Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Catching up a bit

So many blog topics, so little time. Early last week I had a few different topics rolling around, but not enough time to put anything up on the actual blog page. Bear with me if this entry is a little different than others. I'll try to hit all my points in an organized way, even though they're not exactly timely.

The big sports news in Minnesota, and on the national level too, was Twins catcher Joe Mauer winning the American League MVP award. He received 27 of the 28 first-place votes by the baseball writers.

As word quickly spread on Twitter, the focus then shifted to finding out who the writer was that didn't give him the first-place nod. It turned out it was a writer out in Seattle, Keizo Konishi of Kyodo News. His MVP pick? Detroit's Miguel Cabrera. The same guy who partied it up at the end of the season and got in a little trouble with the cops. Good choice.

No doubt Mauer deserved this award. And I have to admit, it was nice to see a piece of hardware go to someone in baseball other than the Yankee prodigy Derek Jeter. Now of course, it is a necessity for the Twins to sign Mauer to a multi-year deal this off season. OK, it's technically not a must, but letting him reach free agency would be one of the most colossal mistakes of the Twins organizaiton.

Poor Pouliot
On the very same day when the rest of the Twin Cities focused on the glory day for Mauer (as it should be), I became a very torn sports fan. My sentimental favorite on the Minnesota Wild, Benoit Pouliot, was traded to Montreal for a guy whose name I couldn't even attempt to pronounce (Guillaume Latendresse).

From the early reporting and thoughts from Michael Russo, the trade seemed pretty even. And at that point, the Wild had made two of the three trades in the NHL since the start of the season. That's a pretty good step in the right direction for the Wild's front office.

Even if it's a good trade, it still stings when you see your favorite player leave your home team. I guess that's why I don't generally have favorite players. But that's the business side of professional sports.

Tommie football makes a run
What can I say about St. Thomas football? Simply amazing. The team is headed out west to play in the third round of the NCAA playoffs. I could go on and on about all the records and statistics this team has compiled, but I don't have that much time.

They are in the playoffs for the first time in nearly two decades, and earned themselves a home playoff game last weekend (thanks to Coe College upsetting St. John's in the first round). I went to the game and it was great to see stands full of alumni, community members and students. It was a great game as the Tommies worked their way to a 34-7 victory.

Fritz Waldvogel was named the MIAC MVP. Just watch him run back a kickoff for a touchdown and you'll see why he earned this honor. It's not a good idea to kick the ball directly to him, just for future reference.

Best of luck to the Tommies this weekend!

A couple other things...
I was very disappointed to read in the newspaper that pitcher Glen Perkins will once again be with the Twins come next season. This is the same guy that had a horrible year pitching-wise, and also off the field. He wasn't very forthcoming when he had injuries, coming forward only after he had a sub-par pitching outing. Then he was upset when he was sent down to the minors, and nearly filed a grievance against the Twins.

It's a long saga that should have ended with the Twins showing Perk the door. But instead, they brought him back for at least another year. This is the same guy that also turned down an invitation to be with the team at a Metrodome celebration at the end of the season. What does that say about his team chemistry?

With Thanksgiving last week came the traditional Turkey of the Year award from Patrick Reusse of the Star Tribune. It's always fun to read this column not only for the Turkey, but also for the great things Reusse has to say about the other candidates.

This year's pick was very obvious, and a good one: Golden Gopher football head coach Tim Brewster. The team finished 6-6, but don't worry, they'll still make a bowl appearance. For a team that couldn't score an offensive touchdown in two straight games, but is still able to limp into a bowl game, that tells me there must be too many bowls.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Respect your elders

It wasn't the most solid victory, but it got the job done. The Minnesota Wild faced off against the New York Islanders friday night at the Xcel Energy Center and pulled out a 3-2 win. Owen Nolan broke a 2-2 tie with just over a minute to go in regulation.

This was my second game of the season watching the Wild boys in person. The result was good, which is more than I can say for a lot of the games I have attended over the years. As a special treat, the "sellout" crowd had the pleasure of watching 5-year-old YouTube sensation Josh Sacco perform the traditional "Let's Play Hockey." What a cutie!

The Wild were starting the game minus a few forwards, and with minor league call-ups as additions. Not making excuses, the hometown boys came out with another fairly slow start. I believe they did not register a shot on goal until about seven minutes into the first period.

Five for fighting
One highlight were a couple of good hockey fights. The first involved the Wild's Nathan Smith, who was playing in his first game since being called up from the Houston Aeros. It came at a good time when the team, and the building, needed some energy.

The other fight involved Shane Hnidy, and subsequently an absurb list of penalties assessed to the Wild's defenseman. From my seat, Hnidy made a good, clean hit along the boards on an Islander. Not long after on the shift, Islander Tim Jackman was duking it out with Hnidy.

I didn't quite see the start of the fight, since I was watching the puck, but I have a pretty good guess as to what happened. Jackman wanted to stick up for his teammate, so he decided to make a go of it with Hnidy. Predictably, the pair received five-minute majors for fighting. Not so predictably, Hnidy got hit with a two-minute minor for instigating, and a 10-minute major for game misconduct.

The problem for fans in the stands was that only the first two penalities were announced in the arena. So my mom and I were puzzled as to why Hnidy spent a good chunk of the second period in the box. These penalties just add to the list of bad calls the Wild have seen lately.

Hockey fan etiquette
Nolan gave the Wild a 1-0 lead in the first period. I wish I could write some more details about the goal, but I don't have a very good firsthand account. Let me explain.

A note to all novice hockey fans out there: please wait for a break in the action to leave or return to your seat. This means, don't get up to get yourself another beer and nachos while there's play going on. When you break this hockey-fan-etiquette rule, you block the view of those behind you and may cause them to miss important plays.

Yes, I am bitter. And yes, I missed seeing Nolan's first goal of the night because I was just getting settled into my seat after standing up to let a gentleman go back to his seat.

Back to the game
The Islanders took the lead with two unanswered goals, one appearing to be another soft goal given up by Niklas Backstrom. The score remained 2-1 for quite sometime, and I was getting worried that I had missed the Wild's only goal for the night. After all, they weren't playing the most commanding game, but it was a pretty good match with the Islanders, a team with 23 points in their division.

Wild captain Mikko Koivu scored a beauty to tie the game, and I did not miss that one. Things kept moving along after that, and it looked like we were about to see some more extra hockey. I was already praying the game wouldn't get to a shootout because the Wild had not scored a shootout goal in their past two games where they had the chance.

But the 37-year-old Nolan showed the younger guys how it's done. After taking a couple high sticks and then getting cross-checked and held down by the goalie in front of the net (all of which apparently did not warrant penalties), Nolan was in perfect position to score the game-winning goal with just 1:07 left in regulation.

It was a much-needed win for them, especially after what sounded like a very frustrating practice the day before. Sticks were flying, hitting the glass and being crumpled into sawdust. After that, you need an inspiring win.

They're off until Wednesday, when they hope to also have more injured players returning. Sometimes long breaks in between games can be good, or bad. Let's hope they can come up with some kind of momentum and get a few more wins under their belt, especially when they are on home ice.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Tommie football: Pride and passion

I went to my first University of St. Thomas football game as an alum Saturday. It was the regular-season finale at O'Shaughnessy Stadium in a non-conference contest with Northwestern College.

The No. 10-ranked Tommies didn't hold back. By the end of the afternoon, they had a 63-14 win under their belts, tying their modern school record in points. If you're hungry for more records, they broke school season records in points (409), touchdowns (58) and rushing (2,472 yards).

Even more impressive was the 9-1 overall record, with the lone loss coming against those pesky Johnnies in an away game. The record is the team's best since 1983, and it's the third time in school history it had a nine-win regular season. With the win, the Tommies are also 9-1 at home in the two seasons under Coach Glenn Caruso (that loss again to St. John's last season).

It was a brisk, cool fall day for football. I hadn't been to a game all season, but I'm glad I went to this one. St. Thomas came flying out of the gate with two touchdowns in just the first few minutes of the first quarter. They were making it look easy and taking it to the Northwestern team (5-5).

Possession after possession resulted in a touchdown for the Tommies, while Northwestern's punt team got its workout for the day. It was 42-7 at the half. A big kudos to the referees, and I suppose the discipline of the players too, for only a couple called penalities.

This kid's got skills
The highlight play-of-the-day for me would have to be sophomore Fritz Waldvogel's 50-yard punt return. He caught the punt in the air just inside St. Thomas territory. He made a short run to about midfield, where I thought the play would soon end as his opponents were ready to pounce. I was wrong.

Waldvogel has shown much skill and talent in his time so far at St. Thomas, but this play was nothing short of spectacular. It started out looking typical enough, but this kid can really maneuver on the field. He spun around, ran and twisted his way out of three, four, I'm not sure exactly how many tackles (In hindsight, I wish I would have been keeping closer count).

He broke through the tackles, found a few holes and made a dash for the end zone. It was the greatest play of the game that brought many Tommie fans to their feet. He also had an 86-yard kickoff return, but that was nothing compared to his first return.

What a turnaround
It's amazing to see what Caruso has done with this football program in just two seasons. He came in with the reputation of being a rebuilding coach, and it definitely shows. The team's 2007 record was 2-8. A year later they had a changed attitude and a changed record, 7-3.

