Monday, September 21, 2009

The Metrodome: the best worst stadium in sports

Following a three-game series against Detroit over the weekend, the Twins only have three games left in the Metrodome, barring a postseason appearance. Being that they're now three back, it seems likely that those final games in October against Kansas City will bring an end to the Twins's reign in the beloved-by-none structure.

Any tears that players or fans shed will be as artificial as the turf.

The Vikings remain in the Dome, as do state high school football championships and a few conventions. Some monster truck events still call it home. But it's the end of Major League Baseball.

Most people are overjoyed to see the Twins leaving the Metrodome. Opponents long ago tired of losing fly balls in the roof and falling victim to the stadium's other quirks. Minnesota fans want to enjoy their three months of warm weather. They'll bask in outdoor baseball in June, July, and August. The rest of the time? Well, they'll pack that quilt grandma made them for Christmas and those April series against the Royals played in 35-degree weather will be baseball at its finest. And most miserable.

Sports Illustrated a few weeks ago had a poll of 380 players who were asked to name their favorite stadium. Every park got at least one vote - even Tampa Bay's disgrace of a home. Well, every park but one: the Dome. Not even a pity vote?

That poll is just one more example - maybe the final example we'll get without a postseason appearance - that the Metrodome was the best homefield advantage in baseball. An argument could be made that it was the best homefield advantage in any professional sport. Football fields are all 100 yards long whether the stadium's indoors or out and most good teams are just as capable of winning on the road. In the NBA, recent champs like the Spurs, Celtics and Lakers were nearly as dominant on the road as at home. And as historically important as Fenway and the old Yankee Stadium were, do the Sox and Yanks have great home records because of the stadiums or because they simply have dominant teams?

On Baseball Tonight on Sunday, Peter Gammons noted that the Twins, Yankees, Red Sox and Angels have the best home records over the past five years. But during that time, only the Twins have been below .500 on the road. And they're well-below .500. The others all have winning records away from home. Three of those teams have been among the best teams in baseball since 2004. The Twins, on the other hand, have been a pretty good team, with two postseason appearances in that span. Yet their home record is as good as the big boys'. How much credit goes to a good pitching staff and Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, and how much credit goes to the Teflon-roofed stadium with bad seating, worse turf and a giant garbage bag in right field?

Watching a game at the Dome really was an average-at-best experience. The hot dogs - unoriginally called Dome Dogs - were decent. But the highlight for fans attending games there - especially during the the disastrous 1990s, aka the Rich Becker Era - was having the powerful air bursts built up by the pressure inside whooooooosh them out the doors. It was three hours of tedium followed by three seconds of bliss and wide-eyed wonder. Could Wrigley offer that experience?

Would the Twins have won two World Series if they had played in an nice, retro outdoor stadium in 1987 and 1991? Impossible to say for sure, but the circumstantial evidence is pretty overwhelming. Undefeated in eight games in the Dome, winless in seven road games.

Record-loud crowds spurred on the Twins - they were louder than a jet taking off, as the TV folks reminded us time and time again. The insulated environment led opposing players and managers to act as if they'd been institutionalized. And in the last 10 years, the Dome has again caused normally stable people to rant and rave about its roof, field quality and noise. Nothing warms the heart of a Minnesotan more than a camera shot of an opposing manager looking baffled or outraged seconds after his team has been victimized by a lost fly ball or a series of infield hits that were possible only because the ball bounced 25 feet in the air after hitting the turf a foot in front of home plate. We enjoy those shots as much as a good hot dish.

In high school we had the chance to play a pair of games in the Dome. Sophomore year, our coach put me in at second base as a late-inning defensive replacement - this was still during my good glove, no bat phase. No more than 100 fans sat in the crowd. Yet I was completely unable to hear our excitable coach screaming instructions at me from the dugout. All I could do was put my arms up, asking, "what?" We won that year, partially thanks to a dome homer: one of our guys hit a routine ball that the outfielder lost like hundreds of major leaguers before him, resulting in an inside-the-park homer.

As a senior, we lost and I went hitless in front of, again, no more than 100 people, all of whom had a relative somewhere on the field. The lowlight of that game was our coach putting my cousin at first base. As one of our main pitchers and a huge Twins fan, his dream was to pitch a game at the Dome, but the start went to our junior hurler. To top off his emasculation, Matt had a DH hit for him. There hadn't been anyone that upset in the Dome since Kirk Gibson lost his mind in the dugout during the 1987 ALCS. Mention the game to Matt today and a 2,000-word email rant will arrive shortly after.

CBS Sports columnist Scott Miller wrote a massive piece on the Metrodome several weeks ago that superbly covers every famous game and episode in the stadium's history. Reading it makes it clear why 29 other teams hated coming to the Dome.

The new Twins stadium will no doubt be architecturally impressive. The sights will dazzle. The hot dogs will sport a new name, and maybe even a new taste. It will feel like a real baseball game, the way it was - cue up the poets - meant to be played. Fans and opponents will love it. In a few years it might even get a vote in a Sports Illustrated poll about the favorite stadiums in Major League Baseball. In other words, it will feel much like every other new park. The new stadiums built during the last decade-and-a-half sometimes feel as cookie-cutter as the old places like Three Rivers and Veterans, and the old domes like the Kingdome and Astrodome. They offer great experiences for the fans, but not much in the way of homefield advantage.

For better or worse - usually worse - the Metrodome was unique. When most people think of it, they'll probably remember the bad roof, the hefty bag in right and the ridiculous turf. Minnesota fans will remember Kirby's Game 6 homer and Hrbek's grand slam in 1987. They'll remember Whitey Herzog's whines and Ozzie Guillen's complaints. They'll remember two World Series titles. Two titles that wouldn't have been possible without the worst stadium in baseball.


Jerry said...

Another unhappy goup of people will be the chiropractors in the Twin Cities. After sitting anywhere past the thrid base dugout you had to be twisted at a 45 degree angle to see home plate - or the jumbotron. A lose-lose situation unless one was a Rich Becker fan. Then one could look straight at their hero all night.

mike said...

My career batting average in the Dome: 1.000 Got a pinch hitting appearance with 2 outs in the last inning of the real game when I was a junior, not the scrub game that followed. This was during my good glove, not an established bunter yet phase. Hit a weak pop-up off Ryan "Itch" Atherton that landed between 2nd and the right fielder. That hit helped me stay over .400 for the season. Batting average junior year: .429 (3 for 7) Can you say under-utilized?

Shawn Fury said...

I can say inflated stats.