Wednesday, December 28, 2011

IndyCar 2012 schedule has arrived

The 2012 IZOD IndyCar schedule is in place. So let the planning and daydreaming about attending every race begin.

It took longer than normal to release the schedule, which came out last week, because of the investigation surrounding the crash in the 2011 series finale in Las Vegas that took the life of Indy 500 champ Dan Wheldon. Once those results were released, the series could move forward and look ahead to next year.

We only knew one thing for certain - that the Streets of St. Petersburg would be the first race of the season. It's now less than three months away, on March 25.

I would love to go see this race on the streets of this beautiful city on the gulf side of Florida. I was there a couple of years ago on vacation, the weekend before the race. So I got to see some of the stacks of tires and barriers lining the streets. Plus, who wouldn't want to get out of frozen Minnesota in March in favor of some sunny, warm Florida air?

Some of the usual suspects are on the schedule as well, like Texas, Iowa and Indianapolis. I think Iowa might be one of the tracks my dad and I hit for the first time this year. Now that I've moved to southeastern Minnesota, the drive is doable without even a need for a hotel stay.

Ovals aren't my favorite tracks, but I'm certainly not going to turn down a chance to watch IndyCars in action.

One course that has been absent, although not surprisingly, for this primary open-wheel circuit is Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis., a beautiful four-mile road course that's been a favorite of drivers and fans for many years. We made Road America our annual racing trip as a family for many years during the CART and ChampCar eras.

With only 15 races on the schedule so far, I can certainly keep my fingers crossed that Road America will somehow make it on there. I know it's a favorite of Dario Franchitti's, and as one of the more veteran drivers with such winning ways on a primary team, his opinion should matter, right?

I would also love to see the cars running again in Cleveland, on the airport runways off the shore of Lake Erie. But with an airport race in Edmonton, it seems like a good replacement. Selfishly though, Cleveland would be more convenient for me to travel to than Edmonton, in case I wanted to be in the stands like I have in the past.

Returning after a few-year absence is the Streets of Belle Isle in Detroit. I'm having trouble placing this track; I can't seem to remember it. The oval in Fontana, Calif. is also back on the schedule. It's listed right now as the final race of the season, much like it was in the past.

Off the schedule is the race in Japan, but in its place you could say, is a race in Qingdao, China. It's a street race slated for Aug. 19. No Watkins Glen either. It's also no surprise that Las Vegas is absent from the lineup. Even without the tragedy that occurred there, the stands didn't looked packed either - for a race that fans could get a free ticket for.

Overall though, the schedule isn't bad. A lot of nice road and street courses are represented, which is better than having ovals every week like some series. Short ovals can be exciting for passing, but I think my preference will always be with the tracks with a little more variety.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

A classic World Series

We're into November now, which means yet another World Series is behind us and the baseball offseason has begun. But before we move on, let's remember that the 2011 World Series has been one of the best in years.

The St. Louis Cardinals defeated the Texas Rangers in seven games. The Cards, as a Wild Card team, had homefield advantage and were down 3-2 after the three straight games in Texas. But just like the Twins did in 1987 and 1991, St. Louis won games six and seven in dramatic fashion.

Game 6 of this series will probably be talked about and shown again as a "classic" game. I wouldn't say it's one of the best game 6 contests, but it was certainly exciting, dramatic and a constant swing of emotions. When it was all said and done, just before midnight, the Cards came away victorious with a 10-9 win in 11 innings.

Before the last couple of innings and the extras, game 6 really wasn't that great of a game. There were multiple errors by both sides, and it just wasn't that clean of a game. The hometown kid who turned out to be the man of the hour and the Series MVP couldn't catch a pop-up above his head. But he did own up to it in post-game interviews, which was nice to hear.

Then, things got interesting. Texas was one strike away from becoming the champs. Twice. But they were denied, just like last year when they were on the losing end of the World Series. The bottom of the ninth and extra innings turned into a slug fest.

David Freese hit a triple, which homerun-machine and right fielder Nelson Cruz could have caught to end the season. I think Cruz had a case of nerves. He didn't position himself to get to that fly ball like he might have been able to, and then on a later single he bobbled the ball a bit in between his legs.

After trading leads, homers and nervous-wreck emotions, Freese sent the series to a seventh game with one swing of the bat. It was a smash to center that sealed the deal for the Cards from a momentum standpoint.

Play-by-play announce Joe Buck used his father's, "We'll see ya, tomorrow night" call for the game-winning homer, 20 years and a day after his dad said it for Kirby Puckett's game 6 home run. Some people thought it was a great tribute when son Joe said it, others didn't like it. I was in the latter category; get your own line, Joe. I liked color analyst Tim McCarver's, "How did this happen?" line better, because it was fitting after the game that had just taken place.

You'll notice in my "We'll see ya, tomorrow night" quote from Joe Buck, that I did not use an exclamation point. That was most definitely on purpose because his excitement level didn't deserve one.

Game 7 wasn't as exciting, of course, a 6-2 win for the Cards. Texas was fighting an uphill battle of being on the road and being defeated mentally. It's too bad; I was pulling for them. But in the former Twins category, scrappy infield Nicky Punto has a ring, and so does pitcher Kyle Lohse. Good for them.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

RIP Dan Wheldon

The IZOD IndyCar Series lost a member of its team Oct. 16, 2011. Dan Wheldon, 33, died from the injuries he sustained in a large, 15-car crash just 12 laps in to the 2011 season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Wheldon was a two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, in 2005 and this season in 2011. He was the series Rookie of the Year in 2003, and he captured a series championship in 2005.

During Sunday's race, Wheldon started at the back of the bigger-than-normal field in the 34th spot. He had quickly moved up to the 24th position when the carnage-filled wreck occurred on the oval track. Wheldon's was one of the cars the went airborne and hit the catch fence above the SAFER barrier wall.

He was airlifted to the medical center where he later died. The race was red flagged immediately following the crash, and the drivers made the decision to run five laps in a tribute to Wheldon, rather than finish the race.

In a fact that, appropriately, didn't seem to matter, the championship for 2011 was won by Dario Franchitti. His competition for the award, Will Power, was involved in the crash. But there was no celebration. The tone of the day really hit home when ABC cameras caught Franchitti breaking down in tears while he was being strapped into his car for the tribute.

Following the coverage
I was in the middle of cleaning my apartment when I turned on the race, just a couple of laps before the crash. I turned on the television, sank back into my recliner and was set to watch the final laps of the season tick away.

But when the coverage cut to the 15-car crash, I bolted upright in the chair and uttered "oh my God." One of the first words that came to my mind was "carnage." Twitter has become a habit of multi-tasking during races for me, and part of my first Tweet after the crash read: "Whoa. Biggest carnage of the year."

I saw some drivers out of their cars, which is always a good sign. I also saw many safety team personnel rushing to attend to drivers in their cars, another good and familiar sign of the IndyCar Series.

From then until it was officially announced that Wheldon had passed away, I kept my eyes on the ABC coverage and on Twitter. Waiting for a word on Wheldon just gave me a bad feeling - seeing the helicopter blades fire up didn't help either. The whole thing reminded me of when Dale Earnhardt died; nothing was said until word came of his death.

Tragic memories
Another vivid memory that struck me was the death of CART driver Greg Moore on Oct. 31, 1999. That race was also the season finale, a race I remember watching at home as a 7th-grader. Moore's car hit one of the inside walls extremely hard and he sustained fatal head and internal injuries. I remember that no replay was shown of the crash, and commentator Paul Page's call of "An enormous crash! Oh my God."

Unfortunately, Wheldon's outcome was the same as Moore and other drivers. Guys like Paul Dana (2006), Tony Renna (2003) and Scott Brayton (1996).

Open-wheel racing has made some great strides in safety over the decades. Everything from improved helmets to the HANS device to the SAFER barriers which lessen impacts along the walls. And there are so many crashes that look horrific, destroying the race car, but the driver often walks away. It's so easy to forget that death is a possible, and very real, risk when drivers strap in.

It's certainly not something anyone involved with the sport, fans included, want to think about. Everyone will go into the offseason with this event weighing on them until the next race and especially at Indianapolis, where Dan won't be there to defend his Indy 500 crown.

Thoughts and prayers go out to Dan's family, his wife Susie, sons Sebastian (2 years) and Oliver (six months), and also to all of the other drivers and teams in IndyCar.

RIP Dan Wheldon.

