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