The guys on WCCO last Tuesday were having all kinds of fun talking about the weather. Blizzards are burying the Northeast, they reported with a chortle. Bostonians are jamming grocery stores to stock up on food. Schools and factories are closing down. A foot of snow has fallen in New York City. There are hurricane winds in Virginia.
Weather-watching is a staple in places like Miami and Phoenix, but, oh ye Norse gods, this was Minneapolis, where, it's said, there are only two months a year when it positively can't snow. So why were the folks there talking about the bad weather elsewhere and ignoring their own sub-freezing temperatures and snowy landscape? Because the weather was fine inside the city's new $55 million Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome (capacity: 54,000 for baseball, 63,500 for football), which opened on April 6 as the home of the Twins, the Vikings, the University of Minnesota football team and, for the moment, baseball's tired, hungry and cold.
"I've been giggling all day," said Minnesota owner Calvin Griffith, who was sporting a laminated Metrodome I.D. tag and an old HHH campaign button. "The Red Sox went back to Florida because the weather is so terrible in Boston, the Brewers are practicing in the Houston Astrodome, the Yankees are snowed out, and the White Sox and Blue Jays are going to have practice games here."
The Metrodome has already been a godsend for Minnesota sport. If 45,000-seat Metropolitan Stadium, which will probably soon be razed to make way for an industrial park, were still in use, the Vikings would long since have left town, and the Twins, who had baseball's worst attendance the last two seasons thanks to spring cold and summer fadeout, would be looking around. Small wonder Minnesotans greeted the new stadium with enthusiasm. The only apparent dissenters on opening night were 75 purists who camped out at the doomed old Met in suburban Bloomington to protest the death of outdoor baseball in the Twin Cities. But even they pulled out radios and portable TVs to follow the new Met's rousing debut—a rock 'em, sock 'em, five-homer, 25-hit game in which Seattle beat Minnesota 11-7 before 52,279 fans, the largest home crowd in the Twins' 22-year history.
Even in defeat it was a memorable occasion. The temperature was 28° outside and 70° beneath the Teflon-coated Fiberglas roof. After a 30-hour train ride, Pearl Bailey sang the national anthem a cappella, and Muriel Humphrey Brown, widow of the former Vice-President, threw out the first ball. Unlike some others, it stayed in the park.
Before the game there were fears that not many batted balls would reach the leftfield stands, 343 feet distant down the line and 385 in the alley. (The right-side dimensions are 327 and 367.) Few homers had been hit in batting practice, and fewer still in a couple of high-scoring exhibitions between the Phillies and Twins. But opening night—indeed opening week—was different, with hits caroming around the park like blips on a Pong machine. The Twins' Dave Engle homered down the leftfield line in the first inning of the lid-lifter and was so excited he didn't break stride rounding the bases. Four more homers followed, including three to leftfield. The teams hit eight homers in the next two games, which the Twins won 7-5 and 4-1.
Home runs are only the most visible reason the Metrodome could become the most offense-oriented park in baseball. The playing surface is Superturf, the springiest artificial topping in the game. "It's like starting blocks," said Seattle Second Baseman Julio Cruz, who stole a base in the opener. In the Twins-Mariners series, ground balls shimmied along, kicking toward the lines and hopping out of fielders' gloves.
The ball also took some funny hops in the outfield. But after a while, the players figured out that this new surface required special strategies. "The bounce is higher here than at our place, and fielders will have to rush up and trap the ball to prevent it from hopping over their heads," said Mariner Leftfielder Bruce Bochte, a veteran of four seasons in Seattle's Kingdome. "I know we're supposed to play back on artificial turf, but not here. A ball hit past you will probably be over the fence or at least high off the wall. We'll have to cheat in on it more." Speaking for the pitchers. Twins Reliever Doug Corbett said, "No lead is going to be safe here. It's going to be a house of thrills."
But it will also be an empty house if the Twins don't develop into a contender. For now, Griffith is selling his young, pitching-poor club as entertainment rather than as a winner. Even so, Minnesota has three good rookies—Third Baseman Gary Gaetti, Centerfielder Jim Eisenreich (of St. Cloud, Minn.) and First Baseman Kent Hrbek (of Bloomington).
"I saw Hrbek in the sandlots, and the way the ball went off that aluminum bat, why it reminded you of Ted Williams," Griffith says. Indeed, Hrbek, who last season led organized baseball with a .379 average at Class A Visalia, Calif. and beat the Yankees with a homer in his first major league game in August, has a drawing of Williams hanging over his locker. "They started calling me Ted at Visalia," said Hrbek, who is tall and self-assured, the very incarnation of the Natural. "Maybe someday they'll call someone Kent." When Hrbek hit a 400-foot homer and fielded like a Gold Glover last week, they were calling him, accurately enough, a winner.
A spring fill-in for the disabled John Castino, Gaetti will be difficult to displace at third. "He has almost the power of a Harmon Killebrew, and he's a good defensive player," says Griffith. Gaetti homered three times while going 7 for 10 in the Seattle series and was thrown out trying for an inside-the-park home run in his first at bat. Every bit as classy at third as Hrbek is at first, Gaetti is of the Sal Bando breed: stocky, tough, durable and pleasant, with an Italian surname. When Gaetti followed a homer with a walk in his next at bat, in Game 3, he was disgusted. "The guy [Seattle righthander Gene Nelson] should have at least tried to hit me," he said. Nervous and ingenuous, Eisenreich proclaims himself "amazed to be here. Last year I was following these guys, and now they're my teammates." Griffith insists that Eisenreich is the fastest Twin, waves a "magic wand" and isn't afraid to bounce into fences.
It will take a while to determine if the new Twins are as notable as their new dome. Unlike most other large arenas, this one was built on time and under budget and figures to meet operating and debt expenses.
Unfortunately for the Twins and their fans, the dome seems to have been designed for football. The seats face squarely out over the field; they are not angled toward the pitcher's mound as is the custom. And the upper deck is set back rather than overhanging, the better to accommodate 115 luxury boxes owned by the Vikings. "I cannot understand sitting in a glass-enclosed booth in a domed stadium," says Twins Executive Vice-President Clark Griffith, Calvin's son, with considerable logic.
If the Metrodome isn't an ideal baseball stadium, neither is Minnesota an ideal baseball team. The Twins have finished below .500 each of the last two years, and since 1976 they have lost 18 free agents and signed one. "We don't have the population or the radio-TV contract to pay those salaries," Calvin Griffith says, ignoring the fact that the Twins have baseball's highest average ticket price ($7.50) and lowest average salary ($90,000).
"If he doesn't pay, he'll lose all the young guys with potential," said a Twin last week. And Metrodome or not, the team would be out in the cold again.