Thursday, December 31, 2015

Looking back at 2015

As we turn the calendar to 2016, it's time to take a look back at some of the memorable blogs and topics I chose to share my thoughts. There's always something exciting happening in the sports world, which is perhaps why I love to write about it so much.

Sports writing kept me going
The year started out with some uncertainty for me as I tried to figure out where I belonged in the writing world. But I built up some skills and new experiences. One of the highlights was covering hockey. I covered a Minnesota Wild game and the boys' state high school hockey tournament each for the first time. I spent hours at the Xcel Energy Center, but it didn't feel like work. That was perhaps the best part.

The more stories I pounded out, the more I established myself as a freelance sports journalist. It was great to cover such a variety of high school tournaments, from hockey to swimming to badminton.

In August, I touched on what it's like to cover sports in a male-dominated field. This was after Star Tribune University of Minnesota men's basketball beat reporter Amelia Rayno told her story about then-athletic director Norwood Teague sexually harassing her. As I pointed out in my blog, I have not been sexually harassed during my career as a sports journalist, or in any other capacity. Still, it was nice to write about my experiences covering sports.

Twins made it exciting this season
The Minnesota Twins made some great strides under first-year manager Paul Molitor. They finished 83-79 and stayed in contention until the final weekend of the season. I got a front row seat to see the debuts of Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano. I took in the greatest game of the year, when the Twins scored seven runs in the bottom of the ninth capped with a home run from Brian Dozier.

Torii Hunter returned to the ballclub, mentored the youngsters and flashed a few smiles before he announced his retirement in November.

I recalled my journey as a Twins fan, and I got a job with Major League Baseball and had a blast last summer. I look forward to more memories in 2016.

Wild made another playoff run but lost again in round 2
The season looked over for the Wild in January. No one was optimistic halfway through the season with the Wild's complete freefall. The stats were staggering, and it was hard to see any light at the end of the tunnel.

Enter Devan Dubnyk. The Wild traded for the goalie, and there's no doubt that he single-handedly saved the team's season. They rallied and snuck into the playoffs just before the end of the season, surprising all of us.

The Wild faced the physical St. Louis Blues in the first round of the playoffs, winning that series in six games. Fans were ready for another postseason rematch with the Chicago Blackhawks for the third year in a row. For sure this was going to be the year the Wild got past the Hawks, right? Not so much. Unfortunately, this seemed to be the worst series of the three. A theory is that the Wild was essentially in playoff mode for a few months, since the January slide, so the boys were just worn out.

Facing the Blackhawks has also turned into how the Twins face the Yankees in the postseason. They just can't get past them.

Some tough news, too
This year wasn't without some tough news. In August, IndyCar lost another outstanding driver, Justin Wilson. He died after a crash at Pocono Raceway when part of a nose cone flew high in the air and made contact with Wilson's helmet. He truly was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The crash brought up a lot of debate about the safety of racing, but this was really a freak accident.

A week in October was a particularly difficult one when it came to the local sports scene. All in the same week, Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders died after battling Hodgkins lymphoma, Gophers football coach Jerry Kill emotionally announced his - somewhat sudden - retirement citing health reasons. It was also the same week Hunter announced he was retiring from baseball, but that was not completely out of the blue.

I realize now that I wrote about a lot of thoughts from the heart, going over my fan journeys, addressing controversy and sharing why I love sports writing. Thanks to all who at any time have read my thoughts in 2015, in the previous six years and in the years to come.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Wild continues the holiday-hangover pattern

On Dec. 27, 2014, the family and I attended the Wild versus Winnipeg Jets game in St. Paul. The Wild lost that contest 4-3 in overtime. It was ultimately an unlucky bounce that cost the local boys the victory.

Saturday, Dec. 26, 2015, we were back for more post-Christmas Wild action as it took on the Pittsburgh Penguins. It was another loss for the Wild, 3-1. But this time, the Wild didn't even show up. Too many Christmas cookies and eggnog for them over the NHL holiday break, I guess.

Happy holiday slump
It's really not surprising. Look at the glaring statistic that the Wild is 1-7-1 in the first games after Christmas. For whatever reason, the Wild just can't get it together and instead need a mulligan game after the holidays.

The funny thing is, and goalie Devan Dubnyk referenced this in one of his postgame comments, every team gets a break at Christmas. It's nice that the NHL gives players and teams the time off, but the Wild take a little longer to recover. Not a great excuse when the opponent had the same amount of time off.

The most recent Christmas-hangover game for the Wild was in front of the largest crowd of the season - 19,234 - at Xcel Energy Center. There was about 30 seconds of excitement, when Jason Zucker scored the Wild's lone goal. More on that later.

Slow start, slow game
Predictably, it was a slow start for the Wild. A slow start that morphed into a slow game overall. Shots on goal were a joke all night, as the Pens won that battle 11-4 in the first period and 16-8 in the second. It was definitely enough to let out a Bronx cheer whenever the Wild managed a shot that reached Pens goalie Matt Murray, who was playing in his third NHL game. The Wild didn't test him nearly enough.

One of the good things after the first period was that it was scoreless. The Pens failed to get on the board. The Wild though, couldn't connect with anything. Passes were off the mark, behind players, too hard, you name it. There was a decent chance from Marco Scandella, but he hit the post.

Anyway, the Wild couldn't hold the Pens forever, and good ol' Sidney Crosby scored early in the second period. He was day-to-day this week with an injury but got the call to play. He added an assist later and was the game's No. 1 star.

Brother Kyle was super "excited" to see Sid the Kid score.
When it rains, it pours
The last two minutes of the second period got crazy. At 18:10, the Pens took a 2-0 lead. Zucker answered with his goal 45 seconds later on a nice feed from Thomas Vanek. Zucker went for the net and scored a beauty. Here's where that little bit of excitement came in before Patric Hornquist scored a deflating, power play goal at 19:26 for a 3-1 Pens lead after two periods.

That power play, by the way, was because of a cross checking penalty on Jared Spurgeon. Tough call there. But the Pens took 16 seconds to score a goal. Don't misunderstand: I'm not blaming that call for the Wild going down 3-1.

The scoring was complete, and the final shot count was 32-26 in favor of Pittsburgh. As I noted, the Wild just couldn't get anything going all game long. Poor play, poor passing, not enough puck possession and then not enough pressure on goal when they had the puck. It's frustrating to watch that type of game as a fan, especially when you're at the arena.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Some unimportant Wild schedule gripes

There's something I've meant to blog about since the Wild season started. I just figured it'd blow over and wouldn't be an issue. But it keeps coming up and is a slight annoyance. It's the Wild's schedule and mostly the fact that the team is always behind in the number of games played.

I know, I know. It doesn't seem like a huge deal on the surface, right?

Let me be clear about something. This blog post isn't to suggest that scheduling has some great bearing on the outcome of games for the Wild. I'm not saying, "Oh, the Wild has a messed up schedule, and that's why it is lower in the standings or that's why it's not winning games or reason XYZ." That wouldn't make sense.

I just think it's worth noting, mostly because I keep noticing it. More of a gripe, if you will. Like the whole Stadium Series instead of a Winter Classic or the 3-on-3 format for the All-Star Game.

Searching the standings
The NHL season isn't half over yet, so you could argue it's too early to look at the standings anyway. There's still plenty of hockey left. However, the Wild is in the toughest division in the league, so that makes things a bit more interesting.

Anyway, this year when I look at the standings, I've noticed one thing: The games-played column. Minnesota is consistently two, three, sometimes even four games behind the rest of the teams in the division. So really, it's tough to say where they fall in the standings.

Of course, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. As points are precious and as the end of the season comes up, teams are in a much better position if they have games in hand. They have a chance to control their own fate that way.

The issue really started in the beginning of the season. The first few weeks felt like a series of season openers because of all the long breaks in between games. They started in Colorado, opened at home a couple days later, had four full days off before three games out west, then another three days off before the second home game nearly two weeks after the home opener.

That was just October. Early November saw some breaks, too.

It was just weird. Too much time off at the beginning of the season when everyone, theoretically, is healthy and energized. Plus, it can be a huge momentum killer.

