It's a gorgeous summer day in Minnesota, and as the afternoon sun casts 4 o'clock shadows over Midway Stadium, baseball fans are streaming into the parking lot. They've turned up three hours early for the 7 p.m. St. Paul Saints game against the Thunder Bay Whiskey Jacks from Ontario. And, from the look of things, it seems the game might be an anticlimax.
The fans flood the parking lot with tailgating parties - portable picnic tables and flatbed truck and an occasional tent or canvas awning.
Wayne "Twig" Terwilliger, the Saints' firstbase coach, strolls around hobnobbing. He is a baseball institution in Minnesota, a former major leaguer who began his career as a minor leaguer in St. Paul. Terwilliger spent eight years coaching the American League's Minnesota Twins before he retired. Now he's unretired and loving his role with the Saints.
"Everybody that comes here seems to have a good time," he says. "I go out and mingle in the parking lot with the guys and gals, and it's a lot of fun for all of us. It's a real personal thing here. There's a closeness."
At 6 o'clock, Sister Rosalind Gefre, a Roman Catholic nun who is a professional masseuse, begins giving back rubs in the stands. Behind third base, there's a barber chair operated by CostCutters who give $7 haircuts - the proceeds go to charity. Baseballs are delivered to the umpires by a trained pig.
The carnival atmosphere is by design. The Saints' co-owner and operating partner is Mike Veeck, son of the late baseball owner and promoter, Bill Veeck, who seasoned ball games with a dash of show business. He once hired Eddie Gaedel, a 3 ft., 7 in. midget, as a pinch-hitter with a tiny strike zone for the St. Louis Browns, and rubber-faced comic Max Patkin as a first-base coach to mimic the umpires.
Mike Veeck, who also owns the Charleston (S.C.) River Dogs, is an acorn from the same tree, an inveterate scamp who's always testing the limits of propriety.
Beneath his shenanigans, however, Veeck has followed in his father's footsteps by promoting values he holds dear, such as diversity - bringing all sorts of people into baseball. Just before game time, Midway Stadium is a showcase for the Veecks' father-son credo.
While Terwilliger hits practice grounders to the infielders, Ila Borders is out in left field shagging flies. As she snags a ball and snaps it back into the infield, her long ponytail flaps up and there's no mistaking her gender.
Borders, a left-handed pitcher, is the first female player to earn a spot on the roster of a male professional league team. She played in male leagues in college.
To be sure, Borders has struggled with the Saints. Her earned-run average is a whopping 7.5 and she has not gotten into many games. Later, as she warms up on the sidelines, there's a flurry of activity in the dugout and a hurriedly issued press release. Borders has been traded to the Duluth Superior Dukes.
As Veeck talks about his experiment with Borders, he's not patronizing. It's clear that she was an exceptional case, but no gimmick. "She's got better mechanics than most pitchers on our staff," he declares. "I believe she can pitch at this level because she can think. She's thrilled to be going to Duluth.
Meanwhile, at Midway, Dwight Smith is shagging fly balls in center field. A major league veteran, Smith is the property of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, the new American League expansion team that begins play next year. He's hoping for a call-up later this season, when teams in the pennant races will try to add bench strength.
"When you've spent eight years in the big leagues and you're for some reason not there, I guess the only thing you look for is to get back," Smith says.
Last year, veteran Darryl Strawberry did exactly that. Following a long battle with drug and alcohol addiction, the onetime Hall of Fame prospect spent 29 games with the 1996 Saints before being called up to join the New York Yankees. His season culminated in a ticker-tape parade and a World Series ring.
Up in the broadcast booth, above home plate, is the most striking evidence of Veeck's inclusiveness. Don Wardlow is testing the mike, as color commentator for the radio broadcast of the Saints' game.
Nothing remarkable about that, until you spot Gizmo, Wardlow's seeing-eye black Labarador retriever, flopping her tail on the floor.
Wardlow prepares for his broadcasts by using a Braille typewriter to make notes from his interviews with ball players. During the game, he coordinates with his broadcast partner and college friend, Jim Lucas, who does the play-by-play.
Wardlow leafs through a stack of plastic cards with the Braille notes and leans into the mike to gives each player's stats as he comes up to bat, along with items from his interviews.
At game time, as the pig delivers the baseballs, Dwight Smith steps up to the plate to sing the national anthem. A pair of grade-school youngsters sign the lyrics for deaf fans in the stands, and Sister Rosalind launches into another massage. It's time to Play Ball!