For one night, the St. Paul Saints became the Mr. Paul Aints - courtesy of sponsoring atheist groups.
By JOAN NIESENFS North
ST. PAUL, Minn. — As you approach Midway Stadium from the east, the Minneapolis skyline looms in the distance against the hazy August sky, at once too tall and too modern to be so close to this baseball stadium.
That skyline has no business with Midway Stadium, with its train tracks and picket fences and mural-covered walls. The home of the St. Paul Saints is charmingly ramshackle, its flowerpots exploding with wild, parched vines and petals whose colors have been sapped by the summer sun. Save for the cars lining Energy Park Drive hours before, this could be 1950 or 1980, and since the Saints moved into their home in 1993, they've managed to somehow suspend reality.
The independent team, which is part-owned by comedian and actor Bill Murray, has a history of shenanigans that predates even its move to Midway. Its former principal owner is Mike Veeck, the son of Major League Baseball franchise owner Bill Veeck. Yes, the same Bill Veeck who in 1951 hired a dwarf to pop out of a cake and then go to bat for the St. Louis Browns. It should then come as no surprise that the Saints' mascots are two pigs, Kim LARDashian and Kris HAMphries, and that they've hosted Randy Moss Hood Ornament Night and Michael Vick Chew Toy Night.
The Saints are about tongue-in-cheek, snarky sarcasm as much as they are about baseball, pushing the envelope without ever going too far. In late July, though, the team pressed closer to its boundaries when it announced what it had in store for Aug. 10. The evening is titled "A Night of Unbelievable Fun," but that moniker has been overshadowed by the game's sponsors: the Minnesota Atheists and American Atheists, who are hosting a convention this weekend in St. Paul.
The promotion has been listed on the team's pocket schedules since March, but it went largely unnoticed — or Saints fans simply didn't care. But when the sponsorship was officially announced, it sparked an immediate outrage, mostly from people outside of the Twin Cities and Minnesota, presenting a situation that the team resolved to handle delicately.
"Definitely more went into the pros and the cons and understanding what our goal was with it," Saints general manager Derek Sharrer said of the promotion. "Our goal was to provide (the atheists) with the same opportunity we've provided other organizations, including faith-based organizations. Our goal wasn't to endorse a message."
In the weeks since the initial announcement, Sharrer and other team personnel have emphasized that the night is about skepticism, not atheism. It's about nods to the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot, not religion or a lack thereof. It's not about conversion or pointing fingers, and the team has insisted that this is different from its past faith-based nights, which have included Christian concerts and a Jewish heritage night, when the team honored Jewish baseball players and served kosher food.
The atheist music scene isn't exactly booming. There's no such thing as atheist food. This isn't about honoring a culture or even promoting a belief system. It's about very gently prodding at the skepticism that underlies atheists' philosophy. And, when done by the Saints, it's anything but inflammatory.
And so on Friday night, the team donned special uniforms, its names transformed for an evening to the "Mr. Paul Aints." The stadium was peppered with white paper and tape, covering most — but not all — of the Ss in "Saints." The sign at the edge of the parking lot read "Aints," as did the home dugout and the many lists of ballpark rules. But the Aint-ifying was haphazard; a mural on one wall of the stadium still displayed a player in a Saints jersey, and several tablecloths were spared from massacre by art supplies.
Without a trip to Midway, it would be easy to assume that banishing every S in Saints from the stadium would be a noticeable cosmetic makeover. It's not. The outfield boasts just one mention of the word "Saints," and it remained Friday night, along with ads for everything from Outback Steakhouse to — gasp — the College of St. Scholastica.
Minnesota Atheists member Eric Jayne of Apple Valley helped organize the event, and he's quick to point out that the Saints reached out to his organization first. The team enjoyed the Atheists' tongue-in-cheek billboards, which featured babies and aimed to mock pro-life advertisements, Jayne said. To Jayne, this is a business deal, a marketing opportunity. He wants his organization to get some positive press, and what better way to do that than through baseball?
