Saints march into new palace with familiar ‘absurd’ fun

CHS Field, the St. Paul Saints' new stadium, is a 7,210-seat, $63 million ballpark named for an Inver Grove Heights farming co-op and owned by the city.

Betsy Bissen

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The circus hasn’t left town. It’s just found a bigger big top.

5:25 p.m. — Inside the Black Dog Coffee and Wine Bar and outside on the Lowertown St. Paul streets it begins buzzing. Casual attire, business dress and a few black-and-blue baseball jerseys are nestled against wooden chairs as baristas take drink orders — some for a pick-me-up, others for a slow-me-down. Outside, a vendor sells vinyl records on the corner of Broadway and Prince. On the opposite corner, smoke rises from a Romocky Bratz and Dogs stand. A block to the west, scalpers pace in front of the St. Paul Farmers Market, which tonight has been converted to a fully occupied beer garden. At 5:30, as a brass band tunes up its instruments, CHS Field’s gates open for the first time, and hundreds of fans waiting outside them flood in, grab a free, black St. Paul Saints cap and start soaking in the Twin Cities’ latest sports venue convocation.

This is the new face of Lowertown St. Paul, a once-neglected area repurposed in the last decade and now hemmed together by a 7,210-seat, $63 million ballpark named for an Inver Grove Heights farming co-op, owned by the city and home to quite possibly the zaniest, most off-color organization in all of pro sports. It’s a venture 6 1/2 years in the making, since Saints ownership and the city sought a solution to replace charming-but-decrepit, quaint-but-outdated Midway Stadium in the town’s industrial district.

"Every once in a while, a blind pig finds an acorn," gushed Mike Veeck, a member of team ownership contingent the Goldklang Group. "And I must really be blind, because I sure did find an acorn here."

Said executive vice president Derek Sharrer: "It’s a culmination of a dream."

5:45 p.m. — Veeck stands on the third-base concourse and sweeps his hand over the premises, pointing out how the grandstand’s black support beams and roof blend  almost perfectly with the Farmers Market. "The neighborhood bleeds into the ballpark," says Veeck, the son of the late Bill Veeck, a Hall of Fame owner with the St. Louis Browns, Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox, "and the ballpark bleeds out into the neighborhood." A giant baseball is already covered in signatures from visitors, many of whom attended the opening exhibition game here earlier in the week. The dog park just outside CHS Field begins teeming with canine owners, who can essentially watch for free as long as there’s an occupied leash in their hand. In front of them, a replication of Andy Nelson’s mural that once stood outside Midway Stadium overlooks an area called "the gallery," where the work of local artists Randy Legried and Aaron Tafoya are being displayed.

When designing CHS Field, architect Julie Snow took the concept from the adjacent Lowertown Lofts and essentially flipped them inside out: black brick and steel, red cedar ceilings and, of course, a wide-open, 360-degree concourse — which are all the rage in modern ballparks. It’s a venue of transitions — natural (the Mississippi River bluffs peek from behind left field and meld with the general-admission berm there, where tickets cost just $5 and are available only the day of games) to urban (fans seated in said berms and the $12 drink-rail seats behind them have a perfect view of the Lowertown skyline), fried scents from cheese curds and chicken fingers behind home plate to the hoppy notes near the Beer Dabbler Bullpen in left, a replication from Midway.

Thursday’s opening-night contest with the Fargo-Moorhead Redhawks sold out well in advance, drawing an announced 8,592 people. Like the Saints’ old digs, it was as much a party as it was a baseball game, with folks milling about the concourse, chatting it up in their stadium seats — which cost between $14 and $18 — or bouncing between the chair backs and indoor-outdoor patio real estate in one of the ballpark’s four suites. Unlike Midway, though, this is as pristine and kempt as can be, from the themed concession areas (Mud’s Barbecue and Dairy, the Burger Depot, the (hot) Dog Park, Fries and (pizza) Pies, among others) to the several group seating areas that will account for much of the Saints’ ticket revenue.

The two-level yard takes up 10.4 acres. She’s 402 feet to left center, 400 to right, 320 down the first-base line and 330 down third. It’s about 1/3 of a mile around the concourse. Roughly 238,000 people walked through Midway’s doors during its final season; more than 220,000 tickets have been sold for this season already, and the club expects hefty walk-up sales, especially in the stadium’s infancy.

