Friday, September 15, 2017

A little bit of everything in Twins' record-setting night

Sports can bring about the unexpected, which definitely makes the games worth watching. You can predict all you want. It doesn't compare to the real thing.

At the start of their homestand Tuesday night, the Minnesota Twins did something that no other team had done before in the history of baseball. That's right. In the history of baseball, not just "since year xyz.." They hit seven home runs in the first seven innings of their romp of the San Diego Padres.

The home runs accounted for 12 of the 16 runs in the Twins 16-0 shutout of the Padres, their second such blowout victory in just a couple weeks. They also beat the Royals 17-0 the last homestand. Both games had Kyle Gibson on the mound, and he pitched well. Tuesday, he surrendered just four hits and didn't walk a batter through six innings. The bullpen finished it off with three hitless innings. 

The pitching was an afterthought though. Let's get to the real excitement: The homers. 

1st inning: Brian Dozier, solo, 370 feet to right
2nd inning: Jorge Polanco, two-run shot, 396 feet down the left-field line just staying fair 
3rd inning: Jason Castro, two-run shot, 355 feet clearing the wall in left
4th inning: Eddie Rosario, two-run shot, 393 feet to the bullpen
5th inning: Jason Castro, solo, 409 feet to left for his 2nd of the game
6th inning: Eduardo Escobar, solo, 427 feet over the right-field seats and to the plaza
7th inning: Kennys Vargas, 3-run shot, 430 feet to the second-deck in right-center 

(Distance estimates via the Twins.)

It was also the first time the Twins have ever hit seven homers in a game at Target Field (history that goes back a modest few years to 2010). Since they hit a homer in seven innings, they obviously also scored in all seven innings as well. Not exactly something you see every day either. 

Vargas, who came into the game at first base for Mauer as the September-baseball, blowout-game subs entered the game on both sides, absolutely crushed his home run to the second deck in right-center. It came with two men aboard and was the final scoring of the evening. 

The Twins were unable to hit another homer in the 8th. It was a boring 1-2-3 inning. Gabriel Moya made his Major League debut in the 9th to complete the shutout. 

Everything seemed to happen in the same game. Since Brian Dozier hit his 29th home run a few games back, I've been waiting for his 30th to note his special place in Twins history. He's the fifth Twin to hit 30 home runs in consecutive seasons, joining Harmon Killebrew (of course), Bob Allison, Gary Gaetti and Justin Morneau. 

Dozier's homer was another leadoff homer, his 8th of the season and 27th of his career, which extends his team record. 

Niko Goodrum, also into the game later on, got his first Major League hit with an infield single in the 7th after starting 0-for-10 in his career. The crowd, no doubt on adrenaline from the powerful night at the plate, gave Goodrum a standing ovation as he walked back to first-base bag with a shy smile on his face.

They had the defense covered, too. Zack Granite made a spectacular leaping catch against the center field wall after he came in to replace Byron Buxton. It definitely took away an extra-base hit, if not a home run, from the Padres. 

It's nice to see Buxton isn't the only one the Twins can rely on for some of these highlight-reel catches. I expect many Gold Gloves in Buxton's future, and I think he has a strong case for one this year. Joe Mauer better join him with a Gold Glove at first base.

A complete turnaround the next night 
Predictably after a team completes a homer-fest the night before, the Twins struggled to get anything going at the plate Wednesday against the Padres. Luckily, the Padres didn't do anything either, until an 8th-inning home run tied the game at 1-1.

The Twins got their run when Rosario doubled in the second inning, then scored trying to take third and the wild pitch was thrown away into left field allowing him to score. The Twins had chances late in the game. Mauer singled to start the 6th, but another sacrifice bunt went to waste as he was stranded at third base went the inning ended.

They loaded the bases with not outs in the 7th with a couple singles, one off the pitcher, and a hit batter. In keeping pace with the odd game, Robbie Grossman hit into a 6-2-3 double play before Dozier went down swinging. It seemed like a a game the Twins would lose late after failing to capitalize on opportunities.

It went to extra innings, with the help of Matt Belisle's good work in the 9th and 1-2-3 frame in the 10th. Mauer had his third single of the night with one out in the bottom of the 10th. With two outs, Rosario stepped to the plate. He promptly ended the game by crushing a pitch to the right-field plaza, much like Escobar's homer the previous night.

Twins won 3-1 with their fourth walk-off victory of 2017, second on a home run (Mauer had the other) and first walk-off hit for Rosario. He was mobbed at home plate with water and a bubble-gum bucket.

Up next: 
For the weekend, the Twins welcome the Toronto Blue Jays to town. They're in last place in the AL East, but they seem to have the Twins' number in recent meetings. The Twins did take 2-out-of-3 from the Jays across the border late last month.

Going forward, the Twins still hold a lead for the second AL Wild Card spot, chasing the Yankees by a couple games and ahead of a few teams like the Angels and Royals. Quite the turnaround to be talking about the postseason a year after the Twins lost 103 ball games - a different kind of record.

I didn't get this draft posted earlier, and since then the Twins completed another walk-off victory Thursday night. This time, Byron Buxton hit a home run in the 10th inning to give the Twins a 3-2 win. 

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Let's hope this is just the beginning for a new chapter in women's tennis

It was not a three-set match. Nor was it a nail-biter. There was not much suspense in determining a winner. But the women's U.S. Open final still ended with a great moment between American foes and friends, No. 15 seed Madison Keys and unseeded Sloane Stephens.

The Saturday-afternoon match ended with a shot into the net from Keys. On the other end of the court, it wasn't a display of emphatic or vocal emotion. Stephens looked up toward her box seemingly in disbelief. She had just won her first grand slam in her first trip to a final, beating Keys 6-3, 6-0.

As she made her way to the net for the customary handshake with her opponent, the two friends embraced for a long few moments. Tears were shed. They had both fought nerves at the beginning of the match, each stepping onto the big stage in Flushing Meadows for the first time. Not to mention there's the pressure of it being the U.S. Open, the slam in their home country.

When I watched them hug at the net, I could feel the relief. The happiness for Stephens. The disappointment for Keys. And still, the accomplishment for both of them. I certainly hope this is the start of something great for them and the women's tennis landscape in general.

Expect the unexpected
It was a much better women's tournament than I expected. As I outlined in my preview, the women's draw had some key players like Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka out. Plus, players seem to get upset a lot. That still happened; No. 2 seed Simona Halep lost in the first round to Maria Sharapova, the qualifier on the comeback tour.

I did make mention of Keys and Stephens in my previous post, also mentioning that it's anybody's guess as to the two women that would step up to compete for the title.
"A couple other Americans that fans are familiar with: Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens. Keys is seeded at No. 15 while Stephens is unseeded. I'm still waiting for these two in particular to raise the level of their game to carry the torch for American women's tennis. It just hasn't worked out that way so far."
In the past, Keys and Stephens haven't always matched the pressure of the slams. They've bowed out in early rounds when they had a higher seed next to their names. This time though, they just kept winning.

The semifinal matches were already historic. Stephens beat Venus Williams; Keys beat CoCo Vandeweghe. The all-American affair marked the first time since 1981 that it was four American women left standing at the U.S. Open. I think I also saw that with Stephens' win, she's the first American female winner of a grand slam not named Williams, since Jennifer Capriati won the Australian Open in 2002.

Women's tennis scene has been the same for a while 
That isn't some insignificant statistic. Women's tennis for the past decade or more has been dominated by the Williams sisters. Sure, there were others in there. Capriati had her time. Then there was Lindsay Davenport - now the coach for Keys. But I keep waiting for someone else to step up and dominate; Venus had re-surged as a 37-year-old, and sister Serena, with a ton of titles, is 35 and just had a baby. They've had plenty of success, but in sports, that doesn't last forever.

