John Anderson doesn’t need to look at the Minneapolis skyline to see the hole created by the demolition of the Metrodome. The Gophers baseball coach has felt it every day.
With the Dome gone — leaving the team to play all its home games at outdoor Siebert Field — the Gophers’ home schedule was reduced from 34 games last season to 18 this spring. They began the season with 20 consecutive road games in six states while Siebert Field was buried under two feet of snow. The home opener against St. John’s on Wednesday was postponed, and the weather also could affect this weekend’s Big Ten home series against Michigan State.
The constant travel has been exhausting for players and expensive for the program. The loss of the Dome also has forced the Gophers to practice in the football facility, where they must share space with several other teams. Yet they are 13-7 after winning two of three games against Northwestern last weekend, easing the pain of their adjustment to life outside the comfortable bubble of the Metrodome.
“I had tears in my eyes when I walked out of the place for the last time, because I knew it was going to change the way we do things in our program,” said Anderson, in his 33rd season as Gophers coach. “We’ve had some challenges on the road. I’m proud of our kids. They’ve embraced it.
“I told the team it’s a miracle, almost, that we’ve been able to go 13-7 with playing on the road, the travel and significant injuries to key players. We have a resilient group and a tough group.”
Scott Ellison, the Gophers associate athletic director for facilities, said four groundskeepers and a crew of temporary workers spent last week clearing the snow from Siebert Field’s playing surface. Tuesday, they still were digging out the bleachers, which were underneath 3 to 4 feet of snow in some places.
The players were grateful to be home, despite the weather. They began the season with trips to Arizona, Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina on consecutive weekends before an extended spring-break journey to California and Missouri. The Louisiana trip included canceled and missed flights, a connection to Dallas through New York City, a seven-hour bus ride through an ice storm and three games crammed into 24 hours.
Anderson said the additional expenses of all those extra road games required a 50 percent increase in the team’s budget. The loss of the Metrodome as a practice site also has created challenges. The football facility is not an ideal space for baseball workouts, and the team gets a limited block of time each day.
“At the Dome, we could get a full practice in and take live batting practice,” said pitcher Ben Meyer, a junior who leads the Gophers with a 2.13 ERA and 25 strikeouts. “We’ve been doing what we can. The coaches say, ‘Control what you can control.’ We’ve been playing pretty good baseball so far, given what we’ve had to work with.”
The Gophers also have been coping with injuries to experienced players such as catcher Matt Halloran, relief pitcher Ty McDevitt and first baseman Dan Olinger. Anderson lauded the young players who have stepped in and others who have switched positions, such as third baseman Mark Tatera, who has filled in well at catcher. While the offense has been inconsistent, Anderson said, the pitching staff has an ERA of 3.27 — third in the Big Ten — and helped the Gophers go 6-2 in their past eight games.
Waiting for 2016
The Gophers will continue to be early season frequent fliers at least until the new Vikings stadium opens in 2016. Anderson said he has not been told how many games the Gophers might be able to play there.
Because the new stadium is expected to be host to events such as NCAA basketball tournament games, he doubts his team will play there as often as it did in the Metrodome. He would be happy, he said, if the Gophers could get two home series per season in the new stadium, just to break up those long stretches on the road.
Until then, Anderson will be seeking ways to make the best of his team’s new circumstances. He already is thinking about finding another place to play a home series against Northwestern scheduled for late March next year, noting that in the 126-season history of Gophers baseball, the team has played six home games outdoors before April 1.
“What we can control is our effort and our attitude every day. We have to be flexible,” Anderson said. “Life is about overcoming adversity. And they’re getting some good lessons.”