Dan Wheldon takes a victory lap in the pace car after winning the 2011 Indianapolis 500. (Photo credit: Kyle Rule)

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Austin Packers homecoming game

I took in my first Austin High School football game Friday night. The Packers played a decent game but eventually fell to Big Nine opponent Mankato East 24-13. It was homecoming week for the Packers, who are still winless on the season, and the defeat was a crushing blow in the last couple plays of the game.

With 1:37 left in the game, East led 18-13. To their credit, the Packers marched down the field, picking up some big first downs to find the red zone. The Packers failed to convert in the endzone on fourth and 13, appearing to end their chances. But a roughing the passer penalty on East gave Austin a new set of downs.

Packer quarterback Sean Coffey tried multiple times to put a pass in the endzone in the hands of a receiver. On the final play of the game, Coffey was looking to connect with wide receiver Zach Wessels. The pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown as time expired.

Wessels was slow to get up, dejected for being oh-so-close to giving his team a homecoming win.

It wasn't a bad game for the Packers, considering they're now 0-4. This might have been their best shot at a victory all season.

After a scoreless first quarter, East ran in for a touchdown with four minutes left in the half. A failed extra-point attempt left the score at 6-0. Then the Cougars kicked a field goal with 24.2 ticks remaining in the first half, making the halftime score 9-0, still within reach for the Packers.

But it was the Packers who struck first in the second half. They had two receivers wide open for a touchdown reception, narrowing East's lead to 9-7. Later in the third quarter, the Packers defense came up big on third-and-goal as they stopped the Cougars in their tracks, making them settle for a field goal and a 12-7 lead.

Austin answered with a touchdown late in the game on a lucky play with a tipped pass that ended up in the hands of a Packer. They decided to go for two, but the failed conversion left the score at 13-12, the only lead of the game for Austin.

There was too much time left though because, despite Austin intercepting East, the Cougars were able to come up with a touchdown on another possession. It gave them that 18-13 edge leading up to the final drive of the game.

Even though the Packers lost, it was still a good game to mark my first one in Austin. I was itching to go to a high school football game, and I wasn't disappointed.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Sheppard, Delmon out of Minnesota sports

In recent weeks, or days, two players who I never really cared for in Minnesota sports are no longer a part of Minnesota sports teams. They would be James Sheppard (Wild) and Delmon Young (Twins).

Hallelujah! No more Shep
I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw on Twitter that Sheppard had been dealt to the San Jose Sharks for a third-round draft pick in 2013. I was so excited that a) he was gone, and b) the Wild actually got something for him in return.

Loyal readers of this blog know my disdain for the not-so-offensive-minded forward. I believe his last regular season of hockey (2009-10), he tallied just six points. Six. That's pretty pathetic for any NHL player, let alone a forward.

As the ninth pick overall in 2006, Shep was the pet project of former General Manager Doug Risebrough. This young kid has not spent a game in the minors, which is really too bad for his sake. Riser promised a superstar-caliber player. Instead, he looked flat and clueless on the ice.

The Wild and the Sharks have made a few deals during this offseason, which isn't something you see all the time. It really doesn't matter though. What's important is that Shep can go be below-average somewhere else.

No more Delmon either, at least not for the Twins
Bumbling outfielder Young was also just sent to the Detroit Tigers. It worked out well; he got off the Twins bus and walked into the Tiger locker room at Comerica Park instead of the visiting locker room.

This was a trade a couple of years ago that sent pitcher Matt Garza to the Tampa Bay Rays. I was a fan of Garza's stuff and was disappointed to see him go, especially after the great playoff run by the Rays. But Young was supposed to come in and be a superstar, much like Sheppard for the Wild.

Well, we waited and waited, but stardom didn't happen. The only reprieve I gave him was at the start of the season last year when he showed up a few pounds lighter, looking fit and ready to play. He did much better offensively last season, so I came around a little for him.

Fast forward to this year and those pounds seemed to have come back. He is a staple in left field, where he looks more uncomfortable than a fat kid in a health-food store. It had become automatic to cringe each time a ball was hit in his direction. His fielding style can be quite awkward.

Need proof? Just think back to when he twisted his ankle earlier this season. That's a pretty odd way to go into the wall and try to play a baseball, don't you think?

Of course, during his first game with the Tigers, playing against the Twins, Young hits a homer. That just figures. But I'd rather have him on the opposing team now. And since he's still in the division, the Twins will see him enough that they can all try and hit some balls Young's way. Then he can do what he does best, look awkward and uncomfortable while trying to make a play.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Twins keeping quiet at dealine is a good thing

The trade deadline passes and the Twins do nothing. I actually don't mind at all. There were rumors last Friday that Denard Span might be trade bait.

All-Star Michael Cuddyer has been tearing it up this year at the plate and at various positions in the field. (How many of you flipped back over to the 20-6 debacle in Texas, just to see Cuddy throw some pitches?) He's still here too, for now. I don't want to lose him to free agency either.

A quiet trade deadline for the Twins was a good trade deadline, in my opinion. When everyone's healthy, the Twins have a lot of extra outfield help. But that's a better problem to have than trying to call up lots of AAA bodies.

Keep Span around awhile
Giving away Span with the hopes of Ben Revere stepping right in as his replacement might not have been the smartest idea either. So I'm glad Bill Smith didn't try it. While I like the spark Revere brings to the team, it's no secret that he needs to work on his fielding game, specifically throwing.

When I say it's no secret, that's really true. All of the Twins' opponents have caught on to Revere's weak arm, so opposing players will constantly run the bases when the ball is hit in his direction.

Staying put is a good thing
I'm glad the Twins didn't succeed in making a deal for a division run or a playoff run. Maybe they wanted to, but the bottom line being that they didn't is a good thing. Why? Because I still don't see this team winning the division, much less getting anywhere in the playoffs. (Although, history could tell us that last part.)

There's always waivers in August though, so we'll see what happens.

Broken record?
Inconsistencies are still abundant for this team. Nick Blackburn started the embarrassment that was the 20-6 game against the Rangers, and he wasn't entirely turned around in this next start either. Starting pitching hasn't been on the ball lately.

The Twins have historically been a second-half team. Well, July is over with, meaning there are two months of regular-season baseball to play. I haven't seen anything to indicate a surge yet. Not to mention that some of those comeback years, most notably in 2003 when the Twins acquired Shannon Stewart at the deadline, the Twins were propelled along by a key player.

Maybe I'm sounding like a broken record regarding the Twins not winning the division this year. Maybe I need to jump on a new point. Or maybe the Twins could go on a huge winning streak and give me something exciting to write about.

We'll see.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

An odd first-half for the Twins

It's been an interesting first half for the Minnesota Twins. They lost their first game, and series, in Toronto, and it's been an uphill battle ever since. Certainly one of the more head-scratching seasons for the Twins under Ron Gardenhire.

At the All-Star Break, they are 41-48 and 6.5 games behind the division-leading Detroit Tigers in the WALC (Weak American League Central) Division. Last year, the Twins were in third place at 46-42.

Anyone remember that before the season got underway, teams throughout baseball were already limping with injuries? Everyone except the Twins, ironically. They've been hit hard by the injury bug ever since.

In a 162-game season, it's no question that injuries play some kind of role in player and team performances. It's easy to point to this excuse as the reason for slumps, or for anything that doesn't go your way. But it's just part of the game and teams need to find a way to dig deep and step up to overcome the struggles.

So many injuries
I can't keep track of all the injury troubles the Twins have had this year. A much shorter list would be the players who haven't been knicked up (there have been some, right?). Tsuyoshi Nishioka got knocked out within the first few games, Justin Morneau had a season's-worth of boo-boos by June, Delmon Young mangled his ankle because he still cannot play his outfield position properly and Joe Mauer's leg weakness threw the entire sports community for a loop.

They've had so many minor leaguers up and down with the ball club that it's not always clear whether you'd be looking at the major league roster or the AAA one. It's been that kind of a season so far.

I must give kudos to the team's lone All-Star this year though: Michael Cuddyer. Though I love him in right field with his arm, he is a true gamer willing to play anywhere they need him.

All that being said about injuries, let me be clear that I am not blaming Minnesota's fourth-place position in the AL Central on injuries. Not at all. It's been unfortunate, but you can't pin the outcomes on key players missing from the lineup.

Pitching
The bullpen has struggled a lot more than in recent years. Of course, a few of the arms from last season aren't with the club anymore. Joe Nathan returned from Tommy John surgery only to have trouble stepping back into the closer's role, not exactly shocking. Matt Capps has already blown a few saves, especially recently, so he's been tough to figure out.

