Monday, December 12, 2016

More than Twins at Target Field

How to Score Tickets, Wander with Purpose, and Position Yourself for Maximum Baseball Enjoyment

Watch an inning or two from Twins Pub's window and tell me you miss the Metrodome. Photo by T.S. Flynn.
Watch an inning or two from Twins Pub's window and tell me you miss the Metrodome. Photo by T.S. Flynn.

Fresh Air, Fresh Approach

This time last year it was all but impossible to find a news story about the opening of Target Field that didn’t question the wisdom of outdoor baseball in Minneapolis. Yes, a handful of games will be delayed by rain every season, and a few might even be postponed, but last year reinforced the larger, often overlooked truth: For each hand-numbing day in April and October, there are dozens more during the baseball season when the weather in Minneapolis is ideal for outdoor games. Besides, Minnesotans know how to deal with low temperatures, and Target Field’s design offers lots of places to warm up when necessary. During my dozen trips to the new ballpark in 2010 I rarely saw fans struggling to cope with bad weather. More often I saw fans who brought a Metrodome mindset to Target Field and failed to get the most out of the new park’s experience.

Going to the Dome for baseball was like visiting the dentist. Most of us drove, parked in the mammoth lot, and walked directly to our seats, where we remained for nine innings of baseball before walking back to our cars and driving home. The only reason to leave your seat at the Dome was to answer nature’s call, unless you were feeling adventurous and tried to sneak down a few sections to better seats late in the game or, maybe, after buying a hot dog, you peered in at the action from a tunnel behind home plate. In either case, it was just a matter of time until the usher scowled and chased you away. You had been issued a ticket, after all, and the numbers on that ticket told you where you belonged. At Target Field, the number on your ticket is little more than a suggestion. Forget the weather; the most essential difference between the Dome and the new ballpark is the vastly improved freedom of movement, especially for fans with the lowest priced tickets.

Beginning with the opening of Chicago’s new Comiskey Park in 1991, every new ballpark has shared one key design feature: open concourses. This may be the single most important development in the history of ballpark design, at least as far as the average fan is concerned―not just because it’s quicker and easier to buy a beer and sausage, but because anyone willing to stand behind a yellow line for an inning or two can watch the action from any number of prime locations in the ballpark with a single ticket.

That’s why a visit to Target Field is best approached as an adventure. Ditch the Dome mindset and replace it with the one you take when you go camping. A game at Target Field is an outing, not an appointment. Leave the car at home. Hop on a bus or train that will get you to the ballpark neighborhood as early as your schedule allows and stay out as late as you dare.

Hope for the Ticketless Fan, Even at Target Field

When I began writing this article, just a few weeks before Twins Opening Day, I was ticketless for 2011. I don’t own a share in season tickets and I didn’t bother with the rush for single-game ticket sales when they opened to the public. Am I concerned? No. Last year I was in the same boat and I made it to a dozen regular season games without ever paying above face value.

When it comes to tickets, baseball’s long season works in favor of the fan in need. Tickets probably won’t ever be as readily available at Target Field as they were during the final seasons at the Dome, and I suspect demand will remain very strong for at least the next three or four years, but now that the inaugural season is behind us, the casual fan’s opportunities for finding tickets will gradually improve for all but the marquee games: Opening Day, Friday nights, Saturday afternoons; games against the Yankees, Red Sox, White Sox, and Brewers, and the postseason. I’m not saying a casual fan can’t score tickets to marquee games, but the cost will rise above face value. Obviously, there are great perks that come with full and shared season tickets, like guaranteed tickets to the most popularly desirable games. But big games aren’t always the best games, and I like keeping my options open, because if there’s one thing I learned in 2010, it’s that flexibility and adventurousness are consistently and generously rewarded at Target Field.

