Ahhh, St. Paul Saints baseball in May.
The smell of brats on the grill. The pop of beer cans being opened by eager vendors. A diminutive nun setting up her massage chair.
A temperature of 42 degrees at first pitch.
Monday night, the Saints minor league baseball team christened its shiny new Lowertown ballpark, CHS Field, with an exhibition game featuring many of the same inviting and kooky touches that made Midway Stadium its cozy home for 22 years. But there was plenty of new and improved, too.
Just ask Brian Madigan and Tom Flynn, longtime fans — but no fans of Midway.
“It’s gorgeous. They have done a great job,” said Madigan, of St. Louis Park. “They have obviously put so much thought into it.”
Said Flynn, of northeast Minneapolis: “I’d stopped going to games at Midway, to be honest. It was just not comfortable, the long lines to concessions and the bathrooms.”
Conveniently located between beer stands, the restrooms at CHS Field seemingly had more toilet stalls than fans on this frigid night. They were toasty warm, too — the restrooms, that is.
Those words were music to Mike Veeck’s ears. The team owner, making the rounds of the park and greeting fans with a smile, tried to say what this night meant to him: “Words can’t describe,” he said. “Magic.”
From the fancy, massive video scoreboard in left field, to the spiffy Securian Club on the ballpark’s second level, there was plenty of new. Not all of it operating at peak efficiency. Bartenders Greg Russell, who came over from Target Field, and Bill Lamoreaux were still trying to figure out where everything went — and which wines and beers are free with club-level tickets — a half hour before the gates opened.
“It’s just like everything else, the park is new. We’ll be ready. Thursday’s supposed to be the big day,” he said of the upcoming season opener.
Russell said a little cross-river rivalry spurred his move from working in Minneapolis to St. Paul.
“I’m more of a St. Paul guy,” said the White Bear Lake resident. Then he pointed to Lamoreaux. “He’s from Lino Lakes.”
At several food stands, the food wasn’t quite ready as the fans filed through the gates. For some, it was clear not all the training had been completed.
Malissa Seivert, of South St. Paul, and Veronica Vail of Maplewood, volunteers with Helping Kids Achieve Their Goals, were staffing the Philly cheesesteak kiosk. Only problem was, they had never made Philly cheesesteaks before. And the cash register was a bit of a mystery … for a couple of seconds.
“How much did you have to use your fork?” Seivert asked a customer, admitting her meat-transfer skills need practice. Answer: About half the filling slid out of the sandwich during eating.
Tom Heidman, a greeter at the main gate facing the Lowertown Farmers’ Market is new, too. But the man from St. Paul never stopped smiling, or dancing, as fans trickled into the park.
Nancy Hilleran, his job coach from Merrick Inc., said they are not yet sure how often Heidman will work, but he’s excited about the prospect.
“It’s fun!” he said, beaming.
Beaming, too, was a tiny woman in a nun’s habit who was setting up her massage chair near the main entrance. Sister Rosalind Gefre is in her 23rd year of offering massages to stiff and sore Saints fans — $8 for 10 minutes in the chair.
“Wowee!” she said, when asked about the ballpark. “This is so beautiful.”
Now needing rides to the ballpark — “I don’t get around so good anymore” — Sister Rosalind said she is delighted to have made the move with the Saints to Lowertown.
“The Saints are so good to me,” she said, before hugging and kissing just about everyone who stopped to say hi.
While the between-inning antics, such as the mascot races and the kiddie car Grand Prix, are the same as at cramped old Midway, some fans said the biggest proof of success for this $67.5 million ballpark will be a winning baseball team. The hope is that fancy new digs, indoor batting cages and plush locker rooms will attract a higher caliber of talent.
For all the bells, whistles and pigs, the Velasquez siblings of St. Paul want a winner. Their family has had Saints season tickets for 23 years. Good thing, then, that the Saints jumped out to a 2-0 lead before beating the Sioux City Explorers 5-3 in 10 innings.
“Where we’re different from a lot of the people here, we come for the baseball,” said Linda Velasquez. Well, that, and the beer.
“When it’s hot out, we love the beer,” Roger Velasquez said, before noting the cold. “No beer today.”