Jose Mijares. Don't get me started. His main selling point to the Twins is that he's a lefthanded pitcher. That's really about it. He blamed Mauer in a loss at Miller Park because he only called fastballs. Ok, Mijares, but I don't think Mauer meant throw the first three fastballs nowhere near the strike zone, and then throw a cookie to Prince Fielder so he can hit an RBI double. Take some responsibility.

Alright, so I guess I did get started there.

Starting pitching hasn't been outstanding; it's been a typical up-and-down pace. Probably the biggest bright spot of the year has been Francisco Liriano's no-hitter in Chicago.

Hitting
The big excitement here has been counting down until Jim Thome finally hammers out home run No. 600. Only five more to go. He's also had some injury issues, but I'm willing to give him a season pass - because he's 40 years old.

Cuddyer struggled a lot early on. His RBI count, which had been high the past few years, was almost non-existent for awhile. But he's really come around and been a clutch hitter lately. He's now carrying 13 home runs and 43 RBI.

I'm enjoying watching Danny Valencia and Ben Revere come around this season and contribute. Jason Kubel is a continued presence with his bat, although he's injured right now.

What's next?
The Twins have been known to be a second-half team throughout the past decade. But they also haven't dealt with the amount of struggles like this season. They're seven games below .500 and yet still only 6.5 games out of first, not an unreachable deficit.

They did make a good run in June, making up about a 10-game margin with a nice winning streak they put together. They've come back from unlikely places to win the division before, so I don't think you can ever completely rule them out, especially in the WALC.

I am still not pegging them to win the division though. We'll see how things go in July, see if the trade deadline brings about anything. Right now, it's just important for the Twins to get back above .500 and stay there, then concentrate on winning more games at home and winning more series.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Twins are making up ground

Who put a quarter in the Twins? No, seriously. What can explain this amazing turnaround from the team that was the worst in baseball not too long ago? Well, things have improved. Clearly.

The Twins are riding an eight-game winning streak, have gone 15-3 in the month of June, swept the San Diego Padres in interleague play and have won 10 of their last 11 games. Oh, and they put up eight runs in the first inning in San Francisco against the defending World Series Champions Tuesday night.

I'd say that's a pretty decent stretch of baseball. Plus, you know something is up when Alexi Casilla homers for the second consecutive game. He hit one out in the ninth inning Tuesday, to seal the 9-2 win.

Making their way back
The Twins have crawled out of the AL Central basement and are now 6.5 games behind the leading Cleveland Indians. The Tigers are right with the Indians, but the Twins only trail the Chicago White Sox by a couple games, meaning a jump into third isn't that far out of reach.

How big of a leap in the standings has the Minnesota club made? Well, it was 16.5 games out of first place on June 1. So the players have rallied together to make up 10 games of the deficit in less than a month. Not too shabby.

Negatives have turned to positives as of late. Pitching and hitting have improved, which should go hand in hand with improving your ball club.


Shaking off the injuries
Also, it's helped that some players have returned from the injury line, most notably Joe "Mr. Minnesota" Mauer and the Japanese player Tsuyoshi Nishioka who hasn't played enough with the team for anyone to make a strong evaluation of him yet. The lineup has been almost unrecognizable at times; I can't keep up with who's in, who's been called up or sent down and who's hurt.

Veteran slugger Jim Thome is down with an injury right now. He's the guy I'm willing to give a pass to though, because he's 40 years old. However, I'm not too excited about Justin Morneau being banged up with multiple ailments, landing on the disabled list, like it's mid-September. He's definitely a missed bat in the lineup.

Jason Kubel and Denard Span are also ailing, hence the need for all the AAA players called up to the bigs. But Delmon Young is still around; you need someone to be out there making fans nervous as he plays left field.

Stepping it up
Michael Cuddyer has certainly turned up his offense. He has 10 home runs and 29 RBI. While I appreciate his willingness to be a "gamer" and play whatever position is needed, I still prefer him and his strong throwing arm in right field. Cuddyer's name is being thrown around for the Twins representative in the All-Star game.

I'm really warming up to outfielder Ben Revere. He reminds me of Jacque Jones, and no, it's not just because they share the No. 11 jersey. I like Revere's effort in the field and at the plate. I also like Danny Valencia, providing some much-needed consistency at third base. But he's also been hit with a small injury bug lately.

As I mentioned, pitching is also better. The Twins went into the top of the ninth inning with a one-run lead on both Friday and Saturday. Manager Ron Gardenhire handed the ball to Matt Capps for the save attempt. I write "attempt" because he's 11-for-16 in save opportunities with a 4.06 ERA. He got the job done on those two occasions.

Division title? Let's slow down a little.
A friend asked me last Friday if the Twins were going to win the division. I said no. They've been playing better lately, but they also dug themselves a large hole to start the season, and keeping pace with 15-3 ball is tough to do over a longer span of time.

It's just turning around and going the Twins' way right now. We shouldn't get too far ahead of ourselves. Now, could the Twins come back and win the division? Well, stranger things have happened. They are a second-half team and have made comebacks before in recent memory.

I will say this: If the Twins do manage to come back and win the AL Central, it will prove once and for all how extremely weak the division is.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Videos: 2011 Indianapolis 500

A few of my videos from the turn four stands of the Indianapolis 500.


Parade lap




Green flag racing




Under caution



Restart




Restart


Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Centennial Indy 500

It's quite fitting that my 100th blog post will be about the 100th anniversary of the greatest spectacle in racing, the Indianapolis 500. The Centennial celebration Sunday was the 95th running of the great car race. (The first race was in 1911, but the event wasn't held during the World Wars.)

My parents, brother and I had the chance to attend the race in 2009 (the first year of the Centennial Era), and now in 2011, ending the era. It was a pretty great experience to be part of history.

There's still nothing like attending an IndyCar race in person, but the Indy 500 is like a whole other machine. It's the biggest single-day sporting event in the world; it's like one giant party at times too. Where else can you have 250,000 cheering fans circling the 2.5-mile oval?

Anything can happen
The anticipation for this event was huge, even more so because the qualifying field of 33 wasn't exactly typical. The two dominating teams of Penske and Target Chip Ganassi had their issues. Dario Franchitti ran out of gas on his qualifying run, starting him ninth on the grid for Target. And Team Penske's best qualifier was Will Power, starting fifth.

Team Target's Scott Dixon was a favorite heading into the race, because he started second behind polesitter Alex Tagliani.

I was kind of interested to see how the race would play out with such a jumbled field. But boy, did this field deliver. Fans were treated to 23 lead changes, 10 different leaders and a crazy finish where a rookie driver came oh-so-close to drinking that bottle of milk.

It all came down to the very end
Due to various pit strategies and cars that needed to come in toward the end to get fuel, the last stint of laps out of the 200 were pretty exciting. Golden-girl Danica Patrick led for 10 laps, and she was likely a caution flag away from her first Indy 500. But she needed to pit, and then I assumed Franchitti would be in position to take the race, since he pitted earlier and is always competitive.

But he must have been off the pace. Suddenly, here comes rookie JR Hildebrand into the lead with two laps to go. Anything could still happen, but when he came around turn four on the final lap, I assumed he'd have the race.

I, and probably everyone else, was wrong.

In what's being dubbed a rookie mistake by Hildebrand, he made the decision to go on the outside and pass the lapped car of Charlie Kimball in turn four. Bad move. He got up into the "marbles" on the outside of the track and hit the wall coming out of four and onto the main straightaway.

I can't believe that finish
I saw him hit the wall, stood up on the bleachers and tried to figure out who actually won the race. I had no idea who was running directly behind him. It wasn't until a few seconds later when I heard it on the public address system that Dan Wheldon had come out in front. Hildebrand still managed to cross the finish line in second place.

It was Wheldon's second Indy 500 win, in his only race of the 2011 season as he is without a full-time ride in the IZOD IndyCar series (like so many other talented drivers). The end was pretty shocking and exciting. A finish to remember like 1982, 1992 or 2006.

There was some question as to whether Wheldon should be named the official winner though. Because you can't pass cars once the caution comes out, in this case, because of Hildebrand's wreck. But replays clearly show the yellow light came on after Wheldon passed the wrecked rookie on the main straight for the win.

This call wasn't as close as the controversy with Paul Tracy and winner Helio Castroneves in 2002 (a race that should be Tracy's, in my opinion).

Such a great race
Thankfully, the weather for race day was perfect. It had been raining in Minnie and Indy for what seemed like weeks. But the skies finally cleared and temperatures rose - a nice, sunny 90-degree day was in store for the 500-mile journey.

