2006, 2009 Twins had phenomenal finishes

As a Twins beat writer in 2010, the move from the Metrodome to Target Field was better than getting a new office. It was like getting a whole new job. I spent too many nice summer weekends stuck under the Teflon sky to feel overly nostalgic about the Dome. But my two most memorable days on the Twins beat were both Metrodome specials.

Game 163 against the Tigers in 2009 was unforgettable, with all those twists and turns through 12 innings before Alexi Casilla singled home Carlos Gomez with the winning run.

But Game 162 in 2006 stands out for me, too. Joe Mauer sealed his first batting title, the Twins defeated the White Sox 5-1 and then the players watched the Jumbotrons — along with about 35,000 fans — as Kansas City finished off Detroit, giving Minnesota the AL Central title.

The Twins were 12 games behind at one point and never led the division until that final day. They had Mauer, Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana, MVP Justin Morneau — not to mention Joe Nathan (1.58 ERA), Torii Hunter (31 home runs) and Michael Cuddyer (109 RBI). They flopped against Oakland in the playoffs, so it’s easy to forget, but teams like that don’t come around very often.

Milton arrived early for his 1999 no-hitter

Twins players trudged to the Dome on September 11, 1999, for an 11 a.m. game against the Angels. The night before, they had lost their fourth consecutive game, a 4-2 defeat to Chuck Finley and the Angels.

They were right back at the Dome the next morning to prepare for the early-morning affair because the Dome was in multipurpose mode: The Gophers had a football game against the University of Louisiana at Monroe that evening. A reporter noted it was 7:50 a.m., turned to bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek and said, “just trying to grind through this one, Stelly.” Stelmaszek grunted and nodded.

Then Eric Milton took the mound and began chewing up the Angels lineup. Mo Vaughn, Jim Edmonds, Darin Erstad, Garret Anderson and other regulars received a veteran’s day off, and Milton made mincemeat of the replacements. No hits, two walks, 13 strikeouts. And he blew away Jeff DaVannon with a fastball to end the game in front of an announced crowd of 11,222. Milton hugged catcher Terry Steinbach as teammates sprinted toward the mound and workers began changing the diamond into a football field.

“I’m pretty numb,” the normally low-key Milton said. “It’s probably the greatest day in my life. There isn’t much else I can say.”

Some other items from the day: Midwest Sports Channel, the Fox Sports North of the time, did not televise the game. St. Paul’s Tim Tschida was the first base umpire that day. The third base umpire was Jim Joyce, who in 2010 blew a call in the ninth inning that cost the Tigers’ Armando Galarraga a perfect game.

As for Milton, the date probably evokes a bittersweet memory. Exactly two years later, he lost a good friend, Jonas Panik, during the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon.

Schatzeder keeps his identity on the hush-hush

Before the Star Tribune rescued me from a sordid life in retail sales, one of my paying gigs was at a sports collectibles store in St. Paul. One weekday in the fall of 1987, a guy with a bushy mustache stopped by to search for older baseball cards to fill out his collection. I couldn’t quite place his face as I handed him a box of commons to sift through while he sat at the counter, but shortly it came to me. I leaned over toward him when no other customers were nearby and half-whispered, “Are you Dan Schatzeder?”

The Twins reliever, only with the club since late June after a trade with the Phillies, said he was, but he’d appreciated it if I didn’t make a big deal about it. Over the next couple of hours — and in between waiting on other customers oblivious to this minor brush with fame I was having — we talked about collecting and favorite ballplayers and why lefthanders are often flaky (we’re both southpaws occasionally fitting the description). After having interviewed a sampling of privileged pro athletes by that time, I was reassured that Schatzeder acted, well, normal.

