Fans pack Metrodome for opener

Posted: Sunday, April 14, 2002

MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota outfielder Torii Hunter sat at his locker after playing in front of his first sellout crowd at the Metrodome.

''I liked that. That's the way major league is supposed to be,'' Hunter said. ''You shouldn't hear whole conversations going on in the stands. Today I didn't hear anything, just that loud roar.''

The draw of 48,244 that watched Minnesota beat Detroit 4-2 Friday night marked the Twins' first sellout since 1992 -- when they were coming off a World Series title. The crowd rose to its feet for the final out, chanting reliever Eddie Guardado's name as he struck out Oscar Salazar for his fifth save.

''Wow, I know I've never heard it as loud as it was in the ninth inning when they were chanting for Eddie,'' catcher A.J. Pierzynski said.

Fans lined up early at the Metrodome and for many, the offseason threat by baseball owners to fold the franchise made this opening night all the more special. It doesn't hurt that the Twins are seen as a top contender to win the AL Central.

The Twins, who opened the season with a 5-5 road trip, were the last team to play a home opener in 2002.

''You always want to do well in front of a big crowd,'' Pierzynski said. ''For once, it was good to hear that many people cheering for us. It makes it a little more fun, you always have a little more adrenaline.''

Fans began congregating outside the ballpark as early as 5 a.m., and free hot dogs, muffins and newspapers were available to the early risers. Current and former Twins also greeted fans at two noon rallies in the Twin Cities.

As the afternoon wore on, the scene shifted to a party-like atmosphere outside the Metrodome, complete with beer, games for the kids, live music and sunny, 60-degree weather.

''It epitomizes baseball and the opening of the season. When a person thinks of a baseball game, this is what they expect,'' Tim Blanch said as he waited outside with his wife, Tricia. ''I'm very excited to get in there.''

Blanch and many others said that while the attempt to eliminate the Twins factored in their attendance Friday, the main reason for coming out was the team's success last season. Minnesota finished second in the division behind Cleveland with an 85-77 record -- its first winning season since 1992.

Fans also took the time to vent their frustrations at baseball commissioner Bud Selig for his failed attempt to eliminate the team. One wore a T-shirt which read ''No Contraction.'' Another group of fans wore white T-shirts which formed a derogatory phrase aimed at Selig, who tried to get rid of Minnesota and Montreal, both teams with relatively low revenue.

Minnesota drew 1.78 million fans last year, up from 1.06 million in 2000.

Louis Kimmes, who has been coming to Twins games for 14 years, said he plans on making it out to more games this season, just in case it's his last chance.

''I think the Twins will notice that in attendance,'' he said. ''I think a lot of people will come out this year.''

Attorney Corey Ayling, who won a court order to keep the team in business this year, was in attendance Friday night, watching from the upper deck with his children. Ayling represented the Metrodome's operator, the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission.

With that lease expiring at the end of the season, Ayling might have to get more creative to hold off a contraction attempt on the team.

''I think the more fan support, the more persuasive that will be to the Legislature and the more persuasive that will be to the court,'' he said. ''What we have to prove is that the community supports the team.''

Ayling's counterpart, Roger Magnuson, who represented major league baseball and the Twins, sat with his children in the lower deck behind home plate. In December, he used his son's ''Homer Hanky'' to urge an appeals court to not let hometown emotions hinder a sound legal decision. He still believes his clients have a case.

''We continue to believe there is a right to sign a lease and ultimately leave it if the circumstances don't make for a viable franchise,'' Magnuson said.

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