I've seen some flashes in the pan over the years. The big one that comes to mind is Melanie Oudin, who made it to the quarterfinals of the Open in 2009 when she was just 17 years old. She beat Sharapova in her prime. But she wasn't heard from much again, going through some health issues before officially retiring from tennis last month.

So, I figured Stephens and Keys could fill the void. They've had their share of upsets though. I wasn't sure if they'd be here to stay, or if they'd be players you'd hear about getting bounced in the first round more often than not.

Of course, maybe the expectations were too high. After all, Keys is just 22 years old, Stephens is 24. Still plenty of time for these gals to have their spotlight in tennis. That's what makes this tournament so encouraging. In the semi against Venus, it took Stephens three sets in an odd match. Stephens cruised to a first-set win as Venus seemed out of sorts. Venus took the second set without any trouble. In the third set, Stephens dug deep and pulled off some spectacular shots to give her the edge for the 6-1, 0-6, 7-5 victory.

Focus on the bigger picture, not the final Xs and Os
Again, the final match wasn't the thriller everyone might have expected. Keys just had too many unforced errors while Stephens hardly made any. Keys seemed to find her game again down 4-0 in the second set, but she let three break chances slip away.

The specifics of the match really weren't the story though. There are the rankings, of course, with Keys ranked No. 16 in the world and Stephens 83 - apparently the lowest rankings for the two players in the title match at the U.S. Open since computerized rankings were a thing. But even more amazing is the fact that both players were injured earlier this year.

Oh, and they each had surgery. They both sat out the Australian Open in January. Stephens had surgery on her foot that month. She was ranked No. 957 in the world on Aug. 1. Keys dealt with a wrist injury and a pair of surgeries.

If you like rankings drama, consider that with the win Stephens will be ranked No. 17 come Monday. From 957 a littler more than a month ago to 17. Numbers aren't my strong suit, but I'd say that's pretty good.

Sure, there was no Serena in this tournament. No Azarenka. Both players with slam titles under their belts. I'm still encouraged by what I saw from Keys and Stephens throughout the tournament. I'd like to think it will give them both a confidence boost to keep improving their games so Stephens can add more slam titles to her list, and so Keys can be hungry to come back and win a slam, too.

I wouldn't mind seeing these two in a few more grand slam finals over the next few years.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Previewing the U.S. Open: Key injuries, withdrawls could leave the door open for new champions

The Minnesota State Fair started on Thursday, which typically signifies the end of summer as some depressed Minnesotans prepare for the long winter ahead, the start of school and a new year filled with activity. There's something else that falls at the same time to also mark the end of the summer: The U.S. Open tennis tournament.

It starts Monday, complete with the opening ceremony which includes Shania Twain as she is apparently heavily on the comeback tour with her career. That don't impress me much. (groans)

2016 U.S. Open champions:

Stan Wawrinka def. Novak Djokovic 6-7, 6-4, 7-5, 6-3 (both are not in the tournament this year because of injuries)

Angelique Kerber def. Karolina Pliskova 6-3, 4-6, 6-4

2017 top seeds:

Men - Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, Roger Federer, Alexander Zverev, Marin Cilic

Women - Pliskova, Simona Halep, Garbine Muguruza, Elina Svitolina, Caroline Wozniacki

Women's draw: Wide open
The women's side of the draw is missing a very obvious competitor: 23-time Grand Slam winner Serena Williams, who is expecting a baby, and Victoria Azarenka. For the past few years, the grand slams have usually been Serena's to lose. She's been that dominant and the rest of the field just hasn't had a breakout star in a while.

Azarenka, a two-time U.S. Open finalist, will not make the tournament because of an "ongoing family situation," according to CNN. She had a baby boy last December and at this time is unable to take her son Leo out of California while legal issues surrounding his custody are resolved.

With those two out, it is anybody's guess who will step up for the women's title.

Typically, the excitement surrounding first-round matches has to do with upsets. If a top seed goes down, that's obviously a big deal. Other than that, with so many matches going on to start, it's pretty standard to see a lot of straight-set matches with the seeded players moving on. Upsets aren't uncommon, though.

Sharapova is back 
With the women's field so wide open, there's actually a very intriguing first-round match: No. 2 seed Halep versus the 2006 U.S. Open champ, Maria Sharapova. All eyes will be on that match to see if Sharapova can mount a comeback into the sport. It will mark her first Slam match in 1.5 years.

Sharapova served a 15-month doping suspension where she was kicked off the tour after testing positive for a newly banned substance at the 2016 Australian Open. She's ranked No. 147 currently and was given a wild card slot for the U.S. Open this year. She has five career slams under her belt.

Muguruza is the only one of the top five women's seeds to have a Grand Slam title under her belt. In the absence of Serena Williams, she's a possible favorite to win the tournament.

Speaking of that tennis name, Williams, the resurgence of elder sister Venus has gotten fans excited about her game once again. The 37-year-old American is the No. 9 seed and has won at Flushing Meadows twice before.

A couple other Americans that fans are familiar with: Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens. Keys is seeded at No. 15 while Stephens is unseeded. I'm still waiting for these two in particular to raise the level of their game to carry the torch for American women's tennis. It just hasn't worked out that way so far.

As for the No. 1 seed Pliskova, this is her first time holding that top spot at a major tournament after checking in at the No. 1 WTA ranking after Wimbeldon. She might have a little unfinished business, finishing as last year's runner-up at the U.S. Open.

Women's side versus men's side are two different tales
So, just how wide open has women's tennis been this year and in the past? Well, Pliskova is the fourth women to hold the No. 1 seed at the U.S. Open in the past eight years.

That's quite a contrast to the men's side of the game, which has a group known as The Big Four in Djokovic, Federer, Murray and Nadal. At least one of those players has been the No. 1 seed at each U.S. Open since 2004.

Perhaps the story on the men's side is injuries. As stated above, Djokovic is out this tournament, so it will be the Big Three. He is taking the rest of the year's tennis season off because of an elbow injury. There are a few other key names out. Defending champ Wawrinka had surgery for a knee injury. No. 11 in the world Milos Raonic and 2014 U.S. Open finalist Kei Nishikori are out with wrist injuries.

That might carve a path for some lesser-known names to go further in the tournament. In addition to the top seeds, here's where a few of the popular Americans stands: John Isner, No. 10 seed; Jack Sock, No. 13 seed; Sam Querrey, No. 17 seed.

Look out for the top three
If there's one thing you can bet one this tournament, it's that Isner, however far he goes in the tournament, will end up in a tiebreaker. Or probably multiple tiebreakers. I'd expect the semifinalists to include Federer, Murray and Nadal. As the seedings dictate, anything short of a semifinal for those three will be an upset and disappointment.

With a slight similarity to the Venus story, it's been fun to watch Federer continue to dominate. Federer won his eighth Wimbledon title earlier this summer. Federer is 36 years old but hasn't shown significant signs of age slowing his game down, as you might expect in the later years of an athlete's career. He's still thought to be one of the greatest tennis players of all time.

Nadal is known for his success on clay, winning titles at the French Open. A few years back, the men's rivalry was mostly just between Federer and Nadal before Murray and Djokovic really came into the spotlight. Nadal looks to win his third U.S. Open, adding to his titles in 2010 and 2013.

So, there you go. Just a little preview of this year's end-of-summer tennis tournament in Flushing. The nice thing about this slam is that there aren't really any big time-zone issues if you want to watch the matches live. Enjoy!

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Business trip to Miller Park

I'm not sure how it's already approaching the end of August. Summers will just always fly by, right? I wish it went like that for the long winters we have. Those seem to drag on and on. But, it's still baseball season. So I'll focus on that and a recent road trip.

Miller Park during Twins batting practice Aug. 10, 2017.
Anyway, it's been a nice turnaround of a season for the Minnesota Twins. They held a first-place lead in the AL Central division for a good chunk of the season early on, then have been one of the many teams in contention for a Wild Card spot. In some ways, I see some comparisons to the 2015 season, where there was a bit of over-achievement going on. We all know that last year was tough to stomach with the 103 losses in a 162-game season. This year has been refreshing to watch.

Maybe this is a weird thing to admit as a sports follower, particularly with baseball, but I don't have a huge bucket list of ballparks I'd like to visit. I've heard about people checking different parks off their list and doing cross-country trips with baseball being the main item on the agenda. I do have a few IndyCar tracks I'd like to visit though. I think that's just a product of going to races since I was little - and we always had to travel because there wasn't an IndyCar track in the Twin Cities. Major League Baseball has always been in my backyard though, so to speak.

Border battle series
Before I get off on a racing tangent and lose some readers, I mention these other ballparks because I took my first working road trip to watch Twins baseball. The Twins and border-battle rival Milwaukee Brewers had a split four-game series earlier this month Monday-Thursday, August 7-10 (I am *not* opening that can of worms about the schedule here.). Monday-Tuesday in Minneapolis, Wednesday-Thursday in Milwaukee.

Miller Park with the roof open and sun shining.

So, after the Twins swept the first two games, I tossed my suitcase and backpack in the trunk of my car on Wednesday morning to head over to Miller Park for some more baseball. I was going to watch the games anyway, so I might as well watch them in person since I'm so close, right? I had only seen Miller Park driving by many years ago when it was being built. I've also driven by Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City is the only other MLB park I've visited.

I had my audiobooks I got at the library to keep me company on the drive. It was a little different to drive a trip like that on my own. I love road trips, but I'm usually in the back free to read books and relax.

I didn't have too much down time in MKE, but before Thursday's game I took a walk along the Riverwalk downtown, got a brew at Water Street Brewery (opened 30 years ago before breweries popped up everywhere), ate some cheese curds, visited the Pabst Mansion and even made a stop at the Cheesecake Factory for some dessert, because this girl has a sweet tooth.

It's Miller Time 
I heard from people before I left that Miller Park, first open in 2001, looks cooler from the outside, like a big space ship or something. As I took the exit off the freeway and got a glimpse of the stadium, I could see why that's a thought.

The park has a retractable roof, which sounds like heaven considering the Twins have had to play six doubleheaders and endured a bunch of other delays this season and last thanks to the weather. I got to experience the roof being open for the entirety of game one. The next day, the roof started out in its closed state with a threat of showers in the area. The roof was opened mid-game, to the cheers of the crowd.

The view of Target Field with the downtown skyline as the backdrop really can't compare with just the open sky of Miller Park. Minnesota wins that battle. Miller Park definitely felt more enclosed, which makes sense with a building that has an optional roof on it. I was stuck by all the windows when you look out to center field. There just isn't the fan seating out there, but there were plenty of seats in the steep upper decks behind home plate and down the baselines.

It was a little different covering a game there, since I've only worked at Target Field or at home on the couch. But it was really just like any other baseball game. Luckily, the Twins swept the mini-series so I wasn't left twiddling my thumbs. Bartolo Colon, the 44-year-old turned fan-favorite, went seven scoreless innings for a 4-0 victory the first night. Brian Dozier hit a homer to left. Colon looked like he wanted to hit one as well with the cuts he took as a batter under the National League rules.

Then it was a major-league debut for Dietrich Enns the next night. He only went 2.1 innings but gave up just one earned run as the Twins went on to win 7-2. The Twins had a couple 3-run innings in the second and third. They took advantage of a fielding error and scattered some RBI singles. Enns got his first hit, an infield single. The Twins added a couple sacrifice flies, too.

Twins rolling, for better or for worse 
The games completed a 4-game sweep of the Brewers as part of a 6-game winning streak for the Twins, a season-best.

With any 162-game season, there are bound to be tough losses, rough stretches and injury setbacks for teams. To say a season is a roller coaster for a team is probably pretty cliche. It can also be pretty true. The Twins have beaten teams this season when they might have been considered the underdog in that game. They've put together win streaks. Then again, they've also lost a few games to opponents lower in the standings then themselves.

It doesn't always make sense, but the Twins keep coming. They don't show any signs of going away. With two Wild Card slots in the American League - and a bunch of teams competing for them - I wouldn't be surprised to see the Twins in the mix until the final weekend of the season, just like we saw in 2015.

Monday, July 31, 2017

The busy, fun, wide world of sports

It's the last day of July. In the sports world, it's an interesting time of transition. The past couple weeks are some of the quietest around in the overall sports realm.

The NHL is pretty quiet after the draft and free agency opens, not much out of the NBA either. MLB is slugging around through the 162-game season after the All-Star Break. It's really the only mainstream sport in the spotlight. NFL teams just opened their training camps, signifying the unofficial/official starts to their seasons. Other than that, there's the WNBA, IndyCar, NASCAR, golf, tennis has a gap in between Slams after Wimbledon and before the U.S. Open.

But if there's an opposite of March Madness, these couple weeks in July are probably it.

If you want to throw high schools into the mix, there are probably various captain's practices being held for fall sports before (at least in Minnesota) official practices open up in two weeks. It's just another sign that summer is flying by and about over.

Summer is still busy, fun time for America's pastime
Of course, as I reference this as some sort of sports "down time," that's also not very true when it comes to baseball. It's grind time for that sport. Sure, there's the All-Star Break, but the Twins in particular have had a busy schedule leading up to that point. Something like 45 games in 45 days thanks to not many off days in June and a pile of doubleheaders after a soggy spring.

It's a busy, but fun, pastime for the summer. For my sports consumption, I try to take in what I can and get a variety. Still, there are sports everyone gravitates toward, even if they claim to follow everything. Me, I always say my three favorites are baseball, hockey and IndyCar racing. That's not necessarily in any particular order.

I also enjoy watching tennis. I'll even watch bowling once in a while when it's on during a bad-weather Saturday afternoon. I keep up with the NBA mostly on what I see through social media an news outlets. I'm not a die-hard when it comes to football by any means, but I like to keep up with the high school and college games locally. I'll tune in for some pro football; it's just not appointment viewing for me if I have other things going on.

Reasons behind the sports we love 
My sports coverage, particularly on the preps level, has grown over the years. Therefore, I've gotten the chance to watch and write about a variety of sports and athletes. Volleyball state tournaments are entertaining, I really enjoy covering swim meets and the only thing to complain about with a high school football game is the cold weather sometimes while I try to type in the press box.

So much of what we grow up with determines our interests and activities. I like IndyCar racing because my dad loves it. He also played tennis, got me started playing, and there you go. I understand swim meets and like that excitement since my brother took up the sport in high school.

If I have reasons and stories like that for my sports background, I know other people must have them, too. Maybe it's a family member or friend that got you hooked. It could be one game you went to that made you fall in love with a sport. Or maybe it's just that sports are so ingrained in our society that it's just natural to pay attention to them.

I'd love to hear other stories. Feel free to leave some thoughts in the comments.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

I still have thoughts

Someone recently mentioned they'd taken a look at my blog. That's always appreciated, of course, but it got me thinking about what I've written on this platform as of late. I say aloud something like: "It's turned into an IndyCar blog lately."

That was just off the top of my head. It's certainly true, though. My last seven blog posts here (except for the most recent one) have been related to IndyCar racing. The post before that - after I got done covering everything for March Madness - was written in early April. 

You know how sometimes you realize you say you're going to do something, mark an item on your to-do list or just make a note to get to it later? Then you realize months have gone by and you have no idea how? That's kind of what happens to me from time to time. 

Let me just say that I'm definitely still writing. For those that follow me on social media or know me personally, I would hope that doesn't come as a surprise. It's just that this isn't my only platform to share my work anymore. I also didn't make a format change to IndyCar-only for this blog.

I've shared my thoughts on the Minnesota Wild via stories and podcasts at ZoneCoverage.com. There was a lot to cover this season with some success, a disappointing playoff run and then all the excitement with the Expansion Draft for the new NHL team in Las Vegas. With the only true part of the hockey offseason right now, there hasn't been much on that front for a while, but I hope to start back up again strong in the fall.

