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