Monday, November 12, 2018

It's really the end: Joe Mauer announces his retirement

Cardboard-cutout Joe Mauer with me. 
I was just about done visiting with my parents in the Target Field concourse prior to the 2018 season finale for the Minnesota Twins. Naturally, the discussion of the day - and really the past week - focused on Joe Mauer. My often jaded and pessimistic mind went to this as I was about to leave:

"I hope he doesn't go 0-for-4 or something."

That prediction was actually pretty close, as Mauer went 1-for-4, but that simple statement didn't even come close to what was in store for Twins faithful that Sunday, Sept. 30, during the final game of the regular season against the Chicago White Sox. It was a storybook day for Mauer, one we all know now (though there were strong hunches then) was the final time he suited up in his Twins uniform to play a Major League Baseball game.

It still seems surreal that it's over.

This past Friday, news broke that Mauer has decided to retire, based on a note he wrote addressing Twins fans with a full-page ad in the local newspapers. In September, word got around with a couple weeks left in the season that Mauer was still deciding on this, with his eight-year, $ 184 million contract set to expire at season's end. He wanted to take some time after the season to make up his mind, officially.

But really, after all the pomp and circumstance during his final game, it would almost be awkward to have him return next season. And heaven forbid the St. Paul native and Cretin-Derham Hall grad choose to sign some one-year deal with another MLB club.

Mauer decides to call it quits
I was just like other Twins fans waiting to see when Mauer would make his announcement. The Twins already had a big personnel change with the firing of manager Paul Molitor at the end of the season and then the hiring of new manager Rocco Baldelli. But Friday I wondered aloud to my parents, asking when Mauer was going to announce his retirement. A few hours later, the answer was out there. I swear I'm not psychic.

The tributes and well wishes have rolled in for Mauer over the weekend, and he's set for an 11 a.m. press conference Monday at Target Field for the official announcement. Despite all the ups and downs of his career as an offensive catcher and defensive first baseman, with the concussions issues that went along with it, Mauer will go down as one of the greatest Twins to ever put on the uniform.

I've seen a few posts on social media from people saying they've never known a Twins team without Mauer. In my ripe old age, I can say that my memory goes back a bit further than that. Hello, days of A.J. Pierzynski with Tom Prince as a backup. Still, those other people have a point. Mauer made his major league debut with the Twins in 2004 and played for 15 seasons.

His career drips with success
One of the points that I don't think gets stated enough is the fact that he'll have played his entire career with the same ball club. Playing for his hometown team is just the whipped cream on top (I don't like cherries, so it's whipped cream.). It's a point I learned about early on in my sports fandom as part of my education learning about sports and how it's a business, too. My parents would tell me about players who played most of their careers with one team before going to another for a year or two at the end of his career. Today, it's not very common for a guy to stay in one spot.

Fans know the numbers and honors by heart by now. Mauer is a three-time Gold Glove winner, six-time All-Star, five-time Silver Slugger winner and an MVP as a catcher in unprecedented territory. The now-35-year-old gave up a football scholarship to play baseball and was selected as the first overall pick by the Twins in 2001.

He finishes his career with 1,858 games, 7,960 plate appearances, 6,930 at-bats, 1,018 runs scored, 2,123 hits, a .306 batting average, 143 home runs, 939 walks, 428 doubles, 30 triples and 923 RBI. As the negative nancies like to point out, Mauer had less success in the small sample size of 10 postseason games. The Twins never won a postseason series with Mauer on the team.

It's almost hard to pick out some of the memories of Mauer's career. He was a guy that wasn't known for hitting for power. He could give you an RBI double and could smack a base hit to left with regularity to drive in runs. He set a new high bar for catchers to produce at the plate instead of just crouched behind it. He hardly ever swung at the first pitch, and his watchful eye at the plate got him on base plenty of times.

A final season to remember
For the entire 2018 season there was speculation here and there about Mauer, since everyone knew it was the last year of his deal. The good news for fans as they could get distracted by some of the milestones Mauer reached this season, firmly setting his place deeper in Twins history.

