Bat girl


U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt has Annie Huidekoper’s onetime dream job-but that’s OK, she doesn’t want it anymore. He makes a lot more money, but she’s definitely having more fun-and every day she gets to be part of something she’s been passionate about since childhood: professional baseball.

“I’m really lucky,” she said. “I get to be with 6,000 people every night who are all having a good time.” She’s talking about the folks at St. Paul Saints baseball games: Huidekoper is the team’s vice president of community partnerships and customer service, a job she loves that is not at all a part of her original career plan.

Too corporate
In her early 20s, Huidekoper’s goal was to be U.S. Health and Human Services secretary. Armed with a healthcare administration and planning degree, she moved to the Twin Cities from New England nearly 25 years ago to work for MedCenters, which later merged with Group Health to form HealthPartners.

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The two best things about those years, Huidekoper said, were “meeting my partner”-she and Joanne Swanson have been together 21 years-and working for Jan Malcolm, “who was kind of my mentor.” (Malcolm later served four years as state health commissioner; she’s now CEO of Courage Center).

But the corporate side of health care got to her, and after five years, Huidekoper had had enough. She decided, “I need to leave. I wanted to help people, but this is big business.” On her last day, Malcolm asked about her plans.

“I said, what I want to do is work in minor league baseball,” Huidekoper recalled with a grin, “but I’ll probably have to move to the Carolinas for that. “It was the first time I’d ever said that to anyone.”

So how did she wind up a few years later as vice president of the Saints?

Basically, to spite Sid Hartman, the opinionated StarTribune sports columnist.

Around late 1991, Huidekoper said she “started hearing rumblings about a minor league team coming to town.” Hartman predicted the new team would fold by the Fourth of July of its first season.

“I thought, What a poop!” Huidekoper said, laughing. “Why would you wish ill for people?”

When the Saints office opened, she called, asking to buy season tickets. And she asked if there were any jobs available, adding, “I read Sid’s article, I’d like to prove him wrong.”

Twenty minutes later, she was interviewing with team president and co-owner Mike Veeck. Later that day she was hired, the team’s third employee. Her job, initially, was to drive tickets sales and set up and run the fan club. Veeck called his initial hires a “merry band of misfits,” Huidekoper said. Unfortunately, the general manager hired shortly thereafter wasn’t as enthusiastic.

“Who is this healthcare woman and this lawyer guy?” he reportedly asked. “Where are my baseball people?” He didn’t realize the “healthcare woman” was a “baseball person,” with a history that dated back to her days as bat girl for her dad’s Little League team. She also played in a girls’ baseball league that began when she was in fifth grade, plus high school softball. Huidekoper and the new general manager didn’t click, and she left the Saints after the 1994 season.

For a while she ran her own business, doing marketing, promotions and customer service, and then worked for the St. Paul United Way. Then the local big-league team called, she said, and “asked me to bring the Saints magic to the Minnesota Twins.”

But it didn’t take long to realize that Huidekoper preferred the “controlled chaos” of minor league baseball to the departmentalized, corporate structure of the majors. “Simply put, I was meant to work for Mike Veeck, not the Pohlad family,” Huidekoper said, “but I remain truly grateful for the experience.”

She returned to the Saints as a consultant in 2003, and rejoined the front office in 2004. She’s glad she got in on the ground floor with the team. “Now, we have over 200 people applying for internships and I can only take 10,” Huidekoper said. “I was really lucky.”

A quiet kid who gives back
You might assume somebody who can ensure 6,000 people have fun night after night is naturally outgoing, a born party host. Not so with Huidekoper. The woman who today spends most of her working hours talking to people was the quiet one among her parents and four siblings. “My dad used to interrupt Thanksgiving dinner and say: Ann – talk,” she recalled.

Even now, “I’m always anxious when we’re having people over for a party,” she said.

Huidekoper might have moved to Minnesota with a streak of “rugged New England individualism,” as she put it, but her life now is steeped in community, both on the job and off. Perhaps she takes after her mom, whom she described as “Ms. Super-Volunteer” (as well as a “classic, wonderful housewife and mother”).

A few years ago, Huidekoper served on the board of Chrysalis; currently she’s a board member with the Midtown YMCA, serving on its diversity committee (or “inclusivity,” the term she prefers). Her latest involvement is with the startup Friends of Como Park.

“We’re not even sure if that will be the name of it, that’s how new it is,” she said with a laugh.

The group grew out of neighborhood concerns that “the Conservatory and Zoo get lots of attention, but sometimes it seems the park itself gets short shrift,” Huidekoper said. Whatever the group’s eventual name, she said, “This feels to me like something that, in 20 years, I’ll still be part of.”

Out to get help
While serving others may have come naturally to Huidekoper, accepting help was harder. But a few years ago, when her partner Joanne was diagnosed with cancer, she found she had no choice.

Huidekoper turned to neighbors, co-workers and relatives-not an easy step for her. It meant taking another big step: coming out.

“I was very closeted until Joanne got sick,” she recalled. “And then it was: I need help.”

She sent a “mass email” about what was happening, and emotional and practical support poured in. “At one point I could not keep up with the yard work,” she said, “and about 15 people showed up to help.”

In September, they’ll celebrate five cancer-free years. “I don’t wish [this kind of experience] on people,” said Huidekoper, “but it brought us closer and helped round me out.”

It also made her want to rejoin the Saints-to bring fun and a sense of community to others.

Now, Huidekoper always asks potential team interns and employees about their experience with adversity. “I think those who’ve dealt with hard times are the ones who really want to bring joy to people,” she said. In her case, long before the cancer experience, she coped with growing up with an alcoholic father. Her dad now has Parkinson’s.

“It’s hard to watch,” she said of the way her mom’s life now centers on taking care of her dad, “but I think it’s admirable. She’s one tough cookie.”

Back at Midway
Though there’s plenty to do in the off-season, it pales in comparison to the 14- to 15-hour days she puts in on game days. On game days she gets to the office at 8 a.m., and isn’t home until 10:30 or 11 at night. Along with wackiness and fun, she keeps a firm eye on the bottom line. “I was clearly the token woman back when we started and I felt it was critical to show the management I could do the job-physically, emotionally, and especially as a saleswoman,” Huidekoper said. “Sales are critical for a minor league baseball team. This year I will do a quarter million or more for the club in sales; the truth is, this more than anything is what has helped me earn my stripes around this joint.” And it’s not all glamour and big bucks: Like any staff member, VP Huidekoper does grunt work, including gardening and pulling tarps onto the field in the rain.

The 48-year-old worries a bit about how long she can keep up the physical part of her job. “Our work ethic is very intense, and physically, I wonder how much longer I can be a lead-by-example type of gal,” Huidekoper said, a smile forming on her face, “or start saying, ‘You youngsters go do that while I stay here in the office and oversee things.'”

“My dream scenario is to be an owner,” she said. “I’ve put in lots of sweat equity-why not have some real equity?”

As part owner of a team, Huidekoper could be less of a worker bee and even more of a party host. And it would leave her more time for other parts of her life. She loves getting out on the water to “fish or just stare and listen to the sounds.” She’d like to spend more time at Swanson’s family cabin up north, or her family’s cottage in Massachusetts, which “truly rejuvenates me.”

But for now, Huidekoper still feels as lucky to be where she is as she did the day she got that phone call from Mike Veeck in 1992.

“I am passionate about this job, and while I know in the scheme of things the Saints are just a goofy professional baseball team, we do have some magical moments out here at Midway,” Huidekoper said, “and I feel really blessed to be part of it all.”