Category Archives: baseball stadiums

Fenway at 100

The Red Sox honored Fenway Park’s 100th anniversary by recreating as much of the ballpark’s 1912 debut as possible. Conveniently, their first opponent remains their rival today, though they had to morph from the NY Highlanders into the Yankees.

The game itself failed to duplicate Boston’s 100-year old win (Red Sox 7, Highlanders 6), but New York did score precisely the same number of runs in a 6-2 victory. Both teams wore throwback uniforms: gray for the Yankees with a splashy NY on the chest, and serene white shirts, pants, and hats for the Sox. No uniform shirts were besmirched with player names, or even numbers; the teams looked pleasantly casual, and Boston’s bright red bands on their high socks seemed exotically old-fashioned.

The first pitch was at 3:05 pm on a Friday, a time so inhospitable to viewership and advertising that the Sox are either remarkably pure in their homage to history or supremely confident that the money will follow them wherever they lead.

Of course, the money followed. Via TV, I joined those taking time off work on Friday, and the pre-game celebration launched me into observations on how baseball measures time.

The ceremony was simple. The Red Sox invited all living players who’d suited up for Boston to come to Fenway and stroll out of the big left field maintenance door to stand, once again, at their position on the field. The procession was not orchestrated as a parade, or in any order of ascending majesty, save for holding Carl Yastremski for the finale and starting off with Jim Rice.

The 216 players and coaches who appeared qualified solely by the credential of serving time on the team. Perhaps some winced when Jose Canseco was eager to take them up on their offer so he could strut to right field, flexing his biceps the whole way. And the host of players I couldn’t recognize by sight or place by name were there not to give me the little thrill of seeing a hero but the deeper knowledge that baseball is better characterized by the small successes and failures of dozens of journeymen than by Carlton Fisk’s delightful hopping up the first base line, willing the ball fair.

Click to see that hopeful hopping one more time.

But Fisk was there, of course, and a little flood of Fenway memories that I never bothered to inspect came roaring out. I’ve seen more games there than any other park, and I spent some of my most worshipful moments slinking down in the late innings to lurk behind the batter’s on deck circle, rapturously watching Fisk swing with the donut on, tap it off, stretch, and kneel to wait his turn.

Now, let’s not over-love Fenway. I’ve spent some games craning around an iron post, or retreating from the heat and humidity in the second deck by leaning out into the scant breeze accessible from the dimly lit concession area. The seats are skinny and hard, and the sight lines sometimes woeful.

But it was in Fenway Park that I once saw Pedro Martinez pause, pace, mutter, and sink down to a crouch on the mound briefly. He was in a typical pitcher’s jam, and it was the Yankees that got him there to boot. His fastball wasn’t much that night. He was on the ropes. He raked his hand through the dirt a couple times and then he simply willed himself to roar back at them. I remember staring at him, and wishing he could do just that, unlikely as it seemed. I remember staring at him composing himself in the least private place on earth, the pitcher’s mound in the middle innings of a Red Sox-Yankee game, and if there is a collective intelligence that forms in crowds, when he stood back up he drew our need from us and packed it inside that baseball and threw it for a strikeout.

I’ve felt the crowd in Fenway at other times too. Something pulses, connecting us all, and if Fred Lynn manages to convert it into a home run, or Nomar Garciaparra into a single, or Dustin Pedroia into a sac fly, well, you can’t deny you had something to do with it. You sat right there, rooting, with nothing but this moment on your mind.

Today as the former players and coaches began dotting the diamond in their Sox jerseys, we were watching little collisions in the dimension of time. There was more than a moundful of pitchers, a battalion of catchers, and an especially dense crowd at second base, where Bobby Doerr held court as the player with the longest reach back into Fenway’s past: he started his career in 1937.

But one of the clearest statement’s of Fenway’s history came from the much smaller pool collecting in left field. Yes, there’s some recent clutter there, but the Red Sox have a true Shaker elegance in the lineage from 1939 to 1989: Ted Williams (through 1960), Carl Yastremski (61 to 74), and Jim Rice (to 1989). I still prize this piece of trivia: Rice was succeeded by Mike Greenwell, pretty much breaking the spell.

In sports, one aspect of time turns backward. Each spring it’s a new wave of players—I can age, but the starting shortstop need not. But on Fenway’s warm field today, we looked back and saw many of the men who’d taken that field. I realized how long I’d been watching baseball, and how the Red Sox had been the team that drew me back to it, once I moved from Ohio to New England. Suddenly I’m shocked to realize how long it’s been since Dwight Evans (Dewey!) was rocketing the ball back in from right field, or Wade Boggs was eating pregame chicken before manning third. These and other players are now my collection of antiques, unimaginably distant for the modern fan, endlessly comforting those whose baseball investment is measured in decades.

This afternoon we all gaze on the powdery green walls of Fenway, projecting ourselves back in time and trying to grasp what it means for a place to have contained so much. The players summoned today are only a subset. This field has held hundreds more, and just to try to imagine all the games played half hurts, half overjoys.

The Red Sox mingle recent history with their deepest past by having their most recent retirees Jason Varitek and Tim Wakefield pilot the wheelchairs Doerr and Johnny Pesky now require. Here I pause to think what ending a sports career must feel like. Yes, you’re invited back; yes, you can wear your World Series ring or tote whatever other memorabilia you’ve acquired. But what looks like a pretty pageant to me this afternoon has to have its wistful side for the men on the field.

