There were flaws in the baseball setup at the Taj Ma Zygi when the Gophers played Seattle University on Friday night. That was to be expected with a stadium built for one tenant, the Vikings, which is also the reason the $1.1 billion edifice is known far and wide as the Taj Ma Zygi, in honor of the Vikings owner.
There are a couple of admissions to make:
A) The field at The Zygi played better than I anticipated; and B) I have seen much worse.
There aren’t many Minnesotans who can make that second claim, because I’m not sure many others were in New Orleans from April 5-to-7 in 1976, when the Twins and the Houston Astros played a three-game series that was the first baseball in the Louisiana Superdome.
Among the items the Superdome failed to provide for the first game were baseballs, a vital ingredient for playing a major league ballgame … even if it was only an exhibition.
Luckily, the Twins had a few boxes with their equipment, and owner Calvin Griffith tearfully agreed to part with them.
The dimensions were goofy and there was no warning track for the players to discern if they were about to crash into a fence. There were also small ditches that ran from the third-base line past the mound – drainage apparently, outside the boundary of the football field.
It also was quite a journey from home plate to the backstop. That helped to provide one of the more fabulous moments in my years as a baseball beat writer for the St. Paul newspapers.
Joe Niekro was the Astros starting pitcher for the third game of the series on Wednesday. He was working on his knuckle ball in an attempt to get it sharp for the start of the regular season.
Cliff Johnson was the catcher. Cliff was a slugger, not a catcher. Put it this way: Cliff was not the guy to set an example of pitch framing for the Astros that Jason Castro would follow four decades later to earn a nice Twins contract in 2017.
The Twins scored two runs off Niekro in the bottom of the first, which was odd, since Niekro had five strikeouts in the half-inning. The Twins kept striking out on Niekro knuckle balls, and kept reaching first base when it danced past Cliff to the distant backstop.
Cliff had five passed balls in the first. He added to the embarrassment on the last couple by walking back to retrieve the baseball as Twins hustled around the bases.
I’d probably have to put Johnson’s five passed balls third on my all-time funniest list, behind Disco Dan Ford failing to score from third before Jose Morales scored from second, and a game in Baltimore being delayed so a moth flapping in Butch Wynegar’s ear could be drowned in order to be removed.
Twins owner Calvin Griffith was fully disillusioned with Twins fans (and they with him) entering 1976. The real angle with the team’s visit to New Orleans was to inspect the Superdome as a possible venue for relocation.
Remember, the Superdome had cost $134 million in 1975, and was all the rage in sports facilities. Attendance still was the main revenue stream for a ballclub, and the Twins were dying at the gate in Bloomington. The expectation was that the Superdome would draw fans, even in football country.
Calvin was disgusted with what he saw of the giant stadium as a baseball facility (for good reason). My guess is he also was disgusted with this:
He entertained a large party in the Superdome’s restaurant before one of the games. Here we had the city fathers trying to interest Calvin into giving their very expensive dome a baseball tenant, and what did the dummies at the restaurant fail to do?
They failed to pick up the tab. They handed Calvin the check.
That moment might have more influence with Minnesota still having a team in American League than judge Harry Crump’s ruling against contraction a quarter-century later.