Saturday, August 22, 2020

The Indy 500 field in 2020: Andretti leads the way

The number 33 came together for the Andretti family this year.

Thirty-three cars in the Indianapolis 500 field, a tradition. Marco Andretti, a third-generation driver, is 33 years old as he competes in his 15th Indy 500. The last time someone named Andretti was on the pole position for the 500? 1987, 33 years ago, when Marco's grandfather, Mario, accomplished the feat. Michael Andretti, now a team owner, will still be the best and most successful IndyCar driver to have never won the pole or the race at the Indy 500. 

It all came together last weekend though when Marco turned in speeds topping 233 mph to beat out IndyCar points leader Scott Dixon for the pole position for the 104th running of the Indy 500 this Sunday. 

In a year where everything seems strange, the Indy 500 will have a first: Running in August instead of May and running without any fans in the stands. I commented the other day, asking for someone to convince me that this isn't May since the baseball season started recently, there are NHL playoffs happening and now the Indy 500. 

But as trying as 2020 has been across the country and the world, something finally broke right for Marco at the storied racetrack that has caused his family so much heartbreak over the years. Unless something changes, Mario will still be the only Andretti family member to win the race, drinking the milk in 1969. Son Michael has led the most laps in the race (431) without having ever won. 

Andretti Curse
It looked like the rookie Marco was going to shatter the Andretti Curse in his very first shot back in 2006. Instead, Sam Hornish Jr., who didn't waste much time jumping to NASCAR afterward, beat out Marco at the line in one of the closest finishes ever. 

Instead of sparking Marco's career, the race seemed to have solidified the Andretti Curse for him. He only has two race wins, back in 2008 and 2011. His grandfather ranks second on the all-time series wins list with 52, while dad Michael has 42 victories.

But it's not like Marco has raced poorly in the Indy 500. In 14 starts, he's finished in the top-5 five times and in the top-10 eight times. Of course, podium finishes aren't really a thing at Indy, where the winner's circle with milk is all that matters. Marco's worst Indy 500 finish was 30th in 2009 when he crashed out on the first lap with Mario Moraes. His second-worst finish was last year, the 50th anniversary of his grandfather's Indy 500 win, recording 26th place.

The start of the race this year, always marked with pomp and circumstance, will feature the three Andretti generations leading the way. Mario will drive the famous two-seater car, known as Honda's Fastest Seat in Sports, before Marco leads the field to green as the polesitter. 

A driver named Andretti has been in the Indy 500 since 1965.

If Marco wins, he'll be the 22nd driver to win the race from the pole position. It would be the first back-to-back pole winners since 2008 and 2009 when Dixon and Helio Castroneves accomplished the feat. It would also be the fifth time in Indy 500 history for back-to-back pole winners. 

Starting-row stats
Pole aside, the odds are in the favor of row 1 as well, which this year is Dixon and Takuma Sato. 44-of-103 winners have come out of row 1 over the years. Nine winners have come from the front row since 2000, including the past two years. Row 2 starters do well also, with 19 winners. The last two were the late Dan Wheldon in 2011 and Takuma Sato in 2017. This year, row 2 is Rinus VeeKay, Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe. 

Here are the numbers from the rest of the grid, winners and where they've started: 

Row 3: 8 winners (last in 1999)
Row 4: 7 winners (last in 2016)
Row 5: 9 winners (last in 2015)
Row 6: 4 winners (last in 2012)
Row 7: 6 winners (last in 2014) 

I started keeping track of some starting grid/finishing position stats a couple of years ago. One still rings true: Only six Indy 500 winners out of 103 races have come from starting rows 8-10. It's been 46 years since it last happened, with Johnny Rutherford winning the race after starting in the 25th spot coming out of the ninth row. 

No winner has ever gone from worst-to-first starting in the 11th and last row. That's not good news for Sage Karam, JR Hildebrand and Ben Hanley this year, making up positions 31, 32 and 33. 

Past champs, vets, rookies
This year's starting grid includes eight past Indy 500 champions: Castroneves, Alexander Rossi, Sato, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud, Tony Kanaan, Hunter-Reay and Dixon. 

