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Team says new ballpark would host statewide teams

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ST. PAUL -- Bill Kinnunen remembers the rush he felt playing baseball in St. Paul's Midway Stadium in two mid-1980s state tournaments.

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The former Grand Rapids High School player has been back twice in the last half-dozen years as Grand Rapids coach, watching his players chase the same dream he did two decades ago.

"It is exciting to come from an outstate area and get to play in a big, beautiful stadium like that," Kinnunen said. "And the crowds for the state championship, that makes for an exciting, memorable event."

But Midway Stadium's chief tenant says it is time for a new ballpark.

The St. Paul Saints say they eagerly open the ballpark to high schools, colleges and other amateur baseball organizations, many from greater Minnesota. But team officials also say the nearly 30-year-old park that cost $1.5 million to build is falling apart.

In the last few years, the Saints have lobbied state officials for help financing a new, 7,500-seat ballpark in St. Paul.

Chief among the team's selling points is that the 50 home games the Saints play represent fewer than one-third of nearly 170 events Midway hosts a year, said Tom Whaley, Saints' executive vice president and team co-owner.

"The Saints account for most of the attendance but those other events account for the majority of the use," Whaley said. "Look and see where a lot of those come from. ... They come from all over the state."

That will not change, said Mike Veeck, co-owner and president. The Saints, for two decades, have altered the team's home schedule to accommodate high school state tournaments, he said, "because, quite frankly, they are more important."

"We kind of know our place in the food chain," Veeck said.

In addition to upgrading their venue for high schools and colleges, Saints officials hope to use the new venue to attract regional and national tournaments tied to small colleges and other amateur leagues.

The Saints want the state to kick in $25 million - half of the total cost. The team and the city of St. Paul would contribute the rest. The proposed park would be located in the Lowertown neighborhood on downtown St. Paul's east side.

The park was included in a bonding bill proposed this year by Gov. Mark Dayton. That has not passed.

Whaley said a ballpark bill will be introduced soon, although at least one key lawmaker thinks it is unlikely to advance far this year.

A cousin of Sen. Dave Senjem used to play for the Saints. But despite his family ties, the Rochester Republican said it is getting late in the legislative session and even if lawmakers do a bonding bill this year it will not include recreational facilities like convention centers or ballparks.

"It will compete in 2012," Senjem said of a Saints ballpark bill. "For 2011, it is not conceivable to me."

Kinnunen, the Grand Rapids baseball coach, said he is not involved in the political process and does not know how Midway Stadium has held up. But if the Saints say they need a new park and will commit to continued partnering with amateur baseball statewide he is all for the new ballpark.

He agreed with Saints officials who said kids from greater Minnesota love the trip to compete in the big city in front of large crowds.

"Baseball is another avenue for kids as they are developing to become young men," Kinnunen said. "Anything to help amateur baseball I totally agree with."

Andrew Tellijohn is a Twin Cities freelance writer.

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