U.S. Bank Stadium organizers met with Gophers coach John Anderson in December and requested a checklist of items not to forget when turning the billion-dollar palace into a baseball venue.
“How about foul poles?” Anderson said.
And the organizers promised to get right on it.
According to Anderson, the meeting touched on several items the Vikings stadium still needed to get ready for its baseball debut, which came before dawn on Friday.
At 6 a.m., Century College of White Bear Lake played Iowa Central in the stadium’s first baseball game. The Gophers, who will use the stadium as their early-season home venue, as they did the Metrodome, open against Seattle University at 6:30 p.m.
“The stadium wasn’t constructed to be a major league baseball stadium [like the Metrodome was],” Anderson said. “I’m not sure there was a lot of conversation about the rest of the things you need to play a game, like foul poles and batter’s eyes and things of that nature.”
Since the Vikings season ended, the stadium has hosted a home-remodeling convention, a monster trucks competition and last Saturday’s Supercross event. The Gophers were originally scheduled to play a game at the new stadium Wednesday and hold a practice there Thursday.
Bethel was scheduled to play the first baseball game in the new stadium, at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday. But that was before stadium officials realized how long it would take to convert it from Supercross to baseball.
Now, the Gophers won’t take their first swings in the new stadium until Friday’s batting practice. But Anderson’s meetings produced results. As workers applied the final touches Thursday, the stadium was nearly baseball-ready.
The football lines, which are stitched permanently into the turf, were painted green. The mound and bases were in place. Portable dugouts stood perched near home plate. And foul poles hung from the ceiling, near the 37-foot-high purple baggie that stretches from center field to the right field corner.
The batter’s eye remains on the to-do list. For now, hitters will be looking out at retractable seats in center field. But there are bullpens set up inside the narrow foul territory down the lines. There’s an inflatable cage and protective screens for batting practice.
Some of the stadium’s luxury suites have glass that would shatter if hit by a batted ball, so several now feature protective netting.
“I’m proud of our operations crew working around the clock to transition to this sport and can’t wait to see the first game [Friday] morning,” said Curtis Schmillen, director of operations for SMG at the stadium.
That new baggie — the Purple Monster? — figures to make it a difficult home run park, even though it’s an inviting 300-foot shot down the right-field line.
“It’s going to be almost like a big league ballpark,” Gophers left fielder Jordan Smith said. “Outfielders are going to have to cover a lot of ground, and there will probably be a lot of triples.”
An Eden Prairie graduate, Smith redshirted in 2013, when the Gophers played their final season in the Metrodome. For the past three years, Anderson’s squad has opened the season with six consecutive weeks of road games. After playing only 19 home games last year, the Gophers are scheduled to play 32 this year — 13 at U.S. Bank Stadium, 19 on campus at Siebert Field.
U.S. Bank Stadium is scheduled to hold 136 baseball games this year, with more than 120 high school and college teams on the list to play there. The Gophers, who won the Big Ten title last season, can’t wait to open their new venue.
“I’ve just been amazed at the natural light in the building,” Anderson said. “You could play in there without turning on a light on a sunny day. And I don’t know where you could create a better environment where you feel like you’re outdoors but you’re really indoors.”
The Gophers opened the season with a split last week at UC-Irvine.
Coming home, Anderson said he thought to himself, “I’m just so glad I don’t have to get on a plane again Thursday. So whatever we end up with for a configuration [in the new stadium], it’ll be fine. It’s going to take some patience and some tweaking, but it’s a lot better than packing a suitcase and going again.”