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October 6, 2010

Playoff Prospectus

Home Sweet Dome No More

by Brandon Warne

In its almost 30-year history, the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome has been known by many names, including most recently Mall of America Field. Among those which are printable include Homerdome, Humptydome, Thunderdome, and Rollerdome. Typically, every nickname bestowed upon the Metrodome typified how opposing teams felt about it: absolute disdain. This is not to suggest that home players enjoyed playing in the Metrodome either; Torii Hunter complained of the soreness that came from playing on the FieldTurf and Luis Castillo hobbled about like a man of twice his age, but it was widely perceived that this bunch of ragtag ruffians drew a great deal of benefit from knowing the intricacies and quirks that came with playing 81 games per season there.

It’s hard to deny that the results support the theory that the Twins had an incredible home-field advantage. The Twins clubs that won World Series titles in 1987 and 1991 were backed by crowds whose decibel levels rivaled those of a jet plane taking off (measured at 125 dB at their peak). Neither of those two teams lost a home World Series game, or won a road one for that matter. The ‘87 club was only 85-77 that season, which was the lowest win total ever for a World Series champion until the 2006 Cardinals won with a record of 83-78. Of those 85 wins, a stunning 56 of them came at home while the team sputtered to a 29-52 road record. The ’91 club overall fared better, but still were an impressive 21 games over .500 at home and only seven above on the road.

Further complicating the noise for opposing teams were a couple other factors. At that time, the playing surface was AstroTurf, which induced bounces never seen before on natural playing surfaces and in turn led to more ground-rule doubles and balls bouncing over outfielders’ heads. Additionally asinine to opponents was the cream-colored Teflon roof, especially during games played under a sunny afternoon sky. Fly balls were tough enough to track in the evening, when the color of the ball and the color of the roof became semi differentiable, but when combining the sun shining on the already similarly-colored roof to the trajectory of a ball, it could make tracking fly balls downright impossible to those who only played a handful of games at the Metrodome.

As the club floundered in the mid-to-late '90s, the team experimented with other ways of adding a home-field advantage. Numerous opposing players and managers, notably Bobby Valentine of the of the Rangers, alleged that the Twins manipulated the air conditioning vents late in games to give them an added advantage that they so often needed during that era.  Former Metrodome superintendent Dick Ericson, who was in charge of the ventilation system, freely admitted to the allegations after his retirement in 2003, but virtually nothing substantial ever came of it.

The team began to rebuild and re-emerge as one of the American League’s elite franchises at the dawn of the new millennium, and many of the players’ success could be tied to the Metrodome. Doug Mientkiewicz blossomed into a poor man’s Mark Grace while reeling in a Gold Glove and contending for a few others, and no doubt benefitted from the clean hops produced by the AstroTurf. Cristian Guzman slashed 61 triples in his six seasons with the Twins, making the most of his speed and the speed of the turf to turn many doubles into three-baggers. Finally, Hunter patrolled center field as part of the “Soul Patrol” outfield with Matt Lawton and Jacque Jones, becoming the most decorated Twins outfielder since Kirby Puckett with seven straight Gold Glove awards. Many of Hunter's highlight-reel catches came as he crashed into the right-center field corner of the baggy to rob extra bases from opponents, or as he reached far over the 408 sign in center field to take away home runs, as made famous by his “I Live For This” commercial where he robbed Carlos Lee of a home run.

As these young players began to come into their own as major leaguers, they were under the tutelage of Ron Gardenhire, who took over for Tom Kelly following the Twins’ resurgent 2001 campaign. Gardenhire, who previously was the third base coach, has since led the club to six division crowns in nine seasons, with 2010 in the minds of many being the most impressive considering the circumstances. In spite of not having star closer Joe Nathan for the entire season and MVP candidate Justin Morneau since early July, Gardenhire led the club to 94 wins, tied for second most in his time with the club. And yet while Gardenhire was 709-588 as a manager entering the 2010 season, there was considerable doubt as to whether his team could succeed as it left their comfortable, yet cavernous dwelling for the open skies and lush green, but not Minnesota-grown grass of Target Field while scorning Dome Dogs for Dugout Dogs.