No matter how magnificent the athletic accomplishment, the simple fact that you have to live so many years after it’s occurred is a bit harrowing. What does the future look like to, say, Jason Varitek? He may be able to keep a nice glow of money and fame about him, but presumably the new things he has to hope for pale beside the past.

Sports always makes a taunting little jab at death because it celebrates youth and physical power. We watch, and we age, and the players—effortlessly young—enliven us. But in this arc of entertainment, the players are consumed. We cheer, we offer as much devotion as possible, but we replace them one by one.

The field at Fenway is finally filled with chatting, milling ballplayers. And then the members of the current team spring from the dugout and trot to their positions, joining their predecessors in crowds clotting each base and outfield spot. What is today is superimposed, literally, on what is yesterday. The tunnel of time becomes, briefly, a cascade of sparks. Fireworks blazing, burning out, and glowing on in memory.

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game 1 Opening Night

Major League baseball, ever on the prowl for more income, has now sliced Opening Day into so many slivers it’s unrecognizable. The first day of baseball season was always a peak moment of spring for me, but with MLB trying to rub its little head over and over, they’ve ground it down into nothing.

The baseball season began with two games just about no one saw, with Seattle and Oakland playing in Japan. I am told they split the series, but as far as most fans are concerned, these games were conducted as Playstation simulations.

Tonight, we have the season’s first night game in North America. Yes, all those adjectives are necessary to distinguish it from tomorrow’s wave, in which day baseball begins, and with multiple teams taking the field. Tonight, MLB guaranteed the Marlins a sellout in their new ballpark by scheduling it as a standalone game.

Even when MLB lets multiple teams out of the gate tomorrow, they still dole them out grudgingly, painstakingly focusing our attention on seven games. We don’t have a full slate until Saturday. Remind me: what constitutes the first pitch of the season in all this throat clearing?

The old rules were gloriously simple: the Cincinnati Reds, ever honored as the oldest team in baseball, got to throw out the first pitch at 1:05 pm in their home field, followed in a thrilling fusillade when all the other teams launched themselves throughout the afternoon and deep into the evening.

It was too much baseball, sure, but only a ritual soaking in the game could set me up for the monumental march through a 162-game season. And after six months wandering in a baseball-free desert, I want that firehose.

Tonight I must be content with a single game, played against a tangy lime green backdrop no less. The new Miami Marlins ballpark is probably a wonderful place to watch a game, but what ESPN nudged me to notice first were the gimmicks: fish tanks, a still-silent home run celebration feature, and a tropical look that seems to integrate the place nicely with its Little Havana environs.

The place was packed tonight, but even the Expos used to sell out their home openers. We need a full season to answer the two big questions: will the ball carry with the roof open, and can the Marlins solve the problem of attracting fans in Florida?

They made bold gambles to do so, and it’s not clear which will be the more attention-getting, the color scheme or non-stop-loudmouth Ozzie Guillen as manager. And they brought in some serious, and costly, talent to compliment a nucleus that was already bursting with potential. Well, did the 37,000 people in the stands see some good omens?

Because an Opening Day always teases us into thinking we’re in on the ground floor, already detecting a direction. Baseball is so absurdly cumulative—a team’s season accretes like barnacles—that no single game holds a clue, but we look anyway.

Marlins fans won’t have liked what they saw. The Cardinals won smoothly, 4-1, with last year’s postseason hero David Freese picking up so literally where he left off it was nearly magical. (It wasn’t just two RBI, it was on a two-strike count with two outs. Again!)

As a box score, the game will look lopsided, even dispiriting to a Marlins fan. But I saw several positive signs. First, Josh Johnson’s return from an injury-shortened 2011 began with a sloppy first inning and a walk-sac-single run scored in the second. After that, Johnson settled in, collecting four strikeouts over 6 innings. It wasn’t a sparkling performance, but Johnson could still be capable of building on his 2010 Cy Young season and continue to whittle his WHIP into persistent All-Star territory.

New centerpiece Jose Reyes was the only bright light of the Marlins’ night. The rest of the lineup couldn’t capitalize on his two leadoff hits, but Reyes was doing the job they asked him to do. However, the new infield that slides Hanley Ramrirez to third base to make room for Reyes did a lot of staring at a Carlos Beltran single trickling between them in the second. Eeek.

If the Marlins must content themselves with tomorrow-is-another-day, the Cardinals have retained some sweet World Series swagger to start the season. Subbing for an injured Chris Carpenter, Kyle Lohse, who is no one’s idea of an Opening Day ace, kept the Marlins hitless through six innings. It was an ace performance, with single earned run, two hits, and three Ks. Lohse didn’t labor to achieve the win; he was neatly in control all night, locating pitches and baiting nearly every batter with a first pitch strike.

And that earned run that blots his record? Oh, the cruelties of baseball scoring. Let’s break it down as an object lesson in what can make a player, or a fan, mutter. Logan Morrison led off the eighth with a single. We might suspect Lohse is tiring, or running out of shtick on the third trip through the order, but he turns around to strike out Gaby Sanchez. Brand new manager Mike Matheny makes his first pitching change, playing by the book to bring in Fernando Salas. It’s now one out, 4-0 Cardinals.

Salas’s first pitch is a double play ball to Omar Infante. Except the umpire couldn’t quite agree that first baseman Lance Berkman leaned, scooped, caught, and raised his glove holding the ball all before Infante touched first. This wasn’t one of those nanosecond plays, this was a first baseman with his hand raised in success who took about five strides toward the dugout before the umpire’s “safe” call registered.

Well, this appears like nothing more than a mild delay in the end of inning proceedings and the stately glide to a shutout. But I paused to wonder: would it matter?

It did. John Buck chipped a few fouls before hitting a sound double to center that scored Infante. And Lohse is assigned the run, since Morrison was out in what became a fielder’s choice when the botched call granted Infante first. Infante becomes an inherited runner. Dang.

In the span of a season, absolutely none of this will be material. The pesky earned run Lohse must lug around, the crummy first inning Johnson must put behind him, the lost and lonely leadoff hits Reyes tossed into the wind, even Freese’s 3-for-5, 2 RBI resumption of last year’s momentum—these aren’t omens, but they are the way a season starts. One game at a time, some of them distinguished by coral and lime green accents.

[ALDS game 2] Possibility

When you have to start bringing up the fact that baseball is only game, you’re probably about to apologize for something. And I suppose the Twins do need excuses, but right now I’m thinking about how one goes about watching a game like tonight’s.

Baseball is especially prone to little surprises, and anyone who’s enjoyed watching major leaguers knows that hope is always a reasonable emotion. We’re watching precisely because there is still no limit to the possibilities inside that well-designed diamond, or within the fences of each idiosyncratic ballpark.

Of the eight teams in the 2009 postseason, the Twins are given the least chance to move any closer to a World Series game. They are filler, really—a team for the Yankees to beat. But do not discount the crapshootical qualities of the postseason. It may take very little to lose a game, but it can also take only a lucky hit or two to win one.

So I tell myself as I watch them try to win their first game of the year against the New York Yankees. To make the project more painful, they held the lead in every game they played against New York this season, surrendering it as late as the eighth or ninth inning a few times. They scored the first run and had a (brief) lead in the first game of this playoff series, for that matter.

Though the teams only faced off seven times this year, the two series mattered. The Yankees count their May sweep of the Twins with turning their season around, and the Twins can mark their low point in July, when the Yankees stopped by the Metrodome to clobber them. Immediately after, the Twins picked themselves up with a 20-run onslaught against the White Sox, a lovely over-reaction to the damage the men in the real pinstripes did.

But it’s not possible that it’s actually impossible to beat the Yankees. Hell, the Twins might have been saving it all up for now. What’s so crazy about splitting the series in New York, and moving on to the Metrodome to capture, just maybe, enough home field advantage to win the ALDS?

To prove such a possibility, you’d have to play the first 8-1/2 innings pretty much just as they were played tonight. Nick Blackburn, probably underestimated by New York, didn’t allow a hit until the fifth, or a run until the sixth. It was another A-Rod RBI, sending Derek Jeter in after a double got him on base. Not bad pitching, Mr Blackburn, particularly considering the one run scored merely tied the game.

The Twins scored first, and it’s fair to say no one saw it coming. AJ Burnett had been issuing walks or hits in every inning, but the Twins conducted nothing more than a simple sightseeing tour of the new Yankee Stadium by trotting out to the bags. Burnett shut down the hitter that mattered most each time.

In the sixth, with Delmon Young the latest beneficiary of a free pass, Carlos Gomez tied himself up in eager knots to strike out swinging, but Young made it to second on the contact play, credited with a stolen base.

With two outs, we now get the bad news that Matt Tolbert, never a powerful hitter but at least capable of some clutch-style hits in the Twins dogged campaign of the last three weeks, is out of the lineup. Brendan Harris replaces him, and my first thought is, playing the lefty/righty orientation against Burnett just doesn’t make much sense when your hitters have such gossamer batting averages. I’m unaware that Tolbert has strained his oblique muscle to scuh a degree that he’ll miss the rest of the playoffs . . . what little of them there may be.

In any event, here’s likeable, light-hitting Harris with two outs. Dream on if you consider this a scoring opportunity on a par with, say, Jeter on second and Rodriguez at bat.

But it must be remembered: to have made it to the major leagues at all, and to be standing here in October, your aptitudes are not nothing. Harris plucks himself a triple, swatting the ball to an unpatrolled space in deep center. Young scores, Twins lead, Harris claps dust off his hands as he stands up safe at third.

But our story is not fiction. In the bottom of the same inning, the Yankees administer the antidote, in perfect proportion—Jeter doubles, A-Rod scores him, tie game, harmony of the universe maintained.

But a backwards look must be permitted. In fact, this game is an especially burnished example of a sporting event that includes a “what if” in the telling. In the fourth, Young was on base, this time courtesy of Burnett’s veering fastball that clipped Young near the elbow. Carlos Gomez is up, with two outs, and his repertoire of ways to get on base in such a situation is limited. Fortunately, Burnett thought of one all on his own: hit two consecutive batters!

