Terry Ryan was trying to do something he has done thousands and thousands of times in his life as a baseball man: enter a ballpark.
The former Minnesota Twins general manager, now a special assignment scout for the Philadelphia Phillies, had recently returned to his Twin Cities home from spring training in Florida, and Tuesday’s plan was to scout some prep baseball in Minneapolis. The only stumbling block was gaining access to U.S. Bank Stadium, which was hosting high school baseball for the first time. Ryan was delayed getting through security, waiting as personnel made phone calls and peered at a computer screen before admitting him.
For Ryan, the day was like many others: he watched young ballplayers, hoping to find someone who may be worth a closer look. For the boys from Moorhead and Sartell-St. Stephen, however, they were making history as the first high school teams to play in the new billion-dollar home of the Minnesota Vikings, as well as MSHSL soccer and football state tournament games.
Baseball is usually the same no matter the location, with balls and strikes and fly balls and groundouts. It’s not quite the same at U.S. Bank Stadium –where the University of Minnesota and other college baseball teams also play -- because the sky is behind a glass roof and no dirt can be found. The entire playing surface is artificial turf, including home plate, the base paths, the pitcher’s mound and the mounds in the bullpens down the left- and right-field lines. Anyone looking for a place to spit or dig in their spikes came up empty.
The Moorhead Spuds arrived a couple of hours before the 12:45 to 3:45 p.m. time slot that they and the Sartell Sabres had been allotted. Coach Greg Salvevold didn’t know what the result of such an early arrival would be, but the Spuds were allowed on the field, giving them extra time for practice before scrimmaging the Sabres for three hours.
“Usually we’re still inside,” Salvevold said. “Being able to be outside for this whole week and coming to U.S. Bank and getting live reps on the field, it’s awesome.”
The Sabres and Spuds brought a total of 56 uniformed players, and everyone got on the field. Two more three-hour time slots followed Tuesday, with Kasson-Mantorville and Holy Family in the stadium from 4 to 7 p.m., and Kenyon-Wanamingo and Medford taking their turn from 7:15 to 10:15 p.m. Other teams will follow throughout April; by the end of the month 60 Minnesota high school teams will have played inside the stadium.
Each team pays the stadium $975 for their three-hour slot; part of those funds go toward paying umpires. Until recently, Salvevold and Sartell coach Jerome Nemanich were not aware that they would be the first high school teams to play at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“We didn’t know that,” Nemanich said. “They gave us the dates, and we just wanted to go during the third week of practice.”
Fans pay five dollars to watch from front-row seats if they wish. There was a smattering of spectators for the Moorhead-Sartell game, protected from foul balls and errant throws by a net that also covered the field-level suites that are used for Vikings games. The teams are housed in temporary dugouts, metal boxes with fenced fronts and rubber floors. Nemanich called them “chicken coops,” which was pretty accurate.
The football markings remain on the field, with additional white stripes put down for foul lines, batters boxes and outlines of the base paths.
The sounds of the game were standard stuff: “Let’s go 11!” and “Way to hang!” A second baseman was told to play as deep as he wanted, because “The ball’s gonna get there quick” on the turf. When the ball bounced, whether off the bat or into the ground on a pitch, tiny shards of rubber were kicked up in a strong imitation of infield dirt. The Sabres wore their full game uniforms while the Spuds were in numberless team T-shirts.The first pitcher to take the mound was Moorhead junior Sam Haiby, a Division I basketball recruit who is in her first year on the varsity baseball team.
As players wearing metal spikes walked from a behind-the-scenes batting cage to the field through a concrete corridor, a stadium employee said, “It sounds like an army marching in.”
Some outfielders and players sitting in the right field bullpen wore sunglasses to protect against the sun streaming through the roof. It was warm in the ballpark, warmer than any Minnesota ballplayer is accustomed to in April. The outdoor temperature was 62 degrees, and it was warmer than that inside.
“You don’t know how hot it is out there,” one of the Sabres said to his teammates after coming off the field and sitting in the shade of the chicken coop.
Afterwards, Moorhead senior Carter Howell said of the stadium, “It was pretty crazy, walking in and seeing it. I thought it would be more air-conditioned, be a little cooler.”
While the teams played, the business of the big stadium continued. Employees put a fresh shine on the floor in the exclusive Delta 360 Club behind the third-base dugout, a place for big spenders to hang out on Vikings game days. Later, a tour guide stood in the Delta 360 Club with a group of visitors. He explained how much club users pay for tickets, to which one of the tourists responded, “HOW much!?”
No scoreboards were used during the scrimmage and there was no stadium announcer. The three-hour time slot was counted down on a digital clock near one of the giant video screens, which are dark during high school play. As the window for Moorhead and Sartell began to close in the final minutes, players sprinted on and off the field as coaches yelled, “Go! Go! Go!”
On their team Twitter account (@SpudBaseball), the Spuds had been counting down the days until they walked onto the field in downtown Minneapolis.
“Ever since day 100, we’ve been counting it down on Twitter so the boys have been getting excited to be here and now it happened,” Salvevold said. “We’re getting our feet wet and getting ready for the season, I think that’s the most important thing.”
As the clock struck zero, the Spuds and Sabres exchanged handshakes and then posed for a two-team photo as parents and others put their cell-phone cameras to use from the stands.
One of the fans said with a laugh, “You don’t even have to rake the field before you leave!”
A few minutes later, the keys were turned in two buses that were loaded with ballplayers and their gear in the stadium’s airplane-hanger-sized loading dock. Everybody went home happy.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 562
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2016-17: 9,489
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn