Every Night is Opening Night

Every Night is Opening Night

Through 20 years, good and bad, St. Paul Saints fought the good fight, remaking minor league baseball while they were at it. Now, if they could only get out of Midway Stadium.

Editor’s Note: Earlier in November, 2020, the Twins dropped the Rochester Red Wings as their AAA affiliate, which insiders believed was in preparation for an announcement that the St. Paul Saints were to be their new farm team. In our July 2012 issue, executive editor Adam Platt explored this very possibility when he took a closer look at the Saints’ history and business model, when CHS Field was just a gleam in the team’s eye.

TWINS EXECUTIVE ANDY MACPHAIL DERISIVELY CALLED IT A “BEER LEAGUE.” Sid Hartman said it would be kaput in two months. Both men are considered baseball savants, but both were wrong about the St. Paul Saints.

SAINTS TIMELINE

1993: Founding member of Northern League. Won Championship.

1997: Ila Borders, first female pro pitcher, debuted.

2002: 249-game consecutive sellout streak ends.

2004: Most recent championship.

2006: Left Northern League, Joined American Association.

This May the team took the field for its 20th season of independent minor league baseball in a decrepit concrete ballpark in a St. Paul neighborhood that is more industrial than park. Yet everyone went home with a smile on their face.

Such is life in the happy valley that is minor league baseball. And that 1993 skepticism about the Saints has evolved into a broad national respect. The “beer league” birthed a team that reinvented the business model, sending the game in an entirely different direction.

While many of its independent peers have succumbed to the harsh economic realities of professional baseball in small markets, the Saints have thrived, though there is the sense of a business in a slow decline. But a renewal may be at hand, if and when the team becomes the last of the storied local sports franchises to secure a new ballpark.

THE BALLPARK QUEST
The greatest threat to the Saints’ long-term viability is not the unsteady economy or competition from Target Field, but bad toilets and uncomfortable seats. Fans who a decade ago had the Metrodome and Target Center as reference points now use Xcel Energy Center, TCF Bank Stadium, and Target Field. Midway Stadium’s metal bench seating, portable toilets, and long concessions lines with limited selection lost their charm long ago.

Specifically, Saints management has seen a substantial decline in corporate group revenue at Midway since Target Field opened. Despite long identifying itself as St. Paul’s underdog namesake, the vast majority of its corporate support currently comes from Minneapolis.

St. Paul had asked state legislators for $27 million in bonding this year, to no avail. Rather than wait for the Legislature’s 2014 bonding session, the plan now is to tap a $47 million state economic development fund created in the 2012 session.Clark Griffith, who was commissioner of the Northern League from 2006 to 2010, after the Saints left the league, called the cost of their stadium plan “a rounding error” in the Vikings’ effort; nonetheless the decade-long slog has seen little tangible success.

Saints management says the city is confident of success because of the congruence of the ballpark plan with the fund’s economic development goals, but the Saints are competing with Southwest LRT and civic center expansions in St. Cloud, Mankato, and Rochester. The various plans are so expensive that they cannot all co-exist, so there will be losers.

And not everyone would object if the Saints were one of them. “Many of our most loyal fans don’t want us to move,” explains Saints Executive Vice President and Co-owner Tom Whaley. “They feel the grittiness of Midway is synonymous with Saints baseball.” Still, there is little community-wide opposition to the stadium effort, save for hard-core small-government ideologues.

President and Co-owner Mike Veeck says the team could open a Lowertown ballpark in 2014 were funding to come this summer. But he is not taking the city’s post-session optimism too seriously.

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“It’s a clash of cultures,” says Veeck, “The city is upset because I’m not celebrating the no-hitter in the eighth inning. But that’s the worst thing you can do in baseball.”

Veeck says if the ballpark isn’t funded this year, the ballpark coalition may return to the Legislature in 2013, but he believes it may have to wait for 2014, the next bonding session. In the interim, the Saints refrain from brinksmanship.

“I know my place in the food chain,” Veeck says. “People ask about leverage. We have no leverage.” But he worries about playing in Midway beyond 2015: “Look at this building. I think it’s about three years before some serious money has to be spent to keep it open.”

THE BUSINESS OF BALL

Major League Baseball is an incredible money machine.

The Los Angeles Dodgers just sold for more than $2 billion. Based on the organization’s public statements, the Twins are at least a $200 million business. Thus, many people are surprised to learn that minor league baseball isn’t all that lucrative.

“People think teams like the Saints generate a lot more money than they do,” says Kevin Reichard, publisher of Ballpark Digest, who has been chronicling the minor leagues for more than a decade.

The Saints, which Veeck calls “a $5 million business” are not as profitable as they might be because they are an independent or unaffiliated club so they must cover salaries of players and coaches, plus feeding and housing them, and intangibles such as workman’s compensation. Affiliated teams send all those bills to their MLB patrons.

