ST. PAUL, MINN.—In the world of independent league baseball, there is no more hallowed ground than the St. Paul Saints' Midway Stadium. This is where independent baseball was born and first thrived.
It is also where independent baseball will be leaving after the Saints say farewell to the only home they've ever known and move into a new, $54 million ballpark next season.
The Saints were one of the six founding teams in the Northern League in 1993. From the start, they were the flagship franchise, drawing more fans than even the team and league owners could have expected.
“Without St. Paul's (Midway Stadium) I don't know if indy ball would have survived. It showed, 'Oh this is what can happen,' " American Association and founding Northern League commissioner Miles Wolff said. “It was our poster child for the league. All the other leagues getting started said, 'Look what is happening in St. Paul.' I don't think you could overemphasize its importance."
Back at a time when many minor league teams had yet to try a dizzy bat race or think of the game as one long series of between-inning entertainment opportunities, the Saints figured out an irreverent comic vibe that captured St. Paul's attention and turned them into an immediate success. Affiliated minor league teams watched and learned, adopting techniques the Saints invented.
More than 20 years later, that vibe is still apparent at every Saints game, even if the faces and ideas have changed. Sister Rosalind still gives massages at the edge of the stands down the third-base line, and pigs still bring baseballs to umpires between innings.
Now there's Coach, the archetype of the gym teacher everyone remembers growing up with, complete with striped athletic socks, Bike shorts, a whistle, mirrored sunglasses and a mustache. He guides cheers for different sections. And there's the costumed Gert the Flirt, who is liable to dance with you as you wander down the aisle to your seat.
As great as the atmosphere still is at Saints game, a walk around Midway Stadium shows many reminders that while this may be hallowed ground, it's time to say goodbye.
The stadium was never intended to be a gathering place for thousands of fans a night. It was actually built for recreational baseball. With creativity and sheer will, the Saints have turned it into more for 22 years.
This is the last season the Saints will play at the 32-year-old stadium, and it actually looks and feels much older than that. The amenities are few, and those that are there are tacked on. There's only one concession stand built into the grandstand, so the Saints built portable units down the left- and right-field lines.
At Midway Stadium, season-ticket holders behind home plate sit on bleachers. For fans in the outfield bleachers, the nearest restrooms are porta-potties. Between the lack of amenities, the rust that is present everywhere (Minnesota winters aren't kind to ballparks, especially predominantly metal ones with no roofs) and the fact that it's essentially in the middle of a rail yard, it's no wonder the Saints are excited to be getting ready to move to a new, $54 million stadium in 2015.
Keeping The Old With The New
The new ballpark will have all the modern features that are designed to improve the “fan experience." But it will also come with a challenge for the Saints. Most teams can just say goodbye to their old park and point out all the amazing new features that come with a newer home. The Saints have to acknowledge the value of the old and keep the best of their history while welcoming the new.
As beat up as Midway Stadium is, it gave birth to an amazing culture. Fans at St. Paul Saints game participate. They get the joke and want to be part of the action. The atmosphere explains how the Saints are still third in the American Association in average attendance (4,800 fans a game). So in the new park, if Coach stands up and yells and no one yells back, or Gert the Flirt finds no one to dance with, then going to a Saints game becomes an inferior experience.
“For the past 22 years it's been the funky little ballpark by the railroad track, but it's more than a geographic location," Saints general manager Derek Sharrer said. “It's about the people in the seats, the people on the field and the people in the office. We're confident we can take that spirit to Lowertown St. Paul."
“It was one of those magic moments that doesn't happen all the time in minor league baseball. Everything came together in St. Paul," Wolff said.
Now the Saints have to move that magic to a 21st-century ballpark.