Of all the questions Annie Huidekoper has fielded about the Saints’ move to CHS Field, the fate of the pig is among the most common.
“Lots of people are asking about it,’’ the team vice president said. “They’re saying, ‘You’re on such a nice field now. You won’t possibly be bringing in a live pig.’ ’’
Huidekoper chuckled at the notion that no sensible baseball team would house livestock at a sleek new home in St. Paul’s hippest neighborhood. But these are the Saints, who perfected the art of nonsense during 22 years at Midway Stadium. So the pig not only is coming along, but he’s getting an upgraded seat — a pen specially designed for him by a prominent architect.
Since the Saints unveiled plans for their $64.7 million ballpark project in downtown St. Paul, they have been fighting the assumption that they will lose the boisterous irreverence that defined their long run at Midway. Now that they’re coddled in blackened steel and Western cedar, the logic goes, in a park with skyboxes and club seats and indoor batting cages, all that luxury will breed conformity.
Club officials promise they have not sold their souls for cup holders and shiny new bathrooms. They have exported much of the Midway merriment to Lowertown, including the holy hands of nun/massage therapist Sister Rosalind, the joke-cracking “ushertainers’’ and promotions that include a toilet-paper drive, a Salute to Fictional Princesses and a “Things You CAN pop’’ night sponsored by a dermatologist.
Tom Whaley sympathizes with fans who lament some irreplaceable traditions, such as tailgating right outside the stadium and waving to the trains that rumbled past the outfield wall. Still, the Saints’ executive vice president has seen many skeptics converted the moment they walked through the black iron gates.
“I’m sure there will be people who were just diehard Midway fans, and only Midway will do,’’ Whaley said. “But the bulk of our existing season-ticket holders, some of them with us for 22 years, were like little kids when they came in here and saw this. They were like, ‘Oh, my gosh. A real ballpark.’ ’’
For those still convinced the Saints will forfeit their oddball charm, the team plans to keep providing evidence to the contrary. On opening day, it will christen the park with a Mardi Gras-style parade, with stilt-walkers, fire-eaters and jugglers roaming the warning track.
“I promise you, it will take about five seconds of looking at that parade to realize that not only have we not changed, but we’ve gone to the absurd,’’ said Sean Aronson, the team’s play-by-play announcer and media director. “We’ll have a different address. But we’re the same quirky Saints.’’
Midway’s spirit, modern touches
The Saints’ original home was not built for comfort or aesthetic appeal. An undistinguished hunk of concrete planted in an industrial area, Midway Stadium was known mainly for interminable lines at the concession stands, cringe-worthy restrooms and lousy views from its aluminum bench seating.
But Midway functioned as a stage for the Saints’ brand of entertainment, which majority owner Marvin Goldklang described as “an experience wrapped around a baseball game.’’ It became home to a community that made its bleachers and parking lots part of a summer ritual, and it provided the backdrop for 22 years of memories.
According to baseball historian Stew Thornley, ballparks are a vital part of the fan experience in baseball, moreso than in other sports. Even a crusty relic like Midway inspired affection, making the choice to move an emotional one for many.
“The fans dealt with the challenges, and the Saints tried to make the best of it,’’ said Thornley, whose book on Saints history has just been published by Minnesota Historical Society Press. “There was a charm in all of that, like the married couple that thinks back to the days when they didn’t have much money. I think CHS Field will be popular, but I think a lot of people will still have nostalgic feelings toward Midway Stadium, too.’’
With that in mind, the Saints sought to create a park that preserved the spirit born in Midway while adding modern amenities. They hired architect Julie Snow, who never had designed a stadium and was open to unconventional ideas.
Snow bought season tickets so she could immerse herself in the culture of the team and its fans. They helped guide her toward creating a place that flows seamlessly into the Lowertown neighborhood and includes a dog park, a grass berm and an area to display local art.
“We weren’t trying to make a ballpark that’s as quirky and surprising as the Saints are, because they do that,’’ Snow said. “We were trying to do a ballpark that allows that to happen. Of course, change is difficult. But I think this is going to be the best of all worlds.’’
The Saints incorporated a few artifacts from Midway. The pig weathervane sits atop the grandstand, and a copy of Andy Nelson’s mural depicting a day at the ballpark adorns a wall behind the concourse.
Longtime season-ticket holder Kevin Luckow appreciates those touches, though he’s less interested in another throwback: the two sections of aluminum bleachers in left field, installed as a nod to the old joint.
“My seats are on the first-base side, row 18, and the sight lines are awesome,’’ Luckow said. “At Midway, my kneecaps were jammed into the bench in front of me.
“I spent a lot of time at Midway. I have a lot of great memories. But it was the people who made the Midway experience what it was. I don’t think that’s going to change.’’
New routines, same old pig
Huidekoper said fans initially were split into three equal groups: those who opposed the move, those who welcomed it and those who kept an open mind. Input from all three helped shape the new park, and she said CHS Field will continue to evolve in response to fans’ wants and needs.
Plans to add two parking lots for tailgating soothed many concerns, though neither is close enough to extend the tradition of players stopping by for hot dogs after batting practice. Another well-loved feature at Midway — the trains — might be revived through a Rail-Cam that would show them on the scoreboard video screen, or perhaps a mini-train on the concourse. The statues of pigs and Peanuts characters are stored underneath the stands and will be placed once team officials have a feel for where they will fit best.
In time, Saints officials expect new routines to form. The gatherings that took place at tailgate parties could shift to the bars and restaurants of Lowertown. The planes that fly over the field on their way to and from Holman Field might become as popular as the trains. With the improved views, fans might even pay more attention to the games.
But Huidekoper vowed that CHS Field won’t be “a country club. ’’ The proof, she said, is in the pig.
“I haven’t changed,’’ Huidekoper said. “[Co-owner] Mike Veeck hasn’t changed. It’s not like our family is different somehow. It’s just that we’ve moved into a nicer home.
“I sort of feel like this place is a brand new pair of sneakers. We have to get them dirty with a home stand or two, get them a little scuffed up. Let’s play ball.’’