Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Disrespect The Met

Having returned from Minneapolis, the obvious must be noted that Twins fans are eternally grateful for the return of outdoor baseball, and their new home, Target Field, is every bit as spectacular as you've heard. It's no Wrigley- Wrigley is a baseball religious experience that no new stadium can match, something sports fans are told they have to do before they die- but it's an outstanding, amazing ballpark. (And the Twins ran away early, winning 10-4.)

But now that it's here, even given the constant nods to the history of Minnesota baseball, not just Twins baseball (but only Minnesota- don't try looking for the Washington Senators because you won't find them), with memories invoked in all corners of the park, with all Twins logos prominent, all teams at all levels, all five retired Twins numbers (Jackie Robinson's #42 excepted) commemorated with their own individual entry gate, every single person who ever played for the Twins noted outside between Gates #29 and #34 on 'Tradition Wall', the walkway to Gate #29 showcasing every vaguely professional stadium ever built in the Twin Cities and every member of the Twins Hall of Fame... I worry that one part of that history may end up unduly forgotten: their previous outdoor stadium, Metropolitan Stadium, aka 'The Met'.

Metropolitan Stadium was the Twins', and for that matter the Vikings' home as well, from 1961-1981, and previously the home of the minor-league Minneapolis Millers from 1956-1960, deserves a degree of enduring affection even as Target Field shines anew. After all, had it not been for the Met, the Twins may not have come into town in the first place. It was built specifically to lure a major-league club from somewhere else.

The Millers, like all Minnesota baseball teams, stand fondly remembered in Target Field, as is, admittedly, Metropolitan Stadium, most notably commemorated by the flagpole used during the Met's life and seeing service at a local American Legion after the Met was demolished. Also remembered, very prominently, is the Twins' immediately preceding stadium, the Metrodome.

The Metrodome is not remembered fondly, mind you. But it is remembered prominently, particularly in the vast majority of the nostalgic clips played in the introductory vignette prior to the start of the game as the Twins display their finest hours.

This was the Metrodome's strength. While a bare-bones venue for fans- a spokesman at the time, according to the Baseball Hall of Shame 2, was quoted as saying "The idea is to get the fans in, let 'em see a game, and then let 'em go home," the noise kept in by the dome, as well as the unique conditions crated by a bouncy turf, the white roof that could conceal fly balls, and the 'Baggie' in right field, created a powerful home-field advantage that ultimately brought the Twins two World Series championships in 1987 and 1991, to the degree that the Twins were lucky to have home-field advantage for both Series, as in each case they would win all four home games and lose all three road games.

But it was a terrible place to be for a fan. Or an opponent. As Blue Jays coach Bob Didler said after Alfredo Griffin lost a hop over the mound in the lights, also according to the Baseball Hall of Shame 2, "Only in Minnesota could someone lose a ground ball in the lights during the day."

The day prior, I had been to the Mall of America, a much nicer place to be than the Metrodome in any sense of the word. After Metropolitan Stadium was demolished in 1985, the Mall of America was built on the site. I had heard that the place home plate stood in the Met was marked somewhere in the Mall, and resolved to, along with the other in-mall destinations I had set, find home plate.

It wasn't easy. Home plate was not marked on any of the Mall's maps or directories. I'd have to find it manually. Also preserved was a red seat commemorating the exact landing spot, elevation included, of the longest home run ever hit in the stadium, a 520-foot blast by Harmon Killebrew in 1967.

I would never find the seat. Nor could any Mall employee I asked tell me where it could be found.

It's a confusing thing. The Met saw an American League champion Twins side as well, in 1965, though here they would be defeated by the Dodgers, again in 7 games. Again, the Twins would lose all their road games, but in 1965, they only won three of four home games, with Sandy Koufax throwing a three-hitter in Game 7.

Metropolitan Stadium was built with no team in particular in mind, but in Minnesota, it really didn't need to be. Though common and in fact expected now, the Met was revolutionary in respect to its wholly cantilevered grandstands, drastically reducing obstructed-view seats. Even modern stadiums don't go all the way with it like the Met did; only New Yankee Stadium does this today as much as Metropolitan Stadium. And besides, what the stadium wouldn't do, the weather would. Minnesota in late March/early April, and deep into October, is not known for its warmth. Prior to their Metrodome days, the Vikings were as feared as any current cold-weather team, going 8-3 in home playoff games at the Met.

The big knock was the Met's poor state at the end of its life- in its final season, the upper deck was condemned as a safety hazard. But this was the Twins' fault; they failed to perform any sort of substansive maintenance on the Met. The other big knock was the poor sightlines. But the Metrodome was a multipurpose stadium built for football first and baseball second, and sightlines are never good in that circumstance either.

As BallparkTour puts it, "The final baseball game ever played there was on Sept. 30, 1981. It was played in a light rain, a condition similar to that of the major league opener 21 seasons earlier. Between those rains an entire generation was introduced to professional sports at the Met. That it was all outdoors will stand as the Met's lone heritage."

Outdoor baseball, though, is played heavily on by the Twins, whether at the Met or elsewhere. A banner just outside Target Field, on a nearby skyscraper, reads 'Outdoor Baseball Is Back'. In the second home game of the season against the Red Sox, rain fell, and the fans responded by chanting "OUT-door BASE-ball".

And then there's the Town Ball Tavern, situated by the left field foul pole, celebrating the heritage of amateur baseball in Minnesota. Outside are team photos of various state town ball champions. Inside are photographs of an assortment of local ballparks throughout Minnesota.

But even though outdoor baseball was back, nobody at Target Field, as I strolled throughout the park over the course of the game, gave off a real sense of why they were using the word 'back'. They were simply happy to not be in the Metrodome anymore and knew they played outdoors somewhere prior to that. Some wouldn't even say 'back' at all; the most prominent phrase used by Twins personnel to refer to the stadium was simply "the new capital of Twins Territory". This simply indicates a new stadium of some sort, not a restoration of what once was.

After nearly six hours of traversing the Mall of America the day before, I finally found what once was: home plate of Metropolitan Stadium. That's how long it took for me, amidst my shopping, to find enough people who knew enough of home plate's very existence to slowly direct me to its exact location: somewhere on the floor of the in-mall theme park, Nickelodeon Universe.

As my last act before exiting the mall, I found home plate. It stood utterly uncelebrated. Nobody else nearby, including multiple people wearing Twins paraphernalia, seemed interested or even aware of it. One person, while knowing of the Metrodome, was unaware that Metropolitan Stadium ever existed, despite standing no more than 30 feet from the home plate marker.

I tried, for a time, to imagine the stadium that lured professional baseball to Minnesota, to imagine Sandy Koufax bearing down on Harmon Killebrew, to try and look into the bleachers of the Met.

Had I looked just above the Log Chute ride, there, 520 feet away, was sitting the spot where Harmon Killebrew hit his home run in 1967.

No matter. It proved impossible.

The Rugrats Reptarmobiles were blocking my view five feet in front of me.

No comments: