[I wrote the following in a Facebook note in October of 2009. Warne's first Twins game post reminded me of this, so I figured I'd share it. In retrospect, I probably should have made it a FanPost here at that time. Oh, well. Better late than never.]
Chop. Crack... I head down the aisle towards the tunnel to make my way through the cramped concourse for the final time.
Chop. Crack. Chop... I look up to see several stadium employees hacking away at the dirt around home plate. The jombotron presents an aerial view as well.
Crack. Chop... The Yankees have won. It's all over for the dome... er... "Mall of America Field." Ugh. How fitting it is that the Yankees are the team to eventually seal the name change to corporate absurdity. Crack.
BOOM!!! I look back at the field one last time to see a large block has been excavated. It was once home plate. The very same home plate that Dan Gladden jumped onto in a fit of elation one fall evening in 1991, just one day after it was the first to hear the crack of Kirby Puckett's bat in the 11th. The same home plate that saw Johan Santana throw 17 strikeouts above it and had Joe Mauer win 3 batting titles while playing behind it... It was out, and it was over.
I decided not to use the revolving door. This is, as far as I know, the last Metrodome exit I will ever have. I'll be damned if I'm not going to get blown out the door. I ride the escaping air pressure into the crisp night air. I'll miss that. There's a lot I'll miss. Yes, the dome was a horrendous ballpark. —But for me, and Twins fans of my generation, it has been home.
All season long, the Twins have been counting down the top 100 Metrodome Moments, a list that is sure to be amended after this season. The top spots are all full of scenes from the 1987 and 1991 World Series championships, which is nice for the whole of Twins Territory, but it's not how I'll remember it. Twins games at the dome have been a constant in my adult life. I began attending Twins games on a regular basis in 2001. Prior to that, I'd been to only a handful over the previous 5 or so years. Going to Twins games became, and still is, a way to connect with a part of my youth.
The Twins teams of the 80's and early 90's are more a haze of happy memories. The players live more as iconic heroes of my childhood than any tangible memory. Yes, I can still see Kirby rounding the bases, right fist in the air. —But the actual details of the games from my youth are absent. If I am to make a true list of my personal memories of the Metrodome, it would really have to cover the resurgence of Twins baseball in the 2000's.
So, for you to enjoy (and really more for me), I have put together a nice list of my top 5 memories of the Metrodome:
5. The Contraction Kids. In the winter of 2001, the MLB was facing a downturn of attendance. Baseball commissioner Bud Selig announced plans to contract the Major Leagues by 2 teams. Those teams would eventually be named as the Montreal Expos and the Minnesota Twins.
Coming off their first winning season since 1992 and the retirement of 2-time world champion manager Tom Kelly, the Twins faced the possibility of non-existence. It was a fate that ownership did not seem to mind, but the fans saw it another way. After a court ruled that the Twins and Major League Baseball had to honor their lease at the Metrodome, the team that almost wasn’t began the 2002 season.
On April 12th, the Twins came home for their annual home opener. The dome was packed, and the atmosphere was electrifying. The Twins rode the strength of a 4-run 2nd inning along with the right arm of Brad Radke. New manager Ron Gardenhire handed the ball to newly-anointed closer Eddie Guardado. The "Ed-die" chant was born, and Guardado struck out the side to seal the 4-2 victory in the Twins’ homecoming.
4. September Sox Sweeps. My number 4 here is actually from 2 separate seasons…
The Twins trailed the Royals by 7½ games when Terry Ryan traded Bobby Kielty to the Toronto Blue Jays for Shannon Stewart during the All-Star Break in 2003. Stewart became a spark plug for the Twins as Minnesota caught fire in the second half. Going into a 4-game series in Chicago September 8-11, the Twins had pulled into a tie for the lead in the AL Central with the White Sox (the Royals had since tapered off). After dropping the first 2 games of the series, the Twins got strong outings from new starter Johan Santana and longtime ace Brad Radke to leave Chicago with a 2-2 split of the series. Minnesota picked up a half game lead over the next 4 days, and the stage was set for a huge 3-game series at the dome.
I made it a point to attend all 3 games, and the Twins buried the White Sox season with 3 dominating wins. Brad Radke, Kenny Rogers, and Kyle Lohse all pitched extremely well in winning each of their starts. The Twins got timely hitting and sparkling defense. It was a flawless series for the hometown nine. –And it all but sealed the AL Central title.
