A Reluctant Acceptance of Target Field

I’m a Minnesota Twins fan. Always have been. Always will be. This season they moved into a new ballpark, Target Field, and on the occasion of its postseason debut, I decided to publish a few thoughts about baseball, architecture and the city.

Target Field, Minneapolis

Baseball, if you think about it, is the only sport where architecture is a true player, a tenth man. The malleability of a field’s dimensions, diamond aside, means that basically anything goes, and very strange things are permitted. Ivy-covered brick outfield walls, monstrous green walls, home run porches and Rocky Mountain air all contribute to an atmosphere where home field advantage is far from a phantom statistic. Sure, Indianapolis’ RCA Dome was loud, but Marvin Harrison never had to run uphill to make a catch the way an Astros center fielder does. The New York Yankees, by contrast, still play on a field so suited to batters like Babe Ruth (it’s a descendent, after all, of “The House that Ruth Built”) that until relatively recently, the Yankees’ lineup reflected a bias for left-handed power hitters.

Baseball is also a very an urban sport, the dimensions of its confines (both friendly and monstrous) often determined by property limitations and existing conditions. The most famous example of this is Boston’s Green Monster, which resulted from negotiating a oddly shaped site. And because of their size, stadiums for professional baseball are buildings of consequence for the cities they inhabit. They can single-handedly revive neighborhoods, but they can also harm them beyond repair.

The best known fields are those with character. Well-thought relationships to an existing urban condition is the best way to achieve such character. In recent years, however, architects have tried to make character a manufacturable commodity in stadium construction. Spurred by the popularity of The Ballpark at Camden Yards for the Baltimore Orioles, architects have taken to quirk and particularity like catnip. The results of this building boom have been inconsistent at best. It has resulted in a few great parks, many mediocre ones, and quite a few duds.

But there are still no Bilbaos in Major League Baseball, save maybe for its two elder statesmen, Wrigley Field in Chicago and Boston’s Fenway Park. The question outside those two rites of passage is, what’s new? The newest thing gets the most attention, but only for so long. All the new notches on one’s belt of baseball stadia seem to be of equal value.

Baseball, as an institution, has misinterpreted this phenomenon. The fact that Wrigley and Fenway are so popular hasn’t much to do with their character or charm, but with their difference. And it’s a difference in kind, not in degree. It’s not that Wrigley has so much more character than its south side counterpart Comiskey Park, it’s that they are quantitatively different experiences, because of their history more than their form. Isn’t it possible, however, that the peculiar historical character of Wrigley and Fenway can’t be replicated? History can’t be spontaneously produced, so should baseball’s architects quit trying to copy the past?

One could argue that baseball is on the decline because people see it as an old-fashioned game. In order to move past its past, which has recently been marred by steroids and scandals, stadiums could, and should, adopt a forward-looking aesthetic. The best way to move away from the steroid era isn’t to pretend it never happened by building stadiums born of some Americana fantasyland. Baseball is dirty. Modernism can make it clean again.

If Major League Baseball, like, for example, the NFL, were to adopt a fresh aesthetic in its stadia, it would be easier for it to turn its back on an unsuccessful experiment in simultaneously modernizing and historicizing its relation to culture. The steriod era was one in which baseball showed all the progress we, as humans could make physically, within a backdrop of safe, false history. The stadiums we built to catch home runs hit by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were clothed in an architectural language borne of baseball’s supposed golden age, even though the achievements of said golden age were being surpassed at an alarming rate. No wonder we didn’t see the problem, we were too cosy in our surroundings to notice things had changed.

The steroid era was a dark age for the Twins, who followed up their second World Series victory in 1991 with eleven seasons of futility, their small-ball approach overwhelmed by beasts with big muscles. In spite of this, and in spite of their meager budget, the team was slowly revived. The Twins demonstrate that neither money nor architectural atmosphere alone can make a popular team. Their fans stayed with them through the losing seasons, free agent losses, and the grand mistake known as the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome. It didn’t always seem so, however.

When it was finished in 1982, the Metrodome was a revelation for Minneapolis. After decades of trudging through inches upon inches of snow to see their beloved Minnesota Vikings beat up on the competition, they could finally appreciate a good third down conversion or a goal line stand without wearing their caps and scarves. And it also worked for baseball. Sort of.

The Minnesota Twins struggled through 25 seasons in the Metrodome, seasons filled with knee injuries and lost fly balls caused by the dome’s unforgiving turf and marshmallow roof. But there were also glory days. The dome’s distinctiveness gave the Twins a competitive advantage. There was nothing else like it in the Majors. Opposing managers couldn’t adapt their rosters to the fast turf the way Twins manager Tom Kelly did, and it resulted in two World Series titles, one in 1987 (a mere three seasons after the dome opened) and another in 1991. After that the glory faded. The Metrodome’s novelty had worn off. The team floundered. Attendance sank. At their lowest point, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig made the Twins candidates for contraction. But baseball came back from the brink, and so did the Twins. It took a group of young, energetic players and a new manager to get the Twins back on track.

Target Field is late on the scene of a decade-old team revival, but it is appropriately timed. The quirky Metrodome was part of Twins baseball, a prominent member of the great World Series-winning teams of 1987 and 1991. We in Twins nation hope another title is near on the horizon.

Target Field, Minneapolis. "Halo" of lights seen above, light rail station at left.

While the new stadium is definitely of the same family as other recent historicist schlock (it was built by Populous, the only architecture firm to benefit from baseball’s building boom), certain aspects show promise. Its “halo” of lighting is definitely of interest architecturally, a swoop from third base to first that affords more prized skyline views for fans. Its connection to what is a nascent neighborhood at the edge of downtown is strong, and with public transport easily accessible (its use is encouraged through promotions), the city is at the Twins’ door. Here’s hoping they play late enough into the year to see some snow.