I had a Task Force Flashback Saturday.
Over time, I have tripped out on countless stadium and arena task force meetings, reports, recommendations and failed ideas. But this particular fuzzy and head-shaking memory was of the very first Twins ballpark task force — the Advisory Task Force on Professional Sports — that was conducted on the field of the Metrodome.
It was Sept. 11, 1995, when then Twins President Jerry Bell first called the Dome “economically obsolete” for baseball.
As I stood on the Target Field green grass Saturday morning, as University of Minnesota and Louisiana Tech players warmed up in the pleasant March chill, it all came back to me as if a bad dream … filled with charts and graphs, claims and pushy politics, frightened legislators, polarized taxpayers and now this, the green grass and the wind swirling towards right center field.
Fifteen years in the making.
In addition to that flashback, I had some quick impressions as more than 35,000 curiosity seekers — many of whom probably once said they opposed public financing for the place — streamed into the $555 million edifice, cameras in hand, Twins caps on head, children in tow.
1. Public transportation.
The ballpark is set up for that, with the light rail leading to it and the North Star commuter trains right there, and tons of buses. I drove from St. Paul, didn’t want to pay for parking or get stuck in a ramp, and, after a few circles, found a parking spot on the street at Eighth and Marquette, but that was all luck. Despite all the parking ramps and surface lots, for a sold-out game it’s gonna be nasty to park. The team is admirably promoting the use of public transit.
2. A corollary.
This is as urban a ballpark as there is in the Major Leagues. From the skyline beyond the right field wall, to the warehouses behind the left field grandstand, to the freeways nearby and that mass transit, to the bars and restaurants a block away, this is a city stadium. Thoughtful ballpark advocates sought this way back in the 1990s.
This may not be in the location once envisioned — on the river — or more in the heart of downtown Minneapolis — perhaps on Hennepin Avenue near the Federal Reserve Bank. But it’s in a fine place that once was a parking lot. It is compact, snuggled in. Some of us will continue to debate the cost, but this gathering place is very accessible and as urban as Minnesota allows.
3. Points of sale.
When you go to Target Field, you will be able to buy lots of stuff, mostly food and apparel and souvenirs. It’s a modern ballpark, and so it’s a marketplace, too. Remember that notion of economic obsolescence? Stadiums are malls now, too. Food? Yes, sandwiches cost $9 and a soda is $4.50.
Ad signage is there, too, but not on the field of play, only above it. You can’t avoid the giant ads for some companies — Best Buy, U.S. Bank, Budweiser, Treasure Island Casino — as you gaze at the massive scoreboard, but there’s not one sign on the outfield walls. When you walk by the souvenir and apparel stores, there is a mall feeling to it. It’s tough getting dragged into the 21st century of sports business. Target Field — even more so than Xcel Energy Center — drags us there.
4. Tradition and brand.
As a balance to the commerce, tradition is embedded in this structure. Photos and other art work, including lovely Rod Carew and Kirby Puckett wood murals, dot the ballpark. The Twins history is only 50 years old, but the franchise has had memorable stars and moments, and those are reflected on walls in the upper concourses and clubs with photos. There’s even a nod on the suite level to the old Senators, who were once the Twins. This is all quite endearing, but it also relates to the business of the game.
There was a time not very long ago when this Twins brand was battered, beaten and devalued, for all sorts of reasons. Bad team, unpopular owner, stadium politics, labor strife. Now that brand, that logo — the scripted “Twins” –the entwined T and C and the throwback mascots — Minny and Paul — are embraced. People want to wear them, be affiliated with them. The ballpark enhances the brand. Tradition boosts the brand. Parents pass along the loyalty to child. Tickets are sold. More caps, more T-shirts.
Speaking of brand, whatever Target paid for naming rights to the facility — and we’re guessing it’s in the $5 million-a-year range — it was a bargain. The Target bull’s-eye logo is center-stage, and the name is repeated over and over again in the stadium.
5. Green grass, crisp air.
It was cloudy and a brisk 50 degrees at 1:08 p.m. Saturday. The surprisingly large throng of more than 20,000 who were in their seats for the Gophers game was dressed in sweatshirts, some with wool caps or their hoods up. This was Minnesotan. Just a baseball field in the heart of the city. You’re chilly? Grab a jacket. Hoo-ray! No roof.
6. The Vikings
Target Field is the best thing and worst thing to happen to the Vikings’ sputtering stadium effort. The best, because customer/taxpayers will enter the stadium and say, “Wow, so this is what a modern facility looks like!”
The worst, because this one cost $555 million, with $199.5 million coming from the team and Target, or about 36 percent, and the rest from a Hennepin County sales tax. The Vikings are looking at $700 million to $1 billion for a stadium that won’t have nearly as many events. And, there is no way that a so-called “local partner,” such as Hennepin County, can help out in these times. The Vikings will need to put up at least 36 percent of any stadium and then develop a thoughtful state-backed plan.
Also, Target Field instantly reveals how corrupted the game of baseball was by being played inside. The game is meant to be played outdoors, simple as that. The Twins had an aesthetic story to tell besides a business narrative.
The Vikings don’t have that aesthetic story. Football is watchable in the Dome. The Vikings’ story is all business.
But, then, this is how this began, with the Twins’ Bell telling that task force back in ’95 about economic obsolescence. The Vikings might want to let the Target Field feeling soak in for a Twins season or two, so citizens understand the power of such gathering places.
In these parts, it takes 15 years, a bunch of plans and scary task force flashbacks to get from there to here, from comprehending the economic obsolescence of a sports facility, to acceptance of a need, to the opening of a new stadium, and then real community excitement.