From the beginning, Caruso emphasized two things: pride and passion. He instills these core values in his players, and it shows on the field. Regardless of the wins and losses, Caruso turned this program in the right direction.

Watching the Northwestern game proved yet again how much the Tommies pride themselves on their play and conduct on the field. It's great to see success with St. Thomas football, following suit with the rest of the dominant sports at the school. But it's also refreshing to see the campus excited about football again.

The Tommies will most likely receive a NCAA at-large bid to continue their season into the playoffs, something that's escaped them since 1990.

Now with so many goals achieved and positive changes, in my eyes maybe one of the biggest items on the St. Thomas football checklist that needs to be fulfilled: beating those stinky rats from St. John's.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Pouliot versus Sheppard

As high as the Minnesota Wild were flying after their back-to-back victories out east and four-day layoff, they crashed hard. They came out flat and uninspiring in a 5-2 loss to an injury-riddled Vancouver Canucks team.

I saw the first few minutes of the game, and some of the third period, but that was enough. After I watched the young James Sheppard spin around in his own zone and blatantly turn the puck over which led to the first goal, I left for the gym.

From what I heard and read, not much good happened for the Wild. Niklas Backstrom was pulled after two periods and four goals. Martin Havlat is still looking to set up that highlight-reel goal. Kyle Brodziak was the only bright spot as he provided the team's only offense.

This team has the abysmal Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes to thank for not occupying the NHL basement. The plus/minus numbers for the Wild players are pretty tough to take. No one is exactly lighting things up on the ice, so it may be unfair to single out players for their performances. But I'm going to anyway.

My birthday buddy
I'm here to defend Benoit Pouliot. I feel a bias connection with him because we share the same birthday. Yes, the actual day - Sept. 29, 1986. I just think it's a cool little tidbit, I guess.

Making the Wild roster out of training camp this year, Pouliot was given another chance to prove himself in the NHL. I would guess that he and everyone else knew that it was his absolute last chance. And to his credit he has shown some life and turned his game up a little notch.

He has one goal, two assits and is a minus-3 in 10 games this season. That's not exactly an eye-bugging performance, but again, no member of the Wild is standing out for lighting the lamp these days.

Picking on Sheppard
Now here's where I single a guy out: James Sheppard. He is a minus-6 with zero points in 14 games. But those are just the numbers. Watching him on the ice isn't exactly fun either.

Here's my beef: Why was Sheppard in the lineup the past few games and not Pouliot? Despite the whole team needing some work, these two seemed to have the most to prove and establish themselves on the ice. In my book, Pouliot was doing a better job than Sheppard at this task, yet Coach Todd Richards keeps dressing Shep while Pouliot watches the games from the press box.

I'm not exactly sure what is going on here. Obviously there has to be healthy scratches when the roster allows, but why are you going to single out one player on a team that is consistently sub-par this season? You'd think that if you are going to scratch the same player for a few games, that his performance is not living up to what it should be. This instance includes most of the Wild bench right now.

Time to step up
We'll see what Richards decides to do with the roster and dishing out playing time the next few games. But maybe it would help Sheppard to watch a few games from upstaires too. Or the entire team, for that matter.

The Wild need to step it up a notch in many areas of the game right now. That's obvious. I hope they do, but I also hope they start putting Pouliot on the ice. He's finally starting to take advantage of his last chance. Let him show us what he's got.

Note: While I was putting this entry together, Star Tribune beat writer Michael Russo had some very well-written and interesting pieces that gave me some insight into both Sheppard and Pouliot, as well as another issue involving Brett Burns. Read the latest on these players who are currently in the spotlight. You won't be disappointed.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Winning the games you shouldn't

It's no secret that the Wild have struggled, and probably will continue to struggle, this season. That's what makes the past two wins by the team even more puzzling. Not that I'm complaining.

They lost a 4-3 game to the also-struggling Nashville Predators at the X before Marian Gaborik and his New York Rangers came to town. But true to Gabby's form, he injured his knee earlier in the week and didn't play against his former team, turning his reunion into a melodramatic affair.

New York had a good start to the season, but has cooled off as of late. Case in point: Friday's game against the Wild. The hometown boys beat the East Coast fellas 3-2. Maybe Gabby would have been the extra edge the Rangers needed to come away with a win. Although, the game was at the Xcel Center, where the Wild have been successful this season.

Odds against you
The very next night, the Wild headed out to Pittsburgh for their last appearence in the Igloo to face the defending Stanley Cup champions. A very unlikely place for the Wild's first road victory of the season, right? Well, that would have been the way to bet, but things turned out a little differently.

The Penguins were down a couple of key players, which gave the Wild a little bit of luck. And Marek Zidlicky got under Sidney Crosby's skin and goated him into a fight. "Sid the Kid" lost his cool a bit and spent a good chunk of time in the penalty box. Keeping the dominant scorer off the ice certainly helped the Wild.

All the scoring happened in the first period, with Eric Belanger firing in the eventual game-winner with just 0.6 seconds remaining in the period. Talk about a momentum feeder.

All that matters is the 'W'
The final score ended up being 2-1 in favor of the Wild. (Former Wild player Pascal Dupuis had the lone tally for the Pens.) But boy, they were lucky. Very lucky. Getting brutally outshot 35-15 is not a good way to try and win a hockey game. Not to mention that the Wild played the majority of the third period in their own zone, basically using the trying-not-to-lose game plan.

Niklas Backstrom started in goal for the second night in a row and was phenomenal. He had to be to stop the constant rushes and flurries in front of the net from the Pens. I am still surprised they didn't punch in a tying goal and send the game into overtime, or finish it off in regulation.

So the game in the Igloo will be marked as the Wild's first road win of the season. Maybe it was just a sign that bounces will start going Minnesota's way. Or maybe it was about time to end the losing streak.

Whatever the case, this was one of those games where you are lucky to come away with two points.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Hockey season has arrived

I've written quite a few entries since I started my blog back in June. Among a few other topics, most revolved around the Minnesota Twins. But now the weather is turning colder and that means it's hockey season. It's Wild season.

Before the Minnesota Wild played their first game in 2000, I really didn't know that much about the sport. The North Stars headed for Dallas when I was still pretty young, and my only other hockey experience had been at a handful of Minnesota Moose games.

I quickly became hooked on the game and fascinated with the Wild. Thanks to a season ticket package at my dad's company, I was fortunate enough to attend a few games each season. I loved watching the games on TV and at the Xcel Energy Center. I loved learning more and more about the game.

Slow out of the gate
The Wild have had a fair amount of success and three playoff appearances in their young history. But with turnover on the coaching bench and in the front office at the close of the past season, it seems the honeymoon is in fact over. Need evidence? They tied a franchise record with seven straight losses on the road to begin the season. That streak has yet to be broken.

New head coach Todd Richards was supposed to come in and implement a new system that focused more on offense. I think it's safe to say there have been a few kinks thrown into the mix. It's been a rough start to the season: a five-game road trip starting shortly into the season, the plus/minus numbers sit solely in the minus column for virtually most of the roster and injuries galore.

The injury bug
A slow start would be pretty predictable with a new coach, new general manager and new playing system. What wasn't predictable was the slew of injuries the already horribly-playing Wild faced. Slight groin injuries to a couple of players had an eery feeling to them, if you'll remember Marian Gaborik.

Then a couple of weeks ago, the Wild's leading hitster Cal Clutterbuck suffered what seemed to be a huge setback. He didn't get hurt while delivering a crushing hit like you might think. Instead, his skate got caught in some bad ice and he hurt his ankle. It was later said to be a high ankle sprain that would keep him out for six to eight weeks, minimum.

So imagine my surprise when earlier this week I read via Star Tribune beat writer Michael Russo's Twitter account that Clutterbuck was skating during practice. I'm still scratching my head as to how he was able to play just two weeks after being on crutches.

Rolling at home
The Carolina Hurricanes were in town for the Wild's third home game of the season. It was also the first game of the season for me and my family. At a game-time decision, Cal Clutterbuck made the start.

Like so many other games this season, the Wild must have forgotten that the games are 60 minutes in length, not 40 or 20. It took several minutes before the home team registered a shot on goal and they basically came out very flat. The first period would have been a total wash if not for the exciting fight involving Derek Boogaard-backup John Scott.

The rest of the game had its ups and downs. There were some goals, good plays, penalties, power plays, and the mental mistakes were still very present as well.

A 2-2 tie went into overtime. The Wild have yet to finish a game in regulation at the X in the young season. But the good news is they have prevailed with two overtime wins and one shootout win.

The game-winning goal came with 3:05 left in the extra session. It was the finishing touch on a crazy play with a clanged-post and an open net. The Wild player scored while sprawled on his belly. Who? None other than Cal Clutterbuck. It really doesn't get any better than that.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Goliath won; close calls need a change

The Twins were swept out of a best-of-five series against the mighty New York Yankees. After what the Twins did to win the AL Central title, I think you have to believe anything's possible. That's why the games aren't played on paper.

Obviously I wanted the Twins to win, but it just wasn't in the cards. Too many things were stacked against them. The biggest factor about their opponent? They're the Yankees. That's it.

Game 2 was one of the most heartbreaking losses in quite awhile for the Twins. It's hard to even rehash all the things that contributed to the Yanks coming away with yet another walk-off win, 4-3 in 12 innings.