He reached 2,000 career hits. He moved into third on the Twins all-time list in runs scored trailing only Kirby Puckett (1,071) and Harmon Killebrew (1,047). No Twins player has hit more doubles than Mauer, once he hit the 415 mark. He's second on the Twins all-time list in hits in between Puckett (2,304) and Rod Carew (2,085). He started on Opening Day for the 14th time, the most in Twins history.

The last home run Mauer hit for the Twins was a grand slam against the Yankees at Target Field on Sept. 11. When he hit it that night, I had a special feeling knowing that it very well could be the last home run for him. What a way to go out. And we thought it would be hard to top his pinch-hit three-run homer to deep center in a 5-4 victory over Detroit on Aug. 17. Both warranted curtain calls, which were very un-Mauer like.

Then there was the final series, a rare four-game weekend finale with a doubleheader on Friday against the White Sox to make up the last blizzard-out game from April. Mauer played all four games when in normal circumstances he might have played two. He went 2-for-4 in the first three games, getting ovations from fans for even the smallest feats.

Storybook ending in the finale
Sunday will always be such a special game. His two twin girls ran out to him at first base as part of the kids starting lineup. That was enough of a moment right there. Then more ovations and helmet tips each time he stepped to the plate. He grounded out to second to lead off the first and grounded to short to end the third. He hit a deep fly ball to center field in the 5th. I'm telling you the place would have exploded if he would have smacked that ball to the grass beyond the center-field wall.

He stepped to the plate in the 7th with anxious fans knowing this could be his final at-bat. So he hit a line drive to left field and hustled for a double. Because of course he did. The 0-for-4 was avoided.

Mauer's final hit.

Then in the top of the ninth with the Twins leading, there was a delay in the Twins taking the field. Mauer walked up the dugout steps and emerged wearing his catcher's gear for the first time since 2013.

There aren't many words to describe the moment and the lengthy ovation that followed as fans, teammates and the opposing dugout applauded No. 7. Mauer showed his appreciation through teary eyes and waves to the crowd. He caught one final pitch before being removed from the game. Straight-up chills.

And now he's retiring. The thing is, he can still play the game. His ability is there, and he loves it. But the risk of concussions is too much for him to continue when he's already had a great career and is a soon-to-be father of three. It's completely understandable and almost fitting that he's finishing his career now.

Maybe it will sink in one of these days that the Twins won't have one of their best players in the lineup anymore.

Cheers, Joe. Thanks for the memories.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The fall season of #HeathWrites

It's always a bit of an adjustment when a sports season ends. In my case, things go from 60-0 when the 162-game regular season ends for the Minnesota Twins. So begins the offseason, but just for baseball. I start picking up a bunch of different hats as a freelance sports writer throughout the fall and winter months (Freelancing is a year-round deal for me, but obviously baseball is the priority in-season.).

First, my schedule is anything but typical. Weekends aren't really a thing, although sometimes Mondays can offer a bit of a lighter load. Plus, my sleeping hours rival that of a college student, because I'm forever a night owl and work in sports which usually happen at night. As I like to say, I get my hours in, just not in a 9-5 time frame.

I cover a lot of different sports and write about a lot of different things, which is one of the cool aspects of my work that I mention to people. It's a variety of stuff from high school football to tennis to NHL games to college basketball.

Before I head out to cover a high school game, it's important to do a little homework. It's usually the first/only time all season I'll watch those teams, so I need to get the lay of the land. Depending on the game, I look up stats, highlight a couple of the best players, take a look at team history or tournament history. I want to have some background so I can be better informed on what to look for during the game, what to ask about afterward and what tidbits I could add to my story that go beyond just watching from the press box.

As much as you prepare though, the game has to play out, and often there's a totally new angle that gets written because of what happens on the field. I covered a football game between Cooper and Irondale to wrap up the regular season, and Cooper should have won on paper. Turned out, Irondale went on a huge second-half run of scores and Cooper couldn't get anything going. The Irondale coach gave me a quote afterward with a similar sentiment to the Herb Brooks line about his Team USA losing to the Russians 9-out-of-10 times. Not that this football game was the kinda of upset scale - it wasn't - but it was still a good line.

No press box? No problem.
Another football game before that took me on the outskirts of the northwest metro. The charter school's home field wasn't a stadium but more like what other teams might call a practice field. There wasn't a press box since no grandstand existed either. The athletic director said I could join the scoreboard operator on top of the concession stand building.

