Twins embrace Dakota Nation partnership

January 30th, 2023

WELCH, Minn. -- The Twins are just over two weeks from heading south for Spring Training, but the organization’s leaders took a break from their preparations for the season to spend a meaningful morning learning about the oft-overlooked history of the indigenous nation whose ancestral land they now call home.

That’s why manager Rocco Baldelli, president of baseball operations Derek Falvey, team president Dave St. Peter, pitcher Louie Varland and hitting coach David Popkins clung to frozen metal rails on the back of an open-air truck in 5-degree weather as a curious herd of American bison -- which can run at 40 mph and jump up to six feet, the Twins learned -- followed on the lands of the Buffalo Project, administered by the Prairie Island Indian Community.

The Prairie Island Indian Community owns and administers Treasure Island Resort & Casino, whose relationship with the Twins began in 1995. The Twins know the pride the Prairie Island community takes in its history, and events like Sunday’s visit and learning opportunity served as a step in the organization’s hope to highlight the Dakota culture and understand the hardships faced by their indigenous partners throughout that history.

"The Twins play on Dakota land, and we obviously have a wonderful relationship and partnership with them," said Paul Dressen, the education director for the Prairie Island Dakota Nation. "It's just really heartfelt that they've taken the time to come out and really to find out not who we are as business partners, but as community partners."

Before the group took a shuttle to the Buffalo Project, where the Prairie Island people have cultivated a herd for spirituality, community and nutrition, Dressen spoke about the cultural and human losses that his people have endured -- an important step in helping the organization better understand their partners on a human level, said Mark Weber, now the Twins’ director of Florida business operations, who has worked closely with Prairie Island since 1995.

“You need to know them more on an in-depth level so you can understand as an organization but also can communicate to the fanbase how important their history and culture is, and what they've been through,” Weber said.

“That's something that very few people know about, and we're going to try and continue to do that, and add some things, hopefully over the next couple of years, to enhance that communication message to our fanbase.”

Varland family still basking in the moment
A key component of the Twins Winter Caravan is the chance for fans around Twins Territory to ask questions of players, coaches and executives -- but over the years, it’s a near certainty that no member of the travel party has ever been asked the question that popped out of the crowd at Treasure Island Resort & Casino on Sunday.

“What do you want for dinner?”

Louie Varland grinned and asked for a steak -- but told his mom that he’d cook it himself.

The Varland family’s enjoyment of the moment has not diminished. Nearly five months after Varland made his big league debut at Yankee Stadium, it still hasn’t sunk in for his proud mother that her younger son, born and raised in St. Paul, is up on that stage next to Falvey, Baldelli, Popkins, LaTroy Hawkins and St. Peter, representing the hometown baseball team.

“I feel like I'm floating around watching somebody else's movie,” Kim Varland said. “I still can't believe this. I'm watching his dreams come true. I'm complete. It's wonderful."

As Kim and Wade Varland glowed alongside their daughter, Georgi, and her boyfriend, Sam, in the rush of well wishes from Twins fans around them, they migrated over to the autograph line, where they got their first official Twins Winter Caravan signature from Louie.

Kim isn’t sure she’ll ever get used to these moments -- but that pride could double soon, as her older son, Gus, could be in line for his MLB debut with the Brewers following his selection in the 2022 Rule 5 Draft.

“No, I'm sure not,” Kim Varland said. “I'm expecting a really big year with his brother, too. It's going to be just phenomenal with the two of them. …To have them both in those positions -- both on the 40-man [roster] right now -- it's remarkable. I'm out of my mind and bursting with pride.”