Three hours before game time at Midway Stadium on Thursday seemed to follow the same familiar ritual the St. Paul Saints have followed for the past 22 seasons as they prepared to face the Winnipeg Goldeyes.
Players, arms crossed and talking, stood scattered around the tarp-covered field under an intermittent drizzle and dreary-gray skies.
The first hint of barbecue smoke wafted from the nearby parking lot, signaling the arrival of the early die-hards, like the Miller family, who have been coming here since Day One. Manager George Tsamis pitched to a young ball boy in the netted half-cocoon of the batting cage, who soon gave way to the burly players, getting down to the serious business of hitting baseballs. And, of course, a Union Pacific train rumbled noisily just past the Leinie Lodge and SS Porkchop seating area in left field.
As the parking lot filled and fans lined at the gates as the clock ticked to game time, accompanied by a live rock band, it soon became clear there was a change in this night’s pregame ritual: this was Midway Stadium’s last night.
The arrival with a flourish of Mike Veeck, Saints president and co-owner, and actor Bill Murray, also a co-owner whose apt job title with team is “team psychologist,” signaled a special farewell was in the works. “Go Out With a Bang!” was the night’s theme, and neither the specter of the stadium’s imminent demolition nor rain dampened the mood.
Though Thursday was the closing of one chapter in the Saints’ long history in St. Paul, it was also the last step toward a new era with the opening next spring of the team’s new stadium in the city’s Lowertown neighborhood of downtown.
“Opening Day in 1993 was exactly like this — overcast and a little cold,” said Veeck, as he and Murray stood at the gate, taking tickets. The process was much slowed as Murray patiently mugged for selfies and joshed with the fans, who tended to bypass Veeck.
“Hey! There’s other people taking tickets, too!” hollered the ever-ebullient Veeck, in mock indignation. “I guess my last movie didn’t do so good.”
The Saints built their success — in the face of some skepticism, Veeck said, even from his own mother — with quirky, family-oriented entertainment woven in with quality baseball. Arriving at a time when the Twins were playing indoors and not too well, tailgating and outdoor baseball was a major appeal. A pig brought out baseballs to the umpire (this year, it’s Stephen Col-boar); a nun offered in-game massages; promotions were imaginative and funny. And it didn’t hurt that they won the league title that first season.
Replicating what built that unique success in the new downtown location poses a new challenge, one of which Veeck is very aware. But he is confident in the formula. Veeck, noting he risked everything on this independent baseball venture, recalls ticket lines extending to Snelling Avenue several blocks down Energy Park Drive from the stadium. Even the team, he said, was not ready for that first surge of success.
“My mom, by the third inning of that first game, was going ‘You know, this might just work,’ ” he said. “And she was right.”
Pointing to the eager fans, Veeck said it’s they who have made it a success. The Saints have been built as a team “of the people, for the people and by the people,” he said. “As long as the people come, the bricks and the mortar don’t matter.”
Stew Thornley, a local baseball historian who has written extensively on the old Saints and Minneapolis Millers teams, said Veeck gambled a lot by bringing a baseball team into a major league market.
“It was a phenomenon even a lot of those who were behind weren’t sure how long they would have to budget for annual losses,” he said. “But it just took off. That first weekend sold out, it was just amazing.”Fans like Michele and Mike Miller, who arrived on that opening weekend out of curiosity and have been back every summer — now with daughter, Kaleigh — worry that the move downtown won’t be the same, that some of that quirky magic will disappear.
For the Millers, Saints games and tailgating have become the fabric of their summer social life. They’ve made numerous friends, have watched couples meet and marry and have seen children grow up together. Both players and staff often got to know each other. “We’re a family,” Michelle Miller said.
As they put up their awning, hoisted their colorful collection of identifying flags and set up the picnic table in the parking lot, Mike Miller was wistful. “I’m sad,” he said. “This is what we do in the summer, this is where people come to look for us.”
Terri Wallace was among a group of fans gathering around the Miller’s picnic table. She, too, has followed the Saints from the start, and is worried about giving up her familiar seat on the third-base line.
The new place, she said, “just isn’t going to be the same.”
Ole Sheldon, who played parts of five seasons with the Saints and is now the hitting coach, admitted to some mixed emotions as he glanced around the stadium before the game.
“It’s been nice here. My wife comes to all the games — she’s a teacher, and she’s made friends with a lot of the fans,” he said. “It’s a very family-like atmosphere.”
As much as he loves Midway Stadium, though, “I’ll pull the trigger on this place,” he said. He is looking forward to better locker rooms and other more modern upgrades at the new stadium.
In the end, after Murray had caught the first pitch from St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, and U.S. Sen. Al Franken had joined the capacity-busting record crowd of 9,455 in singing “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” the Saints fell to the division-leading Goldeyes 4-3.
But the fireworks still let loose, and there was one last promotion: the Monster Food Truck Rally, where fans could linger on the field one last moment, savoring a late bite, and more than two decades of memories