Mike Veeck championing stadium for St. Paul Saints

Team owner ready to move on from Midway

Every year, Mike Veeck waits for the crowds at the Baseball Hall of Fame to thin. He finds a bench with his wife, Libby, and stares up at the plaque facing them. The visage of Mike's father, Bill, looks down — his trademark grin emblazoned across the facade.

"It's the place I feel closest to him," Mike says, his charcoal goatee turning up in a bittersweet smile.

The plaque enumerates Bill's many accomplishments: World Series owner, renowned innovator, "champion of the little guy."

Mike Veeck, president and part owner of the Saints, stands outside Midway Stadium as the Saints prepare for their 2012 season
Craig Lassig
Mike Veeck, president and part owner of the Saints, stands outside Midway Stadium as the Saints prepare for their 2012 season
The Saints' current stadium (top) and the proposed Lowertown stadium, which would replace Midway, would hold 7,000 fans, sit along the new light-rail line, and feature open art spaces
courtesy of the St. Paul Saints
The Saints' current stadium (top) and the proposed Lowertown stadium, which would replace Midway, would hold 7,000 fans, sit along the new light-rail line, and feature open art spaces

But Mike doesn't visit for the accomplishments, or the pride. He visits because his father passed away 26 years ago, isolated from the game he'd loved.

No one from Major League Baseball attended Bill's funeral. No fellow owners considered him anything other than a charlatan in a collared shirt.

A self-described maverick, Bill left his mark on the major leagues in ways that no owner has replicated. He sent midgets to the plate, put players in shorts, and let fans use placards to dictate calls. He invented the exploding scoreboard, sewed players' names on the backs of their jerseys for the first time, and attempted to field an all-black team five years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Bill is the reason Wrigley Field has ivy, and why Harry Caray sang "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

Bill was an entrepreneur and an innovator — but most of all, he was an entertainer, the best the game has ever known.

Which is why Mike visits his father's plaque every year. That impact — that imagination, that fun — is what Bill handed down to his family and to generations of fans. It's his legacy. It's the reason his grin hangs beside Ruth and Mantle and Molitor.

And it's what Mike, president and part-owner of the St. Paul Saints, needs to find each season: that reason to stay.

Because Mike, too, was scapegoated. Like his father before him, he was blackballed from baseball, isolated from the only game he's ever loved — all because he caused the most infamous forfeit Major League Baseball has ever known.

Midway Stadium is crumbling. Ask anyone on the team, and many lawmakers in the city and state Legislature, and it's the common refrain.

"Midway's great, but it's time to move on," says Kevin Millar, former St. Paul Saint and World Series winner with the Boston Red Sox.

Constructed in 1982, Midway Stadium, near Energy Park, was designed as a civic ballpark to be open to the public. It has since undergone two expansions, and currently seats over 6,000.

Thirty years on, Midway retains its semi-pro charm. Murals wrap the park's outer walls and the trains still rumble by left field. It's still the only professional ballpark that offers no individual seating. And the cherished memories remain: the championship seasons, Darryl Strawberry's home runs, the first female pitcher to throw — and throw well — in a professional game.

"There's a very vocal, passionate minority that believes we're going to wreck the Saints by leaving here," executive VP and minority owner Tom Whaley says. "But what're you really attracted to? Is it this place you're attracted to, this brick and this steel that you're attracted to?"

The team has been pushing for a new stadium for nearly five years, coming close in 2011 before finding the request cut as debates were coming to a close.

This year, the Saints presented their strongest pitch to date. In a bid supported by the governor and the mayor, the Chamber of Commerce, and a coterie of local businesses, the Saints are requesting $27 million from the state bonding bill.

The proposed stadium would be constructed where the current Diamond Products/Gillette building lies in Lowertown, with the city razing Midway Stadium. The St. Paul Port Authority already has a "handshake" agreement to purchase the property on which the Diamond Products/Gillette building sits, and is preparing a land swap with the city, which owns the land on which Midway was built.

Mike and his front office have met with business leaders, city officials, and Lowertown residents to present the plan. The proposed stadium would seat over 7,000, feature open artist space, and maintain the same prices found at Midway.

Which is remarkable, considering that Midway is quite nearly falling in on itself. A brief tour of the stadium's infrastructure reveals cramped concession areas, outsourced refrigeration, and massive blue tarps — "diapers," as Food and Services Director Curtis Nachtsheim calls them — to catch leakage. Fans miss multiple innings waiting in line to use the portable toilets, and Midway's isolated location prevents revenue spill-over when fans enter and exit the park.

"The St. Paul guys, the guys from the businesses downtown, said to me, 'Mike, we love you, but at Midway, we're not gonna buy a single suite, because it doesn't do anything for us,'" Mike says.

The players don't have it much better. The workout facilities consist of a single rusting stationary bike. The lockers are 1982 originals. The trainer's bed is cracked and crusting. Because Midway was originally constructed on a landfill, center field is perpetually sinking — so much so that the city must re-level it every six years.

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"And it's not just Saints players — who play 50 home games every season — who inhabit the park. Midway fields about 120 high school and amateur baseball games every year, as well as the annual Minnesota State High School Baseball Tournament. All have to deal with the dank surroundings."

What's been missing in the Vikings stadium debate, and in what public discussion there's been about replacing Midway, is how much they get used by organizations other than the marquee teams. Midway has an even stronger case since it apparently would need replacing even without the Saints.

Of course, the next time the Dome roof collapses, the company that used to make the fabric roofs might no longer be able and willing to do the custom job.