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The spacious press box seats print, radio and video control personnel and had two chocolate fountains running in the back Thursday. "We have a bathroom in the press box," said Saints radio man and public relations liaison Sean Aronson, who used to call games from what was essentially a glorified, mounted shed that would leak when it rained. "You talk about a step up, it’s the little things, right?"

And the big ones. This is nothing like Midway, which St. Paul occupied for 22 years. It’s nothing like a lot of other independent minor-league stadiums, either, and could be considered the best in the American Association of Independent Baseball, given its thorough design and overall newness.

If there was one complaint Thursday, it was Lowertown’s crawling concession lines. Parking in Lowertown is a chore, too.

Veeck said he’ll always miss Midway, where his mantra "Fun is Good" reigned for more than two decades.

"Those are 22 years of wonderful memories," Veeck said, "but if you ask people, ‘Do you miss (Metropolitan Stadium)? Yes.’ There are probably some people who miss the Metrodome. But you take the memories with you. You take a better building, and you imbue it with new memories."

6:57 p.m.– The concourse, particularly the standing-room-only home run porch in right field, is lined with people as a Louis Armstrong-style version of "When the Saints Go Marching In" begins playing over the sound system. The pregame parade begins with a series of exotic, Mardi Gras-costumed performers and ends with the Saints coaches and players waving at fans and sporting retro uniforms — white pants, white jerseys, royal-blue trim and matching blue caps. In between, workers from stadium developer and contractor Ryan Companies and other dignitaries walk around the warning track, interspersed with performers twirling flaming rods, walking on stilts and juggling bowling pins. The Division III Hamline University squad, the ballpark’s other tenant, makes an appearance. So does the St. Paul Bouncing Team, which features female gymnasts flying 30 feet in the air off a circular trampoline carried and operated by a slew of strong-armed men. As the starting lineups are announced and exhibited on CHS Field’s 30-feet by 50-feet video board, the sun starts to set behind the third-base line. Local singer Robert Robinson, who’s sung alongside Aretha Franklin, Barry Manilow and Jermaine Jackson and once opened a Prince birthday celebration, belts out a rousing rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" from his wheelchair. CHS president and CEO Carl Casele, then St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman throw out ceremonial first pitches at 7:32. Three minutes later, Saints southpaw and former Twin Pedro Hernandez hurls the stadium’s first actual offering, which Redhawks second baseman Frank Salerno yanks to the left side of the infield before reaching on an error.

The setting may be new, but most of the characters aren’t.

When the Saints and St. Paul sought $52 million in public funding for a project that included construction and environmental remediation on the former Diamond Products/Gillette site, the biggest source of backlash was concerns about losing the fan experience that drew so many different people to Energy Park Drive near the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. Not only have the Saints made it their mission to replicate it, but also a new theater gives them an opportunity to enhance their act.

"We’d be idiots if we were like, ‘Well, now it’s about the baseball,’" Aronson said. "’For 22 years, we gave you the entertainment, and guess what, now we’re going to pull out the rug from under you.’ No. We’re not morons.

It’s amazing. I’ve never played in the big leagues, but it’s kind of what I imagine it to be like. . . . It’s all awesome.

Saints designated hitter Ian Gac

"If anything, we’re trying to be more absurd."

Hence the parade around the field. And the addition of several new entertainment team members, including a pirate named Pig’s Eye Pete to go with the usual personalities who interact with fans and perform between-inning acts like Seigo Masubuchi singing Foreigner’s "Feels Like the First Time" in an embellished Japanese accent. Official pig mascot Mudonna is still around. So is the live swine that brings balls out to the umpire before every game; this year’s lucky animal is named "Pablo Pigasso."

Organist Andy Crowley still tickles the keys next to the press box. Roman Catholic nun Sister Rosalind still gives out massages. The public-address announcers still crack jokes and razz fans. Thursday, a barber named Mr. B administered buzz cuts in right field. During the seventh-inning stretch, staffers toss green bags of Hampton Farms peanuts from the press box and into the stands. And, as usual, the Saints feature a wacky promotions schedule that looks like "The Simpsons" writers came up with it.

CHS Field shares some architectural components with its neighbor in Minneapolis, Target Field. But the Saints have never pretended to compete with the Twins, instead choosing to take minor-league baseball success stories of atmosphere over on-field product to the utmost extremes.