Baseball is still the main gig 
As for the Twins, I guess I really haven't written much about them lately - in more than 140 characters at a time. See, I still watch all the games and comment on what's happening. I just use Twitter as my platform.

After losing 103 games last season, this year has been a refreshing change of pace. They've been a winning ball club (this last week aside) and managed to stay in the division/wild card races.

It's weird how the Twins have fared the past few seasons. After reaching the postseason in 2010, the inaugural season at Target Field, the Twins had some losing seasons. It looked like they were going on the upswing in 2015 though, with a bit of a surprising season in which they were in contention for a division title until the last weekend of the regular season. Instead, the Kansas City Royals won it and the World Series. Still, no one expected the Twins to have that kind of success. They overachieved.

That was why the results of 2016 were so disappointing. It seemed going in  that the losing seasons were going to be behind the Twins as they looked to build on the 2015 surprise. A far cry from what happened. The Twins started out 0-9 - with a bad omen of multiple rain delays in Baltimore on Opening Day - never recovered and stumbled to the worst record in baseball at 59-103.

After that performance, and a similar roster, the expectations weren't too high for 2017. But again, the Twins have surprised everyone. They spent a bulk of time before the All-Star Break in first place, or in second just behind the AL Champion Cleveland Indians. Part of this can be attributed to the weak division and an overall weak American League.

The Twins have played better, too. Byron Buxton is outstanding in center field, Miguel Sano nearly won the Home Run Derby in his first All-Star Game selection, Jose Berrios has figured it out, Ervin Santana has pitched extremely well. The Twins have won games this year with much better defense and clutch hitting. When they get a lead, they know how to hang onto it.

Anyway, the Twins season keeps me pretty busy, but I'm still working as a freelance writer. I write high school and general human interest features for the local suburban papers under the Chicago Tribune/Chicago Pioneer Press umbrella. All my work is done over the phone talking to sources before I write my stories.

Plenty of other stuff, too 
Plus, there are other odds and ends projects that come up with various outlets. I'm still involved with the Minneapolis Star Tribune as a freelance reporter for high school sports, which mostly include section and state tournaments.

I'll still continue to use this platform for whatever I see fit to write about that's timely. I didn't intentionally turn it into an IndyCar blog, but that's just what I've wanted to write about. The Indy 500 is always a big deal, whether I'm there in person or not, and we took another family trip to Road America this June, too.

I started this blog to keep writing after I graduated college. I knew I could always have this forum as a place to put my thoughts. That's what I'll continue to do.

So, that's a little bit of catch-up with me and what I've worked on over the past few months. As always, thanks for reading, following, retweeting and sharing. 

Monday, July 17, 2017

Despite ever-changing journalism world, writers are valuable

I graduated with a journalism degree when the recession hit. It was also a time when the future of print journalism was in question (not that it's necessarily any more secure today). As I job searched, it was always interesting to discuss the field with others. Will newspapers go away? Will everything just be online? How will it change the job market? Discussion often circled to this point:

"There will always need to be writers."

No matter the medium, right? Well, for the first time, I'm questioning whether that sentiment will still ring true as much as it used to even a few years ago. Or maybe it's that the value will continue to decrease. Nothing can stop someone from putting a pen to paper, words on a word document, or maybe in the future, stories written out in some kind of microchip form sent directly to our brains. But will people read it?

There's a lot of thing at play here, but some recent events got me thinking about writing and where it ranks in today's instant-gratification, digital, visual world. Let's put the print journalism sector on hold for a minute for the purposes of this blog post - the changes and setbacks within that domain have been obvious in past years as things shifted online.

ESPN hits the industry hard 
In April, sports media giant ESPN laid off 100 employees, including a lot of writers for the company's website. Jayson Stark covered baseball for 17 years with ESPN and was let go. Columnist Johnette Howard and a bunch of NHL columnists - in the middle of the Stanley Cup playoffs - were also let go. SportsCenter anchor Sara Walsh was set to return from maternity leave when she found out she was laid off.

It even hit the motorsports world, which is obviously something close to my heart. Dr. Jerry Punch, a reporter for 30 years with the network who covered plenty of IndyCar races and Indianapolis 500s in his time, was let go. So was Allen Bestwick, the most recent guy who called IndyCar races for ESPN/ABC. Both Punch and Bestwick finished out their time with this year's Indy 500 and dual IndyCar races at Detroit.

I remember reading the reactions on Twitter the day of the ESPN layoffs, from those let go and from media consumers. It's a tough part of the business that so many journalists (raises my own hand) have experienced.

Last week, I caught something on Twitter that I had to read over again to make sure I understood.



FoxSports.com is a website filled with video clips now. It looked a little odd when I initially scrolled through the page. So, more writers with a platform taken away in favor of a stronger focus on visuals.

Now, I'm not going to preach against videos. Compelling stories can be told through video images just as well as writing. I also know the value of social media and how much better engagement is with a post or Tweet that contains a GIF, video or photo rather than just text. GIFs are one of my favorite additions to the Twittersphere, in fact.

I'm also not here to crunch numbers about these layoffs and website shifts I mentioned. I'm not a business owner or manager for those entities who's starting at a bottom line within an always-changing market.

But what's happened here is significant enough for me as a journalist to take notice and write about it to share my thoughts. I am a writer in the sports side of things, after all. So, how are sports writers valued these days? Before, it was the writing for free or very little pay that was a concern of mine. But taking away the writing platform altogether seems to be going another step down the path.

Videos may be engaging and quick to view, but they certainly can't take the place of a good, well-written story. It's not about a debate between video or writing being better than the other. I still think there's room for both, especially for writers like me who thrive on the written word much better than verbalization. And Ken Rosenthal writing his thoughts in the form of Facebook posts is not the same thing as a story for a media outlet.

This whole topic is worth a conversation in the evolution of the world of journalism. It's likely a blip on the radar as the industry keeps adjusting to provide content and still make money. I hope so. Because I'd hate to think of a time when we don't need writers anymore.

A couple things for the road...
Writers always appreciate readers. So if there's a story you like or a writer you enjoy reading, then subscribe, share, comment, retweet and like. Good stories deserve to be told and shared.

My colleague Brandon Warne came up with an idea for writers to share some work they're particularly proud of over the past year. It's called Read It All day on Aug. 1. Check out the details below. I'd encourage writers to share their work.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Dixon pushes past Penske for Road America victory

Scott Dixon coming out of turn five during Friday practice.
The term "upset" is used quite a bit in sports. Usually though, it's not used much in IndyCar racing. I think the Kohler Grand Prix on Sunday at Road America could qualify as an upset. Scott Dixon won the 55-lap race with a turn-one pass on a restart to take the lead for good and add another track to his winning career.

Dixon, the IndyCar Series points leader (now up 34 points) who walked away from a scary-looking crash in the Indy 500, came into the weekend having never led a lap at the sprawling four-mile road course in rural Elkhart Lake, Wis. Perhaps it's not too surprising when you consider that IndyCar stupidly left Road America off its schedule for a few years, returning just last season. I've never heard a race track praised more by drivers than Road America, except maybe the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Everybody loves it.

The victory was also Dixon's first this season and No. 41 in his career. He's now won an IndyCar race in each of the past 13th seasons, extending his series record.

So why was it an upset? Well, the weekend was dominated by the four Team Penske cars (a good showing for their boss, Roger, who was not at the track for the weekend). In qualifying, it was Team Penske in the Fast Six, along with Dixon and Detroit-doubleheader winner Graham Rahal. Penske had been quick all weekend in their Chevrolet engines, and it just seemed like they'd dominate. They started 1-2-3-4 with Helio Castroneves, 42, earning his 50th pole.