Here’s Matt Tolbert, and he delivers a single, just as he often did in the long race to bring the Twins to the postseason. Young is motoring hard for home and Gomez, without the most burnished baseball instincts, assumes the play will be at the plate. He skids a bit past second and stumbles on his way to third, then realizes these professional Yankee baseball players know where to throw the ball.

Gomez, stricken with guilt, starts clawing his way back to second, as if he might beat the ball, as if suddenly remembering he has a really important appointment at second.

I’ve played a little softball, enough to experience a tenth of a percent of game situations. I would surely have made the same mistake Gomez did. But baserunners groomed for the majors are supposed to know a simple and pretty infallible trick—turn for third and demand a rundown play, so your teammate can make it home before the last out of the inning is recorded. If the fielders insist on getting you out instead of tackling the lead runner, let them, and make them pay the one-run price. It’s a race, between the man heading home and the last out—and Gomez let them tag him before Young was home. Run lost.

This missing run would loom large throughout the game. Tied in the sixth, any Twins fan just wanted to affix an additional 1 up on that scoreboard. But in the eighth, it looked like we could finally forget about Gomez’s blunder. The Twins scored two, starting their attack with a Gomez walk and a Harris single.

It was Nick Punto who conducted another of his Scrappy Batter clinics, this time securing a single off reliever Phil Hughes. Even when the Yankees brought in Mariano Rivera to quiet these rowdy, childish Twins, Denard Span got a base hit to score another run.

Now, was it OK to start feeling hopeful? Six outs remained, and Matt Guerrier quickly got three of them in the bottom of the eighth, facing down Jorge Posada, Jeter, and Johnny Damon. Is it reasonable to enjoy this moment, this place on the edge of victory?

It’s the bottom of the ninth, Yankee Stadium, and Joe Nathan is up to send the Twins off to Metrodome for game 3 in a 1-1 series tie. That’s the objective, and Nathan is the perfect closer to do it. All I want is a low-stress version of the closing process. OK, Joe?

Nathan lets his first batter, Mark Teixeira, beat him. It’s a single, but it’s a gruesome scar. A-Rod’s up, and has been drinking the special elixir that eliminates all pressure from years of wilting in the postseason. No, A-Rod is going to be perfect from here on in, never again letting an RBI opportunity go to waste in October. He homers. The single most brutal attack upon a closer, and Rodriguez does it with a swift, elegant swing that leaves no doubt.

If there’s a crumb to be scraped up here it’s that Nathan finishes the inning with three straight outs to limit the damage to a tie. And as we go into extra innings, the lost run looms yet again.

The game ends in the eleventh, on the first batter of the inning. Mark Teixeira has the most intoxicating joy in all of sports, hitting a walkoff homer in Yankee Stadium. What compares with that?

I watched this game, feeling hope, watching the Twins strive and fail, and watching the Yankees face some legitimate competition. But as Teixeira’s blast sailed into the leftfield seats, hundreds of happy hands extended for it, I felt the pure and direct kick in the gut. Were the Yankees toying with us all this time? Was I a chump to dream?

Because a loss humiliates not the effort made but the ability to imagine something that in the end can’t be achieved. It mocks dreams.

It does, that is, if you let it. Because I am watching sports for one thing only, and it’s the amazement I feel when the greatest efforts are made, and what’s possible still lies ahead, possible. I’m watching for the rapture of possibility, and even the Yankees are not strong enough to take that away from me.

[ALDS game 1] Playoff Chum

If you root around long enough on the web, you can find a few souls willing to imagine the Twins winning one whole game in the ALDS. There are even some freak-out style commentators who give the Twins a chance to overturn the Yankees, but I suspect they’re saying this for the shock value. No one really expects Minnesota to serve as anything more than chum, thrown over the playoff fishing boat transom.

The Yankees are hungry, and have been stoking their appetite all season. They have reached new levels of financial perfection. Their lineup includes the highest-paid player at every position except outfield and second base, and usually by a big margin. They have the best record in baseball, with 103 regular-season wins.

They have a ballpark that favors home run hitting, and many players able to take advantage of it. They have a young manager with something to prove, spending the season wearing  a 27 on his uniform in homage to the 27th World Series Championship this year could include. They have fans who won’t settle for less, and players accustomed to a very intoxicating level of worship.

They. Can’t. Lose.

In game one on Wednesday, Brian Duensing starts for the Twins. We’re all hoping he’s a little too young to know what’s hit him and can survive in the majesty of the new Yankee ballpark. He faces CC Sabathia, one of the prize Yankee acquisitions this year, who has settled in well amidst the hype and hope.

For two innings, both pitchers look calm and in command. The Twins start with a hopeful double from Denard Span, and the Yankees counterpunch with a leadoff single from Derek Jeter, but neither team assembles a threat.

In the third, the Twins are first to score, often a happy little indicator of success. They start with a leadoff single from Nick Punto, who proves his scrappy at-bat intensity even works on the big stage. Span, alas, erases him with a double play, but a little whisper of the chance of getting to Sabathia arises.

The Twins reel off three consecutive hits, from Orlando Cabrera, Joe Mauer, and Michael Cuddyer, who gets an RBI and sees Cabrera cross home. Cooking this up with two outs starts to feel very invigorating. Jason Kubel can’t exactly cap it off—he’s at the plate when Sabathia launches a passed ball that allows Mauer to score, but ends up a strike out. It’s Twins 2, Yankees nothing.