Call what they’re doing at their new home a change by staying the same.

"We remember our roots at Midway Stadium," team chairman Marvin Goldklang said. "There’s something of a bittersweet feeling leaving where we’ve been . . . but you look at the ballpark, you look at the fans, you look at what’s happening on the field, and it’s our future."

8 p.m. — Saints designated hitter and cleanup man Ian Gac leads off the second inning with the Saints’ first regular-season hit in the new ballpark. In the bottom of the fifth, his two-run home run gives St. Paul a 7-4 lead. With each team’s pitchers struggling, the wind blowing out toward the outfield, the giant, black batter’s eye providing a hitter-friendly backdrop, Gac’s dinger is one of five combined for both teams. He finishes his first game in a Saints uniform 4-for-4 with three RBI, and a team that hasn’t made the American Association postseason since 2011 christens its new dwelling with an 8-7 win. A 6-foot-3, 240-pound righty from Washington state, Gac says fly balls during initial practices died early because gusts came from the opposite direction. "I was a little worried at first," he said. "Balls weren’t carrying the way they usually do for me or for other guys. Then the wind changed. As long as the wind blows out or doesn’t blow at all, it carries pretty well from what I’ve seen so far".

The workout equipment available at Midway Stadium consisted of one 45-pound plate that sat unused in the corner and an exercise bike with rust on some of its edges. If players were hurt, they were treated on one of two medical tables in the hallway outside the locker room; the other was used to serve food. The usual main entree: peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.

And that was in the home clubhouse.

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Thursday night, after his powerful performance, Gac leaned on a folding table and answered questions in the hallway between St. Paul’s new, state-of-the art locker room and a full-fledged training facility, complete with hydrotherapy tubs and a full-scale weight room. Down the hall, manager and personnel chief George Tsamis reviewed the box score in his private office while, across the way, his assistants changed into street clothes in their shared desk space. Before the game, some of Gac’s teammates took hacks in the club’s two underground batting cages.

"It’s amazing," said Gac, who made it as far as Double-A affiliated ball before joining the American Association’s Lincoln Saltdogs the past two seasons. "I’ve never played in the big leagues, but it’s kind of what I imagine it to be like. . . . It’s all awesome."

This ballpark’s home locker room is a gem. Flat-screen TVs on the walls. The Saints’ script "StP" logo hewn into the carpet and leather couches. Major league-level locker stalls. Pictures of players past — Jack Morris, Darryl Strawberry, J.D. Drew, Kevin Millar, Caleb Thielbar, Mark Hamburger, even Ila Borders, the first woman to pitch in a men’s independent professional game — wrap around the top of each wall. Even the visitors’ clubhouse is sharp, albeit vanilla.

Tsamis says it’ll all help him attract talent, which became tougher each year Midway became more run down. Lincoln, Neb., Kansas City, Kan., and Winnipeg, among others, all boast nifty stadiums, and now the Saints are not only up to par, but they’re something close to the standard.

"I’ve been in a lot of minor league ballparks, and there’s a lot of very nice ones, beautiful ones," said Tsamis, now in his 13th campaign as St. Paul’s skipper. "But I don’t think I’ve ever seen one as nice as this one. This is beautiful.

"I think next year, too, once (potential players) roll through here and see it, then they’re going to be like, ‘Well, this guy’s not trying to sell me on it. I saw the place.’ It’s unbelievable. It doesn’t get much nicer than this one. This is a Triple-A, big-league stadium."

9:15 p.m. — Bill Murray is the last person in St. Paul who needs a nametag tonight. But he’s wearing one anyway, right below the Saints insignia embroidered onto his blue, janitor-style, button-down shirt. The actor, comedian and part-owner who’s listed as "team psychologist" on only comes around every so often, but he wasn’t about to miss this. Waving his hands as he talks, he instructs Mayor Coleman’s daughter, Molly, in the ways of nighttime driving. She’ll soon embark on a six-week, West Coast road trip, and Murray wants to make sure she angles her mirrors away from her car to, he says, increase her visibility. Murray’s not talking to any reporters tonight; perhaps he’s too tired from jumping out of a cake on David Letterman’s final show earlier this week. When he’s done pontificating, he reclaims his seat in front of the Securian Club in time to see Gac’s long blast.

