Every Night is Opening Night
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”