The IndyCar Series has a lot of veteran drivers and a lot of younger drivers this year. The Indy 500 includes five rookies this year, including VeeKay (19 years old), Pato O'Ward (21), Dalton Kellett (27), Alex Palou (23) and Oliver Askew (23). It wasn't long ago when a rookie won the big race, with Rossi winning in 2016 in the 100th running.

Troy Ruttman is the youngest winner of the Indy 500, winning in 1952 at 22 years and 360 days old. 

Points leader Dixon is looking for his second Indy 500 win. He's a five-time series champion and ranks third all-time in IndyCar victories with nearly 50 of them but just one at the Brickyard oval. He turned 40 years old in July and doesn't show any signs of slowing down, winning the first three races of this shortened/delayed 2020 season. He nearly had pole before Marco beat him out last weekend. The "Ice Man" is known for his consistency on track and will be one to watch. 

Power is 39 years old, Sato is 43, Hunter-Reay will turn 40 in December, Ed Carpenter is 39 and Kanaan is 45. Meanwhile, in addition to some of the young rookies, Colton Herta is 20 and Santino Ferrucci is 22.

No women this year, plus other history
This race will also be the first Indy 500 without a female driver since 1999. For a while, the grid had featured multiple women, like Katherine Legge, Ana Beatriz, Pippa Mann, Danica Patrick and Simona de Silvestro. Mann was in the field last year after being bumped out in 2018, the year of Danica Patrick's final run at Indy. Lyn St. James ran from 1992-97 and 2000, the first year Sarah Fisher raced. Prior to 1992, Janet Guthrie was the first woman to race at Indy from 1997-79. 

As has been the case since 2010, Castroneves will try to join the elite four-time winner club, joining A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears. The 45-year-old will have his work cut out for him in the Pennzoil-yellow machine though; he starts on the inside of row 10 in 28th position. The last time a winner came out of row 10? Louis Meyer in 1936. Ray Harroun also started in row 10 when he won the very first race in 1911; both started in 28th position, the lowest starting spot for a winner.

Pagenaud will have to claw from that 25th position if he wants to be the first back-to-back winner since Castroneves in 2001 and 2002. Back-to-back winners have only been done five times in Indy 500 history: Wilbur Shaw (1939-40), Mauri Rose (1947-48), Bill Vukovich (1953-54), Al Unser (1970-71) and Castroneves (2001-02).

The year is a bit of a swan song for Kanaan, a veteran driver focused on running ovals this year. After some bad luck at Indy, he finally won the race in 2013. He's led the most races of any driver in race history, with 14, including 7 consecutive races from 2002-08.

The pole from 2009.
Starting grid for the 104th running of the Indianapolis 500:

Row 1:

Marco Andretti
Scott Dixon
Takuma Sato 

Row 2: 

Rinus VeeKay
Ryan Hunter-Reay
James Hinchcliffe

Row 3:

Alex Palou
Graham Rahal
Alexander Rossi

Row 4: 

Colton Herta
Marcus Ericsson
Spencer Pigot

Row 5:

Josef Newgarden
Felix Rosenqvist
Pato O'Ward

Row 6:

Ed Carpenter
Zach Veach
Conor Daly

Row 7:

Santino Ferrucci
Jack Harvey
Oliver Askew

Row 8:

Will Power
Tony Kanaan
Dalton Kellett

Row 9:

Simon Pagenaud
Fernando Alonso
James Davison

Row 10:

Helio Castroneves
Charlie Kimball
Max Chilton

Row 11:

Sage Karam
JR Hildebrand
Ben Hanley

Friday, July 24, 2020

Pandemic projects

Masked-up at Road America.
It's a day that many didn't think would arrive in 2020: Opening Day in Major League Baseball.

Yes, it's true. MLB teams will head to various ballparks across the country today and play baseball, with plenty of modifications because we're still in a pandemic, after all. One of the most notable things is that they'll be playing in empty ballparks without fans in attendance. Although from watching the Twins exhibition game the other night, the general buzz of crowd noise being pumped into the stadium is a nice touch.

