Farewell to the Metrodome: Sweet and sour sorrow

  • Article by: DENNIS BRACKIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 27, 2013 - 12:11 PM

Parting with the Dome thrills baseball purists, but baseball fans hold tight to their memories.

Pete Redfern was the Opening Day starter when the Metrodome played host to its first regular-season baseball game in 1982. He still remembers his exact thoughts upon entering his new home: "The Vikings are going to love this."

Over the past 28 summers, Redfern has had plenty of company among baseball players feeling as if they were plying their trade in a football stadium. The Twins will begin their final series in the Dome tonight against Kansas City, bidding farewell to the stadium in front of an expected packed house Sunday before moving next season to outdoor Target Field.

The baseball purists certainly will celebrate. No longer will balls be lost against the gray Teflon ceiling or bounce off speakers; a giant baggie no longer will serve as the right-field fence. And that's not to mention the narrow concourses, the extra long rows of seats that make it so inconvenient to head for the cramped restrooms and the sight lines that were built for a rectangular field, not a baseball diamond.

As Justin Morneau said this month, the Metrodome is "not really a baseball field." He added, "Of course, when it was snowing outside, it was great."

That has been the most frequent praise for the building. Every day, there was no threat of a weather postponment -- save, of course, for the 1983 game when snow caved in the roof.

And yet, this building that was so routinely ridiculed as a baseball stadium will evoke a good deal of emotion this weekend. Quirky and outdated, certainly. But also a warehouse of baseball memories, more special ones, in fact, than any Minnesota sports arena has ever held.

The Metrodome was the place where the Twins won two Game 7s, in 1987 and 1991, the only world championships a recent major sports franchise in Minnesota has ever won. It was the place where, in 1987, after winning the American League Championship Series in Detroit, an overflow crowd showed up to welcome home the players who were headed toward the World Series. It was the place where thousands remained after the final game of the 2006 regular season to watch Detroit and Kansas City on the giant scoreboard, and then celebrated the Twins' division title when the Royals rallied to win. And the place where, earlier that year, thousands gathered for a memorial service to say goodbye to Kirby Puckett after the Twins great died prematurely of a stroke at age 45.

The need for a dome

The Twins and Vikings both began their Minnesota tenures in 1961 at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington. By the early 1970s, the stadium was found wanting by both teams, and when Twins attendance dipped to 662,401 in 1974, rumors began to circulate that owner Calvin Griffith was considering relocating his franchise.

The campaign for a new stadium began in earnest then. Griffith initially favored a remodeled Met Stadium that would include a retractable roof that he believed was a necessity.

The Vikings, as they so often have, set the agenda, and the decision was made in 1978 to build a downtown domed stadium to house both teams. But Calvin and his son, Clark Griffith, had aces up their sleeves when they balked at signing a 30-year Dome lease. After months of negotiations, the Twins did sign a lease, but it contained what would prove to be an important "out clause" that enabled them to leave if average attendance at the Dome failed to reach 1.4 million, or the team suffered net operating losses, in any of three consecutive seasons. The Griffiths essentially signed 10 three-year leases.

"It was the best out clause ever drafted," Clark Griffith said this month.

The out clause transferred to Carl Pohlad when the Griffiths sold the team in 1984, and it would set the stage for threats of relocation that ultimately would play a role in the Twins gaining legislative approval for funding Target Field.

If you thought the Dome was bad for baseball in its latter years, you should have seen it early. Or, as former Twins star Gary Gaetti said, "There's been so many improvements and changes over the years, they finally got it working the way they wanted, and now it's time to move on."

When the Dome opened in 1982, there was no 27-foot baggie in right field. There was no Plexiglas in left field, allowing line drives to sail -- or bounce if they hit the turf -- into the stands. And there was no air conditioning.

"I'd go pick up my wife after the game and look at her and say, 'What the hell happened to you?' " said Rick Stelmaszek, who began his tenure as Twins bullpen coach in 1981, their last year at Met Stadium. "She had mascara running down her face, her blouse was soaking wet. But she was a trouper. She stayed there through nine innings."

The Twins failed to attract even 1 million fans their first year in the building, partly, of course, because the team was composed largely of rookies such as Gaetti, Kent Hrbek and Tom Brunansky and lost 102 games. And as for the purists, they could barely watch.

It took weeks to perfect the glare from the ceiling lights, which led to repeated lost fly balls. The turf was rock hard, leading to hits such as Tim Teufel's 150-foot, three-run homer that bounced over the head of onrushing White Sox right fielder Harold Baines in the ninth inning and gave the Twins a 3-2 victory in 1984. And with no baggie or Plexiglas, line drives became home runs.

