I guess St. Paul kids are just cut from a different cloth.
The same can be said for anyone named Louie. Trust me.
So when the Minnesota Twins drafted Louie Varland out of Concordia University in St. Paul with their 15th-round pick in 2019, many didn’t know what to expect. Sure, he had incredible success in college, but it was with a Division II program. Would he be able to carry on that promise as a professional? Well, in three seasons with the Golden Bears, Varland went 10-6 with a 2.73 ERA and 10.2 K/9. Between the two highest levels of the minor leagues this year, he has an 8-4 record with a 3.18 ERA and 10.4 K/9. He’s here, and he’s ready to make a name for himself in his hometown.
“It feels amazing. This is the most ideal situation for where I’m at,” Varland said. “It was a lot of fun getting that first start at home here last week.”
Varland’s Triple-A debut went about as good as anyone could have hoped, especially considering the emotions of truly pitching at home. The 6’1″ right-hander hurled 5.1 innings of one-hit ball, tallying eight punchouts along the way. A large contingent of family, friends and former coaches were on hand to watch the hometown kid secure a win for the Saints. It’s a sight that Varland would love to get accustomed to.
“I was extremely nervous but also extremely excited about it,” Varland said. “For the first four pitches, I could not feel my legs. But after I got that first swing and miss, I was able to find them.”
Varland had a broad smile while describing the experience of getting to pitch in front of family in St. Paul. But nothing made him grin more than being asked about his matchup against his older brother earlier this year. The Oakland A’s drafted Gus Varland a year before his brother. He is now with the Tulsa Drillers, the Los Angeles Dodgers Double-A affiliate.
“I talk to Gus literally every day. We text all the time about how we’re doing,” Varland said. “So getting to pitch in the same game, with each of us on opposing teams, was a crazy experience that I’m going to remember for a long time.”
For such a unique occasion, the Varland family had a handful of custom jerseys made – the front featured both team logos for the Drillers and Wichita Wind Surge, but the back had just one family name. That jersey will have a place in a shadow box at home, next to the many trophies and mementos that these brothers have earned over the years.
While having the Varland name etched on the back of a St. Paul Saints jersey may be a recent development, Louie’s appreciation for the club is nothing new. He’s been a fan since they made a name for themselves at Midway Stadium, less than three miles from Bob Burnes Field, Varland’s home turf when he played for Concordia.
“I used to go to some games when they were at Midway Stadium back in 2010, and then I got to play here at CHS Field in the playoffs when I was in high school,” Varland said. “Getting to be here with the Saints now is an amazing feeling. This is a great place.”
The long road back to Minnesota’s capital city has been good to the former North St. Paul High School product. After playing three seasons of college ball, he began his pro career in rookie ball with the Elizabethton Twins. Varland cruised in three appearances there, striking out 10 batters in his 8.1 innings.
When the pandemic hit just before the 2020 season, Varland was among the many minor league players forced to work behind the scenes. During that time, he focused on refining his mechanics to become more efficient with his delivery. While it can be daunting for a young player to make adjustments to their game, Varland took it all in stride.
“I trust the coaches and staff that talked me through it all. They’re pros too, and they know their stuff,” he said. “They helped me with my arm slot and my release point, and I just had to trust the process. Those adjustments and the fact that I’ve filled out a little more and can throw harder really helped me.”
That trusted process has turned into notable success. In Varland’s first year back in game action after the lost 2020 season, he started the year with the Fort Myers Mighty Mussels and earned a promotion to the Cedar Rapids Kernels, where his prospect star really began to shine. His fastball started getting more swing and misses, often topping out around 97 MPH.
When all was said and done, Varland went 10-4 with a superb 2.10 ERA and 12.4 K/9 in 102 innings pitched last year. The Twins named him their Minor League Pitcher of the Year for 2021. Even with that honor on his mantle, Varland knows there is always more work to be done.
“My ultimate goal heading into this year was to make it back to St. Paul,” he said. “Now that I’ve accomplished that, I’m trying to stay healthy and stay focused so that I can keep going.”
But if Varland’s career keeps going at its current trajectory, he will play his way out of his hometown. And once he gets that fabled call to the big leagues, he will live out his lifelong dream of playing for the Minnesota Twins.
Ultimately, that would be a dream come true for anyone named Louie from St. Paul.