Midway Stadium, St. Paul, MINNESOTA
Number of games: 1
Number of states: 33
First and last game: August 16, 2014 (New Jersey Jackals 6, St. Paul Saints 1)
(Click any photo to see a full-sized version.)
(Midway Stadium is no longer in use as of the 2015 season.)
The St. Paul Saints hosted my first real-live Independent League game. The rules of my quest compel me to attend an affiliated minor league game in a state if one is available, and I only attend an Independent League game as a last resort. My August 2014 trip to Minnesota (to visit friends and to cross Target Field off of my list) was the first time an Independent League game popped up, since my 2013 trip to Wyoming was taken care of with a college wood-bat league.
The quality of play was certainly better than I experienced in Wyoming, and for pretty good reason: most of the players in the American Association (and the Can Am League, which provided the opposing New Jersey Jackals) were a little older and more experienced than college kids. As best as I could tell, either all or the overwhelming majority of the players I saw that night were until recently playing at various levels of the affiliated minors. In fact, I recognized New Jersey Jackal Joe Dunigan from his time with the Everett AquaSox, and he clearly was inspired by my presence and homered. But, ultimately, the Saints recognize that the quality of baseball is not going to draw the fans to their ballpark when the Twins are playing major league ball across the river, and as a result, this is a night about the spectacle more than about the show. They were in danger of overdoing it (like Lake Elsinore, San Jose, and Missoula before them), but managed to stay just this side of the line.
The edifice itself is a mixed bag. It is surrounded by railroad tracks in what my Minnesota friends described as a no-man’s-land between Minneapolis and St. Paul. As such, there is literally no neighborhood atmosphere to be had, which explains why 2014 was the last year the team would play in Midway Stadium. The passing trains provide some pretty cool visuals and atmosphere during the game, and I like the romantic possibility that a player could hit a home run that rolls all the way to Chicago or somewhere. But that’s not enough for the surroundings to do well on the is-there-any-question-where-you-are test. Besides the trains on either side of the ballpark, the only landmark one can see beyond the outfield wall is the tower that the St. Paul Fire Department uses to test its firefighters. And while it would be awesome if the tower were on fire during a game, even that doesn’t help me determine I’m in Minnesota.
The ballpark makes up for that deficit in other ways. The approach to the ballpark features what appears to be kid-art on the sidewalk, showing baseball and Minnesota-themed images. Some beautiful murals celebrate various chapters in Minnesota baseball history, including what appeared to be some Negro League remembrances, Twins greatest hits, and Minneapolis Millers ballplayers.
Also, the Saints have a massive tailgating presence—more than any other minor league ballpark I’ve been to. I was surprised (not alarmed, but surprised) at the number, variety, and innovation of the drinking games on display. In addition to garden-variety beer pong, I saw one game that featured lawn darts. Ten full beer cans are placed on the ground in a bowling-pin arrangement on either end of a narrow playing field, and players toss the lawn dart at the cans. If the dart punctures a can, the opponent of the player who threw the dart has to drink the beer down to the hole (I was anticipating shotgunning the beer, but then, I’m not an expert on drinking games. I do know that a huge number of Saints fans that night walked through the turnstiles having consumed (if the game was played to its natural end) as many as 10 beers. But maybe not, since once I was inside, the crowd didn’t seem any more or less drunk than any other baseball crowd I’ve experienced. Maybe the heaviest drinkers just stayed out in the parking lot (perhaps because they couldn’t find the admission gate).
On the inside, American Association standings are prominently displayed, and baseball-themed contests draw crowds. I bought a Killebrew Cream Soda (quite delicious….he also makes root beer) and checked out an atmosphere that reminded me of a state fair. Booths selling fair-like foods (perhaps Northern Midwesterners need to store up all that fat to burn off over the winter?) and small-time atmosphere (which I mean as a compliment) make for the kind of experience one might otherwise enjoy.
As the pregame material started, we were treated to not one, but two primary PA guys, who operated in a bit of a Morning Zoo kind of way. My college buddies, with whom I was enjoying this baseball weekend, understand my distaste for too much loudness at a baseball game. I think they were preparing for me to have an aneurysm, but I didn’t. I explained that, while I don’t care for the noise, I could live with it at this level of ball. There’s a reason the Saints draw 5,000-plus a night, and it isn’t the scintillating baseball. To be sure, when the PA microphone gave out for a few seconds in pregame, all three of us cheered in response: a little quiet would certainly help this ballpark out a bit. But my rule calling for an inverse relationship between the level of the baseball and the number of promotions states that I can’t fault the team much. They managed to respect the baseball—as loud and pimped-to-the-gills as the between-innings experience was, once the first pitch was thrown in an inning, things were pretty much silent (with occasional exceptions—most notably complimenting an opponent’s thorough beard and earning a big smile from said bearded opponent) until the final out was recorded.
