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Legislature OKs financing for new Twins stadium

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Twins will eventually lose one
of baseball's true home-field advantages. They're more than happy
to give that up in favor of some fresh air and natural grass.

State lawmakers gave final approval early Sunday to a financing
plan for an open-air stadium for the Twins, who share the Hubert H.
Humphrey Metrodome with the NFL's Minnesota Vikings and the
University of Minnesota football team.

"We've come away from this place with so many defeats," said
Jerry Bell, president of Twins Sports, Inc., after the ballpark was
approved 71-61 in the House and 34-32 in the Senate. "It's hard to
believe."

Gov. Tim Pawlenty said on radio station WCCO-AM that he plans to
sign the bill, possibly at a Twins game this week. Pawlenty said he
also plans to sign a bill, also passed this weekend, authorizing a
new, $248 million on-campus football stadium for the Gophers.

A new $522 million Twins ballpark, which would be paid for
mostly by taxpayers, is scheduled to open for the 2010 season. For
players, fans and just about anybody who has regularly attended
games at the Metrodome over the past two-plus decades, it can't
come soon enough.

"Going to the Metrodome, you kind of feel like you're going
into an office building. You can't see out," Twins manager Ron
Gardenhire said during a weekend series in Milwaukee, where the
Brewers play in Miller Park with its retractable roof.

The 42,000-seat stadium, which will be funded by a 0.15 percent
Hennepin County sales tax increase and $130 million from owner Carl
Pohlad, is earmarked for the west edge of downtown Minneapolis -- to
be built with a striking skyline view a few blocks from Target
Center, where the NBA's Timberwolves play.

"So many positives come out of it. The Metrodome doesn't really
have a batting cage, it only has half a batting cage. There's just
so many things that you don't have there that you need,"
Gardenhire said.

"We'll actually have a weight room, not down there where the
trucks drive out."

When the Twins' first attempt at public funding for a new
ballpark was turned away in 1997, the team was stuck in a
rebuilding phase. Citing a lack of sufficient revenue from the
Metrodome, Pohlad slashed the payroll a few years later -- resulting
in a 1999 team that used 18 different rookies.

The core of that group led the team to a winning record in 2001,
Minnesota's first in nine years, the AL Championship Series in 2002
and two more postseason appearances in 2003 and 2004.

The payroll rose steadily to accommodate salary increases, but
Pohlad kept a limit on it, too, which forced an annual jettison of
key players while general manager Terry Ryan tried to fit a
playoff-caliber roster in the budget. At the beginning of 2006, the
Twins' payroll of $63.8 million ranked 19th out of 30 in the
majors.

Plans don't call for a retractable roof, so April and May games
will often be played in less-than-desirable conditions -- and some
of them will surely be postponed by rain or even snow. That will
make it less attractive for fans to travel from outside of the
metropolitan area, without the guarantee of seeing a game, and
chilly weather also won't help lure customers.

But patrons, and players, have complained for years about the
fake, drab atmosphere underneath the Dome's Teflon lid -- preventing
the crowd and the competitors from soaking up the sun on those
idyllic summer days and basking in the warm breeze at night.

"It's kind of like being in the twilight zone, you go in there
in a 90-degree day, and you don't know what it is like outside. You
don't know if it is cloudy out there or what," said Twins catcher
Joe Mauer, a St. Paul native.

Major construction probably won't start until 2007, so it's
unlikely many -- if any -- of the current players will still be
wearing Minnesota uniforms when the new place opens. But the news
was still welcome.

"The Metrdome has served its purpose, but it's outdated and not
really a baseball park. This stadium is going to be real good for a
lot of people. People like the outdoors in Minnesota," Gardenhire
said before final legislative approval.

Muscle pulls, ankle sprains and skin abrasions have often been
attributable to the artificial turf, and the stuffy air and lack of
natural light frequently causes players to complain about feeling a
little less eager to be back home following road trips.

"It stops the rain. We play every day, and it's 70 degrees in
the dome. At least you know you're going to get a baseball game
in," Twins centerfielder Torii Hunter said of the Dome.

"Other than that -- body pains, you can't see. You might as well
just blow it up with nobody in it."

Opponents often carp, too, about losing balls in the off-white
ceiling and mishandling tricky hops on the turf. The Detroit Tigers
even suggested after a 2004 game that the air conditioning system
blew in toward home plate when they were batting.

For all their complaints, though, there was no denying the Twins
have a clear home-field advantage -- one of the best in baseball. In
addition to the logistical frustrations the Dome has caused
opponents, the enclosed stadium is about as loud as it gets when
the place is packed.

Both the 1987 and 1991 World Series championships required four
victories at home, where more than 50,000 roaring fans helped spur
Minnesota to its only two titles.