He wrapped up his card hunting and wanted to thank me for my help, so he said he’d hook me up with four tickets to the Twins’ last regular-season home game against the Royals. Over 53,000 fans coming down with playoff fever showed up at the Metrodome on Sept. 27 and were treated to one of the most entertaining first innings I’ve ever seen. The Royals put runners on first and third with nobody out, but the Twins turned a 5-4-2 double play — Al Newman made the unique choice of going home from second to gun down Willie Wilson — and kept Kansas City scoreless.

Charlie Leibrandt took the mound for the Royals in the bottom of the first, destined to remain there for only two-thirds of an inning. Kirby Puckett homered with one runner on; Gary Gaetti immediately followed with a solo shot. Three batters later, Kent Hrbek hit another two-run homer and it was 5-0 in an eventual 8-1 rout before the foam settled on our first beers.

You know what happened the rest of that year. The Twins went on to beat St. Louis in the World Series in seven games, and my ticket provider became the answer to a trivia question: Who was the only Twins pitcher to win a World Series game in 1987 not named Frank Viola or Bert Blyleven? Dan Schatzeder won Game 6, but I’ll remember him more for a quiet afternoon in a Grand Avenue store, sharing our love of baseball and those fabulous old cards still retaining the faint aroma of that nasty pink chewing gum.

To step on the turf … and to get on TV wearing a paper bag

I’ve been fortunate enough to have been in attendance for some historic moments at the Metrodome. I went to Game 2 of the 1991 World Series and Game 163 in 2009. I saw Brett Favre’s record TD pass and the Badgers’ blocked-punt victory (Wisconsin alum here, sorry Gophers fans). NCAA tournament basketball, Division III baseball, high school soccer … I’ve looked at the Teflon sky more times than I care to count.

But when it comes to my top memories, I have to go back to my senior year at John Marshall High School in Rochester, in 1993-94. Two stand out. The first came in high school football. JM played Osseo in the big-school semifinals, and it seemed as though the entire high school was in attendance. I was a so-so trombone player in the marching band, and remember thinking what a BIG DEAL it was to be able to march on the sacred Metrodome turf.

As for the game itself, it was one it appeared we were destined to lose, trailing 8-0 most of the way. But we scored two TDs in the final four minutes, the first on a Jeff Mieras fumble return to make it 8-6, the second when Brent Solheim lofted a pass to the end zone that Chad Westberg outjumped two Osseo defenders for to pull down for a go-ahead, 38-yard touchdown with 48 seconds to go. I had slipped away from the band to sit with friends in the stands at the time, and we went delirious. Everybody. JM 13, Osseo 7. Sure, we went on to a 29-7 loss to Apple Valley in the Prep Bowl, but that semifinal victory was a moment of joy in my life that was really only rivaled by the Twins’ two World Series victories.

The other memory I have from that time came the summer after graduation, the summer of 1994, where my friends and I didn’t seem to have a care in the world. In August, college loomed — as did the baseball strike. I was working my grocery store job Aug. 10 when six friends showed up and pried me out of work to drive up to the Dome for what proved to be the final game of the Twins’ season. On the drive up we had two genius ideas: 1. We would all wear paper bags on our heads (six of us with unhappy faces drawn on, one with a happy face because he didn’t like baseball); 2. We would hold up a sign in an effort to get on TV. On one side, we wrote “HRBEK’S LAST HURRAH?” because of the rumors of Kent Hrbek’s pending retirement, and on the other, we had “STRIKE THIS.” It was a success — Midwest Sports Channel showed seven goofballs wearing paper bags and holding the Hrbek side of the sign up in the left-field seats during its broadcast.

The game, a 17-7 Twins victory over the Red Sox, proved to be wild. Kirby Puckett hit two homers and drove in seven runs to give him 112 for the season, his only RBI crown; had the Twins played a full season, he might have driven in nearly 170 runs. Hrbek came up with the bases loaded four times in his first five plate appearances; his first time he was hit by a pitch, his second and third time he was retired for the final out of the inning. In the seventh with the Twins’ lead down to 9-7 and the modest crowd restless, Hrbek again came up with the bases loaded, this time with no one out. He finally came through with a hit, a two-run single, sending the crowd into a frenzy and starting an eight-run inning that put the game away. And the season, and Hrbek’s career. Thanks to glaucoma, Puckett would play only one more season, so this game signifies to me a farewell to the cornerstones of the Twins’ two championship teams.