It was a misty, muddy Friday afternoon (no lights on the field either) for the game. With my bulky backpack strapped on my back, I climbed up a stair ladder, managed my way under a tarp that acted as a roof above the shingled roof of the concession stand and got set up on the roof. Thank goodness I always bring an extension cord and power strip with me to cover games; the folks there were nice enough to run my cord down the side of the building and into the stand to give my power for my laptop.

Other than some of the misty rain getting blown in our direction, covering the game went pretty well. The folks on the roof with me and the AD were all very nice, and let me tell you a little goes a long way in feeling welcomed or appreciated.

Just another unique experience covering a game, that's all. I've been to plenty of fields and arenas. The biggest thing is always trying to find a power outlet to plug in my computer and/or phone charger. Wifi can come through my phone, which helps check that box. A lot of logistics get cobbled together to make high school sports coverage work. It may not be the most glamorous, but it's enjoyable. Prep athletes can also be great interviews; sometimes the inexperience being interviewed yields better quotes or more frank takes on the game.

Back to ace the tennis beat
Once again this fall, I covered some of the girls' state high school tennis tournament. This is one of my favorite assignments because I really feel like I have a great grasp of the game. Yes, this is the sport I played in high school. Even though I wasn't that good, I know more about the game than I can claim with other sports.

The Class 1A championship, which I've covered for a few years now, has usually been a pair of Blake players. The team is dominant, and often one girl will coast to a fairly easy victory. This time, it was Blake against an opponent from another school. That made the match different in itself, and the play turned out to be very competitive and fun to watch. They took it to deuce eight times and had plenty of long rallies, including a long 35-shot point. There was tension and a third set wasn't out of the question, even though it did end in two sets, with Blake's Arlina Shen finally getting her championship after three years as a runner-up.

In a fun twist that I didn't learn until the medal ceremony, it was also Shen's 16th birthday. Like I couldn't have found a great lede anyway. It was nice to talk with Shen - who remembered speaking with me last year when her tears were for a much different reason than this year - after her victory to get her perspective on the match and finally winning.

What it's all about
Those are the types of stories I really enjoy telling when there is almost too much information or too many good angles to take. Had I not been restricted with a word count (which I could probably say all the time), I would have broken the match down even more because there were so many turning points and close games.

I also covered some state tournament soccer, including a couple semifinals at U.S. Bank Stadium. I'm planning on the state volleyball tournament coming up next week and have another football game on the schedule in a couple days.

All this, and I didn't even touch on the features I'm writing as a Wild beat writer for Minnesota Hockey Magazine (Zach Parise and Jason Zucker profiles, plus something on Ryan Suter's 1,000 games so far), or the columns I'm still writing for Zone Coverage about the Wild, or even the things I'm working on with The Athletic to follow the Minnesota Whitecaps, the first professional women's hockey team in the state as they joined the NWHL this season.

Again, it's a variety. Different sports, different stories, different outlets. It's the freelancer life.

A reminder that you can always follow along with me on Twitter and Instagram @hlrule. 

Monday, September 10, 2018

Osaka deserved her dream, not controversy, in her 1st Grand Slam victory

In one of her news conferences during the 2018 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Naomi Osaka talked about her dream as a little girl of someday facing top-champion Serena Williams in a Grand Slam final. A reporter followed up and asked what outcome she saw for this match, in her dream. Osaka gave a shy smile before her answer: "I don't dream to lose."

I'm guessing her dream didn't include her pulling her visor over her face to shield her distraught and teary eyes from a chorus of boos that reigned down from the crowd after her first Grand Slam victory either.

But unfortunately, for everybody involved, that's exactly what happened to the 20-year-old as she beat the 23-time Slam champion Williams, 6-2, 6-4, Saturday at Arthur Ashe Stadium in one of the most controversial tennis matches in recent U.S. Open history.

I didn't see the match live but instead followed the happenings on social media before watching a replay via a Tennis Channel rebroadcast (with commentators Mary Carillo and former tennis champion Lindsay Davenport) later that night. There was so much that happened, and the opinions flew around faster than a Williams ace. The code violations and exchanges between the chair umpire and Williams are well documented by now, including the $17,000 fine Williams received for her actions.