If you’re looking for a fairytale, go to sleep right here and forget the rest of the game. But if you want to face facts, watch the Yankee lineup systematically solve Duensing on their second trip through.

Jeter starts the cavalcade with the two-run homer in the bottom of the third, allowing the Twins to lead the game for approximately seven minutes—and I’m including the break between innings. Nick Swisher smashes a double that rumbles along the leftfield fence long enough to score another run in the fourth, and put the Yankees up 3-2.

Things are going well for the Yankee hitters. They’re not precisely eviscerating Duensing yet, but then again, it might be more productive to toy with him. More chum off the boat, please!

The Yankees may no longer even be concerned about winning the game; that problem seems solved already. They’ve seen Sabathia settle in to a productive groove, and shake off at least some of his communication problems with Posada that led to that passed ball. They’ve seen the Twins hitters shoot liners to perfectly placed infielders, or strike out against CC’s sharp cutter. But there is one last small test.

Alex Rodriguez, perhaps the most synthetically perfect player of all time, with his tense jaw, tightly scrubbed face, stare-through-the-pitcher hazel eyes, and perfectly ordered muscles, always turns in immaculate season stats. He hit his quota precisely this year: 30 home runs, 100 RBIs, like punching a clock. But he has not yet distinguished himself in a playoff game. In fact, it’s fair to say he’s quite let down the side in these October events.

There are New York fans who are horrified enough at his artificial perfection to continue to wish him ill, and others who yearn to see him triumph. In the fifth inning, he begins improve his postseason record. He shoots a swift line drive to left with two out, and scores Jeter. An RBI gleams in his crown, at last.

The Yankees would garnish the inning with two more runs off a Hideki Matsui homer, now leading 6-2. As the Twins shuffle in and out of the batter’s box, collecting a meager few hits and no more runs, the Yankees take their feet off the gas. They only score one more run, but it’s another A Rod RBI, just for good measure.

Yankees 7, Twins 2. Not much debate about the better team tonight. The Yankees got 6-2/3 great innings from Sabathia, who struck out 8. Manager Joe Girardi also rolled four relievers through, probably to give them experience and comfort in the setting as much as anything. Phil Hughes, Phil Coke, and Joba Chamberlain each collected one or two outs.

Then Mariano Rivera was brought in for a shut-you-up ninth inning. It felt like overkill, really, especially against the bottom of the Twins bating order. Punto managed a walk and Span a single, but of course Rivera had his way in the end.

If Girardi gave his middle relievers some time just to get comfortable in the playoff mode, you might even wonder if the Twins are a tad buoyed up by having two on base against the Mighty Mo. But it’s stretch to find a lot of hope here.

They say defense and pitching wins championships. The Twins showed off some good defense, particularly in Nick Punto’s running snare of a groundball that required him to make the throw to first while spinning into a sideways somersault.

But they also showed a defensive lapse. Delmon Young made a weak throw from left, and Orlando Cabrera handled it poorly in the relay, allowing that run to score on Swisher’s hit. The Twins have cut down runners in that situation, but failed to do so tonight.

The defense, though, will probably do us justice. But Twins pitching, at its very finest, is of the pitch to contact flavor. They don’t have a single pitcher who can hurl pure flames at the plate. Yankee hitters can’t be fooled by much, and can’t be fooled for long, as their second look at Duensing showed. They can be stymied only by pure firepower—Justin Verlander had a chance against them. But the Twins crew will have trouble in every game ahead.

[game 162] 51,000 Fans Don’t Say Goodbye

The Tigers started one hour earlier, hosting the White Sox. They had already run up a 3-0 lead before what could be the last first pitch at the Metrodome. The final game of the season, and it was going to count.

The Twins and Tigers began the day tied, so a loss by either team could mean the end. The Twins had to win to be sure to stay alive, but it would be their fourth in a row, a streak they’d achieved only a few times this season. The Tigers had to win to save their season and, it sometimes felt, their city. All a win would require is ending a three-game losing streak—pretty likely in the normal baseball scheme of things.

One team’s season might come to an end, but if both won or both lost, the season would trickle on to a tiebreaker. The Twins faced the same trial last year, and lost a 1-0 game in Chicago. The tense, magnificent pitching from both sides was marred only by a solo homer from Jim Thome. It sailed off into the black night and the season ended for Minnesota.

Thanks to winning the season series against the Tigers, the Twins would get to host any tiebreaker this year. So the Metrodome itself was on the brink of a reprieve.

Whenever the last out is made in 2009, the plastic-wrapped Dome will come to its baseball end, ready at last to be converted to fulltime football use. Ready, in fact, to admit that it was never suited for anything but football. The purple and gold Vikings trim would be rolled out tomorrow in any case, for the Monday night game when the Packers would pay a call on their old pal, Brett Favre in his new horned helmet.

For this afternoon, the additional upper deck right field seats are opened up and 51,000 baseball fans packed the puffy dome to scream their team to victory. But they also watched the scoreboard, and saw the Tigers beating up the White Sox.

The Twins wasted no time demonstrating they were still carrying the momentum of the last three weeks into this game. Climbing from 7 games behind around Labor Day, the Twins weren’t making an academic little comeback. They were still at it.