Penske with the strong start 
It was unseasonably chilly, cloudy and windy on race day. Castroneves led the field to the green flag, with everyone sailing through turn one in one piece. That's always a victory in itself, to get through the first corner and then first lap without a yellow flag flying.

Castroneves led 24 laps before Josef Newgarden took the lead from his teammate. Then there was the first caution of the day. As Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato spun on the back part of the course, the field bunched up with Newgarden leading Dixon. The difference here might have been the tire strategy. Newgarden was on the primary black Firestones, while Dixon with his Honda-powered car had the softer alternates/reds. Wasting no time, Dixon took the lead from Newgarden with a pass in turn one on lap 31 of 55.

From there, Dixon widened his gap considerably the next few laps. A longer caution came out near the end of the race, but Dixon held on using his push-to-pass seconds wisely to hold off Newgarden. Castroneves rounded out the podium, followed by the rest of Team Penske with Simon Pagenaud and last year's winner, Will Power. Dixon's teammate Charlie Kimball, Ed Jones (making a very strong case for Rookie of the Year), Rahal, Max Chilton and Mikhail Aleshin rounded out the top 10.

The race that almost wasn't
Dixon won a race that his team wasn't sure he'd be able to run after Sunday's morning warm-up. He only ran one lap and dealt with fuel pressure issues. Whatever was wrong with the car, his Chip Ganassi Racing Team obviously got it all fixed up by the start of the race.

Then he went out and dominated in the last 24 laps, leaving Penske behind. That's where the upset comes in.

Still, Dixon is no stranger to victory. He races with one of the elite teams in the series, is a 2008 Indy 500 champion, former series champion and has 40 other race victories. He's also the eighth driver to win in 10 races this season, showing what a competitive field IndyCar boasts.

It's pretty cool to think about the past month or so for Dixon. From winning the pole for the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500, to getting robbed later that same night in Indy, hitting the inside wall and destroying his car during the race, then winning everybody's favorite road course.

There's a reason he's nicknamed the Ice Man.

On race day, watching from inside turn 14.

Other Road America tidbits:
-Visa problems for Aleshin. Russian driver for Schmidt-Peterson, Aleshin, had visa problems trying to get back into the United States after his stint in France for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. So, teammate James Hinchcliffe's buddy Robert Wickens filled in on Friday, driving the No. 7 car in two practice sessions. Aleshin arrived in time for Saturday morning practice, qualifying and a top-10 finish Sunday.

-Driver sightings. It's always fun to roam the paddock and see drivers and team owners, plus take a look at crews working on the cars. Here's who we saw this year: Will Power, Jame Hinchcliffe boarding his scooter, Conor Daly sitting in the team hospitality area, Helio Castroneves probably right before or after he helped a couple with their marriage proposal, retired driver/broadcaster Paul Tracy driving a golf cart toward the paddock, team owner Dale Coyne (Dad wished him "good luck," which he needed after his team's expensive crashes lately), Ryan Hunter-Reay (twice), Charlie Kimball dining at the Paddock Club in Elkhart Lake Friday evening, Takuma Sato, retired driver/team owner Bryan Herta, former IndyCar driver Max Papis and Carlos Munoz.

Tony Kanaan's 1998 rookie card
-Tony Kanaan's weekend. It's the 20th IndyCar season for Tony Kanaan, one of the series veterans along with Castroneves. Saturday, we saw him in the paddock, and he came over to sign one of my dad's photogrpahs he took of Kanaan on track. I pulled out the 1998 racing card for Kanaan, since I save all that time-capsule stuff. He signed it as well saying, "That's an old one!" Kanaan didn't have a great weekend, failing to get into the second group of qualifying, then connecting with Alexander Rossi and hitting the wall around the Kink.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Photo blog: Road America 2017

It's funny how many photos you take in the digital age. It used to be so easy to cruise through a roll of film taking photos of IndyCars at Road America. Now, you just fill up memory cards and internal phone storage.

It was a great weekend at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis. for the Kohler Grand Prix festivities. We spent three days at the track, watching practice and qualifying sessions from different vantage points. So, I compiled a few of the better photos below (no cropping or editing to these). 

Cars on the track facing/driving toward the right are coming out of turn 12/Canada Corner. Cars facing left are headed up the hill after coming out of turn five. There are a couple bonus photos of the paddock as well. Thanks for viewing some of my photos! 

Mikhail Aleshin

Josef Newgarden

James Hinchcliffe

Scott Dixon

Tony Kanaan

Graham Rahal

Carlos Munoz

Alexander Rossi

Max Chilton (No. 8 car) slows out of turn five and lets his teammate Scott Dixon pass.

Simon Pagenaud

Team Penske paddock

Will Power

James Hinchcliffe

Tony Kanaan


Selfie: Road America start/finish line and flagstand.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Back again at Road America

Graham Rahal coming out of Canada Corner in 2016. 
Summers in Minnesota are known for cabin time. Folks pack up the family truckster for the weekend, sit in traffic with everybody else heading north to "get away from it all." Then, it's a weekend of lake frolicking, campfires and small-town living.

Or so I assume.

We've never been a cabin (or camping, for that matter) family. For us, the summer tradition was the annual trek to Road America, the four-mile race track in the small town of Elkhart Lake, Wis. My first trip there was when I was just a youngster in 1990. We only missed a couple years of IndyCar, Trans Am and other racing support series for the next couple decades.

It doesn't sound that exciting or glamorous when someone (particularly non-race fans) asks where you're headed on your extended-weekend vacation. "Elkhart Lake, Road America." Blank stare. "It's near Sheboygan... we're staying in Manitowoc." It doesn't sound like much, but it's a great time and totally worth it.

Here's where I insert my repetitive preaching line where I tell you that IndyCars need to be experienced in person. Television does not do the sights or the sounds justice.

Road America is a 14-turn, four-mile road course with various elevation changes, straightaways and passing areas. It's been a racing tradition since 1955 and attracts race fans from around the Midwest and beyond. Fans can view the racing action from various points around the course. There's no assigned seating like at many oval tracks. Fans can drive around the area on pathways around the course, surrounded by acres of grass. Bleachers and benches are scattered around at various vantage points, including turn one, the start/finish line, turn 12 (known as Canada Corner) and the carousel. You can even camp out in the designated camping area for the weekend.

It's also a great place to see drivers up close in the paddock. There's been some years when we've spotted nearly the entire field of drivers during our roaming around through the pit area. It's also a chance to see the mechanics work on the cars.

After the IndyCar split in the mid-90s, Road America was a destination for the CART and Champ Car series. Once they merged together with the Indy Racing League as IndyCar again in 2008, Road America was dropped from the schedule until last year. It was a big mistake in the eyes of loyal fans and plenty of drivers who name Road America as their favorite race track. Of course, I realize things like money and sponsorship are involved in these decisions.

Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2016 at Road America.

IndyCar returned last year to booming crowds of deprived fans. It was a picture-perfect weekend for weather - sun, not too humid, not a drop of rain. Penske driver Will Power won the race from the pole, leading all but four laps. It was a lot of green flag racing, which is always nice.

I'm back again this year for the Kohler Grand Prix, to see a beautiful track that's brought so many great memories. Like 20 years ago when the soggy weekend caught us off guard. We bought Andretti team ponchos. Ever since, we always pack ponchos, umbrellas and extra tennis shoes in case things get muddy. Always be prepared, race fans.

I'm excited to hear the cars again, to make my best attempts at taking photos with my point-and-shoot camera and enjoy the time with my mom and dad.

It's also nice to use the hashtag #RoadtoRA instead of #BringBackRA.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Safety improvements make a difference in IndyCar

Twenty-one years ago, IndyCar driver Scott Brayton crashed into the wall at turn two at Indianapolis Motor Speedway during a practice session for the Indy 500. His crash was a fatal one.

Two years ago, driver James Hinchcliffe crashed into the wall at Indy after a piece of suspension broke on his car. He nearly bled to death but survived and came back to win the pole position for the 100th running of the Indy 500 last year.

