For the second consecutive summer, a wedding brought me to Minnesota, affording me the opportunity to check another major-league ballpark off my slowly-growing list.* The contrast between the two Twins venues couldn't have been more stark, but the common denominator was a boisterous fan base backing a playoff contender while affirming that baseball is alive and well in the Gopher State, lest anyone have any doubts. While the Twins hardly resembled that contender on this particular night, as they were trounced 11-0 by the White Sox, their recent roll has given them a leg up on an October berth, their sixth in the nine years since Bud Selig and company tried to shut them down—ostensibly due to owner Carl Pohlad's inability to secure public financing for a new ballpark.
Last May, I finally visited the 27-year-old Metrodome, a venue—ballpark is far too generous—which I'd always regarded from afar with a mixture of reverence and disgust. Though not a Twins fan by nature, I'd pulled hard for Hrbie, Kirby, and company in the 1987 and 1991 World Series, two of the best Fall Classics of my lifetime. The Dome itself should have been voted full playoff shares in those years given the home-field advantage it provided, as the underdog Twins went 8-0 amid deafening decibel levels to defeat the Cardinals and Braves. I don't care how awful a stadium is, if a championship has been won there, particularly an unlikely one (or two), that's an indelible piece of history, a distinction which rescues dives as disparate as Shea Stadium and the Dome.
On the other hand, baseball on artificial turf, in a domed stadium, is as inherently alien and unappealing as canned lettuce. Which isn't to say I didn't have fun at that particular game, but after taking in its plastic ugliness of the field from the distant, oddly-angled seats, I could see why the place drew frequent comparisons to a mausoleum.
Target Field will never be confused with a mausoleum, however. It's a spacious open-air park with real grass and distant fences (339 feet down the left field line, 328 down the right field line, 411 feet to center field) that have made it the majors' third-toughest park in which to homer this year (0.65 per team a game), though the trees behind the center field wall felt a bit forced. Its angles give it a distinctly modern feel, and unlike many of the other mallparks built over the past two decades, it carries a relatively small reserve of retro nostalgia. The bulk of the latter arrives via the giant neon "Minnie & Paul" logo in center field. Introduced in 1961, revised in 1972, and refined in 2002, the logo shows two cartoonish ballplayers shaking hands across the Mississippi River, one representing the Minneapolis Millers and the other the St. Paul Saints, the two mainstay minor-league franchises predating the Twins' arrival.
Before that sign comes into view, there's a fair dose of nostalgia to be had at the Target Plaza beyond the center field entrance in the form of bronze statues of Hall of Famers Kirby Puckett and Harmon Killebrew. The former is depicted with an upraised right fist as he's circling the bases following his 11th-inning walk-off homer in Game Six of the 1991 World Series—a pose which reminded my traveling companion a bit too vividly of the domestic violence allegations which colored his post-baseball career. The latter is depicted uncoiling a powerful right-handed swing so textbook that legend holds that it was the model for the MLB logo.
Unlike every other trip I've made to a ballpark as a fan (as opposed to as a member of the media), I didn't have a seat to head to upon entering. Such is the draw of the new stadium that fans and resellers have snarfed enough tickets to put the Twins on pace to draw a franchise-record 3.2 million, just the second time in team history they'll top three million. With 19 home dates remaining, they've already surpassed last year's 2.4 million despite a capacity of just 41,000 including standing room-only patrons. When I'd explored the possibility of purchasing tickets for this game via the Twins' website a month earlier, I discovered that the only ones remaining were for SROs. Meanwhile, resellers almost uniformly marked seats up more than 100 percent above their face value. By the time I was ready to pull the trigger, even the SRO tix were gone save for resellers, as the race between the Twins and White Sox had intensified. I finally bit the bullet, paying $87 total including fees for two tickets—a steep price considering the $25 a pop I pay for the front row of the upper deck of Yankee Stadium (yes, things have improved since this).
