Monday, November 12, 2018

It's really the end: Joe Mauer announces his retirement

Cardboard-cutout Joe Mauer with me. 
I was just about done visiting with my parents in the Target Field concourse prior to the 2018 season finale for the Minnesota Twins. Naturally, the discussion of the day - and really the past week - focused on Joe Mauer. My often jaded and pessimistic mind went to this as I was about to leave:

"I hope he doesn't go 0-for-4 or something."

That prediction was actually pretty close, as Mauer went 1-for-4, but that simple statement didn't even come close to what was in store for Twins faithful that Sunday, Sept. 30, during the final game of the regular season against the Chicago White Sox. It was a storybook day for Mauer, one we all know now (though there were strong hunches then) was the final time he suited up in his Twins uniform to play a Major League Baseball game.

It still seems surreal that it's over.

This past Friday, news broke that Mauer has decided to retire, based on a note he wrote addressing Twins fans with a full-page ad in the local newspapers. In September, word got around with a couple weeks left in the season that Mauer was still deciding on this, with his eight-year, $ 184 million contract set to expire at season's end. He wanted to take some time after the season to make up his mind, officially.

But really, after all the pomp and circumstance during his final game, it would almost be awkward to have him return next season. And heaven forbid the St. Paul native and Cretin-Derham Hall grad choose to sign some one-year deal with another MLB club.

Mauer decides to call it quits
I was just like other Twins fans waiting to see when Mauer would make his announcement. The Twins already had a big personnel change with the firing of manager Paul Molitor at the end of the season and then the hiring of new manager Rocco Baldelli. But Friday I wondered aloud to my parents, asking when Mauer was going to announce his retirement. A few hours later, the answer was out there. I swear I'm not psychic.

The tributes and well wishes have rolled in for Mauer over the weekend, and he's set for an 11 a.m. press conference Monday at Target Field for the official announcement. Despite all the ups and downs of his career as an offensive catcher and defensive first baseman, with the concussions issues that went along with it, Mauer will go down as one of the greatest Twins to ever put on the uniform.

I've seen a few posts on social media from people saying they've never known a Twins team without Mauer. In my ripe old age, I can say that my memory goes back a bit further than that. Hello, days of A.J. Pierzynski with Tom Prince as a backup. Still, those other people have a point. Mauer made his major league debut with the Twins in 2004 and played for 15 seasons.

His career drips with success
One of the points that I don't think gets stated enough is the fact that he'll have played his entire career with the same ball club. Playing for his hometown team is just the whipped cream on top (I don't like cherries, so it's whipped cream.). It's a point I learned about early on in my sports fandom as part of my education learning about sports and how it's a business, too. My parents would tell me about players who played most of their careers with one team before going to another for a year or two at the end of his career. Today, it's not very common for a guy to stay in one spot.

Fans know the numbers and honors by heart by now. Mauer is a three-time Gold Glove winner, six-time All-Star, five-time Silver Slugger winner and an MVP as a catcher in unprecedented territory. The now-35-year-old gave up a football scholarship to play baseball and was selected as the first overall pick by the Twins in 2001.

He finishes his career with 1,858 games, 7,960 plate appearances, 6,930 at-bats, 1,018 runs scored, 2,123 hits, a .306 batting average, 143 home runs, 939 walks, 428 doubles, 30 triples and 923 RBI. As the negative nancies like to point out, Mauer had less success in the small sample size of 10 postseason games. The Twins never won a postseason series with Mauer on the team.

It's almost hard to pick out some of the memories of Mauer's career. He was a guy that wasn't known for hitting for power. He could give you an RBI double and could smack a base hit to left with regularity to drive in runs. He set a new high bar for catchers to produce at the plate instead of just crouched behind it. He hardly ever swung at the first pitch, and his watchful eye at the plate got him on base plenty of times.

A final season to remember
For the entire 2018 season there was speculation here and there about Mauer, since everyone knew it was the last year of his deal. The good news for fans as they could get distracted by some of the milestones Mauer reached this season, firmly setting his place deeper in Twins history.

He reached 2,000 career hits. He moved into third on the Twins all-time list in runs scored trailing only Kirby Puckett (1,071) and Harmon Killebrew (1,047). No Twins player has hit more doubles than Mauer, once he hit the 415 mark. He's second on the Twins all-time list in hits in between Puckett (2,304) and Rod Carew (2,085). He started on Opening Day for the 14th time, the most in Twins history.

The last home run Mauer hit for the Twins was a grand slam against the Yankees at Target Field on Sept. 11. When he hit it that night, I had a special feeling knowing that it very well could be the last home run for him. What a way to go out. And we thought it would be hard to top his pinch-hit three-run homer to deep center in a 5-4 victory over Detroit on Aug. 17. Both warranted curtain calls, which were very un-Mauer like.

Then there was the final series, a rare four-game weekend finale with a doubleheader on Friday against the White Sox to make up the last blizzard-out game from April. Mauer played all four games when in normal circumstances he might have played two. He went 2-for-4 in the first three games, getting ovations from fans for even the smallest feats.

Storybook ending in the finale
Sunday will always be such a special game. His two twin girls ran out to him at first base as part of the kids starting lineup. That was enough of a moment right there. Then more ovations and helmet tips each time he stepped to the plate. He grounded out to second to lead off the first and grounded to short to end the third. He hit a deep fly ball to center field in the 5th. I'm telling you the place would have exploded if he would have smacked that ball to the grass beyond the center-field wall.

He stepped to the plate in the 7th with anxious fans knowing this could be his final at-bat. So he hit a line drive to left field and hustled for a double. Because of course he did. The 0-for-4 was avoided.

Mauer's final hit.

Then in the top of the ninth with the Twins leading, there was a delay in the Twins taking the field. Mauer walked up the dugout steps and emerged wearing his catcher's gear for the first time since 2013.

There aren't many words to describe the moment and the lengthy ovation that followed as fans, teammates and the opposing dugout applauded No. 7. Mauer showed his appreciation through teary eyes and waves to the crowd. He caught one final pitch before being removed from the game. Straight-up chills.

And now he's retiring. The thing is, he can still play the game. His ability is there, and he loves it. But the risk of concussions is too much for him to continue when he's already had a great career and is a soon-to-be father of three. It's completely understandable and almost fitting that he's finishing his career now.

Maybe it will sink in one of these days that the Twins won't have one of their best players in the lineup anymore.

Cheers, Joe. Thanks for the memories.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The fall season of #HeathWrites

It's always a bit of an adjustment when a sports season ends. In my case, things go from 60-0 when the 162-game regular season ends for the Minnesota Twins. So begins the offseason, but just for baseball. I start picking up a bunch of different hats as a freelance sports writer throughout the fall and winter months (Freelancing is a year-round deal for me, but obviously baseball is the priority in-season.).

First, my schedule is anything but typical. Weekends aren't really a thing, although sometimes Mondays can offer a bit of a lighter load. Plus, my sleeping hours rival that of a college student, because I'm forever a night owl and work in sports which usually happen at night. As I like to say, I get my hours in, just not in a 9-5 time frame.

I cover a lot of different sports and write about a lot of different things, which is one of the cool aspects of my work that I mention to people. It's a variety of stuff from high school football to tennis to NHL games to college basketball.

Before I head out to cover a high school game, it's important to do a little homework. It's usually the first/only time all season I'll watch those teams, so I need to get the lay of the land. Depending on the game, I look up stats, highlight a couple of the best players, take a look at team history or tournament history. I want to have some background so I can be better informed on what to look for during the game, what to ask about afterward and what tidbits I could add to my story that go beyond just watching from the press box.

As much as you prepare though, the game has to play out, and often there's a totally new angle that gets written because of what happens on the field. I covered a football game between Cooper and Irondale to wrap up the regular season, and Cooper should have won on paper. Turned out, Irondale went on a huge second-half run of scores and Cooper couldn't get anything going. The Irondale coach gave me a quote afterward with a similar sentiment to the Herb Brooks line about his Team USA losing to the Russians 9-out-of-10 times. Not that this football game was the kinda of upset scale - it wasn't - but it was still a good line.

No press box? No problem.
Another football game before that took me on the outskirts of the northwest metro. The charter school's home field wasn't a stadium but more like what other teams might call a practice field. There wasn't a press box since no grandstand existed either. The athletic director said I could join the scoreboard operator on top of the concession stand building.

It was a misty, muddy Friday afternoon (no lights on the field either) for the game. With my bulky backpack strapped on my back, I climbed up a stair ladder, managed my way under a tarp that acted as a roof above the shingled roof of the concession stand and got set up on the roof. Thank goodness I always bring an extension cord and power strip with me to cover games; the folks there were nice enough to run my cord down the side of the building and into the stand to give my power for my laptop.

Other than some of the misty rain getting blown in our direction, covering the game went pretty well. The folks on the roof with me and the AD were all very nice, and let me tell you a little goes a long way in feeling welcomed or appreciated.

Just another unique experience covering a game, that's all. I've been to plenty of fields and arenas. The biggest thing is always trying to find a power outlet to plug in my computer and/or phone charger. Wifi can come through my phone, which helps check that box. A lot of logistics get cobbled together to make high school sports coverage work. It may not be the most glamorous, but it's enjoyable. Prep athletes can also be great interviews; sometimes the inexperience being interviewed yields better quotes or more frank takes on the game.