The race didn't disappoint at all. It was a blast.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Twins are still in a tailspin

OK, so maybe it doesn't have to get better. The problems for the Twins go all the way back to the first inning of the first game of the 2011 season. You'd think they wouldn't have anywhere to go but up, although the light at the end of the tunnel seems to get fainter by the day.

They are the worst team in baseball, with a record of 12-27. They are riding a nine-game losing streak, after getting swept at home by the Toronto Blue Jays over the weekend. Now they are on the road for seven games. What will it take to stop the bleeding?

From silent bats, to bullpen implosions, to starting pitching problems, Twins baseball remains tough to watch at times.



Looking on the (small) bright side
Thanks to a gracious invitation from my former professor Kris Bunton, I attended the game on Saturday. It was a beautiful day for... football. I dressed in layers for the chilly, rainy weather. It actually wasn't all that unbearable; we just focused on pleasant conversation and the game.

The one bright spot for the day was that the Twins were getting hits. They just weren't timely hits; their LOB count was at 12 by the end of the game. Michael Cuddyer also hit a home run to left field to break a 2-2 tie.

And, I'm reaching here, the Twins also completed a successful rundown play. They had the Blue Jay caught between first and second, and I said, "Uh-oh. It's a rundown." The rundown play will never be routine for the Twins again, I said after the runner was tagged out. Let's remember that they failed to convert this play during that first game of the season.

Nick Blackburn pitched well and into the eighth inning. He was taken out after one batter too many though, surrendering the tying run. The Twins continued to have their chances and continued to strand runners on base.

That awful 11th inning
Then came the top of the 11th inning. This is where it gets embarrassing.

At a 3-3 tie, the Twins started the inning with Glen Perkins and Jim Hoey. Perkins got a batter on base, and Hoey was the first one to really give the game away by giving up a two-run shot to home-run king Jose Bautista (you know, the same guy that went on to hit three homers in Sunday's debacle?).

Here's an idea: Don't pitch to Bautista. Don't give the guy anything good to hit. You can accomplish this by walking him (intentionally or "intentionally") each time he steps to the plate. Unrealistic you say? Maybe. But pitchers need to at least pitch very, very carefully unless they want to get burned.

So, with a 5-3 score, it looked like the game might be over. But the top-of-the-11th antics were only getting started. I wished I would have been timing it. The inning went on so long, that I looked up at the scoreboard and didn't even realize that there weren't any outs recorded.

Pitching woes only continue
Walks have been a problem for the Twins pitching staff, and it was walks galore during the 11th. Hoey got the hook (after walking two batters) in favor of Jose Mijares, who promptly came in and gave up two screaming hits down the left-field line and then walked a pair.

If Mijares didn't throw with his left hand, I really don't see how he would still be on this team. He's since been placed on the disabled list after experiencing soreness in his elbow.

Alex Burnett also came in to pitch. When all the damage was done, the Jays batted around and put up six runs, giving them the eventual 9-3 win and the series victory.

It began to rain harder during the inning, but I think the stadium mainly started to clear out because of the play on the field. Small bright-side consolation for me: I didn't have to worry about fighting traffic getting out of the parking ramp.

Still no answers
Losing nine in a row is never a good thing, and it makes you wonder if there is any coming back from this, as far as a division title goes. It's just amazing how fast and how hard the Twins have fallen. At 13.5 games back in the AL Central, it seems they've become the division doormat. Look at the rest of baseball and you'll see divisions that are pretty close, or at least not so out of reach.

Injuries have been a problem for the club this season, but I don't think I can point to that as the culprit for this abysmal season. Cuddyer can't hit with runners on base. I don't think Justin Morneau has returned to his old self (at the plate or digging out balls at first). Drew Butera's average is hovering around the .100 neighborhood.

They need to turn things around and, at this point, at least win a game. Guys need to step up and start hitting. Jason Kubel's been doing OK at the plate; maybe he should start giving out pointers.

Somebody needs to save the Twins from this tailspin they're on before they nosedive to their worst season in recent memory (or ever).

Sunday, May 15, 2011

RIP Boogey

Taking life for granted. I believe it's something we've all done at one point or another, even though some days we're reminded why we should enjoy every moment we have. Days like this past Friday, when Minnesota and the entire NHL community were hit hard with the news that Derek Boogaard had passed away.

I was sitting in my apartment checking the various social media sites on my computer, when I read a Tweet that shocked me. It came from Star Tribune Wild beat writer Michael Russo (@Russostrib):

"Awful news: Derek Boogaard was found dead today in his Minneapolis apartment by members of his family. He was 28. #mnwild #nyrangers"

Then I quickly saw three retweets from other Twin Cities sports media personnel. Honestly, I didn't want to believe it and probably wouldn't have if it hadn't been from Russo; I knew he wouldn't mess around with a Tweet like that unless it were true.

An enforcer, not a goon
Boogaard was known as "the Boogeyman" during his time with the Wild. He was a fan favorite because he was the team's enforcer and stuck up for his teammates by racking up tons of five-for-fighting penalty minutes.

I always said that I liked Boogaard because he was an enforcer and not a goon. The difference being that he wouldn't take cheap shots or go after players half his size just because he was a big guy looking for a fight. He made his presence known on the ice as a guy you didn't want to tangle with.

Boogey's presence against Anaheim
One of his most famous moments that I'll always remember was during the 2007 playoff series against the Anaheim Ducks. Brad May had just sucker-punched Kim Johnsson, and while the penalty minutes were being sorted out, Boogey started jawing with the Anaheim bench, challenging its guys to a fight.

Fans wanted Boogey. Chants of Boo-gaard echoed the building. After asking for approval from the coaches (I think), Boogey skated onto the ice, drawing electric cheers from the crowd at the Xcel Energy Center.

Teddy bear with a drought
What was also so special about Boogaard is that as tough as his image was on the ice, he was apparently the complete opposite off the ice, like a "teddy bear," as many players have said.

He wore number 24 in Minnesota, and I have to say that it just didn't look right when Martin Havlat changed to the 24 jersey.

Boogaard's last games were played with the New York Rangers. He had a goal drought of more than 230 games before scoring on a slapshot, breakaway goal last November. That had to be one of the highlights of his career.

Life is short
The cause of his death probably won't be known for a few weeks. But it'll be hard to get closure for whatever the result will be. It's a tragedy to die at 28, no matter what the reason.

So it's times like these that make us take a closer look at our lives, and how fast they can be gone. It's easy to take life for granted, but heartbreaking tragedies like Boogaard's seem to make us step back and realize the gifts we have throughout our lives.

Enjoy today as a gift, because tomorrow is not a given for any of us.

RIP Boogey.

More Boogaard coverage: "So long to the Boogey Man" Russo's Rants blog, Startribune.com

Saturday, April 30, 2011

It has to get better, right?

I said a couple weeks ago that things can only get better for the Twins. Well, that doesn't seem to be happening just yet.

After beating the red-hot Cleveland Indians for a couple games to go on a mini winning streak last week, the Twins turned in their worst performance of the season in a chilly, home series against the Tampa Bay Rays.

The first game didn't happen due to rain (Ma Nature is going to offer serious payback for the good weather during Target Field's inaugural season.), and it wasn't long into the first game the two teams played that I dubbed this "a series to forget."

Forgettable Thursday
The doubleheader on Thursday was absolutely pathetic. I had trouble looking at the Tweets during the day game because the news just kept getting worse. A 15-3 beating. Tampa's Ben Zobrist went nuts with 10 RBI on Thursday alone.

Then in the nightcap, improvement was still no where to be found for the Twins. It took until the seventh inning before the they scratched across their first hit, and then a measly run. The stats from these games were just ridiculous, in a negative way.

Good old KC... not
Next up was a trip to Kansas City, a place where the Twins have always felt welcome. But these April Royals aren't the normal pushovers, and they took the first two games. A 4-3 win Friday, and a score-deceiving 11-2 win Saturday. Errors and bullpen trouble led to an eight-run bottom of the eighth, blowing a tight game out of the water.

The injury concerns are still present as well. Delmon Young went on the disabled list this week. Jim Thome and Jason Repko were out for a game with strained muscles (stretching, anyone?). Joe Mauer's return is anyone's guess, although it's probably later rather than sooner.

It was so bad this week that the Twins only had one healthy bench player for a game, before making a couple roster moves. Plus, the flu bug has now hit Carl Pavano, along with Justin Morneau and Mauer this season.

