[This content recycled from my now mothballed website, www.excitablemedia.com.]
The Minnesota Twins are a good team that plays in a horrible stadium. Is this coincidence? Is this fate? Or is this yet another example of baseball skullduggery?
In case you're new to the team, here is a bite of local history. In 1982 the Twinks moved from Metropolitan Stadium, a twenty year old open-air park (since razed and replaced by the Mall of America) to the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, now a twenty-year old indoor domed stadium located about ten blocks from downtown Minneapolis. As misguided as this move was, it seems somehow fitting that the home nine play every one of their games indoors. After all, we must remember that this is the state that invented the modern shopping mall, has an intricate system of downtown skyways, and is the proud home of the world-famous Spam canned ham-product. Clearly, we love to revel in artificiality. So when domed stadiums became all the rage during the polyester 70's we hitched our wagon to the progress train and built a dome. But, as a municipality, we weren't content to just build a normal dome, and insisted on raising the bar. Our stadium, the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, is a bubble-dome, where the roof is held up with air pressure exactly like a balloon. As the Twins' press release states, it "remains the only air-supported structure of the thirty ballparks." (Does this surprise anyone?) And, if that weren't enough, the ballpark can transform into a football stadium during the winter. 7,600 right field seats retract and extend at will, and the pitchers mound can be raised and lowered at the touch of a button.
All gimmicks aside, however, everyone who is anyone agrees that the Metrodome is debatably the worst stadium in all of pro baseball. Indeed, apart from the obvious flaws of Astroturf and indoor baseball, the Metrodome is an aesthetic mess. For example, many of the seats are oriented for football, requiring a Twins fan to keep his head craned sideways to watch the game. The interior appointments are of uniform blue plastic, and the indoor acoustics remind me of childhood swimming lessons. What's more, there is a giant, very mockable plastic sheet hung over the collapsed right field seats known throughout the Midwest as the "Hefty bag." How can that be good?
But the genius of the Minnesota Twins is that they have somehow overcome their confines, and transformed their crappy ballpark into unqualified organizational success. Since 1982 they've won two World Championships, and have had some pretty good years (including the last few seasons).
First, they emphasize good defense and hustle. Of course, all teams like to see good defense and hustle, but the Twinks make a point of building their entire organization around these two traits. They do this because, normally, baseball infields are made of grass, a common substance found throughout much of North America, and when a ball strikes grass, it tends to slow down considerably. Contrastingly, when a baseball hits the Metrodome's unique Astroturf, it typically gains velocity, speeds up, and bounces high into the air, enabling a quick batsman to reach first base before the stunned fielder realizes what has happened. The Twins know their home turf, and they encourage their players to take full advantage of the Superball bounces.
Two, a pitiable stadium brings both money and motivation to the team. Because everyone around the league hates our ballpark, they quite often list Minnesota as one of the worst franchises in pro baseball. This disreputable reputation leads to revenue sharing agreements that require rich teams to send our poor team some millions of dollars each year in compensation, money that is spent developing even scrappier crappier players. And sometimes this pity becomes extreme, and allows our team to draw on mammoth reserves of motivation (a la the film Major League). The recent example being when the baseball commish decided to try and contract the franchise, and finally put the Metrodome out of its misery. Thankfully this all went according to the Twinkie plan, as our players were able to draw on extra Darwinian-survival reserves to defiantly advance to the league championships.
Three: do they cheat? I think the case is pretty open and shut. First, you have the small things, notably the fact that the Metrodome roof is conviently colored exactly the same shade of white as a league-issue baseball. This means that only a well-trained fielder (i.e. one who gets a chance to practice inside the bubble as much as possible) can catch the high popups. But, this isn't enough for the Twinkie organization. A few bloop hits isn't going to win you the world series, now, is it?
The picture above is a shot of Twins left fielder Dan Gladden scoring a run during their 1987 championship season. Examine it closely and ask: How many laws of physics are broken here? I think every Twinks fan knows that the "air-supported" roof isn't the only thing that defies common sense around here. The last two times that the Twinks played in the world series they somehow managed to win every home game while losing every away game. The powers that be would like you to think this is a coincidence, attributable to luck, emotion, or the magic of the home run hanky, but most Twins fans know better. The more savvy fans realize that they use electromagnets and vacuum technology to pull both players and balls... But they don't cheat every day. Just like the spitball pitcher who doesn't even need to throw his wet one, the Twinks don't really have to pull out all the techno-stops all the time. Most teams will be so nervous entering the Metrodome that they'll fall all over themselves without the grounds crew breaking out the sci-fi jazz.