy I am looking for.”
In the off-season the Saints philosophy paid big dividends when Iac Gac signed with the club. Gac led the American Association in home runs last season with 27, plus he hit .349. He leads the league in RBI this season, and Gac admits that the new ballpark and the managing style of Tsamis were big factors in him choosing the Saints.
“This is a great organization. George lets players play and makes it clear what he expects from us. I liked the respect we are given here, plus the stadium is amazing.”
Tsamis admits that finding that unique kind of player during the recruiting process is not always an easy task. “It’s tough when you’re recruiting these players. Most of these guys you have never seen play before. You go on stats after they have been released from an organization, and you try to call as many organizations as you can looking to get reports on the player. You try to get as many good reports on a player as you can, but sometimes when organizations release a player they really like him too, and they want him to have a job somewhere else, so there are many times when you don’t get an accurate report.”
While that makes his job considerably more difficult, he also understands the sentiment that these organizations would have to inflate a player’s ability. He, too, admits that when he has built a relationship with a player on his team it is not always easy to put those feelings aside.
“It is very tough to release someone, especially a guy you have known for four or five years. I am always honest with them, but I was cut seven or eight times in my career, and I know exactly how that feels. It’s not a lot of fun to be cut but, let me tell you, it isn’t any easier on this side. I don’t like having to tell a guy I have to cut him.”
“This is especially tough when you have to cut a player who really does things the right way. A guy who hustles, works hard and plays the game with the right attitude are always the toughest to cut.”
It is the professional approach to the game that has the club off to such an historic start. It is a goal-oriented team that pushes and encourages each other to do well in the business-like way that they approach the game.
George admits that this was not always his approach to playing or managing. Early on his management style was more Earl Weaver than Tony LaRussa. “I am a lot more calm, I used to blow up a lot, but I have learned to relax more. I just want guys to show up on time and play the game the right way, and I want to ensure that I am managing the right way.”
While his emotions for the game have been curbed in recent years, this is not the only area where Tsamis has changed his own game as a manager. This season he changed a key philosophy of his from previous seasons, going for more speed in his lineup.
“Over the years I have always looked for the guys who can hit the ball over the fence, but I probably shouldn’t have too many of them. I needed to do a better job of getting more speed in here and that is what we tried to do this last off-season. Now we have guys who can steal 30 or 40 bases and we have become a lot more athletic.”
George Tsamis is a guy who will speak the truth and tell it to you like it is. It may not always be pleasant to hear, but it has made him one of the most respected managers in the league, because players know what to expect from him and they have responded. It is the kind of business-like approach that works well in the boardrooms of Apple and GE, and also in the dugout in St. Paul.
The Saints manager acknowledges that entering the season it was hard to have a real clear take on where his team was at. With only 12 days of spring training and three exhibition games it isn’t really possible to assess how good the team is he assembled. Nearly one month into the season the report looks plenty good however, and the CEO of this baseball juggernaut has put together a roster that is going to be tough to beat.
While 13 may be an unlucky number to some, no one should be surprised to see the St. Paul Saints win their second league title under the St. Paul Saints manager in his 13th season. The Chairman of the Board has set his goals for the 2015 campaign and the rest of the league is on notice. The business of the St. Paul Saints is to win titles and, with George Tsamis at the helm, business is looking really good.
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA
Follow the St. Paul Saints season with Strike Zone by George Tsamis. This show gives you, the fans, the opportunity to gain insights from the club’s Skipper.