Seeing Ripken’s historic moment on the cheap

My college roommate, Jeff, and I took advantage of the Twins’ subpar record late in Tom Kelly’s tenure while living on the U of M campus. It was not uncommon to decide on a whim to part with a dollar for a ride on the 16 bus into downtown and find a ticket for only a few bucks more. We had plans to do this on Sept. 11, 1999, but a driving rainstorm kept us inside our dorm at Pioneer Hall. That turned out to be Eric Milton’s no hitter and we’ve kicked ourselves ever since.

Seven months later — Tax Day — we weren’t going to be denied witnessing history again. Cal Ripken Jr. was in town three hits shy of 3,000 for his career. For $5 we got into the embarrassingly empty Dome, sat lower level down the third base line and waited. The Iron Man started the game 0-1. A house party quickly sounded like a great alternative. But Ripken knocked out hits in his next three at-bats for the milestone. Ripken doffed his cap in the top of the seventh for the lucky few of us in attendance, as flashbulbs popped off 30,000 empty seats.

The fireworks came a little bit early

Anyone who’s watched a game at the Dome knows it’s loud. Really loud. Perhaps artificially enhanced loud, though the Vikings always denied that.

But one time, that noise almost backfired. The Vikings were playing host to Dallas, early November 1999. Down 17-13 early in the fourth quarter, the Vikings had a third-and-goal at the 4. Jeff George dropped back and threw to Cris Carter, who had lined up in the left slot and run a quick slant.

But before Carter caught the ball, an explosion.

The Vikings liked to set off fireworks and an explosion after scores. Only this time the fellow pushing the button jumped the gun. Despite the distraction, Carter hauled in the pass to put the Vikings ahead for good in a 27-17 victory.

“Prophetic,” Carter said about the premature pyrotechnics. “I didn’t think much about ’em. I had a feeling Jeff was going to come to me. All my focus was on the football.”

The bottom line? The Vikings altered their postscore policy to make sure it never happened again. And Carter’s legendary powers of concentration were proven again.

Stunning Gophers losses weren’t uncommon

On Oct. 10, 2003, I witnessed something at the Metrodome that, in purely practical terms, seemed impossible.

The Gophers football team rushed for 424 yards and lost.

Yes, the Gophers produced a historic rushing performance against Michigan but limped out of the Dome with 38-35 loss thanks to a fourth-quarter meltdown. As I packed up to leave, I remember thinking, I’ll never see something like that happen again.


On Oct. 15, 2005, the Gophers rushed for 411 yards and lost again. This time, they squandered a 10-point lead in the final 3 minutes, 27 seconds of the fourth quarter to lose to Wisconsin 38-34 at the Metrodome.

Two games, two 400-yard rushing performances, two losses.

You don’t see that too often.

Champagne flowed for Twins and visitors, too

Covering Major League Baseball for ESPN SportsTicker left me with, to mangle Robin Leach’s line, champagne dreams.

Chicago clinched the American League Central Division in 2000 at the Metrodome. In an odd scene, the Twins’ Matt Lawton hit a 10th-inning homer to set off celebrations in both dugouts. An earlier Cleveland loss meant the White Sox were already division champs.

The sound of jubilant players escaped the visitor clubhouse walls. But it was the overpowering smell of champagne I most remember.

Fast forward to September 2003. The division-leading Twins beat Cleveland in an efficient 2 hours, 16 minutes. For the next half-hour, players and fans watched as the Metrodome’s video screens showed Chicago and Kansas City lose. The Twins clinched the division at home for the first time.

Inside the clubhouse, champagne flowed and sprayed and hung in the air like mist.