It's certainly been a strange year, sports-wise and otherwise. In April, I struggled a little with how to fill my time in baseball's absence. Adjustments were made, and I started keeping a list of things I accomplished during quarantine times. There were small things and some bigger projects, but whatever made the list seemed like a productive use of my time, so I wrote them down.

Here are some of the things that made the list, in no particular order:
Tuna pasta dish.

  • Organized/tossed five year's worth of Twins boxscores/stats
  • Organized files on my laptop
  • Updated my LinkedIn profile
  • Grabbed PDFs of my various stories I've written over the years
  • Updated my website (a task that is never finished) 
  • Organized my nail polish container, tossing a lot of old bottles
  • Organized/deleted items on my Google Drive to go from 84% full to 33% full 
  • Saved audio recordings to my laptop folders - and deleted nearly 200 recordings off the recorder
  • Wrote a blog post for the National Institute for Social Media 
  • Phone interviews, transcribing, writing for Otter Tail Lakes Country Magazine stories
  • Made a list of what to keep/delete from the DVR 
  • Organized my phone apps into folders
  • Organized/deleted photos from my phone
  • Made GIFs for work
  • Put together two puzzles
  • Wrote five feature stories for 
    Nail polish collection.
  • A League of Their Own movie commentary
  • The Rookie movie commentary
  • Guest on a couple of sports podcasts
  • Watched old Twins and Wild games, leaving commentary on Twitter with #HeathWrites hashtag
  • Stayed active on social with #TwinsTuesdays, #MNWildWednesdays and #TBT posts 
  • Made new connections via webinars, Zoom happy hours and various social-media messaging
  • Played piano
  • Became active on TikTok, wasting a lot of time 
  • Went for a lot of walks
  • Tried out a bunch of new recipes - and then did a lot of dishes
  • Enjoyed free evenings and weekends (sports colleagues feel me on this one, right?)
  • Read books
  • Attended the first IndyCar race of the season with (socially-distanced) fans at Road America
  • Binged the last four seasons of Castle (ok, this one isn't really productive, but still)

The upright piano.
I hope loyal readers and followers will recognize a few things on the list, specifically the movie commentaries. I'm particularly proud of those. I think I will look back on this time and remember those as my biggest accomplishments of quarantine. And stay tuned, because I don't think I'm done with sports-movie commentaries yet. I'll see how that goes because writing up 14-part commentaries after watching a movie and taking notes isn't done in a day. 

Some things on the list are more for fun, like reading books and playing the piano. I've never stopped, it's just that during this time I started hitting the keys a lot more. I tried to work on the sheet music for "My Heart Will Go On" from Titanic so I could play it a little more smoothly. It's definitely much-improved now. To let you know just how empty my calendar/planner was early on, I started writing things like "play piano" and "go for a walk" in there just so I could check something off my list for the day. 

I know a lot of people cleaned things out in their homes in an amped-up spring cleaning this year. I didn't do as much of that with physical things, except for the nail polish collection and Twins boxscores, but I chose the electronic route. It felt good to get my recorder down to nearly zero, so I can stop having to delete random files to make room for additional recordings. Organizing photos, documents and files on my computer was also a necessary task. 

As I stayed active on my social media channels, I wanted to make sure I set aside time to update my website with writing clips and PDFs. It's a task that never seems to end, but I enjoy having the online portfolio to showcase my work. 

Thanks to Todd Kortemeier with Red Line Editorial for throwing some work my way with; it was nice to have some stories to write during the downtime. And thanks to my friend Marie Noplos, who got me started with the Otter Tail Lakes Country magazine feature stories. I was glad to get a jumpstart on those this spring and summer. 

During a time when time takes on a different meaning, it was nice to be able to enjoy evenings and weekends. I have some opposite feelings of other friends, who felt busier and more stressed as they shifted to working from home and had no idea what day it was. That's how I often feel in the heart of a sports season working evenings and weekends (What's a weekend?). So, a silver lining for me was the slowdown and enjoy some of this time. Part of that was going for walks in the neighborhood after supper with my parents. 

Bring on Bomba SZN!

