With no Metrodome, Gophers baseball team has had hectic travel schedule
MINNEAPOLIS — A year ago Thursday, John Anderson walked out of the decrepit, concrete monolith on Kirby Puckett Plaza with tears in his eyes.
Then, the Big Ten’s longest-tenured baseball coach muttered to himself.
Anderson had just managed Minnesota’s final game inside the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, a 5-1 victory over South Dakota State on March 27, 2013. No longer would the Golden Gophers possess the luxury of playing home games in February. No more full-scale indoor practices, either.
Instead, Minnesota’s been rudely welcomed to the snow- and ice-covered headaches that come with playing Division I baseball north of the Mason-Dixon line.
And one of the worst American winters in recent memory hasn’t helped. At all.
"If you’re not willing to be flexible," said Anderson, the Gophers’ skipper since 1981, "this is not a place to play or coach, because it seems like you make plans, and all you do is change your plans."
With the Dome currently lying in pieces to make way for the new Vikings stadium, the Gophers spent the first six weeks of the season on the road. They’ve been to every U.S. continental time zone, lived out of duffel bags at hotels and faced all manner of travel obstacles associated with multiple polar vortexes since opening the season Feb. 14 against North Illinois in Glendale, Ariz.
The scenery’s been nice. But the program’s budget hit, missed school work and lack of anything close to a normal routine hasn’t been.
"We were all talking about . . . how good it was gonna be to sleep in our own beds for once," senior first baseman Dan Olinger said Monday, a day after Minnesota returned from an eight-game road trip. "It was nice to just be home and get to drop my stuff off in my own room and fall asleep last night."
The Gophers played their first 20 games away from the Twin Cities, heading to warm-weather destinations such as Fort Myers, Fla., Myrtle Beach, S.C. and Sacramento, Calif. Despite a considerable lack of rest and a slew of early-season injuries, they managed to go 13-7, including a series win Saturday and Sunday in their opening Big Ten series against Northwestern.
But it hasn’t been all fun in the sun. The Northwestern series was originally scheduled to take place at the Wildcats’ Evanston, Ill., campus, but was shifted to St. Charles, Mo., at the last minute.
The teams couldn’t match up Friday because of Northwestern’s final exams, so they played a doubleheader at Lindenwood University then turned around and squared off again Sunday before heading home. Reaching the St. Louis area required a 16-hour bus and airplane trip; the Gophers played five games in California last week during Minnesota’s spring break.
And that wasn’t even the Gophers’ most adventurous excursion.
Minnesota was scheduled to fly out the evening of Thursday, Feb. 27 for a three-game series at Louisiana Tech that weekend. Plane malfunctions caused the flight to be delayed till the next morning, then canceled it altogether after it was too cold to make repairs outside and crews couldn’t find the necessary hangar space to fix it indoors. So the Gophers were re-routed through New York to Dallas and then took a bus to Ruston, La.
After going 2-1 in three games during a 24-hour window, they bussed back to Dallas but ran into the ice storm that swept through the Metroplex that Sunday. According to Anderson, the normal four-hour ride between Louisiana Tech’s campus and the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport took closer to seven.
"We probably shouldn’t have been on the highways," Anderson said.
By the time the team reached its destination, its flight had long since departed. Anderson, his players and staff weren’t able to fly out of Dallas until 3 p.m. Tuesday, March 4. Then they left Minneapolis two days later to play in Coastal Carolina’s Chanticleer Classic.
The Gophers players attended one day of class that week.
"You should see those small weight rooms in the hotels," Olinger said. "They’re getting a lot of work from Gopher baseball players while we’re on the road." Same for the lobbies, which the Gophers usually turned into makeshift study halls.
And now that they’re back, they’re still feeling the effects of the weather.
Minnesota’s home opener at 1-year-old Siebert Field was slated for Wednesday, against St. John’s University. But that contest was postponed due to a thick layer of snow and ice still coating the artificial playing surface.
Michigan State’s series here this weekend may also be in jeopardy. If the teams can’t play, it’ll be cancelled for good, and each program will be three league games short for a second straight year.
The same thing happened last April when the Spartans were scheduled to come to town.
"It’s been a grind so far," said junior pitcher Ben Meyer, a New Brighton native and Totino-Grace product. "It’s been tough to focus on baseball and keep focused on all of the stuff we need to be focused on."
It’s nothing new for the bulk of Big Ten and northern collegiate baseball programs. But for one that played 21 home games by March 27 last season alone, it presents a fresh set of hindrances.
There was a sentimental value to the Dome, too. Especially for a roster full of homegrown kids like Meyer, who grew up attending Twins and Vikings games there.
"It was so nice for us my freshman and sophomore year being able to practice there every day and play in a big-league facility," Meyer said. "It’s definitely sad to see it go."
A lack of viable practice time hurts almost as much. The few workout days Minnesota has are spent splitting time with the football and softball teams in the Gibson-Nagurski complex, where a low ceiling and cramped confines make it difficult to work on live hitting and fielding situations.
That’s been especially relevant this season. The Gophers are down to two catchers after losing senior Matt Halloran for the year and freshman Austin Athmann for the past three weeks. Bullpen anchor Ty McDevitt recently found out he requires Tommy John surgery, third baseman Joey Brettingen likely needs wrist surgery, and Olinger is day-to-day with a wrist injury of his own.
"I’ve always said if you can go through these things and be around .500, you’ve done a pretty good job," Anderson said. "I told the team yesterday I was proud of them, but it’s a miracle almost that we’ve been able to be 13-7 and 6-2 (on the most recent road trip) with playing on the road and the travel."
But some numbers are tougher to swallow. Anderson said the program’s travel budget required a 50-percent increase to accommodate its schedule this season, which includes 18 slated home games compared to 34 a year ago.
And until the snow melts, $7.5 million Siebert Field will sit dormant. That affects the athletic department’s bottom line, too.
"We have this new stadium," Anderson said with frustration, motioning out of his Bierman Field Athletic Building office window toward the baseball complex. "When do we even get to use it?"
But as sure as snow around here in February, the complications of the post-Dome era aren’t going anywhere — at least not until the old barn’s replacement is completed by the fall of 2016.
The multipurpose stadium can be configured for baseball — there’s actually a large mock-up of it hosting a Gophers game hanging on the wall outside Anderson’s office — but the coach isn’t sure how frequently his program will be able to use it.
"I don’t know, because no one’s really given us much information other than ‘there’s gonna be baseball,’" Anderson said. "But I know the building’s gonna be used for a lot of things. We’ll never play as much down there as we did in the past, that’s my opinion.
"But if I can get two weekends a year down there just to break up the travel, I’d be happy."
Either way, the long road trips, missed classes and limited outdoor practice time will continue. Anderson said his club might as well embrace it.
And heck, enjoy the palm trees and beaches while harsh temperatures and precipitation rock their home base. Just not too much.
"My family keeps giving me grief about that," said Olinger, who hails from Great Falls, Montana. "I’m in Myrtle Beach or Florida or Louisiana or California, and they’re stuck in their negative-20 wind chills.
"It’s a struggle when you’re at a nice destination. You want to go out and be on the beach and the ocean, but you have a game the next day. People have to restrain themselves a little bit."
Said Meyer: "In California, it was 70 and sunny every day. It was perfect. No better way to spend your spring break."
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