A short distance away, a bridge was down

That day we showed up early to watch batting practice. We crossed the Interstate 35 bridge late in the afternoon, and we made it. Others crossed later and didn’t, because that day was Aug. 1, 2007.

That day the bridge fell into the Mississippi River.


The Twins played the Royals, my Royals. It seemed important that the Royals won 5-3, because it’s always important when the Royals win. And it seemed odd that the public-address announcer warned us repeatedly that if we had planned to cross the I-35 bridge, we’d better come up with another plan.

If there was talk of a bridge collapse, I didn’t hear it, and neither did my 9-year-old son, George. I would have learned the news and hustled to the newsroom to help publish it had I been able to call home, but I couldn’t. I blamed my cheap cellphone.

Later, from somewhere on Interstate 94, I reached my wife. She screamed, cried and worked an expletive into this sentence: “The whole bridge fell down.”

She had assumed for five hours that George and I were in the river.

I’ve learned since that many in the Dome that night didn’t know of the drama playing out a few blocks away.

I’ve learned this, too. The Royals victory wasn’t that important.

Purple pain following NFC Championship Game loss

The four worst days of my life involved the Vikings playing in Super Bowls. Yet I was still willing to risk a fifth.

I had just moved back to Minnesota in 1998, after being gone for 15 years, and my family went in on eight Vikings season tickets. A crew went to every home game, tailgating starting at 9 a.m. It turned out to be the most exciting Vikings season ever.

The Vikings rolled into the NFC Championship Game and were heavily favored to beat the Falcons. But the day before the game, two of my crew called to say they couldn’t make it. As luck would have it, a good friend of mine called from New Jersey saying his brother-in-law needed two tickets. Perfect. Meet me at the game.

Needless to say, none of us were happy with the outcome — except the Jersey guys. They actually were Falcons fans from Atlanta, and to my horror they showed up at the game wearing Falcons jerseys. It never occurred to me I was selling my tickets to Falcons fans, and not only did I have to put up with the guilt of selling to the enemy, but I had to sit next to them and watch them celebrate as Gary Anderson’s kick sailed wide, the Falcons rallied to tie the score and eventually won in overtime. Purple pain, purple pain.

A historic day for a rookie running back

I remember standing in front of LaDainian Tomlinson in the visitor’s locker room and watching him just shake his head when asked for his thoughts on what a rookie running back had just done in his eighth NFL game back on Nov. 4, 2007.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said the future Pro Football Hall of Famer, who, at the time, was the NFL’s reigning MVP and rushing champion.
Like LT, to me the most memorable part of Adrian Peterson’s NFL-record 296 yards rushing was just how routine the first half was and how immortal the second half was. Peterson had 13 first-half carries for 43 yards and a touchdown. In the second half, he had 253 yards and two touchdowns on only 17 carries while carrying the Vikings to a 35-17 victory over a Chargers team that also made history that day with Antonio Cromartie’s 109-yard return of a missed field-goal attempt.

To this day, Peterson believes a 300-yard game is in his future. Some say it should have come back on Nov. 4, 2007, which was only the fourth home game of Peterson’s career. With 1:58 left in the game, Peterson had just run 35 yards to reach 293. He needed 3 more to break Jamal Lewis’ record, but the next carry went to Chester Taylor, who gained 6 yards that could have been Peterson’s. Finally realizing just how close Peterson was to the record, the Vikings gave him one more carry before taking a knee. Peterson, naturally, gained the 3 yards he needed.

As loud as it has ever been; as silent as it has ever been

The noise inside the Metrodome after Kirby Puckett’s home run in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series was the loudest I’ve ever heard at a sporting event, even louder than the next night when the championship was won. So it’s a little ironic that when I think of the Metrodome, I’ll always remember how quiet it was.

It always seemed strangely silent when I’d arrive several hours before a Twins game, with only the sounds of early batting practice shattering the stillness. From the press box halfway up, you could hear players greet each other on the field, heckle each other in the infield, even hold conversations, interrupted only with the rhythmic “whack” of a bat on ball.