The dreaded back-to-back games
While I'm at this schedule thing, I want to touch on back-to-back games, too. The Wild will play 14 back-to-backs this season, meaning games two nights in a row. I think there's too much focus on them. I'm not sure if it's the teams that focus on it, or if it's an easy angle for broadcast teams and analysts.

The fact is, back-to-backs exist for all teams. Sometimes you'll be home-and-home, sometimes it will involve travel. Sometimes you'll be in a homestand and face an opponent traveling on the second night of a B2B. Logic can work both ways. If you play well, you have momentum from the night before. If you play slow and terrible, you're tired from the night before.

You can always spin it, but I get frustrated with hearing about it. Teams have to learn how to manage these B2B scenarios because they're around. I guess what I'm getting at is there seems to be an easy excuse for losses on the second game. I don't agree with that. You can always make excuses in losses, but I'd prefer if "back-to-back games" isn't one of them.

Of course, this all comes from a fan who doesn't have to worry about traveling and playing in a short span of time. But hey, that's what I'm here for, to give my opinion.

So there you have it. Probably not the most intriguing topics to write about, but those are my thoughts. Just wanted to put them out there.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Caruso's Tommies make great strides toward another title game

The last football season before coach Glenn Caruso came to St. Thomas was in 2007. The Tommies finished 2-8 that fall. They had their first 0-4 start since 1969 before getting their only two wins against Carleton and Augsburg. 

Now in 2015, the Tommies (14-0) are headed to their second Division III national championship game in four years. What a difference a few seasons, and a new coach, can make. 

Caruso was hired in January 2008, a news conference I, the school newspaper's sports editor, missed attending because I was studying abroad in London for the month. He turned things around right away, with a 7-3 record in 2008 (my senior semester on campus). This included a heartbreaking 12-9 home loss to rival St. John's; I remember that blown touchdown call like it was yesterday. 

Preparing for kickoff versus Linfield.
Anyway, 2009 saw great strides as well. An 11-2 team that lost only to St. John's in overtime and then to Linfield 31-20 in the DIII quarterfinals. 

2010: 12-1, with a 10-0 regular season. 

2011: 13-1, getting shutout 20-0 by DIII powerhouse UW-Whitewater in the semifinals. 

2012: 14-1, losing to dominant force Mount Union 28-10 in the title game, the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl. 

2013: 8-2, and a down year, if you want to call it that, with losses to St. John's and Bethel. 

2014: 8-3, again losing to St. John's and Bethel, and also to Wartburg in the first round of the playoffs. 

A milestone game
Saturday's game in St. Paul versus Linfield (Ore.) (12-1) marked game No. 100 for Caruso at St. Thomas.

The semifinal was a solid enough test for St. Thomas, but it still won by three touchdowns, 38-17. The Tommies got off to a quick start, coasting to a 20-0 lead in the first quarter. With a team that averages around 50 points a game and gives up around 10, it looked like the route was on, right? 

Well, not exactly. Linfield made some adjustments in the second quarter to stifle the Tommie offense a little bit. It was 23-3 at the break. 

Things were slow in the second half, too, as the defenses for both teams took control. The Wildcats were within striking distance, but the Tommies put up a couple fourth-quarter touchdowns to seal the deal. Turnovers, as they often are, were key elements to the game. Linfield handed the ball over five times, compared to just two turnovers for St. Thomas. After all, a fumble recovery deep in Linfield territory made the game 20-0 with three minutes to play in that first quarter. Then the teams traded fumbles back-to-back. 
Tommie touchdown!

Keys to the game
The other turnover for the Tommies was an interception, but it was on fourth down around midfield. Basically, if you're going to throw an interception, that wasn't a terrible spot for it. 

If you want to find a spot to critique, St. Thomas could clean up the penalties just a touch. I'm mostly thinking of the three delay of game penalties they took Saturday. But there were others. For instance, late in the first half they had a 2nd-and-36 play thanks to some penalties. They survived and got a field goal out of the deal.

Linfield was focused on the passing game, with 290 passing yards. St. Thomas threw for 55 yards, but its game is all about the run, with 389 yards. And how about St. Thomas junior runningback Jordan Roberts? The lad rushed for 256 yards on 33 carries. For those keeping track, he increased his totals to 1,957 yards for the season. That's good enough to be the leading rusher in school history. The previous record was 1,861 yards in 1990 set by Gary Trettel. Roberts also leads Division III in scoring. 

So yeah, Roberts is a good football player. If you like understatements.

The Mount-umentous task ahead
Next up: The NCAA DIII title game Friday in Salem, Va. to face Mount Union in the Stagg Bowl. Mount Union is in a class all its own when it comes to football. This will be the 11th straight appearance in the Stagg Bowl for the powerhouse. They're No. 1 in points scored with 53.6 while St. Thomas is No. 2 with 52.5.

As good as St. Thomas is, the past few years have shown that Mount Union, and the other semifinalist UW-Whitewater, take DIII football to a whole new level of greatness. Dominant doesn't seem like a strong enough word. But with a title game experience under their belts, let's hope the Tommies can come through with a victory. 

From 2-8 before 2008, to national champions in 2015. What a mark that would be for Coach Caruso's pride-and-passion-filled bunch.

Me and my friend Amy at the semifinal game Saturday.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Wild blows 3-0 lead to Dallas, extending the annual slump

In my head, I had this blog already written before the game was over.

I was going to write about a great game from Darcy Kuemper against top-team Dallas, a couple beautiful goals at the hands of Thomas Vanek (1 goal, 1 assist), Jason Pominville finally scoring his first goal of the season Saturday and a bounce-back game for the Wild that pulled it up from the recent skid.

Yeah, well, then the third period happened. What was a 3-0 Wild lead after two periods turned into a 4-3 loss in overtime. No matter what happened in the game, that lead reversal is never a good sign.

It was the best of times...
Let's go through the good things anyway. The Wild came out with a little jump at the start, and Vanek scored his 10th goal of the season for a 1-0 lead. He shot from the circles and the puck made it through traffic. Off to a good start.

Later in the first period, we got a glimpse of why the team missed Justin Fontaine. His diving effort got the puck out of the Wild zone and up to Vanek, who drove into the offensive zone with Charlie Coyle. The 2-on-1 play was a beauty, with a great pass for a Coyle goal and a 2-0 lead.

Now, time for the moment of the night that will likely be forgotten. At the time, it was huge. In a chuckling sorta way. Pominville scored his first goal of the season. No typos in that last sentence. After a bit of a slumping year last season, Pominville has been under fire regarding the goose egg under his goals category.

At least he got the monkey off his back, for now. Pominville was in the box for a penalty in the first that carried over. I watched him exit the box, break into the zone, accept a pass from Mikael Granlund and blast a shot past goaltender Antti Niemi. To be honest, I didn't see it hit the back of the net (from the other end of the ice where I was sitting).

I'll also admit that I knew who had the puck and I just assumed Pominville's shot went wide and/or over the top of the net. That's just what he does. It was still pretty cool to see his first goal of the year though, at 1:11 of the second.

It was the worst of times...
Unfortunately, that's about where fun for the night ended. The Wild still went into the second intermission up 3-0, but I kept an eye on the shots on goal all night and didn't like what I saw. The Stars won that battle 44-26.

I had a bad feeling early in the third. The Wild came out like a team that was going to sit on a 3-0 lead for the final 20 minutes, rather than keep pressuring. It was 3-1 about five minutes in. Then there was a big turning point. The Wild had a power play after Johnny Oduya was all class in cross checking Zach Parise in the back of the head.

The Wild didn't get much going with the extra man, and this time the finger pointing goes in Granlund's direction. He turned the puck over twice, badly, which led to a breakaway and shorthanded goal from one of the league's best, Jamie Benn. His 18th of the season made it 3-2.

Then it just felt like the Wild tried to hang on, but you could feel it was only a matter of time before it would be a tie game. Sure enough, the Stars did just that. Coach Mike Yeo called his timeout and apparently was quite animated on the bench.

