The St. Paul Saints’ Big Pitch: A Reality Series


Richard Prigatano dug the plate and watched pitcher Beck Wheeler as a 24ft boom camera hovered directly overhead and a film crew rushed around the circle on deck.

“We roll !” shouted director Patrick Weiland from behind a shaded screen. “And, action!”

Wheeler tipped in his motion and unleashed a 70mph meatball which Prigatano smashed on cue in a high, arcing home run that cleared the 405ft backboard in center field and rocked the CHS Field lobby .

“We understood!” cried Weiland.

“You can’t spell it better,” first baseman Dan Johnson marveled.

Hollywood swarmed St. Paul this week, offering to make the saints the darlings of a documentary series chronicling dream-chasers and minor-league baseball drifters for eager audiences.

“Bush League” is the pilot’s working title aimed at capturing the triumphs and falls, the sacrifices and the camaraderie that keep these players coming back despite the tiny paycheck and indie league ball obscurity.

Think of it as “Hard Knocks” for the hardball crowd, borrowing lightly from HBO’s popular summer series that follows, with R-rated flair, the roster maneuvers and outsized personalities of an NFL team during the training camp.

The baseball version would focus less on cuts and “see you in your playbook” drama. But it will keep the profanity alive and lift the curtain on clubhouse hijinks, marathon bus rides and profile veterans who crossed affiliate ball or made it to the major leagues to see their rising careers snuffed out.

A film crew follows Tom Wilhelmsen, Prigatano, Wheeler and Johnson – former high school star Blaine – around town. They will check in players and shoot in the clubhouse, dugout and bullpen during the Saints’ May 21-23 home game against the Chicago Dogs.

How the project came to fruition is an intriguing story.

A crew member measures St. Paul Saints outfielder Richard Prigatano for a new shooting angle at CHS Field in St. Paul on Wednesday, May 16, 2018. The catch is Dante Bichette Jr. The Saints are participating in a pilot to a Hollywood-produced docu-drama series about life in minor league baseball. (Brian Murphy/Pioneer Press)

Paperclip Limited is developing the series. The Los Angeles-based company is co-owned by Yeardley Smith, the voice of “The Simpsons” Lisa Simpson. Paperclip Limited will buy the 10-minute “sizzle reel” produced in St. Paul from streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon to fund a full series.

If chosen, a film crew would be embedded with the Saints for the entire 2019 season.

“I really wanted to shine a light on the sacrifice these guys are making and how hard it is, doing it for the love of the game and a shot at making the big leagues,” said creator Dan Grice.

He would know.

Grice played six years in the minors, moving up to double-A in the Cubs organization. He won the Northern League championship in 2002 with the New Jersey Jackals, then managed by George Tsamis, who moved to the Saints the following year.

Grice retired from baseball at age 26 and became a police officer, K-9 handler, and homicide detective in Springfield, Oregon. One day in 2014, Smith went to unveil a mural during a publicity tour for her long-running animated series.

“Every Springfield in the country wants to pretend they’re the ‘Simpsons’ Springfield,” Grice joked.

The detective was given a protective task for Smith. They befriended and eventually became a couple.

St. Paul Saints pitcher Beck Wheeler watches a replay of his performance filmed at CHS Field in St. Paul on Wednesday, May 16, 2018. The Saints are participating in a pilot for a Hollywood-produced docu-drama series about life in the minor league baseball.  (Brian Murphy/Pioneer Press)
St. Paul Saints pitcher Beck Wheeler watches a replay of his performance filmed at CHS Field in St. Paul on Wednesday, May 16, 2018. The Saints are participating in a pilot for a Hollywood-produced docu-drama series about life in the minor league baseball. (Brian Murphy/Pioneer Press)

Grice launched Ben Cornwell, Smith’s partner at Paperclip Limited, a minor league baseball docuseries.

“Hearing Dan’s story of the good times, the bad times, the fun times and the drama of constantly being moved, the uncertainty and the will to grind and grind and grind to get that shot – it’s fascinating” , Cornwell said.

Grice’s passion project took two years to get started. He has the backing of celebrity Twin Cities chef and Travel Channel star Andrew Zimmern. Intuitive Content, Zimmern’s Minneapolis-based production company, is filming this demo, which will be edited and packaged for screening by mid-June.

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In 1996, the fledgling Saints opened for “Baseball, Minnesota,” an FX cable documentary that mostly followed former big league superstars Jack Morris and Darryl Strawberry on their comeback trails. “Bush League” has broader appeal for the mature franchise, according to Saints vice president Sean Aronson.

“The Saints story has been told from many different angles over our first 25 years,” he said. “We’ve never hidden who we are as an organization, but if this project comes to fruition, it will bring fans closer to our organization than ever before.”

Wednesday’s three-hour shoot took place under cloudless skies, with the din of air traffic from US 52 and Holman Field erupting in the background.

The $60,000 boom camera swung low from the plate and precariously close to right-handed hitter Prigatano for slow-motion shots that captured six feet of baseball motion per second. Wheeler showed his knuckleball. Position players slipped into the nets. Most of the digital content will be used for the intro and transition scenes.

The profiles will focus on: Johnson, who played 17 years of professional ball, including a decade at the majors; Wilhelmsen, who took a five-year hiatus bartending and backpacking across Europe before returning to link up with the Seattle Mariners; and Prigatano, a former Baseball America top prospect who played single-A for the Rockies and two years for the independent Wichita Wingnuts.

And Wheeler, who was seriously injured by a boat propeller in high school before resurrecting his career and moving to Triple-A in the Mets organization. His seven-year contract with New York expired last year and he failed to secure a deal as a free agent.

This spring, the Twins interviewed Wheeler for an advanced scout position, but he didn’t get the job. Now he’s selling himself as a pitcher and potential reality TV star.

“It’s a great experience,” he said. “It’s been a lot of fun to see the whole process and to have the guys in the clubhouse every day and out on the field and in the bullpen with us.

“I watched ‘Hard Knocks’ and ‘Last Chance U’, so it’s cool to have something that can show fans what a full season of professional baseball looks like.”


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