Against Luke Hochevar of the Royals, Denard Span drew a walk, yet another testament to his ideal leadoff hitter skills. He stole second, then Hochevar collected a groundball out from Orlando Cabrera.

Joe Mauer comes to the plate, still the picture of contentment and handy hitting prowess. One can’t peer into any hitter’s brain, but I’ve never seen the slightest sign that Mauer felt too tense to do his best at the plate. Through a small hitting slump this season, he never seemed to press, and he let go gracefully of the early season’s power surge, settling back into deft singles hitting. His average has fallen from its lofty .400 peak, but it’s settled firmly into the .365 zone, good enough on this final day the season to define him as the AL batting champ. Mauer is calm.

Hochevar is not. He walks Mauer even as the chants of “MVP” throb through the tank-like air of the Metrodome.

Two on, one out, Tigers up 3-0 in the fifth inning of their game. Jason Kubel, who bats in Justin Morneau’s spot and plays in Michael Cuddyer’s rightfield position, comes to bat without any “MVP” cheering, but the fans don’t forget that Kubel has done a lot more than fill in this season. He’s the power threat that keeps pitchers honest. And who surprises them when they concentrate too much on Mauer or Morneau.

Kubel uncorks a huge homer to right field, high in the upper deck. Quick as that, in the first inning, the Twins have duplicated the Tigers’ score and lead 3-0. Late in the inning, Delmon Young would do Detroit one better with a solo homer to make it a 4-0 lead.

The game began to feel just a little lighter, a little more effortless. Carl Pavano pitched well, with a higher than usual number of strikeouts thrown in. The Twins hitters visibly relaxed, and then added to their lead.

In the third, Cabrera rapped an infield single and Hochevar sized up Mauer again. Hochevar wouldn’t risk much against the cool batting champion-to-be, and walked him. Up comes Kubel in the same two-men-on hitting situation.

And, improbably, has the same result. This homer only clears the wall in left by one row, as the giddy, goofy fans make sloppy efforts to clutch the ball. The Twins have gained ground on the Tigers, leading 6-0 while Detroit carries a 5-0 advantage.

Young doesn’t cap off Kubel’s accomplishment this inning, but he does manage a duplicate solo homer in the fifth to take the Twins to 8-1 after a Royals run in the fourth.

Hitched to this glorious lead, the Twins and fans begin to glimpse a magnificent possibility. In the eighth inning in Detroit, the White Sox stage a revolt and bring the score to 5-3. Only two runs back. The Twins look invulnerable against the Royals now, and the Tigers might just dissolve on this last day.

Both dreams are blown to dust. The Tigers keep their lead and end the day winners behind a masterful game from Justin Verlander, a gorgeous stabbing catch from Curtis Granderson, and homers from Ryan Raburn and Magglio Ordonez.

What’s worse, the Royals are not content to gift wrap the tie for the Twins. They finally get to Pavano in the sixth, scoring three runs on some crisp hits, including one solo homer from Alex Gordon. Bobby Keppel comes in to get the last out, but it eludes him. He leaves men on the corners for Ron Mahay, who defeats the purpose of his lefty matchup against Mitch Maier by plunking him to load the bases.

Let’s review. The Tigers have won. The tying run in this game is now at the plate. The Royals best hitter, Billy Butler, is due up. There’s no more season left if this game slips through our fingers.

Jon Rauch, the giant reliever with the tattoo on the right side of his neck, brings his 6-11” presence to the mound. One mission, one batter. There are many possible outcomes here, but only one sure defensive approach: a strikeout.

Rauch burns a fastball in for a strike that Butler watches. He throws a ball that fails tantalize. Now Butler wants to get into a hitting rhythm, so he fouls off the next pitch. The advantage sweeps to Rauch with a 1-2 count. He capitalizes, and strikes out Butler swinging.

The mood in the Metrodome loosens up again. There’s even a little more scoring to do, and the Twins finish the afternoon with a 13-4 win that’s so emphatic it seems to need more than scoreboard lights to announce it.

There is still the matter of the Tigers. The Twins have preserved the tie, not broken it. In fact, they have never more than shared first place in the division all season.

But the afternoon ends with a farewell ceremony for the Metrodome, featuring players from the 28 years of teams that have suffered and rejoiced under the grimy Teflon roof. The dumb dome is not going to be missed as architecture, or as beautiful baseball history, but there have been some wondrous plays and players here.

I watch the parade of them, in fresh Twins jerseys pulled on over bellies large or trim. Kent Hrbek, Brad Radke, Ron Coomer, Juan Berenguer, Danny Gladden, Jack Morris, Bert Blyleven, Gary Gaetti, and on they come. The current team is part of the ceremony too, and the field is filled with players of all eras

No matter how rock hard the turf, or gray the ceiling, or baggy plastic the right field fence, the Dome has been a place where the sheer sonic volume of the fans has tried to inspire each player’s best efforts. It’s sometimes a crude communication, but there is some soul in all this Teflon, and it comes from the people who have populated the place, on both sides of the fences.

In Tuesday’s tiebreaker, the blue plastic plays host once more.

[games 147, 148] Don’t Forget the Dome

Michael Cuddyer was the human hero, but the Metrodome itself played role as the Twins started off a weekend series against the Tigers.

