St. Paul Saints keeping fun simple at Midway Stadium
ST. PAUL — It's a placid, mild Friday afternoon in the Twin Cities.
The towns' beloved but beleaguered Major League Baseball team is out of town, about to put the finishing touches on a 10-game losing streak in one-hit fashion.
Spring's final gasp wisps through the air on the east side of the Mississippi River. The hum of slowly mounting rush-hour traffic can be heard rising off the interchange of Highway 280 and Interstate 94.
Here, in an industrial, railroad-sandwiched crevasse of St. Paul, a retired military officer and his wife are hours from carrying on a two-decade tradition. A pair of recent college graduates will celebrate the end of the workweek before embarking on whatever early-weekend adventure may ensue. And a mother of four will introduce her children to the St. Paul Saints for the first time.
In an environment meant to appeal to young and old, conservative and liberal, sport-enthused and arts-centric, it's an early installment in the 21st campaign of an organization built upon taking the aesthetics-based selling points of independent minor league baseball to unprecedented levels of absurdity. That's been the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball franchise's calling card since its 1993 creation, and this year — and, its brass promise, a fast-approaching future — will be no different.
Both the devoted season ticket holder and first-time spectator are equally aware: there's no spectacle quite like this.
A mansion for the madness
Sean Aronson stops upon fully emerging onto the dated ballpark's inner concourse, his voice featuring an unmistakable twinge of Southern California sarcasm.
"Midway Stadium is known for its," a dry smile tugs at the corners of the Saints' radio play-by-play man and media relations director's mouth.
There's nothing subtle about a rusty, municipal stadium that's slowly evolved into a smorgasbord of group seating, food and drink solicitation and side shows typical of modern-day minor league baseball venues. But aptly-named Midway remains a unique kind of overboard, teeming with attractions that would render it a non-travelling carnival if not for the patchy grass diamond at its epicenter.
The crumbling murals that adorn its outer façade still lead into a small gathering spot, with one ramp in each direction leading fans to their seats. On the way, they'll pass at least one of nearly two-dozen eating and thirst-quenching options. Some have made special arrangements and will join family, friends and/or coworkers atop the S.S. Porkchop (a raised party deck modeled after an old-fashioned steamer vessel), the Taco Bell Party Box (which looks exactly like its smaller, cardboard namesake), the sunroom suite (it appears to be taken straight off the rear of a suburban Minneapolis home) or the Killebrew Root Beer box seats (nothing more than three rows of bleachers jutting into foul territory on the first-base line).
Behind them, multiple trains will pass in opposite directions during the course of play, met with a chorus of "Train!" yells from around the stadium. A whistle from the engineer will be met with a matching musical note from organist and in-game disc jockey Andrew Crowley.
New this year is the Beer Dabbler Bullpen, a stand-up bar separating the third-base grandstand and the group destinations in left field. This hot corner spot features 21 craft beers, all brewed in Minnesota, along with a front-row sightline just past the home bullpen.
"When they built this place, they didn't think it'd last past year one," Aronson said of the ballpark, constructed in 1980 to replace the old Midway Stadium, the home of a Major League affiliate also called the Saints that folded in 1961. "Now look at it."
But for all its quirk and charm, this is a structure in the twilight of its existence. It features two main restroom facilities, forcing the majority of patrons to use portable toilets. Its concession stands, though manifold, don't do anything to aid foot traffic flow.
The baseball facilities are in even worse shape. The home clubhouse is a dimly-lit, glorified closet with equipment scattered frivolously and a massage bench placed in the hallway serving as the only thing close to a training room. Next to it, players snag a pregame meal of fruit and peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches off an old folding table.
And the front office is more of a storage room for promotion props and documents. Its inhabitants have hung a hand-painted sign that calls it "Pig Pen."
Heavy on innovation and creativity in every aspect save for its playing arena, the Saints — and the city of St. Paul — are currently immersed in the design phase of a $54 million, 7,000-seat ballpark located in the heart of Lowertown. Club seating, pristine locker rooms and offices and a generally more modern feel are hoped to revitalize a less-trafficked district, consistently attract on-field talent and provide a more updated, modern fan experience.
