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The Minnesota Staduim Saga Continues
By William Wilcoxen
August 21, 2000
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The Minnesota Twins may try again next year to gain permission to play a few outdoor baseball games at a temporary ballpark. A proposal to put up a temporary ballpark in Bloomington in time for three games next month was rejected by Major League Baseball officials last week. The commissioners who run the Metrodome also had some reservations about the plan, fearing it could set a precedent that would cause the Dome's other disgruntled tenant - the Vikings - to seek changes in their lease agreement. The situation reflects the tangle of interests intertwined in the Twin Cities stadium landscape.

OUTDOOR TWINS GAMES in a temporary ballpark won't happen this year, but team officials have left open the possibility of trying to make it happen next season, when there will be more time for planning and approval. The Twins had hoped to build a regulation-sized ballpark on a vacant lot near Bloomington's Mall of America. After three games there - their first outdoor home games since 1981 - the Twins would dismantle their temporary home and move back under the Metrodome's Teflon. Team officials called the idea a long shot. Vice President of Communications Dave St. Peter says if they ever do come to pass, the outdoor games will simply be a chance to have fun.

"Then people would've had a good time at an outdoor ballgame. And that's something right now that we're unable to deliver to folks. There's no master plan here. It's as simple as that. We want to try to have some fun and try to generate some excitement around outdoor baseball."

But things are rarely that simple in the great stadium soap opera that's been held over for a few more years in Minnesota. In the current cast of characters, "excitement around outdoor baseball" and "support for a new big league ballpark" might be considered siblings, if not twins. In previous episodes, state lawmakers and St. Paul voters soundly rejected the use of tax revenue for a new Twins' ballpark. Fresh material will premiere in the fall, though, when two separate groups that are new players in the baseball plot line issue reports. One group, called New BallPark, Incorporated, consists of Minneapolis business leaders working on a way to build a downtown ballpark using private money. Chuck Neerland is a consultant to that group.

"We are commited to an urban, privately financed ballpark which we hope would be beautiful and utilitarian," he said.

New BallPark has hired an architectural firm and some city planners to work on where a ballpark might go and what it would look like, while the business leaders focus on finding investors and a lead developer for the project. Neerland says only when the group has finished its work - perhaps in November - will the business people show the Twins what they've concocted.

Meanwhile, another group - this one convened by the Twins - will report by the end of the year on what it will take to keep Major League Baseball in Minnesota. Twins General Counsel Ben Hirst, who sits on the steering committee of Minnesotans for Major Leage Baseball, says the group is looking at big picture issues such as "How important is baseball to the Twin Cities?" and "Is big league baseball viable in the current environment?" It's still early, but some insiders think this group may suggest the Twins play in a new ballpark as a way to make more money.

The Twins' $16 million payroll is the lowest in the majors this year. Hirst says it would take $65 million to put the Twins in the middle of the pack. He says the big payroll is a fact of life in pro sports today.

"It just is what it is. If Minnesota wants to keep Major League Baseball, it's simply going to have to pay players what the market says their services are worth," he said.

In baseball, the richest teams are those in big cities where broadcasting contracts are most lucrative. Teams in some smaller cities have nearly kept pace financially by playing in new stadiums that provide more ways to make money through preferred seating, restaurants, and other amenities. The Twins and a few other teams lag far behind in revenue and are less likely to offer big salaries to top players. In football, the storyline is a little different. Broadcast revenue goes into one big pot from which it is distributed to all the teams. That means discrepancies between rich and poor teams are smaller but it also means they're based almost entirely on stadium revenue. When we last left the Minnesota Vikings, they were insisting the Metrodome provided too little money for a modern-day NFL team. Now, after selling every ticket to the 2000 season, the Vikings have also rejected a Metrodome renovation plan. Vikings stadium consultant Lester Bagley likens the renovation plan to bandaging a terminally ill patient.

"The Vikings think that we've spent a year and a half on the renovation question. We believe we've exhausted that option and from here on we'll focus on new construction," Bagley said.

So both pro teams want to flee the much-maligned Metrodome which, at the age of 18, is paid for and owned by the taxpayers of the seven-county Twin Cities area. The Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, which manages the Dome, is trying to be realistic about the building's future. Their current strategy is to support the Twins in their effort to gain an outdoor home, then hope the Vikings will settle for a Metrodome renovated specifically for football. Commission Chairwoman Kathryn Roberts says the Vikings may warm to the renovation idea if they find public opposition to a new, tax-funded stadium is resolute.

"That would seem logical to me. That you would continue to test and continue to press for your absolute top desire. Then, if you ultimately find out that's not going to be reality, what's your next step? And if I were in their shoes, I'd be back at the table with us," Roberts said.

Finally, there is the collegiate sub-plot. University of Minnesota football coach Glen Mason has publicly wished his Gophers, whose star is rising in the Minnesota sports scene, could play outdoors and on campus rather than downtown in the Metrodome. But the Gophers, like the Vikings, have a Metrodome lease that runs through 2011. Interim men's athletic director Tom Moe says any discussion of a new U of M football stadium is premature.

Thus, like sand through an hour glass, Minnesota's stadium saga moves steadily onward. Fans of the drama may be captivated by its plot twists and shifting alliances; others will find it bewildering or tiresome. Perhaps the only certainty is that it will be renewed for at least one more year.