But no silence compared to the vast emptiness on Aug. 2, 2007, the day after the I-35 bridge collapse. That night’s game with the Royals had been postponed by the tragedy, but some Wi-Fi and car troubles left me with no place to work on a second-day story. The Twins graciously allowed me to come to the Dome and sit in the empty press box, in an emptier stadium.

The place was all shadows, moody and depressing, as if reflecting the sadness a few blocks away. And so quiet! I could hear the swish of traffic rolling by outside, the occasional helicopter hovering above the bridge, a door closing on the other side of the stadium, 600 feet away. Even the faint creaking of the dingy Teflon roof in the breeze. It was the eeriest, creepiest day I’ve ever spent in a sports arena, my quietest day in baseball’s loudest stadium.

Less than a year old, and already an emergency

It was New Year’s Day 1983 and, with the temperature hovering at 27 degrees with a stiff wind, I was standing in the Metrodome parking lot at 8 a.m. The Metrodome’s inflatable roof had collapsed — the stadium had been open for less than a year — and workers were hoisting a 5,000-pound panel to replace a section that had ripped during snow shoveling.

The Vikings were set to play the Dallas Cowboys at the stadium in two days. Inside, workers making $3.50 an hour were shoveling snow out of the seats in Section 109. One worker said a man with a seeing-eye dog showed up, hoping to join the work crew. A couple wandered through the parking lot to watch the roof patching, with the man explaining that “[I] got nothing much to do today, I guess.”

Before a news conference began, a Metrodome spokesman complained that a TV station helicopter hovering above the stadium was kicking up too much wind and snow. With the new panel in place, reporters noticed that its dark tan color was at odds with the existing off-white roof. In an emergency, one Metrodome official acknowledged, one cannot be choosy.

A glorious run for the Dome, a glorious time to work here

From October 1991 through March 1992, the Metrodome was the Sun in the sporting solar system. With the MLB playoffs and World Series, Super Bowl XXVI and the NCAA Final Four all held at the dome during that period, it was a very good time to be a copy aide (aka newspaper gofer) in the Star Tribune sports department.

While the duties wasn’t overly thrilling — schlepping rolls of 16 mm film (remember that?) back and forth between the Dome and the Star Tribune photo lab two blocks away — the perks were amazing for a wide-eyed sports fan like me.

Among the memories I still carry are:

• Trying to be nonchalant while under the withering stare of Chili Davis as I walked through the Twins dugout to a photographer’s station.

• Seeing Kent Hrbek toss a very large splintered bat into a trash can right next to me after an at-bat (I thought about taking it as a souvenir but didn’t — it was gone by the next inning, memorabilia to be sold).

• Trying to stay close to the Star Tribune photographer as he moved about the field amid the jubilation after the Game 7 victory, overwhelmed by the celebration going on around me and the 50,000 fans screaming their lungs out.

• Watching Thurman Thomas race around the sideline trying to find his helmet before Buffalo’s opening drive in the Super Bowl, looking not much different from an Average Joe looking for lost car keys.

• Standing so close to the Washington punter in the back of the end zone that I could have caught the snap myself.

• Watching an apoplectic Buffalo fan turn three shades of red as he screamed at his Bills in disgust as they left the field at halftime.

• Being shocked by the sheer power of Michigan’s Chris Webber as he tomahawked a dunk (and let out a scream at the same time) right over me as I knelt under the Michigan hoop.

If it hadn’t been for the presence of the Metrodome, I would have experienced none of these. It will be missed.

Those little bats could make some noise

My poor mom. Taking a wild pack of 12-year-old boys downtown to a baseball game is already risky business, and then the six of us burst through the Dome doors and it turns out to be Mini-Bat Night. She must have wanted to pull the cord on the whole thing when she saw the guy hand us our new 18-inch, solid-wood souvenirs. Can you imagine a better weapon to beat your 12-year-old buddy with?