The doubt wasn’t necessarily unmerited, either; the Twins teams of the early 2000s relied heavily on speed, defense, solid pitching, and timely hitting in an era where the longball ruled supreme. In fact, Morneau’s 2006 MVP season in which he tallied 34 home runs was the first time a Twin had done that since 1987, which was the longest active streak in the major leagues. And so, as the players of the American League continually failed to completely adjust to the oddities of the Metrodome, many felt the Twins were doing opponents a favor by moving outdoors for the 2010 season.

The Twins didn’t take these concerns lightly over the offseason, however. Long a team with four or five solid hitters and black holes elsewhere in the lineup, GM Bill Smith took it upon himself to craft a well-rounded batting order in hopes of taking a division that was wide open after back-to-back seasons that required a 163rd game to determine the champion. The Twins, whose pockets were a bit deeper due to more ballpark revenues projected from Target Field, picked up Orlando Hudson to lock down second base,  dealt speedy center fielder and sometimes-hitter Carlos Gomez for former All-Star and defensive stalwart shortstop J.J. Hardy, and perhaps most notably, plucked Jim Thome for a bargain-basement price of $1.5 million to fill the role of left-handed power bat off the bench and occasional DH. Thome has most certainly assuaged the loss of Morneau, throttling opposing pitchers to the tune of a .283/.412/.627 slash line with a .350 TAv, good for second-best among hitters with at least 300 plate appearances, behind only Morneau. With these players in the fold, the only spot left open was third base, which has been filled admirably by mid-season call-up Danny Valencia, who managed a solid .290 TAv while compiling an 18.4 VORP at the hot corner, both of which place him amongst the top 15 in the major leagues.

In spite of all their acquisitions, the Twins were still not exactly the runaway favorites in the American League Central. One Baseball Prospectus writer had the Twins finishing as low as fourth, while four others had the club finishing second or worse in the Staff Picks for 2010 column. One writer cited the potential reason that the Twins struggled away from turf surfaces, given their 38-43 and 35-47 road records in 2009 and 2008, respectively. Yet the Twins went 53-28 in their inaugural season at Target Field, sparking some serious debate as to whether it truly was the Metrodome, the offseason improvements, or something else that provided this continued Minneapolis magic.

Gardenhire suggested a number of reasons why he felt the club continued to play well in spite of polar opposite venues.

“I think the amenities of the ballpark are a part of it,” Gardenhire said. “This stadium has everything you need as a ballclub, and the players absolutely love it.”

Closer Matt Capps went on to note that he felt a large part of it was the clubhouse atmosphere created by the Twins as a team.

“I’ve had a lot of fun here, and the main reason is because of how I have been treated,” Capps said. “I’ve felt like a piece of the puzzle from day one, and these guys have treated me great. From what I’ve seen in other cities, baseball is baseball and players are players, but winning really changes the feel around the ballpark.”

Another trade-deadline acquisition, late-inning lefty Brian Fuentes, echoed Capps sentiment.

“I really didn’t know what to expect,” Fuentes noted. “But this is a good, winning clubhouse and the city sort of reminds me of when I played in Colorado.”

Thome somewhat fused what Capps and Fuentes mentioned, suggesting that he feels that the city and his teammates have played a huge part in the culture of success that this club has created.

“We feed off the energy of this crowd and this city,” Thome said. “We all like to be here (in Minnesota). I like waking up here in Minnesota as an outdoors kind of guy. The guys here have been great. We genuinely like to be here at the park together, and I consider them my brothers.”

Finally, Gardenhire and Thome heaped effusive praise upon the fans of the Twins.

“The fans truly make it happen,” Gardenhire marveled. “They’ve been absolutely incredible to play for, in front of a packed house each night all season.”

Thome noted that the energy level of the fans has been incredible, and perhaps never was it higher than when he hit the first walk-off home run in Target Field history off of White Sox reliever Matt Thornton August 17 in what is considered by most as the Twins’ signature victory of the season. That win pushed the Twins' lead in the division at the time to four games; their lead was never lower than 3 1/2 games before cruising to the division title by six games.

Whether it’s something statistical that can be measured tangibly, or whether it’s truly playing in front of great fans in a first-class facility, it’s become obvious that Target Field holds a distinct home-field advantage for the Twins. Now the only thing that remains is whether it can help improve Gardenhire’s career 18-54 mark against the Yankees when the teams meet in the American League Division Series beginning tonight.

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