Back to ace the tennis beat
Once again this fall, I covered some of the girls' state high school tennis tournament. This is one of my favorite assignments because I really feel like I have a great grasp of the game. Yes, this is the sport I played in high school. Even though I wasn't that good, I know more about the game than I can claim with other sports.

The Class 1A championship, which I've covered for a few years now, has usually been a pair of Blake players. The team is dominant, and often one girl will coast to a fairly easy victory. This time, it was Blake against an opponent from another school. That made the match different in itself, and the play turned out to be very competitive and fun to watch. They took it to deuce eight times and had plenty of long rallies, including a long 35-shot point. There was tension and a third set wasn't out of the question, even though it did end in two sets, with Blake's Arlina Shen finally getting her championship after three years as a runner-up.

In a fun twist that I didn't learn until the medal ceremony, it was also Shen's 16th birthday. Like I couldn't have found a great lede anyway. It was nice to talk with Shen - who remembered speaking with me last year when her tears were for a much different reason than this year - after her victory to get her perspective on the match and finally winning.

What it's all about
Those are the types of stories I really enjoy telling when there is almost too much information or too many good angles to take. Had I not been restricted with a word count (which I could probably say all the time), I would have broken the match down even more because there were so many turning points and close games.

I also covered some state tournament soccer, including a couple semifinals at U.S. Bank Stadium. I'm planning on the state volleyball tournament coming up next week and have another football game on the schedule in a couple days.

All this, and I didn't even touch on the features I'm writing as a Wild beat writer for Minnesota Hockey Magazine (Zach Parise and Jason Zucker profiles, plus something on Ryan Suter's 1,000 games so far), or the columns I'm still writing for Zone Coverage about the Wild, or even the things I'm working on with The Athletic to follow the Minnesota Whitecaps, the first professional women's hockey team in the state as they joined the NWHL this season.

Again, it's a variety. Different sports, different stories, different outlets. It's the freelancer life.

A reminder that you can always follow along with me on Twitter and Instagram @hlrule. 

Monday, September 10, 2018

Osaka deserved her dream, not controversy, in her 1st Grand Slam victory

In one of her news conferences during the 2018 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Naomi Osaka talked about her dream as a little girl of someday facing top-champion Serena Williams in a Grand Slam final. A reporter followed up and asked what outcome she saw for this match, in her dream. Osaka gave a shy smile before her answer: "I don't dream to lose."

I'm guessing her dream didn't include her pulling her visor over her face to shield her distraught and teary eyes from a chorus of boos that reigned down from the crowd after her first Grand Slam victory either.

But unfortunately, for everybody involved, that's exactly what happened to the 20-year-old as she beat the 23-time Slam champion Williams, 6-2, 6-4, Saturday at Arthur Ashe Stadium in one of the most controversial tennis matches in recent U.S. Open history.

I didn't see the match live but instead followed the happenings on social media before watching a replay via a Tennis Channel rebroadcast (with commentators Mary Carillo and former tennis champion Lindsay Davenport) later that night. There was so much that happened, and the opinions flew around faster than a Williams ace. The code violations and exchanges between the chair umpire and Williams are well documented by now, including the $17,000 fine Williams received for her actions.

Osaka served up better tennis in this one
So let me first head in this direction: Osaka was the better player in the match. She became the first player from Japan to win a major singles tennis title and should be commended for her efforts and for her play throughout the tournament.

From the start of Saturday's final, Williams' serve was shaky. She opened the match with a double fault on the second point of the match and struggled with her first serve. The first-serve percentage in the first set was 73 percent for Osaka to just 38 percent for Williams. That's concerning if you're in the Williams camp, as a player who can put away entire games by acing opponents with her powerful serve.

Meanwhile, Osaka found a way to get her opponent on the run as she continued to hit punishing groundstrokes across to the other side. What might usually be winners for Williams turned into longer rallies as Osaka showed a solid return game and sent shots right back time and again during rallies. Osaka also had a streak of 21-straight break points saved that carried over from the previous match as well, a semifinal versus American Madison Keys.

The first set was controversy-free. Osaka got her first break of the match on a Williams double fault, took a 3-1 lead with an ace and then broke again. If Serena came into the net, Osaka calmly countered with passing shots. Her winner to make it 15-all with Osaka up 4-1 in the first set even drew some racquet-claps from Williams.

Osaka won the first set in 34 minutes with a serve that Williams buried in the net. While it certainly seemed to be going a different direction than many expected, I've watched enough three-set victories from Williams to know it wasn't over. Although, Tennis Channel pointed out to me that Williams was actually just 2-7 in major finals when she drops the first set.

The second set wasn't a highlight reel for tennis 
That was about the end of any normalcy in the match. In all, Williams received three code violations before the night was done. The first was a warning for coaching after her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, appeared to make a gesture with his hands from his seat in the stadium. The second took a point away from Williams after she busted her racquet. The third awarded a game to Osaka - which came at a pivotal time in the match with Osaka up 4-3 in the second set - following what was described as verbal abuse from Williams toward the chair umpire, Carlos Ramos.

One of the things Williams mentioned repeatedly was that the chair umpire was a "thief" for stealing a point from her. What puzzled me about this is Williams was penalized a point for busting her racquet. That's on her, and that detail seems to have gotten lost. I understand the other part of the argument is, "Well, she shouldn't have been warned for coaching in the first place, so the racquet deal could have been a warning." But the fact was, she was already warned. Williams' coach also said after the match that he was coaching. And adding that every other coach does the same thing is filed under the two-wrongs-don't-make-a-right category, in my opinion.

A couple calls - good or bad - does not a match make
Here's where I probably fall into some opinions that not many people share, but I'll try to explain my thoughts anyway.

There's plenty of debate that goes into the opinions of whether the chair should have imposed the violations. Whatever you think of them - right or wrong - it's my understanding that Ramos was within his rights to issue the violations and rules were followed on his end. You can be frustrated if there's a double standard when it comes to issuing violations, like for coaching, for example, while also respecting the rules of the game as they are. Plus, anytime there is anything that can be subjective and at the discretion of an umpire, things are not black and white. This isn't like challenging a line call where the replay shows whether the tennis ball clipped a line. The umpire still makes calls, so I get why that is frustrating if it seems to come from nowhere.

Another thing came to mind for me while I watched the match and the exchanges Williams had with Ramos. Sports are different and complex, depending on how you look at them. Officiating can play a big part in these contests, though the goal should never be to have officials determine an outcome. But still, bad calls happen all the time, and athletes have to find a way to move forward and often regain their composure. It didn't seem to me that Williams was able to move past the coaching violation. Of course, she has a right to feel upset or whatever she wants to feel, but agree with calls or not, you have to find a way to play on.

Carillo said via the broadcast that the coaching violation "could fuel" Williams. At the first changeover at 2-2 in the second set, Williams and Ramos appeared to come to some sort of understanding about the coaching issue. It could have all ended there.

It was interesting to watch this match later knowing the results. After the point penalty, Davenport, who played against Williams in her career, gave viewers a heads-up on the rules: "One more violation, and that's a game. She's got to keep her temper in check from here on out."
Osaka broke again with a down-the-line passing shot to take a 4-3 lead. And Williams offered up more discussion at the changeover, with continued efforts to demand an apology from Ramos, to no avail.

"How dare you insinuate that I was cheating," Williams told Ramos. "You will never ever ever ever be on another court of mine as long as you live."
After the game violation was issued and the discussion continued with the tournament referee, Osaka was, well, I'm not really sure. She was presumably left to figure out what exactly was going on and how to keep a handle on her own composure for doing nothing to bring about this controversy. All she did was play a terrific match, Carillo said. Would it have been fair to Osaka if Ramos had decided not to issue any code violations to Williams?

Serving for the match up 5-4, Osaka started her final game with a winner and ended it with an ace to win her first Grand Slam title. But instead of jubilation, jumping up and down, a smile (though, of course, everyone celebrates differently), Osaka brought her visor bill down over her face to cover up her emotions. She then sobbed at her chair while Williams continued to demand an apology from Ramos and the fans kept up the chorus of boos.

Unpacking the issues, because this isn't black-and-white
Now that this is a long-winded piece, let me hit some of the bullet points because certain things are not mutually exclusive:
  • Do I think Williams, to use her word, cheated? No.
  • Do I think her coach was coaching? Yes, and he said so. 
  • Do I also think the rules surrounding coaching at major tournaments should be looked at for possible changes to avoid double standards? Yes. 
  • Do I think Ramos was within his rights to issue the code violations to Williams? Yes. 
  • Do I think Ramos used the best judgment when issuing the code violations? No, because the coaching one seems to be the most inconsistent across the rest of the tournament.
  • Do I think Williams was "robbed" of another title? No, because the match is longer than the one point and one game she was penalized.
  • Do I think Williams lost her cool during the match? Yes. 
  • Do I also think Williams recovered in her comments during the trophy ceremony? Yes. 
  • Do I think this is an issue of sexism? I'm honestly not sure, but many and the WTA think so.
To me, Williams understated the discussion in her postmatch news conference. "For me to say 'thief' and for him to take a game, it made me feel like it was a sexist remark," Williams said, adding that they wouldn't do that to a male player.

That may be true. But it's only part of the story, because she already had two violations stacked up and had multiple discussions with Ramos. She didn't simply call him a thief and then he took a game away. And this isn't her first bit of controversy. The 2009 semifinal at the U.S. Open jumped into my head immediately. Kim Clijsters won the first set, and Williams was warned for racquet abuse. After Williams was called for a foot fault, she apparently said this to the linesperson: "If I could, I would take this [expletive] ball and shove it down your [expletive] throat." The point penalty Williams received resulted in a second-set tiebreaker and match victory for Clijsters.

