2010: The year we sniff grass
Fresh-cut green grass, wooden seats, wind, sunshine, blue skies and jet noise -- it's all so nostalgic, so Star-Spangled, so right.
Target Field is debuting this year with the luxury boxes, the $110 Championship Club seating for season ticket holders and, oh yes, the present-day version of Major League Baseball.
Right now the Twins are touting the new park more than their players. It will be interesting to look back after the euphoria of "outdoor baseball returning to Minnesota" wears off and see what the reality is.
Here is a sneak peek.
It is an early April game day and the wind is blowing out of the northwest at 30 miles an hour. The 3,000 hardy fans that have come to the ballpark to sit under leaden, gray skies in freezing-degree temperatures, are huddled in parkas and blankets. You can almost hear the arm muscles of those pitchers tightening as they blow on their fingers and struggle to find their control.
It is a rainy June day, the infield is covered and the fans are wearing that flimsy plastic over their heads as they wait to see if the umps are going to call the game. The stands are a sea of umbrellas and the players have gone back to the club house to change into dry socks.
It is a sultry August day with a sun beating down so hard it makes you forget your fear of hell. There is a smog alert in downtown Minneapolis and the relative humidity is hovering at 98 percent.
Yes Virginia, there is a reality to outdoor baseball in Minnesota that can look more like an episode of "Survivor" than a remake of "Field of Dreams."
In a state where snow can fall for about four of the seven months of the season, outdoor baseball can look just as silly as hockey looks in Tampa and basketball looks in Phoenix.
Kevin Schnepf of the Fargo Forum recently made a good point about outdoor baseball when he wrote about the new reality for outstate fans. Kevin suggested having some other activity planned "just in case." If you are going to pack up and head for the Twin Cities from now on counting on seeing a baseball game they might brand "stupid" on your forehead. We outstaters could always count on seeing the Twins play baseball in the Metrodome but that is one luxury they can not offer at the $545 million Target Field.
With all of this fuss and feathers about the new ballpark we might have lost our perspective of just what Target Field is -- a new home for the 25 guys who don Minnesota uniforms. So what about this 2010 team?
Ron Gardenhire and his coaches might disagree but this seems to be one of those seasons when the Twins have more answers than questions. The biggest question looks like the bullpen. With Joe Nathan out of the picture the Twins are looking at 6-11 Jon Rauch to be the closer. Rauch was 5-1 with a team-best 1.72 earned run average in 17 appearances for Minny last season as a set-up man. His best save season in the majors was with the Washington Nationals and that was 18.
A Minnesota bullpen usually gets plenty of chances to shine or drizzle with Gardy and Rick Anderson pulling the strings. Their staff earned run average of 4.50 ranked them an unimpressive 23rd in the league. They have a workhorse set-up man in Matt Guerrier, a pair of bullpen veterans in Jessie Crain and Pat Neshek and a bit of a question mark in Jose Mijares. Alex Brunett is starting with the team instead of Clay Condrey and brings some impressive minor league credentials to the majors.
The starters look pretty solid with Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey, Carl Pavano and Francisco Liriano. Brian Duensing surprised a lot of people with his maturity last September and can either start or relieve. Which of these guys are going to step up and really lead the staff this year? Baker and Slowey appear to be the best bets.
The Twins have the potential to be a better hitting club than they were in 2009. They were the fifth-best team in the league in scoring runs with 817 and they ranked third in hitting with a .274 average. If the Twins can keep Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau healthy for an entire season for a change, they could both pass Jason Kubel's team-leading 103 RBIs and Michael Cuddyer's team-leading 32 dingers.
What they will not have is the speed of Carlos Gomez -- but what will speed really matter on natural turf? Power is what you want and the Twins have the bats to improve on their 172 homers last season.
You have to like Minnesota's willingness to go after players in the off-season. Putting Jim Thome in a Minnesota uniform might not guarantee 30 home runs but it will guarantee they will not be hit against the Twins. Minnesota's new keystone combination of J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson give the Twins a couple of guys that can hit for average and power. Unfortunately, the pop the Twins can look for from third base is not hot. Brendan Harris had a good spring training camp but Nick Punto is starting the season there.
No one is handing the flag to Minnesota right off the bat but the character this club showed after Morneau was injured last year in the stretch was impressive. The Twins won 17 of their last 21 games when the chips were down and beat the Detroit Tigers 6-5 in a special one-game playoff thriller.
The Twins will be writing a new chapter this season with Target Field but let's keep one foot on the bag, it is the team, not the grass, that really counts.