That said, I did have a couple of misgivings about a couple of the things I saw. First was the only promotion that raised my eyebrows because of its racial content. I believe the title was “Sing Karaoke With A Real Japanese Guy.” Call me PC (you won’t be the first), but I found the promotion questionable. It was exactly what the title suggests: a Japanese man stood up in the crowd with a microphone and sang along with Karaoke-style lyrics on the scoreboard. The night I was there, the song was “Last Train to Clarksville,” which the man sang with Saints-themed lyrics centered around the team’s last year playing in the trainyard. That was it. It was strange at best. I wonder if I would have felt differently if the event were titled “Sing Karaoke With Yoshi” or “Karaoke break” which the Japanese man led every night. And I don’t want to fall into the trap where the White guy gets to decide what’s offensive or not to another racial group: a Google search doesn’t currently reveal any pushback from Minnesota Japanese or Asian advocacy groups. But I can say it made me feel just a little queasy.
But the rest of the promotions, while perhaps done to overkill, had some charm to them. The crew dragged the field in drag, which I thought was cute. (My wife Michelle suggests the joke/pun might be more effective and entertaining, especially in a progressive gay-friendly town like St. Paul, if they found some actual drag queens to help out the grounds crew rather than just putting the regular grounds crew in identical white dresses. It would certainly be more fun to watch.) The sign on the front of the visiting team dugout which stated “Sinners” was cute. Early on, I thought I would be annoyed at the way the PA guys shouted “Train!” every time a train passed by the left field wall (which was quite often—it started to feel like a toddler vocabulary test), but it turned into a reasonably cool game, including shouting “Double Train!” when two trains were on the tracks past left field. I do have to hand it to them: the PA guys were funny, and while they drew the attention to themselves, they only did it between innings, which I can live with.
Of course, they were only a small part of the full-court press of entertainers designed to ensure that (if we spin it positively) no one was ever bored, or (if we spin it negatively) nobody ever had a quiet moment. I found the mascot, Mudonna (a pig, although I never got the story as to why it was a pig) early. But in addition to her and the wacky PA duo, there were legions of others who existed solely to pump up the crowd. I also saw a bizarre 1970s purple-suit guy, a guy dressed as a train engineer, and a guy they simply called “Nerd.” The last was my favorite. Not only was he really good at getting the crowd going, he made me feel like I was valued. Sure, it was a mascot, but here’s a guy who’s ONE OF ME!
On this night, the promotional giveaway was a vinyl LP—a good old-fashioned record album!—of Saints-inspired music recorded by Twin Cities bands. It was an interesting choice for 2014 to say the least. I don’t know what year stores stopped selling records or turntables, but it must have been in the mid- to late-1980s. I know I bought my first CDs in 1986. So the Saints gave away 5,000 record albums that most of the recipients had no way of ever hearing. But they made it a point to change that fact for at least a few of them: at least three fans involved in on-field promotions headed home with…wait for it…a turntable. These were old-school things, too: 1970s wood-paneled sides with a clear plastic box covering to lay down after the needle hits the groove, only to remove it after the last interrupted note of “Her Majesty” on Side 2. It looked as if the Saints asked every staff member to check their attics to see if there was an old, forgotten turntable to be given away, and then passed them on. It was some combination of sweet and bizarre.
Ultimately, then, the atmosphere was a winning one, and set just the tone for my friends and I to sit, score the ballgame, and make silly jokes. It appeared they took the baseball seriously without taking themselves seriously, and I give them credit for at least trying to walk that line, even if they occasionally faltered.
I will be interested to see if the atmosphere (the tailgating, the silliness, the endless promotions) will follow the team to their brand-new gleaming downtown ballpark in 2015 or if the new site will lead them to take themselves too seriously. But for now, the Saints put on a fine show that I can recommend.
Regional feel: 6/10
I appreciated the murals outside the stadium, but beyond that, there wasn’t too much in all that activity that screamed “Minnesota” to me.
This easily could have been lower if they hadn’t left the baseball alone, but they did, so all the wackiness did have charm about it.
Team mascot/name: 2.5/5
On the left, “The Nerd,” my favorite of the mascots. On the right, Mudonna. Did they steal that name from the Toledo Mud Hens or did the Mud Hens steal it from them?
The team name is fine. The multiple mascots are okay, although not really tied to the team. I don’t like “Japanese Guy” as mascot. And finally, all the pig business (including a real pig delivering balls to the umpires) could work for me if there were a more readily-available explanation of why the pig is so closely associated with a team called the “Saints.”
I liked the trains quite a bit, but not too much else was going on.
Pavilion area: 3.5/5
They have set up a “Baseball Scouts Hall Of Fame,” but the plaques are positioned in a place where they are nearly impossible to read. The pavilions down each foul line are festooned with booths selling all sorts of unhealthy food, and that lends itself a really nice county-fair vibe.
The scoreboard operator was excellent—simply excellent—especially for the low minors. I never had an issue with knowing how a play was scored.
Everyone seemed there to party, and while I generally like more focus on baseball, I can forgive that focus wandering in this kind of atmosphere and with indy-league ball.
There were parts I really liked and parts I really could do without, but it was a fine night with friends on the whole (although these friends and I would have a fine night anywhere).
Baseball Stuff I’ve Seen There:
I had no idea this had happened on the night, but according to the Saints’ writeup of the game, Dwight Childs was traded from the Saints to the Jackals during that day, and played for the Jackals that night. That’s weird.
Joe Dunigan broke open a close game with an 8th-inning home run.
The Saints managed only 3 hits, mostly due to fine pitching (8 innings) by the Jackals’ Isaac Pavlik.