What went wrong
Among the contributors: The Twins left 17 men on base, Carlos Gomez cost the Twins an early run with sloppy base running, Jason Kubel made Star Tribune columnist Jim Souhan look bad (he had nine strikeouts for the series and went 1-for-14), September-Delmon Young still didn't appear and Joe Nathan threw a cookie to Alex Rodriguez (who has the Twins to thank for ending his postseason slump) for a blown save.

And one of the biggest factors was when the left-field line umpire Phil Cuzzi blatantly made the wrong call on a ball hit by Joe Mauer.

Officiating played a role, whether big or small, in the outcome of a game. Judging from many reactions after the game, everyone seemed to agree that it was a horrible call that cost the Twins a run. (Umpiring crew chief Tim Tschida did admit after the game that upon further video review, the call was made incorrectly.)

But the common consensus is also that the Twins beat themselves with the above-mentioned reasons, and you can't put the loss solely on the umpire. While I can see all the valid points of these arguments, I still have a lot of trouble with the missed call. I don't care what else happened in the course of the game; that call needs to be made. It just needs to.

He's right there
What makes it even harder to swallow is the fact that Major League Baseball employs a six-man umpiring crew for the postseason, adding an extra pair of eyes down each of the foul lines. So Cuzzi's sole purpose in that game was to be close enough to the baseball to make the correct call.

And he was close enough. The replay shows him in a good position to see the ball, which hit the ground about a foot or so in fair territory. Not to mention that the left fielder touched the bouncing ball with his glove, also in fair territory.

After Mark Teixeira ended the game with a homer off of struggling reliever Jose Mijares, I got the same sickening feel I had after the Tommie/Johnnie football game at St. Thomas last season. The Tommies appeared to have a touchdown in the final minutes of play, which would have given them the win, but the call was blown, admittedly so by the MIAC officials the next day.

It's a tough feeling, especially when the officiating gets in the way. I'm glad that at least the officials in both instances admitted the mistake, but so what? The game is over. They couldn't give the "W" to the Tommies, just as they couldn't make the series 1-1 instead of the actual 0-2.

I know, I know, there are so many other factors and what-if's? within the game that you can't solely blame the officiating. I'm not suggesting that that is the only reason for the loss in either case. You could call out just about any small detail in the game to have gone differently in order for the outcomes to change. But when you do something right to try and get a win for your team and it gets taken away from you, that hurts.

Time for a change
Sports will always have controversy with officiating and the use of video replays. It's the nature of the process because the officials are human. They do make mistakes and their calls can sometimes be subjective. But should teams and players have to suffer?

Major League Baseball instituted the instant replay review for the ruling of home runs in 2008. There has been talk from fans and sports critics of expanding the replay system, but nothing is in place. One of the biggest negatives is that baseball is such a slow/long game already, and cluttering it up with reviews would only make the games longer. Fair enough.

My solution? Go with some sort of challenge system like what is done in football and tennis at the professional levels. If a manager disagrees with a call, then they should have the opportunity to challenge it (there would be a challenge limit) and ask the umpires to look at the video review. I don't have all the little details worked out, but if it works in other sports, there's no reason they can't try a similar system in the Major Leagues.

Officials are generally good at what they do, and they do take a lot of criticism for doing their job, but bad calls that do get made should not be costing teams plays, hits or victories.

Achieving the improbable

Ladies and gentlemen, your 2009 American League Central Division Champions, the Minnesota Twins. Wait… huh? That's right. The Twins had front-row seats to the worst baseball collapse since 1901, courtesy of the Detroit Tigers.

The Tigers coughed up a seven-game lead that they held at the start of September, and they also choked so much that they couldn't clinch the division while holding a three game lead with four to play. The Twins capitalized in game 163.

In one of the most exciting games ever to be played under the Teflon sky, the Twins had some more Metrodome Magic up their sleeves as they pulled off a 6-5 win in 12 innings. It should go down as an instant classic, ranking right up there with the World Series games of 1987 and 1991.

Big game
In light of this game being of such a huge magnitude, I decided to take in the game at Joe Senser's in Bloomington with my friend Cassie. Let me tell you, I did not regret that decision. The energy was just electric all night long.

The game got off to a rough start once Detroit jumped out to a 3-0 lead. I'll be honest: I didn't have a good feeling. In the Twins' at-bats, I saw the Delmon Young prior to his September surge, I saw Michael Cuddyer with a swinging strikeout reminiscent of April and I didn't see the fire and passion from the Twin as in recent weeks.

They narrowed the score to 3-2 with a run resulting from an error and a Jason Kubel upper-deck blast. Then Orlando Cabrera continued his hitting streak with a two-run shot in the seventh inning to lead 4-3. That got a big outburst of cheers. It felt good to finally have the lead and the momentum.

Nerves set in
Of course, Matt Guerrier took them away almost as quickly as they came with a homer to Magglio Ordonez to start the eighth inning. Tie game. From this point on, my nerves were going crazy, and they didn’t stop until the end.

It became a managing duel between Ron Gardenhire and Jim Leyland during the late and extra innings with a slew of pitching changes. There were sticky spots for both sides, but they got out of jams when needed.

Great plays were abundant throughout the game. Nick Punto threw home to save a run instead of trying to turn a difficult double play. Then there was Curtis Granderson getting too excited and then doubled off first base. And Michael Cuddyer's triple when the ball got past a diving Ryan Raburn in left field.

An unlikely winning pair
Everyone will remember the bottom of the 12th inning with two of the most unlikely Twins heroes. With speedy Carlos Gomez on second, Alexi Casilla (yes, the same Casilla who was sent to Rochester this season to deal with his hitting and mental mistakes) singled through the right infield hole for the division-clinching RBI.

Chaos ensued. Everyone at Senser's went absolutely nuts, and I'm sure we weren't the only ones. I started jumping up and down, screamed a little and high-fived Cassie.

After we calmed down a little, we sat there in awe. We had looked at each other in disappointment after the Tigers scored in the 10th and said "it's over." Now we were saying, "I can't believe what is happening." It was amazing to see what the Twins just pulled off. Absolutely unreal.

We were approached by a gentleman who had been sitting at a table near us. "Well girls, now you can relax." He said he had been watching us all night with our heads in our hands and looking nervous. "It's good to see some true fans," he said.

One to remember
This game No. 163 is certainly one for the ages. It is what sports are all about. This is why fans spend so much time devoted to their favorite teams; for games like this.

No matter what happens after this clinching game, (and by now we all know what has happened at Yankee Stadium) this is still a major victory for the Twins. To come back as they did (yes, even in baseball's worst division and with one of the worst collapses of all time) made for some outstanding and exciting baseball down the stretch. That's all you can ask for.

Who would have thought the Homer Hankies would once again be flying in the Dome one last time for playoff baseball? Not many, I'm sure. But this is why they play the games on the field and not on paper, because look what can happen. You can achieve the improbable.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Game 163: You can't write this stuff

Wow. Just... wow. I have so many thoughts going through my head right now about this past weekend in sports that I'm not even sure where to start. But of course, the Minnesota Twins are the main topic of the night. I will try to condense things as best as I can.

If you told anyone throughout this summer, or even just a few weeks ago... heck, even a few days ago, that the Twins would be in for another game No. 163 with a chance to capture the AL Central Division, you would have said they were crazy. No one could have predicted this amazing baseball story that has unfolded with this resilient ball club.

What are the odds of a team playing in game 163 two years in a row? For that matter, what are the odds of a game 163 happening at all? It's so hard to imagine that after such a long season with so many variables, close calls and close games that two teams competing for the same playoff spot and division title would be dead even at the end of the regular season.

Remember Minnesota's collapse in Oakland after they had a 10-run lead? Or what about Chicago's last game in the Dome where closer Joe Nathan gave up four runs in the ninth inning? These games are two of the most glaring losses the Twins had all season, and now they seem hugely important. But that's playing the hindsight and 'what if?' game.

September ball
The whole idea of another tiebreaker boggles my mind. The way the Twins have played baseball during the month of September has been phenomenal. Players have stepped up and this team just kept on winning. And while the Twins were hitting baseballs like there were no tomorrow, the first place Detroit Tigers were falling into a badly-timed slump.

On paper, this race should be over. The Tigers led baseball's weakest division for virtually the entire season. After Chicago started fading fast, it appeared the Twins were the only ones close enough to give Detroit a run for its money. But even that seemed like a tall order. The Twins lost Justin Morneau for the rest of the season, and it left little hope of surging some sort of comeback a la 2006.

Oh how we were wrong. The entire season has been a roller coaster for the Twins, and after all the injuries and lack-luster performances, the common attitude has been what Star Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse would say: "See you in Fort Myers."

Unlikely heroes
After All-Star Morneau went down with an injury, he had other players in the clubhouse who came to the rescue. Michael Cuddyer has been a clutch hitter all month long, most notably as of late was his game-winning homer in the bottom of the eighth against the Royals yesterday.

Jason Kubel has also been on a power surge. He is having a career year with 27 home runs and 102 RBI. He capped off his game 162 with not one, but two three-run shots to help the Twins to their 13-4 victory in order to move on to the tiebreaker with the Tigers.

And then there's Delmon Young. This has got to be the biggest surprise of all. Anyone who thought he would come through as the hero this past week is not being truthful. He has had a disappointing year offensively, in my opinion, so for him to start coming through with some power and RBIs when the Twins really need him is simply head scratching.

Maybe he should get hit with a retaliation pitch more often.

