Vikings dig in vs. plans for baseball in new stadium

  • Article by: RICHARD MERYHEW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 27, 2013 - 7:40 AM

Team sparring with Gophers' John Anderson and other state baseball coaches over what amounts to 20 feet of foul line.

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University of Minnesota baseball coach John Anderson, center, wrote in a Jan. 15 memo to the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority that “anything less” than a right-field foul-line distance of 305 feet and power alley of 340 feet “would compromise the integrity of the game and put the future of indoor baseball in Minnesota in jeopardy.”

Photo: Jennifer Simoonson, Star Tribune

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The football team wants its fans closer to the action. The baseball guys simply want a baseball field that's not an embarrassment.

But in the fast-track exercise of designing a new Vikings football stadium, a dispute over 20 feet of baseball foul line has made mixing the two a tricky fit.

With the architect's first schematic design only weeks away, Vikings officials and members of the public authority supervising the project are at odds over how to squeeze a baseball field into a stadium designed primarily for football.

The impasse not only threatens to delay a nearly-billion-dollar project already facing tight deadlines, but also appears to be an early test of just how accommodating the Vikings will prove in the development of a multipurpose "people's stadium."

"The problem is you can't put a diamond in a rectangle," said University of Minnesota baseball coach John Anderson. His team hopes to take advantage of playing in the new downtown Minneapolis facility that will replace the Metrodome, which for decades has served as a warm and dry venue for hundreds of college and high school teams seeking an early start to the baseball season and refuge from nature's worst. "Something's got to give," Anderson said.

The Vikings, hoping to put ticket holders and stadium suites as close to the action as any team in the NFL, favor a preliminary design that places the first row of seats 44 feet from the football playing field. Only one other recently built NFL stadium -- Lucas Oil in Indianapolis, designed by HKS Inc., the architect for the Vikings stadium -- puts ticket holders that close.

But that design squeezes some baseball dimensions.

The most glaring -- a right-field foul line that extends 285 feet from home plate and a right-field power alley 319 feet away. Both distances are short by college and professional standards, and both are about 20 feet shorter than the design, already scaled back, favored by baseball coaches and the public stadium authority.

"That isn't much of a shot, especially with aluminum bats," said Bill Nelson, a former Carleton College baseball coach and longtime player and manager for an amateur-league team in Dundas.

By contrast, the right-field foul line and power alley at the Metrodome, where some 400 college and high school games are scheduled to be played this year, extend 327 and 367 feet from home plate, respectively.

Anderson wrote in a Jan. 15 memo to the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority that "anything less" than a right-field foul-line distance of 305 feet and power alley of 340 feet "would compromise the integrity of the game and put the future of indoor baseball in Minnesota in jeopardy."

"That's not acceptable for any level of baseball," he said last week. "We won't get any opponents to play at a configuration like that."

Won't compromise

The Vikings insist that even with a short right-field foul line, the stadium "will still be the best indoor collegiate baseball venue in the country."

To make it more difficult for batters to hit home runs, the team and authority have talked about installing a 25- to 30-foot wall or tarp atop the right-field fence that would extend toward center field, a design similar to the "Green Monster" in Boston's Fenway Park.

"It may take line drives out of it, but not pop flies," said Tink Larson, a longtime amateur coach in Waseca. "And that makes for some pretty cheap home runs."

Lester Bagley, the Vikings vice president for stadium development, said the Vikings "fully support" the mission of delivering a multipurpose stadium that accommodates college and amateur baseball.

But, he added, "Fundamentally, this is a football stadium, and what the Vikings invested in was a first-class fan experience. ... We're in a dogfight with HDTV. We've got to get our fans off the couch and away from the TVs and get them to the stadium. That's more important to us."

Just how important was emphasized in a Jan. 8 letter outlining the team's position.

"A fan's proximity to the action when sitting in a seat in the new stadium is paramount," the letter said. "Being asked to compromise this critical element of the design and accepting a greater distance to the field is something that the Team cannot do."

Added Bagley: "44 feet is very important to our organization. It's about balancing the team's interest with the public's interest. And the bottom line there is there is just not enough money in the budget to achieve everyone's goals."

Doubting the team

The team's hard line has frustrated local college and high school baseball coaches, some of whom are quick to cite the public's $498 million investment in the $975 million project that Gov. Mark Dayton calls "the people's stadium."

"I feel like the Vikings are not following the spirit of the bill that was passed," said Matt Parrington, head coach at Macalester College in St. Paul. "It's like they're really just trying to slip this by the public."

Said Nelson, "It surprises me that it has come to this. I have been a Viking fan my whole life, but at the same time, I don't think they are as interested in the people in the state of Minnesota as they claim to be. What that Dome means to colleges and high schools is significant. It has been a marvelous thing for baseball teams in Minnesota."

Anderson said he hoped the baseball configuration would be similar to that at the Metrodome, where the Gophers played 37 games last year.

Initially, coaches pushed for 330-foot foul lines and more foul territory behind home plate and off the foul lines. Under the proposed configurations, foul territory is tight, posing some risk to players racing to catch balls hit to the bullpen area.

"If it comes a point where that field is too small, we'll probably just end up going south to Missouri and get as many games as we can in the spring," said Kyle Poock, head coach at Winona State, which plays several doubleheaders at the Metrodome each spring. "It'll end up costing us more, but when it comes to the credibility of the game and NCAA statistics, we have to go where the dimensions are legitimate."

Even authority officials sound frustrated. "We're at the point where we recognize this is not going to be a first-class baseball experience," said Michele Kelm-Helgen, the authority's chairwoman. "We've kind of come to the point where we've given in on everything, and now it's a matter of whether baseball can play in the stadium or not. We can't go any further."

And yet, they might.

Kelm-Helgen said University Athletic Director Norwood Teague recently told the Vikings that he would settle for a foul-line distance of 300 feet. Kelm-Helgen said the stadium authority could accept that, too.

Under the stadium financing legislation approved last year, if the team and the authority can't agree on minimum design standards, the issue could go to arbitration. To avoid that, Kelm-Helgen said, a decision needs to be made by the first week in February "in order to stay on schedule." A schematic design is due in March. The Vikings hope to break ground on the stadium in October and open it by the 2016 NFL season.

"We are still working with the architects to look at alternatives," she said. "It just seems like there should be a way for reasonable people to figure out a way to get a reasonable design."

Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425

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