But with change always comes fear of the unknown, especially when it comes to a product so dependent upon its surroundings.
"There is some trepidation — can you recreate this experience?" executive vice president and general manager Derek Sharrer said from his office, organized by Saints exec standards but still littered with stack after stack of documents. "Which has a lot to do with the ballpark, the location, the trains. There are all these things about the Saints that do center around Midway Stadium that yeah, there has to be concern."
Broadcasting from a leaking press box during a downpour earlier this season, Aronson asked his listeners: "For those of you that are against a new ballpark, come on out right now, stand in this press box with all this electronic equipment and put the headset on while it leaks, and tell me we don't need something that is new.
"For the people that have been coming here for 20 years and the nostalgia and the little things they enjoy, I get that," the Northridge, Calif., native said Friday while setting up his still-operable gear. "I grew up in Los Angeles going to Dodger Stadium, and if they ever tore down Dodger Stadium, I'd be heartbroken. But it's the behind-the-scenes things they don't see."
But that doesn't mean wholesale changes in atmosphere. Ticket and concession prices will remain the same, as will the zany extracurriculars that define the organization.
St. Paul can't afford anything else, Aronson said.
"If we do that, we're gonna fail within three years," he said. "There'll be a nice new ballpark someone else can use, because we'll have fallen flat on our face."
Said Sharrer: "No. 1, it's imperative that we carry over the soul of the Saints."
That soul's foundation lies within the team's inception.
At the urging of independent baseball pioneer Miles Wolff — currently the commissioner of both the American Association and the Canadian-American Association of Professional Baseball — Mike Veeck and ownership contingent Goldklang Group founded the franchise in 1993 as one of six original Northern League squads. As the legend around Midway Stadium goes, Veeck's wife Libby Veeck asked expressed understandable concern at home one night: her husband was starting a team from in the backyard of a Major League club. "I hope you have a plan," Libby Veeck told her husband.
Veeck responded by handing her a piece of paper with three simple words on it.
A few days later, he had a sign put up in front of Midway with the same inscription. It was stolen that night. A new one was installed. Once again, it was stolen.
People, or one person, at least, were literally latching onto the idea. So Veeck decided to stick with it.
Two decades later, the painted words "Fun is Good" still lead up to Midway's ticket office. More occurrences of the mantra can be found around the stadium. Veeck even wrote a book by the same title.
The slogan lives, even after a move from the Northern League to the American Association in 2005.
"We figure if every decision we make, we think about from the prospective of is this gonna be fun for the fans?" Sharrer said. "Is this gonna be fun for our admin staff, is this gonna be fun for our team? If we consider that, at least — it can't be the only factor — but if we consider fun in all of our decisions, then that's going to translate into the fan experience."
Promoting the preposterous
When he says "every decision," Sharrer is hardly exaggerating.
No idea for a promotion, nightly theme or gameday event is too outlandish. Biweekly meetings among Saints staff and interns produce some of the wildest brainstorming imaginable.
Most of the notions brought forth come to fruition.
"I would say this is more of a can-do rather than a can't-do place," first-year promotions manager Sierra Bailey said. "Almost anything that you throw out there, if we can find a way logistically to do it, we'll do it. We sometimes border the line of appropriate-inappropriate or things like that, but I'd say they've pretty much got it down of getting right to that point before we annoy or make somebody mad."
Some past examples, most of which have grabbed national headlines: bobble-foot dolls referencing the sex scandal involving Senator Larry Craig, rubber dog toys aimed at jabbing NFL quarterback Michael Vick's involvement in dog fighting, neck "ties" with Bud Selig's image after he ended the 2002 MLB All-Star Game in a 7-7 stalemate and, most recently, "A Night of Unbelievable Fun" sponsored by the Minnesota Atheists where the team renamed itself the "Mr. Paul Aints" for the evening.
