Saints and U unable to play ball

  • Article by: MIKE KASZUBA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 30, 2011 - 10:13 PM

Before both the St. Paul Saints and the University of Minnesota pushed plans to build their own baseball stadiums, they explored building and sharing a joint stadium.

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Saints President Mike Veeck, pictured outside Midway Stadium in St. Paul, says his team’s flamboyant style clashed with U coach John Anderson’s old-school values.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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Not so long ago, the plan had life: The St. Paul Saints and the University of Minnesota would combine to build one $25 million baseball stadium.

But somewhere along the line things fell apart. Both teams are now pushing for their own new stadiums barely 10 miles apart. The school is trying to raise $7.5 million in private money for a new ballpark on campus. The Saints, a minor league professional baseball team, are hoping for state help to build a $50 million project in downtown St. Paul.

When both stadiums are built, each will try to defray costs by competing for some of the same local amateur baseball teams to share their facility.

To those tired of Minnesota's seemingly endless stadium sagas, the little-known negotiations between the Saints and the U are a lesson on how teams appear more apt to find ways to build their own stadiums than to save costs in combining efforts.

Under the original plan, the Saints and the university would each have contributed $10 million to a joint stadium, with the city of St. Paul adding at least $4 million more. The new stadium would have been built on the site of Midway Stadium in St. Paul, where the Saints now play.

"We spent two years waiting for the university to tell me, 'No'," said Mike Veeck, the Saints president. "If we had the U, you know, the [stadium] naming rights become more attractive."

University officials however said that their discussions with the Saints never became serious and that the hundreds of millions in state money spent on the school's new TCF Bank Stadium for football approved by the Legislature in 2006 made it politically difficult for the school to approach the Legislature for even more stadium money.

After TCF, "I think we felt that we had to pay our own way for anything beyond that," said Garry Bowman Jr., a university spokesman. "I just don't know that those talks [with the Saints] got that far."

Veeck said he privately felt the negotiations may have been doomed because of the Saints' flamboyant style -- one ticket-selling tactic included having a pig deliver a baseball to an umpire -- while the university's stadium effort is guided by longtime coach John Anderson, an old-school traditionalist.

"I didn't think that John really cares for what we do," said Veeck, whose legendary father, Bill Veeck, once hired a midget ballplayer while he owned the St. Louis Browns. "[To John, we were] a sideshow, you know, where a game happens to break out."

Now the Saints' go-it-alone proposal is in limbo. Gov. Mark Dayton is pushing for state bonding money for the Saints' 7,000-seat project, while the team clings to an outside chance that it can be added to the Minnesota Vikings stadium plan before the Legislature.

University officials say they are close to raising $7.5 million in private funds for their new ballpark -- the school has at least $5 million -- but will not begin the project until all the money is raised. The proposed 3,000-seat ballpark would replace Siebert Field, the school's aging campus ballpark built in 1971. School officials said the university had been pushing the project for "a long time" but that fundraising did not begin in earnest until the Pohlad family, the owners of the Minnesota Twins, donated $2 million a year ago.

Early possibilities

Tom Whaley, the Saints' executive vice president, said that the early talks had possibilities. Gene Budig, the former American League president, had business ties to the Saints, Whaley said, and also was a friend of Bob Bruininks, the university's president. Whaley said Anderson, Joel Maturi, the university's athletic director, and the school's attorney sat at the table with Veeck and Whaley.

There are precedents for shared stadiums. In South Carolina, a minor league baseball team shares a stadium with the Citadel, a nearby military college. In Nebraska, the Lincoln Saltdogs share an off-campus stadium with the University of Nebraska's baseball team. "It's been a great partnership," Saltdogs President Charlie Meyer said of the shared 4,426-seat stadium that sits less than a mile from the school's campus.

But Whaley said he never had any illusions a deal in Minnesota would be easy. "It was clear to us that we had a little convincing to do in terms of getting them to come off campus," he said.

As both stadiums move forward separately, the Saints and the university each talk of having state high school league, American Legion and perhaps even Big Ten tournament games at their new stadiums to help provide revenue.

"We have a number of tournaments, amateur ball ... We have, like, American Legion [and] Babe Ruth" baseball," said David Crum, the university's associate athletic director. "Part of our project is to grow Minnesota baseball and youth baseball" at the new stadium.

Veeck said he was surprised that the school is now targeting some of the same teams the Saints plan to solicit. "Wow. We have some competition -- I didn't know that," he said.

Kevin Merkle, an associate director of the Minnesota State High School League, said the league is supporting Dayton's request for state bonding money for the Saints stadium, and currently plays games at both Midway Stadium and Siebert Field.

But Merkle said he does not want to take sides on who does and does not get a new stadium. "We wouldn't sit here and be a proponent that, well, no [the] university has to have their stadium," he said.

Shawn Vellek, the commissioner of a Class A baseball league in the Twin Cities, said he supports the new Saints stadium, but acknowledged that "there probably will be some kind of an overlap" as the Saints and the university compete for the same amateur teams. Vellek said he can understand how taxpayers might wonder why there will be two new stadiums.

"If you're not a baseball fan, and just a taxpayer, I'd probably feel the same way," he said.

Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673

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