It was April 14, 2001. I was finishing up sixth grade. And against the grey of the Metrodome’s Teflon roof, Carlos Lee had lost a pop-fly.
Only God knows how I’d have found my love of baseball if he hadn’t.
At the crack of the bat, I watched as Lee (or was it his White Sox teammate in center field, Chris Singleton?) looked up, slid to his left, scanned the Teflon sky for the hovering ball, then panicked. He raised his arms helplessly as if to say, Where is it? Where is it? A second later, 30 feet in front of Lee, the ball bounced hard on the AstroTurf in left field. Base hit.
I was one of more than 26,480 people in the Metrodome that Saturday night. My family’s seats down the third baseline were awful. But after a decade of fecklessness, the Minnesota Twins had won seven of their first nine in 2001. So 26,000 turned up on a Saturday night, as excited about the team’s early tear as they were skeptical. Can this little team be for real?
But the most gleeful cheers rose from the blue plastic seats that night when Carlos Lee lost the ball in the Metrodome roof.
I’m telling you — we went nuts when our building cost their left fielder an easy put-out.
So this is what it means to play baseball in Minnesota. I was 12, and I was hooked.
We think modern ballpark architecture came — in the form of Camden Yards in 1992 — to save us from vacuous multipurpose venues like Riverfront or Three Rivers or Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. Or the Metrodome.
Indeed, Target Field was a breath of fresh air. There’s no disputing it and its brethren — AT&T Park or New Busch or Great American — are all beautiful ballparks and distinct trade-ups from their predecessors. But for every cupholder and urinal and inch of legroom we gained, it also feels like we lost something.
In any of the “retro-style” ballparks springing up around the country, did they ever rebuild the oddly-angled Schaefer Beer sign from Ebbets Field? What about the overhang at Tiger Stadium (Okay, Citi Field; easy, easy)? Did you know, by the way, Monument Park was actually on the warning track at Yankee Stadium until the mid-’70s? Or the bullpens at the Polo Grounds were actually in-play, in fair territory, in the left and right field gaps?
The Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome was a camel — that is, a horse designed by a committee — built on the cheap (even in 1979 dollars) to serve everyone’s purposes. Of course, that meant the building fully served no one’s purpose, but of its various tenants, it served the Vikings’ needs best. ‘The baseball diamond,’ we liked to remind each other as we craned our necks to catch a glimpse of home plate, ‘is just wedged into the corner of a football field.’
Far more than in any other big league sport, baseball’s history entwines intimately with the imperfections of its ballparks. Fans loved Fenway or Forbes for their asymmetries; Old Comiskey, not for its amenities, but for its idiosyncrasies. Well, the Dome might not have been much, but it was certainly asymmetric and idiosyncratic.
Why we didn’t love the Dome for its quirks is obvious — they had the romance of a fun fair bounce house. There was The Baggie, the 23-foot-tall glorified tarp that doubled as a right field wall. Mosquito netting hung from a rafter to serve as the left field foul pole. In later years, a giant Land-O-Lakes milk bottle lit up after home runs.
And then, there was, of course, The Roof.
They didn’t make the building beautiful. But they did make the building ours.
The beginning of my baseball fandom is difficult to explain, fly balls lost in the roof notwithstanding. My parents aren’t particularly big sports fans. I didn’t fall head over heels for The Pastime by playing it; I did a lot more falling head over heels in the literal sense and quit pitching machine ball before I was 8.
The team had a lot to do with it. Torii Hunter’s scintillating center field catches. “Dougie Baseball” Mientkiewicz and his “lucky spot” on the sticky dugout floor. “Everyday” Eddie Guardado leading the AL in saves. Role players like Jacque Jones, Denny Hocking, Dustin Mohr, Bobby Kielty, Matt LeCroy — all scraping out runs and punching above their weight. The beautiful synchrony of the best seasons in Eric Milton, Joe Mays and Brad Radke’s careers.