I wrote about that, too, and saw some similarities. Saturday while on the court, Williams made comments about things men have said during matches.

Here's an excerpt from what I wrote after that 2009 match against Clijsters:
In seeing the video of the exchange with the chair umpire, and tournament referee Brian Earley, I got an even better sense of how Serena felt about her actions. Her defense was simply this: "Sorry, but there are a lot of people who've said way worse."
How does that justify your own words and actions? Because others have done or said things, that should let you off the hook and free from penalties? It just doesn't seem like the best logic to me. Williams also got into it with the chair umpire during the 2011 U.S. Open final against Sam Stosur. So however you want to categorize it, these kinds of incidents aren't new to Williams.

There's no doubt that Williams is one of the greatest tennis players of all time. I'm not denying her abilities and her status in American women's tennis. However, that doesn't mean her attitude and sportsmanship are above criticism. Maybe there was some sexism involved, but, for me, it's also hard to ignore that Williams has lost her temper before when she's down in a match.

Osaka deserved her moment
The biggest bottom line is that the whole deal was unfair to Osaka. The reality in women's tennis is that many players have been flashes in a pan the past couple of decades, except for the Williams sisters. If this is the only Grand Slam Osaka will ever win (and I'm not advocating for that), she's left with some tainted memories, and that's a shame. It's a moment she can't get back, just like Williams and Ramos can't take back their actions either.
It's such a shame that Osaka stood on that stage with an expression that looked like she lost the match. It was even more heartbreaking to hear her address the crowd and viewers with this:

"I know that everyone was cheering for her (Williams)," Osaka said. "I'm sorry it had to end like this."

Chin up, and go try to enjoy your Grand Slam title.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Clothing-related code violation at U.S. Open is another growing pain for equality

On Wednesday during one of my social-media scrolls, I came across a few Tweets and a brief video from the U.S. Open tennis tournament. It was of a women's tennis player changing her shirt behind the baseline on court - with a sports bra still on, of course. Turns out, it caused quite a stir.

The player was Alize Cornet, and what I saw first was someone trying to be funny without all the facts on Twitter, saying women are allowed to take their shirts off during tennis matches now. Apparently, she had put her shirt on backward during one of the new extreme-heat breaks in her first-round match, and corrected her mistake once she was back on the court.

It didn't seem like any big deal to me. Sure, women aren't in the habit of taking their shirts off in public, but she wasn't naked or anything. And let's remember that the men change shirts all the time during changeovers because of the heat. Flushing Meadows has seen quite the heat wave as tournament play opened this week, causing retirements from some players and the previously mentioned breaks off-court because of the heat.

Anyway, I then found out that Cornet was assessed a code violation from the chair umpire for unsportsmanlike conduct because of her wardrobe change. Umm, what? That's ridiculous. Apparently, the USTA backtracked the situation with a statement including: "All players can change their shirts when sitting in the player chair" and made a policy change to avoid this type of situation in the future. So, there's that.


The WTA also commented, calling the code violation "unfair" and was part of a Grand Slam set of rules, not USTA rules. That clears things right up, although it does seem like the USTA did its best after the fact. The damage was still done from the violation, however, causing a big reaction from other players and across the social media sphere. Cornet received an apology, was not fined (she only received a warning at the time) and didn't think much of it all, until she heard the reactions.

Other players like two-time grand slam champion Victoria Azarenka commented on the situation, saying it was ridiculous and "if I would say my true feelings, it would be bleeped."

Former player Tracy Austin chimed in via Twitter, tsk-tsking the incident:


Discussion about clothing for women's tennis players has been in the news more than once lately. The French tennis federation president, Bernard Giudicelli, bashed the "catsuit" Serena Williams wore at the French Open, saying players can go "too far" and using it as a reason for a dress code.

Be reminded that all things are not quite equal, despite strides
One of the things that make professional tennis so fun to watch and a bit unique from other sports is the equality factor. Men and women both compete in tournaments and grand slams, playing singles, doubles and mixed doubles. The men play best-of-five in slams as opposed to the women's best-of-three, but there's still a large draw for both. Numbers-wise, it's much more equal than if you compare it to other professional sports like basketball or hockey. I suppose golf is a similar comparison here.

That said, incidents like this about women's clothing that pop up are still reminders that the sport still has some growing pains to manage. I haven't done all the research, but I think this applies to prize money as well.

In a time when the #MeToo movement is still going strong, we're reminded that equal treatment is still not a given. At the risk of making a mountain out of a molehill here with the clothing code violation, why was this such an issue? It can be a mistake from the chair umpire, of course, but at worst it's seen as just another piece of evidence that sexism is part of the game. Even if it's a very small part of it.