It was 1988, the hated-slash-awesome A’s were in town for a June weekend series, and we are in the last row of the packed and rockin’ Metrodome’s second deck. Our little gang of hell-raising Richfieldians had the times of our lives. Fans screaming all around us (I remember learning some new words from the fan in front of us as he was, loudly, addressing Jose Canseco from his high perch), Mountain Dew being chugged like water at an oasis and little wooden bats being furiously swung and slammed into any nearby object. Miraculously, the only casualty was my Homer Hanky. Nathan got mustard all over it while spending innings 4 through 7 repeatedly bashing the blue chair in front of him with his new bat, making the loudest noise you’ve ever heard.

But all of that sums up the Dome in its glory days, doesn’t it? Late ’80s. Louder than anything you had ever heard before. Fans stacked up all the way up to the last row. Hyper kids going nuts, obeying nothing and nobody. Those are my favorite memories of the place. My mom might have a slightly different take, however.

1987 Twins made Minnesota into winners

Favorite memory of the Dome? Tough one, because I covered games in the Dome for years, mostly Twins, but also regional and Final Four basketball and parts of the Timberwolves’ first season.

I saw Kenny Battle of Illinois slip on a puddle of water from a leaky roof, grabbed my notebook to interview him and heard Sid Hartman — our very own Dome booster — yelling, “You’re not going to write that, are you?” Yes, I wrote it. I saw Clem Haskins, whose ego could have filled the Dome by itself, bounce his ceremonial first pitch on Opening Day 1990 a good 40 feet in front of the plate. I never let him forget it. A chance to watch Mike Krzyzewski, one of the greatest college coaches in history, win his second NCAA title in a row (I was also in Indianapolis for the first).

Mostly I saw, and got to know, the Twins of the 1980s. I covered guys such as Kent Hrbek and Gary Gaetti, who went from 102-game losers in 1982 to World Series champs in 1987. So that final play of 1987, the grounder that Gaetti grabbed and threw to Hrbek for the final out in Game 7, tops my list of memories.

It was the first championship in a major professional sport for Minnesota — a moment a lifelong Minnesotan like myself will never forget. It was made more meaningful personally because the players who won that year were a rare collection of personalities, from Kirby Puckett’s nonstop clubhouse banter to the guttural wit and wisdom of Hrbek to Dan Gladden’s tough-guy persona, which I must tell you was mostly an act.

Yes, the Twins won again in 1991, with a team that in most ways was far superior to the ’87 Twins. But for me, at least, there will never be another team like the first group of Twins to win a Series.

Musselman went with what worked in Breuer

The Timberwolves played their inaugural season in the Metrodome, setting an NBA attendance record by drawing more than 1 million people for 41 home dates during the 1989-90 season before they moved into new Target Center the next season.

On a February night, 35,713 fans filled the Teflon joint and watched Tony Campbell score 44 points while he played every second of a 116-105 victory over Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and the aging Boston Celtics.

Two days later, Don Nelson brought his Golden State Warriors’ Run TMC show — Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond, Chris Mullin — to town for a Sunday matinée. Before the game, Wolves coach Bill Musselman had that same look in his eye that he would get a year later when he unleashed 7-3 Randy Breuer to defend Magic Johnson in a game at Target Center.

This time, Musselman had another plan with Breuer in mind: He’d call the same post-up play for Breuer until he forced Nellie to double-team his big center before an announced crowd of 29,434.

Musselman called the same play to start the game and ol’ Nellie never flinched … all afternoon: The double team never came, Breuer took 28 shots, made half of ’em and scored a career-high 40 points over Manute Bol, Tom Tolbert or Jim Petersen and … the Warriors won 105-95 while Musselman called that same play repeatedly, from game’s beginning to end.

“I’ll never forget that damn ‘5-down,’ ” Wolves TV analyst Petersen said, reciting the name of Musselman’s center post-up play.