By Steve Marsh
MINNEAPOLIS -- Target Field has never felt smaller than it did on the eve of the All-Star Game.
Standing on the field on Monday, watching Chris Berman flirt with Twins Home Run Derby contestant, second basemen Brian Dozier, watching Rick Sutcliffe lean on the batting cage scribbling down notes on former Twin, now Milwaukee Brewer, All-Star Carlos Gomez's swing, I started to feel claustrophobic.
A platoon of cameramen behind me tried to push jet-engine-shaped, $15,000 telephoto lenses through a scrum of other guys with jet-engine-shaped, $15,000 telephoto lenses in the vague direction of Derek Jeter. I overheard one guy with a thick New York accent curse the park's acreage, before packing up, turning around and heading back into the dugout, a full 30 minutes before the end of on-field access.
The national media came to my hometown from almost every vector in the baseball world -- New York, Tokyo, Panama City -- and they were deeply unstoked that Target Field boasts the best average distance to home plate in the majors. Screw proximity to home plate, there isn't enough room to get an angle on Jeets.
Most days, there is plenty of space at our little ballpark. Target Field opened in 2010, and it still has that new-park smell, but the Twins have been so terrible the last three seasons, coming perilously close to 100 losses each year, that they hardly need enough room for anybody.
Heading into this All-Star break, knowing our tidy jewel box would serve as the official center of the baseball universe, it still felt like there was enough going on -- The Decision II, the World Cup -- that we wouldn't need to accommodate everybody. But now everybody is here, and yeah, it's a little tight.
Here's the thing: We're very polite in Minnesota, so we're never overt about this, but if you live here, it's very easy to discern the undercurrent of us versus them, and the ballpark clearly isn't for them, it's for us. But, as I said, the hometown team has been terrible, making it easier to focus on the tweets about LeBron returning to Cleveland, or to immerse yourself in another essay on the socio-political fallout of Brazil's failure in Belo Horizonte. It's been to get lost in the abstraction of national and international sports coverage. It's easy to feel disconnected to the local squad, to flip the channel on local talk radio, to skip the column in the Star Tribune. Most nights, you can watch the first 15 minutes of SportsCenter without any reminders of what's going on in your neighborhood. (Well, other than the fact Kevin Love is ready to leave it.)
More than anything, this All-Star Game has served as an important reminder that Target Field is not only still here, it's far and away the most crucial building in my neighborhood. My apartment is in an old brick warehouse located right behind centerfield, close enough that when the Thunderbirds were practicing their All-Star Game fly-over yesterday I felt bona fide For Whom the Bell Tolls fear of screaming death before remembering, "Oh, yeah Yasiel Puig."
In fact, Target Field is such a great place to watch a baseball game, that there's a little bit of a Wrigley-effect going on: The Twins drew almost 2.5 million fans to downtown Minneapolis last summer, including myself on several lazy summer days, despite losing 96 games for the second season in a row. Sometimes, from my back window or the front loading dock, I look at the red, white and blue suburban swarms in their brand new, surprisingly tasteful (everything is so throwback these days) Twins pro-shop gear and imagine it will be one of the few times they make it in from the suburbs all summer. I imagine their perception of Minneapolis being incrementally changed by these visits to the ballpark.
There's no question the ballpark's neighborhood -- my neighborhood -- the North Loop, is changing. There are new boutiques filled with expensive, American-made heritage products. There are new restaurants serving $15 hamburgers and top-shelf mac and cheese. There is a Whole Foods. According to the president of the neighborhood association, there's been $500 million in new development since the park was built. Goldman Sachs just bought a building a couple blocks down. Most crucial, a couple years ago, the Twins spent some of the political capital they accrued upon the overwhelmingly positive reception of their publically funded ballpark on expanding light-rail transit. They've helped, with political and financial means, to turn their railstop into a transportation hub. The Target Field Station opened this summer. In addition to the three rail lines that converge at the park, there is a station bathed in pastel light and a plaza with an amphitheater and a huge television screen where you can watch the games.