I’m a baseball fanatic. I like watching games on television, listening to them on the radio, or seeing them in person. There are very few pursuits I enjoy as much as baseball, but one of them is walking around a ballpark, and the new generation of ballparks encourages exploration. Of course any experience will be affected, in large part, by who you’re with, and a visit to Target Field is no different. I try to make sure I attend enough games that I don’t turn into a control freak about how I experience any single game. When I know I’ll be back to the ballpark soon, the pressure lifts and I’m much more likely to go with the flow. One of my friends likes to watch every pitch and keep score from his assigned seat. My wife likes to leave the seats in the third inning to walk slow laps around the ballpark, stopping to watch each half-inning wherever we happen to be when it begins. Another friend likes to drink beer and eat in the Town Ball Tavern during the middle innings. And there are times I head to the ballpark solo and do whatever the hell I want.

I started going to games alone when I bartended half a block from Coors Field in Denver. The place cleared out just before game time and one or two of the bartenders could take off as long as we returned before the post-game rush. (It was also during those years that I discovered the deep discounts available from scalpers after the second inning has begun.) When you attend a game solo, you have maximum flexibility. At Target Field, I buy the cheapest ticket available, which is often standing room. At $26, it’s more than double the cheapest reserved seats, but during these first few seasons it’s often the only option available.

Wanderlust: Fan As Free Agent

Of the dozen games I attended last season, I probably remained in my seat for the duration of five of them. I attended four of those remaining games solo and never sat in my assigned seat for more than three innings. I usually spent a few innings by the left field foul pole and a few innings wandering to spots between third and home. It’s pretty easy to slide into a good spot with an infield view when you’re alone. I like to head out to center field now and then, too. It’s home to the best people-watching this side of Dan Patch Avenue in late August.

Around the fourth inning, I often rode the escalator to the top of the ballpark to take in the stunning views of the city and the field. Once up there, I’d stop into Twins Pub, a pair of bare-bones enclosures with full-service bars (beer and booze) high above home plate that’s open to any fan with a ticket. Twins organist Sue Nelson plies her trade from inside the Twins Pub enclosure on the first base side of home plate, where fans can request songs and sing along to the music. The decor is stainless steel and concrete. There are no framed photos or paintings on the walls, but Twins Pub offers views that rival any in the ballpark. A standing bar at the wide, sliding windows accommodates dozens of fans who shoulder side-by-side, often four- or five-deep, to watch the action below.

Once, while jockeying for a view at Twins Pub, it occurred to me that the view from up there would be ideal for watching a pitchers’ duel. I checked the probable pitchers report from my phone and saw that Francisco Liriano was due to face Ubaldo Jiménez later in the homestand, so I bought a standing room ticket for that game before leaving the ballpark. Four days later, I arrived when the gates opened and proceeded directly to the Twins Pub window above home plate, where I would enjoy one of my favorite Target Field outings of the season.

Sans roof. Photo by T.S. Flynn.
Sans roof. Photo by T.S. Flynn.

To keep my spot at the window, I knew I’d have to hang out for more than an hour before the first pitch, so I brought a book. But before I could read a sentence I felt the presence of someone standing next to me. I glanced up, and we said hello to one another. A comment on his British accent led to a fascinating story about how he ended up in St. Louis Park and became a baseball fan. We talked about our wives and our favorite players, about the Twins and the Rockies, the new ballpark, and about coming to afternoon games alone. Like me, he’d purchased a standing-room ticket after seeing the impending matchup of two of the hottest pitchers in baseball and, like me, he did so with the windows of Twins Pub in mind. By the time the game began, we were chatting like old pals. We leaned forward, watching every pitch from our shared perch. Liriano struggled in the first inning, and we worried it wouldn’t be the kind of game we’d hoped for when we bought our tickets. My new friend bought us beers before the start of the second and we we toasted the perfect weather and cold beer. By the fourth, Liriano had settled down and we toasted the pitching, some of the best I’d ever seen in person. In the seventh he insisted on buying one more round, and we toasted the wisdom of our decision to go to the ballpark alone on a Thursday afternoon. “To great minds,” he said, “thinking alike.”

The downside to this kind of Target Field experience is that Twins Pub has no chairs or bar stools, and on a hot day standing for nine innings can be grueling, if not impossible. When you’re feeling your strength wane, it’s a good idea to take advantage of the more out of the way spots built into Target Field, like the Town Ball Tavern. Cool your heels, watch an inning on television, relax. Unless you’re ignoring a perfect game or your seats are of the padded variety in the lower bowl, nobody is going to fault you for walking around for an inning or nine every once in awhile. You’re paying for more than the seat at Target Field, so be sure to explore the entire ballpark.

No Tickets? No Problem.

With the opening of Target Field, everything about the Twins ticket situation has changed. Chances are, if you brought a Metrodome mindset to your ticket-buying strategy in 2010, you were shut out more often than not. I heard Twins fans bemoan the new ticket reality throughout the season, and a few even told me they never bothered trying to buy tickets, because they heard every game had sold out. Although it’s true that most, if not all, Twins games will sell out this season, the situation is far from hopeless.

The home games start Friday, April 8. If you’re a ticketless fan like me, you’ll want to establish a ticket acquisition strategy posthaste. I keep a Twins schedule handy all the time. There’s one in my desk, one in my wallet, one in the car. Be prepared: Sometimes you have to move fast, and information is your ally. My minimum goal is attending at least 10 games per season, though my ideal is closer to 20. I keep my expectations in check when it comes to marquee games. I hope I’ll catch one or two this year. But, to tell you the truth, that’s probably enough for me. Big hype often leads to big disappointment, and marquee games are usually especially crowded. My favorite games to attend are weekday and Sunday afternoons, which happen to be the best games for encouraging a long, adventurous day in and around the ballpark.

As you consider your ticket acquisition strategy for 2011, start with the easiest and most obvious, friends with season tickets. Let those folks know, in no uncertain terms, that you’re always looking for tickets and—this is important—you’re willing to pay. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it’s also a good deal for both of you, and it just might put you at the top of the call list when there’s a last-minute need to unload a pair of Friday night seats when the Yanks are in town. But even for the biggest fans, no tickets are worth straining a friendship, so you want to be as self-reliant in your ticket quest as possible.

Keep your eyes open. Tickets float around in front of you more than you think. If people know you’re the kind of person who is looking for tickets all summer, they’re going to let you know when their church is selling a block of seats or their sister-in-law’s favorite charity is sponsoring a day at the ballpark. Group tickets are almost always in the upper deck, where the view is wonderful and the tickets are cheap. Enter contests, check bulletin boards at coffee shops and grocery stores. Check Craigslist on game days; people who don’t regularly scalp tickets often post ads because something came up and they can’t go to the game. There are so many professional scalpers on Craigslist now that it’s easy to spot the sellers who aren’t: They just want face value and they’re in a hurry because they have other plans.

Give and Take: Community-Building at the Ballpark

Any successful ticket acquisition strategy requires commitment and patience, and it’s going to be a lot easier if you’re a good neighbor and a regular. When Target Field opened for business last April, so did a ballpark neighborhood. Having worked for several years in LoDo, Denver’s ballpark neighborhood, I can assure you that your search for tickets will be much easier if you act neighborly.

Think in terms of your own street. If a stranger wanders down your sidewalk screaming, “Got an extra cup of sugar?” he’s going to be ignored. On the other hand, the nice lady who shares her heirloom tomatoes with you every summer could borrow a pound of sugar any time she needs it. In other words, get to know the people in the neighborhood. Remember that while Target Field is a ballpark, it’s also filled with people who essentially live there for seven months. Talk to your usher, talk to the woman selling you a pretzel. Get to know these people. After all, if you play your cards right, you’ll be seeing them at least every couple of weeks, all season long.

Let me put it another way. Do you know what kind of people talk to ushers the most? The ones who go to the most games: season ticket holders. The next usher to introduce me to a fan with a pair of tickets to sell to an upcoming game won’t be the first. Be polite, be friendly, don’t be a hassle. I shouldn’t have to remind folks in Minnesota about manners, but I’ve spent enough time in the service sector to know that even some of the nicest people slip into a weird mode that makes them treat servers and vendors like ATMs. Nice people stand out in a crowd, even in Minnesota. When you take care of the people who serve you, they’ll take care of you.