Osaka served up better tennis in this one
So let me first head in this direction: Osaka was the better player in the match. She became the first player from Japan to win a major singles tennis title and should be commended for her efforts and for her play throughout the tournament.

From the start of Saturday's final, Williams' serve was shaky. She opened the match with a double fault on the second point of the match and struggled with her first serve. The first-serve percentage in the first set was 73 percent for Osaka to just 38 percent for Williams. That's concerning if you're in the Williams camp, as a player who can put away entire games by acing opponents with her powerful serve.

Meanwhile, Osaka found a way to get her opponent on the run as she continued to hit punishing groundstrokes across to the other side. What might usually be winners for Williams turned into longer rallies as Osaka showed a solid return game and sent shots right back time and again during rallies. Osaka also had a streak of 21-straight break points saved that carried over from the previous match as well, a semifinal versus American Madison Keys.

The first set was controversy-free. Osaka got her first break of the match on a Williams double fault, took a 3-1 lead with an ace and then broke again. If Serena came into the net, Osaka calmly countered with passing shots. Her winner to make it 15-all with Osaka up 4-1 in the first set even drew some racquet-claps from Williams.

Osaka won the first set in 34 minutes with a serve that Williams buried in the net. While it certainly seemed to be going a different direction than many expected, I've watched enough three-set victories from Williams to know it wasn't over. Although, Tennis Channel pointed out to me that Williams was actually just 2-7 in major finals when she drops the first set.

The second set wasn't a highlight reel for tennis 
That was about the end of any normalcy in the match. In all, Williams received three code violations before the night was done. The first was a warning for coaching after her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, appeared to make a gesture with his hands from his seat in the stadium. The second took a point away from Williams after she busted her racquet. The third awarded a game to Osaka - which came at a pivotal time in the match with Osaka up 4-3 in the second set - following what was described as verbal abuse from Williams toward the chair umpire, Carlos Ramos.

One of the things Williams mentioned repeatedly was that the chair umpire was a "thief" for stealing a point from her. What puzzled me about this is Williams was penalized a point for busting her racquet. That's on her, and that detail seems to have gotten lost. I understand the other part of the argument is, "Well, she shouldn't have been warned for coaching in the first place, so the racquet deal could have been a warning." But the fact was, she was already warned. Williams' coach also said after the match that he was coaching. And adding that every other coach does the same thing is filed under the two-wrongs-don't-make-a-right category, in my opinion.

A couple calls - good or bad - does not a match make
Here's where I probably fall into some opinions that not many people share, but I'll try to explain my thoughts anyway.

There's plenty of debate that goes into the opinions of whether the chair should have imposed the violations. Whatever you think of them - right or wrong - it's my understanding that Ramos was within his rights to issue the violations and rules were followed on his end. You can be frustrated if there's a double standard when it comes to issuing violations, like for coaching, for example, while also respecting the rules of the game as they are. Plus, anytime there is anything that can be subjective and at the discretion of an umpire, things are not black and white. This isn't like challenging a line call where the replay shows whether the tennis ball clipped a line. The umpire still makes calls, so I get why that is frustrating if it seems to come from nowhere.

Another thing came to mind for me while I watched the match and the exchanges Williams had with Ramos. Sports are different and complex, depending on how you look at them. Officiating can play a big part in these contests, though the goal should never be to have officials determine an outcome. But still, bad calls happen all the time, and athletes have to find a way to move forward and often regain their composure. It didn't seem to me that Williams was able to move past the coaching violation. Of course, she has a right to feel upset or whatever she wants to feel, but agree with calls or not, you have to find a way to play on.

Carillo said via the broadcast that the coaching violation "could fuel" Williams. At the first changeover at 2-2 in the second set, Williams and Ramos appeared to come to some sort of understanding about the coaching issue. It could have all ended there.

It was interesting to watch this match later knowing the results. After the point penalty, Davenport, who played against Williams in her career, gave viewers a heads-up on the rules: "One more violation, and that's a game. She's got to keep her temper in check from here on out."
Osaka broke again with a down-the-line passing shot to take a 4-3 lead. And Williams offered up more discussion at the changeover, with continued efforts to demand an apology from Ramos, to no avail.