Upon entering, we were engulfed in a sea of red, white, and navy blue-clad Twins fans. Perhaps it's just their enthusiasm for the new park, but this was easily the most merchandise-laden fan base I've ever seen; I'd estimate that somewhere around two-thirds of the crowd wore a T-shirt, jersey, or cap with one of the various Twins' insignias on it, with Mauer jerseys—pinstriped white, off-white, solid blue, road gray, even red—the most popular but hardly the only ones; Morneau, Young, Span, and Thome also had their backers. A ladies' T-shirt promising "I only kiss Twins fans" was quite popular but presumably left the conflicted White Sox fan wearing the Thome jersey out of luck. The fans were lively and good natured even as their team took a beating, content to enjoy a beautiful 80 degree summer night in the company of family or friends, chowing down heartily while reserving their boos primarily for former catcher A.J. Pierzynski—a curious choice given the haul he brought back from the Giants (Francisco Liriano, Joe Nathan, and Boof Bonser). That's how it goes when you're riding high in first place, at least outside the Big Apple.
The Twins came into the year projected to go just 81-81, a record which nonetheless made them the favorites in an AL Central scrum where just five wins separated top from bottom. For a team that's largely succeeded on the cheap thanks to a productive farm system, they spent rather heavily in the offseason, increasing their Opening Day payroll by an MLB-high 49.4 percent over 2009, from $65.3 million to $97.6 million. That latter figure doesn't even include Joe Mauer's eight-year, $184 million extension, which takes effect in 2011. While much of the payroll increase came via raises to core players, the team also added mid-price free agents Carl Pavano ($7 million) and Orlando Hudson ($5 million), and fished Jim Thome ($1.6 million) out of the bargain bin.
After spending almost the entire first half in first place, the Twins slipped as far as third with a 1-6 record in the week before the All-Star break. Worse, they lost Justin Morneau to a concussion on July 7, and the AL True Average leader (.359) has yet to return. But as with last year, when they snagged the division flag with a 17-4 run after Morneau was sidelined by a back injury, the Twins have rallied without their star first baseman. They've gone an AL-best 27-14 while bashing out 5.2 runs per game, collectively hitting .295/.359/.459. Mauer has led the charge in Morneau's absence, shaking free of myriad injuries to hit a searing .390/.472/.588. He's had plenty of help, though; four other starters (Delmon Young, Michael Cuddyer, Danny Valencia, and J.J. Hardy) have batting averages of at least .300, OBPs of at least .345, and SLGs of at least .460 during that stretch, with Hudson (.304/.385/.431), Alexi Casilla (.297/.338/.459), and Thome (.281/.409/.584) productive as well.
The combination of their six-game winning streak and a 2-8 skid by the White Sox (including the first two games of this series) had in the span of seven days turned a tie atop the division into a five-game lead for Minnesota, bumping their Playoff Odds from 65 percent to 92 percent. In a supreme bit of irony, former Sox slugger Thome belted a walk-off homer on the opening night of the series, the 581st dinger of his career as well as his 12th walk-off, tying a major-league record shared with a veritable Murderers Row of sluggers: Babe Ruth, Frank Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Jimmie Foxx, and Stan Musial. The Sox, who passed on re-signing Thome as a free agent, have often seemed a bat short, particularly at DH, where their mismatched Andruw Jones/Mark Kotsay tandem and other irregulars had combined to hit just .239/.308/.411. Manager Ozzie Guillen, never shy about making headlines, has claimed responsibility for spurning Thome in an effort to give his lineup more flexibility.
