At Midway Stadium, a few miles away and light years in style from the St. Paul Saints’ swanky new stadium, Saints owner Mike Veeck’s favorite spot overlooked the parking lot. He loved standing at the top of the ramp on the third base side, watching cars pull in, savoring the aroma of sizzling brats and burgers grilled by tailgaters.
It smelled like fun.
Monday night, an hour before the Saints met Sioux City in an American Association exhibition game christening their new home, CHS Field, Veeck walked the perimeter inside the stadium on an overcast, chilly night, talking to fans, sizing up the place. He stopped at the elevated rail near the bullpens in left-center field, taking in the view of the St. Paul skyline rising behind the first base grandstand. A new favorite, perhaps?
“Looking right up 5th ain’t bad,” said Veeck, meaning 5th Street, which dead-ends at the main gate. “You tell me where the Farmers Market ends and the ballpark begins. That’s the only direction I gave her [stadium architect Julie Snow]. The neighborhood has to be the star, and we have to be in the luminosity of the star. I think she did that.”
The pig, the mascots, the ushertainers, the gags, all of it made the move from decrepit Midway to this $63 million jewel in St. Paul’s Lowertown neighborhood. The upgrade after 22 seasons at Midway could not be more striking. Fans will no longer miss a full inning waiting on line for rest rooms. The field is green and lush, with a Saints logo mowed into centerfield. The joint even has high-roller seating (the Securian Club) and four luxury suites, for pete’s sake.
“My dad would come back from the dead for this place,” said Veeck, the son of the legendary baseball impresario Bill Veeck.
As nice as it is, going downtown means change. Concessions and most tickets are more expensive. Parking is no longer free. The tailgate lots are two long blocks away, not steps from the front gate. Burlington Northern trains were a big part of the Midway scene, but the freight tracks here are beyond the tailgate lots. The days of players and coaches mingling with tailgating fans pregame may be gone.
But instead of the drab industrial park that surrounded Midway, bustling Lowertown offers multiple places for fans to nosh and grab a cocktail before or after games. The vibe is different.
Saints officials stiffen when questioned about maintaining the team’s goofy irreverence in such spiffy digs. The Saints, they say, will always be the Saints. The pig weathervane came with. Sister Rosalind will still give massages, albeit near a stand selling $12 margaritas, and a fancifully-named pig — this year it’s Pablo Pigasso — will still lug baseballs to the umpires. Putting the Three Stooges in black tie at a high-society party never stopped the eye-gouging and the pie-throwing, did it?
“I think they’re going to do everything they can to keep it the way it was,” said Saints pitching coach Kerry Ligtenberg, the former Atlanta Braves closer. “We still have the pig, and they’ll still do the crazy stuff in between innings, and it will still kind of have that feel and appeal for those type of fans.
“I think it will be a little bit different atmosphere with the ballpark itself. I don’t know if we’ll have the same type of fan base as in years past, when people went to hang out and tailgate, have a couple beers, and checked out the ballgame when they decided to get in there. Here, they might actually come and watch the ballgame first.”
Said Veeck: “The theatrics are always transferable. Was Bill Murray funny at Wrigley Field? Yes. Was he funny at Midway? Yes. Will he be funny here? Yes. If we do our job.”
Monday night, Bob Smith of South St. Paul organized a 25-person group that staked out a spot in one of the new tailgate lots. Smith, who works for a hospitality company, is not a season ticket holder or even a regular tailgater; he said he attended one or two games a year at Midway.
“I’m waiting to judge the whole experience,” Smith said. “There was no cost to park at Midway. Hot dogs were $2 a pop. A beer was probably $4 or $5. The stadium itself is beautiful. You’ve got to let the whole thing simmer, and hope the Saints win.”
Simmer away. With the Saints facing Fargo-Moorhead in tonight’s season opener, here is MinnPost’s guide to CHS Field.
The 5th Street exit off I-94 offers the most direct way in. The video board in left-center can be seen from several blocks away, with the main gate coming into view as you approach the Farmers Market. The 7th Street exit also works. The Light Rail’s Green Line ends at Union Depot, two blocks from the park. Bike racks are available on Broadway Street. This map offers driving directions and Metro Transit information.
The cheapest: $5, available day of the game only, on the grassy berm in left field overlooking the bullpens. (Bring a blanket). Prices range from $18 for home plate reserved to $6 for bleachers down the left field line; they rise $2 to $3 for Friday night fireworks. Add $1 per ticket for phone orders and $1.50 per ticket for online purchases; no fees if you buy at the box office.
