Annie Huidekoper, a key part of the St. Paul Saints (independent; American Association) front office since the team’s inception, is walking away from baseball, but not after making a huge impact on the team, fellow members of the front office and the development of CHS Field.
Here’s the press release from the Saints’ Sean Aronson.
Her tenure with the St. Paul Saints began with a phone call to purchase season tickets for the inaugural season in 1993 and “wanting to come work for the organization to help prove the naysayers wrong.” Her last major project, CHS Field, had those naysayers gushing. After 16 seasons as one of the more integral parts of the Saints success, Vice President Community Partnerships and Customer Service, Annie Huidekoper, is leaving the organization.
Huidekoper’s handiwork is seen all over the Saints organization, but the most notable is CHS Field, the new home of the ballclub that was awarded BallparkDigest.com New Ballpark of the Year. After doing so much in the community for many years, Huidekoper turned her attention to achieving the goal of helping the Saints, and the amateur baseball community, garner a new ballpark. She turned her complete focus to that feat in 2011 and began, as she did with many projects, going door-to-door. Along with Mike Veeck, Executive Vice President Tom Whaley, Councilmember Dave Thune and lobbyist Julian Loscalzo the group went around to Lowertown residents and artists holding weekly meetings about the new ballpark to address concerns and gain support. Those early outreach meetings helped soften one group at a time towards sharing their neighborhood with the often quirky organization.
“More than any slugger or base stealer, glove man or fire baller, saddle-bagged piglet, bench jockey, or hometown umpire…Annie Huidekoper is the best thing to happen to the Saint Paul Saints,” said Saints Team Psychologist Bill Murray. “Let’s tip our hats, folks, to the Greatest Saint of Them All.”
Huidekoper also led the Ballpark Fans and Friends group that helped the grassroots momentum with local, city and state leaders…including the Saint Paul legislative delegation and Governor Mark Dayton.
Despite losing both her parents in an 11-month span from 2014-15, Huidekoper coped with the heartache by realizing a dream come true when an ump yelled, “Play Ball!” to a standing-room-only crowd on Opening Night at CHS Field on May 21. Over 500 guests that night were actively involved in contributing to the supporting, planning, funding, design and/or building the new ballpark. As Huidekoper said, “It took a village to turn a brownfield into a ball field!”
The three major components Huidekoper fought for are evident in the ballpark. The first was to be ADA compliant and include semi-ambulatory seating. CHS Field has been lauded by numerous outlets for going above and beyond on both fronts. The second was plenty of women’s restrooms, which are evident in the 73 stalls around the ballpark. The final piece to the puzzle was the inclusion and engagement of local artists in the Saints experience.
With Huidekoper at the forefront the Saints are one of the first sports teams to hire an art director, Cheryl Wilgren Clyne, who has helped with a variety of initiatives involving Minnesota artists. Additionally, each night the Saints have an artist or two from the Saint Paul Art Collective display their works and/or share their created process on the concourse, by the Andy Nelson Gallery behind home plate.
“Annie’s tenure as a Saint dates back to our inaugural season and epitomizes everything you would want in an individual representing such a unique organization,” said Saints Chairman Marv Goldklang. “She is genuine, hard working and passionate in anything she undertakes — traits which have had a profound and enduring impact on the community as well as our entire staff. Her presence will be greatly missed, although the leadership and sensitivity she has provided over two decades of tireless service has left the Saints well equipped to carry on her legacy of brand definition and community involvement.
Huidekoper’s time with the Saints began in 1992 working with what Veeck called his, “merry band of misfits” in those first few years. She left her job in the managed health care world to take a chance on an organization many thought would not survive that first year, let alone 23 seasons later. Huidekoper found her niche working the community relations side of the Saints organization and helped start the initial “Saints & Sinners” fan club. After helping get the organization off the ground and thriving during the first few years Huidekoper took a respite from the baseball world. After five seasons with the Saints Huidekoper started her own business, worked for a non-profit with the United Way and even spent a season with the Twins, their 40th, as their Community Affairs Manager.
“Annie was the second employee of the Saints,” said Veeck. “Over the next 20+ years, I learned more about people and compassion from her than I would have thought possible. She is the consummate professional.”
In 2003 Huidekoper returned in a consulting roll and helped set up a fan advisory board, giving Saints supporters a voice. In 2004 she came back full time as Senior Director of Community Relations and spent home games behind the fan services booth helping Saints fans with all their questions. Huidekoper was responsible for hiring a few hundred ushers and game day staff during her tenure, many of whom were working their first jobs. She taught them to act like they were hosting a party for their friends and family with Mike Veeck’s “Every Night is Opening Night” mantra, and it showed.
As one of two front office members that have been around since the team began in 1993, Whaley being the other, Huidekoper was often the link from the past to the present. She was responsible in getting Darryl Strawberry to make an appearance when the Saints hosted the 2008 All-Star Game and helped bring back Kevin Millar in 2010 to finish out his career with the team he began with in 1993. Huidekoper also got Ila Borders and other key Saints players to return for special events during the last few years.
“It has been a dream come true career for me,” said Huidekoper. “I got my start in baseball as the batgirl for the Stags, my Dad’s Little League team in Connecticut. Then, I was able to be part of two wonderful eras of Saints Baseball. First, when we were ‘the little engine that could’ by the tracks at Midway and more recently, helping make this handsome and inviting new field of dreams a reality. How fortunate I’ve been to work with great partners, talented colleagues, a top-notch design team, visionary community and government leaders and our owners — especially Mike Veeck — who made this bat girl a baseball executive with one of the best known minor league clubs in the country, right here in St. Paul. Lucky me.”
Upon leaving the Saints Huidekoper will spend more time with her partner Joanne Swanson, notch off some long-overdue projects around their home, head back east to help take care of family matters and will now enjoy Saints games as a true season ticket holder, just like she intended on that very first call to the organization.
Image courtesy St. Paul Saints.