There had been a couple of phone conversations with Mike Veeck over the previous six months. The first was in early winter and the melancholy in his voice was clear. The second came when I was in Florida for spring training, and the famous Veeck spirit remained hard to detect.
We talked again Friday. He’s not yet back fully, might never be, but this time he was quicker with the humor.
On Sept. 30, the warrior named Rebecca Veeck, 27, the only daughter of Mike and Libby, died from a long-term attack of the nervous system called Batten disease. At age 7, Rebecca was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease that would take away her sight, and later came news that it was something worse:
Batten is always fatal, with Rebecca’s 27 years at the far end of the spectrum for survival.
In mid-September 2019, the 15th to be exact, Veeck’s St. Paul Saints won the American Association championship for the first time in the league’s 15 seasons — the team’s first title since its last season in the Northern League in 2004.
Mike wasn’t there. Rebecca was in her final days and he was with his daughter and Libby.
It’s hard to be off-the-wall, laugh-at-the-ready Veeck when you’re a wreck after the loss of a wondrous child. He was giving it a better shot Friday, and making sure to offer up the battle cry that has served the Saints since they surfaced at Midway Stadium in 1993:
“Fun is good.”
This conversation had been delayed a day because of a Veeck medical appointment.
“A cortisone shot in the spine for my long-term stenosis,” he said. “I also have a new knee and hip, and when they were prepping me, someone looking at the chart said, ‘And there’s also your diabetes.’
“I said, ‘I’m not diabetic; I was told I’m prediabetic. I’ve been eating healthy.’ They looked at me and said, ‘No, you’re diabetic.’ ”
Self-deprecation. Veeck, 69, is a champ. And he also aimed some serious deprecation at baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred and his inability to come up with a deal to get Major League Baseball on the field.
“Manfred doesn’t like baseball,” Veeck said. “He’s a labor lawyer. All he likes is winning a negotiation. And his right-hand guy, [Dan] Halem, he’s the same. I never thought I’d say this, but I miss Bud Selig. The game was his life. I believe that serving the ‘best interest of baseball’ that’s part of the commissioner’s job description … that should mean something.”
On Monday, the player reps voted 33-5 against management’s last offer, leaving Manfred to set a schedule — 60 games, reportedly starting July 29 — and maintaining the union’s right to file a grievance and seek millions in lost salaries.
A six-team version of the American Association — including Veeck’s Saints — will start a planned 60-game schedule on July 3. At this point, all games will be played in Sioux Falls, Fargo or Milwaukee, cities in neighboring states where ballparks have been open for games for a few weeks.
For now, Saints home games will be played in Sioux Falls; Winnipeg home games in Fargo; and Chicago home games in Milwaukee. There’s a chance — only a chance — the Saints will be able to use CHS Field with limited crowds later in the summer.
Manager George Tsamis is assembling his 25-player roster for the start of “spring training” on Thursday at CHS Field. This was scheduled to be the Saints’ sixth season at the sensational boutique ballpark in St. Paul’s Lowertown.
The successful stadium campaigns in the Twin Cities over the past dozen years have been amazing, led by Zygi Wilf’s ability to maneuver the Vikings into an overbuilt, $1.15 billion glass house to increase his already-hefty annual profits by tens of millions.
Second on that list for me was Veeck’s ability to persuade St. Paul to invest substantially in such a grand ballpark for a team playing independent baseball. So grand, in fact, that MLB’s plan to transform the minors into fewer teams in the best possible facilities includes trying to steal CHS Field for a minor league affiliate — presumably the Twins’.
“I don’t see the advantage for us to have an affiliated team,” Veeck said. “For one thing, It’s obvious that Manfred wants to get rid of St. Petersburg and run everything out of New York … to call the shots out of his office.”
St. Petersburg, Fla., is home to the Minor League Baseball office, still independent from the major leagues at this point. What if the Commissioner’s Office takes over and tries to make the call on putting an affiliated team in CHS Field?
“Get a lawyer,” Veeck said. “The Saints have a lease.”