Griffith says thriving minor league teams earn gross margins of 10 to 30 percent if they are in a larger market, have a favorable lease, and no debt. But if “you’re paying property taxes and salaries and have ballpark debt, your take will be about 10 percent.”

Saints majority owner and Chairman Marv Goldklang has modest expectations. “Even if it was break-even, I would have bought the Saints [in 1993]. It’s something I like to do and don’t approach it the way I do my other businesses. We’re baseball people, we love the game. We’re not that focused on the margin.”

Not all minor league teams are as healthy (or as relaxed about margin) as the Saints. “Tons of minor league teams are for sale right now,” says Whaley. “Fun is good, but making money ain’t bad either.”

At the upper reaches of the minor leagues, in thriving AAA-ball markets one stage shy of the majors, such as Albuquerque, Frisco, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, the game has gone big time. Seaport Capital has bankrolled Mandalay Entertainment in the purchase of several of the nation’s most successful clubs.

“Minor league teams are transitioning from mom- and-pop businesses that only made money when they sold, to large-scale operators that expect to profit from operations,” explains Reichard.

Minor league clubs have sold for as much as 15 times earnings, says Northern League founder Miles Wolff, who is commissioner of the independent Can-Am and American Association leagues. But it can be substantially less: “It’s an emotional buy. Teams that are for sale are often losing money.”

In the lower minors it’s not as flush, and the Saints model, as wrongheaded as it seemed in 1993, is now the gold standard. “In the early 90s, we thought you went to a place with no competition,” notes Wolff. “In 2012, the best markets are in major league suburbs, if you will. don’t believe independent league baseball can survive in Rochester and Duluth anymore.” Wolff says the most prosperous independent teams in the Saints’ 13-team American Association are Winnipeg, St. Paul, and Kansas City, all large metropolises.

“Regional business hubs have more money and more baseball knowledge. You can charge $50,000 for a fence advertisement, where in a small market you can get five [thousand],” says Wolff. “But your overhead is similar.”

THE UNLIKELIEST TEAM
Affiliated baseball left the region in 1972, according to Wolff. (The Twin Cities lost its affiliated AAA teams, the Saints and the Millers, when the Twins came to town in 1961.)

“At its peak there were 438 minor league teams,” says Wolff, but the current 30 major league clubs reduced the number of teams they affiliate with, and subsequently minor league baseball has congregated in discrete, population-dense regions of the country.

Wolff, the longtime publisher of minor league bible Baseball America, had an idea to return minor league ball to the Upper Midwest and partnered with several lovers of the game to form the Northern League in ’93. The league would be independent, the major leagues having no interest in a cluster of clubs well off their beaten path. An independent league had not thrived in the U.S. in decades.

The Saints came to be because one of Wolff’s partners, Marv Goldklang, would not accept the Duluth franchise since there were no nonstop flights there from his base in the New York metro area. The Twin Cities was the only nonstop destination in the Northern League’s trade area, and so the Saints were born. Goldklang’s partners included actor Bill Murray and Mike Veeck, the son of longtime baseball owner/iconoclast Bill Veeck.

The Saints’ home was a utilitarian ballpark the city had built for amateur baseball on bad land in an industrial rail corridor. From the upper rows you could see the Metrodome, which had hosted two World Series in the previous six years. The Twins had begun a decade of decline, which would culminate in several years of brinksmanship to move and/or disband the club. Fans abandoned them and grew to hate the soulless Metrodome.

The story is much chronicled, but suffice it to say that as the Twins sank, the Saints flew. A decade of sellout seasons ensued. Big-name once and future major league players (Darryl Strawberry, J. D. Drew, Leon Durham, Kevin Millar) adorned the roster. Veeck’s promotional acumen kept the team in the news and on people’s tongues.

“The Saints made independent baseball a business,” says Wolff.

“It was magical,” says Saints General Manager Derek Sharer, from his windowless cinderblock office at Midway Stadium. “Every seat sold every season from day one.” Leaning across his steel desk, he adds, “we didn’t spend a cent on marketing.”

That was then. This is now.

Business is not bad, but the sheen has worn off. The ’00s were a mixed bag, “Independent leagues sprouted everywhere across the country and diluted talent,” says Sharrer. “We started selling below [the park’s 5,884] capacity for the first time. We had to become aggressive marketers and we got good at it. 2008 was as good a year as we ever had.”

Then came the Great Recession. And Target Field. The gravy train derailed someplace between there and Midway Stadium. Corporate sales fell off the cliff and when they returned, it was to Target Field. Its luxuries in mind, longtime fans began to object to Midway’s inadequate amenities. Though price-sensitive businesses and families have gradually returned, says Sharrer, a patina of decline hangs over the ballpark.

“No-shows are Killing me,” says Veeck, who admits they are more than 35 percent of season ticket-holders some nights. Empty seats mean no concessions or souvenir revenue from absent fans. The Saints’ business is not in jeopardy, but it is stagnant and sensitive to the smallest ripples. So the Saints control what they can: the fun quotient.