The final weekend
This last weekend for the Twins at the Metrodome has been purely gold. You can't write this stuff. We all knew this weekend would be special because it would mark the end of the Dome era for the Twins, but they did us one better by making it count in their chase for the AL Central.

Who ever thought the Twins would be able to top their run to the title in 2006, and so soon too? This is what baseball and sports are all about. This is what sports fans love. This is why avid fanatics follow his or her favorite team all season long, in hopes of making the end of the season meaningful, and possibly following it up with a trip to the postseason.

Whatever the fate of the Twins in game 163, they have made this past month one for the books. It doesn't matter if they end up heading to Yankee stadium for the ALDS, or if they fold to the Tigers, who would limp into the playoffs. The Twins have played hard and proud, and that's all you can ask for as a fan.

Moving on
Yes, it would be sweet to sneak past the Tigers and into the postseason, but let's remember the awaiting opponent: the New York Yankees. No matter which AL Central opponent they will face, the Yanks have a bunch of huge advantages. I mean, they're the Yankees. They're a team the Twins, and many others, have always had trouble beating. So I think winning the division title might be miracle enough.

Let's remember all the great memories of these past couple of weeks. The Twins are putting on quite a show and sending the Metrodome out with a bang. Just breathe and take it all in.

You can't write this stuff.

Monday, September 28, 2009

It all comes down to this

Who would have thought that the only true pennant race would be in the mediocore American League Central? Not me.

The New York Yankees just clinched the East (what else is new?), their rival Red Sox are close to having the Wild Card locked up and the Angels are sure-champs out West. The National League also appears to be pretty well set.

With just seven games remaining in the regular season, the Twins were set to open a four-game series at Comerica Park on Monday night. I was all geared up for the game against the Tigers, an exciting series as the Twins looked to erase the two-game deficit they faced.

Unfortunately, the weather in Detroit was about the same as the Twin Cities: cold, windy and rainy. The postponed game created a doubleheader situation for Tuesday, leaving the teams and fans in suspense one more day before seeing these two teams fight it out for their spot atop the AL Central.

These remaining games for the Twins and Tigers are drawing a lot of attention. The originally scheduled afternoon Thursday finale was picked up today by FSN North. I also heard that ESPN will broadcast Wednesday's game, and FOX will highlight Saturday's game at the Dome versus Kansas City.

When major sports networks are turning to AL Central/midwest teams to broadcast at a national level, that's a pretty big deal.

By the numbers, it's a tough task
It is a bit of a tall order for the Twins. If they go 1-3 or get swept, they will be eliminated. Even a split would put them in a tough position. To use the sports cliche "must-win," these games truly are must-win situations.

We'll just have to see how this series shakes out, and then it's back home to face the Royals, while the Tigers host the White Sox. No matter what happens, at least Twins fans will have a few things to celebrate, regardless of a playoff berth:

1) Joe Mauer's (most likely, knock on wood) AL Batting Title. He started his season a month late with a home run on his first swing. He hasn't looked back since. Mauer has once again made hitting look easy. Very easy. He is an essential part of this ball club and is very deserving of all his individual recognition.

2) The Twins have played outstanding September baseball. Not only have they been winning series, they have also gone on season-high winning streaks and notched a few sweeps. They're making a race out of the division with their great play. You can't ask for too much more.

3) Michael Cuddyer. Back in April, he struggled immensely. He seemed to strikeout more than anything else. And now, as he has taken over for the injured Justin Morneau at first base, he is going to finish 2009 with a career year (30 homers and 89 RBI, through Sept. 27). There is even some buzz of him being named a Comeback Player of the Year. Oh, and his nickname lately has become "Clutch" on Twitter.

4) Goodbye to the Metrodome. The Twins will play their final regular season home game against the Royals this Sunday. It's a bittersweet change for the team, as it leaves behind the stadium where it won two world championships. But I'm sure everyone will love being at Target Field... at least on warm summer evenings.

When the Tigers versus Twins series finally gets underway, I hope fans will once again be treated to some exciting, playoff-caliber baseball games.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

We've got a pennant race

It certainly was a productive and exciting weekend for the Minnesota Twins. In a much-hyped three-game series against the Detroit Tigers, the Twins put together two wins to reach within three games of first place.

Rookie Brian Duensing cruised for six-plus innings on Friday and Michael Cuddyer hit a two-run blast to help the Twins to a 3-0 victory. Duensing has been the team's best pitcher as of late with a 4-1 season record and a 3.22 ERA. And with the absence of All-Star Justin Morneau for the remainder of the season, his first-base replacement has been Michael "Clutch" Cuddyer.

In a 3 p.m. start the next day, the Twins looked like they would be losing the ground they had gained. The magic happened in the five-run bottom of the eighth inning. Down 2-1, the Twins had some help from the Metrodome roof in order to prevail. Detroit's leftfielder lost a fly ball in the lights/roof which allowed runners on base. Jason Kubel followed with a two-run single to left, and "Clutch" smashed a homer to left-center.

Saturday's win was a big one. It gave the Twins a series win, with a chance to sweep the Tigers. It marked the team's sixth consecutive win, it's longest streak of the year. It put the them four games above .500, a place where they have hovered all season long. It also brought the Twins to within two games of the Tigers in probably the worst division in baseball.

The Twins ended up losing the rubber game to fall back to three games out, but the momentum was theirs. The Tigers can't feel too good after being dominated by the lowly Royals, and then losing two of three at the Dome. But they can take heart in knowing that they will host the Twins for four games at the end of the month.

Familiar territory
This has been another up-and-down season for the Twins. While they have played great lately, they need to keep up the pace. A .500 team such as Minnesota tends to go on good runs, and then collapse into bad tail spins for a few games.

It was the same way last season. I thought there was no way the Twins would have any chance at the playoffs, but they kept sticking around and ended up playing game No. 163 in Chicago. This year I've been saying the same thing about this team. They step up and win games they shouldn't (on paper), and then they play lousy against teams they should be cleaning up on.

Now here we are again. It's mid-September and the Twins are in the thick of a pennant race, despite the fact that it's a race in a very weak division. And keeping in mind that the winner of the AL Central will most likely be playing baseball's powerhouse, the New York Yankees. They're practially unbeatable for the Twins.

There are still a couple weeks left in the regular season, so it's really a waiting game to see how the Twins will respond after a big series win at home. They go on the road for three divisional series before playing their final three games at the Metrodome.

If nothing else, I hope the Twins can keep up the intensity and play some exciting baseball until the end. Whether that's through game 162 (or 163), or deeper into October, we'll just have to see what happens at the finish line.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Serena's meltdown

We've all been angry at one point or another in our lives. We've all seen others lose their tempers and situations that escalate in the heat of the moment. But I'd have to say that the events that ended the U.S. Open women's semifinal match between Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters left the tennis world stunned.

Rainy weather washed out tournament play on Friday, and for much of Saturday. It wasn't even clear if the Williams/Clijsters showdown would take place that evening.

By now the news of Serena's actions have been well-documented throughout the news and YouTube world. I watched a replay of her words to the lineswoman via my DVR the next morning. I was truly surprised at what transpired and her vulgar language.

Then I read through the transcript of her post-match interview, which left me losing more respect for Serena than before. What I basically heard from her comments is that she had no remorse for what happened. She didn't think an apology was necessary to the lineswoman whom she verbally threatened with the words:

"If I could, I would take this [expletive] ball and shove it down your [expletive] throat."

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."

Oh, come on. That's your excuse? First of all, taking the John McEnroe approach, or citing any other player who's gotten mad at a linesjudge or chair, is not in the same league as what Serena did. Getting upset about a call and making that known by yelling at the chair umpire by saying "you can't be serious" is not the same thing as threatening to shove a tennis ball down someone's throat.

Not to mention that she was trying to justify what she said by saying she's heard worse; that is unacceptable as well. Remember the "if everyone jumped off a bridge" scenario?

Plus, nothing in her interview seemed to add up. I did not feel that she saw the severity of what she did, or that it was even a big deal. She seemed more concerned with the fact that, in her eyes, the U.S. Open kept calling her for foot faults. The call that set her off was questionable, but that is entirely beside the point. Nothing justifies her behavior.

I can understand that her outburst was probably the result of a "heat of the moment" situation. Everybody loses their cool sometimes. But what was hard to get past for me were her actions following the incident. Coming out with remorse and apologetic words, instead of defensiveness and essentially brushing it off as nothing out of the ordinary, would be the way to handle the aftermath.

Serena was fined $10,000 for unsportsmanlike conduct by the U.S. Open on Sunday. To put it in perspecitve, she earned $350,000 for reaching the semifinals. Another investigation is ongoing by the Grand Slam tournament officials, which could result in a much heftier fine for one of America's top female players.

While I was writing this entry, Serena served up an apology (on her second attempt) on her Web site, and also made an abbreviated entry on her Twitter page. My first thought? Too little, too late. This second statement does not reek of the same sincerity it may have, had it come sooner. Here is her initial attempt at an "apology" Sunday through a public relations agency:

"Last night everyone could truly see the passion I have for my job. Now that I have had time to gain my composure I can see that while I don't agree with the unfair line call, in the heat of battle I let my passion and emotion get the better of me and as a result handled the situation poorly."

Maybe I need to go back and read it for the fourth time, because I can't find the words "I'm sorry" or "apologize" anywhere. And dubbing the line call "unfair" doesn't sound like an apology to me.

