Nearly every day last winter, Drew Gay checked in on the construction of CHS Field, watching the ballpark take shape in St. Paul's Lowertown neighborhood via a live webcam and photos posted on the Internet.
"The more I looked at it, the more anxious I was to get here," the St. Paul Saints pitcher said. "My heart was racing about 100 miles an hour walking up to the field, just to see what it looked like."
Gay would have been happy with any improvement over Midway Stadium, with its lumpy field built over a landfill and steamy, overcrowded clubhouse. He and his teammates open a new American Association season Thursday against Fargo-Moorhead in a park that offers as much comfort for players as it does for fans. For the first time in the franchise's 23-year history, the Saints will enjoy modern amenities that pro athletes have come to expect, in a workplace that could help attract better talent.
Some of the upgrades are significant, such as the indoor batting cages and well-appointed training room. Some are small, including an expanded laundry area that will cut 2 ½ hours off the time required to wash uniforms after games. All are appreciated in a place manager George Tsamis called "as beautiful as it gets."
"There were [players] who didn't want to come here because the facility wasn't good," said Tsamis, who is beginning his 13th season with the Saints. "One guy told me years ago that he didn't call me back because we didn't have air conditioning in the clubhouse. It was a terrible place.
"A lot of players would rather go to a beautiful stadium and play in that, and I can't blame them. Word is getting around about how beautiful [CHS Field] is."
While Tsamis has led the Saints to the playoffs six times in the past 12 seasons, the club has not won a championship since 2004. The Saints' large crowds, fun game-night atmosphere and history of getting players signed by major league organizations have long been strong draws for players. But independent minor league teams compete fiercely for top talent, and Midway Stadium could be a deal-breaker.
Saints co-owner Mike Veeck recalled former Twins infielder Scott Leius — signed by the Saints in 1997 near the end of his career — left the team before playing a game. "He took one look and drove home," Veeck said, "in uniform and with cleats [on], to get away from those facilities."
At Midway, a lack of space forced the athletic trainer to move one treatment table into a hallway. The bumpy field was difficult to play on and there were no batting cages. Hitting coach Ole Sheldon remembered that "we were all on top of each other" in the cramped clubhouse.
"This is going to make coming into work every day a little bit easier," he said. "That will translate into being focused and preparing us to do our job. And if you're a minor league baseball player who's transitioning [to a new team], this is going to be first in your mind. This levels the playing field."
Pitching coach Kerry Ligtenberg noted that CHS Field does that quite literally, saying its smooth, manicured infield and perfectly groomed pitching mound and bullpens give players the tools to be their best. Players raved about the spacious and comfortable clubhouse, and outfielder Mike Kvasnicka said he plans to drop by the adjacent farmers' market before weekend games.
Tsamis admitted he will miss some of Midway's low-rent charm, but he expects the delights of CHS Field to make up for it — and then some.
"What can you possibly complain about? That it's a far walk from the parking lot?" Tsamis said. "It's absolutely gorgeous."