Target Field is ready for its All-Star close-up
With the All-Star game coming to the Twin Cities, the Minnesota Twins see the mid-summer party as more than a way to distract from another disappointing season.
In some ways, it's a referendum on the success of outdoor baseball in the chilly north country and the first chance 5-year-old Target Field has had to take center stage.
The Twins' new urban jewel of a ballpark opened in 2010 but has hosted only one postseason series. So team officials are looking forward to putting the ballpark — and yes, the weather — on display.
"One of the greatest things about All-Star week is it's going to be a showcase for the nation that this isn't necessarily the ice box 12 months of the year that people think it is," Twins President Dave St. Peter said. "That we have maybe arguably the best weather in the country for three or four months out of the year. That's what will be on display on Tuesday."
"We believe as long as this baseball team is competitive, which we haven't been the last three years, outdoor baseball will not only survive, but it will thrive in Minnesota."
Not long ago, there were many doubters.
The Twins spent 28 seasons playing indoors at the Metrodome, spawning a generation of fans that grew up not knowing what it was like to watch professional baseball outdoors. So when the Twins secured public funding for a new ballpark and declined to design it with a retractable roof, concern came from far and wide.
"There was a significant amount of hand-wringing and a decade-long debate about a new facility," St. Peter said. "When Hennepin County emerged with a plan, we had to make a decision. Do we pursue a partnership that was going to build an urban and open-air facility, the art of the possible so to speak, a plan that was sellable at the legislature?
"We made that decision based on the belief than an outdoor facility can and will work in Minnesota much like it has in many other northern climates for a long, long time."
In the days of Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew and Jim Kaat, the Twins got their start in Minnesota playing outdoors at Metropolitan Stadium from 1961-81. The park hosted the 1965 All-Star game, which included 19 future Hall of Famers, among them Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Carl Yastrzemski.
The Twins moved inside in 1982 to a ballpark designed more for football than baseball. The Dome hosted the All-Star game in 1985 and was the raucous home of World Series champions in 1987 and 1991, but the stadium quickly became a quirky relic. And while it sure was nice to step inside on a chilly October evening, trudging in under the big white roof on one of those precious, sunny June nights was as demoralizing as an April snowstorm.
"Minnesota in the summer is the most beautiful place in the world," former Twins pitcher Frank Viola said. "Why do I want to go indoors when it's 80 degrees and sunny out?"
Target Field has been met by wide acclaim from visiting managers and players since its opening in 2010, with the Minneapolis skyline providing a stunning backdrop to a venue with modern amenities and old-school charm.
"They love this place," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "I haven't heard a bad word about this place."
The biggest disappointment has been the product on the field. When the small-market Twins were lobbying for a new stadium, the revenue that promised to come from an update ballpark was billed as a means to help them remain competitive in a league that doesn't have a salary cap.
The Twins won their sixth AL Central title in nine seasons in their first year at Target Field, but the ensuing seasons have not been kind. They have lost at least 96 games in each of the last three years and are stuck in last place again this season.
"We're hugely disappointed with the way we've played 2011 through the first half of this year," St. Peter said. "This is an important year for us to take a step forward. We need to be better. A winning tradition has been central to the brand of the Minnesota Twins. Anytime you fail to do that, obviously you've got to look in the mirror. There's a high level of disappointment.
The Twins do have one of the most promising farm systems in baseball, with outfielder Byron Buxton, third baseman Miguel Sano and pitcher Alex Meyer considered to be stars of the future. But fans have grown impatient.
In their first two seasons back outdoors, the Twins averaged more than 39,000 fans per game. That figure has declined steadily, dipping under 28,000 this year.
"The good news is that system is stronger today than at any point in the last decade," St. Peter said. "I'm optimistic that it will produce results and ultimately those results will lead us back into contention and ultimately competing for a World Series."
But even though Target Field has been open for five seasons, the hometown fans still are making the transition. The Metrodome may have been a dingy building that had no business hosting baseball, but it always was cool in the summer and warm in the spring and fall. And if you bought a ticket, you knew the game was going to be played that day.
Despite all the nervousness about the lack of a roof, the Twins have been relatively lucky with the weather to this point. In 4 1/2 seasons, the Twins have had 11 postponements and one suspended game. The Twins did play through some very cold temperatures this April, and St. Peter maintained some fans are still acclimating to the experience of baseball in the great outdoors.
"I think we're close but I don't think we're there yet," he said. "There's still a level of education going on in terms of the pluses and some of the minuses of outdoor baseball. I think to be honest the first real test of whether we've gotten there will be the next time we make a postseason run and play outdoor baseball through the month of October."