"How dare you insinuate that I was cheating," Williams told Ramos. "You will never ever ever ever be on another court of mine as long as you live."
After the game violation was issued and the discussion continued with the tournament referee, Osaka was, well, I'm not really sure. She was presumably left to figure out what exactly was going on and how to keep a handle on her own composure for doing nothing to bring about this controversy. All she did was play a terrific match, Carillo said. Would it have been fair to Osaka if Ramos had decided not to issue any code violations to Williams?

Serving for the match up 5-4, Osaka started her final game with a winner and ended it with an ace to win her first Grand Slam title. But instead of jubilation, jumping up and down, a smile (though, of course, everyone celebrates differently), Osaka brought her visor bill down over her face to cover up her emotions. She then sobbed at her chair while Williams continued to demand an apology from Ramos and the fans kept up the chorus of boos.

Unpacking the issues, because this isn't black-and-white
Now that this is a long-winded piece, let me hit some of the bullet points because certain things are not mutually exclusive:
  • Do I think Williams, to use her word, cheated? No.
  • Do I think her coach was coaching? Yes, and he said so. 
  • Do I also think the rules surrounding coaching at major tournaments should be looked at for possible changes to avoid double standards? Yes. 
  • Do I think Ramos was within his rights to issue the code violations to Williams? Yes. 
  • Do I think Ramos used the best judgment when issuing the code violations? No, because the coaching one seems to be the most inconsistent across the rest of the tournament.
  • Do I think Williams was "robbed" of another title? No, because the match is longer than the one point and one game she was penalized.
  • Do I think Williams lost her cool during the match? Yes. 
  • Do I also think Williams recovered in her comments during the trophy ceremony? Yes. 
  • Do I think this is an issue of sexism? I'm honestly not sure, but many and the WTA think so.
To me, Williams understated the discussion in her postmatch news conference. "For me to say 'thief' and for him to take a game, it made me feel like it was a sexist remark," Williams said, adding that they wouldn't do that to a male player.

That may be true. But it's only part of the story, because she already had two violations stacked up and had multiple discussions with Ramos. She didn't simply call him a thief and then he took a game away. And this isn't her first bit of controversy. The 2009 semifinal at the U.S. Open jumped into my head immediately. Kim Clijsters won the first set, and Williams was warned for racquet abuse. After Williams was called for a foot fault, she apparently said this to the linesperson: "If I could, I would take this [expletive] ball and shove it down your [expletive] throat." The point penalty Williams received resulted in a second-set tiebreaker and match victory for Clijsters.

I wrote about that, too, and saw some similarities. Saturday while on the court, Williams made comments about things men have said during matches.

Here's an excerpt from what I wrote after that 2009 match against Clijsters:
In seeing the video of the exchange with the chair umpire, and tournament referee Brian Earley, I got an even better sense of how Serena felt about her actions. Her defense was simply this: "Sorry, but there are a lot of people who've said way worse."
How does that justify your own words and actions? Because others have done or said things, that should let you off the hook and free from penalties? It just doesn't seem like the best logic to me. Williams also got into it with the chair umpire during the 2011 U.S. Open final against Sam Stosur. So however you want to categorize it, these kinds of incidents aren't new to Williams.

There's no doubt that Williams is one of the greatest tennis players of all time. I'm not denying her abilities and her status in American women's tennis. However, that doesn't mean her attitude and sportsmanship are above criticism. Maybe there was some sexism involved, but, for me, it's also hard to ignore that Williams has lost her temper before when she's down in a match.

Osaka deserved her moment
The biggest bottom line is that the whole deal was unfair to Osaka. The reality in women's tennis is that many players have been flashes in a pan the past couple of decades, except for the Williams sisters. If this is the only Grand Slam Osaka will ever win (and I'm not advocating for that), she's left with some tainted memories, and that's a shame. It's a moment she can't get back, just like Williams and Ramos can't take back their actions either.
It's such a shame that Osaka stood on that stage with an expression that looked like she lost the match. It was even more heartbreaking to hear her address the crowd and viewers with this:

"I know that everyone was cheering for her (Williams)," Osaka said. "I'm sorry it had to end like this."

Chin up, and go try to enjoy your Grand Slam title.