KANSAS CITY, MO. — One winter's afternoon in 2003, a man from Kansas City drove into a parking lot in Minneapolis, stopped, looked south and saw what wasn't there. 

It was nearing dusk. The sky was clear. The sun caromed through the city. Earl Santee sat in the warmth of his car as exhaust plumed around him and imagined a ballpark even he doubted could be built.

"I parked there at night and saw downtown," Santee said. "I envisioned sitting in a seat behind the third base dugout and looking up and seeing the skyline." 

Santee did not yet work for the Twins on that night, but he saw in that tangle of railway lines, parking lots, highways, city streets and urban detritus what would, seven years later, become Target Field. For his skills as a seer and architect, Santee, senior principal at the architectural firm Populous, is the Star Tribune's 2010 Sportsperson of the Year.

Santee's skills turned what he calls his most challenging project into his most rewarding professional triumph, a locus of limestone, glass, steel and grass that gleams in the sun and glows under lights. In one season, Target Field became to downtown Minneapolis what the North Star is to the night sky.

The famous movie line posits, "If you build it, he will come." Santee's motto during the eight years of contemplation and construction that produced Target Field could have been: "If you imagine it, it can be."

• • •

For Minneapolis to become the home of one of the most beautiful and atmospheric ballparks in America, Santee, 55, had to summon his baseball muse and artist's sense of the possible.

"What is an architect, other than an artist?" Twins President Dave St. Peter said. "And this is probably the most challenging canvas anyone has ever faced."

"I stood in that same parking lot," said Jerry Bell, the president of Twins Sports Inc., "and said, 'No way.'"

"If someone says, 'You can't do it,'" Santee said, "I'll say, 'Let me figure it out.'"

Santee has built or renovated many of America's best ballparks and sports facilities. His firm, Populous -- once known as HOK Sport -- ushered in a grand new era of sports architecture by building Baltimore's Camden Yards in 1992, moving baseball out of flavorless concrete multipurpose venues and into picturesque baseball-only ballparks.

Santee has designed more than 18 big-league and 40 minor league ballparks, including new Yankee Stadium, Pittsburgh's PNC Park and Colorado's Coors Field, and he's preparing to build a park for the Florida Marlins.

These new ballparks combined modern amenities and fan-friendly layouts with quaint and evocative craftsmanship bespeaking each city's baseball heritage. Even for a man of Santee's experience, Target Field proved unique, and uniquely difficult. The Twins originally hoped for a retractable-roof stadium on the banks of the Mississippi and for years displayed a diorama of such a structure done in red brick and cast iron, much like Camden Yards.

Bell made the pursuit of a new Twins ballpark his life's work, beginning in the mid-1990s. He remembers an early conversation with Santee going something like this:

Bell: "Earl, we want a Minnesota ballpark."

Santee: "What's that?"

Bell: "We have no idea, but we'll know when we see it."

Now Bell says: "When the TV cameras come on and show Target Field to the nation, we wanted it to look like a uniquely Minnesota ballpark. Earl accomplished that, and he deserves a great deal of credit for pulling that off."

A colleague of Santee's originally told him a ballpark couldn't be wedged onto that parking lot. Santee took that as a challenge.

He saw the afternoon sun painting the skyline gold. He saw fans walking from the restaurants and bars of the warehouse district, onto what is now Target Plaza, and into the park. He saw fans alighting from the light rail and, a few steps later, gazing over the left field wall.

He saw a ballpark that would connect, enliven and beautify a somnolent section of downtown. Most of the people he shared that vision with recommended he buy a new pair of glasses.

"I gave up once, because I thought there were so many things that were out of my control, as a designer," Santee said.

• • •

He would be working with the smallest lot of any current big-league ballpark, about 8 acres -- or 2 acres smaller than the Chicago Cubs' tiny, quaint Wrigley Field. "It actually wound up being 15 feet smaller than we thought it would originally be," Santee said, chuckling. "I don't know what we would have done with that extra 15 feet, but we would have used it."