Whatever he said didn't work. The game continued on, with the Wild not generating much offense and Kuemper, who had an outstanding game, still standing on his head. With time ticking down to overtime, the Wild stood around and watched Dallas cycle the puck. That's such a frustrating thing to see; when a team gets caught watching like they're shorthanded. But they're not. It's 5-on-5.

Anyway, to overtime it went. I already knew that wasn't good, for many reasons, but also because the Wild have only won once in the extra session this season, while Dallas has zero "moral victory points" to its name.

Actually, the 3-on-3 overtime wasn't terrible for the Wild. They controlled the puck, but of course didn't shoot it as much as the 19,000 in the arena would have liked. I thought it would be over quick, but the Stars didn't score until the 3:57 mark of overtime, Tyler Seguin's 13th goal from Benn and John Klingberg.

Here we go again
Game over. Now sure, going in, you might think it'd be tough for the Wild to beat first-place Dallas. But the way they lost made it all the more concerning. The Wild dropped to 11-7-4, lost three games in four days at home and have lost five of their past six.

It's the usual, annual Minnesota Wild slump. The past few seasons it's been an issue, though I remember it being more late December/early January rather than late November. But it doesn't really matter. The point is that the same thing is happening again.

It's all about how you respond to bad stretches like this. Last year, it seemed the locker room was counting on some big trade to change things up. Then came Devan Dubnyk who single-handedly saved the Wild season.

You can't count on a trade, boys. Take a look around and figure out how to dig out of the hole. Again.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Looking at the Wild so far, overtime and injuries

As the Minnesota Wild prepare for game No. 20, it's already been an eventful season filled with long schedule breaks, a new overtime format, injuries and the flu bug - again. We're all just crossing our fingers that the mumps haven't returned. Yet.
Nov. 5 v. Nashville at Xcel Energy Center.

The Wild is 11-5-3 in the most competitive division in the NHL, the Central in the Western Conference. They've kept pace with Nashville about mid-pack. They've had one of their greatest starts in franchise history, points-wise. Still, it'll be a tough task to go strong for 82 games in such a tough division.

They've played well at home (with the exception of the Nov. 5 3-2 loss to Nashville that I attended.) Every point counts, so it's good they've started off so well.

The beginning of the season was a little weird. It just was. Not only did the team have plenty of lengthy breaks in between games - thanks NHL - but they also kept getting teams that were on some pretty bad skids. Their first regulation loss came at the hands of those pesky Anaheim Ducks, a talented team that was beyond struggling. Then Columbus came to town, winless on the season.

New OT is OK
One cool thing about this season is the new 3-on-3 overtime format. The Wild got its first taste against the Kings, which ended in a loss but got the "moral victory point." After that game, I almost didn't care that the Wild lost. For one thing, they were lucky to get to OT anyway, plus they still hadn't lost in regulation to that point.

But I loved the 3-on-3 play. End-to-end, fast skating, breakaways abound. It was so fun to watch. I could definitely see why the NHL made this move to try and avoid the shootouts, by ending the game in overtime.

Obviously, it's an adjustment for the players. Goalies have to be more prepared for odd-man rushes. I think we've seen now that even the timing of line changes is magnified. Get off when you can, otherwise you might get stuck out on the ice for the winning goal against.

The Wild were 0-2 in overtime before they finally got a win against Carolina. I think the sample size might be too small so far to tell how they do in overtime. But another part of me wants to scrutinize and point out the mistakes. We'll see how it goes. If they go 2-11 in overtime sessions or something, then maybe it'll be the time to evaluate.

Injuries and flu bugs, oh my
The truth of any sports season is that injuries are part of it. That's the deal. Sometimes when it rains, it pours, however. Zach Parise sprained his MCL in that Nashville game, courtesy of James Neal. It was right away in the game, and Parise could barely get to the bench. They did alright without him for a couple games, but his presence is obviously missed. He's Parise, so I'll expect him back about a week or two before other players would return.

Tyler Graovac has been out since basically the start of the season with a groin injury. Justin Fontaine also has a sprained MCL. Marco Scandella is out with a lower body injury. It's led to a parade of players coming and going from Iowa.

Then there's the flu bug. This has to be two or three years now that a flu bug has gone around the locker room. It's puzzling because it seems like it's a new thing. Every night you wait to see the lineup card because you never know who'll be in uniform. Or who might skate warm-ups but is too sick to skate the game.

It's just one of those things, I guess. But again, at least it's not the mumps.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Thanks for the memories, Torii

It was the 2002 All-Star Game in Milwaukee. Torii Hunter was an All-Star for the first time. He left his mark in the first inning with a homer-saving catch against the wall off the bat of Barry Bonds. 

Hunter had plenty of spectacular catches over his career, earning him nine Gold Gloves. But that one in particular is one of the most memorable that sticks out in my mind. I don't think I'm the only one either. 
Hunter addresses the crowd at the end of the season.

It's the end of an era now, as Hunter, 40, announced his retirement from baseball. He started and ended his career with the Twins, stopping with the Angels for five years and the Tigers for two in between. 

One of the favorites
Hunter is right up there when you think of franchise players for the Twins. Not necessarily for his baseball stats, although those aren't too shabby either. No, Hunter represents the heart and soul of the organization. He quite often flashed those pearly whites and just had fun. 

The Twins drafted him in 1993, with his debut coming in 1997. It was Kirby Puckett who took him under his wing as an outfielder, and then it came full circle as Hunter became the leader for guys like Byron Buxton and Aaron Hicks.

He's a career .277 hitter with 353 home runs and 1,391 RBI. He won American League Gold Glove Awards from 2001-09. He was part of the Twins core that avoided contraction and won a string of division titles.

Coming home
He returned to Minnesota for the 2015 season. It was really a sentimental signing, I believe. It was tough watching him slump with the bat in late summer and to watch those miscues he had in the field sometimes. But overall, it was nice to have him back in the Twins lineup. 

One of the other memories from this past season that sticks out isn't the most flattering for him. It was his ejection from a game against the Tigers in June. It was after a strikeout when Hunter said something to the home plate umpire about a strike 2 call. He ended up taking his jersey off and throwing it onto the field, along with his elbow pad. It was quite the scene. 

"Just a lot of emotions," Hunter said after the game. "We have bad days, all of us. Hitters, pitchers, even umpires have bad days. He had one. So what can you do?

"All you need to do is look at the video and decide for yourself." 

That probably wasn't Hunter's finest moment, but it was certainly memorable. There were other things from this past season, too, like his solo home run in the 9th inning Aug. 7 in Cleveland to win the game 10-9. That was actually a weird game where the Twins gave back their 6-0 lead before rallying late. It was definitely a bright spot for Hunter though.

His story seemed clear to me: He was part of a great run of division titles for the Twins in the 2000s, but played free agency because he wanted that World Series ring. Who wouldn't? He had some playoff success with the other teams, the Los Angeles Angels and Detroit Tigers, but he fell short of that final series. 

There was one thing he said during Thursday's news conference that I thought was great. He realized how fortunate he was to play in the playoffs for a number of years, since some guys never get that chance. "You get brainwashed into wanting a World Series," he said.

So he came home. Not his born-and-raised home like it is for Joe Mauer. But Minnesota is still home for Hunter. He wanted one more year with the Twins. One more year playing baseball. One more year where he could mentor the youngsters, and start a fun dance-party tradition. 

Thanks for the memories
Going forward, I'd like to see him on the desk for baseball broadcasts, maybe even up in the booth, too, especially for a few Twins games. He hasn't made any decisions about what path he will take in retirement, but I wouldn't mind if he wanted to coach. Or he could just hang around and mentor the young outfielders and pass on his Gold-Glove wisdom. 

Whatever he decides, it doesn't change what he's already given the Twins and their fans. Great catches, a signature home-run bat toss, leadership and just being one of the best overall fan favorites in team history. 

Thanks, Torii.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Minnesota's sports world turned upside down

What a week in Minnesota sports. There's a cliche line I'm sure everyone's already written. Sometimes though, you just have to shake your head.

