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Best of 2015: #1, CHS Field Opening

We begin 2016 with a countdown of the 10 biggest stories of 2015 on Ballpark Digest, as chosen by editors and partially based on page views. Today, #1: The opening of CHS Field, home of the St. Paul Saints.

It wasn’t too long ago that baseball fans in the Twin Cities were making do with some pretty horrid ballparks: Metrodome, Midway Stadium and a crumbling Siebert Field.

Now, horrid is relative: plenty of fans experienced great memories in all of those ballparks — two Minnesota Twins world championships, notable Saints teams with the likes of Leon Durham and Darryl Strawberry, and Gopher teams featuring the likes of Paul Molitor and Dave Winfield. But it was pretty clear that all three facilities were dated, and one by one they were replaced.

CHS Field

The last to be replaced was Midway Stadium, and the replacement was a stunner: CHS Field, which opened in 2015 to wide acclaim. We were there for the first exhibition game and were very impressed:

In CHS Field, it’s all about the finishes and how they are treated. The design motif is based on the notion of taking visual cues from surrounding warehouses and office buildings and turning them inside out. It would have easier just to clad the ballpark in red brick and call it a day – like some St. Paul politicos urged when the ballpark was in its design phases – but instead architect Julie Snow focused on the inside of the surrounding buildings and brought those elements to the ballpark. There is a brick exterior of sorts, but they’re done in black, and the black extends all the way around the grandstand, but along the way the finishes change from brick to blackened steel metal plates. Consistent throughout: a red cedar ceiling on the grandstand and plenty of red cedar in the second-story club. The use of red cedar as a ceiling and design element is stunning, especially at night, when lots of indirect lighting gives the grandstand concourse a warm feel.

That attention to detail manifests itself throughout the ballpark, whether it be signage or seat design. The seating is done in shades of black and grey with an occasional yellow seat thrown in. Why? No functional reason; it exists to break up the row lines and to be interesting. (There’s a proud tradition of Minnesota venues using funky seat colors, ranging from the green, gold and white seats at the old Met Center to the multicolored hues installed by Sir Tyrone Guthrie and Ralph Rapson at the original Guthrie Theater.)

There were some protests from the Saints faithful about the move to CHS Field; the Midway Stadium crowd who had supported the Saints from the beginning was irate about losing the peculiar charms of a mediocre 1980s municipal ballpark. Over the years the Saints had applied as much lipstick to that pig as was humanly possible, but the facility – never intended for pro ball – had reached the end of its economic life. Now, on the one hand, you can see what the faithful were protesting: they were concerned that a move to a new ballpark would mean higher prices and a corporate atmosphere.

In a way, they were right: the whimsical touches at Midway Stadium – the potted plants, the outlandish murals, train – are gone. But the vibe at CHS Field is arguably better: the attitude of the PA announcer and game-day staff hasn’t changed (indeed, there’s a table next to the field a la Midway Stadium for between-innings personnel), and the food is definitely improved (and affordable — $2.50 hot dogs?). If Midway Stadium was a hangout for adolescents and rebels, CHS Field is a place for the cool hipster, enjoying the Lowertown lifestyle.

We were so impressed with CHS Field, we named our Best New Ballpark of the Year:

There are some very good ballparks on this list, but it soon became apparently after some advice from trusted folks in the industry and the fan vote that we were looking at a choice between CHS Field and First Tennessee Park — two of the finest ballparks to enter baseball in the past decade. The parallels between the two ballparks are uncanny: both came after teams worked for years and years on new-ballpark plans; both are profoundly urban ballparks, designed to revitalize moribund areas; both were placed on challenging sites; and both are striking pieces of architecture.

In the end, the award went to CHS Field. First, the ballpark has made a disproportionate impact on St. Paul’s economy: it is stunning to see how Lowertown has attracted major investments in housing and restaurants in the ballpark area. St. Paul has spent over 30 years trying to make Lowertown into a vibrant part of the city, and it’s fitting a key part of solving that puzzle was a ballpark built on top of the base of a former warehouse. (First Tennessee Park’s impact will be felt down the line, as there are apartment complexes and restaurants under construction outside the gates.) Second, the ballpark experience kept the best of what was offered by the Saints at Midway StadiumMudonna! Seigo Masubuchi! a porcine mascot! tailgating! — and is totally integrated into Lowertown; the Saints brand remained intact (if not a little more refined) with the move. Plus, CHS Field is the only ballpark were know of with a working dog park on site, complete with fire hydrant. A little whimsy goes a long way.

Previously in our Top Ten Stories of 2015 List:
#2, Best of the Ballparks
#3, First Tennessee Park opening
#4, Montreal’s MLB Dreams
#5: Food, Glorious Food
#6: Cuba
#7: Loudoun Hounds
#8: Tal’s Hill
#9: The Annual Rickwood Classic
#10, Hartford Yard Goats

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