The Twins trailed Chicago by 2½ games on September 23, 2008. 3 huge games against the hated White Sox at the dome would all have to go Minnesota’s way, and they did. Again, I made sure to be in attendance for all 3 games. The Twins pounded the Sox 9-3 behind a strong outing by Scott Baker in Game 1. They then eeked out a 3-2 victory in Game 2 with the help of 4 shutout innings by the bullpen. This left them a half game out going into the final game of the series.
In Game 3, the White Sox scored 6 runs in the 4th inning to take a commanding 6-1 lead. The game was not over. The Twins chipped away at the lead with 2 runs in the home half of the 4th and 1 in the 6th. After Carlos Gomez singled home Harris to make it 6-5, Denard Span grounded the ball just fair down the right field line for a triple, scoring Gomez from first base to tie the game at 6. The game remained tied until the 10th inning, when Alexi Casilla looped a base hit into shallow left-center to drive home Little Nicky Punto for the sweep.
The Twins went on to lose the 1-game playoff in Chicago 5 days later, but the sweep itself still stands out as a great moment in my mind.
3. Marquee Match Up. Rarely does a game really live up to the hype, but this one did. Until recently (for obvious reasons), I considered this to be the best game I had ever attended. On June 13, 2006, Boston was in town. Yes, that means douchebag Red Sox fans. —But on this night it also meant the premier pitching match up of the week in baseball: Curt Schilling opposed Johan Santana.
Johan picked up his 1000th career strikeout, earning a roaring ovation from the crowd, but Schilling matched him pitch-for pitch. The two dueled scoreless into the 7th, and when Jason Veritek blasted a homer into the left-center seats to give the Red Sox a 1-0 lead, I think we all felt that sinking feeling that Santana could actually end up losing one of the best outings of the season. Never fear. Michael Cuddyer would answer with a solo shot of his own in the bottom of the frame to tie the game at 1. Both pitchers were brilliant, going 8 innings with just 1 run allowed apiece. Both pitchers would leave the game with a "no decision."
The game was turned over to dueling bullpens who continued the pitching dominance in the 9th, in the 10th, and then the 11th. With the game still tied at 1 in the top of the 12th, Sox shortstop Alex Gonzalez drove in the tie-breaker with a groundout where the Twins were unable to turn an inning-ending double play.
In the bottom of the inning, Cuddyer was hit by a pitch in front of a Justin Morneau ground rule double. With runners on second and third, Boston manager Terry Francona elected to intentionally walk Torii Hunter and pitch to Jason Kubel with the bases loaded and 1 out. Kubel worked the count full against Julian Tavarez, and lifted a 3-2 pitch high in the air to right field. The ball was obviously deep enough to score Cuddyer from third on a sacrifice fly, but it just kept on sailing. I watched right fielder Trot Nixon turn around to play it off the wall, but the ball snuck over the baggie. Walk off grand slam.
I still remember jumping up and down, screaming at the top of my lungs. What a dramatic end to the best baseball game I had ever attended…
2. "Let’s Go, Roy-als!" It was a sunny autumn day on October 1, 2006. The final day of the regular season. The Twins were deadlocked with the Tigers atop of the AL Central. Both teams were going to the postseason, but the division crown was still in doubt. Detroit held the tie breaker, however. The Twins would need to win and have the Royals to complete an improbable sweep in Detroit if the AL Central championship banner was going to hang in the Metrodome.
I got to the game when the gates opened in order to grab a decent general admission seat. The Tigers-Royals game was to begin an hour earlier than the Twins-White Sox affair. I sat and watched the scoreboard as the Tigers built a 6-0 lead before the Twins game even began. Once the game got underway at the dome, fates began to turn. The Royals scored 2 runs in the 4th and 1 in the 5th to make it a 6-3 game. —And the excitement started building…
Joe Mauer entered the game with a slim 2-point lead in the AL batting race. No catcher had ever won a batting title in the 100-year history of the American League. The White Sox took a 1-0 lead into the bottom of the 4th, and it was Mauer’s leadoff double that sparked the Twins. Morneau doubled him home, and Hunter homered to give the Twins a 3-1 lead. Mauer singled in the 5th as well, effectively sealing the batting title, and the Twins padded their lead to 5-1 by the end of the 6th.