It all started last Sunday when the Timberwolves announced Flip Saunders died, after his battle with Hodgkins lymphoma. Monday, Twins fan-favorite Torii Hunter officially declared he's retiring from baseball. Wednesday morning, University of Minnesota football coach Jerry Kill announced his retirement citing health reasons.

That's a lot of information to process in a 43-word paragraph. I think I'll save Torii for another time, but here are some thoughts on Flip and Kill.

Minnesota loses a sports icon
I was as shocked as I think a lot of Minnesotans were to hear the news that Flip died. We all knew he had cancer. What was surprising to me was that only a few days prior, the Timberwolves had just declared that Flip wouldn't coach this season. I also completely understand the family wanting their privacy, leading to a lack of public information. That's a non-issue for me, but I think it helps explain why everyone was taken by surprise.

I don't have some great memory of Flip and his Timberwolves. Mostly because basketball and the Wolves haven't been a top priority in my sports world. That's just the truth. I watch hockey during the winter, not basketball.

But I know enough as a sports fan to realize the importance and effect Flip leaves with his legacy. He was a Gopher, coached the Wolves during their playoff berths and then came back to Minnesota for another run with the team. It's such a Minnie thing to do, really.

He was 60 years old, which is way too young. Cancer. It's a nasty disease.

Kill abruptly retires
The Coach Kill news reached me as I did a quick, out-of-habit check of Twitter after I woke up. I was stunned. I was out and about that morning, so I missed the news conference. But as I later heard, watched and read about it, I realized just how intense this all was.

The emotion from Kill that day was unlike anything I'd seen in a long time. I think I heard someone rank it up there with the news conference when Kirby Puckett retired because of loss of vision in one eye.

I didn't go to the U of M, and I wouldn't call myself a Gopher fan exactly. I'm more of a casual observer. I'll watch some games, follow how their teams do each year, but I'm a little indifferent. Still, that doesn't mean I wasn't interested in this retirement news. The stories of Kill dealing with seizures and epilepsy have been well documented since he was hired here nearly five years ago.

Football was his life. That's all he's ever done. That was clear from his tears; he didn't need to say it. I don't think anyone wants to quit something unless it's on his or her own terms. I think he'd coach football for decades, if it weren't for the limitations his health brought along.

I wish nothing but the best for him as he moves on with life after football, takes care of himself, spends time with family and perhaps finds an additional passion he can work toward.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Expectations are still high for the Wild this season

Just as the regular season ended for baseball, the hockey season begins. That's what's so great about these two sports; they keep you busy for the entire year.

Not much has changed with the lineup; it should be pretty similar to last season. You've got the hard-working Zach Parise, minute-eater Ryan Suter, speedy-scorer Jason Zucker, captain Mikko Koivu, plus guys like Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund and Matt Dumba.

I'll probably save writing about Heatley Jr. - I mean, Thomas Vanek - for another time. He was terrible last season and has already set the bar very low for his production this season. We'll see what we get.

I'm expecting more of the same this year from a team that's played well enough to make the playoffs the past couple years. On paper, their performance should have been better throughout the season, but obviously it didn't work out that way. They barely made it, beat the tough St. Louis Blues in the first round and then lost to the Chicago Blackhawks.

They'll need continued production from the top lines, plus it would be a nice boost to see a few guys step it up, like Coyle, Granlund or Jason Pominville. Then there's the power play. It was a sore spot last year and ranked near the bottom throughout. I'm not sure that will change all that much because I haven't heard of any major changes to the personnel or the setup with the man advantage. If it produces, it'll be a nice surprise.

Goaltending is key, of course
It's no secret that the acquisition of goalie Devan Dubnyk last winter saved the Wild's season. He played extremely well and is the guy you point to when you think about how the Wild came back from the brink and made the playoffs.

The Wild kept him around this season, signing him to a six-year, $26 million deal over the summer. While I'm glad they decided to stick with him, the numbers of this deal make me nervous. Six years is too long. Three or four maybe, but not six. Sure, he was outstanding last season, but will he be able to keep up that pace?

I guess I'm worried about the second half last year being a flash in the pan for him. I don't think he'll go in the tank or anything, but I just don't know if we've seen enough of him to warrant a six-year deal. I also got the impression that it was a pretty typical deal for a goaltender these days, so I can understand why Chuck Fletcher made the move, to a point.

It's probably just apprehension after the Niklas Backstrom deal backfired, and that was only three years. They signed him to the deal at age 35, and now he's riddled with injuries.

There's also Darcy Kuemper, a guy I'm hoping will rebound after I think he got into his own head too much last season.

Can they avoid the slump?
One of the bigger frustrations that's now become rather routine for the Wild is what I'll call the New Years Slump. The past couple years, the team went into a downward spiral around the mid-December, early January time frame.

It's caused a lot of concern that Coach Mike Yeo would lose his job.

For me, this will be a test for the Wild. Now matter how the first couple months of the season go, the key will be this window in December and January. We've gotten used to a slump. We'll hold our breaths to see if they can prove us wrong and break out of this unfavorable pattern. It would be a small step forward if they can.

Even if they slump at another point in the season, which could happen, it might not be as bad if they can avoid history repeating itself. It may just be psychological, but I might feel a little better with a strong New Years winning streak, even if there's still a string of bad losses somewhere else on the schedule.

The goals
Before last season, I wrote about how the Wild needed to go deeper in the playoffs than losing out in the second round. That hasn't changed for this season. They need to win the second round.

Last year, they played so well when they needed to at the end of the season, just to get into the postseason, that I think they were worn out when they faced Chicago and were swept out of the second round. With essentially the same group coming back, the Wild should have their sights set on a deep run.

Easy for everyone to say. I mean, the end of last year surprised us, too. We didn't think the Wild would nearly hit rock bottom and then limp into the playoffs again. But they did. I'd really like to be hopeful and think that this team has moved past the point where they sneak into the top eight. Just shoot for the top-four in the still-tough Western Conference and save the fingernails of the fan base for once.

I'd like to see the Wild in the conference finals. Then again, in a conference so tight and competitive, they could just as easily falter under the pressure and missed the playoffs, too. But right now, I just want to watch some hockey.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Not enough at the end, but the Twins had a great 2015

It's over. The book has closed on the 2015 season for the Minnesota Twins. What a ride it was.

Coming into the last week of the season, the Twins had seven games left. Many thought they needed five or six wins to capture the second AL wild card spot, or even just to tie either the Astros or Angels. The Twins ended up with three wins, all in Cleveland and the last one was a comeback victory in the late innings.

Torii Hunter and the Twins addressing fans Sunday.

They came home still in it, ready for three final games against the AL Central Division Champion Kansas City Royals. The Twins were swept, with Friday's loss putting them two games back in the race and Saturday's loss mathematically eliminating them from playoff contention. They scored just one run in each of these three games and overall had trouble at the plate.

The hitting slump started in Cleveland. It was just a struggle to get any hits at all, let alone clutch hits or string together a nice rally. At the end of the season in the playoff hunt, that's a bad time to have the bats go cold.

The final countdown
Friday, the game was tied 1-1 in the 8th before Glen Perkins came in and gave up the lead. Perkins has admitted his second half this year was not a good one, after his stellar performance in the first half. But no matter how the opponent runs came across the plate last week, the Twins hitters didn't do enough. I mean, when Perk gave up those runs, the Twins had just two hits on the board. That's not going to get it done.

Meanwhile, the Angels and Astros (who eventually won the second wild card spot) both won this weekend. In fact, the Astros beat up on the Arizona Diamondbacks 21-5 Friday. That seems like a pretty good statement that their team is ready for a postseason run.

Glass half full, or glass half empty
Now, there are two ways to look at this season for the Twins. There are all the comments that the Twins exceeded expectations in 2015. They were supposed to lose another 90 games, not finish 83-79. They weren't supposed to be anywhere near a playoff race, so this season has just been all gravy, with extra mashed potatoes.

People don't want to beat up on the Twins for how their season ended, because look at all the positives and everything they accomplished. The steps forward. The great rookie performances.

These things are all true, and I'm not one to disagree with these comments. Who would have thought they'd still be in contention in game 161?