Things are going so well outside and around Target Field that our dissociative attitude toward the Twins' actual performance is becoming more and more obvious. We always were small market, highly competitive, perpetual underdogs, but they had an excuse when they lost in that horrible Metrodome, an easily identified handicap. Now, playing in this limestone, bedazzled, picture postcard come to life? We don't really know how resentful we should be of poor management or bad luck. Should we just sit in this sunshine and drink this beer? How good is this Andrew Zimmern-brand smoked meat sandwich? It seems pretty good, but is it too overpriced? And why does Joe Mauer stink? That's the thing: You can feel our collective cognitive dissonance most heartbreakingly in our schizophrenic treatment of our hometown hero, St. Paul's very own.
Mauer is halfway through an eight-year, $184 million contract, the biggest contract ever for a catcher, and one he signed right before the Twins' inaugural season at Target Field, just one season after an MVP year in which he won his third batting title with a .365 average to go along with 28 home runs and 96 RBIs (11 of his home runs came in May of 2009, but in the rush to legend, why dwell on details). Since that season, he's been stricken with hard-to-relate-to injuries, and although he's remained in the vicinity of his remarkable lifetime average, he hasn't come close to those 2009 power numbers. And with each injury, whether "bi-lateral leg weakness" or "concussion-like symptoms," the perception has grown that he's underachieved in an advanced metric era where high average is less and less valued, all the while making Yankee money. This season, the plan was to preserve his health by having him play first, and he's responded by dropping .50 points from his average. When he finally started turning it around at the end of June, he strained an oblique, and all hope of him making the All-Star Game was dashed. It's a depressing situation, and so many fans, on talk radio, on message boards, have let this angst get the best of them, and in some cases have resorted to nasty invective. It got so gross that a popular local ice cream maker dropped Mauer as its public spokesperson before the season.
Yeah, Mauer isn't worth $184 million -- who is? -- but in 2010, with a new, publically funded ballpark (taxpayers contributed $392 million of the $522 total cost in a controversial legislative push) the Twins' management and the Pohlad family was in a "damned if they do, damned if they don't" situation. They couldn't begin their tenure in their new digs by sniffing at the price of their most popular player since Kirby Puckett. No way. But maybe they should've. Hometown hero inflation is a horrible thing.
There is the feeling that this All-Star Game could've been more of a celebration than it is. There's something elegiac to these proceedings unbefitting of an exhibition. We are starting to become aware of thirty-something lost causes and some of these moments will be too poignant, too painful, too close to home to give over our full attention.
Though the compact and powerful Dozier represented the Twins in the Home Run Derby, the real drama awaited the return of Justin Morneau. He was once upon a time our hockey-playing cleanup hitter, Mauer's galoot of a Canadian roomie, an MVP winner in his own right. In 2006 Morneau beat Jeter for the award, leading the Twins to a division title with a .321 average, 34 home runs and 130 RBI. He mashed for three and a half more seasons after that, before suffering a freaky, sickening concussion on July 7, 2010. He has scuffled through the false hope of post-concussion symptoms ever since, and it was frustrating and horrible to witness. Finally he was traded to Pittsburgh on Aug. 31, 2013; at the end, it felt like a merciful termination. He signed with Colorado in the offseason. He's doing better in in the thin Rocky Mountain air and just missed being elected into the game during the last-chance fan vote. His All-Star Colorado teammate, Troy Tulowitzki, who captained the National League Derby team, appointed him to the roster. He accepted (reportedly with some reluctance -- Morneau was always kind of a taciturn cipher, which actually plays well in Minnesota.) Last night he returned to Target Field. Mauer, holding his twin daughters in his arms outside of the opposite dugout, led a standing ovation as his old roommate and clean up man was introduced. It was a sweet moment, but also sort of sad, and in the unseasonably cool, bizarre Scottish links weather, Morneau was only able to lash two home runs into the leftfield seats, exiting the competition before we could really process what we were feeling.
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Steve Marsh has written about sports, drugs, music and comedy for several national publications. He is based in Minneapolis.