Mike Veeck: Still out in left field

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 22, 2010 - 10:04 PM

The Saints' Mike Veeck is confident his team's brand of entertainment can survive the new outdoor game in town.

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St. Paul Saints President Mike Veeck walks around the back end of Midway Stadium and starts to laugh. Fittingly, just out of left field, stands what appears to be a ramshackle paddleboat -- its paint chipped, its wood rotting.

He found it biking, forgotten behind the St. Paul Pool and Yacht Club on a woodsy road along the Mississippi River.

"I'd ridden past it 300 times before I realized it was a bus they used like a float in parades," Veeck says between chortles. "I asked the city if we could have it as an amenity and they said: 'If you can drive it out there, you can have it.'"

That was 1994. The out-of-left-field paddleboat hasn't moved since. More remarkably, neither has Veeck.

Once considered the loose cannon of baseball promotions, a third-generation huckster who flamed out with four Major League teams, Veeck is entering his 18th season serving up minor league yucks for a reasonable price fewer than 7 miles east of all the hullaballoo at Target Field.

The Legislature ignored Veeck's relatively modest pitch for a new ballpark in St. Paul's downtown warehouse district just as everybody began flocking to the Twins' new palace to rediscover outdoor baseball. Now all but forgotten amid the Twins buzz, Veeck is 59 with a graying goatee. And he's battling a heart-wrenching family crisis with his sense of humor more important than ever.

To wit: A legislative hearing on the Saints ballpark plan. The team, of which he owns a quarter, would kick in $10 million. The city pledged $10 million and Veeck & Co. asked for $25 million from the state -- pocket change compared with the Vikings' demands or the public funds pumped into Target Field or the Gophers stadium.

"When I was testifying, one of the legislators was upset with the Twins for shipping in grass from out of state for Target Field," Veeck recalls. "She asks if we are going to use real Minnesota turf and I said: 'Madame, I'm from the '60s, we used nothing but real, homegrown grass.'"

The hearing room fell silent. "Then they realized it was a joke and they could laugh a little," he says. "Everyone we talk to at the Capitol says they love us, but when it comes to deal-making time ..."

He shrugs, jokes about threatening to move to Rogers, and hopes tickets ranging from $5 to $20, easy parking and wacky promotions will continue to draw families to Midway Stadium in this, the Summer of Outdoor Baseball.

"If you love baseball, we're a great deal at five bucks," Veeck says. "If you hate baseball, we're right up your alley."

With a pig named "Brat Favre" delivering balls to umpires this season, and a Revolutionary War promotion set for June 11 before the U.S.-England World Cup soccer game, the Saints are as zany as ever.

"For every five ideas Mike has come up with, four are phenomenal and one can get you arrested," says Marv Goldklang, the New Jersey investor who took a chance on Veeck in 1989, a decade after his career blew up with records as Disco Demolition Night went awry with the Chicago White Sox.

That wasn't his worst idea, Veeck insists. "We were going to make instant replay obsolete so we hired some mimes -- and mimes don't come cheap -- and came up with a slogan: A mime is a terrible thing to waste."

After a close Saints play, the mimes jumped on the Midway dugout and re-created the controversial call in slow motion.

"People were stunned at the stupidity of the idea," Veeck says. "And we never sold so many concessions because the fans started throwing things at the mimes while booing them out of the hemisphere."

When he stops laughing and gets serious about this season, he predicts Target Field will take a 15 percent chunk out of Saints revenues from corporate and group sales.

"Nobody wants to be hurt, but Target Field does make it exciting," he says. "Eighteen years is an eternity here and everyone says the sky is falling. But we're still here. And we hope people remember that."

Family lessons

When it comes to resiliency, Veeck need only look a generation either way for lessons.

His late father, Bill, lost his leg to a mortar shell in World War II, which didn't come close to slowing down one of baseball's most colorful characters of the last century. As the last of the non-immensely wealthy baseball owners, Bill Veeck brought exploding scoreboards and a midget pinch-hitter to Major League Baseball as the frontman for the Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians and St. Louis Browns before his death 25 years ago. All that, while hopping around on a wooden leg equipped with an open-and-shut ashtray.

"He used to go to the pool and wait for the kids to stare at his wooden leg," Mike says. "Then he'd take the leg off, dive in, swim a lap underwater and let them look at what was left of his leg and ask questions."

He tells that story and others to daughter Rebecca about the grandfather she never met. At 18, she is battling blindness from an incurable disease called retinitis pigmentosa, which gradually destroyed her retina and optic nerve.

Veeck took her to the Grand Canyon and other landmarks during her childhood, but now thinks "it's probably better if you're born blind."

Rebecca's gradual loss of sight has heightened her anger issues and isolation, Veeck said. He and his wife, Libby, drop her off every Monday at a Florida school for the blind and pick her up on Friday to bring her home to Charleston, S.C.

Veeck regularly shuttles between Charleston, where he designed the RiverDogs stadium, and St. Paul, because Rebecca "has enough indignities to suffer without seven months of falling on ice."

The family's struggles have brought balance to a guy not always known for it. He acknowledges a malaise of heavy drinking that clouded his 40s, after Disco Demolition night and his family's sale of the White Sox.

Veeck said he hasn't drank any hard liquor in 20 year. Goldklang said Rebecca's ordeal "has made him more reflective than the instinct guy who used to run with ideas without processing them."

Before a recent Saints game, as clouds mounted, Veeck shrugged and smiled.

"A rainy forecast used to be a tragedy," he says. "I've learned a little bit about priorities, courtesy of Rebecca."

Professor Veeck?

He has also learned what he'd like to do next, not that he has any plans to get out minor league baseball.

Two years ago, Veeck taught a marketing graduate level class at the Citadel, where he recently delivered the commencement address.

"Teaching that class changed my life," he says. "It's a great place for a guy like me to end up."

Just ask 25-year-old Drew Wessels, one of his former students now living and working in Owatonna.

"That class alone was worth two years of graduate school," says Wessels, who sat with Veeck at a recent Saints game. "I learned more and enjoyed myself more than I have in any class in my life."

Budget woes prompted the Citadel to unload all the adjunct professors, but Veeck would love to land a teaching gig in Minnesota. His younger brother, Greg Veeck, is a geography professor at Western Michigan University.

"He's still in touch with 12 of the 22 of us who took his class," Wessels says. "That's unheard of. Mike Veeck is the most genuine, sincere person I've met."

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman is a Veeck fan, too.

"Once he stopped dynamiting stuff in the middle of center field, it really helped his longevity," Coleman says. "We're committed to making something happen and he's committed to sticking it out."

None of which surprises Mary Frances Veeck, Mike's mother, who lives on Chicago's South Side and turns 90 in a few months. While her late husband was a famous promoter, Mary Frances was no slouch, either. She was among the first female publicists, barnstorming the country with the popular Ice Capades shows after World War II.

"It's very Veeck-ian to find what you love, find your passion," she says. "And Mike loves that baseball team up there and really cares about it."

Curt Brown • 612-673-4767

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