Things change, and that's OK
Still, that doesn't mean fans can't analyze how the Twins fell short of reaching the postseason. However it happened, the fact is they were in a position to contend for the playoffs. And even though expectations were very low at the start of the season, that doesn't mean expectations can't change either.

This was a team that rattled off 20 wins in the month of May, after all. It was the summer of resiliency for a team that would not quit and would not fade away. When races come down to the wire in a 162-game season, it's easy to magnify every game in September. Though it's also a good reminder of the cliche that every game counts. If you think a close 4-3 loss in April or a 12-0 blowout in June doesn't matter, it's simply not true. Every loss is still a loss.

But if you want to know what I'll point to when I think back to why the Twins didn't get it done, just look at their 4-6 second-to-last homestand in September. The Twins just didn't do enough. The Astros struggled during this week, too, so it would have been a good time to gain ground.

The Twins lost two of three to the abysmal Tigers. Then they lost three of four to the Angels, including blowing an early six-run lead and dropping a doubleheader. The homestand included two, 12-inning losses and a five-game losing streak. That stretch was not good enough for a team trying to make the playoffs, and it came back to haunt them.

All that aside, it really was a great season. I'm not as disappointed as I would be if they underachieved and missed the playoffs. Sure, of course it's always tough when your team's season ends, whenever that is, but there is so much to look forward to in 2016 and the years to come.

I'm excited to see where the Twins go from here.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Twins are still in the hunt

It's the final week of the regular season for baseball. The Twins have seven games left, and they're still in the hunt for an AL wild card spot. That's right, it's Sept. 28 and the Twins are still playing relevant and meaningful baseball games.

The Twins (80-75) are 1.5 games back of the second wild card position, behind Houston (in the wild card) and the Angels. The Twins finish off their road schedule with four games in Cleveland, a team that's four games back, then they return home for a final three-game set versus AL Central Champion Kansas City.

So, there's still a chance.

Remember 150-some games ago?
It's amazing that we're at this point, really. You think back to last March, when various predictions had the Twins holding down the AL Central basement and losing more than 90 games yet again. It wasn't supposed to be a good season. Then the Twins had a horrible first week of baseball, which included getting swept in Detroit as they were outscored 22-1, and a 1-6 record. It seemed the predictions were right, and we were in for a very long season of baseball.

Then a 20-7 record in May happened. All of a sudden, the Twins were hot. They found some kind of winning formula. Even though there were the ebbs and flows of the season, that month really set the tone for the rest of the way. They were resilient and haven't been exactly out of anything since then.

Fast forward to September. The Twins have come very close to that second wild card spot, though they haven't been in that position yet.

Extra wild card
MLB added the extra wild card to each league in 2012. Two wild card teams, instead of one, play each other in a one-game playoff to see which moves on to the divisional series. I must say, this new process has grown on me, and I'm a fan of having two wild card teams. This might seem like an easy position to take, since the Twins are trying to get into the AL wild card race, but it's still true.

I think it's good for baseball. Kansas City has had the AL Central locked up most of the season. The AL East is a contest between New York and Toronto, and the other will likely take the top wild card. So that leaves a bunch of teams - Houston, Twins, Angels, Cleveland - fighting it out for that last spot.

One thing is true, to quote the late Yogi Berra: It ain't over til it's over. Don't get me wrong, it won't be easy, but it's possible. They need to win at least five, maybe six, of these remaining games to gain ground in the race.

As they say, it's all when you play teams, not who you play.

Help yourselves out
The frustrating thing is that the Twins haven't helped themselves in every situation. They had an important 10-game homestand that started Sept. 11 and only managed a 4-6 record. That included losing two-of-three to the Tigers and three-of-four to the Angels. It included a five-game losing streak, losing both games of a Saturday doubleheader and two losses in 12 innings. They dropped a game each to the Indians and then in Detroit.

While obviously losses happen, teams have off-nights and bad stretches, this was a tough situation to watch. The only good thing was that Houston started losing, too, so the Twins weren't really losing any ground. Depending on how full your glass is, they didn't take the opportunity to gain any ground either.

Any time you lose out on a playoff spot by a tiny margin at the end of the season, it's easy to magnify the recent games. In reality, you could pick out any loss on the year and point to that saying, "what if that were a win?" Still, I know what I'll take a look at if the Twins come up short: That 4-6 homestand where they struggled and didn't take advantage.

But if your glass is half full, you'll say we never expected the team to be at this point in the final week of the season anyway. So let's be grateful for all the fun baseball we've watched this year.

We'll see what happens this week. I hope the Twins can pull off a comeback for a wild card. Maybe we'll even get another Game 163 out of the deal.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

For Twins fans, September baseball is fun again

September baseball. For the past four years that's meant there are still Twins games happening as we gear up for the Wild season just around the corner. This year is different. The Minnesota Twins are playing meaningful baseball in September for the first time since 2010, their first season at Target Field.

The Twins (72-67) were off Thursday, but they gained a half-game with a Texas loss, so they are just one game back from the second AL Wild Card spot. Even if the Twins manage to sneak in, it's still a tough road.

But the Twins are capable of playoff success. And the season has been fun to watch regardless.

There must be an explanation
One question people are asking is: How? What's different? OK, so that's two questions, but you get the idea. What's so different about this 2015 team from the recent teams? This team was supposed to have another 90-loss season under its belt this year, not contending for a wild card spot.

I don't know that there's any real clear-cut answer here. For one thing, this team is resilient. It seems like such an over-used word to describe this bunch, but it just fits so well. This is a team that has won some big games in surprising fashion, or often, a comeback fashion. Just because they get down early or have the deck stacked against them on paper, that doesn't mean they stop playing.

Here's something else: The team got hot in May - very hot - and from then on it seemed like the expectations were raised. Because they proved they could do it. They proved they could hit well. They proved they could win series and win a majority of games in a month's time. So, why couldn't they do that the rest of the way, right?

Well, of course it's never that simple with a season that lasts 162 games. Obviously there are ebbs and flows. The Twins found that out with some reality in June when they slumped a bit. It happens. But the Twins have never truly been out of it, at least from the wild card.

The stand-out players
I think the Twins have made it to where they are with a few things. You've got Miguel Sano who made his Major League debut this season. He's been a jolt of energy to this ball club. This guy has got power. I can't remember a Twins player with the kind of home-run pop that he has. Every time he steps to the plate, you take notice because he might hit a home run. Really.

A Brian Dozier walkoff home run. This one was July 10.
Other players have been surprising or really just had their turn with a hot streak. Brian Dozier was on fire in the first half of the season, crushing timely home runs and leading the team in loads of hitting categories. Aaron Hicks has contributed with his glove but also finally found his comfort zone at the plate, something he's struggled with in his first few MLB seasons.

Rookie Eddie Rosario might be one of the biggest surprises this season. How much of a better start can you get than homering in your first MLB at-bat? He's contributed well in the hitting category, even using his speed to set the Twins all-time record for triples in a rookie season. He's quickly becoming a stud in the outfield, too, with 15 assists. Teams better update their scouting reports and have their players think twice before trying to take an extra base against Rosie. He's got an arm.

Shortstop hasn't been a position of consistency for the Twins, although Eduardo Escobar has put together a nice little run with his bat lately. Byron Buxton was another top prospect who made his debut this season. His speed tracking down fly balls is proving to be the best asset so far. He's struggling to adjust to the higher level of pitching, but I think his hitting will come around, and his speed will help on the base paths.

Here's how it shakes out 
With a few weeks left, the Twins are still in the hunt. It's about winning games, winning series with teams, which isn't exactly a new or complicated team strategy. The pessimist in me has already decided that if the Twins make the playoffs, they will end up facing the Yankees in the first divisional round and get swept. Because it's the Yankees. Whether that set-up is logical or not, I haven't really thought about. (The Twins have to get to and through the wild card game first.)

It will be New York and Toronto coming out of the AL East; one will win the division and one will take the first wild card spot. They've been battling it out. It's the second wild card spot that is up for grabs.