Scooter the Beer Guy is a vendor I first met during the Rockies’ first season at Coors Field. He’s worked at several ballparks since then, including the inaugural seasons of Bank One Ballpark (Diamondbacks), Enron Field (Astros), Pac Bell Park (Giants), and Safeco Field (Mariners).* I asked him what general advice he’d give for interacting with a vendor? “Ya gotta be fast,” he said. “Other fans want beer too, and we only got seven innings.” What about etiquette? “Know what you want and have your dough ready.”
Scooter sidesteps questions regarding cash tips. Like any respectable professional who earns a living from gratuities, he’s not going to tell you what to tip, or even say that you should. So I will: Tip at least a buck on every round you buy, more if you want to be remembered. And don’t complain about being carded. These people are doing a job, and carding you is part of it. That means you should have your ID as readily available as your form of payment. The only thing more ridiculous than an obviously old-enough fan getting carded is an obviously old-enough fan whining about it.

It’s expensive to drink beer at the ballpark, so I usually limit myself to one or two, if I drink at all. It just doesn’t make sense to drink a lot at those prices, unless you’re celebrating something or are overcome with the giddy mood that accompanies a beautiful day at an outdoor ballgame. I’m much more likely to have a few beers before or after the game at my favorite tavern in the extended ballpark neighborhood. I say “extended” because I prefer a tavern that’s not too close. I don’t like loud, crowded bars. A 15-minute walk to Target Field is about perfect distance for me. You may already have your own favorite spot within a 15-minute walk of Target Field. Ideally, you’ve invested time there during the off-season months. If not, get started now. You’ll be considered a fair-weather fan for a while, but there’s no need to panic. It’s a long season.

If you want to be treated like a regular, it takes more than visiting regularly. The truth is most bartenders don’t care how much you drink, whether or not you drink alcohol, or even how much you spend (within reason), as long as you tip and you’re not annoying or high maintenance. Consider it space rental, if you must, but tip well if you want to be someone who comes to mind when the bartender is looking to help another regular unload a pair of tickets. Remember, you’re going to spend less at the tavern than you would at the ballpark. Pry open that wallet and spread some love while you’re there. Don’t ask for favors; earn them.

Now, the Caveat

Probably one out of every five or six times I head out for a ballgame without a ticket, I get shut out because I refuse to pay above face value.  This is where a fan’s flexibility and adventurous nature really comes into play. If you can’t score a ticket through the bartender, and the guys on the sidewalks won’t sell at face value, there are worse ways to spend three hours than watching a game in a tavern over a few cold cans of your domestic yellow beer of choice. If you don’t drink booze, have iced tea. It doesn’t matter. You might want to stretch your legs after an inning or two and wander toward the ballpark. If scalpers are going to give you a deal, it’s going to happen after a game has started.

When you’re open-minded and armed with a sense of adventure, any trip to the extended ballpark neighborhood this spring or summer will be rewarding. You might fall into a pair of box seats or you might end up on a bar’s patio hearing the roar of Target Field from a few blocks away. You might decide to hop on a Nice Ride bike for spontaneous ride along the river or you might decide on a quick dinner at a place you’ve never been. At some point, whether it’s your first visit of the year to Target Field or your 20th, you’re going to think back to those dark days when the mere chance of rain was enough to force a city full of baseball fans into a poorly lit dome where everything from the seats to the outfield walls to the grass was plastic. Don’t look back. Let it go. Breathe in the fresh air, feel the heat of the Minnesota summer, or the cool chill of spring and fall, and enjoy the adventure of a day in and around your new ballpark.

*Ed. note: You may have guessed that the name Enron Field is no longer in use. In our society of mergers, sponsorships, acquisitions, and fraud, these stadiums are now called, respectively, Chase Field, Minute Maid Park, AT&T Park, and Safeco Field. Way to keep the continuity, Seattle.

T.S. Flynn is a writer and teacher living in Northeast Minneapolis. His Tumblr, It's a long season., documents his obsession with baseball.