Sunday, June 3, 2007

"They Died Young"--Volume II

Metropolitan Stadium/Met Sports Center--Bloomington, MN
The Twin Cities almost overnight became Major League in 1961 as the Washington Senators of the American League moved there and became the Twins, and the expansion Minnesota Vikings of the National Football League began play that year.  Both teams called Metropolitan Stadium their home for the next 20 years.  The stadium was only about five years old, having been built in the mid-50's as a minor league baseball park, and it rose up like a huge erector set over the prairie on the southern reaches of the metro area, just across the highway from the Twin Cities' main airport.  "The Met" was hardly the prettiest ballpark ever built, but the fans loved the place warts and all, and the stadium went from minor league status to hosting the World Series in less than ten years.

Met Stadium was initially a triple-deck grandstand that basically hugged the baseball infield, but it went through numerous expansions throughout its history to accomodate both the Twins and the Vikings that gave the stadium an odd, patchy quality about it that was both a blessing and a curse—blessing in that it gave the place a certain home-y charm, curse in that poor planning wound up being the stadium's downfall eventually.  Compared with modern-day stadiums, the Met was very substandard in many ways—too few bathrooms, narrow concourses, only a handful of concession stands throughout the park and "temporary" seating areas that wound up being permanent, plus traffic after games was a total nightmare some nights.  The stadium was also poorly-maintained over time, and at one point near the end of the park's tenure, the third deck behind home plate had to be closed-off because it had become unsafe.

Still, the stadium had plenty of moments in the sun, thanks to fielding two fairly competitive tenants.  The fans took to both the Twins and Vikings almost right away, as the Twins had stars like slugger Harmon Killebrew, pitcher Jim Kaat and outfielder Tony Oliva, and the Vikings had QB Fran Tarkenton and their famed "Purple People Eater" defense.  The Twins made the World Series in just their fifth season in Minnesota in 1965, falling to Sandy Koufax and the L.A. Dodgers, and the Vikings were a consistent playoff team in the NFL, and played in their first Super Bowl against the Chiefs after the '69 season.  Outdoor soccer also thrived there in the '70s with the NASL's Minnesota Kicks, and in spite of the often-brutal weather conditions for Vikings games at The Met, the fans turned out in droves, and also pioneered the art of tailgating before and after games, even in the dead of winter.
Meantime, just across the parking lot, Metropolitan Sports Center opened in 1967, served as the Twin Cities' main indoor sporting venue for many years, including as the home of the NHL's expansion Minnesota North Stars.  Met Center was a no-frills arena, but was well-liked by both players and fans for its superior ice surface and great sightlines and atmosphere.  Its color scheme in the seating area was distinctive with randomly colored seats in the North Stars' green, gold and white, but on game nights you couldn't see it anyway, since all 15,000 seats were filled most of the time.  Unfortunately, by the '90s, the North Stars' owner demanded a new arena, and despite continued support from the fans of Minnesota and a Stanley Cup finals appearance in 1991, douche-bag owner Norman Green packed up the team anyway and moved them to Dallas for the 1993-94 season.  Why the team couldn't have just moved to the perfectly good new Target Center in Minneapolis (which opened in 1990) is a mystery to me.  Either way, the Met Center's fate was sealed and it never even made it to the age of 30, and was demolished in 1994.  Ironically, when they tried to implode the place, it defiantly refused to fall and they wound up razing the arena the old-fashioned way.

Met Stadium, on the other hand, more or less fell apart on its own, and the Vikings were especially vocal about wanting a new stadium by the late '70s, since the Met was then one of the smaller stadiums in the NFL.  Renovation of The Met was not an option in their eyes, and when it was all said and done, both teams moved indoors downtown to that scourge of stadium construction, the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, in 1982.  While the Twins have thrived there at times, winning the World Series in 1987 and 1991, the Vikings never have been quite the same team, exchanging their mystique as the tough team that battled the snow and cold for a rather wimpy persona playing in a cushy environment.  Ironically, in their final games at the Met in 1981, both the Twins and Vikings lost to Kansas City's Royals and Chiefs, respectively.  Following that last Vikings game, fans stormed the field and tried to dismantle the stadium themselves and were fairly successful at it.  Thus, Metropolitan Stadium was a mere youngster at age 25 when it closed, having served as a Major League stadium for only 20 years.  After standing dormant and decaying rapidly (see left), Met Stadium was officially demolished in 1985 to make way for the mighty Mall of America, where they marked in bronze the location of home plate on the floor of the mall's indoor amusement park.

I never got to see the stadium in person, although the arena was still in use during a visit to Bloomington in 1985, but I have vivid memories of watching games from the Met on TV back in the '70s.  Every time the Royals played the Twins on TV, I could swear that Rod Carew always led off the game with a freakin' base hit!  The Royals could never get that bastard out, even though they were the superior team at that time.  And because of our close proximity to the Twin Cities, we got more than a few Vikings games on TV on NFL Sundays, to the point where I was rather sick of looking at Fran Tarkenton after a while.  There is an outstanding website that chronicles both the rise and decline of Met Stadium, as well as many fan recollections thereof.  The photos taken after the decaying stadium closed are especially interesting.

Things are also looking up in Twins Country too, as construction has begun on their new open-air ballpark which will open in 2010 right nextdoor to Target Center on the west side of Minneapolis.  This will right what has been a major wrong since 1982—it's an absolute crime to be playing baseball indoors on such beautiful summer evenings like they have in the upper Midwest!  As for the Vikings, they're still dilly-dallying around about a new stadium, although the latest idea has them moving in with the U. of Minnesota when their new on-campus stadium is built in a couple years until they can tear down the Metrodome and put up a new stadium with a retractable roof on the site.  I have a better idea—why not just rip the bubble dome off the Metrodome, enlarge the existing stadium and put a retractable roof on it?  Probably would be cheaper and serve the team just as well.

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