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Open-air Target Field will let baseball breathe in Minnesota

MINNEAPOLIS -- As you walk around what will become, in eight short months, the Minnesota Twins' custom-built home and the major league's newest ballpark, your glance keeps drifting upward and, as if Bedford Falls were one of the Twin Cities, you start to hear Jimmy Stewart pitching woo on a stroll past picket fences:

"What is it you want, Minny? What do you want? You want the moon? Just say the word and I'll throw a lasso around it and pull it down. Hey. That's a pretty good idea. I'll give you the moon, Minny.''

Soon enough, the Twins will give their fans the moon. And the stars, the clouds, fresh air and a cool breeze at the end of a hot August day. A tan -- think of it, a tan at a ball game! A glimpse of the skyline in one direction, a whiff of the Hennepin County garbage incinerator from the other. Shoehorned into a tight but intriguing urban site on the opposite side of downtown from the Twins' current and much-maligned home, Target Field will boast all the amenities and comforts that people have come to expect from professional playgrounds priced at $500 million and beyond. But it offers something extra, something that in theory doesn't cost a cent:

How much is a blue sky worth? How much would you pay to look up and see the sun, a plane, even a blimp on special days, after being cooped up all week in an office, a classroom, a warehouse? How much -- after being indoors from November into April year after year because of where you live and then indoors again from April into October because of where your favorite team plays -- to breathe deep at the crack of the bat, to feel the sun's warmth or savor the moon's glow, to swear you can even smell the grass? What, you'd rather pull a gray Teflon cover over your head, hunker down in hermetically sealed, 70-degree artificial weather and settle for something vaguely reminiscent of a sport you once knew as baseball?

The draw in 2010 will be a new ballpark but the allure will come less from what's there (most notable on first exposure, the native Kasota stone from southern Minnesota that frames the exterior, highlights certain interior facades and even caps the dugout roofs) than what is not there. As in, the roof. That feature or, more accurately, deletion from what a couple generations of Twin Cities baseball fans have grown up with is Target Field's most striking difference from the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.

Now, despite what Al Gore and his legions might tell you, the climate in Minnesota hasn't changed nearly enough since the Dome opened in 1982. Last we checked, the Twins play 350 miles northwest of Milwaukee, where a canopy on wheels shelters crowds from any storms. Last we checked, too, the World Series is scheduled this year to push into November.

"A retractable roof would have cost $150 million and up to do,'' Twins president Dave St. Peter told me recently, while giving a personal tour of the new park. "Our owners already have put nearly $200 million into the project. The county had no interest in funding a roof. So based on the lack of state participation, our best alternative was to build Target Field without a roof.''

The Twins have run the numbers -- average temperatures in April and October, annual precipitation each spring and fall (and form, as in rain vs. snow), total number of weather postponements at old Met Stadium in suburban Bloomington from 1961 to 1981. The team averaged between three and four rainouts each season, St. Peter said, a workable number of games to make up in day/night doubleheaders.

"Rain, we can handle that,'' he said. "It's more an issue of climate. But we're getting soft in Minnesota. I expect to get as many fans complaining about the heat, missing the air conditioning in the Dome, as I do the cold.

"We are going to play more day games. I don't think there's any clamor to put a roof on Wrigley Field, and the fact is, there are crummy days in April at Wrigley Field. There will be crummy days in April at Target Field. But there will be beautiful days, too.''

That was the setting for my visit around, in and through the new ballpark with St. Peter. As some of the 850 construction workers bolted down green plastic seats or prepped the heating grid and drains that will lie beneath the natural, pristine diamond -- grass! -- I donned a neon-chartreuse safety vest, goggles and a hard hat for an advance look. Here's what I noticed:

• A canopy that covers most of the park's second upper deck looks like equal parts race car spoiler and schooner's flying jib. It is finished off top and bottom -- no erector-set girders visible from below -- and houses all but one of Target Field's light banks for a very streamlined look.