With professional sports in general, I do think too much gets made out of what athletes choose to wear. That goes for football cleats, too. In tennis, it's all about endorsements and wearing name-brand clothing from whichever company is throwing its money behind the player's team. Wimbledon still has the white-only rule for clothing, which just looks odd when you watch these players at the three other grand slams.

But when it comes down to it, what an athlete wears should not be that big of a deal. Similarly, if a female tennis player chooses to change her shirt while out on the court during a break in the action, that should be fine, too.

Let's hope this incident with Alize Cornet will be quickly forgotten and only show its effects when a woman wants to change her shirt at a changeover, like when the court temperature reaches 100-plus degrees, for example. Just like men do all the time.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Reflections on the 3M Championship in its final year

One of the first major events I ever covered in my sports writing career was the 3M Championship on the Senior PGA Tour located close to home in Blaine, Minn. First, I was a college-aged intern with the local newspaper in Blaine covering community events for the summer. Among the 5K runs and profiles on local high school athletes, I was sent to a pretty big stage for someone still learning the ropes of covering sports.

As with many things that early in a career, the 2007 and 2008 3M Championships were put right into the "good experience" pocket of my early journalism career. Now in 2018, it was recently made official that this year's event - which has been free to the public for many years - will be the last in order to make way for the PGA Tour event coming Fourth of July in 2019.

The 3M Open is down for a seven-year agreement for a tournament at the TPC course in Blaine.

I hadn't covered golf before, let alone a major event. I realized a lot of the day was spent in the air-conditioned media tent looking over the scores that were posted and keeping track of the leaders. Sometimes I'd venture across the way to the practice green or the first tee box, or more commonly see players finish off their rounds on the 18th green before the leaders headed over to the media tent for news conferences.

I took it in stride and tried to act like I knew exactly what I was doing, even though I soaked everything up and tried to learn like a sponge. Looking back on that first story I wrote for the Sun Focus, here are some of the things I recalled:

D.A. Weibring won in 2007 over Jay Haas with a 65-66-67--198. Weibring said after the win that he would donate $10,000 of his winnings to the 35W bridge collapse relief. Thirteen people were killed Aug. 1, 2007 when the 35W bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River in Minneapolis.

The 3M Championship has always been about giving back to charities as well. The tournament also provided more funding to the local Red Cross in response to the 35W bridge tragedy, above the money it already raised for local hospitals in the Twin Cities.

Fans get an up-close-and personal experience with the players, including legends of the game like Chi Chi Rodriguez and TPC golf course co-designer, the late Arnold Palmer. Other than the three-day tournament on the weekend, fans can come out to the course all week to see players hit the driving range and see other celebrities and athletes play in the pro-am.

The next year, I was back again and it was a different player with initials who won the event: R.W. Eaks with a 65-63-65--193.

The past few years, I've gone back as a spectator with my parents on one of the less-crowded days earlier in the week. We've walked around the course a bit, watching players tee off for the pro-am. If nothing else, it's fun to just get outside on a warm summer day and watch guys hit the ball better and farther than I could ever imagine.

It will be a little disappointing to see the casual nature of the senior PGA Tour go away with this event in exchange for the regular PGA Tour, but I'll definitely look back on the 3M Championship with fond memories as one of my first ventures in sports coverage.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Road America weekend, part two: Paddock and race day

Saturday practice was another relatively new spot, though we had been there the past couple of years. The inside of the track on the back side around The Kink is opened up with a paved path. It's one of the closest places fans can get to the track. Of course, debris fencing along the way doesn't make it an ideal photo spot, but it's great for taking some video as the cars speed down the straight at 180 mph. You're so close that the sound of the cars got to my ears just a tiny bit, which usually isn't the case with IndyCars.

In all the years at Road America, we've been through the paddock many times, usually two or three times a weekend. But we had never been around the pits during an active session. We started out the afternoon qualifying rounds standing at the exit to pit road, with just a concrete barrier and some fencing separating us from the track. It was cool to see the cars get set up in the pits, which cars went out for the first round, quick Twitter check to see who advanced to round two and then to see the cars speed by once they had been on track for a lap. I snapped a few photos of them going by, but it was total guesswork. It was like the cars appeared in a blur, with slanted wheels because of the high speeds.

You could also look down toward turn one and watch the cars from behind as they went into the corner. It's a cool perspective because, as Dad pointed out, you don't get to see the cars from behind very often. The TV broadcast always shows them from the front, which makes sense.

Qualifying and the paddock
Robert Wickens during qualifying.
 As the sessions went on, we ventured down along pit road behind the team stands to see which drivers were done and who was still going. This is where we had a lot of different driver sightings, too.