Wearing his personalized Aints jersey — he couldn't wait for the silent auction of the players' jerseys to get his hands on one — Jayne hardly looks like some sinister figure out to undermine religion one baseball game at a time. He's tailgating with a group of atheists, and though they joke about eating babies, their spread is limited to hot dogs, beer and fresh fruit. They're the picture of normal, excited about a baseball game and the team's cheeky nods to skepticism in their honor.
When Jayne and the Minnesota Atheists initially began planning the night with the Saints, they presented several ideas for the promotion that the team rejected. One was the "baptize an atheist" feature, which would have put a member of the organization in an old-fashioned dunk tank. And though it fit with the carnival theme of the production that is the Saints, its message proved too controversial to include.
"They said maybe that wouldn't be such a good thing, and that's fine," Jayne said. "We want to make sure to not offend anybody. There's some concern that it could perhaps be taken as mocking the whole rite of baptism, so we're OK with it, but of course they're not."
The lack of a dunk tank is the least of Jayne's worries; he's thrilled at his organization's chance to work with the Saints and get out into the community. Jayne's version of atheism seems decidedly community-centric. It's about baseball games, book groups and trips to the zoo. He's quick to point out that 10 percent of the Aints jersey auction's revenue will go to a charity, Foundations Beyond Belief, a move that's at once a nod to the atheists' skepticism and their commitment to doing good. More than anything, Jayne hopes that this night might push atheism a little more toward the mainstream.
"We're a community that's just equally deserving of the same kind of respect that everybody else gets," Jayne said. "A lot of people … feel kind of marginalized, feel ostracized when they come out … that they're an atheist. Sometimes people are ostracized, and we're just trying to put out the message that atheists just want to have fun."
He laughs. Atheists just want to have fun. It could be a pretty catchy slogan.
As Friday night's game starts, infielder Jon Townsend remains in the dugout, waiting for his chance to enter the game later in the night. He's wearing his Aints jersey just like his teammates, just like the other players who participate in the team's Christian prayer group with him.
Townsend is part of a group of about seven or eight Saints who hold a prayer group before every game. They come from different Christian denominations, but the men are deeply religious and have used the group to work through all kinds of issues — including Friday's game.
"It kind of came as a surprise to all of us, but, you know, you get accustomed to hearing about some funky stuff going on," Townsend said. "We knew it was going to stir the pot a little bit. Just like anything else, we've got to go out and deal with it."
Townsend and his teammates have all spoken extensively with Sharrer about the night and the team's statement. He's known from the outset that this isn't about religion, but the whole thing still irks him a bit. Even so, the team was so upfront about everything that went into Friday's game that Townsend couldn't help but get on board, no matter his lingering hesitations. He knows what the team is setting out to do, he just isn't sure that everyone, atheists included, understands that this isn't a faith-based message.
The members of the prayer group have rationalized the night as an opportunity to express their faith through playing baseball, a chance to play in front of nonbelievers. Just as the atheists are quietly asserting themselves through the game, so too are Townsend and the other prayer group members. Neither is doing it loudly or even noticeably, and both are well within their rights.
"Everybody has their own opinion about it," Townsend said. "It is a little weird. … It doesn't really bother me. I can honestly say that. It doesn't bother me at all. But it is a little bit weird, and the atmosphere is certainly going to be . . ."
He trailed off, thinking of the best word for such a sensitive subject.
Just minutes before the game began, American Atheists president Dave Silverman threw out the ceremonial first pitch. The night up to that point had been devoid of much that was out of the ordinary, apart from all those taped-over S's. For a promotion that had generated so much blowback, there weren't even organized protesters, or if they were, they were largely inconspicuous.
Before Silverman's pitch, several other "first pitches" had already skipped up to the plate, and he almost slipped through in the parade of pitches, until that magic word was spoken.
"President of the American Atheists."
That's when the noise began, the boos more scattered than the cheers, but louder. Silverman too bounced the ball, which landed short and to the left of his target, and the noise died down. The Star Spangled Banner played, and baseball began, one part spectacle and one part sport, as it always is at Midway Stadium.