The Securian Club, high above the first-base line, is where the big wigs hang out and where the Saints host their highest-profile corporate functions. The red cedar is prominent, especially behind the private bar. Coleman stood outside it during the fifth Thursday night, joking about his short run as the Saints’ first-base coach — a position he ceremoniously manned in the first inning, full uniform at all.

He wouldn’t get into the story floating around CHS Field that a member of his communications team advised him to choose his undergarments carefully Thursday, as he’d be wearing tight, white pants and leaning forward in front of thousands of St. Paul citizens.

Pablo Pigasso has the job of running baseballs out to the umpire before the game.

"I can neither confirm nor deny that there was a consultation on my underwear choice," Coleman laughs.

What he can confirm, though, is that CHS will be the lynchpin for continued growth in a neighborhood that was once the first port of access to the Twin Cities. Today, a burgeoning art, bar and restaurant scene have revitalized its infrastructure.

Now, St. Paul has the crown jewel to ensure steady foot traffic, at least during the summer months. It won’t be used solely for baseball; when the Saints aren’t playing, it’ll be used for concerts, movie nights, dog shows, food and drink festivals, performance arts showcases and an extension of the Farmers Market during busy weekends.

"Literally, my face hurts, I’ve been smiling all night long," Coleman said. "So exciting. People say, ‘Well, is this the game-changer for St. Paul?’ and I’m like, ‘No, but it’s icing on the cake.’ We’ve done so many things to really drive stuff downtown, and for this facility that just extends all of that work that we’ve done, it’s really wonderful to see."

10:40 p.m. — Saints closer Alan Oaks records the final out of CHS Field’s inaugural Saints game, striking out Fargo-Moorhead catcher Joe Staley. The few thousand fans still hanging around erupt. As they file out, the stadium lights continue to illuminate the StP emblem mowed into the centerfield grass. At 11:15, a few stadium workers, fewer Saints staff and a handful of journalists are the only ones left in the ballpark. The nearby Bulldog Lowertown bar is packed, its patronage overflowing into its front patio area. Public Kitchen + Bar next door is full, too. Glasses clink. Voices laugh. Bartenders collect. A couple blocks over, St. Paul indie band Harakiri’s heavy guitar riffs, chorus of vocals and bullish percussion cohesively bounce off the walls of Golden’s Deli and leak out onto Wall Street and a now-abandoned Farmers Market.

Those responsible for CHS Field’s inception estimate a $10 million annual economic impact on the surrounding neighborhood. Some eateries and watering holes, including Black Dog, have plans to expand their facilities and menus.

The lofts are occupied. The dining and drinking options are in place. Stadium supporters call this the puzzle’s final piece.

"Lowertown’s on fire nationally," Veeck said. "All that Lowertown needs is what every entertainment district needs: people to enjoy it. If we do our job right, we’ll draw people, and they’ll enjoy it."

It drew them Thursday night, and likely will again throughout CHS Field’s first summer of operation. But every new venue and its fandom go through a honeymoon stage. For the Twins and Vikings of the world, victory is the only sure factor in sustainability.

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But around here, surrounded on all four sides by the Green Line operations maintenance facility building, Highway 52, Interstate 94 and hipster-laden Lowertown, wins aren’t measured in league standings. They help a little, but the vast majority of fans don’t show up because of their attachment to the team or any of its players, most of whom will be playing somewhere else by next summer, anyway.

Folks come to smile. To sit on a blanket with their kids and munch on popcorn. To meet with friends after work and grab a cold microbrew or margarita. To take a night out with their co-workers in the three-tier terrace in the right-field corner or "the lawn" picnic space behind left field. To entertain business guests in suites that have everything but the fire pits that were removed from the original plans — "not up to code," Aronson, the team’s PR guy, said. To sit behind home plate for less than $20, or to be pampered above for financial commitments in the thousands. To be entertained, not just by a game, but by an atmosphere, an ambience.

Really, it’s all about people. Always was. The only difference is an infinitesimally more enticing gathering space.

"I feel humbled by this," Veeck said, "because I’m thinking to myself, ‘How did we ever get so lucky to have something like this?’ And the truth is that the fans helped us.

"That’s what gave us this: this city."

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