The stakes are plain, and the stakes are high: Detroit starts with a 4-game lead in the Central. The Twins have this homestand to gain some ground, and will later play four games in Detroit. Only 16 total games remain in the season.

If the Twins don’t start working on that deficit this weekend, they may never reduce it. And if the Tigers can’t protect it, well, they just might not deserve the division.

On Friday night, the Twins greeted the visitors with further signs that the Metrodome would never be hospitable to the Tigers. Brian Duensing pitched with grit for six-plus innings, limiting Detroit to four measly hits. He was never overpowering, but neither did the Tigers succeed in overpowering him. In a game that both teams wanted to use as a launching pad for a key weekend, Duensing did the talking.

Not that the Tigers starter, Rick Porcello, rolled over and played dead. He held the Twins to eight hits, but one of them came from Michael Cuddyer in the form of a two-run homer in the fourth.

The game was a tense, scoreless affair until Cuddyer lifted the ball high to left. When he tossed the bat aside to begin a hearty trot round the bases, the Dome was filled with cheers. As always, they echoed in that dank, Dome way, but tonight it felt like Cuddy was here to fulfill the sweetest possible destiny for us.

He’d not only been picking up the hitting slack but filling in at first after Justin Morneau’s season-ending back problem. But Cuddy doesn’t seem to have the weight of the world on his as he does this. Instead, there’s an even greater cheer about him. He let his homer sail off and bustled over the bases, in a hurry to get back to the dugout for another brutal round of high-fiving.

In the 3-0 win Friday, home field advantage took the form of loud and happy fans, and perhaps the Tigers’ ability to fear the worst in this cavernous, plastic dome-space. But on Saturday, the Dome would almost literally join the lineup.

Saturday afternoon, the Tigers had Justin Verlander on the mound, facing Carl Pavano. Verlander was every inch the ace, and the Tigers were ready to wipe last night’s 0-fer from memory. They scored in the first inning on a brisk little single from Miguel Cabrera. Take notice, Twins.

Indeed, the Twins heeded the threat and replied in the bottom of the first with a home run from Joe Mauer. Verlander was good, but not impregnable.

Pavano, however, was convincingly human. The Tigers moved men onto the bases every inning, and were content to play small ball. In the third, they went ahead 2-1 on a sharp RBI single from Aubrey Huff.

And 2-1 it stayed until the eighth. Verlander had filed that Mauer homer under fluke and gone on to pitch brilliantly. He started the eighth by striking out Nick Punto, then allowed a single to Denard Span.

The double play was on everyone’s mind, and it’s fair to say that the crowd had been lulled quiet by now. It looked like the Tigers were going to even the series. It looked like the typical win one-lose one Twins pace. Never enough to forge a winning streak, always enough to tag along.

Orlando Cabrera took control of his at-bat. He took some balls, and demanded Verlander give him something. He stood through a pickoff attempt, as if the Twins would let Gerald Laird further burnish his credentials—he’d already thrown out Span in a previous inning as well Carlos Gomez. And then Cabrera fouled off some pitches, still trying to steer the plate appearance toward some kind of success.

Finally, it was apparent Verlander had him. Cabrera skied the ball to left center, where defensive replacement Don Kelly was waiting. And waiting. Because Kelly never saw the ball trace its arc along the graying, mystifying roof. He just saw it bounce, three feet to his left.

Cabrera reached second on a pure Dome double. It was as if the ballpark wanted one last chance to be part of the game. This was a place, remember, once called the Homerdome, where reporters brought in sound equipment to compare the cheering volume to airplane takeoffs. It was a force unto itself, and this afternoon, it spoke again.

With Span on third and Cabrera on second, Tigers manager Jim Leyland called on Verlander to walk Mauer. Bases full, odds probably correctly played, but the Twins like to keep that left-handed heat on. Jason Kubel hit a simple single that scored two.

Verlander left for relief pitcher Brandon Lyon, who had the duty of facing ongoing sparkplug Cuddyer. Indeed, Cuddy stayed sparkling and homered to deep center. Three more runs, and the Twins turned a 2-1 Tigers lead into a 6-2 bulwark that wouldn’t even require Joe Nathan for protecting.

To win the first two games of the three-game series, and to win them using every man on the team and not a little of the stadium itself gave an entirely new set of hopes to the division challengers. Anything is possible now.

[game 144] Joy

You can count the rest of the season. You can count it in the seven games remaining against the Tigers, or against teams that ought to be (here’s hoping) pushovers. You can count the games remaining in the Metrodome itself, and the number is so small that this afternoon the TV crew was given a chance to have a last little pickup game on soon-to-be rolled up carpet.

But most of all, you can count the season in opportunities. We’re in that limbo now when it’s mathematically possible to win the division, but the likelihood dims each day. Yes, there are enough games left to do it in, but where will the spark come from to light up those chances?

Having failed to use the Oakland A’s as a punching bag, the Twins opened a series against the Indians at the Dome tonight. Would they oblige as patsies and let us take a few steps toward the Tigers?

They started lefty Jeremy Sowers, the pitcher who’d caused the Twins so much trouble in his last outing against them. And tonight he went seven shimmering innings, confining the Twins to a handful of little hits.

Sowers doesn’t mow batters down with strikeouts and doesn’t throw much above 90 mph, but he garners groundouts with the best of them. He tied Denard Span up in knots, and seemed to trick every other hitter into chopping the ball up the middle for an easy out.

