Bill Smith was always a details guy when it came to Target Field planning, someone immersed in the spacing of electrical outlets and the height of the dugout bench. By the time the project was under construction, he was also busy as the team’s general manager, so Smith never noticed what would become perhaps the most striking and vivid feature of the Twins’ new ballpark.
“I never went over to the far side of the site and looked back at downtown. So I didn’t really have a vision in my mind of what the view would be,” Smith said. As the park neared completion, Smith happened to be on the third-base side of the site one day, and it suddenly struck him. “I looked up and [said], ‘Wow, that’s just beautiful. It’s incredible,’ ” he recalled. “The stone wall, the canopy over the top, and especially the skyline, how it’s incorporated into your perspective from the seats — it’s spectacular.”
It’s also the image that the Twins hope an entire nation of baseball fans takes away from the 85th All-Star Game on Tuesday, the fulfillment of more than a decade of planning, lobbying, financing and construction. The All-Star Game will be a celebration of baseball, a festival for the players, a tribute to the Twins franchise — but also a salute to shiny Target Field, now five years old, the superstar venue without which baseball’s Midsummer Classic would be held somewhere else, far away.
“When the [financing] agreement with Hennepin County was approved [in 2006], one of the first calls we made was to Commissioner [Bud] Selig, and the All-Star Game was part of that conversation already,” Twins President Dave St. Peter said. “Without Target Field, that discussion would have had a different result. It’s a safe bet that baseball didn’t want to showcase the environment at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.”
No, baseball is more interested in rewarding communities that partner with one of its 30 franchises to produce singular venues like Target Field, an edge-of-downtown locale that has been a popular gathering spot since it opened in 2010. St. Peter said he’s heard from plenty of fans over the past three seasons who grouse about the team’s lousy results on the field “but who say they still enjoy coming to the ballpark because it’s such a gorgeous place to spend a summer night.”
A lot of elements make it so.
Distinct through and through
The playing surface at Target Field is sunk 50 feet below street level, which gives it an intimate, confined feel and helps focus attention on the game. But its unobstructed plaza behind right field and the Minneapolis skyline beyond help lend an airy, open atmosphere to the stadium. The glass-and-steel structural framework on either end give the ballpark a clean, modern look, and the limestone rock accents, mined from Minnesota quarries, add warmth and color. And above it all is a distinctive wing-shaped canopy that glows from the lights when the ballpark is in use, adding an inviting, streamlined profile that’s instantly recognizable.
“The Twins took a different approach than most of the ballparks that opened in the 1990s. You don’t have the old, traditional brick look that so many ballparks went for,” said Josh Pahigian, author of “The Ultimate Baseball Road Trip,” a guide to each of the 30 major league stadiums. “It’s a little more modern approach, and that’s good. We don’t want every park to be identical.”
Neither does Earl Santee, though for him that’s a career objective and not just a matter of opinion. As a senior architect at Populous, he has designed or overseen roughly two-thirds of the stadiums currently in use in the major leagues (and is currently drawing up blueprints for the Braves’ new home in suburban Atlanta). His biggest challenge in Minneapolis was largely geographical: He was handed an overgrown parking lot straitjacketed by two large garages, a set of railroad tracks, a trash incinerator and a freeway, the smallest footprint he had ever built upon.
Once he determined that the project wasn’t impossible, Santee took on the world’s biggest jigsaw puzzle, and began delighting in all the creative ways he found to fit the pieces together. The entry plaza is built above the freeway, adding an intuitive gathering area and connecting the park with its neighborhood. A wedge-shaped section of seats in right-center field is shaped to hug the boundary of the site and create a natural spot for a scoreboard. The right field seating area juts over the playing field, creating an interesting obstacle, an extraordinary viewing angle and a perfect display of the home-state limestone.
And like parks he designed in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, St. Louis but only a few others, Santee incorporated his favorite element.
“We have that very focused opening to downtown. It’s powerful. We wanted it to be the signature image, that Kodak moment for everyone who entered Target Field,” the architect said. “The first time I walked on that site, I got goosebumps, envisioning what that view could be. It was impactful.”
Meanwhile, hundreds of other voices made an impact on what went inside. As a relative latecomer to the baseball building boom, the Twins seized the opportunity to benefit from the experience of other new ballparks, and they set out to gather opinions and intelligence from those who would actually inhabit and utilize the park.
“You only get this chance once,” St. Peter said, “so we tried to be as complete and inclusive as we possibly could.”
Cooks and waitresses were asked for input on the kitchens and serving areas, the Twins’ training staff helped design its medical facilities, and security guards recommended how to set up the ballpark’s command center. Clubhouse attendants made suggestions about the shape and layout of the teams’ areas, which is why washing machines for uniforms are across from, not next to, the dryers, making laundry that much easier.
“If you ask the people who will use the space, you get a lot of good information,” said Smith, who took charge of the baseball component of the planning. “Sometimes you can drown in your data, but we got input from as many people as we could, and put it to use.”
He learned that umpires generally travel with equipment trunks, so the lockers in their quarters are larger than in the players’ clubhouses. Unlike players, umpires can’t do a pregame stretch on the field, so they have an area specially designated for game preparation. And the players themselves were consulted about their areas, which is why the batting cages are located directly behind the dugout, and video facilities for between-inning adjustments are easily accessible.
“We got to go over everything. They said, ‘What do you think about this? Where would be the best place to put that?’ They made us feel like we were designing it,” said Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter, a Twins veteran at the time. “So then when you see the stadium come to fruition with all those features built in, it really makes you feel invested in it. I feel like part of it. It was never my home park, but I love Target Field.”
After the dingy Teflon basement that was the Metrodome, anyone would. But the Twins, at the urging of the Pohlad family that owns the team, turned a $390 million project into a $450 million jewel by not skimping on amenities.
“We could have built a very good ballpark with that [original] budget, very functional. But as the project evolved, we had an owner who really pushed us to take it from good to great,” St. Peter said of Jim Pohlad, the team’s CEO. “He said, ‘How can we make scoreboard bigger? How can we add more Minnesota native stone? How can we make the Champions Club and the Legends Club really distinctive? What would make the plaza better?’ It was mostly aesthetics. So much of the ballpark’s look is because of that additional investment.”
A result well-loved
The reviews have been almost universally appreciative, and figure to grow even more glowing with the baseball universe gathered inside the ballpark gates this week. “Target Field has a lot of character. If I had a criticism, it might be that the concourses could be a bit wider. But overall, I was certainly impressed,” said Pahigian, a professor at the Center for Global Humanities at The University of New England who has published eight books on baseball. “I would easily rank it in the top 10. It’s one of my favorites.”
Not just his, either. On the ballpark’s inaugural Opening Day in 2010, Santee walked around Target Field before the game, watching the reactions of Twins fans as they explored their new playground, looking at the faces of the people who would inhabit his latest achievement. He strolled into one of the pubs that occupy the various public spaces of the park, and discovered just how much Target Field means to the city it’s nestled in.
“Fans kept buying me drinks,” Santee said. “That’s the only place where that’s ever happened. I don’t know how they recognized me, but they were so thankful, so appreciative for what they found here.”