The People's Skybox
Eddie Guardado strikes out his second batter in the ninth inning, doing his part to help the Twins defeat the Kansas City Royals in an afternoon game in mid-April. There's a smattering of applause from the roughly 50 people gathered in the bar staring at any one of the several televisions showing the game, but Mark Edwall is paying no attention. He's inspecting the lip of his can of Miller Lite, making sure his buddies didn't tamper with it while he was in the bathroom.
Edwall is quick to spot the hole one of his cohorts poked in the can with a pen. "Ah, the dribble can," he says with an intoxicated mixture of pride and giddiness. "Aw, well, fuck it." Edwall takes a swig and lets the beer trickle down his goatee, much to the amusement of the other three.
It's a little after 2:00 in the afternoon and Edwall, Mark Evgen, Ron Polzin, and Jason Kadela have been up all night. They pulled the graveyard shift at the Maplewood location of a local grocery chain, and at 9:00 this morning they gathered in Kadela's suburban living room for some post-work bloody marys. Then they headed to the Metrodome to catch an early-season day game.
"What's the score?" someone asks.
"I don't know," says Edwall, 40, shrugging and lighting a cigarette. "Just look it up in the paper tomorrow."
It's not that the foursome is entirely uninterested in the game. A few innings ago they were seated in section 119, overlooking first base. But then it turned out that one of them was sitting in the seat that was chosen for the "Fan of the Game" prize, a three-foot party sub from Subway. After that Kadela, the baby of the group at 29, took a pinch of chewing tobacco, got a little woozy, and, as Edwall puts it, "shot a hot dog out his nose."
That was just before the sixth inning--a good enough time, they figured, to retreat to the Rally Room, a full-service bar with cheap eats that may well be the Dome's best-kept secret. The second and sixth innings are "rally innings," when the bar, located in the lightly traveled lower-level concourse behind the folded-up seats above center field, serves two-for-ones on cans of domestic beer.
After the sixth, things get a little fuzzy for the group. But one thing's certain: The men will be here until long after the final pitch. "The best bar in town is right here," Edwall proclaims, "under the Dome roof."
Curious place, this Rally Room. The entrance boasts an elaborate mural of Minnesota sports figures from glory days gone by, people like former Vikings coach Bud Grant, or players like Paul Krause, Alan Page, Chuck Foreman and, of course, Fran Tarkenton. There's a veritable shrine to Twins Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett in the men's room. Formica tables, adorned with gold ashtrays and yellow plastic chairs, give the place the air of an airport bar, circa 1985. There's paint peeling from the ceiling. Team pennants and bobblehead dolls of Wally the Beerman and Kent Hrbek line the back of the bar.
The Rally Room seems slightly out of time, and it's also out of place. You can't see the field or any of the action once you're inside. The only way to see the game you're attending is on the tube, which creates the mocking effect that you're not at the game at all. There are large windows at one end of the room, but the view afforded is of an employee parking lot.
But here it is, curiously, doing bang-up business on a Thursday afternoon. The fact that this is the only place for smokers in the dome (except for the gate entrances) likely plays no small part in the quiet success of the Rally Room. But there are other amenities, too: Hard liquor is sold (and at $4 a drink, relatively cheaply); and there are meal specials, such as the $6.50 lasagna plate, or the $10.50 prime rib. Mostly, though, the Rally Room's charm lies in its secrecy, its status as a hideout unknown to the masses in the regular seats.
Think of it as a skybox for the common folk, a place to imbibe without feeling constricted by the soulless, sometimes drowsy atmosphere of the stadium.
It's remarkable that the Rally Room exists at all, and even more astounding that it has remained, for the most part, in its original form. Unlike pretty much everything else related to professional sports these days, the Rally Room is allowed to remain low budget, quaint, and almost folksy. It has not been sold to a national chain or up-scaled into a theme restaurant. (In part because there's no kitchen; food is trucked in from the Vikings catering facility in Bloomington.) Nor has it been exploited by corporate sponsorship. In fact, the Rally Room isn't even really promoted--certainly not by the Twins--and all signs are that it's not exactly a gold mine.
It's not hard to imagine that this was a nifty hangout during the Dome's salad days. But now the little bar exists as a 1980s relic--a reminder that the Metrodome's best hours have long since passed.
The Rally Room is owned by the Minnesota Vikings. During Twins games, it is open to anyone with a ticket to a game. In the fall, though, on Saturday afternoons, it becomes the Maroon Saloon, playing host to Gopher football fans. On autumn Sundays, it's the Vikings Lounge, and entrance is guaranteed to only 120 fans willing to plunk down $2,000 a season for a full buffet, an end-zone seat, and a chance to hobnob each pre-game with aging Purple People Eaters like Bill Brown or Jim Marshall.
