MINNEAPOLIS — The best thing the underdog and undermanned Minnesota Twins having going for themselves in this American League championship series against the Detroit Tigers is white, mammoth, immobile, inflatable and noted for home runs.
No, it isn't Kent Hrbek.
It's another Twin Cities landmark, the Metrodome, known around the league as the Homerdome and around the Minnesota clubhouse as dome, sweet dome. The Metrodome has been the site of 56 of the Twins' 85 wins this season--almost 70% of the club's victories.
Minnesota's 56-25 record at home is the best in the major leagues. It is also nearly the reverse of the Twins' road record--29-52, the worst of any division winner ever.
The Twins have four of the seven potential games of this playoff at home, including tonight's opener at 5:30 p.m. (PDT). What they have to do to stand a chance against Detroit, baseball's winningest team in 1987, is etched in concrete and fiberglass.
They must take full advantage of their home field.
"We have a hell of a lot better shot with four games at home than having four games in Detroit," said Roy Smalley, one of Minnesota's designated hitters. "If it was the other way around--if we had to start in Detroit, knowing the way we play on the road--we know we'd lose."
Now, the Twins at least think they can win, although that's about as strongly as any of them will put it.
"We have a chance, for two reasons," said Frank Viola, Minnesota's starting pitcher tonight. "One, nobody in the nation is expecting us to do anything. So, anything we do will stick in people's minds. It will be a surprise.
"Two, we have four games here at the dome. Our road record is pretty bad and Detroit has the second-best home record (54-27), so if we want to give ourselves a legitimate shot, we have to win the games at the dome."
The Twins have the poorest record of any of the four playoff teams, 85-77. Since 1969, when the playoff format began, only the 1984 Kansas City Royals reached the American League playoffs with fewer victories, 84.
Minnesota would have finished 13 games behind Detroit if both had played in the East Division. The Twins also lost 8 of 12 games against the Tigers this season and after tonight's match-up--Viola (17-10, 2.90) against Doyle Alexander (9-0, 1.53)--they will be at a decided pitching disadvantage.
Bert Blyleven (15-12, 4.01) will face Detroit's Jack Morris (18-11, 3.38) in Game 2 Thursday and rookie Les Straker (8-10, 4.37) will start against the Tigers' Walt Terrell (17-10, 4.05) in Game 3 Friday. For Game 4, Manager Tom Kelly will have to decide whether to use Joe Niekro (7-13, 5.33) or Viola on three days' rest.
So, basically, all Minnesota can do is cast its eyes domeward and hope. Inside the dome, there is comfort for the Twins. Inside the dome, there is strength.
Four reasons why the Metrodome is the Twins' kind of place:
The roof: Unlike those in the other baseball domes--Astro and King--the Metrodome's roof is inflatable. It is made of thin sheets of fiberglass kept aloft by powerful air blowers. What drives visiting outfielders bananas is the color of the fiberglass--white.
Try catching a white baseball sailing against a white background.
It takes some doing, but Twin outfielders Kirby Puckett, Tom Brunansky and Dan Gladden have been doing it for most of the season.
"We know how to play here better than anybody in the league," says Twin third baseman Gary Gaetti.
The pinball arcade: With its spongy artificial surface, the 327-foot right-field porch and the 32-foot high "Hefty bag" that serves as a Blue Monster in right, the Metrodome can be a funhouse. Certainly, it's a hitter's park.
"A few pitchers come in here and they're intimidated by it," Viola said. "A lot of pitchers get away from their game plan here. They know it's the Homerdome, so they try to nibble at the corners (of the plate), rather than go after the hitters."
Is that true, Frank Tanana?
"I hate the Dome," said Tanana, who pitched the Tigers' playoff-clinching victory Sunday. "To me, it's useless baseball. The artificial turf, the indoor stadium. It's not fun to pitch there."
The din: With the screams of 55,000 fans reverberating off the fiberglass roof, this can be the loudest stadium in baseball. The Metrodome also has the loudest public-address system in baseball, the amplifiers possibly on loan from Motley Crue. When the Twins' PA announcer shouts his pregame directive, "No smoking in the Metrodome," no hearing in the Metrodome usually follows.
This can have an unsettling effect on an opponent and an inspirational one on the Twins.
"The importance is to get off on the right foot and get this place rocking," Viola said. "The noise is confined here and this place can get really loud."
When that happens, according to Minnesota relief pitcher Jeff Reardon, the Twins start to roll. "From the first inning on, you can feel everyone on the bench get pumped up," he said.