On pole day of this year's qualifying, Sebastien Bourdais appeared to get loose heading out of a turn and crashed into the outside wall during qualifying with speeds in the 220 mph range. His crash was reminiscent of Hinchcliffe right away, which was why seeing his hand go up to open his helmet visor as he car slowed was a good sign.

Bourdais also survived the heavy hit, sustaining multiple fractures to his pelvis and right thigh. He underwent successful surgery last Saturday night.

So, what's changed since Brayton's fatal crash a couple decades ago? The most important thing: SAFER Barriers. From what I know as a follower of the sport, I would say the SAFER Barrier saved Bourdais' life this weekend. More on that later.

Obviously, the main concern here is safety, so it's a big relief that Bourdais is alright. He was already up and around on crutches at the speedway. Crashes like that are tough to see for anyone who watches the sport. It's not something you really get used to at all.

Shifting to Bourdais' race season though, it's a shame he wasn't able to race in the 500. He's come back with a full-time ride with the Dale Coyne Racing team this year and got off to a great start. He came from the last position in St. Petersburg to win the first race of the season.

Bourdais is a back-to-back-to-back-to-back Champ Car champion (2004-07) before IndyCar merged back together a few years ago. He raced for the Newman-Haas team and simply dominated.

The risk of injury and death are part of the gig for race car drivers. From what I've observed and heard, it's something drivers realize and know they take the risk each time they step into the car. But, they also have to keep those emotions at bay once they hit the track. They're in the car because it's what they love to do.

Dixon has a scary moment of his own 
That brings me to the major crash during the Indy 500 this year. Jay Howard, participating in an IndyCar race for the first time since 2011, got high on the track and collided with the wall. As his car slid down the track (after he hit the SAFER Barrier which again did its job), a passing Scott Dixon had nowhere to go. The cars touched, sending Dixon high into the air before his car came back to earth with the inside wall and debris fencing.

Dixon hopped out of the car and walked away. He later returned to the track medical center and left in a walking boot for an ankle injury. That's it. Even his interview for the ABC broadcast was calm, cool and collected, which is typical for the guy known as "Iceman." He called it a "wild ride."

The crash looked awful. Casual viewers and veteran race fans were relieved to see Dixon walk away from the crash. For those that don't regularly watch the sport, I think they were also amazed to see it wasn't a fatal incident.

Safety shines again
It's a tribute to the safety of these cars in 2017. A few decades ago, we could be talking about a fatal crash. There's no doubt Dixon got lucky, too. The way a driver impacts can make all the difference in the world. If his helmet slams against that guardrail, I think this is a very different outcome.

The race was red-flagged to clean up the debris - Dixon's back half of the car was destroyed - and repair some of the fence. All the clutter on the track is actually a good thing, in a way. It means the car did its job to project the driver in the tub - or the Dallara chassis safety cell. The car is supposed to come apart like that when it makes the impact.

Dixon's car hit the inside-wall SAFER barrier. SAFER stands for Steel And Foam Energy Reduction. The foam barrier mounted to a steel skeleton combines to absorb energy from crashes, helping to reduce the forces transferred to the driver and the rest of the car. The SAFER Barrier first appeared 15 years ago at the Indy speedway before being installed at other oval tracks.

Anyway, I wanted to share my perspective as someone who's watched auto racing for a long time and seen plenty of crashes. Watching some of the old Indy 500s on ESPN Classic last week, it really is extraordinary to see how far open-wheel racing has come in terms of safety improvements.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Indy 500: The field of 33 in 2017

It's the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday. For those die-hard race fans out there, it's the most exciting day of the year. Last year's sold-out spectacle delivered a beautiful day and a win for an American rookie, Alexander Rossi.

As I started putting the list together of the starting grid this year, I realized just how much I'd like to write about everyone. Each driver has his or her own story, and everyone wants to win the 500. There are seven former winners in the field and five rookies. Some have had plenty of heartbreak at Indy (Marco Andretti, JR Hildebrand, Takuma Sato, to name a few).

The lone woman in this year's field is Pippa Mann, starting 40 years after Janet Guthrie became the first woman to ever run in the Indy 500. It's also 25 years since Lyn St. James won Rookie of the Year honors at Indy in the famous 1992 race.

Here's the starting grid. I went a little in depth with the first three rows, since past winners have more often than not started near the front. A winner hasn't come from the front row in a few years now, but historically being up front at the start is helpful. Forty-two winners started in row one, 18 in row two and then just eight in row three.

Happy Indy 500!

Row 1 

Scott Dixon - No. 9 
Team: Chip Ganassi Racing
Engine: Honda
Past Indy 500 winner: 2008

Dixon, known as the "Ice Man" for his cool, calm and collected nature, is the polesitter with the fastest average speed during qualifying in 21 years at 232.164. He's a former Indycar Series champion and really should have multiple Indy 500 wins under his belt already. Team Ganassi should never be counted out. I wouldn't be surprised to see Dixon lead a good chunk of the race and go on to the victory. He won from the pole in 2008; the last Indy 500 winner to win from the pole was Helio Castroneves in 2009.

Ed Carpenter - No. 20 
Team: Ed Carpenter Racing
Engine: Chevy
Past Indy 500 poles: 2013 and 2014

The local boy from Indiana, Carpenter is a team owner and only drives on ovals. He's always started well at Indy, with this year as no exception. Carpenter is still looking for his first Indy 500 win.

Alexander Rossi - No. 98
Team: Andretti Herta Autosport
Engine: Honda
Past Indy 500 winner: 2016

Rossi cemented his name into history last year by winning the biggest race in years. A fuel gamble paid off and he finished the yard of bricks first, taking the checkered for the 100th running of the historic race. Rossi finds himself on the front row looking to be the first repeat Indy winner since Castroneves in 2001-02.

Row 2

Takuma Sato - No. 26
Team: Andretti Autosport
Engine: Honda

Sato is with Andretti Autosport for the first time this year. His most notable memory from the Indy 500 is battling with Dario Franchitti for the lead going into turn one of the last lap in 2012. They touched and Sato went into the wall while Franchitti won his third 500. Sato's only IndyCar victory was in 2013 at Long Beach, a street course.

Fernando Alonso (rookie) - No. 29
Team: McLaren-Honda-Andretti
Engine: Honda

Alonso is running his first Indianapolis 500, so he's technically a rookie. But he's no stranger to racing. He's a former Formula 1 champion with plenty of race wins under his belt in open-wheel. He's made the biggest headline splash for this 500, giving up driving in F1's Monaco Grand Prix in order to run Indy. Many eyes will be on him to see how he runs the race. He's also a favorite, especially with his qualifying effort.

JR Hildebrand - No. 21
Team: Ed Carpenter Racing
Engine: Chevy
Best Indy 500 finish: Second, in 2011

His history at Indy is probably a memory he'd like to forget. Sure, his best finish was second, but that doesn't tell the whole story. He led coming out of turn four on the final lap of the 2011 race. He decided to go around a lapped car, however, got too high on the track and hit the wall. The victory went to Dan Wheldon, in what was his last victory ever as he was killed later that season in a crash in Las Vegas oval.

Row 3

Tony Kanaan - No. 10
Team: Chip Ganassi Racing
Engine: Honda
Past Indy 500 winner: 2013
Past Indy 500 polesitter: 2005

Kanaan is definitely one of the veterans on the IndyCar circuit. After a lot of years of tough finishes and heartbreak, Kanaan finally broke through to drink the milk four years ago. It was an emotional victory for him, from what I remember. He's long been a fan favorite, and that hasn't changed this year.