• Heavy use of glass, in harmony with Minneapolis skyscrapers, is evident in floor-to-ceiling windows on certain concourses. It makes for a jewel box feel, quite unlike the prefab, Ebbets Field-by-way-of-Epcot style of some recent MLB construction. The field configuration is standard enough, its dimensions close to what the Twins have now. The wall in right will be tall and a little closer down the line but there won't be any nooks or crannies. No greatest hits of architectural quirks from the nation's other green cathedrals, either. They clearly didn't want to nostalgia anyone to death.

"Quite the opposite,'' St. Peter said. "It was never our intent to build a 'retro' ballpark. We're building a much more modern ballpark with 'classic' features.''

• The scoreboard, as you might expect, will be fit for King Kong's or Bill Gates' family room: A state-of-the-art 1080 HDTV screen that will rank as the fourth-largest in baseball and, more important, is nine times the size of the two mini-screens at the Dome. Fans there might as well watch replays on their iPods for all the visual impact and clarity.

• Sightlines from most vantage points will be good, although fly balls will get chopped off by the intruding deck above once you've headed to the wide, open main concourse. Two days after touring Target Field, for comparison's sake and to remind myself of some not-so-niceties, I bought a lower grandstand ticket to a Twins-White Sox game. From my seat about 50 feet beyond third base, 29 rows up, the view straight ahead was of Carlos Gomez or Brian Anderson, the game's centerfielders; focusing on the pitchers, batters and base runners required a constant head turn 60 degrees to the right, thanks to the Metrodome's primary use as home of the NFL's Minnesota Vikings. Navigating the Dome's claustrophobic concourse to snag a pretzel, meanwhile, felt like a trek from one end of Das Boot to the other.

• A $9 million plaza outside links Target Field to the NBA Timberwolves' Target Center and the rest of downtown. Fans who arrive there will enter the park through Gate 34, one of five main entrances dedicated to a retired Twins jersey number. Kirby Puckett wore 34, and the others are Harmon Killebrew (3), Rod Carew (29), Tony Oliva (6) and Kent Hrbek (14). (No word yet on when demolition will begin for Gate 7, assuming it's a condition of Joe Mauer's next contract extension.)

• Of the estimated 40,000 seats in Target Field, only 12,000 will be in the upper deck. St. Peter said that is the fewest in the big leagues. It's a switcheroo from the Dome, where the Twins always have had the majors' fewest seats between first base and third.

Regarding any souvenirs of the Metrodome dragged along or incorporated into the new park's construction, St. Peter said: "Not much. That place will be done for us after Oct. 4, or whenever we play our last postseason game.'' It's a common response; neither Mauer, a St. Paul native, nor Twins pitcher Glen Perkins from nearby Stillwater, got teary-eyed when reminiscing about trips to the Dome as kids.

"Looking at it as a fan, I don't think anyone is going to be sad to see the Dome go,'' Perkins told the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

The Dome has been rightly blasted through the years for all manner of insults to the national pastime: The spongy turf that turned singles into triples, a lack of air conditioning in the debut 1982 season that lent a sauna atmosphere to games and, with the hot air elevating 191 home runs in 81 games, a "Homerdome'' nickname that stuck. There were the industrial-strength blowers used to keep the fabric roof aloft, and a stadium worker's admission that he switched them on and off for a while in an attempt to manipulate the Twins' offensive prowess. Balls in play clanged off loudspeakers or got lost by outfielders in the ceiling rather than the sun.

For all its affronts, though, the Metrodome hosted moments that Target Field will be hard-pressed to duplicate. The Twins, through the All-Star break, had gone 1,193-1015 in the monochrome building since it opened, including a 372-243 home mark since manager Ron Gardenhire took over in 2002. They have won six division titles while calling it home, with two AL pennants. Their World Series titles both owed much to the Dome, from its alien feel for St. Louis (1987) and Atlanta (1991) to the deafening crowd noise; the Twins won all eight Series games played in the Dome and lost all six on the road.

"Hopefully,'' Gardenhire told reporters early this season, "when we get our new stadium, we'll find a way to make [opponents] not want to come to that place, too.''

For winning, the Metrodome has been all right for the Twins and their fans. For baseball -- the grace of it, the art of it -- well, not so much. Target Field is going to give the whole bottled-up bunch of them a chance finally to lasso the moon, and to breathe.

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