If players draw energy from their cheering fans, if home-field advantage is derived, as some statistical studies suggest, from the pressure a loud, noisy crowd imposes on umpires, then COVID-19 and the elimination of ticket-holders has rendered Target Field, a .560 edge to the Twins the past three seasons, impotent. Welcome to neutral-site baseball, right?
Quite the opposite, Rocco Baldelli figures.
“There’s actually more ability to relax and breathe” at home now, the Twins’ manager said after experiencing five days in Chicago to open the brief 2020 season. “You’re not on the go, you’re not in different environments, you’re not moving around constantly on buses and things like that. It eliminates a little stress for guys.”
Considering his team was so stressed, it managed to score only an American League-leading 27 runs on the White Sox’ turf, it’s easy to wonder whether the Twins will even notice their surroundings on Tuesday, the 60th home opener in Minnesota Twins history.
“It’s really strange, how quiet it is, but you get used to it and after a couple of innings, you’re like, ‘OK, this is just what it’s going to be. This is all we can do, really,'”
But this will be a home opener unlike any other, and not just because the paid attendance against the Cardinals is guaranteed to be 0.
For one thing, the Twins surely understand now how tenuous this season is, given Monday’s news that more than a dozen Miami Marlins players and staff members had tested positive for the coronavirus during a weekend road trip to Philadelphia. No Twins regular has been infected since the active roster arrived for camp at the beginning of July, but there’s no guarantee, and perhaps little chance, that their tests will remain 100 percent negative throughout the season.
Then again, there were plenty of moments over the past four months in which it appeared unlikely that games would ever take place in Target Field in 2020.
“You talk to some people and they’re hopeful and they make you feel good, and then you turn on the news and it’s like, ‘Oh man, I just hope we put on a uniform again at some point,’” bench coach Mike Bell said. “Obviously, a lot of it wasn’t even about the game. It was about what families were going through with COVID. A lot of people struggling emotionally, mentally with different things.”
Not only are the Twins mindful of the pandemic that has reduced the 2020 season to a nine-week hiccup — a group “first pitch” will be performed virtually by nine medical professionals who have treated COVID-19 victims for months — but they are also sensitive to the worldwide movement that was triggered by the horrific killing of George Floyd just 50 blocks away.
“Responsibility. That’s the word I’ve been thinking about,” Twins president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said of his franchise’s obligation to memorialize Floyd. “You’ll see some focus on that. You’ll see some things that are reflective of that. For all of us who live here in the Twin Cities, we want to focus on what we’ve experienced in our local communities. Our players feel it, our staff does.”
Fans will see it, too, in a graphic that will be displayed on the outfield wall throughout the season, and also when the game is halted at 8:46 p.m. — Floyd died after a police officer knelt on his neck for eight minutes, 46 seconds — for a moment of silence in his memory.
There will be plenty of other Opening Day traditions observed, too, even an Air Force flyover above an empty ballpark. “I think the environment is going to be a lot of fun and maybe a little different from some of the games we have played so far on the road,” Baldelli said. “Just a little more going on, and some real life in the ballpark.”
Ultimately, the game will become the focus, the Cardinals’ first visit to Target Field since 2017. Homer Bailey will make his Twins and Target Field debut, Josh Donaldson will make it his new home, and though there won’t be any cheering to welcome them, beyond the generic prerecorded kind piped in over the public address system, the game will settle into something approximating normal.
“That’s what I noticed in Chicago — it’s really strange, how quiet it is, but you get used to it and after a couple of innings, you’re like, ‘OK, this is just what it’s going to be. This is all we can do, really,’” Falvey said.
“It will be nice to be in our home park, in familiar surroundings. I expect that will help. Not exactly normal, but nothing feels normal this year.”