Marco Andretti - No. 27
Team: Andretti Autosport
Engine: Honda
Best Indy 500 finish: Second, 2006

This may be one of Marco's best shots at winning the race that has given his family such bad luck over the years. He's trying to buck the Andretti Curse and get just the second victory as a driver with the last name Andretti. His grandfather Mario won the race in 1969. His father - now team owner - Michael led lap after lap at Indy over the years but found some of the worst luck and never won as a driver. Marco made it into the Fast Nine in qualifying and has shown good speed all month. He's had his fair share of good finishes over the years, including five top-fives, but he'd like to erase the runner-up finish in his rookie season when he was passed at the line by Sam Hornish Jr.

Will Power - No. 12
Team: Penske
Engine: Chevy
2014 IndyCar Series champion

Power isn't known for his success on ovals. He has 30 IndyCar victories to his name, passing one of the greatest to ever drive for Roger Penske: Rick Mears. The glaring difference between Power and Mears is that Mears is part of the four-timers club for Indy 500 winners. Power is seeking his first Indy 500 win. Perennial-power (no pun intended) Team Penske didn't qualify well, leaving Power the only driver of five to make the Fast Nine. He might have the best shot, though you can never count Penske cars out at Indy.

Row 4

No. 28 Ryan Hunter-Reay (2014 Indy 500 winner)
No. 19 Ed Jones (rookie)
No. 16 Oriol Servia

Row 5

No. 7 Mikhail Aleshin
No. 15 Graham Rahal
No. 8 Max Chilton

Row 6

No. 83 Charlie Kimball
No. 5 James Hinchcliffe (2016 polesitter after a near-fatal 2015 Indy crash in practice)
No. 22 Juan Pablo Montoya (2000 and 2015 Indy 500 winner)

Row 7

No. 3 Helio Castroneves (2001, 2002, 2009 Indy 500 winner.)
No. 77 Jay Howard
No. 24 Sage Karam

Row 8

No. 2 Josef Newgarden
No. 1 Simon Pagenaud
No. 14 Carlos Munoz

Row 9

No. 88 Gabby Chaves
No. 4 Conor Daly
No. 50 Jack Harvey (rookie)

Row 10

No. 63 Pippa Mann
No. 11 Spencer Pigot
No. 44 Buddy Lazier (1996 Indy 500 winner)

Row 11

No. 17 Sebastian Saavedra
No. 40 Zach Veach (rookie)
No. 18 James Davison (replacing the injured Sebastien Bourdais)

2017 would be a good time to see the Andretti Curse cease

Marco Andretti practicing for the Indy Grand Prix in 2014.
I'm going on the record right now: This is the year the Andretti Curse is broken at the Indianapolis 500.

Yes, I'm talking about third-generation driver Marco Andretti winning the biggest IndyCar race in the world. It would break a curse that's existed since his grandfather Mario won his only 500 back in 1969. Marco's dad, Michael Andretti, never won as a driver, though he's been to victory lane as a team owner as recently as last year for the 100th running of the race with driver Alexander Rossi.

Marco's rookie season was back in 2006 as a 19-year-old. He nearly won the 500 on his first try. He and his dad both led during the race. Marco had the race in his grasp through the last lap and even out of turn four. But Sam Hornish Jr. was close enough to make a move, getting around him just before the yard of bricks for the victory. It was one of the closest 500s in history at a 0.0635 margin.

"Second's nothing," Marco said on the broadcast after the race.

Marco's bad luck continues the curse 
With that, it appeared the Andretti Curse was still alive and well for another generation. Marco did well in 2007 for a while, but the race was disrupted by rain and he eventually crashed out.

The luck continued in 2009 when he and Mario Moraes collected each other in the first green-flag turn of the race. There's a common saying in racing that you can't win the race in the first turn, but you sure can lose it.

Marco definitely hasn't had the same run of winning success that both his father and grandfather had in open-wheel racing. Whether it's a difference in ability or just the different environment of racing these days (perhaps with the dominance of Team Penske and Team Ganassi) I'm not really sure. Marco also races for his dad's team, and I'm sure he feels the pressure of the Andretti name.

Indy experience without the trip to victory lane 
This year will be Marco's 12th Indy 500. He has seven top-10 finishes and five in the top-five. He best finish was the runner-up his rookie season in 2006. Of course, drivers will tell you that unless you win at Indy, it really doesn't matter where you finish.

Overall, Marco has just two IndyCar wins to his name: 2006 Sonoma and 2011 Iowa. Like most drivers, the race they most want to win is the Indy 500. It's like a talented player in any other sport getting all kinds of successful recognition but never winning a championship. I'm sure Marco would love to celebrate a win at Indy with his team, father and grandpa.

Michael's side of the curse 
Mario and Michael raced many years together (other branches of the family tree dabbled in the Ind 500, too), and it's a shame there's only one Indy win between them. Michael led the most laps at Indy without ever getting a victory. They had their fair share of crashes, bad luck and mechanical problems. The famous 1992 race - 25 years ago now - seemed to be Michael's. He had a strong day, but his car betrayed him with 11 laps to go.

Michael retired and became a team owner. He's won four Indy 500s as an owner, the first in 2005 with the late Dan Wheldon. I caught that broadcast this week on ESPN Classic, as they traditionally run classic 500s in he week leading up to the big race.

Brent Musburger said on the broadcast that the Andretti Curse was broken with that win. I'm not sure if that's the general consensus. The fact that no one named Andretti has won as a driver since 1969 is what's really striking and means the curse is still around. Don't forget, Michael came out of retirement to compete in the 500 again, in 2006 and 2007.

Some of the best drivers of Mario's era have multiple 500 wins, something everyone thought Mario would have, too. AJ Foyt, 82, Al Unser, 77, and Rick Mears, 65, all have four wins apiece. Al's brother Bobby had three wins.

If there's a year for it, might as well be now 
So, why am I all-in on Marco? Fair question, since he hasn't dominated as a driver. But in 2017, why not? Think about the other champions that have been crowned within the last year. The Chicago Cubs put together a remarkable season, got to the World Series for the first time since 1945, then came back from being down three games to one to win it for the first tie in 108 years. Breaking the ultimate sports curse.

The New England Patriots came back from a 25-point deficit to win the Super Bowl this year. They didn't bust a curse or anything, but still.

I'm generally not big on predictions. Although, whenever we're at a race, Dad always asks who we pick to win. Anything can happen over the course of a 500-mile race on Memorial Day weekend. Nobody knows that better than the Andrettis. (Go back and watch the final laps of the 2006 race and pay attention to Mario on pit lane if you don't believe me.)

A bad pit stop, penalty, crash or just bad luck can doom a race. Even a bad starting position doesn't bode well - historically winners have started from the first two rows - 60 times out of 100 races.

It'd be great to keep the string of great storylines going in sports with a Marco Andretti win in the Indy 500, shattering the family curse at the storied speedway.

Friday, April 28, 2017

IndyCar makes strides in the right direction

2009 Indianapolis 500
IndyCar won't recover from The Split.

I've said it over and over in talking about the state of the sport. It's not some hot take but likely a pretty common opinion, I would guess. The Split refers to when the powers that be (aka, Tony George) decided to split the world of open-wheel racing into two branches: The Indy Racing League (IRL) and CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams). It happened at a time when NASCAR sped off in popularity, plus other forms of entertainment started to appear. The internet started up, too.

Fans took sides and the sport floundered from its popularity in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s. IndyCar merged back together in 2008.

While I still think it's true the sport won't fully recover from that move in the 90s to split, IndyCar is rejuvenated the past couple years. The 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 no doubt brought some needed excitement and publicity to the sport.

I'm not sure what it is. Racing fans are a lot like hockey fans in some ways. They know their sport and they're passionate about it. There's just not much middle ground. Either you're a rabid racing fan, or you're on the outside thinking all it's about is cars turning left with drivers who aren't athletes behind the wheel. Casual race observers aren't as prominent, which is fine.

Building off the 500 
This season, the Indianapolis 500, wanting to make a splash to build off last year's 100th momentum, announced the Formula 1 driver Fernando Alonso will compete. He'll drive for his team Maclaren and the Andretti team. Folks in the racing world know that this move is a big one. Alonso is giving up driving in one of F1's premiere events, the Monaco Grand Prix, in order to run Indy. (F1 is another can of worms.)