Now, she has amended that statement today, in order to "sincerely apologize." I'm sorry Ms. Williams, but I don't think you can use the word "sincere" at this stage of the game.

Note: Serena also apologized during her post-match interview after she and sister Venus won the women's doubles title. The apologies have been made as she hopes to move on with her career. I think the tennis world will move on with her, but this incident will not stray far from memories.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Upsets in Flushing

As the U.S. Open began its run this year, I realized it is the first time I can really enjoy the tournament, without the stress of the looming school year ahead. It's a nice feeling to look forward to Labor Day as a day off, rather than the end of summer and the start of classes.

I have kept up with the match results pretty well this year, and I have watched as much tennis as I can. Yesterday, I watched a great three-set battle between the No. 29 player and former Open champion, Maria Sharapova, and the 17-year-old Melanie Oudin.

After reading various articles about how American tennis players are scarce, other than the obvious dominant Williams sisters and Andy Roddick, the young teen from Georgia seems to have given the nation some hope. Before her third round match with Sharapova, Oudin upset No. 4 seed Elena Dementieva by a 5-7, 6-4, 6-3 score.

I was cheering for Oudin from the start in her match against the 6' 2" Russian. Oudin resembles her hero Justine Henin-Hardenne with her petite stature, but that didn't stop her from playing smart tennis.

Marathon match
The nearly three-hour marathon match was a great one to watch. I was very into it, as my family could tell by hearing my shrieks and shouts at the television set. Points were long and capped with exciting winners. Oudin was thrilling to watch with her fist-pumps and "c'mon's" after her winning points.

A seemingly pivotal time in the match came when the young American was up 3-1 in the third set on Sharapova. Oudin had five break chances to extend her lead to a commanding 4-1 in the decisive set. As the two rallied back and forth between deuce points, my shouts grew louder and more frustrated as Oudin just couldn't quite finish off the game.

Sharapova finally prevailed to narrow the score at 3-2, and then she proceeded to call for the trainer on the changeover. It was dubbed a "veteran move" from commentator and tennis legend John McEnroe. After the lengthy delay, neither player seemed too worse for the wear.

The final set was quite interesting with many service breaks. I was just hoping Oudin could pull off the upset instead of blow a big lead like the ranking match-up might suggest. She managed to finally seal the victory before her opponent could force a tie-breaker.

The crowd was certainly cheering for Oudin, and she acknowledged them in her post-match interview, in between a few stray tears. She deserved to be commended for her great play, and her cinderella story that was quickly unfolding.

Of course, Sharapova's stats for the day cannot go unmentioned. She committed a U.S. Open record 21 double faults, which is enough to hand an opponent five-plus games. She also rang up 63 unforced errors, 19 more than her victorious opponent. These two glaring numbers will not leave a good taste in her mouth, that's for sure.

Now Oudin is on to the next round to face, for the first time ever, No. 13 Nadia Petrova. She has gained a lot of publicity with her current run, and no doubt a lot of fan support in her home country.

Elsewhere on the courts
Many were hoping American favorite Roddick, ranked No. 5, would be able to reach the finals after his near-miss championship at Wimbledon earlier this summer. But unfortunately his time in New York ended with a five-set loss to fellow American John Isner. Roddick played catch-up by winning the third and fourth sets, before losing in a final-set tie breaker. (7-6, 6-3, 3-6, 5-7, 7-6)

Venus Williams and Belgium's Kim Clijsters (back from a two-year maternity leave) faced each other on Sunday in what turned out to be an interesting match. Clijsters quickly gave her slow-starting opponent a bagel in the first set. But Williams responded with a 6-0 set of her own to get back to even.

The one-sided sets led to a more competitive final set. Clijsters, as the wild card, was able to snatch the win over the No. 3-seeded Williams with a 6-4 third set. Another upset on the women's side was complete. One Williams sister was out, and another underdog was through to the next round.

No. 1 seed Dinara Safina was finally taken out of her disasterous tournament run. She moved through the first two rounds, but it came at the price of three sets and poor play on her part. She lost in the third round to Petra Kvitova. Her early exit proves that the ranking system is not very accurate. Then again, with all the upsets on the women's side, who knows how it will shuffle the player rankings.

Monday, August 31, 2009

You see something new every day

Last Wednesday I went to the Twins game with my friend Cassie. The game was the series finale against the Baltimore Orioles and the hometown boys were hoping for a sweep. I felt a bandwagoning-effect might be happening after the Twins seemed to turn things around a bit on a solid road trip, and then a chance for a sweep.

Not to mention that fact that they had a walk-off win Tuesday night, a feat seemingly so big that I couldn't recall the last time it occurred. So naturally, I figured Wednesday might be a let down. And the end result was.

I couldn't fault starter Nick Blackburn too much. He wasn't stellar, but I'd seen him pitch much worse the last time I was at the Dome. What hurt the team was its inability to string together some hits. The only run for the Twins came on a run-scoring double. Not that impressive offensively.

A tackle heard 'round the world
Since the game was pretty uneventful, especially for the home fans, the most exciting moment was during one of the later innings when a presumably intoxicated young man wandered out onto the field from the home run porch.

I didn't see him enter, but I heard the commotion and looked down from our Cheap Seats to see what was going on. As I saw the man in his jeans and polo shirt, it wasn't what I expected. Instead of running around the field trying to keep himself free from security, he seemed to gallop around and look back at the stands, where I'm sure his pals were cheering and laughing hysterically.

We all saw the security guards running toward the guy, from all directions of the field, but one in particular was the closest to him. Then, all of the sudden, the not-so-tiny guard put a huge bear-hug-like tackle on the guy. And even from the upper deck, we could tell it was a hard hit.

Any unwanted distractions on the field usually are not shown on television, so seeing something like this in person was quite interesting. It made for some good excitement during a game that wasn't all that exciting on the diamond.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

'Slow'-pitch baseball

Some people don't enjoy sports. Like anything else, it's an acquired interest that not everyone will have.

Some people prefer certain sports over others. An energetic football fan may not care for bowling, or sitting down to a nearly four-hour baseball game.

I once heard someone compare watching baseball to the same level of excitement as watching paint dry. While I think that may be a stretch in general, sometimes it's not that far off the mark. The pace of major league games these days seems to be getting longer and more drawn out than ever before.

I'll even provide you with a couple of real-life examples from this season. A couple weeks ago my family and I attended a Twins game on a Tuesday evening. It ended up being a Royals blowout, with a lot of pitching changes and a lot of runs. The game dragged on so long that we didn't even stay for the duration, leaving before the eighth inning.

That was the third game this season where I left early, which I don't usually do. Granted, the other two games lasted into the 12th and 15th innings, but still. My beef here isn't with extras; although I wouldn't object to formulating some sort of quick-fix tie-breaker.

Pick up the pace
The pace of the game is the problem. This isn't a new concept, and I'm sure I'm not the first one to write or complain about it, but it still is an issue. Most other sports have game clocks, play clocks, time limits. Even tennis has made some good strides with its rules. The clocks are there for a good purpose - to keep things moving.

It may seem unfair to compare baseball to other sports, because obviously they're different. But with no rules in place regarding the pace, players and teams begin to use certain aspects of the game to their advantage.

When I watch games on TV, it's much harder to focus on a Twins game than say, a Wild game which is filled with nearly constant skating, hitting and shooting. First pitch... wait 20 to 30 seconds... second pitch... wait again.

Sure hockey has stoppages in play, but even those have been sped up in the past few years with the "hurry up" faceoffs. In fact, a hockey game is about 2.5 hours. Even with the five-minute overtime and possible shootout, it's still fast-paced with a good solution for a tie-breaker.

Just play the game
Adding to baseball's slowness, why does the batter have to readjust his batting gloves after taking a ball in the dirt where he doesn't move an inch? (And does Big Papi really need to soak his gloves with saliva a handful of times in an at-bat?)

Why does the pitcher have to spit three times, readjust his absurdly large necklace and pace the mound before he's ready for the next toss? (With the exception of Mark Buehrle, who is one of the fastest workers on the rubber.) To me, these little mannerisms can get ridiculous. Throw the ball, take a breath and then do it again.

Even though baseball isn't a timed game, it goes by number of innings, the powers that be should take a hard look at the lengths of games and start making some changes.

Here's my dad's idea: how about a pitch clock? Football has a play clock, basketball has a shot clock and tennis limits the amount of time taken between a changeover and isn't afraid to dish out warnings to players.

Give the pitcher a certain amount of time to throw the ball, or else he assumes some kind of penalty, like a ball added to the count, or a balk. By the same token, give batters some rules too. They need to be in the box within "x" number of seconds or the pitch is a strike.

The amount of time it takes for pitches to be thrown isn't the only contributor to lengthy ball games, but I think by trying to speed this part of the game up, it will help a ton. My plan here isn't a fool-proof and perfect solution, it's simply a brainstorm of ideas in order to speed things up.

It's a great game, but who has three to four hours each night to devote to watching your favorite team?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The good of the Dome

Since I did some Dome-bashing last week, now would be a good time to pinpoint some of the good memories.

First of all, I enjoy the fact that the venue has a roof. This is absolutely necessary for the weather roller coaster that is Minnesota.