Casilla is the James Sheppard of the Twins
I'm probably going to start writing as much about Alexi Casilla as I do about James Sheppard for the Wild, in a negative light, of course. Casilla's play in the infield is baffling at times, especially for a guy who isn't a rookie. He's 26 and has been up and down with the Twins for a few years now.

The Twins infielders have had to step up with the injury to Tsuyoshi Nishioka, but Casilla is still not getting it done out there. He makes poor decisions and his bat is nothing to write home about either.

Last Sunday, he made a base running mistake that most little leaguers would avoid. He tried to score from second on a single to right field but was tagged out before reaching home. On his turn at third base, he made no attempt to look at the third base coach but was instead looking at the direction of the ball.

That's why you have a base coach, Casilla.

Enough is enough
The "it's still early" excuse is getting a little old. April baseball is done now and the Twins are 9-17, holders of the worst record in the American League. They are nine games back in the AL Central, the biggest margin of any division in the majors.

You've got to hand it to Michael Cuddyer though, a gamer who wants to play any position the manager asks him to. Cuddy has been stepping up this week and taking responsibility; no excuses, they need to play better baseball.

Maybe it's just the case that the Twins are hitting their injury, pitching, hitting and fielding slumps all at the same time, in the beginning of the season. Maybe they'll turn things around in May (or June). Maybe.

But if not, we're in for more painful-to-watch baseball more often than not.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

For the Twins, things just keep getting worse

Oh dear. If I thought the 2-4 start for the Twins was bad, it certainly hasn't gotten any better until this point either. From team-wide hitting slumps to injuries to blown saves, the Twins have provided their fans with a major slump to start off the first half of April.

The Twins haven't won a series yet, hold a 4-10 record, have lost four in a row and are in the American League Central Division basement. They have managed to win just one game in each series, and that's assuming they'll be able to salvage the final game of the four-game series in Tampa on Sunday.

I thought maybe the home opener last week would set a spark in motion for this ball club. While it did win its first game against Oakland, the hits and runs didn't get going until the eighth inning when they knocked in a couple for a 2-1 win on April 8.

Maybe the one bright spot in the homestand was a 4-3 walk-off win Tuesday over Kansas City when Danny Valencia came up with the bases juiced and knocked in the game-winning RBI single. But that game was followed up by a 10-5 loss.

Then the Twins went down to Tampa Bay to play in front of the huge crowds there. (Seriously, what's with the lack of interest in the Rays?) Tampa had also been struggling to score runs, so it was a battle between two teams looking to get the bats going. With three games in, Tampa has that battle won.

April 14, 2011: A day Twins fans would like to forget

Before the game even started, fans had reason to scratch their heads. Joe Mauer wouldn't be playing for the second game in a row because he needed to rest. That means Drew Butera was in, and therefore the Twins basically send eight guys to the plate.

Runs were hard to come by again, but Carl Pavano pitched a gem of a game, leaving after eight innings with a 2-0 lead. All they had to do was finish off the Rays in the ninth. Enter "closer" Joe Nathan.

With a couple guys on and a hard-hit double, the game was tied 2-2 through nine innings. That was blown save No. 1 of the night. Valencia again tried to be the hero with an RBI single in the 10th inning, but then Matt Capps (closer No. 2) allowed a walk-off two-run homer by Johnny Damon to give the Twins a tough 4-3 loss. Blown save No. 2 of the night.

Following the game, it was announced that Mauer would be going on the 15-day disable list with "bilateral leg weakness," whatever that means. So, not the greatest day for the Minnesota ball club.

More of the same on Saturday

After a 5-2 loss Friday night, the Twins fell again to the Rays as they did Thursday. Another blown save by Nathan, another starting pitcher with a no-decision (Scott Baker), another 4-3 loss, another walk-off hit from Damon. Capps gave up a run in the eighth for a 3-2 Twins lead when Nathan got the ball again in the ninth. The second pitch of the inning landed in the outfield seats to tie the score.

Nathan had trouble finding the plate, giving up two walks. He was yanked for Jose Mijares, who also had trouble finding the zone. With two runners on, both Nathan's responsibility, Damon struck again with an RBI single to right field. Blown save No. 2 on the season and the game's loss went to Nathan, who also has an 8.44 ERA.

What do I think?

I think the Twins are in a huge funk. We're now halfway through April and these guys aren't showing me anything. Batting averages are pathetic, especially so early in the year. And I know "the book" says you go to your closer in the ninth, but what if you don't have a closer? Nathan and Capps need to figure things out, and fast.

I also think it was a mistake to have Nathan step right back into the closer role after being off for a year due to surgery. He wasn't exactly lights-out pre-2010 either, always making his outings interesting.

Tommy John surgery isn't like flipping a switch. Have the Twins forgotten about Francisco Liriano's first year after TJ surgery? It wasn't too pretty. Give Nathan chances to pitch, just not as the closer.

Bottom line for this team is that the bats need to get going. Somebody needs to step up and start carrying these guys. Right now, I don't care about the "big picture" argument that it's early in the season and they'll come around. It's pretty tough to watch your team perform this way on a consistent basis right at the start of the season.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Not the best start to 2011 for the Twins

The Minnesota Twins have yet to play a game at Target Field this season, and it's already been a rocky road for them. They will kick off their first homestand with a 2-4 record following trips to Toronto and the dreadful New York.

I can hardly imagine a worse way to start the season than how the Twins started 2011 last Friday night against the Jays. What went wrong in that 13-3 loss? Well, let's see: A misplayed rundown, an error, a hit batter, walks, walking in a run following a double steal, a balk and giving up four runs. And that was just in the bottom of the first.

Yes, it was just the first inning of the first game of a 162-game season. But that first inning, and the whole game, was brutal. Baseball fans waited six months for this? With a 13-3 score, I won't go into the rest of the details.

Things didn't get better

Saturday's game really wasn't much different for the Twins. Sure, they didn't have all the first-inning "jitters," and the score was a bit lower. But the equation was the same: Poor pitching with little hit/run support.

They finally managed a win with a salvaged game on Sunday, as they barely hung on to win 4-3. Joe Nathan came in for his first appearence since his surgery last year, and he had to make it interesting. He loaded the bases and gave up a run before getting the save. Too close for comfort, yet again. Thanks to Denard Span for his homer in the eighth inning.

That's why they call it an insurance run.

New York, and why is Mauer being rested?

Then, it was off to the Bronx to play four games against the Yankees. It turned out to be three with a rain-out on Wednesday, but the game that the Twins won was a good one. They finally got a clutch hit when Delmon Young hit a bloop, bases-clearing double to tie the score late at 4 apiece. Joe Mauer knocked in the run in the 10th to give the Twins the 5-4 victory.

Speaking of Mauer, he was rested Sunday and manager Ron Gardenhire also wanted to rest him on Wednesday. I understand his injury-filled past, but it's early in the season. And, oh yeah, he's on a $184 million contract. Let him play.

I'd also be curious to know how much other catchers around the league are rested, since they are playing the same physically-demanding position.

Nishi heads to the DL

Bad news for the newbie Tsuyoshi Nishioka. He's going on the disabled list after getting taken out in the field by Nick Swisher sliding into second. The result was a broken fibula. I hadn't been too impressed with Nishi so far, but a few games is not enough to decide his worth. Plus, I think he definitely had some butterflies out there.

All the experts are pointing to a clean slide from the Yankee Swisher, and if the rule is that he needs to be able to touch the bag, then I agree that it was clean. But I still don't have to like it. He's a Yankee and as a baseball fan of any other major league team, I reserve the right to dislike anything relating to the Yankees.

That's just one of those unwritten rules of baseball, right?

Thursday, March 31, 2011

It's been awhile, but at least I have a good reason

Wow, I can't believe I haven't updated my blog since Valentine's Day. I don't think I've ever let it go that long, but at least I have a good excuse... I landed a full-time job! I am now a news reporter with the Post-Bulletin in Austin, Minn. I moved down about a month ago and have been keeping busy with my new job and getting my apartment in order. Things are going well so far.

As far as sports go, that's what I have this blog for. So much has happened in the sports world that I don't know where to begin. I won't try to recap everything, so maybe I'll just make a list of some of the notable highlights and things on my mind sports-wise.

Tourney withdrawal

With the television set up I have at my new place, I don't get the Twin Cities local channels, which includes missing all the televised high school state tournament games. I was going through major high school boys' hockey withdrawal. Like many, the boys' state tournament is one of the greatest sporting events of the year.