If there is one race people might pay attention to all year, it would be the Indy 500. Anything to help boost the support for that race is a good thing.

The growth of the sport is the competition itself. As recently as a couple years ago, it was standard to expect race winners to come out of two teams: Team Penske and Team Ganassi. These perennial championship teams are multi-car teams always starting up front and winning races. Team owner Roger Penske has 16 Indy 500 runs as a car owner. Ganassi has been to the Indy winner's circle just four times but is always a contender for series championships and race wins.

More variety in the winner's circle
But other drivers from other teams have emerged to win races, providing a little variety. American driver Josef Newgarden got a deal with Penske in the offseason because of his success. Newgarden got the first Penske win under his belt with a victory on the road circuit in Alabama last weekend. Even the Andretti team has won a couple of Indy 500s, which is a huge deal in the karma circles.

Then take the excitement the 2017 season has already given us. It started in St. Petersburg for the street circuit (that I still have to get to soon). Sebastien Bourdais came all the way from the back of the field to win the race. He crashed in qualifying, failing to register a time for his 21st starting position.

In Long Beach, James Hinchcliffe added another chapter to his comeback story as he won the race. He nearly died during a crash in practice for the 2015 Indy 500. He came back to win the pole for last year's 500 before getting his first win since the accident now in Long Beach.

Bourdais drives for Dale Coyne Racing. Hincliffe is with Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports. Those aren't the powerhouse teams. Bourdais was a ChampCar (formerly CART) driver in the 2000s during the split years and was a four-time series champion. Like many drivers, he's fought to find a full-time ride in IndyCar. He followed up St. Pete with a runner-up finish in Long Beach.

Hinchcliffe's story writes itself. He almost bled to death at the brickyard. He recovered and came back for more. He's still looking for a win at the Indy 500. Both Bourdais and Hinchcliffe have Honda engines, which means two victories in the Honda-versus-Chevrolet battle in IndyCar.

A growing fan base?
The competition is exciting. Instead of just a couple teams competing for wins at each event, the field is much more wide open. Another sign things are going well for the sport? Chevrolet, Honda, Firestone and Dallara all signed multi-year contract extensions.

One of the challenges IndyCar faces is a generation gap in fans. Sure, the Baby Boomers got to enjoy racing at its peak moments and many have stuck around. But what about younger fans? Are kids tuning in to watch racing? If their family members aren't, then probably not. They might opt for the X Games or Crashed Ice instead. (Not my cup of joe.)

The hope is that the more momentum from the Indy 500 last year and this year, the more interest it will create within a newer fan base. It's still a tough task. Just remember that IndyCar racing is more than simply driving. And it can't be said enough that television does not do those cars justice. Go see them in person if you get the chance.

It's hard to see IndyCar getting back to the popularity it once had a couple decades ago before The Split, but things have vastly improved, which is reason enough to have those rabid IndyCar fans smiling.

Friday, April 7, 2017

March was definitely madness

Time to catch my breath. I know that may sound a little weird now that the 162-game baseball grind just started this week. I guess that shows how busy I was for the past six weeks or so during tournament time, probably the busiest time of year in the sports world, especially if you keep up with prep sports.

As a result, I haven't blogged in a while. That doesn't mean I haven't been writing; I just haven't been writing on this platform. I covered girls' section hockey, a couple boys' and girls' section basketball games, all four days of the girls' state hockey tournament for the Star Tribune, all four days of the boys' state hockey tournament for Cold Omaha/Zone Coverage, followed the Gophers men's basketball team through the end of their season in the NCAA tournament for 1500ESPN.com, watched Wild games and wrote weekly columns about the team for Cold Omaha, covered two full days of boys' state swimming for the Star Tribune and along the way wrote a few feature stories for various other outlets.

It was a very busy month of March, but it's great at the same time. There's nothing better than covering some of these state tournaments, especially boys' hockey. It's the best state tournament in the country. Still, it's also nice to be done and get a little break, too. Working 80+ hours in one week is kind of a lot.

I had two weeks in between tournaments and the Twins season, so I headed to Fort Myers for a few days in the sun (OK, so I worked a game, too.) Then last week, I still did some Spring Training game work from home. I really felt like I took it easy, almost that feeling of not knowing what to do with yourself when you get some down time. I still worked 40 hours, which felt like about 20. It's easy when so many "work" hours are spent watching sports and writing/Tweeting about them.

All the sports 
Anyway, for those that keep up with me on social media, I kept my networks updated with Tweets and story links for all the work I was doing. The boys' hockey tournament didn't offer any dud games this year, which can often happen with quarterfinal blowouts. It was a great tournament from start to finish with plenty of upsets right away, an overtime thriller in the Class 1A championship and just lots of good hockey.

Section final hockey is also fun. The atmospheres are often better than the state tournament, because playing to get there is such a big deal to these high school kids. Swimming isn't one of the most popular sports around, but thanks to my brother's time on his high school swim team, I have no problem getting excited about the meets. The Gophers went on a great winning streak this season before fizzling out at the end in the Big Ten Tournament, then losing in the first game of the NCAA Tournament as the No. 5 seed. I selfishly say it wasn't all bad because if they would have advanced, that meant I was going to have to watch and write about them on my vacation.


Nothing beats a break in The Fort
Fort Myers was great. We really hit the jackpot with the weather. Sure, the winter here wasn't dreadful, but it's hard to be temps in the 80s and sunny skies every day. I got to take in a Twins game from the stands, a rarity for me the past couple seasons. If you don't need to be close to the action, go for the drink rail seats in the outfield. That's the best way to watch the ball game.

The Twins lost that game to the Phillies after a bullpen meltdown. I returned at the end of the week to work a game in the press box doing social media. The result against the Orioles was a tie, something the Twins did four times this spring. Ties in spring training make complete sense, but it's still a little weird and anticlimactic to see the teams just walk off the field at the end of the 9th (sometimes 10th) inning without a winner.

Now that the calendar has turned to April, it's time for the 2017 Minnesota Twins season. It's really hard to believe another season is here already. This past offseason went by much quicker than the year before, mostly because I had a lot more sports reporting freelance work. That's definitely a good thing.


A new season, a fresh start for the Twins 
It's no secret last year left much to be desired for the Twins, a team that lost 103 games. The good news? That's a pretty tough task to repeat again, so there's nowhere to go but up from there. The Twins have new bosses Derek Falvey and Thad Levine in the front office looking to turn the ball club around.

There's already been some uneasiness from fans that the duo didn't do enough in the offseason. Brian Dozier is back with the Twins when many thought he'd be gone in a trade. The price must not have been right for him. With catcher Kurt Suzuki gone as a free agent (with the Atlanta Braves now), the Twins signed Jason Castro, known for his pitch framing and likely a better choice for throwing out runners trying to steal. Through three games, Castro is known for taking walks; he walked four times in one game the other day.

Patience has been the key for the Twins lineup so far, with 23 walks in the opening series. I mean, Eddie Rosario walked twice Thursday. That's a big deal. Patience will also be the theme for the Twins organization as Falvey and Levine work toward bringing the club back to its winning ways that fans grew accustomed to in the early 2000s.

As you know by now, the Twins started off with a three-game sweep of the Kansas City Royals at Target Field. It's the first time they've had such a good start since 2007. They also broke a streak of eight consecutive Opening Day losses. They've had clutch hitting, strong starting pitching and the bullpen is tossed 10 scoreless innings. The only hiccup so far through the small sample size is Byron Buxton at the plate with plenty of strikeouts. But perhaps he made up for it with his center field defense.

It was a pretty fun opening series; much better than the 0-9 start of 2016. After all the stories, sports and busy tournament-time schedules, I'm definitely ready to turn the page to baseball for the summer. Play ball!