Saturday, June 27, 2009

Can't get above the hump

Another ball game, another loss and another chance missed for the Minnesota Twins to rise above .500 this season. But getting above that pivotal hump is still eluding the team as the major league season nears the All-Star break.

A 5-3 interleague loss to the St. Louis Cardinals June 27 at Busch Stadium brought the Minnesota team back down to a record of 38-38. Both starters struggled early with high pitch counts as a smattering a runs came across home plate.

Not even 24 hours after a game which featured Twins closer Joe Nathan striking out big-name player Albert Pujols in the ninth inning to seal a 3-1 victory, the first baseman showed his power against Twins ace Kevin Slowey. Pujols smashed a couple of two-run home runs off of Slowey, to deny the pitcher win No. 11 on the season.

Slowey referred to the National League power-hitter as “very special."

Of course he is, and there were a lot of factors that contributed to the Twins’ loss. It was a game in which all three of the team’s runs came on a bases-clearing hit from Brendan Harris, before the bats turned silent from the fourth inning on.

This still doesn’t change the glaring statistic that has followed the Twins like an unfriendly shadow from game to game this season: They can’t get more than a game over .500. It happens time and time again this year. They are a couple games below the mark, then come back to win a couple more, before dropping one again. It’s been an up-and-down roller coaster.

I don’t know what it is, but maybe we should stop talking about the .500 mark. Maybe it’s too much pressure when the guys take the field knowing they are a game above, and need a win to get two above. It’s getting to the point that if you see the Twins win a game, and then notice their record is at one game above .500, you can just sense a loss is very likely in the next game.

Luckily for the Twins, they are competing in a weak AL Central Division where most of the teams are losing more than winning. In fact, the Twins (picked by many, including Sports Illustrated, to take the Central) are sitting in second place behind the 41-32 Detroit Tigers. Currently following the Twins are the Chicago White Sox, Kansas City Royals and Cleveland Indians.

As the All-Star break draws near, it can be safe to say that no one is running away with this division. Each team has its faults. Looking at the Twins, they continue some of their previous trends with road struggles (14-23) and interleague dominance (11-6), but their usually stellar home record has dipped a bit in the Metrodome’s last season for the baseball team (24-15).

You would think that eventually the hovering around half-and-half will have to end. Either they will put a solid win streak together, (or start being more consistent with their wins) and move further into the win column, or they will slide even further down the losing slope. With more injuries and Joe Mauer inevitably not being able to maintain his .400 pace, the latter could be a real possibility.

But it is a long season, and anyone can be in position to call themselves Central Division Champions. If the Twins can just get a few strings of wins going, maybe getting over that .500 hump will help in that feat.

It might come down to game No. 162… or 163.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Indianapolis 500

Memorial Day weekend has never been a cornucopia of excitement in my household. For many, it’s the unofficial kickoff to summer and a time to duck out of work early and head up to the cabin. Then it’s nothing but fishing, swimming in the lake and barbeques.

Well, my family does not have a cabin or favorite campsite up north. And fishing is not a pastime we have taken part in recently… or ever. The long weekend is pretty low-key, with maybe a gathering at my grandparents’ home for some burgers on the grill.

But this year we decided to change things up a bit. My dad proposed the idea of driving down to watch the Indianapolis 500. I was sold right away and super excited (although I found out later that I would be gone for the graduation of my friends at the University of St. Thomas, which I was disappointed about).

We drove down Friday afternoon and also Saturday, with a stop in Rockford, Ill. which included the Steak ‘n Shake restaurant, a cool burger place if you’ve never been. When we finally made our way into Indianapolis, our route to the hotel took us right past the track. And what a sight.

As we got closer to the track, I pulled out my camera and started snapping photos with the window rolled down. Then I started to look around and take notice of the electric atmosphere filling up both sides of the county road.

I observed a few long tables stacked with plastic cups in what I'm sure held lively rounds of beer pong. Motorhome trailers, pick-up truck and lawn chairs lined the grassy roadsides. And I even saw a group of guys relaxing in the back of a pick-up in the lane beside us with dozens of strands of Mardi Gra beads hanging from their necks.

Yes, it certainly was a sight unfamiliar to me. But it only added to the anticipation of the great race the next day.

Race day
Attending the Indy 500 is not like going to a mid-season Twins game. You can't get to the track five minutes before the pace lap, and expect to be in your seat in time to see the green flag wave. No, with about 300,000 people coming together for one event, it requires an early call time.

The gates at the track open at 6 a.m. I don't have the foggiest idea who is there that early, but it wasn't me. Although the wake-up call we abided by was still early for me, especially on a weekend.

After an uneventful 30-minute drive with limited traffic issues, we parked in a huge grass field at about 9:30 a.m. We had some time to kill with more than three hours until the race, so we weren't in any rush.

As we made our long walk from the car to the track, there were more festive sights to see. The most memorable one had to be looking over to see a guy lying face down on top of a make-shift table, passed out from too many beverages - at 10:30 in the morning.

For some, this big event is simply an excuse for a road trip, to drink cases of cheap beer (Keystone Light cans scattered the ground) and basically, to party. We saw more beer pong, bean bag toss games, loud music and tons of garbage littered on the ground as we walked to the track. It looked more like the aftermath of a college frat party than a parking lot.