I am very disappointed that Target Field will never be able to add an overhead shelter. Every major league stadium or ballpark should be equipped with a retractable roof, if I had my way. But I'm not an idiot; I know it comes down to the all-mighty dollar.

OK, enough of that. I'm supposed to be positive in this entry. (Can you tell I can be a negative thinker?)

Time at the Dome
I've been to a good chunk of baseball games at the Dome over the years, even more so when I began seriously following the Twins during my middle-school years. I've seen wins, losses and a couple of playoff games. I've donned fanatic apparel, and unfortunately was never circled by Bert.

I also spent my sweet sixteen at the Dome with my entire family and friend Emily. And I headed back for my 20th as well. Both times I received a scoreboard birthday greeting from my parents.

But all things aside, one of the most memorable moments for me at the Metrodome was attending the May 25, 1997 pre-game ceremony for Kirby Puckett where his No. 34 jersey was retired. The biggest thing I remember is standing up as he entered the field, and then applauding for a really long time. I remember thinking that I had never clapped that long in my life (I was only 10, but still...).

I don't recall a lot of the specifics of the ceremony, except for a video tribute with the Mariah Carey song "Hero." I knew enough about the Twins at that time to realize what a great player and icon our state had in Puckett. I'll also always take with me the voice of Twins public address announcer, the late Bob Casey, when it was Kirby's time to go to bat. "Kirbeeeeeeeeeeee Puckett!"

There was also another game that sticks with me. I believe it was during the magical division title run of '06. The Twins were at home to finish the regular season against the White Sox, and they were chasing Detroit for the division title. The Twins dropped two of three games, but won on the final day. And the Royals ended up sweeping the Tigers to help the Twins to the title.

I just remember being at the Twins game during one of the two losses, and cheering for Kansas City. In the later innings, more focus seemed to be on the scoreboard with the Royals/Tigers score than the game in the Dome. It was very exciting and exhilerating to be a part of those moments.

Of course, I also went to the AL Divisional playoff games between the Twins and Oakland A's. The swept series was a huge letdown after the exciting regular season finish for Minnesota. But being able to be a part of that historic run in some way was amazing.

World series memories
Although I am too young to remember, I'm sure the two world championships the Twins won in the Dome bring out some of the best memories for a lot of people. I wish I could recall what that was like.

I guess the iconic piece that stays with me (and I'm sure for most fans) from watching highlights of the 1991 series is Kirby's game-saving catch against the glass in center, and of course his home run to force a game seven. If Joe Buck's famous tag doesn't stay with you as a Twins fan, I don't know what will.

"And we'll see ya... tomorrow night!"

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Heading down to the Dome

The Twins are in town tonight as they kick off a six-game divisional homestand. First up are the ever-at-the-bottom Kansas City Royals, followed by the fire-sale Cleveland Indians. I'm headed down to the Metrodome this evening to enjoy a game with my family (and on a day like this I wish we were in the new outdoor stadium).

This is the final season for the Twins in the Dome. After September (presumably) the team will be leaving behind a history that spans back to 1982, just before my time. The building bursts at the nylon-roof seams with memories, or as they have been dubbed, "Metrodome Moments."

Probably the greatest of these came in the form of two world championships in 1987 and 1991. The Twins are the only "Big 4" team from Minnesota to have accomplished this feat. While I was walking the planet for both of these memory-making years, I am sad to say I was too young to remember the glorious championship seasons.

Since I will only be going to the Dome for maybe a couple more Twins games, I got to thinking about some of the things I won't miss after the Dome chapter is closed.

Reasons I don't like the Dome:

No. 1 and forever the most important reason: It's not a baseball stadium. Let me repeat this so you comprehend its importance. It's NOT a BASEBALL stadium.

The Dome was built for football games; it's as simple as that. The powers that be cooked up a great money-saving two-for-one-deal in order to get their hometown teams into new facilities. The problem for the Twins was that the final product was a football stadium which allowed baseball to be shoehorned into the venue.

No. 1a: The baggie
This goes along with reason No. 1. In order for baseball to be played on the football field, rows of temporary seats are folded into a vertical position in right field. With them comes a large wall affectionately known as "the baggie."

Instead of fencing, a bullpen or spectator bleachers, we get the baggie. Sometimes it can be your friend, and sometimes it's a hindrance. Many potential homerun balls have been stopped short, hitting off the top of the bouncy baggie, and landing the runner at second base. On the defensive side, you can misjudge a ball so bad you'd think you were up against the Green Monster.

Plus, it's a huge advertising block. But who's paying attention to the name on the wall when they're trying to see if the ball clears the top of the bag?

No. 1b: The view
Have you ever tried to watch the action at home plate from your seat down the third base line? How was your neck in the morning? Since I usually sit in the Cheap Seats in the outfield, I don't really have much of a problem, but certain seats in the Dome truly are the worst seats in the house.

This is because the seats are all firmly planted facing the direction of where the football field would be. But in every other baseball park, seats are always facing in the direction of home plate, and this is how it should be.

No. 1c: Yard lines and turf
Instead of looking at freshly cut grass in cool patterns, the Dome has you gazing at AstroTurf with visible football yard lines. I'm aware that the grass item is impossible for the indoor stadium, but staring at those lines meant for football is not something I want to see. Give me the foul line please (and while we're at it, an actual foul pole).

No. 2: Beach balls
Now I know this probably isn't specific to the Dome. I'm sure these pesky little toys are present at ballparks across the country. But I'll tell you what: I am not a fan. Call me a Debbie Downer if you must; I think they have no business being tossed around in the seats during a major league baseball game.

Of course, it's not the inflatable plastic I'm upset with exactly - it's their owners, and the rest of the encouraging members of the crowd who help the ball along its path. I'm especially talking to the people who are prepared with dozens of back-ups in case their precious entertainment gets taken away, or my favorite, when it falls to a lower deck.

Some end up falling onto the field, delaying the game while a bat boy or security guard rushes to dispose of the nuisance. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the ushers for every beach ball they grab from the crowd.

No. 3: The Wave
Again, not specific to the Dome. My parents always say this went out 20 or 30 years ago. I don't really disagree; let's leave it at that.

I guess that's only a couple of highlighted areas, but you get the picture. Now that I've griped about what really "grinds my gears" regarding the Metrodome, maybe I can take a later entry to share some positive memories, and my thoughts on the new home for the Twins - Target Field.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A (Non) Contending Club

A .500 ball club is a team that looks unstoppable, dominant and on top of its game one minute, and the next looks like a team in shambles with nothing going right. This describes the Minnesota Twins during their last two series against the White Sox and then the Angels.

They came home after a west-coast swing trip, and they managed a sweep of the division rival Sox. Even more remarkable was that the lineup was able to solve Mark Buehrle after he set a record for no-hitter innings. Our classy fans gave him a standing O as he left the game; he gave a tip of the cap. If roles were reversed, I have trouble seeing the Sox fans giving an opposing pitcher a standing ovation.

Momentum was at a high for the Twin Cities ball players, until the Angels came into town. The red-hot visitors nearly set team records for runs and hits during their batting practice... er... I mean three-game sweep, against the Twinks. And all this without their stars Vlad and our beloved Torii Hunter.

The one-sided series holds too many bad stats, memories and pitching performances to relive all the numbers.

Talkin' Trades
The other big talk of the weekend was the July 31 trade deadline. I was surprised, as I'm sure a lot of people were, that GM Bill Smith got a deal done. I had heard from many that the Twins were working, but nothing was going to become official.

A deal did get done. Smith picked up 34-year-old Oakland shortstop Orlando Cabrera and some cash in exchange for a minor league infielder. Cabrera played in his first game as a Twin Saturday night.

So despite all the criticism and even comments from his All-Star players, Smith made a move to help improve the club. He gets a bit of credit for that. That's good...


What about a pitcher? After the deadline passed, the Twins wasted no time showing the fans and front office that they are in need of a hurler.

Cabrera was signed just a couple hours short of the deadline. As if that wasn't close enough to the wire, then word was out that Smith was still working to try and land some bullpen help. Why didn't he get it done? Well, I'm sure time was a problem, but it sounds like the main reason was because he didn't want to give up too much, ie. prospects.

As a Twins fan, hearing about minor league prospects and developing your system from within can get a little old. There's some good to that, but sometimes you need to take a chance and give up something to get something.

I understand holding out for your players that are farm phenoms, but apparently the Twins have no one ready to make the jump to the majors. In other words, we have no backup, no help "from within." That leaves the Twins in a tough spot should a pile of injuries arise.

It's already happened some, with Kevin Slowey out for the year, and Francisco Liriano missing his last start due to an injury. You can't afford to just rely on what you have, unless you're not planning on contending down the stretch.

Many are saying the Twins are not a contending team this year. I agree to some extent, but you also have to look at these key factors: The Twins are in the worst division in baseball right now. Despite their .500 caliber and up-and-down play, they are only a few games out of first place. And during the last two months of the season, the team plays 40 out of 59 games against divisional opponents.

I don't think you can rule out the Twins yet, but a few more abismal series like they played against the Angels will have me throwing in the towel. And even if they manage to make the playoffs, they will have a nearly impossible feat in trying to win a series against the leagues top teams, like the Red Sox, Angels or the all-mighty, unbeatable-for-the-Twinks, New York Yankees.

