Minnesota's Target Field brings baseball back to roots in city that loves great outdoors
This story is an exclusive preview from the 2014 MLB Official All-Star Game Program. Order a program now on MLB.com/Shop. Also find the first-ever digital edition, available only through MLB.com At the Ballpark and MLB.com At Bat apps.
Take the pleasant walk yourself. Start at the corner of Sixth Street and First Avenue in downtown Minneapolis, at the statue of Sid Hartman, the venerable 94-year-old sports columnist from the Minneapolis Star Tribune. With the Target Center on your left, head up the gently sloping ramp, passing the entrance to Life Time Fitness and the outdoor tables at Hubert's Bar & Grill. Ignore the stray popcorn kernels and discarded cigarette butts -- magic is ahead.
Continue onto Target Plaza: past the statue of Hall of Fame slugger Harmon Killebrew taking a mighty cut while dropping nearly to one knee; past the statue of another Hall of Famer, Kirby Puckett, fist aloft in his famed "We'll-see-you-tomorrow-night" pose; past the nine, tall bat-shaped topiaries in single file like soldiers; past the sweet aroma of Angie's Kettle Corn stand.
Now look up, and there it is: Target Field, the site of the 2014 All-Star Game, its dark green seats rising and sparkling on a beautiful summer afternoon.
Wedged into a tight parcel bordered by Interstate 394, two city streets and an incinerator, Target Field opened in 2010 at a cost of $545 million. It stands as a tribute to Minnesota's practicality and ingenuity -- impressive without being ostentatious, and packed with uniquely local features.
From the limestone exterior quarried from southern Minnesota to the Minnie and Paul home run sign in center field that mimics the team's original logo, Target Field celebrates the Land of 10,000 Lakes in many ways.
"I try to be as objective as I can, but I still tell people I think it's the best ballpark in the country," said Twins television voice Dick Bremer, who grew up in rural Minnesota and saw his first game at Metropolitan Stadium, the club's original home. "It's a jewel."
This is the Twins' third home since the franchise, originally the Washington Senators, relocated to the Twin Cities for the 1961 season. Metropolitan Stadium was the first, built on farmland in the south suburb of Bloomington in the mid-1950s for the Minneapolis Millers, then a Triple-A farm team of the New York Giants. Twin Cities boosters intended for it to entice a Major League club.
"Met Stadium," as many Minnesotans called it, expanded in multiple stages from 18,200 seats to almost 46,000 after the Twins and the NFL's Minnesota Vikings took up residence. It hosted the 1965 All-Star Game, as well as the memorable Game 7 of the 1965 World Series, a 2-0 complete-game victory by Los Angeles Dodgers Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax. But the Met aged quickly, and the Twins abandoned it for the Metrodome in 1982.
Although the Twins won their only two World Series championships at the Dome (in 1987 and '91), sweeping all eight Fall Classic games before deafening crowds under the gray Teflon roof, the club longed for an outdoor facility that was theirs alone, not shared with the Vikings or the University of Minnesota football and baseball teams. Players griped about the Dome's lack of amenities. Fans tired of the narrow concourses, football-centric seating angles and sterile atmosphere.
"The Metrodome was a place you wanted to be in April," Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, who came up with the Twins, told reporters at Target Field in 2010. "After that, it was like you were in prison."
It took 11 years, the rumored sale of the club to a North Carolina businessman and a threat of contraction before the state legislature passed a ballpark financing bill in 2006. One caveat: The Twins were required to cover cost overruns.
Instead of pulling back and cutting corners, the club and owner Carl Pohlad contributed an additional $65 million to infrastructure and ballpark enhancements: a roof canopy, high-definition scoreboard, the distinctive limestone exterior, the 46-foot-tall Minnie and Paul sign that lights up after each Twins home run, the wind veil artwork attached to the parking garage bordering Target Plaza and other features. Limestone, also affixed to the backstop and dugout roofs, was a Minnesota twist on the red brick used at so many new stadiums.
The designers, from sports architecture firm Populous, managed to fit a 13-acre ballpark into an eight-acre former parking lot by relocating railroad tracks and building Target Plaza over Interstate 394, with a pedestrian connector to First Avenue. The stadium opened to nearly unanimous positive reviews from fans, players and baseball executives.
"When I walked out onto the field, it was remarkable," MLB Commissioner Bud Selig said at the Twins' home opener in April 2010. "I'm an optimist, but even I couldn't have dreamed it would have turned out like it did."
Twins CEO Jim Pohlad, who has run the club since his father's death in 2009, reflected on the planning and design. "A lot of it is luck," he said. "You look at something on paper, you don't know if it's going to work or not.
"Maybe it's from low expectations, because of the site, putting it on a parking lot. Things all have to come together and be right. The good thing is, we had a good team with the planning and design."
Several ballpark proposals over the years included a retractable roof, but the final design did not because Populous architects determined the site was too small to support one. Instead, the Twins installed heated viewing areas down each line for those chilly days and nights in April.
"The Metrodome was special in the fact that no [opposing teams] liked to come in there," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "I always thought we had a big advantage. We had teams built for that ballpark. We had speed. We could run all over the place on people. It played its role, and it was fun.
"But being outdoors, I love it. This All-Star Game, outdoors, looking out over downtown, is going to be a better-than-spectacular event. I think it's going to be really special. People that haven't seen this ballpark, getting a chance to come in here, are going to be amazed."