And now, baseball is here. Sure, it's for a scheduled 60-game season in roughly two months rather than a 162-game season in about six months, and there are more than 100 pages of rules for it to happen. COVID-19 is still here and ultimately still in control of what might happen. It's a consensus that the Minnesota Twins are fielding a team that's the best in the club's history - on paper. And this year more than any other, "on paper" might have a huge meaning.

For the Twins, it's 60 scheduled games for their 60th season in Minnesota. The record-setting Bomba Squad won't break the home-run record it set last year with 307 Bombas, but with most of the pieces back, and additions like Josh Donaldson and pitchers Homer Bailey, Rich Hill and Kenta Maeda, the Twins should be entertaining to watch once again. 

As we all get back into the swing of sports, the best we can, I'll still be mindful of caution and health. I'll also be working from home this season, which is a bummer especially from the standpoint of the camaraderie I've been missing with friends and colleagues in the press box. But let's hope we can all adapt and find ways to get our work done while still enjoying some baseball. 

Thanks to everyone for following along with me on my social channels and reading my work. It's always appreciated. 

Now... bring on baseball! 

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

The Rookie commentary, part 14: ‘Morris, you’re in’

It’s a 5-1 Devil Rays deficit when the ‘pen’s phone jingles again. This time when the coach hangs up, he tells Jimmy to start warming up.

Hunter, of course, notices right away from his seat in the upper deck. Jimmy stretches out his arm while the trio of “old guys” from Jimmy’s town peep at him through a pair of binoculars. Jimmy’s mom is in the stands, too. Back on the field, the Rangers bust the game wide-open with a couple of more runs thanks to a Rays error. So, the Devil Rays are in clean-up mode here. Not exactly a pressure-cooker situation for the bullpen.

The trainer heads to the mound, and the ‘pen phone rings once again.

“Morris, you’re in.”

His MLB debut
Jimmy jogs down the stairs to get from the bullpen to the field. While he makes his way, we see his loved ones in the stands – family, friends, Owls players – looking at the bullpen door with great anticipation that turns to cheers once they see that door open up and Jimmy jogging from the outfield toward the pitcher’s mound. We also get a nice close-up shot of him running in.

The audio feed cuts to a TV announcer giving baseball fans an idea of Jimmy’s story: “Just three months ago, he was grading chemistry tests.” True, and he also coached his high school players to a district championship.

Once he finally gets to the mound, the manager asks about that fastball Jimmy was telling him about before the game. “Well, I need three of them.”

With two outs late in the game, the PA announcer mentioned Jim Morris making his Major League debut. There’s a quick shot of the press box here, where each writer is sitting with his own TV set on the desk, all illuminated with a large, green desk lamp.

There’s that fastball again
Jimmy is on the mound, doing his usual preparation. He moves his foot back and forth, digging in. Holding the baseball down at his side, he gives it a subtle shake in his hand. The right-handed hitter falls behind 0-1 with a hack on a 98-mph fastball. The Owls in the stands are ecstatic.

Jimmy burns in another fastball, this time a looking strike, for an 0-2 count. More cheers from his fan club. Remember, this is a home game for Texas and Jimmy plays for Tampa Bay. It’s not like the entire stadium is behind Jimmy here.

For the third pitch, we’re treated to a camera pan up from the bottom of the mound to Jimmy’s sweating face. That same concentration we’ve seen throughout the movie is there. The sound drops out for a moment, and the next pitch is delivered in slow motion.

Fastball. Swing. Miss. Strike three. Jimmy Morris strikes out the first batter he faces in the Major Leagues on three pitches. Perfect.

Brooks is the first one to greet Jimmy when he walks off the mound to the dugout on the third-base side. More cheers from his loved ones, too.

Postgame scrum, and a reunion of sorts
Showered and dressed in that blue sport coat, Jimmy is swarmed by the press and TV reporters after the game. They ask what pitches he threw for that strikeout. “Fastball, fastball and fastball,” Jimmy says. Duh.

How’d it feel to pitch in the major leagues? Very to-the-point, basic softballs here. “Just like I hoped it would.”

Even though Jimmy has shown no signs of injury or anything, a reporter asks him how his arm feels. Jimmy never answers. His gaze shifts past the reporters, past the bright camera lights. Standing down the hall is his father. Jimmy excuses himself from the media scrum, quite clearly shocked to see his dad.