Once into the mighty brickyard, we found our seats, placed perfectly on the infield side at the entrance to pit lane. I still had plenty of time to take in the surroundings and snap some photos.

This monstrous event also had a monstrous amount of pre-race festivities. Most of these included long-standing traditions like Florence Henderson and Jim Nabors sharing their singing voices with the crowd, and a few tributes to our men and women in uniform.

Going green next time by…
Everyone was on their feet for the pace laps and start of the 500-mile spectacle. The first green flag was waved off, but when it finally did fly, we didn’t have to wait longer than the first turn to get some action. Marco Andretti and Mario Moraes made contact and ran into the wall. Two cars were taken out in dramatic fashion – and we were only on the first lap.

The race was pretty good overall. I was impressed with how much I was enjoying myself, especially being at an oval track, when I am more partial to the road courses. Ovals can get monotonous, but this race was kept exciting with just the right amount of spread-out caution flags flown throughout the race. And snacking on some Indy (hot)Dogs while watching the race isn’t a bad way to go either.

We had great seats to get an up-close look at some of the incidents on the day. Ryan Hunter-Reay hit the wall coming out of turn four and his car came to a stop right in front of us at the entrance to pit lane. I also got a few snapshots of the tire marks Graham Rahal left along the wall as he skidded down the main straightaway.

I was pulling for Paul Tracy to come out victorious, who was lucky enough to be granted a ride for the race. He got as far as fourth before falling back a few positions to finish ninth. It was the pole-sitter and, as most may know him, the Dancing With the Stars champion, who took the checkered flags – Helio Castroneves. The win marked his third at the Brickyard.

Out of everything, the winner was the only thing I was really disappointed with from that day. I am always cheering from one of the underdogs to win it all and beat the two powerhouse teams of Ganassi and Penske.

We couldn’t have asked for better weather for the race duration either. As race fans, we are always worried about rain. But we were rewarded with sunshine and temperatures in the 80s. Not bad for a memorial day weekend.

Even though I had been to the track previously for Pole Day and to visit the museum as a youngster, and for the Formula 1 United States Grand Prix a few years ago, nothing can top being there for the big event of the Indy 500. I had a great time with my family and had the opportunity to watch an amazing race and the biggest sporting event around.

I hope to go back again someday for the 500. After all, it’s so much better to watch a race live than back home on your TV set. Even HD doesn’t do the sport justice; you really need to be there and experience the thrill of seeing cars streak past you at 220 mph. You need to feel the excitement in the stands. You need to hear those cars and those engines firsthand. And most of all, you need to have the experience of enjoying a delicious Indy Dog.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

A nice neighbor

A couple weeks ago I had a nice surprise presented to me from my next-door neighbor. I was out mowing the front yard in the late afternoon after I returned home from my internship. A task, I might mention, that I do not enjoy as of late because the self-propelled function on the mower doesn't have much "propel," in turn requiring a lot more work for my"self."

I was a couple of rows into the bulk of the yard, when I saw a woman walking across the driveway toward me. At first I thought she was heading for the front door, which was logical. But at second glance I saw her coming across the grass and holding a street sign, of all things. Realizing she wanted to talk to me, I pulled up on the mower in mid-row and turned to see why the woman was approaching me.

It turned out that she was Ann, my neighbor to the north. I had actually never met the woman in person, or even talked to her at all for that matter. In fact, I even had to guess a little that she was who I thought she was.

She had a big smile on her face and greeted me with a cheerful, "You're just the person I was looking for." As I glanced down at the sign she was holding, I realized it was the sign for our street. Heather Street.

"I thought you might like to have this," she said, as she held up the sign for me to see.

Apparently, the city had replaced all our neighborhood street signs that day, and she happened to see them taking down the one for our street. She went over and asked the worker if she could have the sign, and he said he would leave it on her doorstep when he was finished removing it.

As Ann went through her story, I'll admit I was only half listening. I was so surprised at the whole situation. Not really so much at having my namesake sign, but more at my neighbor. This woman, probably in her 60s, had never met me before. She probably only knows of me from my family's Christmas letter. But yet, she had the wonderful kindness to go through the trouble of snagging the sign so I could have it.

Still very surprised and flabbergasted, I sincerely thanked her as she turned the generous gift over to me.

"Thank you so much," I said. "That was so sweet of you to think of me."

I was still in awe when she turned to walk back to her home. I stood there for a couple of more seconds before I realized I was holding this big sign with one hand, and I had an idling lawn mower in the other. I gingerly tossed the sign into the already-mowed grass and then proceeded to finish my chore.

After a couple of more rows, still thinking about the kind generosity bestowed upon me, my dad came over into the yard and picked up the sign. He came over to me with a puzzled look on his face.

"What's this?"

I told him the whole story with a big grin. I could tell he was surprised by the nice gesture.

"Did you thank her?" (Always the good parent.)

I told him I had and that it was very nice of her to think of me. He left to go show the sign to my mom, as I returned to mowing.

Now I know we have this cliché in our land of 10,000 lakes about "Minnesota Nice." I don't really buy this theory. If someone is nice, I don't see what that has to do with the state. I do think though, that in today's world, finding surprises and nice gestures such as this one are tough to come by. Sure, there are nice people that do nice things. But certain things are really outta the park.