Stadium deal for Twins might threaten U baseball

Tom Lopez

When the Legislature begins to debate construction of a new Twins stadium this week, they will also be indirectly debating the fate of Gophers baseball.
“It all comes down to what importance Gophers baseball will play in the big picture,” said head coach John Anderson.
At issue for the team is access to the Metrodome, where the team plays its home games during the winter months. If the Twins get a new stadium, however, there are concerns that the Dome will fall into the hands of the Vikings, who might change the field in such a way that would render it unusable for baseball games.
“If the Vikings get control of it, who knows what’s going to happen to amateur baseball in the Metrodome.” said Rob Fornasiere, the Gophers’ assistant head coach.
The loss of the Metrodome, coaches say, would have a very negative effect on the team.
“If we lose the opportunity to play in the Metrodome, or a new baseball stadium, it will put our program back 15 years,” said Fornasiere. “The Metrodome is the only way we can continue to play at a national level of competition.”
The Dome is important because of the weather in Minnesota and the timing of the season. The team depends on the Dome to offer a heated, covered field to play home games. Without that, Fornasiere said, the Gophers would not be able to play home games during the first quarter of the season.
Currently, the season begins in the middle of February.
“Before the opportunity to play in the Metrodome existed, we had to play the early season games on the road. The rest of the 40-some games we had to squeeze into the six weeks remaining. That’s a very difficult thing to do.”
Anderson points to the team’s 43 consecutive winning seasons as evidence of the team’s success, and said that level of excellence is in jeopardy if it loses the Metrodome.
“We wouldn’t be able to compete nationally as we have,” he said.
Anderson added that the Metrodome is also important for recruiting and fund raising.
But the team is making its voice heard on the issue, Anderson said. At the request of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, the team submitted a three-page report on the importance of the stadium to the team. He said both the commission and the University administration had been responsive to the team’s concerns. Anderson said further lobbying is in the hands of the administrators.
Fornasiere said although he is concerned about the loss of the stadium, he bears no ill will toward the Twins. Putting the Gophers at a disadvantage, he said, is “not the aim of the Twins. They have to take care of their own house. We understand that.”
One problem, he said, is that amateur baseball cannot compete financially with some other uses to which new ownership could put the Metrodome.
“We just don’t bring in the type of revenues that a golf show or a tractor pull would bring in,” Fornasiere said. He added that the sports commission had been “very good to us, very accommodating.”
A complicating factor in the debate is the lease agreement that the team has with the Metrodome. Anderson said the Gophers still have 15 years at the Metrodome left in their lease. “There are definitely some legal issues that will have to be worked out,” he said.
It is such legal issues that, rather than posing a threat to Gopher baseball, may actually offer an opportunity, said Mark Dienhart, the men’s athletics director. “A new stadium would certainly necessitate a new use agreement,” he said.
Currently, while the Gophers must pay a commission tax, they have no control of parking and receive no portion of the concessions income. A new use agreement, Dienhart said, would allow the Gophers to improve that status.
“It’s good for the city to keep the Twins in the Twin Cities and allow them to remain competitive,” Dienhart said. “It’s good for us to have a good usage contract.”
However, the debate over the use of the Metrodome may become moot, coaches say. Fornasiere said there is a movement within the Big Ten to move the baseball season back, so the season would last from the middle of May to the first of August. The change would mean that the team would be able to use Siebert Field on campus for home games at the beginning of the season.
“It becomes a non-issue for us then,” he said. “We have a beautiful field right here on campus. But until that happens we need to make provisions for playing at the Dome when we can.”
Fornasiere added that the schedule shift might take place as soon as 2000.
However, Anderson said he is not counting on that to happen. “Right now I think that’s about a fifty-fifty chance,” he said.
As it stands, Fornasiere expects the new stadium to be built. “It seems like there’s a lot of resistance,” he said, but cited Milwaukee and Seattle, cities where there was also public outcry but a stadium was still built. “I think there’s probably going to be a lot of political maneuvering before the final gavel comes down, but I think in the end it will get passed. But I think it’s going to be a rough road.”
If it is built, Anderson said the best solution would be one that looks at the big picture.
“Everybody’s going to have to compromise a little bit. We have to find a way to accommodate the Twins’ needs, the Vikings’ needs and the needs of the University’s baseball program, somehow,” he said. “I think there has to be a way that we can do that.”