We saw plenty of drivers, team owners, etc. In no particular order: The three Andrettis (Mario, Michael, Marco), Ryan Hunter-Reay (and later his wife and two of his boys), Dario Franchitti, Chip Ganassi, Bobby Rahal, Jimmy Vasser, Josef Newgarden, Ed Jones, Graham Rahal, Sebastien Bourdais, Scott Dixon (and his wife Emma), pit reporter Robin Miller, Alexander Rossi, Will Power, Gabby Chaves, Spencer Pigot, Jordan King, Dad even spotted former CART driver Roberto Moreno in the pits.

I also spotted David Hobbs earlier in the weekend, so Dad went up to shake his hand and chat with him briefly. A cool moment for him.

Defending IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden ended up on the pole with a 1:43.2026 lap, which wasn't a surprise for Team Penske. It marked his third P1 award this season. Four cars dominated the weekend at Road America last year, starting 1-2-3-4 for Penske. Newgarden nearly won the race then, too, but Dixon made a restart pass that stuck for the lead and the eventual win.

This year though, Simon Pagenaud struggled and didn't advance to the second round. On a four-mile track, drivers commented how close and competitive the field was throughout the sessions. The margin of error is just so small. Penske teammate Will Power, this year's Indy 500 champion who won the 2016 IndyCar race at Road America from the pole, qualified second with a 1:43.2508. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi, both Indy 500 winners and Andretti Autosport teammates, started third and fourth on the grid.

A great day for a race
When it came to race day, the weather was about perfect and much better than last year's cloudy, windy and cool conditions. It was a perfect summer day this time, with pure sunshine and some heat. We set up in some grandstands in turn five, along the outside more toward the hill. You can see the cars drop down into the slow corner, then head up the hill and under the bridge for turn six. Turn around, and you could see the cars on the other side of the track heading to turn 14. A small break in the trees allowed me to see the cars going up the hill toward the start/finish.

The field came through for a pace lap and then green flag racing. Turn five can be an action-filled corner since it's a good passing zone on the track. However, it was a day filled with clean racing. In fact, the yellow caution flag didn't fly at all during the entire 55-lap affair. Like Power in 2016, Newgarden won the race from the pole position, leading all but a couple laps during pit stops. He won by a 3.3759-second margin over runner-up Hunter-Reay.

Newgarden was in control the entire race, but the rest of the top cars were right there with him. After the first round of pit stops, it looked like Hunter-Reay had gained some ground on him. I thought for sure he'd be able to catch Newgarden and overtake him for the lead. But, then I remembered Newgarden drives a Penske machine, and his lead was maintained and increased throughout the race.

Sometimes it's nice to have at least one caution in order to bunch up the field and have an exciting restart with some passing. Though, it's hard to wish for that because "yellows breed yellows." It was just the ninth time an IndyCar race went caution-free at Road America and the first time since 2000. Without the slower laps, Newgarden set a race record in speed with a 132.101 average speed.

As always, Dixon was not to be overlooked. He was looking for his third victory of the season but still raced very well and moved up from his starting spot in eighth to achieve a podium finishing third. Power had a very short day on the track. He had a mechanical issue very early, tried to give it a go but ultimately parked the car behind the pit wall and finished in 23rd position. Rossi was in fourth until he was sidelined with suspension problems.

Dixon still holds the series points lead after this 10th race out of 17 this season with 393 points. Hunter-Reay, Rossi and Newgarden follow in the points battle.

Just like that, the race weekend was over. It's always a great time, and it always leaves you wanting more.

Read part one of the weekend:

Road America weekend, part one: Back at the track

Road America weekend, part one: Back at the track

Working in baseball, it's usually a pretty busy summer during the season. I try to balance things out with some relaxation and fun things on the off days. Then there's the annual trip to Road America to take a weekend off and enjoy some IndyCar racing. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it's a great tradition in my family that I love.

I think I've covered the history we have with Road America on my blog in the past so I won't get into those details. When the open-wheel racing series merged back together a few years ago, Road America was left off the season schedule. I hope the strong attendance numbers the past three years since IndyCar's return in 2016 are speaking volumes as to what a mistake it was to leave this four-mile road course off the calendar. It's a favorite among many drivers who've had the privilege to race on the permanent road course.


We did the usual travel plan, which includes driving over on Thursday and taking in racing activities for the next three days. Get tickets early and in advance, and it's just $100 for the weekend. The biggest crowds always arrive on Sunday for the main event, the 55-lap Kohler Grand Prix. Though Friday and Saturday crowds are typically lighter, I will say that just from the eyeball glance it seemed like more and more race fans are making the trek to Elkhart Lake for the race weekend.

Picture perfect weekend, pretty much
The weather is always a concern, and with a baseball season already filled with a blizzard, snow-out weekend, I wasn't sure what to expect. The good news is no raindrops fell. That's always the best news, and we like to think we contribute to that by coming prepared with umbrellas and carrying around ponchos. Racing will still go on with a little rain on a road course, but it's not exactly the best atmosphere.

