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Metrodome home for plenty of memories

Metrodome home for plenty of memories

MINNEAPOLIS -- There has been a "Countdown to Outdoor Baseball" sign sitting above the lower level seats in left field at the Metrodome for the past two seasons, and on Sunday the No. 1 will be removed to signify that baseball underneath the white Teflon roof of the Dome has officially come to an end.

Well, at least for the regular season. And if there's no tiebreaker game on Tuesday.

As the Twins prepare to say goodbye on Sunday to the place they've called home for the past 28 years in preparation for their move to Target Field for the 2010 season, they'll do so by playing for yet another division title.

And considering the storied history that has taken place inside the quirky Dome, a place which has frustrated opposing teams for years, it would seem only fitting if the Twins could add one final chapter to it with another postseason stint inside their longtime home.

"We might as well finish off this place with some entertainment," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said.

The Metrodome has been a staple of Minnesota sports for the past 28 years. Many memories are packed in the only stadium to host the World Series, the Super Bowl and the Final Four. And while it's never been considered to be a great place for baseball -- due to the rectangular building being constructed for football -- perhaps the majority of its greatest memories have come on its turf ballfield.

The Twins won two World Series championships inside the Dome in 1987 and 1991 -- the only championships that the current sports franchises in the Twin Cities have ever won. It hosted magical Game 7s in each of those years, with the '91 game still remembered as one of the best World Series contests in history.

"My memories are all lost in that Dome," said Kent Hrbek. "It's going to be bittersweet to leave. There will probably be tears shed because I made my livelihood in the Dome. Yeah, it will be sad to see it go, but then as a fan watching the game now, it will be awesome to watch the game in that new stadium. I'm ready to start some new memories in that place."

As current Twins general manager Bill Smith admits, the Metrodome is "not a baseball park." But that's not to say that it didn't earn its own special place in the hearts of fans.

"I think people are going to wish it was still there when they start playing games in April and October," said pitcher John Smoltz, who was on the mound for the Braves in Game 7 of the '91 World Series. "There's a lot of history there, and when you talk about Minnesota, all you think about is the Dome."

The beginnings of the Dome

The white roof has grown dingier over the years. The turf has been replaced a few times since the hard, bouncy version debuted in 1982. And yes, the Metrodome is a different place 28 years after the plastic-looking facility, considered state-of-the art at the time, was opened.

When the Metrodome opened on April 6, 1982, there was an immediate reaction to the place from not only the Twins players but visiting ballplayers and managers as well. And many of them were not positive.

For all the frustrating aspects it has now, the Dome had even more annoying quirks then. There was no baggie in right field and no Plexiglas in left field allowing line drives to sail -- or bounce if they hit the turf -- into the stands. And there was no air conditioning.

"It was horrible," said former Twins pitcher Jack Morris, who was pitching for the Tigers in his first trip to the Dome. "The first year here, before they got the AC dialed in, this place was terrible. I remember seeing a couple balls hit into upper deck in batting practice. That's insane. Fly balls, checked swings were going out of here during the game. It was horrible. I remember saying if this is the way this place is going to be, I hope I never get lined up to pitch here again."

Without the air conditioning until '83, the park quickly earned the nickname "the Homerdome." That's because, due to the humidity, the ball sailed. And it created an almost unbearable environment.

"I'd go pick up my wife after the game and look at her and say, 'What the hell happened to you?'" said Twins bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek, who has been with the club in the same role since 1981. "She had mascara running down her face, her blouse was soaking wet. But she was a trouper. She stayed there through nine innings."

Where's the ball?

With its white Teflon roof that made it hard to track fly balls and slick turf that's created some awkward bounces, the Dome often frustrated visiting teams. The crowd noise also could play havoc on Twins opponents when the place was packed, particularly during the rare times when the curtain was raised to allow 55,000-plus fans.

Opposing teams have even gone so far to say the Twins used air circulation fans to create "wind" in their favor during games.

"I did believe there were times they'd turn the air conditioning, the fans, on and turn it off," said Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, who managed in the American League with the White Sox and A's from 1979-95. "I think that was possible."

It didn't help that the Dome's quirks, such as the roof -- no matter what it was colored -- and the baggie in right field, have led to some of those "only in the Metrodome" type plays over the years.

There was the fly ball that Dave Kingman hit to the roof back in 1984, one that never came down because it went through a roof air hole down the left-field line. It resulted in a "roof-double" and perhaps the most memorable fly ball in Metrodome history. There was David Ortiz's blast in 2006 that looked like it was headed directly at a banner honoring Kirby Puckett in the upper deck of right-center field before slamming off a speaker and leaving the Red Sox designated hitter with just a single.

Twins closer Joe Nathan saw first hand the effects of the roof back on June 17, 2007, in a game against the Milwaukee Brewers, when outfielder Lew Ford lost Prince Fielder's fly ball to center field. The ball landed 50 feet behind a very confused looking Ford, and the lumbering Fielder was able to circle the bases with an inside-the-park home run.

"Probably the first time I've ever seen a guy lose the ball in the roof here and decide to run in, rather than trying to keep the ball in front of him," Nathan said. "People always said we had a home-field advantage with the roof, but we've lost as many balls in it as anyone."