Church groups, businesses, local and national news and trends — all have their place among the Saints' promotional packages. This year's slate features Law Enforcement Appreciation Night in lieu of National Donut Day, a toilet paper drive sponsored by Innovative Office Solutions, Hipster Night, a giveaway of 1,000 free Craiglist items, the long-running St. Patrick's Day in July, the fourth annual Zombie Baseball Crawl, and "I saw it on Pinterest" Do It Yourself Day, to name a few. Already this season, the Saints held an umpireless exhibition game to drum up nearby Hamline University's law department.
"Very rarely are we told no," Aronson said.
The same goes for between-innings pageantry. Friday alone featured a "Race to Whitecastle" among three young girls driving electric toy trucks and a "coffee run" where contestants carried treys of hot coffee while dodging obstacles in conjunction with the team's promotion of the film "The Internship."
Such ridiculousness is commonplace at minor league parks, where money exchanges hands in large part due to the entertainment offered around the baseball field as opposed to on it.
But the Saints have found ways to go even more above board.
A mixed bag of "Usher-tainers" wanders throughout the crowd and interacts with fans. Among them are The Nerd, a self-explanatory geek known for his awkward dances and mannerisms; Miss Coco Bell, a blond-haired, pink-dressed diva popular among young female fans; and Seigo Masubuchi, a full-blooded Japanese fellow who sings karaoke between pitches.
"It's super fun to see how involved everyone is able to get into the game," said Madde Gibba, the face and the creator behind Miss Coco Bell, who's new to the Usher-tainment team this season. "I'm able to play with kids, and the kids get to play and have fun and be silly, and that makes their parents inspired to be silly, and then the couple that is here on their first date is inspired to be silly and fun and have a good time."
Yet another outrageous tradition involves the carrying of baseballs to the umpire at the beginning of each game. A new piglet is chosen at the beginning of each season to fulfill this noble cause, and fans submit and vote on a name every year. The 2013 campaign features "Mackleboar," who enters the field with hip-hop artist Macklemore's "Thrift Shop" bumping through the loudspeakers.
St. Paul's fan outreach efforts extend to the digital realm, too. In addition to the now-traditional interactions made possible via Twitter and Facebook, a section of the team's website allows ticket buyers to "Saintify" their experience, identifying several different kinds of fans and pointing out what days on the schedule best suit their fancies.
"You wanna go see the best baseball players in the world, drive seven miles and you can go see the Twins with Mauer and Morneau and the guys they have," Aronson said. "You want to be entertained, you want to have a fun night out with the family and see good baseball, you can come here."
It should come as little surprise that actor Bill Murray's a member of the organization's ownership group. He'll show up at a game from time-to-time, signing autographs and posing for pictures while keeping a close eye on how the Saints perform.
"He could just be some sort of figurehead who never shows up, just has his name attached, but nope, that's not the case," Aronson said. "He is well in tune with what is going on here."
Determined to return
When the Twins called up Caleb Thielbar from Triple-A Rochester earlier this month, Saints second baseman Dan Kaczrowski took full notice.
It's a long shot, but nearly every St. Paul player and adversary that rolls through town is caught up in an uphill dogfight to return to or crack into affiliated baseball. A very select few, like Thielbar, make it all the way to the top.
Such competitiveness makes places like Midway Stadium, surrounding flair and all, a proving ground for talent bumped from big league organizations, usually by what St. Paul manager George Tsamis calls a simple "numbers game."
"I think that's kind of everyone's goal is to make it back to where they were; that's why this league is so cool," said Kraczrowski, a St. Anthony, Minn., native and former Hamline University star. "It gives you that second opportunity, possibly."
This year's Saints roster is full of Triple-A and Double-A experience. Kaczrowski spent four years in the Arizona Diamondbacks' organization, primarily at the Double-A level, before being released this spring.
The Saints also feature the occasional player whose career may be winding down. Infielder Craig Brazell was twice called up to the majors in 2004 and 2007 and spent some time playing professionally in Japan, too.
"Just because guys are playing here doesn't mean they can't play," said Tsamis, in his 11th year combining the roles of on-field manager and autonomous personnel decision-maker. "You just ask them to show up on time and play hard and it'll play out after that. If a guy's hungry enough, he'll work hard to try and get back."