Meanwhile in Detroit, the Royals were rallying again. Kansas City chipped away in the 5th to make it 6-4. After the Tigers added a run to make it 7-4, the Royals came to bat in the 8th. I still vividly remember 45,000+ Twins fans chanting "Let’s Go, Roy-als!" during the Twins game. I’m not talking about in between innings. The chant was going on while the game was in motion. The Royals scored 2 runs to make it 7-6, and then another to make it a 7-7 tie, and then another to take an 8-7 lead! The dome was going absolutely berserk. Unfortunately, in the bottom of the 8th, Matt Stairs homered for Detroit to tie the game at 8.
The Twins bullpen did it’s job, and Joe Nathan pitched a scoreless 9th to seal the Twins 5-1 victory. We all watched as the Tigers-Royals game, now in the bottom of the 9th, was put on the jumbotron. I still remember Brandon Inge hitting what would have been a walk-off home run to win the division, but it drifted foul. The game in Detroit went into extra innings.
It labored on through 2 scoreless innings into the top of the 12th. By this point, ex-Twin Kenny Rogers was pitching for the Tigers. The Royals loaded the bases with 1 out, and the Metrodome sound guy was playing the rally music you usually only hear when the Twins are threatening to score. Estaban German drove in the go-ahead run and Emil Brown walked to force in another. Jimmy Gobble came on the close the door in the bottom of the 12th, and the Royals’ 10-8, come-from-behind victory completed the sweep and handed the Twins the American League Central Division Championship.
The Twins players had joined the fans from the dugout to watch the end of the game in Detroit. I still remember them racing out onto the field when the final out was recorded and celebrating with the fans. It was a magical, improbable day at the dome. It was to be the most memorable game I had ever attended… for 3 years.
1. Game 163. While still fresh in the mind, great sporting events often feel better than they actually are. In time, memories fade and new events replace the old. This I understand. Still, after this memory has drifted into my collective images from Twins games past, I am certain that it will remain as the single most compelling moment for me at the Metrodome.
The Twins trailed the Tigers by 7 games in mid-September. They caught fire and closed the gap. Still, with 4 games to play, the Twins were 3 games down and facing an elimination game in Detroit. Minnesota won and lived on to play must-win baseball another day. They returned home to, in all probability, say goodbye to the Metrodome. After all, the Twins needed to sweep the Royals and have Chicago take 2 of 3 in Detroit to even force a 1-game playoff. It just didn’t seem to be in the cards.
Friday saw a Twins win and a Tigers loss to close the gap to 1 game. After I attended the Twins victory on Saturday, the White Sox went ahead and beat the Tigers again that evening. The division was tied heading to the final day of the season. Sound familiar? After the possibility of another 2006-ish scenario began to play out, I made it a point to go to the farewell game, early again, and watch what could be another division championship unfold. The Twins did win, but so did the Tigers. One more game would be needed to decide the AL Central title and the final spot in the postseason.
It was a rainy, cold Tuesday afternoon on October 6th. The game was scheduled to start at 4:00 as to no interfere with the Wild opener across town later in the evening. For the final dome series, the Twins had raised the curtain that usually hung in the upper deck in right-center. This effectively increased the capacity by 10,000+ people. Finding parking was a nightmare, and I missed almost the entire first inning. 55,000+ fans settled in for what would be an unbelievably amazing game.
In the top of the 3rd, Magglio Ordonez singled home the game’s first run and Miguel Cabrera followed with a booming 2-run home run to give the Tigers a 3-0 lead. Matt Tolbert scored on a wild pitch in the bottom of the 3rd, and Jason Kubel hit a solo homer in the 6th to close the gap to 3-2.
That’s when the game really started getting good. Little Nicky Punto led off the bottom of the 7th with a marathon at-bat that eventually resulted with a sharp single past Inge at third and into left field. After not sacrificing Punto into scoring position, Denard Span struck out. Orlando Cabrera then cracked a line-drive home run into the first row of seats in left field to give the Twins a 4-3 lead. That was the first time I jumped up and down with excitement. The dome was going absolutely insane, homer hankies waving. So loud…
Unfortunately for the Twins, the lead would be short lived. Magglio Ordonez tied the game with a long ball to left in the top of the 8th. After a pair of 1-out walks had the Tigers threatening again, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire went to closer Joe Nathan. Nathan jammed Inge with an inside fastball, forcing him to pop out to second baseman Nick Punto. He then struck out Gerald Laird looking for the final out, and the game went to the 9th inning tied at 4.