It's hard to gain ground, but the math is still there. I mean, the Twins technically aren't eliminated from winning the AL Central, even though it's an extremely unlikely scenario. The Royals grabbed the division title a long time ago. The Twins will need to take advantage of a lot of games against divisional opponents the rest of this month. They still face the Tigers, White Sox, Indians and Royals.

What's interesting about the relatively new wild card format is that it gives many more teams a chance at hoping for the playoffs. Two teams get in for a one-game playoff in hopes of taking on a division winner in a playoff series.

You've got a chance, and that's all teams and fans can ask for.

Monday, August 31, 2015

RIP Justin #BadassWilson

Last week was a difficult news period filled with tragedies. Two journalists were shot and killed on live television in Virginia, something we're all still trying to wrap out brains around, I think. A worker fell to his death at the new Minnesota Vikings stadium. A police officer in Texas was gunned down at a gas station.

But the tragic events all started with a horrible freak accident at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania. The result was another IndyCar driver's life cut short: Justin Wilson. He was 37.

Wilson was really in the wrong place at the wrong time. Driver Sage Karam crashed into the outside wall, sending pieces of his car flying. Part of the nose cone flew high in the air and unfortunately made contact with Wilson's helmet. It took a couple times for me to catch it on the replay, but once he was hit, his car veered toward the inside wall.

Seeing it unfold
I was multitasking with work at the time and noticed my Twitter feed was lighting up with race fans concerned that Wilson wasn't getting out of the car, as racers typically do after a crash. Then I flipped channels and saw the medical helicopter at the track fire up. That's never a good sign. I still remember the sinking feeling I had when I saw the helicopter camera shot after the fatal Dan Wheldon crash in 2011.

I feared the worst, especially when there wasn't an update on Wilson's condition until later that evening. It's understandable, of course, but at the same time you know it must not be good news. Hearing he was in a coma was definitely not good news, though at least he was still alive.

Then the news came the next evening that he died. Another IndyCar driver gone, just like that.

Everybody loved Justin
What I didn't realize, was the love and admiration for Wilson from his fellow drivers and racing community. Of course, being just a fan, how could I know that exactly? And let's face it: People are often talked about in a much better light after they've died, right? It happens. You want to remember the good in people, I suppose.

But the outpouring of memories and the type of person Wilson was came through with all kinds of sincerity on the broadcasts and social media. He was the nicest guy you'd ever meet, according to everything I heard. I believe it.

Take this piece from reporter Robin Miller, for example. A fitting tribute.

No easy answer to safety concerns
Now on to safety. When tragedies like this happen, everyone wants answers and wants to find out how these things can be prevented. That's valid. However I will say that this isn't just some black and white issue. I've heard some people talk about this crash, people I'm fairly certain are not avid open-wheel fans and haven't spent much time watching the sport. I've heard that the solution is simply to put a canopy over the cockpit so this doesn't happen anymore. Again, I don't think it's that simple.

Of course, I am fully aware that I am no expert on the mechanics of these race cars. Machines that consistently travel at speeds higher than 200 mph. But here's what I want people to know: Safety and advancement are priorities for IndyCar. Think about it. Cars have raced at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for more than 100 years. Does the car look the same now as it did in 1915? Or even a decade ago? No, just as the cars that you drive look different and have gotten safer, too.

Justin Wilson in 2010 at Mid-Ohio

The most recent and notable IndyCar deaths are Wilson and Wheldon, in 2011. In both incidents, there was trauma to the head. Wheldon's car was airborne and went up into a catch fence. His head struck a pole. For Wilson, it was a heavy piece of debris that flew at his head.

One death is one too many, but it's a possibility in this sport. That doesn't mean safety measurements aren't in place and evolving.

Truly a freak accident
I labeled Wilson's crash as a freak accident because I think that's correct. Cars crash during races, often spewing debris in their wakes. Other cars on the track have very little time to try and slow down and avoid what might be in their way. Even just watching I know that's no easy task. How often has debris come in contact with a driver's head? Not very.

There was one recent example, which was minor. James Hinchcliffe was hit with a much smaller piece of debris in the 2014 Grand Prix of Indianapolis. It was clear he was affected by the hit and veered off the course. He suffered a concussion.

Let me wrap up by trying to explain why drivers race, from my view as a fan, when the consequences could be severe injury or death. They love it and they wouldn't want to do anything else. It comes down to that. Think about your dream job, a job you've loved or anything else you've loved to do. I imagine that's how the drivers feel. They take the risk every time they get into their race car, during practice, qualifying and race laps. They know what they're getting themselves into. But they love it.

Veteran driver Tony Kanaan really summed it up the best, so I'll leave you with his Tweet:

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

My own thoughts on the treatment of female sports reporters

It was shocking enough to read about the reasons behind last week's resignation of the University of Minnesota Athletic Director Norwood Teague. But the story went to a whole new level when news broke Sunday night that Teague had sexually harassed Star Tribune U of M men's basketball beat reporter Amelia Rayno.

I read her story - in its entirety - and was stunned at the gross details. I couldn't believe what I was reading. It was a lot to process. It's inspired me to share my thoughts on working as a young woman in sports journalism.

First, let me be clear: I have not been sexually harassed during my career as a sports journalist, or in any other capacity. I am not comparing any of my experiences to those of Amelia or anyone else who has been a victim of sexual harassment.

A woman in the boys' club
That said, I've had my own experiences that have made me realize a gap still exists in this still-male-dominated profession. This doesn't mean there haven't been strides, of course. It used to be that women weren't allowed in team locker rooms or clubhouses. There was a time before that when a woman sports reporter was simply unheard of. It was an old boys' club.

I get that, but at the same time it's hard for me to wrap my head around this concept, since I have been fortunate to have the opportunity for a career in sports journalism.

A lot of people have told me that being a woman in sports should work to my advantage. I don't necessarily think this has panned out for me personally, not to say that it doesn't happen for others. Amelia's situation brings up a disadvantage for women when it comes to this profession.

Would you say that to a guy?
Now, most of the time in my work, I feel like I am treated as an equal by men and women, like any other sports reporter. That's the goal. We're all reporters trying to get a job done, regardless of anything else. I've met a lot of great people through my work, people that treat me respectfully and trust my abilities as a sports journalist.

However, I have also been treated differently on more than one occasion, because I am a woman working in a field where men make up the majority. That's reality.

Most of the things I've noticed are light-hearted comments directed toward me when I'm at sports venues or press boxes. Nothing too specific stands out for me, because I didn't feel like I was being harassed and often didn't feel offended either. I've had comments about my purse, comments about my bag being too heavy for me to carry and really just a pat-on-the-head kind of attitude displayed from others.

The comments were just enough for me to think to myself: "Would you say that to me if I were a man?" or "They're treating me this way because I'm a woman." Sort of a it's-cute-you-like-sports kind of thing.

Nothing was said with any nasty intent. It was what I think others believed to be good-natured ribbing, with a chuckle at the end. It was enough to make me think about it, then brush it off and return to my work.

One question says a lot
Again, I've never felt harassed or unsafe, and I'm grateful for that. Perhaps the biggest issue I came across was people dismissing my abilities as a sports reporter or my sports knowledge in general. When people - not just other media or people at games but many people I talk to - learn I have an interest and background in sports journalism, there's one question I get asked more times than I can count:
"Did you play sports in high school?"
I know this is meant as a totally innocent question, as I'm sure people are just curious about how I became interested in my work. Think about this for a minute though. Would you ask this question of a man? Maybe, but probably not. Because there's still this assumption, this stereotype, that men have played sports and have a knowledge of them. It's not unusual, right? Sports can still be labeled "a guy thing," despite all the progress women have made.

I've gotten pretty good at my answer to this question over the past few years:
"I played tennis in high school but wasn't very good, (I finally made varsity my senior year.) and I don't consider myself much of an athlete. I'm much more of a spectator. I love to watch sports. When I got to college, I found out I really loved to write about sports, too."
Being an athlete shouldn't matter
Maybe I should change that answer. Maybe I should challenge those who ask and say something like, "What does me being an athlete have to do with my ability to do my job as a sports reporter? Is this a prerequisite?"