Nods to Twins history begin even before fans enter the stadium. Mockups of baseball cards, many from team curator Clyde Doepner's personal collection, line the walkway from the light-rail station in left field to the gate behind home plate. All five of the ballpark's entry gates honor Twins greats: No. 34 for Puckett (Target Plaza), No. 29 for Rod Carew (right field), No. 3 for Killebrew (center field), No. 14 for Kent Hrbek (home plate) and No. 6 for Tony Oliva (left field).
Most fans proceed through Target Plaza or Gate 29, which both face downtown. The huge bronze glove statue outside Gate 34 was placed exactly 520 feet from home plate, matching the distance of Killebrew's longest home run at Met Stadium.
Once inside, spectators on the third-base side are afforded a spectacular view of the Minneapolis skyline, a sight reminiscent of the Prudential and John Hancock buildings rising beyond the right-field grandstand at Boston's Fenway Park.
The open-air concourses, twice the width of those at the Metrodome, allow for an unobstructed view of the field and easy access to seating and concessions. Each seat faces the middle of the infield, something that wasn't always the case in the Metrodome.
"It's an excellent ballpark just based on where the team was forced to play all those years, where the seats were angled to watch a football game, not a baseball game," Bremer said. "Here, that's not the case. Those seats down the right-field line are bent in, looking at the infield. That same seat at the Metrodome caused a crick in everyone's neck."
The field dimensions are similar to those of the Metrodome, down to the 23-foot-high fence in right field. But instead of a plastic "baggie" or temporary fence, this one is permanent and topped by a limestone-faced overhang jutting out over the playing surface.
That nod to the club's past is among many incorporated into the park's design. Another is the black flagpole in right field, the tallest of three, which originally stood at Met Stadium. An American Legion Post in Richfield, Minn., acquired it after the Met was torn down, but the Twins purchased it back and refurbished it. Former Twin Jim Thome hit the top of the flagpole with a home run on Sept. 6, 2010.
"I tell people who are coming here for the first time, 'Get here early and walk around the ballpark,'" said Twins Assistant General Manager Rob Antony. "There are so many different sections and different options.
"Some teams have 100 years of tradition. We don't have as much, but all of it is encompassed in the ballpark. I think they tried to show all the different things that make the Twins what they are. The historical elements are phenomenal."
Food options at Target Field far outstrip anything offered at the Metrodome. The Tony O's Cuban Sandwich, a ham and roasted pork concoction named for the Cuban-born Oliva, is a particular favorite. When the stadium first opened, Gardenhire heard so much about it that he asked his wife, Carol, to bring one home for him.
So how was it? "Awesome, which I expected," he said. (Gardenhire, by the way, claims that he has never dispatched a clubhouse attendant into the grandstand to buy him food on nights he has been ejected from games. "But that's a real good thought," he said with an impish grin.)
One April day during batting practice, Hrbek -- whose name graces a Target Field pub -- and Pohlad debated their ballpark favorites. Pohlad voted for the Tony O's Cuban, while Hrbek stuck with a classic. "What's better than a hot dog?" he said. "It's hard to beat a hot dog and a beer at the ballpark."
For anyone seeking other options, Target Field delivers. The Murray's Steak Sandwich, from a popular steakhouse near the ballpark, is another big seller. So are the sausages and brats from Kramarczuk's, a well-known family-run shop in Minneapolis's Northeast neighborhood. Vincent's, a French restaurant, boasts its Angus burger stuffed with braised short rib and Gouda. State Fair Classics, in center field, serves walleye and chips, pork chops on a stick, corn dogs, cheese curds and deep-fried pickle chips.
"There are some things that don't sound right, and some things that sound really good," said Twins pitcher Brian Duensing. "They have so much variety in food out there. It would take an entire season to try it all."
The newest addition to the Target Field menu sits just inside Gate 34: the Butcher & the Boar Restaurant stand, where smoke from grilling rib tips rises from the barbecue and entices passers-by.
"In comparison to what the Dome was, this is everything that's good," said the club's closer Glen Perkins, a Minnesota native and first-time All-Star in 2013. "When they were planning this whole thing, they had a pretty good blueprint of what not to do. So they did a 180 from everything they didn't like about the Dome.
"The best thing about Target Field is, it's outside. I remember being on [Twins Winter] Caravan when they were building it, and I said I would rather have a game get rained out than play in the Dome. Deal with weather -- deal with rain, deal with snow -- whatever it is. Late May, June, July, August, September, I don't think there's a better place to play baseball than Minnesota, and here. It's got everything a baseball player would ever want."
Meanwhile, the Twins continue to make improvements to their new stadium. Last year, the club removed obstructed view seats from behind the right-field foul pole and repurposed them into a group function area. This season -- after 14 black spruce trees originally planted on the batter's eye were removed when players complained about shadows -- Spartan juniper trees were planted beneath the iconic Minnie and Paul sign just beyond the center-field fence.
For Bremer, nothing can replace the Met Stadium of his boyhood. He loved the old place so much he acquired two old grandstand seats -- one for his home office and another for his living room. But the club's new home, he says, will forever be special in its own way, for him and the newest generation of Twins fans.
"I think the Twins organization could have gotten away with just having outdoor baseball. There was that much pent-up desire for baseball played in the elements," Bremer said of the move to Target Field. "But instead, they just did a remarkable job, whether it's for the fans, the members of the media, the coaches or the players. They went the extra mile to make it what it is -- in my opinion, the best ballpark in the country."
Pat Borzi is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis, Minn. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.