That’s when the game went from really good to amazing. Ramon Santiago led off the top of the 9th for the Tigers with a bunt single and was replaced with pinch-runner (and former Twin) Adam Everett. Curtis Granderson then followed with a single to right field, and Everett scampered to third base. Runners on the corners, no outs, 9th inning, game 163, tied at 4. The tension was palpable.
Joe Nathan dropped a knee-buckling curveball over the inside corner to strike out Polonco for the first out. Magglio Ordonez, who already had 2 hits and 2 RBI in the game, stepped to the plate in a key spot. He swung and rocketed a line drive to Cabrera at shortstop, and Granderson had taken one too many steps off of first. Cabrera fired a snap throw to Cuddyer at first base, and they got him. Double play. Inning over. This was the second time I jumped up and down with excitement. At that point, I really felt that the Twins were fated to win.
Nick Punto found himself leading off another inning with the division on the line, and he again came through with another fantastic at-bat. After falling behind 1 ball and 2 strikes, he worked a leadoff walk. The division-winning run was on first base with none out. This time, Denard Span dropped down a bunt to sacrifice Punto to second base. One out. Tigers manager Jim Leyland was not taking any chances. He made the move to bring in closer Fernando Rodney. Orlando Cabrera had homered in his previous at-bat, and he came to the plate needing only a base hit to win the AL Central. He pulled a hard ground ball toward the hole on the left side, but Brandon Inge dove and came up with the ball. He threw to first to get the out. Amazing. It was a superb defensive play that, at the time, saved the Tigers’ season. The Tigers intentionally walked Mauer to face Carlos Gomez, who had replaced Jason Kubel in the field beginning the 8th (when the Twins had a lead to protect). The strategy worked, and Gomez grounded out to shortstop to end the threat and send the game into extra innings.
That’s when the game went from amazing to mind-blowing. The Twins turned to Jesse Crain to pitch the 10th. After a groundout, Aubrey Huff came in to pinch hit. He leaned into a pitch that clipped his jersey, and was replaced by pinch-runner Don Kelly at first base. Crain then struck out Ryan Rayburn to bring up Brandon Inge with 2 out. Inge blasted a double down the left field line that scored Kelly all the way from first base. It was going to be Inge as the Tigers hero... After saving the season with his glove in the 9th, he had delivered an RBI double in the 10th. Laird grounded out to end the inning, but the Tigers took a 5-4 lead to the bottom of the 10th.
The Detroit closer was already in the game, so no move was to be made. On a 2-2 pitch from Rodney, Michael Cuddyer hit a sinking line drive to left field that Ryan Rayburn had to fight the lights in order to see. He attempted a sliding catch, but the ball skipped past him completely untouched. Curtis Granderson raced over from center field to try and cut the ball off, but it got past him as well, and it rolled all the way to the wall. Cuddyer ran with all his might and slid into third base ahead of the throw for a leadoff triple. Pandemonium...
Delmon Young followed with a ground ball to shortstop, but with the infield drawn in, Cuddyer had to stay put at third. Brendan Harris then worked a walk and was replaced by pinch-runner Alexi Casilla, but having a runner on first could be a help to the Tigers by setting up a possible season-ending double play. The Tigers dropped their middle infielders back for this reason, and light-hitting Matt Tolbert stepped to the plate. He chopped the ball over the mound, but right at the second base bag. Polonco raced after it and reached for the ball right at the bag, looking for the division-winning double play, but the ball squeaked through into center field. Cuddyer scored, Casilla raced to third base, and I jumped up and down for a third time. The game was again tied, and the Twins were a sacrifice fly away from winning the division.
Nick Punto, who had delivered fantastic at-bats leading off the 7th and the 9th, stepped to the plate looking to be the hero. The Tigers brought their outfielders in close to try and keep the runner on third from scoring on a fly ball. On a 1-2 pitch, Punto got what he was looking for. He hit a line drive to left field that seemed to be deep enough to win the division. I don’t know what Casilla was thinking, but he didn’t immediately head back to third base. Perhaps he didn’t realize that the outfield was playing in, but either way, he was late tagging up. Rayburn made the catch, and the throw came in a little to the foul side of home plate. Casilla raced toward home on the infield side. He dove and reached for the plate. Laird dove at him with the ball and managed to tag him on the arm a split second before he could score. Double play. Inning over. Everyone was in shock.