The Twins and Santee had to get the Burlington Northern Railroad to move some tracks. Working with a plot that was 4 or 5 acres smaller than what is considered ideal, Santee designed a ballpark that blooms upward and outward from its base like a tulip.

"We got into what we call 'value engineering,'" Bell said. "It sounds great. It's really awful. It's when you figure out that your thoughts went way beyond your budget.

"We'd say, 'Earl, we're $5 million over and we don't want to cut anything out.' And he would usually find a way to get it done."

The result is what one New York Times baseball writer called "the best ballpark in America," a theater-in-the-round in which the play is not always the thing.

Target Field combines the nostalgic touches of a great museum, the sightlines of an intimate theater and the walkways, smells, sounds, bistros and even neighborhoods of a thriving city. It is the perfect setting in which to watch, or ignore, a baseball game.

"I think we had to change the idea of what baseball was in Minnesota," Santee said. "We wanted to be authentic to the Twins and their brand and their history and where they wanted to go."

So Santee spent time in the Twin Cities, walking the streets, talking to people. He ate at the Loon, drank at Brit's, attended a Wild game at Xcel Energy Center. Then he tried to design a ballpark where, if the game disappointed, "people could enjoy hanging out."

"I coined a phrase a while back called 'the three-inning tour,'" Santee said. "Because after three innings of watching the game, you're probably going to want to see the rest of the place, and see who else is there. This is a social event.

"So it was very important to me that people have a lot of places to enjoy the ballpark when they weren't in their actual seats."

On Opening Day, even Santee was surprised to see thousands standing and watching the game from the left field concourse, or the right field plaza, or so many fans sitting in the 573 Club or Hrbek's or the Townball Tavern during play.

Santee calls such areas "moments," meaning they are places fans should fondly remember.

"I took my family to Opening Day," he said. "Shockingly, what I thought would be 'moments,' they got every one of them.

"The Plaza. My daughter sat in the glove. We took the train to the game. They loved the view as you enter the ballpark after getting off the train -- and there is nowhere else in baseball where you can get off a train and in 50 feet be in your seat.

"The view from the entryway, to Hrbek's, to the retail store, to the overall architecture, they got all of it."

• • •

Strangely, unlike most baseball fans, Santee didn't get the allure of baseball when he was young. He lived in Kansas City and "baseball wasn't very common in our neighborhood," he said. "Put it this way -- it wasn't the suburbs. If we played baseball, we'd play pickup ball in a park where if you hit the ball too hard you'd hit a car."

Santee tried throwing the javelin at the University of Kansas, then decided to concentrate on architecture. He worked for general firms and never thought much about designing ballparks until HOK, his fifth firm, hired him in 1985.

His first sports project: working on suites at Denver's Mile High Stadium in 1985, the same year baseball set its hook.

"I had never gone to a game with my dad," he said, "until the seventh game of the 1985 World Series, when the Royals beat the Cardinals. That was the magic moment for me, and Kauffman Stadium was where I found the art of baseball.

"That's when it all came together -- that game, that moment, and starting to work at HOK Sports Facilities Group. That was it."

Today, Santee's office looks as if it belongs in Cooperstown. It's lined with books on baseball history and ballparks, and bats commemorating his ballpark projects. His favorite memento, though, is a small limestone box engraved with the Twins logo.

"These projects become so personal," Santee said. "You feel like you're birthing. That stone box, if you took everything out of my office, I would want that stone box to be left. It's of that much value to me.

"Stone is the most valuable material we have. It's from the earth. It's not man-made. It's a legacy. It's forever."

HOK changed its name to Populous to broaden the firm's horizons. Santee, who calls himself an "urbanist," isn't sure how many more ballparks he'll create.

"A lot of love went into that building," he said. "My favorite moment this year was being recognized as the architect of Target Field. I was walking around as a fan on Opening Day and people were buying me drinks.

"As difficult a task as it was at times, there are moments you're really sad that the whole process is over."

Like limestone, though, ballpark moments are forever.