When the Dome opened in 1982, former Vikings general manager Mike Lynn used the space to host parties for the media, coaches, players, and corporate sponsors. Vikings Lounge packages were not made available to the general public until Red McCombs bought the team in 1998.
For years the room was rented during Gophers games by a University of Minnesota booster club. In 1998, however, it was opened to college football fans as the Maroon Saloon.
In 1988, when Twins mania seized the Cities following the team's 1987 World Series win, the Rally Room was opened up to the roughly 10,000 Twins season-ticket holders. It was closed for the 1991 Twins season, another World Series year, because the Twins and Vikings couldn't agree on some general operations. But shortly after it reopened, in 1992, the Twins' season-ticket base declined sharply. As a result, in 1993 the Rally Room was opened to any fan with a ticket.
In the old Met Stadium, it was the Twins who made money on all the concessions sold--even those sold during football games. Naturally, as details were being hammered out for the two teams to play in the Metrodome more than 20 years ago, Mike Lynn battled Twins owner Calvin Griffith over the rights to concession revenues in the new facility. And by the time the Dome was built, the Vikings were the more successful franchise. The wealthier team put up the money to build the suites in the stadium, and so the organization gains revenue from the food and liquor sold in them. Additionally, Vikings Food Services, Inc., holds the license to sell liquor and provide the catered food in the suites, the Rally Room, and other parts of the stadium. (Another company operates the concession stands; each team gets a chunk of revenue from those sales.) So the Rally Room--or the Vikings Lounge, or Maroon Saloon, or whatever you want to call it--is a year-round revenue source for the team.
Todd Montgomery, the Vikings' director of food services, won't say how much money the room generates each year, or how much the Vikings take home. But as a source of profits, it is certainly laughable in comparison to the flashy restaurants and bars in other, newer stadiums around the country. During Twins games, 70 percent of the revenue generated in the Rally Room goes to the Vikings, 22 percent goes to the Twins, and the rest goes to the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, the public agency that owns and runs the Metrodome.
"Last year was the first time we made money," says Matt Hoy, the Twins' vice president of operations. The take? Less than $10,000.
The final out of the April day game has been made, and Eddie Guardado and the Twins have sealed up a victory over the Royals. Back in the Rally Room, bartender Freddy Latenville pours another round of rum and Cokes for a couple of fortyish women and bids adieu to a regular: "All right, Stan, see ya in a few games." Everybody who comes in greets Latenville simply as Freddy.
Latenville, a wiry, well-dressed man of 68, has slung drinks in the room during every event--public or private--since 1982. To the regulars, he's part of the allure of the hideout. Latenville says the spread on Viking days is "like what you get on a cruise ship--that's how great the food is." In contrast, "Twins games are fun, fun, fun because it's open to the public."
Latenville has been bartending in Minneapolis for 45 years and has seen his share of joints--and old baseball players--come and go. His fondest memories are reserved for the Blue Ox, a high-class watering hole that was near the vaunted Leamington Hotel, where out-of-town ballplayers often stayed when playing the Twins.
"It was 1963 when I started there," Latenville recalls with a chuckle, "and suddenly I'm serving all the greats like Al Kaline, Reggie Jackson, Billy Martin, and Brooks Robinson over the years. They all became good friends of mine."
Talking about the Blue Ox gets Latenville revved up, and pretty soon he's spinning a yarn about former Yankees relief pitcher Sparky Lyle dropping off a bag of autographed baseballs at the bar before a game one day in the early 1970s: "It was a Sunday-afternoon game, and the Yanks were leaving town right after," Latenville recalls, explaining that the night before Lyle had promised the balls to Latenville, who wanted to give them to his family. "The Blue Ox didn't open until noon, so he decided to take a cab to the game instead of the team bus. He waited until we opened, and left the balls behind the bar for me."
Billy Martin, Latenville continues, "was a real class guy, very misunderstood." "In those days, all the managers drank, and Billy was one of the good drinkers," he explains. "But he was always real good to me and remembered me. He never caused any problems."
Perhaps Latenville's favorite story is about getting to know Willie Mays when Mays played for the now-defunct Minneapolis Millers. In the mid-Sixties, after Mays went on to a legendary big-league career, Latenville went to the Met Stadium with his father-in-law to see a pre-game home-run exhibition contest between Mays and Twins great Harmon Killebrew. After the game, he caught Mays's attention from the stands. Soon he was in the dugout getting an autographed ball to pass along.