After all, who wants to see a repeat of the one-sided series from this past weekend?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Tough week as rotation falters

A week ago, the Twins were coming off their fifth series victory in a row, at Texas. Though they dropped the finale game against the Rangers, things were looking up for the club as they kept improving on the road.

They also were staying consistently above the .500 mark, entering the series opener against Oakland with a record of 47-45. But unfortunately, after going 2-5 versus the A's and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, they are now a game below even at 49-50.

The Twins were closing in slightly on the Detroit Tigers atop the AL Central, but have since slipped to third place. Right now it's a three-team race between the Twins, Tigers and Chicago White Sox.

A week to forget
Frustration seemed to reach its peak inside the clubhouse after Saturday's nationally-televised game in Anaheim. Losing two out of three to the worst offensive team in the majors, and then three in a row to the Angels, this could arguably be referred to as a huge low point in the Twins' season.

But it wasn't just the losses that were the problem. It was the way in which the team lost. Despite producing a fairly solid pitching rotation throughout the season, starters fell apart. This caused the usually reliable bullpen to be called upon too much. Then there were the poor fielding decisions costing bases, outs and runs.

Since it's pretty well-known that you win games with pitching, or at least you need pitching in order to have a chance, this factor seems to be the main plague of the Twins right now.

Surgery, walls and "injuries"
Kevin Slowey, who had been hurt and trying to rehab his way back to the ballclub, had a huge setback when a bone chip in his hand started hindering his ability to throw. He announced Monday that he will have surgery on his hand, putting him out for the rest of the season.

This is bad news for the rotation. Slowey was the team's ace with a 10-3 record and 4.86 ERA. He was also one of the first pitchers in the majors to reach the 10-win mark this year.

Nick Blackburn has been the other "lights out" pitcher on the staff. He has three complete games this year and was emerging as a great starting pitcher able to take the game into the later innings. But his last two starts have been very sub-par and abnormal for him. He was pounded by the Angels in his last start, as he was tagged for six runs and six hits throughout his 3 and 2/3 innings.

That start marked his shortest of the season. Let's hope he can find his form again, or this could spell big trouble.

Then there's Francisco Liriano. This superstar pitcher looked like he would be known as "Franchise" Liriano during his first season with the club. But his elbow injury and following surgery changed that plan. We're still waiting for the Liri of old to reappear on the scene, with no such luck.

He still has some bite, but his problems seem to be in his head, not in his arm. The key thing to remember with Liriano is this: he hits walls, metaphorically of course. He sails along fine for a few innings, and then, SCREECH! In the blink of an eye he loses his form for the night. Walks, missing his spots, base hits. Once he hits the wall, he needs to get off the mound.

Glen Perkins' story is probably the most head-scratching of them all, and it might make you lose a little respect for him, too. Not once, but twice now this season, he has spoken up after a horrible pitching performance and complained of an injury.

Once is acceptable, just please learn your lesson. But twice? Come on. A) If you're really hurt before the game, maybe it's a good idea to mention that so you can get checked out and not injure yourself further, and b) Like Ron Gardenhire suggested, at least wait a day after your pitching debacle before whining about an injury.

Perkins lasted just one inning in his start in Oakland. He's been decent this year, but this little ploy leaves him in question.

Scott Baker rounds out the regulars. It's always a toss up to try to predict the kind of outing he will have. I think that's just the way he is. He has been up and down (majors to minors, and back again) with this organization multiple times throughout the years. At times he's been dazzling, and others, a flop. He's no ace, but he isn't a write-off either.

Deadline drama
Everyone is still waiting on Twins General Manager Bill Smith to make that big move before the trade deadline. Although I think it's safe to say no one is holding his or her breath.

Even players are voicing their concerns about the team needing a boost, and the usual inability of the front office to provide that jump-start. All-Stars Justin Morneau, Joe Nathan and Joe Mauer all spoke out about wanting a move to be made.

Good for them. Let's hope Smith is listening to his players and comes up with something.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The turn at the break

The All-Star break can be a big turning point in the season for many MLB squads. A team that has been dominant in the first half may start heading toward a collapse after the break. While a sub-par, .500 team may turn a pivotal corner and make a run for the title.

The Twins have shown some good magic going down the stretch in the later depths of summer in other seasons. They've made runs to be on top of the AL Central before, most recently and notably in 2008.

What the team's front office hasn't done so well with: making that headline trade to spark its average lineup. As many sports journalists have pointed out recently, the last "big move" from the Twins came back in 2003, when they dealt outfielder Bobby Kielty for Shannon Stewart.

But this is 2009, and it looks as though no epic trade is in the works for General Manager Billy Smith. Not to worry, because staying true to Minnesota form, Smith was able to snag a minor-league deal with the 39-year-old veteran Mark Grudzielanek over the weekend.

Another veteran
The second-baseman went on the disabled list last August, and now hasn't played for the first half of the current season. Another brilliant move; if this doesn't give the Stewart trade a run for its money, I don't know what will.

This bit of news broke for me via Twitter, and then I read the story about it in the Star Tribune. I could not believe one particular quote from Smith, in regard to his new acquisition (source: Joe Christensen blog):

"He has a tremendous history over the last seven or eight years."

Of course he has a good history, but history means past. He now sees age 40 on the horizon.

Sure, the guy has a Gold Glove to his name, along with a .290 career average during his 14 major league seasons, but why are the Twins showing interest? Manager Ron Gardenhire's response seemed a little more realistic than Smith's. (source: AP)

"He can hit and he can play, but I don't know what he can do to help us. It's up to how he gets through all this."

Infield replacement
I think the plan would be to move Grudzielanek in at second, should Alexi Casilla flounder yet again this season. That's great, but inserting a 39 year old into your everyday lineup is not a permanent solution.

It sounds like Smith just wanted "another option," but Casilla will be the No. 1 guy for now. He is hoping Lexi can bring a "spark" to the lineup.

Casilla was recently called up again from the minors after being sent down (twice this season) to pretty much get his head on straight. He was originally sent down because of low production and a slight attitude problem. He couldn't fathom why he was being demoted... with his below .200 average. Even Gardy was scratching his head over that one.

Who knows what will happen with Casilla or Grudzielanek. Without another trade, acquiring Gruds might be the only highlight for the team. If Casilla continues his downslide, and/or returns to his frustrating ways, I wouldn't be surprised if we see the veteran up here after he gets his feet wet in Rochester.

That could be the big spark Smith is talking about. Or we may never see him up in the majors. There's no use playing the "what if?" game. I think the team will be watching both players closely to see what move, if any, would be the best to try and close in on first place in a mediocore division.

Other notes:

Mauer's human
Joe Mauer is slumping. Everybody gets into hitting slumps, but with Mauer I think things will be magnified because he seems so immortal.

If you're superstitious, his average dropped below .400 (and hasn't gone back) since about the same day as the Sports Illustrated issue came out featuring him as the cover story. And of course, his involvement in the All-Star Home Run Derby can be another scapegoat for his falling average.

He went 0-for-6 in the series finale at Texas, a career first. He also fell to second for the batting title lead. But come on, he's Joe Mauer. It's just a slump, and we all know he'll be back to smashing opposite field hits in no time.

Series opener at Oakland? Don't get me started
I didn't stay up to watch the whole game, but when I read the coverage the next morning, I was not happy. So many things did not go right in the 14-13 loss, a game in which the Twins blew a 10-run lead, tying a team record.

Plenty of offense, and no pitching. Career nights, grand slams and an apparent wrong-call to end the game at the plate.

In reading so many thoughts from players, to coaches, to fans, to writers, there seem to be two sides: a) "Yeah, the call at the end was bad, but they shouldn't have blown that lead and put themselves in that position," or b) "It doesn't matter what happened the rest of the game, they got screwed by a bad call that ultimately cost them the game."

I'm not sure where I stand on this one, especially since I didn't see the final play. I think I may be in the middle. I'm never afraid to pick on the officiating, especially when it is so obviously in the wrong, but how do you blow that big of a lead???

Monday, July 13, 2009

3M Championship Day Three - July 12, 2009

I had planned to get to the course about noon or so as I had for the previous day. That way, I could watch a few of the last groups tee off, as I had done for the second round. The only problem was the tee times were moved up about an hour, so everyone was well on their way by about 12:30.

I didn’t realize this until I read the newspaper that morning. Oh well. Instead of camping out at the first tee, I watched a few groups play through the ninth green. It was another beautiful day for golf, and this time the winds weren’t as strong, which probably helped the birdies come alive.

The pin on nine was located on the far end of the green, behind the water. I saw a couple of good approach shots that landed within a good striking distance of the hole. Of course, there were a few players who played it safe in order to get to the green; not that I blame them.

Since I had a lot of good material for my story already written, including the quotes from Hollis Cavner’s interview the day before, most of the afternoon was pretty low-key on my end. I spent some quality time with my laptop in the media tent, while paying some attention to the Twins game on TV as they pounded the White Sox with 13 runs.

I went out to the final green a couple of times before the end, where the last few groups of leaders would be finishing up. It was a close race and there had been leaderboard shifts all day long. But with a sensational eagle chip-in on 18, Bernhard Langer snagged the victory by a stroke (finishing at 16 under) over Andy Bean.

I didn’t quite see the shot in its entirety, (I’m short and there were a lot of people down there for the end of the tourney) but I did see it go in the cup. That was the most energized I’d heard the crowd all weekend.