"It was a pitcher's nightmare," Redfern said. "I walked in, looked at the building and went, 'Oh, no.' Roy Smalley looked at it and was, 'All right.' "

Slowly, the stadium was improved. Air conditioning, Plexiglas and the baggie all came in 1983. The turf was softened several times, the last time when FieldTurf was added in 2004.

And yet, there were some things that could not be fixed. You have a gray ceiling, and speakers attached, you're going to have adventures. Or rather, misadventures.

The most memorable fly ball came on May 4, 1984, when Oakland's Dave Kingman hit a pop-up that went through one of the roof air holes along the left-field line. The ball never came down, and Kingman was awarded a roof-rule double.

There are other fly balls almost as memorable/comical. David Ortiz, after moving from the Twins to Boston, hit a monstrous shot to right field in 2006 that appeared a certain home run, only to hit a speaker and drop to the turf. Ortiz got only a single out of what appeared to be a 450-foot blast.

"It's like playing putt-putt golf, you've got to go around the windmill," Boston manager Terry Francona said then. "... This is major league baseball. That's embarrassing."

In 2002, Twins reliever Eddie Guardado dived for and caught a foul ball that had caromed off a speaker along the third-base line. "He did a bellyflop in front of our dugout," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said in September, laughing at the memory. "You just don't see that sort of thing."

Not everyone had a sense of humor about the Dome. As manager of the Yankees in 1985, Billy Martin let loose with a profanity-laced tirade against the building after his team lost 8-6, with half of the Twins' runs attributable to balls being lost in the lights of the roof.

"This park should be barred from baseball" was among the mildest of Martin's comments.

Twins closer Joe Nathan wasn't laughing on the June 2007 day against Milwaukee when outfielder Lew Ford lost Prince Fielder's seemingly harmless fly. The ball landed 50 feet behind the befuddled Ford, enabling the 260-pound Fielder to circle the bases with an inside-the-park home run.

"It wasn't his fault he lost the ball in the roof of a football stadium," Nathan said after the game.

Thanks for the memories

And yet, for all of its comical moments, there will be tears when the Metrodome pushes its baseball spectators out with a gust of air for the final time.

"There's nothing but great memories for me during the time I played there," said Hrbek, the Bloomington native who became a two-time world champion with his hometown team. "It's kind of bittersweet. It's nice to see the Twins get their own ballpark instead of playing in a football stadium, but you're pushing out [a part of history]. That's the sad part.

"The guys I'm going to be sitting with, it's going to be like moving out of an old house where you shared tons of memories, and there's probably going to be tears shed because of it."

Gaetti agreed, saying Sunday would be "a sad day." So many memories, he said, perhaps none as emotional as the welcome home after the ALCS-clinching victory at Detroit in 1987.

"That night was really, really special, really emotional," Gaetti said. "We thought there were going to be a few thousand people at the Dome, and it was packed. It was unbelievable."

Said Hrbek: "I still get chills whenever I walk down the runway [behind the right-field fence that players entered the field from that night]. ... There'll never be another moment like that, for sure."

No, and there might never be another baseball stadium quite like the Metrodome, where the home team was 8-0 in two World Series and 0-6 on the road. Where the home team had a .528 regular-season winning percentage (1,210-1,082), compared to .441 on the road (982-1,244-1).

The Twins, quite simply, got to know the nooks and crannies of their building, and took full advantage. In the early years, for example, Tom Brunansky said whenever it rained there was a wet spot from a leak in the roof just beyond second base. Any baserunner taking a wide turn at second was in danger.

"[Shortstop Greg] Gagne and I had a play on any time a guy looked like he was going to third and held up," Brunansky said. "I would throw back to second and sure enough, boom-boom, the runner would hit the wet spot and we'd have an easy out. The building was a huge home-field advantage. Kind of quirky and a lot of oddities to it."

Clark Griffith, so instrumental in the move to the Dome, said he will be sad as he watches the Twins play their final Dome game Sunday. The new building is beautiful and all that, but he predicts the lack of a retractable roof will soon be cause for lament.

And no matter how beautiful Target Field is, Griffith predicts it won't be able to do for the club what the Metrodome did.

"My real thought is that we're leaving the best home-field advantage in sport -- for any team, anywhere," Griffith said. "It will be sad to leave such a magnificent advantage. I sit there and watch visiting teams screw up because of the Dome, and I say, 'Wonderful.' I think the Metrodome has caused five to 10 screw-ups a year that resulted in a Twins victory."

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