Ballpark Frankness

Admittedly, revenue from a traditional ballpark won't generate every last penny that a greedy owner might snare from a cash-cow retro park. But the potential shortfall hardly provides the justification for never considering such a ballpark in the first place.

Pohlad, however, has no intention of doing what's reasonable. He'll simply let Norm Coleman and his sidekick Erich Mische do their best to con the public, while sportswriters like Patrick Reusse and Sid Hartman carry water in the local media. Undoubtedly, should support for a traditional urban ballpark gain any significant momentum among members of the public, the Twins will quickly find some "topnotch" expert from a big architectural firm to discredit the idea as "well-intentioned but misguided," a label that has been attached to efforts by fan groups in Chicago, Detroit, and Boston that have attempted to offer alternatives to razing the classic ballparks in those cities.

With Pohlad's failure last year to unload the Twins to North Carolina, the threat of moving the club has become an unlikely option. The only feasible ballpark currently available to a major league team is RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C.--a market Orioles owner Peter Angelos won't surrender without a vicious legal battle. Another municipality may build a new ballpark on spec, but there has been no movement on that front to date.

The Twins, it appears, are stuck with us. They can continue to push for a stadium the public has no intention of supporting, or they can do something no other club has done in 75 years--build a truly urban ballpark. In a well-designed, reasonably priced venue in Minneapolis, outdoor baseball would bloom, fans would turn out, and media coverage of baseball would return to where it belongs: the sports pages. There'd only be one problem: Norm Coleman wouldn't get to be mayor of a "world-class city."

WHO'S ON FIRST?

ST. PAUL MAYOR Norm Coleman wants to build "an open air riverfront ballpark, nestled within a vital new urban village" somewhere in his city's downtown. According to an August 2 letter of intent signed by the Twins and the city of St. Paul, the design "will be an open air renaissance-style ballpark of a quality comparable to recently constructed parks," consisting of 38,000 to 40,000 seats and approximately 65 luxury suites and 4,000 club seats. Beyond that, there seems to be no detailed plan.

But at public forums held during the past two months around St. Paul, city officials and representatives of pro-development organizations have touted five potential sites for the stadium that were selected by the architectural firm Ellerbe Becket--the company that submitted a ballpark design back in 1997 when Twins owner Carl Pohlad started agitating for a new home for his team.

Is Coleman's ballpark plan an Ellerbe project? Depends who you ask.

When I called Lisa Haller, Ellerbe's communication manager in Minneapolis, she told me the firm's 42,000-seat design is the working model for Coleman's current proposal, minus the original plan's retractable roof. But she was unsure where changes would be made in the seating arrangement to reduce the capacity to Coleman's stated size, and referred me to Twins communications director Dave St. Peter for specifics.

St. Peter wouldn't provide any details--or much of anything else concerning what a St. Paul stadium might look like. "There is no active design at this time," he declared. "No architect has been hired for this project." When I asked about the Ellerbe model, he stated that it was "off the table." When I inquired as to how the Twins could establish a ceiling price of $277 million for the construction portion of the $325 million project (as indicated in the letter of intent) without working from a specific architectural design, St. Peter replied that the figure was based on estimates provided by the local construction firm M.A. Mortenson and other parties. "The ballpark will be of a renaissance-style nature," he ventured. "We want a design that will give us the best opportunity to have a stadium that will remain state-of-the-art for as many years as possible," he added, offering assurances that the Twins have a "strong desire to include fans" in the stadium-design process and "will do everything to keep the cost down."

I found it odd that St. Peter would disavow any relationship between Ellerbe and the Twins when his team has signed a letter of intent with the city of St. Paul and the firm's architects are working with Mayor Coleman and his allies on design proposals. And how could Ellerbe's local media contact not know her company was out of the picture as far as the baseball team was concerned?

When I called Haller back, she referred me to communications director Stuart Smith, who works in Ellerbe's Kansas City, Missouri, offices, home to the firm's professional sports design group. Smith informed me that Ellerbe has done no paid work for the Twins since early 1998. In fact, he added, the company's only current work in conjunction with Minnesota sports facilities was a redesign of the Metrodome prepared for the Metropolitan Sports Commission.

Was it possible, I asked Smith, that Ellerbe might indeed be working on a design for the Twins but for reasons of confidentiality he wasn't permitted to divulge any information? "Because we establish separate teams to work on different stadium proposals, it's possible that I might not have all of the specifics at a particular time," he replied.

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