With de facto ace Pavano—as ridiculously incongruous as that sounds, he was the staff leader in innings, wins, Support Neutral Winning Percentage, and cheesy mustaches coming into the game, what else could he be called? Don't answer that, Yankees fans—on the hill for the Twins, the possibility of a sweep loomed. The White Sox made short work of that possibility, however, with the slaptastic duo of Juan Pierre and Omar Vizquel, both with OBPs higher than their slugging percentages, leading off with back-to-back singles and coming around to score in the top of the first. The Sox nicked and cut Pavano half to death, racking up 10 hits through three innings and collecting 15 (the most he'd ever allowed) total along with seven runs in his six-plus innings. Eleven of those hits were singles, with Mark Teahen's third-inning triple and Paul Konerko's fifth-inning solo homer the key exceptions. Konerko was the game's offensive star, going 5-for-5 with three runs scored and four RBI. Pierre, Vizquel, Teahen, and Alexei Ramirez collected three hits apiece, with the latter knocking a two-run homer in the eighth inning off Glen Perkins to perpetuate the party after Pavano had packed it in.
Meanwhile, the Twins could barely muster an ounce of offense against White Sox starter Mark Buehrle. They went 1-2-3 on 10 pitches in the first and second innings, finally collecting a two-out single courtesy of ninth-spot hitter Drew Butera (Mauer was DHing) in the bottom of the third. They had a flicker of a chance to score in the fourth, but Cuddyer, who had doubled with two outs, was thrown out in a rundown between third and home after Young's grounder deflected off Ramirez. The ricochet was cleanly picked up by second baseman Gordon Beckham, who fired to Pierzynski before the runner retreated in vain. They did put two on with one out an inning later, but Buehrle escaped by doing what he does best: generating ground balls. He netted 13 of them on the night, and surrendered just four singles and a double in seven innings before departing.
With the game's action less than scintillating—particularly with personal favorite Thome sitting against the southpaw—and with no particular place to call our own, my companion and I wandered the main concourse, gorging ourselves on the treats the ballpark had to offer as we strolled along the third-base side and eventually climbed up to the center-field overlook. I'd solicited food recommendations via Twitter and received a flood of replies from a surprisingly large contingent of Twins fans, ranging from the Tony O's Cuban sandwich (named for former Twins star Tony Oliva) to Loon's Chili to wild rice soup (at a ballpark?) to the salacious-sounding Juicy Lucy ("Is that legal in Minnesota?" I asked). It is, and it's the stuff of “Man v. Food” nightmares, a massive patty stuffed with cheese capable of scalding the tongue upon first bite.
We shied away from the burger, but that hardly meant heart-smart dining. Instead we began with the fried fare-o-rama at the State Fair Classics concession stand, sharing an undersized slab of walleye on a stick as well as cheese curds. The former was tasty, but at $11 grossly overpriced, but the latter was a huge hit, delectably greasy coffin nails in the form of deep-fried cheddar nuggets. A couple innings later I sampled the Polish offering from Kramarczuk's Sausages, piled with sauerkraut and onions. It was far better than the sausages at Yankee Stadium, but a bit too salty and short of the bratwurst at Milwaukee's Miller Park, which sets the major-league standard in encased meats. We considered buying a bag of mini-donuts—their aroma of fried goodness was intense—but my companion instead opted to return to the State Fair for a corn dog. The contrast between the sweet corn casing and the savory hot dog conjured memories of childhood at a swimming pool snack bar; the corn was just a bit doughy for my tastes. We washed all of this down with a steady succession of local beers, ranging from Grain Belt to Schell's to Summit, taking note of the first-aid crash carts strategically located around the stadium.
In the end, while we didn't get a tension-fraught, memorable game befitting two contenders on our visit to Target Field, we did get to indulge in some of the park's many pleasures. I'm quite sure that neither my coronary arteries nor my baseball sensibility could stand my making a habit of such ballpark behavior, but I'm glad I did it once. More importantly, I'm elated for Twins fans, who will get a considerably more palatable ballpark for their tax dollar than they did for the previous quarter-century or so, not to mention a bump in revenue that should help the team continue its competitive spree. Would that all if-you-build-it stories turn out so well.
*Alphabetically: Camden Yards, Citi Field, Dodger Stadium, Fenway Park, Jacobs Field, Metrodome, Miller Park, RFK Stadium, Safeco Field, Shea Stadium, Target Field, Tiger Stadium, Wrigley Field, Yankee Stadiums II and III.