I was able to catch a couple of games, including the instant-classic Class 2A final between Eden Prairie and Duluth East in multiple overtimes. From everything I read, it seemed as though the section playoffs and then the state tourney were just filled with great games.

Wild find a tailspin

Oh, the Wild. They were on the verge of making a push for the playoffs about a month ago. They were playing well. Then the blades came off. They started losing, and bad. These weren't close games. Two 4-0 games where they didn't show up at all, then an 8-1 beating at home.

I have gone back and forth all season with their up-and-down play and have said "they're done." Well, after their streak, I think it was a pretty safe bet that they were absolutely done. It was just bad. As in, Richards-might-get-fired bad.

Throwbacks

Awhile ago, I wanted to write an entry about throwback jerseys in professional sports. I don't know whose idea it was to start digging up all these jerseys from decades ago, but whoever it was started a huge fad.

Initially, I think the idea was kind of neat. Fans get to see some old-school jerseys for a nice change of scenery. But now I just think the concept is overdone and has lost all meaning. Teams are wearing throwbacks so much that it's really more annoying to try and figure out which teams are which in some cases. Of course, money makes the world go round.

With throwbacks, plus teams coming out with third jerseys or new jerseys altogether, organizations can market those to fans and make some more money. Whatever. They just don't mean much to me.

St. Thomas basketball: National champs

The St. Thomas men's basketball team won its first-ever NCAA DIII National Championship. I was keeping up with their run mostly through articles and social media. They had made deep runs the past few years, having a strong program, but they ultimately fell short. It was nice to see them bring some good sports news to Minnesota since the rest of the teams weren't doing anything.

IndyCar season has arrived

Last Sunday marked the start of the 2011 IZOD IndyCar season. The opener was on the streets of glorious St. Petersburg, Fla. It was 85 degrees and sunny (unlike the thunder and rain of last year that delayed the race until Monday). Yes, I was definitely jealous that I wasn't there in person.

I did get to watch the race in beautiful HD since I was visiting my parents for the weekend though. (But trust me, TV does not do those racing machines justice.) The start was a little rocky, with the new restart format. And just like last year, Marco Andretti was on his head in the first corner of the first lap of the season.

It was a pretty good race though, with the main highlight coming off the drive of Simona de Silvestro. She finished a career-best fourth and gave Tony Kanaan a run for third near the end. Last year's champion Dario Franchitti drove to victory lane.

Baseball season is here

Opening day has arrived for Major League Baseball. For some reason, baseball season snuck up on me this year. Maybe it was because I didn't pay attention to spring training, which doesn't mean much anyway. Or maybe it was for the same reason that I ignored this blog for so long, I was going a mile a minute with my new job and moving.

As for the Twins, we were all left with a bitter taste in our mouths after last season, which I will not get into. Their bullpen got a bit of a shakeup, they picked up a player from Japan, their starting rotation (though average) is intact from 2010.

Can they make a deep playoff run? I'll believe it when I see it. Last year was pretty crushing. I flipped through my Sports Illustrated and saw they have the Twins winning the division, but I think we all take that for granted.

A couple schedule notes: There seems to be a lot more four-game series than I remember, which I'm not initially a fan of. Also, since they are starting right at the beginning of April, they are also done playing regular-season ball before my birthday at the end of September. I don't remember that before either.

So, once again I write a lengthy post when I meant for it to be a bit shorter. That's just how I do things, I guess. I'll try to fuel my sports cravings with posts more often. Thanks for reading!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Touch-up icing versus no-touch icing

As the years tick by in the sports world, things change. We've seen the digital age spill over into professional sports with the use of video replays to help determine that the correct call is made. There's also the steroid era, most notably in baseball. And in a lot of sports, either by nature or enhancing drugs, athletes are getting bigger and stronger.

Change is a part of life, so sports are no exceptions.

Examining whether certain rules need adjusting is a big talking point among analysts and the casual fan. As the saying goes, "there's always room for improvement."

Can't touch this
I want to dive in to the debate between touch-up icing and no-touch icing in hockey. The high school level has no-touch icing, while the NHL does not. I'm in favor of changing the rules in the NHL to institute the no-touch rule.

The No. 1 and obvious reason why? Injuries. Just ask former Wild player Kurtis Foster and Houston Aeros' player Tyler Cuma, who tore his ACL over the weekend after a nasty collision with the end boards. Foster broke his leg and was out of commission with the Wild for 11 months. He got hurt after being hit against the boards while chasing the puck in a game in San Jose.

So the question to ask: Is it really worth risking serious injury to players just for a race at full speed to a puck in hopes of getting to it first to make a play or for a well-positioned faceoff?

Not in my opinion.

Injuries always a threat, still...
Now, I know injuries can happen at any time during games, or even warm ups. Heck, players can be forced to sit out after seemingly harmless things like cutting his finger on a suitcase zipper. (See former Twins pitcher Rick Reed in 2002).

But sometimes there are precautions you can take to help minimize the number of injuries, and I think the icing versus no-touch icing falls into that category.

I mean, how many times does a player actually get back in time to touch the puck first so there is no icing call? It happens, but I'd say more often than not, it's touched up for the icing call. So if icing is the case most of the time anyway, than why not just have the no-touch rule to save on some potential injuries.

Just don't take the risk
Players chasing down the puck with an opponent, and then colliding with each other on the end boards at a high rate of speed isn't a great combination. The play happens so quickly that incidental and dangerous contact is hard to avoid.

Instituting no-touch icing might result in a couple more faceoffs, and it will give teams a few more seconds on the power play (which can be good or bad, depending on which side you're on at the time), but so what? Why risk it when there is so much at stake.

If it can work at the high school level, it should also be fine at the professional level. It'll eliminate a lot of problems and headaches - or worse - for teams all across the league.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Let's do away with All-Star games

All-Star games. Is it time to do away with the concept of gathering professional sports' best stars and actually playing a game? Yes, I think so. The games are just turning into laughable affairs, or at least games that don't really represent competitiveness.

I watched the NHL All-Star game last weekend. Of course, I went into it knowing what to expect - an offensive outburst of breakaways and goals. On a recent entry I joked about a 15-12 game. I was a little high; the final score ended up being 11-10 in favor of Team Lidstrom, part of the new format for the NHL contest.

It actually might have been one of the better games in recent history; at least it was close at the end. Early on though, it didn't look too good when Team Lidstrom got down 4-0 to Team Staal in the first period. As expected, there were numerous breakaways, and not just 2-on-1s either. We're talking 3 or even 4-on-1 advantages.

The results were pretty, highlight-reel goals. Those were made possible by a style of play that included little defense and pretty much no physicality. If you like checks, hits and fights, the All-Star game is not for you; it's more like a women's hockey game.

Wild boys
Brent Burns and Martin Havlat were the representatives for the Minnesota Wild, and they were both drafted by Team Lidstrom. It's a good thing too, because then I knew who to cheer for in the non-competitive game.

I didn't think Burns was anything special during the game; he seemed to make a few mistakes once in awhile. Havlat had three assists and Burns had one. It really would have been cool to see one of the two score a goal, since those were flowing so freely during the game for other players. Oh well.

New format is... alright
As far as the new format goes, where two chosen team captains draft players at random regardless of conference, I was sort of indifferent. I always like to cheer for guys from "my" team in All-Star games, so as I said, I'm glad Havlat and Burns ended up on the same side.

If they had been split up, I don't know how I would have liked it. I guess I would just have to treat it like the exhibition contest that it really is and admire the pretty goal scoring. Heck, the Sedin twins from Vancouver were split up, so things were definitely jumbled.

Oh, and how about Phil Kessel getting a brand new car because he was the last guy picked in the draft? Somehow I don't think that's how it works when kids are playing a pick-up game at the local rink. Sorry, nobody wanted you, so here's a car.

Stop the games
But back to my thought about why All-Star games should cease. The NFL Pro Bowl was later that same night. I didn't watch any of that game, but I heard it was pretty ridiculous. The NFC was running away with the game, making it a huge laugher. And just like there is no checking in hockey, apparently tackling was non-existent at the Pro Bowl.

So stop going through the formality of actually playing these games. It has no real representation of the players and what they can really do because they are not giving 100 percent, competitive effort. One obvious reason is because no one wants to send a player back to his team with an injury. I get that, but there is always an injury risk during games, no matter how you play.

A way to fix the MLB All-Star game
The MLB All-Star game is the only one that's semi-decent in quality. It has dominant pitching shutting down some of the best hitters in the game. And for the past few years, the game's result has consequences: The winning league earns homefield advantage for the World Series.