“I didn’t know you were here,” Jimmy tells his dad.

“Wasn’t missing this one… Watching you tonight, not many fathers get a chance to do that. I guess I let too many of those things get away,” Jimmy’s father says. The movie doesn’t show it, but there’s also a giant lightbulb hanging over his head, and it switched on.

“So did I,” Jimmy responds.

When his father turns to leave, Jimmy calls him back. He pulls the game ball out of his pocket and gives it to him.

If there was tension between the real Jimmy and his dad and they made up like this, awesome. Great story. But that’s what it feels like – a story. They didn’t get along for the entire movie, and it was made into a huge subplot. And now we’re supposed to believe that everything’s all good and he gives his first game ball to his dad? Seems to fit too well, if you ask me.

One reunion leads to another and another
His father walks away toward a dark area underneath the stadium. OK, how the hell did he get down there? This is clearly an area fans do not have access to. But he just happened to show up so they could have this little scene. And as Jimmy is on the verge of tears, he turns to see Lorri in one of the dark corners of the creepy underground.

“Does that mean I don’t get a baseball?”

Damn straight, Lorri. (Actually, I’d probably give it to Hunter.)

Lorri and Jimmy embrace with a passionate kiss. Well, as passionate as is allowed in a Disney film. Finally reunited after his months of playing ball on the road, they walk up a ramp (an exit to this underground part of the stadium?) with their arms around each other.

Jimmy asks about the kids, and I think Lorri says they’re with one of the old fellows from town – and he had a little help. Just then, Jimmy turns around offering one of the most pleasantly surprised looks on his face when he’s greeted with a sea of people applauding and cheering for him. His own hometown fan club. Hunter and Jessie jump into their dad’s arms. Jimmy takes in the moment of the crowd cheering for him.

He’s still so shocked by the ovation. It’s well deserved. He finally made it to the big leagues, after all.
Wrapping it up
Some time later, the movie takes us back to the front of the school in Big Lake, then the camera pans over to the trophy case in the hallway inside. Hanging up ever-so-neatly is a Devils Rays jersey with a crisp No. 63 and “Morris” on the back, facing outward. A Rays cap is also hanging nearby, because I suppose having a shine to a Jiffy Lube cap would be weird. And let’s be honest, Jimmy probably wore that same Jiffy Lube cap for decades.

On a nearby shelf in the case, there’s a team photo of the district-champion Owls baseball team. The camera gives us a close-up of Jimmy’s face in the photo, and the screen fades into a picture of the nuns from the beginning of the movie leaving the windy, dusty ballyard. With that as the backdrop, one last text graphic is displayed:

“Jim Morris pitched in the Major Leagues for two seasons. He lives, once again, in Texas.”

Fade to black, roll credits.

Thanks for reading!
For those of you who read through the end of my “A League of Their Own”commentary, you’ll recall how much I gushed over the ending credits in that movie, complete with baseball, old photos and a great song. Well, the credits in “The Rookie” are as basic as it gets. Sorry to disappoint you.

We’ve reached the end of my second sports-movie commentary. I’d like to thank the quarantine/pandemic for the time I’ve been given for this project. I’d also like to give a big shout-out to all my readers and followers on my various social channels. I always appreciate the support.

Now, let’s play ball! 

The Rookie commentary, part 3: ‘Yeah dad, bring the heat!’
The Rookie commentary, part 4: ‘You don’t have dreams, you don’t have anything’
The Rookie commentary, part 5: 'You got your shot at baseball. You got hurt.' 
The Rookie commentary, part 6: 'State! State! State!'
The Rookie commentary, part 7: 'It's your turn, coach'
The Rookie commentary, part 8: 'You just threw 98 mph'
The Rookie commentary, part 9: ‘Do you know how many guys can throw the ball 98 mph?’
The Rookie commentary, part 10: 'What are we telling him if you don't try now?'
The Rookie commentary, part 11: 'I'm the old guy'
The Rookie commentary, part 12: 'I'm wasting my time down here'
The Rookie commentary, part 13: 'There's a dress code in the Major Leagues'