Monday, April 12, 2010

Finally the full baseball experience in Minnesota

ON BASEBALL

Go ahead. Shed a tear. If you're a Twins fan, you just lost one of the biggest home-field advantages in all of baseball.

But you also, it must be noted, gained a much grander, much more enjoyable, and, yeah, much prettier baseball-watching experience. The Twins began their tenure at Target Field Monday afternoon, and it will have to go down as a pleasant one -- even a sunny one in 65-degree weather. (They beat the Red Sox 5-2.)

Baseball -- like football and so many other sports -- was meant to be played outside. On real grass. In stadiums with beautiful skylines. And, most importantly, with real wind! Yes, wind is an important element of any baseball game. If it's blowing out, pitchers have to adjust their targets, keep the ball low. If it's coming in, they can go ahead and challenge hitters to swing for the fences. Best of luck.

At the Metrodome, there technically wasn't any wind. That's what you get, you know, when games are played indoors. Of course, some opposing teams thought otherwise -- and fan-induced wind or not, the Twins possessed a huge home-field advantage. They knew how to deal with fly balls hit Mars-high into the dome's Teflon-coated fiberglass fabric. They were used to the slick turf ground balls skidded on. They knew how balls would bounce off the baggy right-field wall.

All advantages. All gone now.

So how well the Twins perform at home this season will be an interesting development. Especially in their first year at the new ballpark, they'll possess close to no home-field advantage (and no, don't tell me that fans make much of a difference at baseball games; the only case I can make for this is when balls are hit down the lines or in foul play and fans get involved).

The Twins' record at the Dome -- where they played for 28 years -- wasn't spectacular, with their .541 winning percentage just barely better than the league average for home teams of .540. But that included eight pretty pitiful rebuilding years in the 1990s, years in which they couldn't have made the playoffs by poisoning opposing pitchers. Most importantly, the Twins won their only two World Series (1987 and '91) while playing at the Dome and have quietly taken five of the last eight Central Division titles -- winning many of them by a very close margin, the kind of difference a place like the Dome could have made.

So don't discount the Metrodome advantage. It might have been relatively small when considering a 162-game season, but it did count for something.

And now, as the loquacious White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said last year, "I want to see the piranhas in a different lake next year."

Well, Ozzie, you're getting your wish. I, for one, don't think the new ballpark will hurt the hometown team. That's because this group of Twins is about as versatile and dangerous as any team the city has seen in quite awhile. They have the power to take advantage of the short right-field fence (328 feet) at Target Field -- which is similar to how far the "Baggie" wall was at the Dome. They also, however, can play small ball. And, of course, their pitching is consistently solid.

Perhaps similar in importance, Twins players should enjoy the Target Field experience a lot more than they did the Metrodome one (lack of esoteric advantages be damned). Star catcher Joe Mauer, who recently signed a huge contract to stay in Minnesota -- think the new stadium had something to do with it? -- said that at the Metrodome, you could be hit by a batting cage ball while performing bench presses in the weight room. The new joint, to compare, has underwater treadmills.

So players might actually want to come to Minnesota now. And why wouldn't they? If they can stand some chilly April and (hopefully for the organization) October weather, the experience of playing for one of the best-run organizations in the league can't be understated. The Twins have a great farm system, coaches who know what they're doing, and a pretty good fan base as well.

Not to mention a spectacular stadium (at least from my TV viewpoint). And at least on opening day at the new park, no one was missing the Metrodome. Not a single baseball fan.

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