Should a new ballpark raise our expectations for the Twins' success?by Tom Weber, Minnesota Public Radio
Minneapolis — In the history of Twins stadium coming out parties, Minnesota has set a low bar. The Twins lost their first game at Met Stadium in 1961 and their first game at the Metrodome in 1982, and both seasons ended with losing records.
The season was especially bad in 1982, the Twins lost 102 games for a woeful .370 winning percentage.
Twenty teams have opened new ballparks in the years since the Twins moved to the Dome, and overall, their records have been mixed.
Of the 20, nine had losing records. Nationals Park in Washington opened two years ago for a team that also lost 102 games, just like those hapless '82 Twins.
On the flip side, last year's Yankees and the 2006 Cardinals both won the World Series in their first year in a new home.
A new ballpark might not guarantee a winning record, but it virtually assures a bump in attendance. In this latest wave of stadium building, only the Yankees saw a drop that can't be attributed solely to moving into a smaller capacity park.
The Twins are also moving into cozier digs. Target Field's capacity is about 15,000 less than the Dome. But the Twins said last month they expect higher attendance, at least this year. They've already sold more tickets for 2010 than they did in 2009.
Dennis Coates has studied attendance patterns as a professor at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.
For all the bells and whistles a new stadium brings, Coates said they don't assure sustained success at the gates. It might sound like a no-brainer, but he said the overriding factor in keeping attendance up has everything to do with whether the team wins games.
He points to the Pittsburgh Pirates, who moved from Three Rivers Stadium to PNC Park in 2001.
"The first year after the new facility opened, attendance boomed," Coates said. "And then the next year, the team was still awful, so attendance went right back to where it was in the last years of Three Rivers."
Coates said most teams also increase payroll during those first years in a new park, as the Twins have done. That's because teams expect more revenue from the new park, which allows them to pay more for players. But again, Coates said the boosted payroll only stays boosted if the team keeps winning and fans keep showing up.
Target Field will mark the end of what has been long perceived as a big home-field advantage. The ceiling lights, in-play speakers, the right field baggie and the sometimes intensely loud crowds at the Metrodome have confounded opponents over the years. Former big leaguer Harold Reynolds has called the Dome the biggest home field advantage in all of sports.
White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen railed against the Dome last year after his team dropped 14 of its past 16 games there.
Former Twins pitcher Frank Viola said it almost doesn't matter whether that advantage was real.
"It might not actually be that big of an advantage, but if you feel like you do and other teams feels like the other team does, it's monstrous," Viola said. "I don't think you'll ever see an advantage like we had at the Metrodome."
That's not to say the Twins won't try to create some advantages in the new home. Head groundskeeper Larry DiVito pays attention to infielders and notes who likes the dirt around them wetter or drier. Grass also can be cut long or short to make ground balls easier or harder to field.
DiVito said he expects to have those kinds of chats this year with manager Ron Gardenhire.
"If, for instance, we did have a faster team and Gardy wanted a faster field then we could accommodate that," DiVito said. "This grass variety we chose ... we can manipulate it where ever we want it."
Meteorologists have also been studying wind patterns to see if Target Plaza behind right field will create wind tunnels that could knock down or carry out fly balls to that side.
But taller grass and heavy winds only do so much. And there have been plenty of players who have shown just as much ability to lose balls in the sun as opposed to the Dome's lights.
The economics of a new park might temporarily allow for things like larger payrolls, but players like Frank Viola and researchers like Dennis Coates keep returning to one rule - it's the players, not the park, who win games.