The team’s early success in 2001 piqued my interest at first, yes. But it wasn’t just that the Twins started winning again, it was the fun they had doing it. For Twins players who’d ground through the torpor of the ’90s, every win was gravy for them. I started watching the games on TV, learning baseball from Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven — whose “Circle Me Bert” schtick began in 2002, only adding to the sense of joy that pervaded every game in those early years. Average attendance jumped 10,000 fans between 2000 and ’01. Something was happening under that dome on summer nights, and Minnesota was catching on.
I started agitating my parents to take me downtown from the suburbs for Twins games. Instead of a party for my 13th birthday, I asked them to take me and some friends to Opening Day 2002. Minneapolis wasn’t far, but I still didn’t often find myself downtown all too often. This trip to the game would be a treat.
More than halfway through our trip to the Metrodome, as I joked with my friends on the drive up I-35, I asked my dad to see the tickets. He turned and looked at me, horrified, the color draining from his face. He’d left the tickets at home. We missed all four Minnesota runs waiting outside in the drizzle for my embarrassed dad to beg the box office to reprint the tickets. (We still had a good time. The Twins won. And my dad more than made up for it that summer, taking me on a father-son road trip to Chicago… to watch baseball.)
My journeys up to the Metrodome became more frequent from then on. Why wouldn’t they? Tickets cost less than the peanuts and pop; the team was running away with the division. By the time I had my driver’s license, the Twins had raised three AL Central pennants in three straight years, Johan Santana had won his first Cy Young — and I began taking myself up to games.
My friends, my then-girlfriend and I found a favorite perch: the $8 seats in the left field nosebleeds, which became $3 with a Student ID on Wednesday nights. I had my grandparents’ 1996 Buick Regal, easy access to tickets from my job at the Twins Pro Shop, a favorite parking spot: right across South Sixth Street from the Minneapolis Armory. My parents bought good tickets to playoff games in ’03 and ’04 — every single one of them a loss to the Yankees — but those memories aren’t as vivid as the smell of Dome Dogs, famed public address announcer Bob Casey reminding us there was “Nooooo smoking,” or the echo of the half-full stadium on the dozens of lazy summer nights I spent in Section 200 or 239 with high school friends.
Even at 16, I remember being conscious of how those trips downtown for games were about something more than baseball for me. At the time, every trip from my cozy subdevelopment into the gridlock of Minneapolis felt like an adventure. This was a time in my life when my interest in the world beyond Lakeville, Minnesota, began churning in earnest. With every trip out of the comfortable, nurturing world of my suburban home, I discovered this bigger, louder world felt more and more like home, like my place, like where I’m meant to be.
At some point in this story, the Metrodome becomes more than just scenery in the story of my childhood. It’s a bridge between the familiarity of my hometown and the culture and bustle of the wider world.
It’s a place, in other words, where I grew up.
Nobody remembers Kirby Puckett’s first inning in Game Six of the 1991 World Series. This was before he plucked that fly ball off the Plexiglas — yeah, did I mention the Plexiglas that lined left field until 1995? — and before he homered over that Plexiglas to win the game.
In the first inning of Game Six of the 1991 World Series, Kirby Puckett tore a grounder past third base and down the line. The ball bounded over the turf and into foul ground in the Metrodome’s boxy left field corner. In almost any other ballpark, it’s a sure double. But Puckett’s grounder ricocheted off an inexplicable pole covering an inexplicable vent in the base of the wall. Instead of deflecting toward left fielder Brian Hunter, the ball bounced away from him. Kirby scampered into third base. He scored two batters later on a liner to left.
Everything seemed to bounce the Twins’ way in that ballpark; the team never lost a World Series game there. Everyone knew why — they didn’t call it The Thunderdome for nothing.
“The Braves are going to have to see the game, because you can’t hear a game in this ballpark,” color commentator Tim McCarver said once on a CBS broadcast, his ears ringing during the ’91 Series as the crowd roared… for a Chuck Knoblauch single.