"I come back to the seat with a baseball that says, 'Best regards, Willie Mays,'" Latenville says. "My father-in-law's eyes literally popped out of his head, like he was a little kid. And by then he was in his 60s."
Just then Wally the Beerman, or "Walter," as he's known around here, enters the Rally Room. "Hey pally," Freddy says. "How are ya?"
Wally is perhaps the world's most famous beer vendor, a true local legend with his own baseball card and T-shirt. Profiled in Sports Illustrated and USA Today, he became a national media darling during the Twins' two championship seasons. He is quite possibly the most popular fixture at seemingly every sporting event in the Dome (and at St. Paul Saints games at Midway Stadium).
In the post-game Rally Room, though, he's just Walter McNeil, thirsty patron. Wally orders a Captain Morgan and Coke and banters with two women lingering at the bar. A paunchy, bearded man wearing a black Harley-Davidson T-shirt with the slogan "Life is full of choices" orders one more Coors Light.
Edwall comes over and high-fives Wally. Wally asks him if he's "with those farm kids from Freeport in Section 118." No, Edwall says, but he was Fan of the Day. "Hey, that's terrific, kid," Wally says, offering another high-five.
Satisfied with the exchange, Edwall turns toward his buddies and heads out through a large glass door into the parking lot. Several Twins players, including Torii Hunter and Corey Koskie, are signing autographs.
"Have we rallied long enough?" Edwall asks rhetorically, looking up into the sun. "Now what we really need is an outdoor stadium."
Sure, it's dreadful to watch a line drive bounce off the curtain that functions as a right-field wall. And the hallways and concession stands have a tacky prefab feel. And it sucks to sit inside on a sunny, 80-degree summer afternoon. But be honest: The Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome is not without its charms. There's something oddly comforting in the Dome's garish Eighties splendor, something that is so identifiably Minneapolis. Remember the two World Series played here? Or the glory years of Herbie and Kirby? Or even the hardworking low-budget Twins of the last two seasons? It is, after all, Dome sweet Dome.
Half an hour before game time on a Friday evening in late May, about 20 regulars have taken up seats in the Rally Room and are razzing each other with mock surprise that they've found themselves at the bar again. Freddy pops tops while the NBA playoffs blare from the two televisions behind the bar.
As the game gets under way, Latenville changes the channel to the Twins-Angels broadcast. Todd Montgomery puts a tray of hamburger patties on the buffet server. By the second inning, a young blond waitress is scurrying to deliver two-for-ones to several tables. Some 50 people have one eye trained on the game, and the din is rising. Suddenly the place feels full.
By the fourth inning, it's clear the contest is a dud, one of those excruciatingly dull games where everyone, especially the players, seems to have barely awakened from a nap. Letecia Ivy and Brad Reynolds are chatting at a table, taking a break from watching the game in the stands and staring out the Rally Room windows as dusk sets in. She sips a Bartles and Jaymes wine cooler; he swigs from a can of Heineken.
Reynolds is a Rally Room veteran. He has a season-ticket package good for 20 Twins games this season, and he'll drop by the Rally Room for each one. Ivy is a native of Chicago and has never been to the Dome before. Though neither will come right out and say it, the two are on a Friday-night date.
"I don't want her to think I'm obnoxiously sports-oriented," Reynolds says with an uneasy chuckle.
Too late, Ivy quips: "If there was Twins underwear, he'd buy it."
If ever there was a case of opposites attracting, these two are it: He sports a black TaylorMade golf shirt and a graying mullet; she wears a faded plain T-shirt and mid-length dreadlocks. She's divorced; he's never married. At 41, Reynolds is the older of the two by a year.
The good-natured banter continues. Reynolds proclaims that the Twins need a new stadium, strictly outdoors. Ivy counters that she actually prefers the Dome to Chicago's fabled Wrigley Field, because "there's no mosquitoes and it's temperature-controlled." Reynolds rolls his eyes ever so slightly.
For Reynolds, what's the thrill of the Rally Room?
"Nobody knows it's here," he says. "There's the thrill of bringing someone in here during a game and just hanging out for a while. Real Twins fans want to feel like they're watching in their living room." He pauses for a moment. "That and the two-for-ones."
Suddenly the Twins are far behind, but neither Ivy nor Reynolds seems too concerned. She notes that her nickname, T.C., is the same as that of the Twins mascot, and ponders another wine cooler. He talks about seeing his first game at Met Stadium when he was six years old and half-jokingly cries out, "Let's rally!" when the Twins come up to bat again.
But the rally never comes, and the inning ends without the Twins scoring. Ivy and Reynolds stand up to return to their seats. They'll be back, Reynolds promises, maybe in the sixth, the next rally inning.
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