Langer has been quite the winner on this year’s tour, (the win marked his fourth this season) and I also found it interesting that Arnold Palmer’s team was victorious in the Greats of Golf Challenge. Chi Chi Rodriguez had been on the winning team each year previous. And even more coincidental was the fact the Langer and Palmer were the two featured faces on the front of the brochures listing the tee times.

I took part in some of the media interviews both off the green and inside the media tent, even though I wasn’t doing the recap-type story. The whole reporting experience was good practice for me.

Before I left for the day I also introduced myself to another notable sports columnist for the Strib – Jim Souhan. He was a very nice guy, and I was glad to meet him, being a big admirer of his work and all.

At the end of the weekend, I felt that I had worked hard and got another valuable experience under my belt in the journalism category. Even though it was sort of a spur-of-the-moment thing, I was very glad I had the opportunity to go out to the tournament again.

I just hope that next year I’ll be in a position to attend again – as a member of the media.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

3M Championship Day Two - July 11, 2009

My first stop of the day was at the first tee box where I watched a few groups start their rounds, including the three groups from the Greats of Golf Challenge. I was only a couple feet away from Arnold Palmer in his white “Gilligan” hat. He was standing by his cart with his wife (I’m assuming); he gave her a quick peck on the lips.

The little hill off the first tee was filled with standing spectators, all wanting to get a glimpse of the great Arnie, and the rest of the greats including Lee Trevino and Chi Chi Rodriguez.

The old-timers are definitely a huge draw for the tournament. I’m sure a lot of patrons spend the afternoon following the greats around the golf course, even though they are the tournament-within-a-tournament and not the main event.

I went outside the media tent for a bit to see if I could mingle with any of the fans. As I was working up the courage to introduce myself to someone, a man standing at the fencing off the 18th green asked if I was a reporter.

We exchanged pleasantries and he introduced himself as Jimmy Glass; his company Page & Tuttle provided the uniforms (shirts and hats) for the tournament staff. We discussed the tournament, good weather, the turnout, etc. And I gave him my background as a member of the media.

He was very nice and told me to send him my story, and in exchange he would send me a free shirt from his company. He came back a few minutes later with a ticket for me to enter the Executive Skybox, with free food and beverages.

I thanked him as he walked away and went up to the box. I stayed to watch a couple of groups finish their rounds on the 18th before heading back down.

I still wanted to try and talk to a fan, if I could ever stop being lame and just learn to approach someone. So I finally went up to a couple of guys seated at a table near the concession stand, asked how they were, introduced myself from the magazine and then said I wondered if I could ask them a couple questions.

They both turned me down. I walked away with less self esteem and thinking to myself that what had just happened was exactly the reason I was so shy about approaching people.

I decided to give up on finding a fan for the day, so I headed down to the 18th green. As per the last couple of years, the Star Tribune’s very own Patrick Reusse came out to the tournament during the middle day, and he happened to be down by the final green as well.

As he talked with someone, I debated what I should say to him. Luckily, he made the first move, something I like much better than trying to get myself to do it. He walked over and said “So who are you with, media person?” Introductions happened, and I mentioned how I listened to him on the radio that morning.

He asked if I had heard his rant about Michael Cuddyer’s base running mistake from the previous night. I said no, I had missed it. We then chatted a little more, about my company, where I got my degree from. It was very nice to talk with him and not have my heart pounding out of my chest. The vibe he gave me helped because it seemed much more casual.

It was a little mini roller coaster out there as far as my self-confidence was concerned, but at the end of the day, I was glad to have made another networking venture. I was proud of myself for acting as professional as I could muster, as I tried to forget about the lows of the day.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

3M Championship Day One - July 10, 2009

I didn’t think I’d have the chance to return to the 3M Championship golf tournament as a member of the media this soon. After the last two summers of working as a sports intern with the Blaine Sun Focus, I figured my time in the media tent was done, unless I ended up with a media job.

Since I’ve been working as an intern at North American Membership Group in Minnetonka after my graduation last December, I have been doing web work for the fishing, hunting and handyman magazines. But our company also has a golf magazine, the PGA Tour Partners Club.

I decided to come out to the tournament at TPC Twin Cities in Blaine kind of at the last minute after I had a lunch conversation with the Handyman Web editor, Gary. He talked to me about doing some freelancing, or maybe writing an article for the golf magazine to be posted on the Web site.

I couldn’t pass up another chance to have an experience as part of the media, so I called in for some press credentials and ended up at the tournament.

Friday was a beautiful day to be outdoors watching some of golf’s greats. And a beautiful day in Minnesota is pretty hard to come by. The crowds were pretty decent, at least from what I noticed when I wandered over to the first tee box, the ninth green and simply walking around the grounds.

The good numbers had to be due to this year’s free admission for the public. Tournament director Hollis Cavner decided to give back to the fans in light of all the support throughout the past 17 years of the event, and with the current economic situation. It was a gesture that fans seemed to take advantage of in earnest.

“I did it ‘cuz I could,” Cavner said. “I’ve been wanting to do it for years, and I just never could.”

I took it pretty easy on the first day of the 54-hole tourney. I mostly just got my feet wet again with the lovely media accomodations and putting on my reporter’s hat. But the highlight of the day would have to be when I came out of my “shy-bubble” a bit and chit-chatted with Star Tribune sports writer, Brian Stensaas.

We were both standing off the edge of the 18th green, and I asked him something about a previously hit ball. I countered later with, “Who do you write for?”

He asked the same of me, and then we did introductions and handshakes. I also asked him if he had a specific beat, then I mumbled something about how I would like to do that: write sports.

I didn’t stick around the whole afternoon to interview any of the first-round leaders. I knew I still had two days left, and it wasn’t like I needed to get a ton of information since I would be writing more of a feature piece instead of a recap.

Day one was a good day to get reaquainted with my media roots.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Roddick vs. Federer - A match for the books

What a match. One man stands alone, while another stands in the shadow of defeat.

Another instant classic Wimbledon men’s final wrapped up the 2009 tournament this past weekend at the All England Club in London. Who would have guessed that the long five-setter between rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal that lasted into darkness the previous year, could be topped by a marathon match between American Andy Roddick and Switzerland’s Federer.

The 5-7, 7-6 (8-6), 7-6 (7-5), 3-6, 16-14 – yes, 16-14 - match shattered numerous records: Federer had a grand total of a career-high 50 aces, 22 in the final set alone, and the 77-game contest was the longest in Grand Slam history. The 95-minute final set was a back-and-forth affair of service holds.

With Roddick serving at 14-15, Federer did not waste his first chance at a championship point. Roddick mishit a ball, sailing it long, to give Federer the victory.

After Federer’s jubilant jump on the court following the final point of the tournament, Roddick was the one left in shock and disappointment. He played what commentator and former player John McEnroe called the best match of Roddick’s career in the semifinals to beat English favorite Andy Murray, before leaving everything he had on the court during the final against the best player, arguably, of all time.

Roddick couldn’t have played the match any better. One has to think that had he been matched up against anyone else, he would have prevailed to lift that first-place cup for the first time on the lawn of Center Court. He has been the runner-up at the Grand Slam three times now (2004 and 2005), all against Federer.

He stands alone
What else can you expect from the No. 1 player in the world, a title Federer reclaimed with his win in the finals. Not only is he the most dominant player (with Rafa close on his heels), but his win at Wimbledon marked the Swiss player’s 15th Grand Slam title, beating the 14-Slam record held by recent tennis great, Pete Sampras, who flew in from Los Angeles to watch history unfold.

Apparently, the dominant duo have become quite good friends as of late. It’s amazing how much mutual respect they have for each other. And although I’m sure Sampras thought his record in the tennis history books would hold up a little longer than just a few years, even he had to appreciate the great match the two gentlemen played.

Fighting back his emotions, Roddick showed he still had his sense of humor during his post-match remarks to the crowd by apologizing to Sampras for not being able to keep the Slam record intact.

“Sorry Pete,” Roddick said. “I tried to hold him off.”

Nearly unbroken
One of Roddick’s biggest strengths has always been his powerful serve. But instead of just acing his way through the match, Roddick balanced out his game – and it showed. He didn’t give Federer a run for his money by relying only on his serve.

But that serve was part of his game that made the day even more unbelievable. Roddick held his serve throughout the course of the entire match – nearly - for 37 consecutive games.

Of course, Roddick was broken once – during the final game of the match, which saw Federer come out as the champion. What a heartbreaking way to lose; you are nearly perfect during your service games, and you still don’t come away as the victor. That’s gotta be a tough pill to swallow.

Will he be back?
Watching Roddick as he struggled to hold back his tears in his seat after play was over, my heart ached for him. He was so close to becoming the Wimbledon champion, a feat that will still elude him at least until 2010 when he will have the chance to try again.

But I’m not sure if that will happen. Roddick has been plagued, like many others, by playing in an era the same as Nadal and Federer who seem to always find a way to win, no matter the opponent or circumstance.

I think this was Roddick’s chance. He played two of the best matches of his career, but fell just short. I really hope he gets back to the finals and is able to be victorious, but with a healthy Federer and Nadal on the circuit, that will be a tall order.

Whatever happens during the rest of Roddick’s career (he turns 27 in August), I hope he can at least look back to this year’s Wimbledon tournament and be proud. He has a bitter taste in his mouth now, but in time he will come to realize the great accomplishment he achieved against one of the world’s best.

It truly was a match to behold.