Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A little of this and that. Baseball, golf, racing.

A longer, more in-depth blog just isn't coming to me lately. So, I figured I'd touch on a few things. I've got baseball, golf and racing. No hockey, but I'm sure players all over are doing just fine swinging the golf clubs.

2014 All-Star Game at Target Field
The Minnesota Twins unveiled their 2014 All-Star game logo this week. It has the design of the stadium's overhang above the top decks, along with the downtown Minneapolis skyline incorporated into it.

Twins homeboy Joe Mauer is a six-time All-Star. I sincerely hope he's chosen again next year, so he can enjoy the experience on his home turf. Of course, the pessimist in me worries he'll have an injury-plagued season or have an off year at the plate. That'd be about right.

Basically, I hope the Twins have a bigger representation than the standard one required player as part of the American League team.

Nothing to note at trade deadline
Tuesday night, the Twins returned to action at Target Field, in what ended up being a 7-2 loss to the hands of the streaking Kansas City Royals. One bright spot? Joe Mauer, who was out of the lineup for a week after the birth of his twin girls, swung at the first pitch he saw (yes, the first one) and came up with an RBI single. That's why he's an All-Star.

During the game, former Twins manager Tom Kelly joined Dick Bremer in the broadcast booth to offer his always-fun color commentary. I think I remember him saying that the Twins wouldn't have an eventful trade deadline. He was right.

The Twins traded backup catcher, who's been in Mauer's shadow, to the Los Angeles Dodgers for a player to be named later. While first baseman Justin Morneau's name was thrown about for the trading block, he remained safe for now. But there's still the waivers route, and he is a free agent at the end of the season.

3M Championship week
The 3M Championship golf tournament is this week in Blaine, Minn. Senior PGA players venture to the north metro area and play at a course the legendary Arnold Palmer designed. He also shows up to play some exhibition rounds, too.

Golf isn't a top sport for me. I usually catch a little of the major tournaments on TV, and I used to play a bit more as a kid. But the 3M Championship has a special place in my sports reporter heart. I covered it three years in a row as an intern while I developed some journalistic chops. I learned a few new things about golf, got a chance to do some writing and simply had a good experience covering an event.

It was also where I met some of the sports journalists I look up to, like Patrick Reusse, Jim Souhan and Brian Stensaas from the Minneapolis Star Tribune. A couple years later when I landed a part-time gig in the Strib's sports department, they were my colleagues, and I particularly got know Brian (aka @stensation) a little better. Now we're Facebook friends and keep up with each other via the good ol' Twitter machine.

IndyCar heads to Mid-Ohio this weekend
I might have had a pretty good blog post... if I would be on my way to Mid-Ohio for the IndyCar race this weekend (like my parents). My dad and I went to Mid-Ohio in 2010 for the first time, and I really enjoyed the track. It reminded me a lot of the Road America track in Wisconsin (where IndyCar desperately needs to make a triumphant return).

Driver Scott Dixon finally found his stride this year and is riding a three-race win streak into the beautiful road course in the middle of Ohio. It also happens to be a track where he's done well in the past. We'll have to see if he can keep it going for win No. 4, or if someone else will be able to take the checkereds first.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

What's new in IndyCar: Pocono, Toronto and Team Target's good fortune

As an IndyCar fan, you understand that it's most definitely not a top-tier sport. You understand that most people still don't even know what it is, until you mention the Indianapolis 500 (and maybe not even then). You also get used to some of the television coverage issues that pop up, like cutting it short because it's over time.

This isn't too much of an issue as it was many 10 or 20 years ago, but I think my most recent example takes the cake. The IndyCar Series was at Pocono for the first time since 1989 a couple weeks ago. My dad told me the day before that TV coverage was from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

So imagine my surprise when I came back from church to find a local church service (yes, that's right) on the Fargo ABC affiliate from 11 a.m. to noon. They joined the race in progress, about 57 laps in. I missed the start of the race, which my dad told me was different than usual and was three-wide, and I basically missed about one-third of the race.

Not cool.

Return to Pocono
Anyway, now that I have that off my chest, let's talk about some racing. Marco Andretti started from the pole (or so I read) and he had high hopes for a win at what he considers a home track. Though he's had a long winless streak, he's raced well this season and has contended for the championship points lead.

He led a lot of laps at Pocono, but I think it was some fuel strategy that did him in. It's been no secret that the powerhouse teams of Penske and Target have struggled this year. The Target boys hadn't won a race at all, which seems just unheard of.

They turned it around in a big way at Pocono, with a Target sweep of the podium. It was Scott Dixon with the win, followed by teammates Dario Franchitti and Charlie Kimball. With such an entertaining season, I guess it was OK to give Target one day in the sun.

Bumper cars on pit lane
One of the funniest moments of the race happened on pit lane. Well, maybe it wasn't really funny. I suppose you could say it was a head-shaker. Ryan Hunter-Reay, still in the hunt for the championship, was headed down pit lane. The next thing he knew, Takuma Sato came flying into the scene and hit Hunter-Reay's car. Seriously.

By the way, there is a speed limit for drivers when they're on pit lane.

I personally loved the cut to Hunter-Reay's radio with his team owner Michael Andretti, who said he "saw it with his own two eyes." (Inside joke with my dad.) Hunter-Reay was able to get his car on the track again, but he was a few laps down and took a hit in the points.