Crain was replaced by Ron Mahay who was replaced by shaky Bobby Keppel. The 3 combined for a 1-2-3 top of the 11th, and the Twins would come to bat in the bottom of the inning again looking for a run to win the AL Central. The Twins played Journey’s "Don’t Stop Belevin’" in the middle of the 11th. 55,000 fans sang along... It was awesome. Unfortunately, the Twins also went down 1-2-3 in the bottom of the inning with Rodney still pitching. The game would head to the 12th tied 5-5.
Bobby Keppel had struggled in the second half of the season, and he struggled in the 12th. Clete Thomas had been a defensive replacement for Magglio Ordonez in the 10th (when the Tigers were looking to protect a lead), and he lead off with hard-hit line out to Gomez in center field. Keppel then walked Miguel Cabrera. Don Kelly followed with a single to left moving Cabrera to third base, but Delmon Young threw to third (the wrong base) and allowed Kelly to advance to second base and take away the double-play possibility. Gardenhire came out, but he decided to leave the shaky Keppel in to try and get out of the jam on his own.
After an intentional walk to Ryan Rayburn loaded the bases, Brandon Inge again came to the plate with 1 out. For the second time in extra innings, a Tigers batter leaned into a pitch. This time, the low pitch clipped Inge’s pant leg, but the umpire didn’t see it. Inge was furious, but no base and subsequent forced-in run was awarded. Brandon Inge then chopped the ball over the mound... It had all the earmarks of and infield single (or at least a force out that would score the go-ahead run). In one of his routinely stellar defensive plays, Nick Punto charged in and threw across his body, on target to Mauer at home. It was barely in time, but they to got the lead runner. 2 out, bases re-loaded. Gerald Laird then came to the plate. Keppel fell behind 3 balls and 1 strike. One more ball outside the strike zone would force in the go-ahead run. Keppel threw a fastball down the middle of the plate, but Laird only fouled it off. Full count. The runners were off with the pitch, and Keppel delivered a fastball outside and low. Laird swung… And missed. The dome went crazy. Yet again.
Tigers closer Fernando Rodney, having already pitched 2 2/3 innings, came out again to pitch the 12th. Carlos Gomez chopped a 1-0 pitch into left field for a hit. Again, the Twins had the division-winning run on first with no outs. Cuddyer stepped to the plate and grounded the first pitch down the third base line. Inge cut off the ball and briefly thought about throwing the ball to second base. Gomez was too quick, however, and Inge threw to first base for the sure out. The effect was the same as a sacrifice bunt. Gomez reached second base with 1 out.
Delmon Young was due up for the Twins, but light-hitting Alexi Casilla was now on deck after pinch-running for Brendan Harris in the 10th. The Tigers elected to intentionally walk Delmon to set up a possible double play and pitch to the hitter with less power. Casilla would come to the plate looking to make up for his baserunning mistake in the 10th.
Right fielder Clete Thomas was playing more towards right-center because the Tigers did not think Casilla could pull a fastball. Fernando Rodney delivered to the plate. Strike one. The next pitch missed to even the count. Catcher Gerald Laird set up inside for the 1-1 pitch, but the ball trailed back over the middle of the plate. Casilla swung, and the ball bounced between Polonco and Cabrera... into right field. Thomas was not going to get to it quickly.
I looked down to see Carlos Gomez running like his back was on fire. He rounded third base and didn’t even bother to look at the third base coach. I remember seeing the Twins bench emptying and rushing towards home plate to meet him as he ran down the line, but Gomez was faster. That image of the players pouring out of the dugout as Gomez headed home will be everlasting in my mind. Gomez dove across the plate, jumped up into the air, and slammed his helmet down in celebration. The players swarmed him, and then Casilla. They were division champs.
The ovation seemed to go on forever. 5-10 minutes of roaring Twins fans celebrated as the team went around the dome, high-fiving as many fans as they could.
The Twins were swept by the Yankees in the ALDS. Even so, Game 163 is not diminished in my mind. It is and will be the enduring memory of Metrodome in my mind.