It was just over two years ago that the Minnesota Twins unveiled their new ballpark. After spending 27 years playing in the awful indoor facility that was the Metrodome, the Twins moved outdoors and into Target Field. I had the good fortune to not simply see this ballpark for the first time on Friday night, but to get a free tour thanks to a family connection. TheSportsNotebook goes on a brief walkthrough not simply the Twins’ park, but the team’s heritage and its culture…
The city of Minneapolis made personal history for me on Friday night. There have been several places where I’ve been to two different parks—Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Cincinnati come to mind. But never have I have been to three different parks for one team. I was at the Old Met in 1977, the place the Twins used to share with the Vikings back in the glory days of the NFL franchise when cold weather gave Bud Grant’s Vikes the late-season edge they needed to win four NFC titles in eight years. It’s surely noteworthy that since moving to the Metrodome in 1982 the Vikes haven’t been back since. Their fortunes are the mirror image of the Twins.
While the baseball franchise won consecutive division titles in 1969 and 1970 under the leadership of feisty manager Billy Martin and won a pennant back in 1965, the 1970s were mostly hard times, with the lone source of excitement being Hall of Fame first baseman Rod Carew’s run at .400 back in ’77. That was the year I made it out to the Old Met and saw the Twins lose, ironically to the Orioles—I say ironically because it was Baltimore who swept them out of the ALCS in 1969-70. I was also in the Dome in 1982 to watch Oakland and Rickey Henderson, who was on his way to a single-season stolen base record of 119. Rickey didn’t do anything when I was there. But the Twins, though it took a few years to get started, began doing plenty of their own.
What the Metrodome took from the Vikings in homefield advantage it gave to the Twins, and by 1987 the baseball team had a breakthrough year. The 87-75 record seems modest, but the AL West (the division the franchise resided prior to the creation of a Central Division in 1994) was balanced top-to-bottom and all seven teams won at least 75 games. Despite being an underdog in the ALCS to the Detroit Tigers, the homefield edge of the raucous Dome with its waving white handkerchiefs and the way balls flew out of the park helped the Twins grab the first two games and then they finished off the favored Tigers in five. The homefield advantage was even more pronounced in the World Series, as Minnesota won a seven-game series over St. Louis by taking all four games under the Dome.
Major league baseball awarded homefield advantage at this time on a rotation system, so four years later it had again cycled around to the AL West to have the edge in both the LCS and World Series—it took the 1994 creation of the Central Division and the accompanying three-division alignment to expand the postseason. In 1991 the Twins followed the same model—get momentum in the ALCS with two quick wins, this time over Toronto, and finish the job on the road. Then they win on an all-home-team World Series.
The 1991 Series against Atlanta is on the short list of the greatest ever played. In Game 6, Kirby Puckett, arguably the franchise’s greatest player (only Harmon Killebrew is a credible alternative) first made a spectacular catch in centerfield, then hit a game-winning home run in extra innings. One night later Jack Morris pitched one of the World Series’ most epic games, tossing 10 shutout innings and Minnesota finally won 1-0. As our group of Wisconsin residents toured the stadium and saw the World Series trophies, the guide launched a pre-emptive shot in the sports rivalry that exists between the two states, calling them Minnesota’s answer to the Super Bowl trophies that exist on the other side of the border. The two championships are part of a long track record of success—the Twins would win divisions again in 2002, 2006, 2008 and 2009 in the Metrodome and their ’02 division title is one that deserves a further look.
Major league baseball was talking about contraction as a red-hot labor dispute built up through the summer. Commissioner Bud Selig wanted to reduce the number of teams by two. The Montreal Expos—now the Washington Nationals—were one team that was logically on the chopping block. Less logical was the Twins as the American League team put on death row. Owner Carl Pohlad apparently wanted out of the business about as much as Michael Corleone wanted out of the mafia in Godfather III and used his connection with Selig to push contraction. But just when Pohlad thought he was out, a vibrant protest from both Minnesotans and nationwide pulled him back in.
It’s not that contraction per se was a bad idea. But why was Minnesota singled out? This was a team with a consistent record of supporting its team so long as the product was viable. No one was suggesting this was St. Louis or Boston when it came to being a baseball town and no one compared Twins’ fans to Cubs’ fans when it came to blind loyalty. But if you were going to have a league with 28 teams in it, it was incomprehensible that the Twin Cities should not be one.
Particularly when the city of Oakland was so haphazard about supporting a team that was clearly a contender. The A’s were in the midst of a 2002 season that would ultimately be enshrined in the movie Moneyball, as general manager Billy Beane received correct praise for producing a winning team on a limited budget. But compare Oakland to Minnesota. The Twins’ budget wasn’t exactly overflowing, yet they won the division titles mentioned, and they beat Oakland in the very year Moneyball was set! And in a year where they were under threat of contraction! No disrespect to Oakland, but for some of us, it was GM Terry Ryan and the Twins who ran the best operation in baseball through the ‘00s.
The rest of the tour allowed us to get a good look at the facilities, which are in line with the other new ballparks that have popped up in places like Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Cincinnati, all of which I’ve seen, and San Francisco and Texas, which I have not. The Twins wisely visited the other stadiums which fall into an artistic class I’d call “cutting-edge traditional”, with their old-timey feel and the use of modern amenities. The architectural job was frankly amazing, as the park had to be dropped into a tight area of downtown, with rail tracks nearby and little room to move. You get a nice view of the Target Center, where the Timberwolves play their NBA games (the NHL ‘s Wild are across the river in St. Paul) and the agricultural firm in the background of leftfield, right behind the Budweiser sign has a definite Midwestern flair to it.
There’s nothing more Midwestern than friendliness and there was one instance where the good people of Minnesota went to an extreme. At a booth, which you see in the accompanying photo below at right, they include a jersey of Aaron Rodgers. What the ?$%*&#@!!! Seeing the jersey of the Packer quarterback on sale in Minnesota is up there with seeing a Derek Jeter jersey being sold in Fenway Park or a LeBron James full-sized portrait on sale in Cleveland. There’s a time to put friendliness aside and get in the business of dispensing irrational sports venom.
The game itself was a stroke of good fortune as it proved to be one of the better baseball games I’ve ever seen. Brewers-Twins isn’t going to electrify a national audience, but it packed Target on Friday night (with locals still providing about 75-80 percent of the crowd). Francisco Liriano took a no-hitter into the sixth inning. After two walks the first hit was a dead-center line drive home by Ryan Braun that suddenly put Milwaukee up 3-2. Twins third baseman Trevor Plouffe hit two home runs and the game was tied 3-3 in the ninth. With a man on, two outs and two strikes, Milwaukee catcher Martin Maldonado, the ninth-place hitter, hit a two-run shot that stood up and the Brewers won 5-3.
It was a great game on a perfect evening in what is the latest jewel of baseball’s treasure chest of cutting-edge traditional ballparks. Minnesota has already won one division title in the new place, in the opening year of 2010. After a rough year in ’11, they’re retooling with some younger pitching and hoping the new place brings more fond memories to the fans and perhaps a third World Series trophy. The latter can’t be underestimated—because if the Series is Minnesota’s answer to Wisconsin’s Super Bowls, the Twins still need two more to pull even. But if nothing else, they have a much better place to watch the games.