I'm not that bold, at least not yet. So what might an appropriate question be? I don't have a magic answer. Maybe asking how I got my start or what I enjoy about my job. Something that you would also ask a male sports reporter. I know people are well-meaning, polite and interested. I just think there could be a better way.

Think about this: Is every male sports reporter an athlete? I'd say no. Many are probably just like me, sports fans who love to write.

I love sports, and I've learned a lot by watching and reporting. There's always more to learn, for anyone, but I don't think also being an athlete, or one's gender, should factor in to the credibility of a sports reporter.

Black, white and gray all over
Sunday night, I spent a solid 1-1/2 hours scrolling through Twitter on my phone after Amelia's story was posted. I didn't send out much on Twitter; I mostly looked at others. I sent messages back and forth with sports journalist Keith Leventhal. We discussed how this issue is both black and white, and also gray. The sexual harassment is black and white; Teague was wrong, and his actions make me angry and sad.

The gray area is male sports reporters finding a balance in treating female sports reporters with respectful chivalry while at the same time treating them as equals in the profession. For example, if a male reporter in the locker room pushes a female reporter out of the way to get better access to a player the same way he would another male, that's equality. At the same time, some might argue that that is not how you should treat a woman.

See where the gray area comes in? Is it possible for women to be treated both professionally equal and chivalrously? Of course, that's just opinion. Others might disagree with this theory.

I have not met Amelia; I've only read her work. But I am sorry she had to go through this. I also want to say thank you to her for sharing her story; that took some deep inner strength. It's an important issue, and I think awareness is key.

I also communicated Sunday with Star Tribune reporter Rachel Blount, who sent out Tweets that she was harassed years ago by North Stars owner Norm Green. I think she summed up this whole situation perfectly with the Tweet below. I'll end with this:

Thursday, August 6, 2015

My journey as a Twins fan part 3: The Target Field era

As 2010 rolled around, it was time for the Twins to finally play in a baseball stadium: The brand-new Target Field.
Cassie and me at our first Target Field game.

I'll never forget the very first Twins game at the new ball park. I was home watching the pregame festivities on TV, the whole time asking myself why I didn't try to score tickets to opening day. I watched part of the game from home, but then I had to leave for work, as a sports copy aide at the Star Tribune.

Luckily, I knew the game would be on in the newsroom. But I still had about a half-hour drive to get from TV to TV. I know, I know. I had such big problems. You know how people remember exactly where they were when they heard about Pearl Harbor, the JFK assassination and the 9/11 attacks? Well, I have 9/11, but I also remember exactly where I was when the first home run was hit at Target Field.

Jason Kubel hit a ball to the right field bleachers. I heard John Gordon's radio call as I was driving on Hwy. 10, along the righthand curve just before merging onto 35W South. I was excited yet at the same time disappointed because I wasn't able to see it. Maybe that's lame, but I don't care. Call it a weird sports fan thing or whatever.

Visiting the new ballpark
My first game at Target Field was one of the first night games, April 20, with my friend Cassie. We had seats down the third-base line, so we had a perfect view of that gorgeous Minneapolis skyline. I remember getting to our seats and just standing there, looking around at all kinds of different parts of the ballpark. We just took it all in.

What I really loved was that it, unlike the football-field Dome, was built for baseball. The seats down the line all angled to face home plate, rather than the outfield. What a concept! The Twins won that game against Cleveland 5-1.

I went to a few other games that first season, too, with family and friends: May 28, 2010 Twins beat Texas 2-1, July 20 Twins lost a close game to Cleveland 4-3, Sept. 7 Twins beat Kansas City 10-3, Sept. 19 Twins lost to Oakland 6-2.

We didn't run into a lot of bad-weather luck like I thought we would. I remember being so worried about the open-air stadium in cold, snowy Minnesota. I thought for sure there would be a lot more snow-outs or freezing games in April, especially. There's still time for that, but overall, I'd say the weather luck has been great.

Target Field highlights
I attended Bert Blyleven day July 16, 2011 on a very hot, humid evening when the Twins retired Bert's jersey number 28. On June 29, 2013, I had a blast at the ballpark with my Austin Post-Bulletin family. It was a reunion for us (since I had moved to Fergus Falls a few months earlier), a celebration of our dear friend Kay's birthday and the first trip to the ballpark for my friends. The Twins beat the Royals 6-2 as Kyle Gibson made his major league debut. That was such a great day.

Of course, the only playoff appearance so far for the Twins at Target Field came that inaugural season. They had home field advantage, but once again faced the Yankees and couldn't make it through the Divisional round. Sigh.

It's been four years of sub-par baseball for the Twins, with 90-plus loss seasons, a managerial change and something called bilateral leg weakness. Whatever that is.

Something amazing in 2015
This season was supposed to be more of the same. The Twins were supposed to hold the basement position in the AL Central and probably finish with 90 losses yet again. This theory seemed to be confirmed with the first series in Detroit to start the season. The Twins couldn't do anything. It had Twins fans saying, "There's going to be 150-some more games of this?"

The Twins surprised everyone with an outstanding month of May. They started winning, giving Kansas City a run for its money and then holding a Wild Card spot for awhile. They had all kinds of momentum going, though that seems to have disappeared with the All-Star Break.

The best part about this season, for me, is that I got a job with Major League Baseball. I watch all the Twins games, from the press box at Target Field and from my couch during away games, and post to social media with game updates. I'm combining my passions for sports, writing and social media, and it's been amazing.

I've had such a blast getting back into baseball again, I mean, really into it. I love what I'm doing. I've met a lot of great people. Of course, it's always more fun when the team is doing well and winning, so I can have more to update. But still, this job is one of the greatest opportunities I've had. I feel very blessed to be doing something I really love.

My journey as a Twins fan part 1: A bite from the sports bug

My journey as a Twins fan part 2: Dougie and division titles

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

My journey as a Twins fan part 2: Dougie and division titles

Among some of my other highlights as a Twins fan, I spent a couple birthdays - Sweet 16 and No. 20 -  at the Dome. My parents were nice enough to have a birthday message put on the scoreboard for me. With a Sept. 29 birthday, it's usually the last series of the regular season, and it just depends on whether the Twins are in town. Luckily, these two worked out.

My brother Kyle and me at the Dome.

Dougie... alphabet? 
Now let's talk about Dougie Baseball.

I'm not big on having favorite players, mostly because I learned that sports is a business and guys get traded or retire often enough. But I really loved watching Doug Mientkiewicz. He won a Gold Glove in 2001 for his defensive play at first base. His batting helmet was disgustingly-full of pine tar. He had a superstitious spot in the dugout where he sat as the Twins tried to rally.

He was traded to the Boston Red Sox in 2004, a move that was part of a four-way trade, I think. It was disappointing for me, but the Twins were making way for their first baseman of the future: Justin Morneau.

Players get traded at the July deadline all the time, but this was special because the Twins were at home in the middle of a series with the Red Sox when he was traded. So all he had to do was walk over to the visitor's club house. We were at that game, and you can bet I was one of the Twins fans giving Mientkiewicz a warm ovation as he stepped to the plate for his first at-bat with Boston.

Outdoor baseball in KC
In 2006, Mientkiewicz was playing for the Kansas City Royals. Remember, this was before Target Field and outdoor baseball in Minnesota. I hadn't seen a Major League Baseball game in an open-air stadium before. So, we took a road trip that summer to Kauffman Stadium.

It was a sweltering day, but our seats were under an overhang, so we at least had some shade. The disappointment was that Mientkiewicz was out of the lineup with an injury. I wanted to see him play, but taking in outdoor baseball was fun all on its own.

Decade of division titles
The Twins won division crowns in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2009 and 2010. But arguably the only successful postseason was 2002 when the Twins beat Oakland only to lose in the American League Championship Series to the Angels. I think they were still the Anaheim Angels at that time, pre-Los Angeles.

Anyway, most of the time, the Twins were plagued by the Yankees. It's become a painful memory where the Yanks always found a way to win, while the Twins let it get in their heads that they couldn't beat Goliath. It even happened in 2010, when the Twins had rare homefield advantage against the Yankees in the inaugural season at Target Field.