Now, if we do away with All-Star games as I suggest, how would this advantage get decided, you ask? It's really very simple. We go back to the way it was before that infamous 7-7 tie from 2002 and just award homefield to the different league every other year. I never had an issue with that and it keeps things fair, especially since most of the players playing in the All-Star game won't get to enjoy that advantage in the Series that they played for.

Meet in the middle
I'm not saying the concept of All Stars should go away altogether; I just think the games should stop. You can still elect a group of All Stars based on their outstanding performance during the season. You can still choose a city to host a bunch of festivities associated with the big game so fans can come and have a good time and the athletes could do something to put on a show for the fans.

Or, I'd also be fine with simply naming a team and giving the league a break for a few days; the players like their vacations anyway. Whatever you do, just don't bother with the game.

Home run derby is losing luster
I'm also including the Home Run Derby in my list of things to cut. It can be a fun and exciting contest for the fans to watch, but the selection of participants is becoming a joke. By the time you have your hitters in the box, there have been a lot of candidates asked to participate who have declined. You're getting third and fourth choices up there swinging for the fences.

A big reason for the no's? Fear of injury or messing up one's swing for the rest of the season. Whether it's legitimate or not, it's just another reason to do away with it. If players are so concerned about getting injured, then fine. Don't try to put on some second-rate game where everyone is playing it safe.

Just end all of the All-Star hoopla, take a short break, so we can get on with the rest of the season.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Minnesota Wild at the NHL All-Star break

The Minnesota Wild went into the All-Star break with a 4-2 win over the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks. This puts the Wild in eighth place in the Western Conference with 55 points (tied with San Jose) at the measuring-stick point of the season.

They have been an inconsistent, up-and-down team this season, as in years past. It's been a team that can impress and amaze one night, and then completely collapse the next. A team that can go from a decent first period, to coming out absolutely flat in the second period.

Being in the hunt for a playoff spot is fine, as long as you can maintain your level of play in order to break into the top eight. And even then, you'll end up playing the top-seeded teams and have your back up against the wall.

But hey, it's still about halfway through the season, so let's just wait and see how things shake out in the ever-tight West. Three-point games make the standings extremely competitive and ever-changing. It's hard to scoreboard watch too far in advance, and it's best just to keep trying to win as many games, in regulation, as possible to help your team.

Two All-Stars for the Wild
Brent Burns was named to the NHL All-Star game, and just this week it was announced that his teammate Martin Havlat will join him. It is only the second time that the Wild will have two representatives at one All-Star game. The other came when St. Paul hosted the event back in 2004.

Havlat has been having a great season and he leads the team with 44 points (14 goals, 30 assists). Mikko Koivu is right on his tail with 43 points.

At one point, the defenseman Burns was leading in the goal category. Now, he joins Koivu, Havlat and Cal Clutterbuck who are all sitting at the 14-goal mark.

Like goals? Then the All-Star game is for you
The new-format All-Star game is this Sunday in Raleigh, N.C. We'll see how the ratings do. Star player Sidney Crosby won't play because he's been out for most of January with a concussion. His Pittsburgh Penguins teammate Evgeni Malkin won't play either.

Plus, I'll be honest. The NHL All-Star game is never too exciting of a game in my eyes, from the standpoint of competition, that is. If you like to see goal scoring, then sit back and enjoy the 15-12 goal fest. I kid, but it does seem to have that offensive quality to it, unlike the Major League Baseball All-Star game which is a little more like a regular game, and it actually means something now too.

It's a little harder with hockey because hitting and physical play are such a part of the game, but no one wants to be responsible for injuring a player in an exhibition game, so it is a different atmosphere.

If you want to catch the All-Star action this weekend, watch on Versus at 3 p.m. for the big game. Cheer on Burns and Havlat.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Shutting out the Canucks

Wild goalie Anton Khudobin.
Sometimes in sports, you just have a team's number. That seems to be what's happening with the Wild whenever the Vancouver Canucks come to St. Paul for a division-rivalry game.

With a 4-0 win for Minnesota on Sunday night, it marked the fourth straight game at the Xcel Energy Center that it's won against the Canucks.

Vancouver has such a hard time playing here that it didn't start its dominating goaltender Roberto Luongo (whose statistics at the X are less than desirable), but instead started Cory Schneider. The goalie switch-a-roo didn't seem to phase the Wild one bit.

The shutout win snapped a three-game losing streak (preceded by a four-game win streak) for the Wild. It was a great effort against a team with the best record in the NHL, a team which had only lost one game in regulation since early December before the loss to the Wild.

Wild came to play
Right from the start, there wasn't much to complain about. I could tell early on that Wild rookie goalie Anton Khudobin was on his 'A' game. He made some great saves all night, with some help from his defenders, to earn his first career NHL shutout in only his third career start. Amazing job for the call-up filling in for the injured Niklas Backstrom and Jose Theodore.

No goals were scored in the first period, but that didn't stop the fans from giving the Wild a warm reception as they went to the locker room. It's much better than booing them into an intermission, that's for sure. The Wild held a 8-0 shot advantage until almost the halfway mark of the period.

The Wild got on the board a few minutes into the second, with a diving-effort, power-play goal by Andrew Brunette. It would turn out to be the scrappiest goal of the night. Martin Havlat continued showing his offensive skill with a pretty breakaway goal about halfway through the second.


Makin' the highlight reel
In the middle of killing a penalty, Minnesota native Matt Cullen grabbed a bouncing puck that had trickled out to center and away from a Vancouver defender. Cullen turned on the jets and created a beautiful breakaway for a shorthanded goal.

It's pretty rare that you can see two breakaways in a game, let alone having both of the shots hit the inside of the cage.

Cullen's goal early in the third seemed to end any chance the Canucks may have had to come back. John Madden also had a highlight-reel goal later with great assists to Cullen and Chuck Kobasew.

As for the shutout, anytime you can keep the dangerous Sedin twins off the score sheet, it's a good day.


Physical game? Check.
I was hoping for some hitting and fighting during the game, being that it was Vancouver and all. I got my wish. The Boogeyman-replacement Brad Staubitz dropped the gloves with Aaron Volpatti in the first after Staubitz hit Andrew Alberts so hard that he went sailing on the ice into his team bench.

In the second, it was Kobasew getting into the action with a scrum against Keith Ballard. Both fights were worth it, many punches were thrown. Ballard and Kobasew even had to be separated by the referees because they went on so long on the ice that they were tired out. No take down there.

Hitting, and often times fighting, are a part of the game. It was great to see these parts showing up on Sunday.

Me and my friend Michael.

Thanks goes out to my friend Michael for inviting me to the game; we had some great seats. That's him in the above photo, wearing a Wild jersey for the first time ever. It was his first piece of hockey apparel. I was a proud sports friend.

What's next?
The Wild now hit the road for a few games. We'll see if the effort put forth against the league's best team can hold up for a little while.

If you're watching the points in the standings (which I don't like to do since it changes so much, so frequently), eight teams are currently ahead of the Wild in the Western Conference. Minnesota is tied with San Jose and Los Angeles with 49 points each. But that's at the moment.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Good news on the Minnesota sports front

A lot of good things have happened recently in the wide world of Minnesota sports. Maybe it's enough to overshadow the fact that the Vikings went from being oh-so-close to a Super Bowl last season, to finishing last in their division in the very-odd 50th season.

But back to the good news. The Wild have turned things around a bit, at least for the moment, as the halfway mark of the season arrives. To add to the rejuvenated excitement, Brent Burns was named to the NHL All-Star game.

St. Thomas football coach Glenn Caruso was honored as the Division III Coach of the Year. Bert Blyleven finally received the call to the Hall. Yes, there is a lot to celebrate these days and take our minds off the snow that seems to be stuck in the 'on' position.

Wild are showing some life
It's a good time to be following the Wild right now. They are playing well on the road, beating the Pittsburgh Penguins (minus an injured Sidney Crosby) and the sliding New Jersey Devils (with former coach Jacques Lemaire).

Their record is 8-3-1 in the past 12 games to put them in the thick of things in the extremely tight points race in the Western Conference. As of Tuesday, they are sitting in the middle of their Northwest division with 47 points.

The funny thing about this season has been the role reversal of playing at home versus on the road. Last season, the Wild got off to a horrible start on the road and never fully recovered. This season, they are playing much better when they are away from the X, which is not helpful for the paying customers at home games.