Some of the moments created by the Dome's quirks were frustrating, others just funny.

Gardenhire recounted a moment in 2002 when Twins closer Eddie Guardado dove in foul territory and caught a ball that had hit a speaker down the third-base line -- when such a ball was still considered in play.

"He did a bellyflop in front of our dugout," Gardenhire said while chuckling. "You just don't see that sort of thing."

But those things happened at the Metrodome, and that's what made it unique.

World Series lore

Calling the Metrodome home never seemed as sweet perhaps as it did for the Twins during their two World Series championships.

The club went 8-0 at home during those World Series games in '87 and '91. The Twins won by a combined score of 33-12 in the four home games in '87, while it took three one-run wins over the Braves in '91 to help pull off a title. That record is one reason why many have claimed the Metrodome provided the greatest home-field advantage given to any team.

"I don't think we would have even been there without the Dome," Morris said of the '91 World Series. "We had a veteran team and without the Dome, there would have been a lot of pulled muscles."

For Minnesotans, there are plenty of memories from those two Series. That includes Kirby Puckett making "The Catch" in Game 6 of the '91 World Series before blasting the game-winning homer in the 11th inning of that same contest to propel the Twins into a Game 7. It was Puckett's homer that also elicited Jack Buck's famous call, "And we'll see you tomorrow night!"

Then there was Game 7 of that '91 World Series, which might go down as one of the best games in baseball history, let alone the Dome. That's thanks to the Morris' 10 shutout innings, Smoltz nearly matching Morris on the mound and then the Twins scoring their only run in the 10th inning on Gene Larkin's game-winning hit.

The team's 10th man, the fans, certainly played a large role in Minnesota's success at home during those two World Series as well.

"It was loud enough that, after the '87 Series, it took a long time for the ringing to leave my head," said pitcher Bert Blyleven. "They said the noise was so loud, it was like you were standing next to a jet engine. It was something none of us had ever experienced before. You could feel it in a positive way because of the excitement. It pumped you up, it really did."

For many of the players from the 1987 team, it was a different act by the fans that perhaps sticks out in their minds the most. When the team returned from Detroit after clinching the American League pennant on a Sunday night, close to 50,000 fans had gathered inside the Dome to greet the AL champs.

"I still walk down that ramp in right field and get the chills because of that moment," Hrbek said. "They drove the buses in and dropped us off in the ramp out there down the right-field line. You talk to everybody on the '87 team, the wives, the coaches, the trainers and anyone that was involved getting off one of the buses, even bus drivers. It was a pretty awesome moment. Probably my most memorable, as I witnessed something that will never happen again."

Moving on

It's been nearly two decades since that last World Series was played inside the Metrodome, but there has been plenty of excitement in recent years thanks to the four division titles won by the club, from 2002-06.

For many of the current Twins players, it's the final game of the 2006 regular season that remains embedded in their minds.

That Sunday over 30,000 fans remained in the stands to watch the Tigers and Royals game finish up on the giant scoreboard, remaining there to help celebrate the Twins' remarkable division title when Kansas City pulled off a remarkable series sweep in Detroit.

"None of us will ever forget what it felt like to celebrate with the fans," Nathan said.

But while there have been good memories, the current players are looking forward to the new amenities that Target Field will bring. In addition to no longer having to track fly balls in the roof or worrying about the bounces off the baggie, the Twins will finally have their own place to call home.

For the majority of their time at the Metrodome, the Twins had to share the facility with two other teams, and that's something they won't miss.

There were the 11 a.m. games the Twins had to play to accommodate the University of Minnesota football team. Those actually disappeared during the final season of the Dome thanks to the Gophers getting their own stadium first.

And if the Twins end up in a one-game tiebreaker for the AL Central title this week, it will take place on Tuesday and not Monday since the Vikings already have a game scheduled against the Packers on Monday Night Football.

But there will be some aspects of the Dome that the club might appreciate more once they are gone. That includes having the roof for times like this final weekend when the cold, rainy weather didn't impact a game being played.

"The nice thing is that you always walked in here knowing we were going to play," Gardenhire said. "You're going to miss that. When you're outdoors in Minnesota, there is never a guarantee ... And there were a lot of good memories here. The playoff games, and the players that played in here. And there's been an advantage in here, guaranteed. We've had teams that can play on this stuff and play in here and irritate the [heck] out of people. That's been kind of fun."

The Twins might be saying goodbye to the Metrodome, but the building won't be finished. It will still play host to the Vikings, countless high school football and baseball games, as well as other events.

So, while this weekend has been a time to celebrate the memories of the Dome, the final ballgame here is not going to elicit the emotion that was generated when other stadiums closed -- such as Yankee Stadium or Tiger Stadium.

Mostly that's why the Twins feel like they have so much to look forward to at Target Field when the club heads back outside, returning to baseball under the stars for the first time since 1981.

"Yeah, there has been 28 years of great memories here at the Dome, but hopefully there will be 50 years of greater memories at the new field," said Blyleven. "It's a beautiful ballpark and one that I think everyone will love."

Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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