Perhaps the most disappointing postseason for the Twins was 2006. They had homefield advantage, won the division, drew Oakland as a Division Series opponent rather New York, had the Cy Young winner: Johan Santana, AL Batting Champion: Joe Mauer and MVP: Morneau on their team. That's like a full house in poker, right? Everything in their favor.

And the Twins were swept out of the ALDS in three heartbreaking games. My family and I attended games one and two at the Dome. I even skipped part of a journalism class to make it in time.

I was a sophomore in college at the time, and after the Twins season ended, my friends and I dressed up for Halloween. I went as a Twins mourner. I'm not kidding. I threw on my jersey, painted blue tears on my face and carried around a Twins tissue box. That's how disappointed I was with the outcome of the season. Dramatic? Maybe. But I was just being a passionate fan.

Game 163. It's still cool.
Then there were games 163 in 2008 and 2009. I watched the '09 game (the Twins final regular season game at the Dome) with my friend Cassie at Joe Senser's in Bloomington. It was a nail-biter in the later innings, especially when the game got turned over to the Twins bullpen. We sat there holding our breath and barely keeping our eyes open with each pitch.

I'll never forget when it was finally over and the Twins beat the Tigers. The place went nuts. I jumped up and down and cheered with the rest of the restaurant patrons.

My journey as a Twins fan part 1: A bite from the sports bug

My journey as a Twins fans part 3: The Target Field era

Friday, July 24, 2015

My journey as a Twins fan part 1: A bite from the sports bug

Me, as a young sports fan.
I suppose you could say I've been a Twins fan all my life. I mean, I was around for both the 1987 and 1991 World Series titles. Of course, I was all of 1 year old in 1987. But my parents tell me I was part of the festivities.

They bundled me up in the stroller as we trucked down to Minneapolis to wait in line for all the World Series apparel. I wasn't a sports nut in '91 either. As a 5-year-old, I'm sure I was too busy enjoying Sesame Street and my dolls to care about watching sports.

Throughout the rest of the '90s however, our family went to the Metrodome for a few games here and there. It was easy to head down on a Friday night, get tickets in the outfield "cheap seats" and enjoy the game. Part of the reason for this, I now know, is because the Twins didn't field very competitive teams throughout much of the decade.

It was one of those slumps that just happens at some point within a franchise. Still, it was fun cheering for the favorites like Kent Hrbek, Marty Cordova, Chuck Knoblauch (yes, at the time) and of course, the legendary Kirby Puckett.

I remember being there for the pre-game festivities honoring Kirby after his playing career ended. When he and his then-wife Tonya came onto the field in a convertible, I remember being part of a lengthy standing ovation. I remember thinking that was the longest I had clapped for anything or anybody in my young life. Now, I know standing ovations have changed over the years. Today it seems they've become almost meaningless - we'll clap for just about anything.

But the ovation for Kirby was completely genuine.

Baseball: America's pastime. My pastime. 
The sports fandom bug really bit me at the start of the Twins 2001 season. I heard that they won their first three games, so I figured I'd watch a little and see how the team looked. Turns out, that was the start of an amazing decade for Minnesota Twins baseball, which would be bookended with a brand new ballpark.

They didn't win the AL Central Division right away, but they made great strides in 2001. Then manager Tom Kelly retired and the Ron Gardenhire era began.

Those first couple summers, I'd say I was a pretty dedicated Twins fan. If the Twins were playing, that meant I was in front of the set watching. It got so involved that my dad had to tell me to get out and enjoy the nice summer nights in Minnesota, since we all know the nice weather isn't around long. There's 162 games, and I didn't need to watch all of them, basically.

I must have relaxed a little, but I was still hooked. The Twins promotional tagline back then was "Get to Know 'Em." Boy, did I. I knew the players, jersey numbers, positions, even their batting stance routines, which I often imitated out in the yard as my brother and I played a little baseball.

Learning my team, then writing a letter
Just by watching so much baseball, I learned more about the game, too. I learned from watching, listening to the broadcasters dissect plays and explain obscure rules, and by asking my parents questions.

Following the 2001 season, the fate of the Twins was threatened with a little thing call contraction. I wasn't even sure what that meant. "The Twins will just go away? But how can they do that?" As a relatively new fan who was so dedicated, I was pretty upset.

I even wrote a letter to MLB commissioner Bud Selig. A strongly-worded letter, I'd say. The one thing I remember writing is explaining the "Get to Know 'Em" slogan and wrote that I "got to know 'em." Luckily, the Twins are still around. I'm sure it was my letter that kept contraction away.

A girl can dream, right?

My journey as a Twins fan part 2: Dougie and division titles

My journey as a Twins fan part 3: The Target Field era

Saturday, July 11, 2015

What a comeback, what a game: Dozier blasts another walk-off homer in Twins win

It's one of those instant classics. Perhaps the game of the 2015 season so far for the Minnesota Twins. An 8-6 victory over the Detroit Tigers Friday night doesn't seem like much without the context of how that final score came to be: A 7-run, bottom of the 9th comeback victory for the Twins, capped by a 3-run, walk-off homer from none other than Brian Dozier.

I'll say it again: What. A. Game. The Twins got their fourth walk-off win this season off the bat of, who else, Brian Dozier. The man of the hour, man of the week and major snub in the #FinalVote for the All-Star Game.

Where do I start? There are so many things to write about from this amazing comeback victory, in a game that the Twins just did not seem to be in until the 8th inning. The Twins put together just two hits through seven innings; two singles off the bats of Miguel Sano and Kurt Suzuki. That was it. No runs, as Justin Verlander pitched into the 8th inning and looked dominant against the Twins, as he has so many times before.

Even after Dozier got an RBI single in the 8th to get his team on the board, 6-1 at that point, it still didn’t seem like they could pull off a win. OK, it seemed very, very unlikely.

Well, the game did a 180.

An are-you-kidding-me kind of comeback
Along comes the bottom of the 9th inning. Joe Mauer leads it off with a single, and Sano follows that up with a ground-rule double to left. Trevor Plouffe strikes out. Eddie Rosario singles to make it 6-2 and steals a base, an original out call that was overturned thanks to a Molitor challenge. 

Then Detroit closer Joakim Soria comes in. He walks Aaron Hicks to fill the bases. With no place to put the No. 8-hitting Suzuki, Soria beans him with a pitch, giving the Twins another run. It’s 6-3 now with the bases full. Danny Santana came through with a two-run single up the middle, despite cries from social media circles and the press box for Molitor to bring in a pinch hitter. Suddenly it’s 6-5 and Target Field, for those loyal fans that didn’t leave to get a jump on the traffic, was rocking. 

Who steps up to the plate but Dozier. One of the best second baseman in the American League and in all of baseball. Just look at some of the stat sheets; he's leading or near the top in most of the categories. But he didn’t get voted to the All-Star Game the first time around. And he wasn’t named as a reserve player by the AL manager. He lost out on the #FinalVote Friday to Mike Moustakas of Kansas City, despite one of the coolest social media campaigns out there. #VoteDozier

Dozier goes deep
So, this non-All Star didn’t waste any time. He blasted the first pitch he saw to the left field seats. It was the same place he put his other walk-off home run earlier this week in a victory over the Baltimore Orioles. Before that, he didn’t have a walk-off homer to his name. Give him a week, and he has two of them.

If you like stats, here's a couple good ones for you. Dozier is the first player in Twins history, since 1961, with multiple walk-off homers in a week and the first in franchise history since Roy Sievers in 1958, according to ESPN Stats/Info.  He’s also four home runs away from tying his career-high of 23, which he achieved last season. 

The Twins finished the game with 10 hits, after they had two through seven innings. They had eight runs, seven of those coming in the bottom of the ninth inning. According to ESPN Stats/Info, the Twins are the first team in baseball in two seasons to overcome a deficit of five runs in the ninth. 

This was a pretty great game, and one of the best rallies you’ll see for a long time. It’s one thing to see your team get a walk-off win on a home run. But for it to come from Dozier this week, twice, was pretty awesome. It makes for some great stories, that’s for sure.