Strip away 21 years of Saints baseball and Midway Stadium is less than ordinary. Team co-owner Mike Veeck called it the ugliest ballpark in America. Manager George Tsamis refers to it as beat down.
Peeling paint, rust and an uneven playing field help define the Saints’ home on the St. Paul side of its industrial border with Minneapolis. The stadium’s quirks and dysfunction have become part of what’s endearing and attractive about the Saints and independent professional baseball in the Twin Cities.
They also will make it bittersweet for the franchise to say goodbye to its longtime home. The Saints begin their farewell season at Midway on Thursday night with their sights set on a new $63 million ballpark being built in downtown St. Paul and scheduled to open in 2015.
They haven’t turned their back on their old friend just yet, though.
“We made a promise when we started that throughout this process we wouldn’t forget about Midway. It was something we wanted to be careful about,” Saints General Manager Derek Sharrer said. “No question we wanted an improved facility. … But we wanted to be sure we didn’t spend all of our time talking about how bad Midway was. Because Midway is a special place. … We want to send it off with a bang.”
The final season at Midway will highlight the club’s championship runs. It will honor former players, coaches and announcers. Most importantly, it will be about honoring fans who make an otherwise average stadium look beautiful, executive vice president Tom Whaley said.
Saints fans have come to see Midway as it’s depicted in a large mural that greets them at the stadium gates. It shows full seats and lush green grass. Promotions are on the field and media line the dugouts and press box. It even depicts some of the original season-ticket holders and Saints icons.
Central to the team’s identity, the mural also is a reminder of obstacles overcome to build a successful product and earn support for the new stadium and prolonged future in St. Paul. Annie Huidekoper, Saints vice president/community relations, said several prominent figures in the sports community proclaimed publicly the franchise would fail within months.
Huidekoper and Whaley were part of the efforts that brought the Saints to Midway Stadium in 1993. They’ve spent most of the past 20-plus years with the team and are now spearheading the move to the Lowertown neighborhood in St. Paul. They’ll transfer their roots by bringing as much as possible to their new home.
“We’re trying to bring the best of all of it over and improve the rest,” Huidekoper said.
The best includes the old barber chair Huidekoper uses as a spare in her office, the tattered Snoopy perched in front of the stadium, the vintage signage spread throughout the facility, and the fading stadium mural that will receive new life at the new ballpark.
Some traditions will end — the passing trains and red-tail hawk that lives beyond the outfield fence — and give way to new ones. The rest will travel with the fans.
“It starts and ends with the fans. If you look at the ballpark and take away some of the things we’ve done to it, the art and flowers and all that, it’s an ordinary place,” Whaley said. “There weren’t people banging their doors down to come out here [before the Saints arrived]. Now it’s sort of symbolic with fun and a good time and that’s 110 percent the fans.”
One of those fans is Ed Kajer. An original season-ticket holder, he and other early adopters of the Saints were convinced the team would succeed after the club won a championship in its inaugural season.
Kajer remained faithful since the start, eventually giving up his ticket to become an “ushertainer,” combining fan assistance with fun at the stadium. He’ll follow the team to Lowertown knowing it won’t be the same, but believing the change will be good.
One thing that can’t change is the tailgating. Sharrer said the Saints are one of the few baseball franchises in the country that has regular tailgaters. The city and Saints are promising new lots to gather in next season.
Saints players also are more focused on the fans than the new ballpark; none of them know if they’ll be back in 2015. But those who have worn Saints uniforms value fans’ unconditional support, no matter the team’s record. Pitcher Ryan Bollinger, entering his fifth year in the minor leagues, said Midway is the most fan-oriented place he’s experienced. Pitcher Dan Sattler expects that’ll carry over to a new home.
“The building was never built to do what we’ve done to it, with the pounding it’s taken from all the people,” Whaley said. “Everyone here and the city has worked really hard to keep it together and going. It’s been awesome and I don’t regret one minute. But it’s time.
“We’ve had more fun here than we had a right to, that’s for sure.”