If one thing has been clear, it's that the Wild are an inconsistent team. They win a couple here, lose a couple there. This is the first real sign of life for them, and a sigh of relief for coach Todd Richards. Let's keep those fingers crossed that the Wild can ride this high wave a little longer.

Burns is an All-Star
Defenseman Brent Burns at one point was leading the team in goals. Currently, his 12 tally trails hitter Cal Clutterbuck's 13 goals. Burns also has 14 assists for 26 points and is having a great year. He will be representing the Wild as the organization's sixth-ever All-Star.

Apparently, he had a trip planned to Mexico with his wife over the All-Star break. I guess he'll have to cancel. I'm sure his bride will understand.

Deserving award for Caruso
Before the BCS football game took place Monday night in Phoenix, St. Thomas head football coach Glenn Caruso was named the 2010 Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year for NCAA Division III. In his third year at UST, he is the youngest coach to win the award.

He turned a 2-8 football team in 2007 into a MIAC and DIII powerhouse team. This season, the Tommies snapped a long losing streak to the rival Johnnies, as they made their way to a perfect 10-0 regular season. They lost to Bethel at home in the NCAA quarterfinals.

Caruso has given St. Thomas football a complete makeover and is very deserving of this award. Bob Nielson of Minnesota Duluth was the top coach honored in DII football.

It took 14 years, but he's in
Bert Blyleven now has another countdown to keep track of, besides the number of days until his next birthday. The date now circled on his calendar should be July 24, when he will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Fourteen years may seem like a long time to wait, and I'm sure Bert is relieved to finally be part of the elite class of Hall of Famers. Certain stats, like his win-loss record, were arguably holding him back from being a clear candidate as considered by the Baseball Writers Association of America.

But hey, at least he got in. That should be all that matters, right?

The pitcher in the 70s and 80s is well-known now for his color analysis for FSNorth on the Twins broadcasts. For someone of my generation, this is how I am most familiar with Bert. It's unfortunate that I can't recall his playing days.

He spent half of his career with the Twins, during two different stints. He was here to be part of the 1987 World Champion Twins team. He pitched in an era before there was so much weight put into closers, middle relievers and set-up guys. He went to the mound intending on finishing eight or nine innings.

One piece of sad news from the Twins family
The legendary face of the Twins, Harmon Killebrew, announced that he has been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. This was quite sad and unexpected news that came to light recently. The Killer, a Hall of Fame veteran who still has deep ties with the Twins organization, is thought of fondly by many fans.

His spirit seemed very high in his released statement, where he gave every indication he would be beating this illness. The entire Twins and baseball community will be wishing for a speedy recovery for Killebrew.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Minnesota comes out on top in a 'wild' one at home

I'm really not sure what to think about the Minnesota Wild's 6-5 overtime win Sunday night at home over the Phoenix Coyotes. It was a very interesting game, and coach Todd Richards had it right in his post-game comments in saying, "it was like a movie."

I'll go with that.

Let's lay everything out from the beginning. We got to the Xcel Center extra early to enjoy our seats in the corner seven rows up from the glass. Seeing the boys up close for warm-ups was pretty cool. It also gave me a chance to get some nice photos of them in their green uniforms.

Cal Clutterbuck.
 The game started out alright. Nothing too earth-shattering, until the Coyotes got the first goal of the game. Then the people who made the intermission food dash a little early missed out. Andrew Brunette scored with 4.4 ticks remaining in the first to tie the game and give the Wild some life.

Not a bad second, for a change
Then came the second period, a frame the Wild have been known to forget about this season. We were a little worried too, since our seats were at the end where they would be looking to score during the second.

As it turned out, the second period might have been their best. Brunette scored his second of the night on the power play, and Nick Schultz fired one in from the point to give the Wild a 3-1 lead after 40 minutes.

Back-and-forth third
Things got a little hairy in the third. The Wild seemed to once again forget that a hockey game is 60 minutes long, not less. They came out looking like a team that was trying not to lose, rather than win.

Wild goalie Jose Theodore.
Jose Theodore had to be good on a night when the Wild gave up 44 shots, tied for the most this season. So giving up five goals isn't a bad ratio. The problem was, the Coyotes scored two goals in a 13-second span early in the third to tie it a three.

Brent Burns got the lead back, which was followed by the Wild again sitting back on its heels. Phoenix wasn't done putting pucks in the net either. They tied it, and then the dagger came with just under three minutes to go for a 5-4 advantage.

The night looked to be over, but the scoring still wasn't done. With the extra attacker on the ice for a pulled Theodore, Pierre-Marc Bouchard scored with 26 seconds left in regulation to send the game into overtime. Talk about excitement.

Time for OT
While we were waiting for the OT to start, I said to my brother, "Well, somebody better score in overtime, otherwise we might as well leave if they get to a shootout." Negative? Maybe, but the Wild haven't proven they can win in shootouts this year.

Luckily, we didn't have to wait long. Cam Barker, of all people, was the big hero of the night. His shot from the point looked to be stopped by Phoenix goalie Jason LaBarbera, but the puck trickled through his pads for the win.

Pandemonium ensued at the X. It was a pretty wild win, and much needed.

Mikko Koivu.
Other notes
- Mikko Koivu had a banner night in his 400th game. He tied his career high with four assists, which gave him 201 for his career.

- After Brunette's second goal, I asked my brother if he was going to throw his NDSU hat on the ice should Bruno get the hat trick. The opportunity had never arisen for us before, being so close to the action, and he said he was "thinking about it."

- Martin Havlat was a minus-4 for the game.

- Despite the Wild's awful streak in shootouts, they are 4-1 this season in overtime contests.

- We were close enough to the ice that I could see Burns say "F*&@" after making a bad passing decision in the Wild zone.

Wild end 2010 on a low note

Talk about a listless, lackluster hockey game. I guess the Minnesota Wild were thinking ahead to New Year's Eve plans, but forgot they needed to show up at the Xcel Energy Center first in what turned out to be a 4-1 loss to the slumping Nashville Predators.

It's been awhile since I've seen that kind of a poor performance in person. The boys had no energy, not even enough to hit, apparently. They just came out flat. The Star Tribune's Michael Russo really hit the nail on the head with his game story.


Not their best effort
The score is a little misleading. It was basically a 2-0 game, until the Wild cut the deficit to one with about two minutes left in the game. Then they gave up two empty-net goals for the first time in team history.

Although, the Preds did have a lot more chances where they could have easily put the puck away, so a 4-0 or 5-0 score would have been appropriate too.The first period wasn't all that bad. The Wild put themselves in a hole when they gave up an early goal.

Stopping screening your goalie
Goal No. 2 was scored in the second period. Both times, however, it appeared Nicklas Backstrom was screened on the play - by his own players.

I believe it was Cam Barker on one of the goals. The defender is in front of the goal to keep an eye on the opponent who's camped out just above the crease.

But, what the defender also needs to do is a) rattle the guy's cage by shoving, pushing, grabbing... anything that you can get away with so you won't end up in the box; and b) be aware enough to not screen your own goaltender, making his job 10 times harder.

I've noticed this before with the Wild, although I suppose other teams could have the same problem too. They need to take more initiative in front of their own net. Protect your goalie and defend your zone.

Hit somebody already
Along the lines of not being aggressive, what the Wild really could have used Friday was some physicality to their game. Sometimes a fight is what a team needs to get some inspiration, which would have been nice, but I would have settled for some decent hitting.

I realize Cal Clutterbuck missed the game due to injury; however, he can't be your only hitter. Play with some intensity and throw some bodies against the boards, unless you want the crowd to think they're watching a women's hockey game.

Since nothing seemed to go right, the power play didn't either. It was pretty bad. The Wild once again were chorused with boos from the crowd and shouts of "shoot the puck." This was later in the game when fans were finally starting to get restless after it appeared the building had been zapped of its energy, like the home team.

Too little, much too late
A little offense finally came to life with a goal from Chuck Kobasew with about two minutes left in the game. I have to be honest; I wasn't that excited.

I mean, it was nice they finally put a puck in the net, but then the place decides to come to life along with the "pump up" music from the sound system. Sorry, but the Wild decided not to show up for 58 minutes. What makes you think they will score again before the game is over?

Then things got really ugly, with the two empty net goals. I didn't really understand why they kept Backstrom out after it was 3-1. They had trouble controlling the puck all night, and they thought they could play keep-away at the end. Nope, not working.

So, the game ended to the sound of boos from the unhappy crowd. It was quite fitting for the lack of effort shown by the home team. Then it was off to kick off the New Year with a more joyous celebration than the Wild mustered.