Thielbar became the third current relief pitcher to make the Major League cut after spending some time in St. Paul, joining the Milwaukee Brewers' Brandon Kintzler and the Texas Rangers' Tanner Scheppers. By Aronson's count, 19 Saints have gone onto the big leagues, including Darryl Strawberry and J.D. Drew. The alumni list also features Ila Borders, the first woman to pitch in a men's professional baseball league.
Of course, the St. Paul Saints player experience isn't without its oddities.
The most recent example: 60-year-old former MLB draft pick Paul Risso's Friday tryout with the team. He'd been brought out to work out once before, and NBC's "TODAY Show" picked up on it and encouraged the Saints to bring him out again. There's no chance Risso, who can still throw in the upper 70s, makes the roster.
But, as Aronson said, "It's national pub. We're not going to turn it down."
And any Saints player that says he's completely focused between every single inning is lying, according to Kaczrowski.
"It's not, you know, ideal, I guess, for a player," said Kaczrowski, who spent several evenings at Midway Stadium during his St. Anthony Village High School days. "But if you focus on the game and don't worry about what's going on, you can do your thing. I think it's entertaining, too. You have a bad at-bat or something, you go out into the field, you're getting ready for the next inning and you see something funny going on, that could take your mind off of it a little bit and help."
It's the bottom of the sixth inning now, and a light but steady rain falls on a crowd of about 3,000 at Midway.
Few of them have left.
Behind the first-base line, Jennifer Metzler herds her four children ranging from ages 6-10 while trying to keep an eye on the Saints' growing lead. While they frolic inside an inflatable bounce house, she's able to peak around the corner and watch America Association leading hitter Brad Boyer rope a two-RBI double to left field and put St. Paul comfortably ahead of the El Paso Diablos.
Metzler's not perturbed this is one of few moments of on-field action she takes in. Her kids are occupied and enjoying themselves — there's not much more she could ask for on a rainy Friday night.
"They wanted to leave the game and come play here," Metzler said of her traveling party, the lot of which had never been to a Saints game before. "It's wonderful. That's what makes it worthwhile coming here, because they got bored a little bit. . . . It was nice to have alternatives for them."
Fresh college grads and old friends Lucas Wallerich and Jim McGuire hold up a corner of the Beer Dabbler Bullpen, each sipping a citrus-colored brew after being shuttled in from Gabe's restaurant, located two miles east of Midway Stadium just off Energy Park Drive.
The result means little. The ambiance means everything.
"I couldn't even tell you the league (they play in)," McGuire said. "But it's baseball.
"We paid $22, both of us, to be out here. . . . It's convenient. It's fun."
Retired serviceman Larry Vigdal and his wife sit together in the first row of the grandstand's middle set of bleachers, almost directly behind home plate. They've occupied these seats every year since Miles Wolff and Mike Veeck had their hair-brained idea to plop a baseball team down here.
"No matter how it's played," Vigdal said, "it's still baseball. Plus all the fun we have here."
About half the crowd sticks is still around for the duration of an 11-3 Saints victory, followed by a 15-minute fireworks show — the first of three straight postgame extravaganzas in honor of Memorial Day.
With the Lowertown ballpark project up and running, this season marks the beginning of the end of the Saints experience as people like Vigdal have come to know it.
But the heart of that experience seems to surpass architecture and physical features, instead hinged upon the clientele. Staff, players, Usher-tainers, and of course, the fans.
"I think the people are what really make it," said Sharrer, the team's general manager for the past 10 years. "(Veeck) may have developed 'fun is good' . . . we may have put it up on a sign, but they brought it to life."
So even for an old-timer like Vigdal, there's hope that this off-the-wall franchise's well-known niche is portable.
"Honestly, I'm torn, because this is part of it," Vigdal said as he left the ballpark Friday, motioning toward the fading stadium mural plastered on the outside of Midway. "It's kind of a unique place. It has its own signature, you know? We'll miss that, there ain't no doubt about it.
"But it's still baseball, and they'll still be the Saints."
Follow Phil Ervin on Twitter.