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For the Twins, There's Just No Place Like Dome

October 18, 1987|HAL BOCK | Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS — It sits on 10 acres of land, lighted at night by a soft glow that makes it look a little eerie, a bit foreboding, almost like a space capsule that somehow found its way to the outskirts of downtown Minneapolis.

Welcome to the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, host to the first two games of the 1987 World Series, the first time baseball's premier event has been played indoors.

If Star Trek had a baseball team, this tribute to teflon technology would be the perfect park. It is home instead to the Minnesota Twins, who think it is a fine place for a game that first was played on green grass under a blue sky.

You will find neither of those old-fashioned commodities in this modern ball park, one of four domed stadiums -- the others are in Seattle, Houston and Montreal -- now used in the major leagues. But those other parks have never had the World Series spotlight that Minnesota's $55 million dome enjoys now.

The Twins thrive under the gray roof and the spongy Astroturf surface. They assembled baseball's best home record of 56-25 there and considering their 29-52 road mark, it is fair to say that the dome contributed mightily to Minnesota's first American League pennant since 1965.

That does not mean, however, that the structure is widely hailed by baseball people outside the Twin Cities. After the NL champion St. Louis Cardinals had their first look at the place on the eve of the World Series, Manager Whitey Herzog was asked what he thought of the structure.

"Are all the lights on?" Herzog said, squinting up at the roof.

What you see is what you get. If it sometimes seems a trifle dim, almost gloomy on the field, that is a characteristic it shares with other domes. The field is 47 feet below street level. The roof is opaque, somewhat translucent. It is not, however, the sky.

Soon, Herzog warmed up to the topic.

"We probably saved baseball by not having the World Series played here and in Candlestick Park," he said. "At least part of it will be played where baseball should be played. That's what I hear, anyway."

Candlestick, the windy home of the San Francisco Giants, is maligned for its climate. The weather in the Metrodome is constant and comfortable, thanks to the lid. There are other complaints, though.

"Ask Billy Martin about it," Herzog suggested.

Martin, who managed the Twins to a division title in 1969 when the Metrodome wasn't even in blueprint form, once called the place a circus. That was in the days when the dome was notorious for surrendering home runs and balls bounced around like it was a game of bumper pool.

In 1982, the Twins' first season in the new stadium, 191 home runs were hit under the dome, second only to the 208 hit that year in Detroit. Physicists soon traced the problem to the lack of proper air conditioning.

The next summer, a new cooling system was installed and the resulting atmospheric conditions more closely resembled outdoors. Home runs declined and this season, when more homers were hit than in any year in history, the Metrodome was eighth in the AL with 198. That's more than the first year but less than the launching pads in Baltimore (235), Detroit (226), Seattle (218), Cleveland (212), California (204) and Texas (202) yielded.

One time, Ron Guidry of the New York Yankees gave up three home runs in a game but refused to acknowledge one of them. That was because Lou Piniella, then playing left field for the Yankees, lost it in the lights and had it bounce over his head for an inside-the-park homer.

What else did Herzog think about the place?

"We know it will be warm," he said. "And we know it will be loud."

Very loud.

The sound system seems turned up a couple of notches in the dome and with the roof holding the noise in, the fans make the place rock. It can be unnerving, especially if you're not used to that level of sound.

Then there is the wall.

Most walls are constructed of concrete. A ball hits a wall, it bounces off. One of the charming mysteries of the Green Monster in Fenway Park is learning how to play the caroms. The Metrodome has a blue monster in right field. But this monster has no caroms.

The 23-foot fence was an afterthought, erected to make home runs more difficult down the 327-foot line after the early complaints. It stands in front of the rolling stands that are used to convert the dome to its football configuration.

Because it had to be portable, this wall is soft, made of a vinyl substance. That accounts for its affectionate nickname -- The Hefty Bag. When a ball hits it, the wall surrenders a thud and the ball drops instead of bouncing back. The vinyl causes the wall to billow, almost like a shower curtain. An outfielder backing into the wall can be enveloped by it.

Obviously, this is not traditional baseball. That explains Dave Kingman's dome double a couple of years ago, the one that traveled some 186 feet -- straight up.

Kingman's ball found its way through one of the holes built into the air-supported fiberglass roof that is constructed of two layers of one-eighth inch thick fabric supported by from 3 to 6 pounds of air pressure per square foot.

The ball went almost straight up, between the pitcher's mound and home plate, and just kept on going. It was as if it had been swallowed up by the roof. There are classic pictures of Twins' infielders, their gloves at the ready, looking up, waiting for the ball that never was seen again. The ground rule said two-base hit.

Kingman never hit a higher one -- or a stranger one.

Anytime somebody complains about the dome, though, its defenders can point to its opening day, April 3, 1982, when the Twins played an exhibition game against Philadelphia.

The temperature was 70 degrees in the stadium that day -- and 28 degrees in the street.

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