I'll tell you what I did like though. It was the interview with Sato where he took full responsibility for the collision. He said it was his fault, he made a mistake and he just came into the pits too fast (obviously). I really liked that. So often drivers tend to blame others for racing incidents, rather than take responsibility or use the appropriate phrase: "that's racing." So, kudos to Mr. Sato.

Team Target. It's like the New York Yankees
It's no secret that Team Penske and Team Target are IndyCar's top teams. At least, it's been that way for years. But they've struggled this season, which is unlike them. Underdog teams and first-time winners have found the spotlight, and Andretti Autosport has really started hitting victory lane hard.

I finally realized however, that Team Target, with its owner Chip Ganassi, is just like the New York Yankees ball club. See, the Yankees often have some early season struggles where they tumble in the standings. Everyone seems to get all hot and bothered and worried they won't make the postseason. So what happens? October baseball in New York.

With Team Target, not only did it fail to win races earlier this year, it just plain struggled. Then Dixon wins the last three races in a row, including the two in Toronto. He moved into seventh place on the all-time win list behind the legendary A.J. Foyt and guys with the last names of Unser and Andretti. Basically, Dixon has become a game-changer and is making a charge for the championship.

Dario's luck
His teammate Franchitti also has lady luck on his side. Take the 2012 Indianapolis 500, where he and Sato touched wheels in turn one on the final lap. I thought for sure it would send them both into the wall. Nope. Just Sato and Franchitti went on to the checkered flag.

Then in Toronto, he and rival Penske driver Will Power made contact. Power was knocked out of the race, but Franchitti finished on the podium. Race officials later decided to penalize Franchitti 10 spots, but that was later overturned. (Get it together, IndyCar.)

Anyway, it just seems like Team Target can really make a comeback. Just as easily as the Bronx Bombers.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Minnesota Wild sign dirty player Matt Cooke for 3 years

The Fourth of July in 2012 was marked with the usual summer traditions of parades, good food and great friends. But there was one other thing that made it a stand-out day in the state of hockey: The signings of top free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to the Minnesota Wild.

That was some pretty exciting news for hockey fans in the land of 10,000 lakes. Fast forward to the National Hockey League's free agent season this year, and it's a different story for the Wild.

Adding the wrong Cooke to the kitchen
Player Matt Cooke, 34, made the biggest headline splash. The Wild signed him to a three-year, $7.5 million deal, and let's just say the Minnesota fans aren't too happy with the move. If you know the difference between an enforcer and a goon in the NHL, I would classify Cooke as a goon.

I know the Wild hasn't been known as a tough team. They don't have the physicality of others out there. But I don't want them to do it this way. I don't want to win because we have a goon on the team who specializes in taking runs at players and injuring them.

Wild fans got a good taste of Cooke when he was with the Vancouver Canucks a few years back. His reputation is a cheap-shot artist on skates. That's the difference between being an enforcer. He's not a clean player, though from what I've read he's allegedly changed his ways and is more focused on scoring.

He needs to prove that to Wild fans.

Just a dirty player
Cooke played with the Pittsburgh Penguins and won a Stanley Cup with that team in 2009. But I don't think that's what people remember about him. He's a notoriously dirty player. That's where the focus lies.

Search for "Matt Cooke" on YouTube.com and here's what you get: Checking from behind, player injured by Cooke's skate, Cooke's "cheapshotting history," taunting, hipchecking, chirping, knocking out Marc Savard and elbowing. And that's only the first page of results.

You don't see a bunch of highlight-reel goals or overtime winners for Cooke. It's not scientific or anything, but it's a pretty good indicator of the type of player he's been. He will have a very tough time escaping his reputation, if he has in fact changed his ways.

Bad reactions
My brother texted me about the Cooke acquisition by the Wild. It would've been great to have Twitter right in front of me to see the reactions of hockey fans. I did scan back later though, and right away Star Tribune Wild beat writer Michael Russo noted how Minnesota fans were not happy. That was my gut reaction as well.

Here are a few related Tweets regarding the Cooke deal:

@_Happy_Gilmore: Minnesota Wild have signed Matt Cooke to a 3 yr deal with $75,000 in incentives if he takes his skate off and tries to stab someone.

@jclong: The #MnWild signing Matt Cooke is kinda like finding out your sister is now dating a guy that beat you up when you were younger.

@vlamb24: Really, Matt Cooke?? I guess it will be like learning to cheer for Bertuzzi.

Other Wild roster changes
In other moves, the Wild traded fan-favorite and heavy hitter Cal Clutterbuck. I'm sorry, but I'd rather have the scrappy Cal than the dirty Cooke. The team also told Minnesota native and veteran player Matt Cullen that he wouldn't be asked back with the Wild, so he signed with Nashville for a two-year deal. Pierre-Marc Bouchard inked a one-year deal with the New York Islanders.

Just before the Cooke move lit things up Friday, the Wild dealt Devin Setoguchi to the Winnipeg Jets in exchange for a second-round pick in 2014. Not everyone is leaving, however. The Wild signed Baudette, Minn. native and former Minnesota Golden Gopher Keith Ballard to a two-year deal and re-signed defenseman Jared Spurgeon for three years.