The anti-stadium sentiments that carried sway for so long in the Twin Cities have been replaced by a building boom that started with the opening of St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center in the fall of 2000.
The idea that the public will be coming up with roughly a half-billion dollars (plus interest) to assist in the Avian Abattoir being built to further enrich Vikings owner Zygi Wilf might rank at the top of the shock meter for some.
Not all. From here, the shock of shocks came when Mike Veeck, the president of what had become a tired little independent baseball team, was able to convince the politicians to provide him with a $63 million (plus interest) ballyard in downtown St. Paul.
For now, it’s being called the Lowertown ballpark, as Veeck and the Saints search for a corporation to put its name on the place.
Ryan Construction is hustling to get it ready for the Saints to play a couple of exhibitions before the mid-May opener of the 2015 American Association season. When that’s a certainty, demolition will start on Midway Stadium, a ballpark that dates to 1982 and has been the Saints’ home since inception in 1993.
As of Sunday, there will be seven games remaining for the Saints at Midway, and perhaps a few more in the playoffs.
Among the traditions on the Saints’ schedule has been an afternoon game on a weekday in August, in order to fill Midway with youth groups. This took place Thursday, and it came up as one of those glorious days that Veeck had in mind when he started the Saints as an outdoor, low-cost alternative to the Twins and the Metrodome.
The feel in the adjacent parking lot was that of people skipping work to go to a ballgame, which is exactly the feel that Veeck imagined when he launched the Saints with Marvin Goldklang, Miles Wolff and others.
The timing of that launch proved to be fortunate, since the Saints were starting at the same time the Twins were entering a stretch of eight consecutive losing seasons.
Minnesota sports fans have a considerable appreciation for drinking on asphalt, and this desire was fulfilled with tailgating on Midway’s adjacent, 500-vehicle parking lot.
The early years were marked by capacity crowds of over 5,000 and much media attention as to how quaintly great was the Saints experience. There were also players such as Darryl Strawberry, Leon Durham, Glenn Davis, Darryl Motley, J.D. Drew — even Jack Morris, briefly.
Veeck seemed never to run out of attention-grabbing ideas. Remember Ila Borders, the first female pitcher in men’s professional baseball in 1997?
On Thursday, I was visiting with a group of regular attendees and mentioned the word “sex appeal’’ — meaning Strawberry and others — to describe the first half-dozen years of the Saints.
“I’ve been going to games here since the start, and that’s a good term for what has been missing … ‘sex appeal,’ ” Bruce Hjerpe said. “It’s still great to tailgate with friends, and to watch a professional game at affordable prices, but the team doesn’t have the same pizazz.
“Midway wasn’t as full for a few years [in the 2000s], and when the Twins moved outdoors … people we used to see all the time started going there.’’
Ben Szeremeta tailgates with Hjerpe, and a branch of the St. Paul Quinlans, and others, and they drink Leinenkugel’s and Pabst, not craft beers, and they cook chicken wings and brats, and wonder if the Lowertown ballpark will be as convenient as Midway has been for them.
“I’m sure the new ballpark is going to be great, but I’ll miss Midway,’’ Szeremeta said.
This is not a sentiment to be shared by the players, or the Saints’ small office staff, or fans needing a bag of peanuts or a restroom break in the middle of a game.