EVERY NIGHT IS OPENING NIGHT
“It is the team we all love,” says Veeck, “the team that changed the face of minor league baseball. No team had ever been seven miles from a major league team and survived.”

But they didn’t do it with pitching, The secret sauce at work at Midway Stadium and the three other ballparks that are home to Goldklang Group baseball, is surprisingly different from that of other professional or amateur sports, because the product in minor league baseball (affiliated or independent) is not baseball.

“Sixty-five percent of our fans come to be entertained, period,” says Veeck. “People think the bedrock of our business is crazy promotions,” bringing to mind the upcoming Invasive Species Night, or Nobody Night, where fans were locked out of the Charleston ballpark while the game played and beer vendors roamed empty stands. (Fans watched on cherry-pickers placed beyond the outfield wall.) “But its actually not.”

Everyday “fun is No. 1, customer service is No. 2, and affordability is No. 3,” Veeck explains. “Thirty-five percent percent come for the baseball and hate the shit I do. They know the score, they know who we’re playing. But, most don’t. Look, I love the game—don’t you think I’d like to open the gates and show off the baseball?”

The caliber of play is inconsistent. The baseball is window-dressing for the roving balloonists, face painters, kids racing on the field between innings, and mascots in costumes in the stands.

“We’re not the only game in town,” notes longtime Saints Vice President Annie Huidekoper. “If we focused on baseball, we’d have U of M crowds, 200 to 500. We have people that just tailgate. They never walk in.”

Much of what is now MLB standard operating procedure had its root in the minors. “The innovations start here,” explains Whaley, “whether it’s  kids running the bases or ads on the outfield walls.”

Still, the Saints are no longer the iconoclasts of the minor leagues. “The Saints don’t deviate from the template,” says Reichard of Ballpark Digest.“Everybody has sumo wrestling. Everybody has characters roaming the stands. (The Saints] just do more of it.”

Minor league baseball is in every respect closer to its fans, from the dimensions of its ballparks to its operational philosophies. “You have to be on the front lines or you lose it,” explains Whaley. “That’s why Mike [Veeck] takes tickets when he’s in town. The business is service. People want to feel connected and like they matter. They want to interact with you.”

“The connection between our fans and our organization is as direct as it can be,” Whaley continues. “Every CEO should get up every morning thinking ‘How can I be closer to my customer?’”

Veeck has instilled a few guiding principles in his front-line staff. “Mike has taught us never to say no,” says Huidekoper, who manages customer service for the club. “You figure out a way to make the customer happy.”

Another principle: “People make the decision about whether they are going to have a good time in the first 10 steps they take in the ballpark,” says Huidekoper, so the right kind of welcome is essential. The entire management team works the ballpark most nights, and one usually takes tickets.”

Synonymous with that, she says, is that “Every night is opening night. If you only come for one game a season, then it’s opening night for you; we have to deliver.”

Another Veeck-ism states that “Our biggest competition is the couch”— in a world of overscheduled, stressed-out people, the challenge isn’t getting them to choose the Saints over the Twins or a fishing trip, but getting them to choose something at all.

Thus the Goldklang teams are aggressive. “We advertise heavily,” says Veeck. “I use radio and TV and I can see the calls come in after the ad airs.”

The Saints’ 2012 radio ads will air on stations dominated by female listeners, consistent with the understanding that it is the female side of the social equation that needs to be persuaded to come to a Saints game. When there’s a veto, it typically doesn’t come from someone with a Y chromosome.

THE FUTURE OF FUN

There is a scenario, not quite a fantasy, that actually sees theSaints and Twins working together. It involves the Saints becoming one of the Twins’ minor league affiliates, showcasing the organization’s young talent on its home turf, an increasingly common national phenomena.

The nearest affiliated leagues to the Twin Cities are the low-A Midwest League and AAA Pacific Coast League, both of which have franchises as close as Iowa. (The Twins’ Midwest League affiliate plays in Beloit, Wisconsin.) “It’s an intriguing idea,” says Twins President Dave St. Peter. “A new facility [for the Saints] would make it something we’d study a bit harder,” though he is quick to note the Twins are happy with their current affiliations.

After a rocky start, the Twins and the Saints have good relations today. A Goldklang team is the Twins high-A affiliate in Fort Myers, Florida, and the group manages spring training there for the Twins. Affiliating would lower the Saints’ overhead and increase baseball-centric interest in the team, but would also push opening day from mid-May into early April, extending the season by six weeks. “I don’t want to play here in April,” says Veeck.

Such a move would also make the Saints accountable to the Twins, which doesn’t exactly feel right to a guy who has drag queens drag the infield and one year saw the potential for staging a Voodoo Night on Friday the13th. It happened to be Good Friday, but what the heck?

“It’s this wonderful game that survives whatever we do to it,” muses Veeck. “And God knows, we’ve done some things to it”