Everyone but Joe Mauer, that is. Mauer continued his march toward the batting title by going 3 for 3 tonight, all singles. But no following batter was able to nudge him as far as third, and the Twins were blanked for seven innings.

Carl Pavano made few mistakes on the mound for the Twins, but two bad pitches were enough. He walked rookie catcher Lou Marson and then served up a home run ball to Trevor Crowe. Crowe, batting ninth, will remember the moment—it was his first big league dinger.

One inning later, Pavano allowed a solo homer to Shin-Soo Choo, and the Indians were up 3-0 with an apparently impregnable Sowers on the mound.

And in fact, the secret of winning this game was getting past Sowers to the bullpen. The normally hard as nails Tony Sipp faced Orlando Cabrera, who hit a bat-splintering chopper to short. Asdrubal Cabrera mishandled the ball, and on that error the eighth inning began.

Facing Mauer, who had placed his singles neatly to left, center, and right, Sipp may have been concerned that the necklace was missing the home run jewel. He walked Mauer, and the Indians trotted out righty Chris Perez to face Michael Cuddyer.

Here the game, and the season, balance for a moment. If Cabrera hadn’t made that error, and if Sipp hadn’t flinched against Mauer, the three-run lead might well have stood up. There weren’t a lot of fans on a Monday in the Metrodome to spur the team, but this was the time when the players themselves would have to pluck desire from the ashes. At this balancing point, it could have gone either way.

Cuddyer did the magical thing. There isn’t anything more magical than parking the ball in the seats to tie a game that had looked hopeless for two hours. With a brisk swing, Cuddy lifted us all as high as the ball he crushed to center.

A tie still requires a lot of tending to convert into a win. Perez started cleaning up his mess by getting an out, then faced Delmon Young.

It was Young’s birthday, and he already had the basis of a celebration by scratching out one of the six hits Sowers permitted. Perez tried to shake off the massive homer he’d allowed, but couldn’t. Young nicked his second single.

Matt Tolbert followed with a blooper hit that floated out of range in shallow left, and Young had the presence of mind to motor all the way to third base.

Jason Kubel came up, pinch hitting for Carlos Gomez. Good choice, Mr Gardenhire. Kubel was out of the starting lineup with a sore neck, but he limbered up enough to get the count to 2-2. Perez, showing real strain, unleashed a wild pitch that allowed Young to scoot home with the go-ahead run.

Oh, the ignominy. But it got worse for poor Perez. A few pitches later, Kubel found the fastball he was looking for and punched it into the plastic seats in right. 6-3 Twins, a comeback built from swings of pure joy.

There are some ways of showing that joy. Cuddy, for example, has been raising the stakes on his post-homer high fives all season. He’s taken to smacking the welcoming committee in the dugout so hard that his teammates must wince in pain. Tonight was no exception—Gardy yelped “Ow!”

Kubel isn’t as punishing in his happiness. He tends to beam like a cherub, and I can’t quite see what’s keeping his teammates from rubbing his buzz cut head after he tosses his batting helmet on the rack. There was a lot of exuberance in that eighth inning.

Joe Nathan is still dead set on showing a high degree of difficulty of his saves. These isn’t skating, Joe! You don’t have to add that triple axle! In any case, after two smooth outs he permitted Indians to occupy first and second before coaxing a grounder to end the game.

Meanwhile, the Tigers were behind the Blue Jays, but overcame a three-run deficit in the ninth inning to go on and win the game. The Twins managed to stay 5-1/2 games back—not gaining ground, but not losing any either. That Tigers win looked every bit as magical as the treat we had from Cuddy and Kubel. How can we catch those Tags?

On the heels of this happy win came the news that Justin Morneau will be out for the rest of the season. His dwindling batting average is now explained: he has a stress fracture in his back that will require rest. It’ll heal, but it will do so on its on, in its own sweet time.

A postseason push with Morneau feels nearly impossible. In fact, the recent drop in the standings ties in all too neatly with Morneau’s hitting woes. With him and Crede lost, it’s tough to strike fear in any playoff team’s heart.

Morneau’s season is now frozen with 30 homers and 100 RBI. I remember when those nice numbers rolled over his odometer last Wednesday. I had thought he might have fixed something and set himself back on the hitting path. But this is where he will leave off, and pick up next year.

His average had been plunging, and to have it come to rest at .274 seems unfair. He had something like 7 hits in his last 70 at-bats, and that’ll ruin any average. But his season was far better than these last numbers betray. He kept the team going for the entire month of April when Mauer was out, and then, when the two of them went marching shoulder to shoulder, it looked like the Twins could be champs of the central.

Technically, I am at pains to observe, this is still so. Tonight’s win shows a bit of the heat and light we must see. But the big concern right now is which force is stronger, the loss of Morneau or the beauty of this come from behind rally?

It was a wonderful night, outcome included. Span made an elegant sliding catch and a beautiful bullet of a throw to third. Nick Punto hustled himself a hit by diving across first base, and hustled himself a stolen base in the same dusty manner. Young collected two hits on his 24th birthday.

Cuddyer had a milestone too, for the homer tonight was the 100th of his career. If you value your hands, don’t want to high five him, but you do want to celebrate.