- Jim Caple, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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MINNEAPOLIS -- After 28 seasons, seven division titles, two world championships and countless popups lost against the roof, the final Twins game in the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome officially ended with a routine groundout to short (what, no bad hop?), but really, the air went out of the old place an inning earlier.
The Metrodome's Teflon roof requires 250,000 cubic feet of air pressure to stay in place, and you could sense it all escape in the bottom of the eighth inning after Nick Punto was thrown out rounding third on an infield single to kill a rally when the Twins trailed by just one run in Game 3 of the ALDS with the Yankees. New York scored two more runs in an agonizing, four-reliever top of the ninth and the Twins went down quietly in their final at-bats at their home since Kent Hrbek was a rookie.
"We're going to miss the Dome but hey, we're going outside,'' Punto said after the 4-1 loss. "It's going to be great and going to be great for the fans. And we're looking forward to it. But you can't really simulate 55,000 fans screaming and cheering and bringing the house down. It was like at times the Metrodome was just going to crumble.''
The Twins had one of the biggest home-field advantages in sports, what with the many high hops, the lost fly balls and the often-deafening noise. Oddly, it was that noise that helped undo them Sunday against the Yankees. Punto led off the inning with a double, and when Denard Span followed with an infield single behind second base, it appeared the Twins would have the tying run on third with nobody out. Punto, however, thought the ball had gone into the outfield and rounded third with his head down until he finally saw base coach Scott Ullger holding him up. Punto stopped and turned around, but was thrown out easily.
"It was one of those things where the crowd noise got me a little bit,'' Punto said. "They were probably just excited that there wasn't going to be a play at first base, but with 55,000 people screaming, I thought maybe the ball had gotten through. That's a huge play in that ballgame and you can't let that happen. That makes it tough to swallow.
"I wanted to dig a hole, crawl in it and hide. It's embarrassing.''
Embarrassing was a term often used to describe the Metrodome as a baseball stadium (travesty and disgrace were others), but the ballpark deserved better. It may not have been as beautiful as Fenway or as lovable as Wrigley. Hell, it may not even have been as nice as Shea. But it served its purpose extraordinarily well -- hosting baseball, basketball and football, plus the World Series, the Super Bowl and the Final Four, as well as innumerable tractor pulls and monster truck rallies. The 1991 World Series, capped by Kirby Puckett's extraordinary Game 6 performance and Jack Morris' 10-inning Game 7 shutout, is, by some, considered the best ever played.
Plus, the weather was always reliable. Indeed, it snowed in Minnesota this weekend, but the game-time temperature was a pleasant 68 degrees. Before this postseason ends in November, baseball may wish there were more domes.
The Metrodome didn't go out easily. The final game was scheduled for Oct. 4, but the Twins made an incredible run to overcome a seven-game deficit in September and a three-game deficit with four left in October to tie the Tigers for first place. That forced Tuesday's 12-inning, 6-5 Twins' playoff victory, one of the most exciting games in Metrodome history (which is saying a lot) that extended the stadium's baseball life into the ALDS.
The Twins lost the first two games of the series in New York (blowing a 3-1 lead in the ninth inning of Game 2), but held hope Sunday of extending the Metrodome for another game when starter Carl Pavano -- one of the most ridiculed players in Yankees history -- pitched six brilliant innings against his old team. Pavano struck out nine batters (the most ever by a Twin in the postseason), allowed only three hits over the first six innings and took a 1-0 lead (thanks to Joe Mauer's RBI single in the sixth) into the seventh. Unfortunately for the Twins, he allowed solo home runs to Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada in the seventh.
Punto excited the crowd with his leadoff double in the eighth, then silenced them with his baserunning blunder. The Twins never threatened again. There would be no game-saving catches against the baggie, no game-changing fly balls lost by an outfielder. The Twins won 11 of their first 12 postseason games at the Metrodome -- including all eight World Series games -- but lost their last eight here, five to the hated Yankees.
As the Yankees celebrated, Minnesota fans -- "I love you Metrodome!'' one shouted -- remained to watch a highlight video that included shots of the 1987 and 1991 World Series victories, the Dave Kingman popup that never came down and the old "We Like It Here'' banner that used to hang in the stadium before the Twins began demanding a new ballpark.
Mauer may have been the greatest of the Metrodome's athletes, having quarterbacked his high school to the state championship in addition to his three batting titles and likely 2009 MVP as a Twin. He said he wasn't sure what he would remember from the Dome.
"I haven't gotten that far yet,'' he said. "I was hoping to play [in Game 4 on Monday].''
When the Yankees left the field and advanced to the ALCS, closer Joe Nathan returned to the mound for one last time to scoop up some dirt as a souvenir.
"That was something I knew I wanted to do whenever the last game was,'' Nathan said. "I was hoping it would be in the World Series, but whenever this last game was going to be, I knew I wanted to get some dirt here off the mound and sprinkle it on the mound at the new place. Just to bring some history over to the new place and start a new feeling.''
After Nathan left with the dirt, the stadium crew dug up the pitching rubber and home plate and carried them away. The Vikings will continue playing here (remember when communities built stadiums for more than one sport?) but the Metrodome's days as the summer home for Hrbek, Puckett and Mauer are done; the Hefty Bag Era is over.
The first game in the Twins' new park is April 12 against the Red Sox. Nathan will bring over some history, but Twins fans may want to bring mittens and wool caps.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
4hAdam Lewis, Special to ESPN.com