They wore ratty "Save the Met" T-shirts and long hair in the late 1970s when they petitioned and testified to kill the Metrodome long before it was inflated. They wore all black a few years later when they lugged a casket into Metropolitan Stadium for the last outdoor Twins game.

And for the past 28 seasons, they've worn out bus tires -- leading local baseball purists on tours to Chicago, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Cleveland, Baltimore and other ballparks where the wind blows, rain falls and stars twinkle.

This week, Tom Bartsch, Julian Empson Loscalzo and Michael Samuelson will be wearing smiles of vindication in their seats along the first-base line as the Twins begin playing outdoor baseball again at swank new Target Field.

"We've been wandering in the wilderness for nearly 30 years," said Bartsch, 54, a classical pianist. "It's just going to be fabulous to walk up the tunnel, see and smell the green grass and listen to the geese and the trains going by."

Loscalzo hawked 90-cent Olympia beer at the old Met and worked as a State Capitol page when he first met Bartsch and Samuelson and launched the ragtag Save the Met group. Now, more than three decades later, the 58-year-old first-time grandfather and longtime lobbyist is bittersweet.

"It's going to be great to say, 'We told you so,' but we realized way back then we were seeing the beginnings of baseball as a business," Loscalzo said between cigar puffs. "This new stadium is all about money, and while it ties us to our past and the way baseball was supposed to be played, the innocence of the game is gone."

Samuelson cackled.

"Oh, screw Julian and the innocence," he said. "The good old days sucked."

The old friends don't always see eye to eye. When Samuelson testified for Target Field and Loscalzo rose to oppose public financing without public ownership, they stopped speaking. But just for a little while. For Samuelson, life is too short for grudges.

A survivor of three kidney transplants and a left arm amputation after skin cancer spread to his bone in 2008, Samuelson once told his wife, former St. Paul City Council Member Kiki Sonnen, he didn't think he'd live long enough to see outdoor baseball in Minnesota again. Now, he's got more than 90 tickets for this season - roughly the at-every-game pace he has maintained since his health problems mounted and he ended up at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit instead of the Twins-Tigers game a dozen years ago.

Back then, contraction was threatening to snuff out the Twins, and Samuelson, whom everyone calls "Sammy," was facing his own mortality.

"If I was going to end up dying, I was going to go to as many games as I could," said Samuelson, who turns 55 next month with his latest scans showing he's cancer-free. "My dermatologist told me if we had outdoor baseball the last 28 years, I'd be dead already. I'm just happy to wake up in the morning."

If a trip to Target Field is on his schedule, all the better.

"This place is like the Taj Mahal or the Sphinx," he said. "They're selling roasted lamb and chutney and $115 sweatshirts, but how else are they are going to pay Joe Mauer?"

Respect from the top

In recent months, Twins President Dave St. Peter has invited various dignitaries and corporate honchos to check out his team's new $500 million sandlot. But he said "one of the more memorable tours" occurred when he led Bartsch, Loscalzo and Samuelson through to get their take.

"He figured discretion was the better part of valor, so he invited the old rabble rousers over," Barstch said. "A lot of us weren't big for public financing for this place, but it's here, it's outside and it's beautiful."

St. Peter figured it was time to put their differences aside.

"I wanted to get those guys' perspective because they are the quintessential baseball fans and they love the Twins," the team president said. "We've had our share of exchanges, and they certainly weren't fans of the Metrodome."

But during the annual hot-stove league banquets Loscalzo and Samuelson organized every winter, the Twins president realized, "We have one thing in common: We love baseball -- and that's why I have a lot of respect for those guys."

St. Peter calls Samuelson the greatest seat jumper in the Twins' 50-season history, referring to his ability to convert cheap upper-deck tickets into spots within earshot of the on-deck circle. Samuelson insists he always had a ticket and never took a seat from a paying customer, noting that it was easy to upgrade in the late '90s, when the Twins stunk.

"That may be when he honed his craft, but he had it down to a science through 2009," St. Peter said.

Ragtag vs. big shots

Before they step into the future at Monday's home opener, Loscalzo, Bratsch and Samuelson can't help but relish the past. Loscalzo still wears a Phillies cap and remembers cutting his teeth on baseball growing up in Philadelphia.

His mother took him to a game on his 13th birthday in 1964, when the first-place Phillies had a six-game lead in the National League. The Phillies lost 1-0 after Cincinnati's little-known Chico Ruiz stole home, starting a 10-game, pennant-choking losing streak that became known as the Philly Phlop.

Fifteen years later, petition in hand, Loscalzo met Samuelson, who was studying nursing. They banded together with other baseball junkies and community activists, who didn't necessarily care about outdoor baseball, and the Save the Met movement was born.

"We were a ragtag bunch going up against the downtown big shots," Bartsch said. "Like David against Goliath, we took our shots and made them give pause."

They locked arms with various neighborhood groups and St. Paul bar owners, who opposed a Dome liquor tax because it wouldn't benefit their businesses. Groups sprung up called Minnesotans Against a Downtown Dome (MADD) and Citizens Opposed to a Stadium Tax (COST).

"They were really the same five or six guys, but we had different buttons, logos and letterheads," Samuelson said.

One Saturday night at the Legislature, the House voted down the Dome bill and the Save the Met crew celebrated over beers.

But arms were twisted at the Capitol the next day, the liquor tax provision was dropped to soften opposition from St. Paul legislators and "the steamroller started up and it became a sure thing," Bartsch said.

They'd put up a good fight, but lost. Now what could they do? "Someone said: 'Let's rent a bus and go around and watch outdoor baseball,'" Loscazlo recalled. And that's what they've every season since 1982.

"I wasn't going to let my daughters' first game be in the Metrodome," Bartsch said. "So I took them to Wrigley Field."

This year will be different. Now, they can ride the light rail to the western edge of downtown Minneapolis and soak up baseball and fresh air and root for the home team without balls bouncing off an artificial-turf rug or a trash-bag fence beneath a Teflon sky.

"We'll have some crummy days this year, but then all of a sudden we'll hit that spectacular day and you won't be able to beat it," Bartsch said.

And when that day comes, Samuelson will be keeping score and trying to keep the sweat off his scorebook.

"We were right a long time ago when our bandwagon was small," Loscalzo said. "If they would have listened to us more, things would have been resolved years ago on many different fronts. Vindication is sweet."

Curt Brown • 612-673-4767