Some fans were aghast on Monday night to find the Farmers Market charging $15, as much as Ramp B at Target Field for Twins games, and a surface lot at the corner of 6th and Wall Streets getting $10.
Those were the most expensive I found. Fortunately, cheaper options are available a little farther away.
There are several $5 ramps on 5th Street a few blocks up from the park. Lots at St. Mary’s Catholic and First Baptist Churches, four blocks away if you exit I-35E at Wacouta St., are $7. The two tailgate lots, at the corner of Lafayette and Prince Streets just off Kellogg Blvd., are $8. Union Depot Lot C, two blocks away, charges $4 at night and on weekends.
Street parking is free downtown after 5 p.m. and all day Sunday – for now. “That may change at some point in the future,” said Elizabeth Stiffler, a St. Paul civil engineer, in an email. But if you try that route, arrive early and be prepared to walk a ways. Monday night I found a spot on 7th Street at about 5:20 p.m., but it took some hunting. Don’t count on being that lucky. This map will help.
BALLPARK FOOD AND DRINK
Expect to pay more for your favorites, but not as much as Target Field. Some sample prices: Brats and Polish sausages from Lenny Russo’s Heartland restaurant (across Broadway from the main gate) are $7. Pizza is $6.50, a quarter-pound hot dog $5, fries $4.50, and draft beers from $5.75 to $7.50. Summit EPA is one of the beer choices.
Other options include Memphis-style pulled pork, Philly cheesesteaks, a five-patty grand slam burger (technically it should be four, but whatever), panini, milk shakes, deep-fried pickles, Ginkgo Coffeehouse cupcakes, and more than a dozen craft beers.
NEIGHBORHOOD FOOD AND DRINK
Heartland, the St. Paul outposts of the Bulldog and Barrio, Public Kitchen + Bar and Faces Mears Park, among others, are short walks away. So is Christos, the terrific Greek place inside Union Depot. Red’s Savoy Pizza is a hike down 7th Street.
The design of the stadium featured one glaring mistake: The pig pen, in the runway next to the home dugout, isn’t large enough for a fully-grown swine. Dennis Haugh, the Wisconsin farmer who raised and trained pigs for the Saints since the 1993 inaugural season, said a camera well on the first base side will be repurposed to house the pig.
That aside, CHS Field is a very cool place. The ballpark holds 7,210, about 1,200 more than Midway, and I couldn’t find a lousy seat in the house. The berm and picnic lawn behind left field, adjacent to the Craft Beer Corner, figure to be hopping.
Fans who miss Midway — yes, there will be some — should circle the back of the grandstand near home plate to view the late Andy Nelson’s detailed mural of Midway, relocated from the old place. That’s not far from the expanded dog park the Saints built to replace one leveled during construction. The Saints being the Saints, there’s a huge red fire hydrant in the middle.
Saints players used to the cramped, stinky home clubhouse at Midway were thrilled to find wall-to-wall carpeting, three flat-screen TVs and two black leather couches with Saints logos at CHS, along with a weight room and a training area with hot and cold tubs. Photos of former Saints adorn the clubhouse walls. Two indoor batting cages are down the hall.
“The players can’t be any more comfortable with this place, because everything about it is outstanding,” said Saints manager George Tsamis. “I told the guys, what can you possibly complain about? That it’s a far walk from the parking lot? There’s nothing to complain about. Nothing at all.”
Midway’s dinginess, and the spread of independent leagues all over the country, made recruiting top players a chore for Tsamis. The on-field product suffered. The Saints haven’t won even a division title since 2006, their first year in the American Association; the last of their four Northern League championships came in 2005. Last season the Saints appeared playoff bound until a final-month collapse.
“In years past, George was very upfront and open about the facility,” Ligtenberg said. “The clubhouse sucks, there’s no room, the playing surface is not great, but the fans are great, we get big crowds every night and it’s a fun place to play. Here, he can just say it’s a fun place to play and we have a great field.
“And I think this field kind of sells itself. Once you see it, you realize it’s going to be a pretty fun time this year.”
That attracted former University of Minnesota star Mike Kvasnicka, whom the Twins released in spring training. A former first-round pick of Houston, Kvasnicka never advanced above Class AA and was ready to call it a career when Tsamis contacted him. Kvasnicka spent enough time at Midway, attending Saints games and playing a state championship game for Lakeville North, to get a sense of the place.
“I think it’s the energy and the people more than the outfield and the concrete,” he said. “It’s going to be the same things, because people identify that with the Saints. On the weekends, people will be walking up right from the Farmers Market. I’ll probably be going to the Farmers Market early too and stuffing vegetables in my locker. I think it will translate very well.”