The Celtics don’t lose in The Garden, the Packers never lose at Lambeau, Duke doesn’t go down at Cameron Indoor — the Twins’ dominance in the Metrodome is on that level. In 100 years of World Series games, no team ever enjoyed a greater home field advantage than the Fighting Pucketts. All things being equal, it’s a record that would win fans’ eternal reverence for the building itself.
But it’s easy to see why our gratitude for the structure faded quickly. Crowds fell off after ’91. Empty seats sucked the vitality out of the building. Various architects began teasing us with drawings of proposed open-air or retractable-roof stadiums we knew better than to believe state lawmakers would fund.
We looked up at the Metrodome roof and remembered what we couldn’t have: warm summer nights, cold beer and outdoor baseball.
My brother and I had to negotiate with our father — Thursday, September 18, 2003, was, after all, a school night — but in the end, he was as excited as we were to go.
The Twins had taken two of the first three games from the White Sox, opening up a two-and-a-half game lead in the AL Central with just ten games left. September 18, 2003, was the final game of the series — sweep it, and the division was all but ours.
My brother, my dad and I really couldn’t see much from our seats above left field in the upper deck. From up there, you judged whether left fielders caught fly balls by the crowd’s reaction. They were the worst seats we ever had for a game in the Metrodome. But it couldn’t have mattered less. The crowd was frenzied that night. Not a blue seat was empty. It’s like we’d gotten a taste for blood. The Twins jumped ahead early and didn’t look back.
A home run in the Metrodome was a seismic event, and Jacque Jones shook the building with two of them in the early innings. The roar of the crowd felt like a low-voltage current coursing through your body. At a half-dozen big-time sporting events since then, I haven’t felt a rush quite like it.
The evening crescendoed into the ninth inning finale when closer Eddie Guardado trotted in from the right field bullpen. It was technically a save situation, but it felt more of a curtain call. The game was all but in the bag, and the division race was effectively over.
Our customary “Eddie! Eddie!” chants became “Sweep! Sweep! Sweep!” It felt like the building was swaying. Jubilation swirled through the stadium. The euphoria was contagious.
It’s hard for me to believe we created this home field advantage despite the roof, not because of it — engineers actually designed the roof to absorb sound and dampen noise — for I’d swear that roof did more than keep the elements out. A crowd’s excitement had a way of feeding back upon itself there. That arena was our living room; opponents had to walk into our house to win. It’s easier to remember all 55,000 of us are in this together when we’re all under one roof.
I’m grateful to the Metrodome for nights like September 18, 2003. I’ll never forget walking out the stadium doors as the air that held up the Dome rushed out behind us. I’ll never forget my dad rolling down our car windows as we snaked through traffic on Portland Avenue. I’ll never forget the horns honking with triumph. I’ll never forget the guy carrying a broom. I’ll never forget the thousands of smiles I saw on the streets of Minneapolis that night.
Nearly seven years later, I’d witness in person perhaps the greatest finish to date at Target Field. Trailing 6-5 in extra innings to the White Sox, Twins DH Jim Thome stepped up to the plate and stroked a two-run homer over the right field wall. It’s exactly the miracle we all dream about. We cheered and high-fived and didn’t quite feel like leaving.
Target Field is an honest-to-God ballpark, complete with rain delays, swarming mosquitos and skyline views. But cheering the Twins’ win there that night felt like celebrating Christmas at another family member’s house. We’ll get over that in time — already, Target Field is everything we knew not-so-deep down the Metrodome wasn’t.
But as they dismantle the building and deflate that roof for the last time, let’s remember the Metrodome for what it was, too: a difficult place for opposing teams to play — difficult because we made it so.
And it was a damned fun place to win, too. When your team’s firing on all cylinders, your rotation clicking, your hitters connecting; when Bob Casey cries “Baseball fans, here are your Minnesota Twins!” the crowd’s excitement becomes hard to contain.
And nine little white streaks would sprint across the Astroturf. And I’ve never since heard cheers so loud or so proud.