Friday was probably the worst day, relatively speaking. It was cloudy (which is noted in most of my racing photos) and cool. I'm making good use of the Road America hoodie I bought a couple years ago; last year's race day wasn't exactly hot and humid either.

Finding new spots to watch
For the first practice session to see the IndyCars, we ventured to a new spot on the inside of turn one after the cars come flying in from the long main straightaway. That's one of the best things about Road America, all the different vantage points you can set up to take in the action. It's also why attending multiple days is such a good idea.

Anyway, Dad and I were trying to remember, and I think it used to be that the inside of turn one was off limits to fans. It's a grassy area with a fence separating fans from the track, keeping some distance between us. It's a good photo spot now because there is no debris fencing on the inside of the turn, allowing us to get some shots without focusing through chain-link. Part of the area in turn one is opened up for camping as well. (Just off the eyeball glance again, it seems like Road America has more camping areas than in previous decades if that's your thing. You could camp out and never leave the track the entire weekend.)

Graham Rahal in turn one.

I always love finding new spots to watch the cars at Road America, and it was clear in 2016 that they've made improvements and added access for fans. Practice is always a little interesting, especially if you're going to take photos. You're never sure which drivers are going to run laps right away, who are waiting or who might still be working on the car setup. It's different than racing, because the cars space out enough, for the most part, that they kind of come by one at a time.

I got adjusted with my point-and-shoot digital, took some photos with my phone as well, along with covering some of my social media bases. I also made sure to look over to the outside of turn one and recall A.J. Foyt's bad crash in 1990 where he nearly died.

Meeting the drivers
After practice, we went through the paddock area to get an up-close look at the cars. It's always worth the extra time, and another reason to spend multiple days at the track. Then, we actually went to wait in the autograph session line. We don't usually do that, but Dad really wanted to get Scott Dixon's autograph on a couple photos he's taken. You get lucky sometimes, running into drivers in the paddock. Of course, most of the time we aren't quick enough or don't have the desired photos with us when that happens.

As we waited, it turned out we were in a good spot, able to see the drivers speed down the hill on their scooters and arrive for the session. The drivers were split into two lines, so I also had a few photos I've taken that I got signed by the drivers, like Dixon, Graham Rahal and Tony Kanaan. We also got signatures from a driver making his IndyCar debut over the weekend, 21-year-old Alfonso Celis Jr., from Mexico.

We watched afternoon practice from another new spot, along the hill about where the Billy Mitchell bridge used to be before they took it out (the one Memo Gidley crunched into a few years back). After slowing way down at Canada Corner in turn 12, the cars pour on the speed up the hill and toward the final turn before making their way up to the start/finish line. Celis Jr. lost it just before turn 14 during the session, connecting hard with the tire barrier and causing some damage. Not a surprise to see from a rookie trying to feel out his new car and a new track.

Other than that, it ended up being a pretty clean weekend as far as damage and crashes were concerned.

Read part two of the weekend:

Road America weekend, part two: Paddock and race day


Thursday, June 21, 2018

Dixon, one of the best of all time, looks to continue momentum at Road America

Scott Dixon during 2017 practice at Road America.
Scott Dixon walked away from a debris-filled crash with an inside wall at the 2017 Indianapolis 500. His demeanor for an on-camera interview during the live ABC broadcast was cool as a cucumber. As expected for the IndyCar driver nicknamed the Ice Man. He's also leaving his mark as one of the greatest drivers in the sport's history, joining the ranks of guys named Foyt, Andretti and Mears.

Heading into this weekend for the Kohler Grand Prix at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis., Dixon will try to win the event for the second year in a row. Last year, Dixon hadn't ever led a lap at the four-mile road course until that Sunday. (To be fair, IndyCar had a long break from the course with a triumphant return in 2016.) But Dixon passed Josef Newgarden on a restart in turn one to grab the lead and hang onto it the rest of the way for his 41st career victory. His win also spoiled the weekend for Team Penske, whose four cars dominated the road course last year, starting 1-2-3-4 on the grid.

This season, Dixon, 37, won the first race of the Detroit doubleheader and followed that up with a victory deep in the heart of Texas on the oval. His latest victory (No. 43 in his career) moved him into sole possession of third place on the all-time victory list in IndyCar racing, passing Michael Andretti. Dixon trails only A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti on the victory list.

The two victories this season have put Dixon, already a four-time series champion, in the points lead this season with 357. Alexander Rossi with Andretti Autosport, and the 2016 Indy 500 winner, is second 23 points behind Dixon. Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Newgarden round out the top five in the standings.

Ice Man just doing his thing 
Dixon has an IndyCar career that spans 18 seasons. He's inched his way up on the victory list, raced for one of the top teams in Chip Ganassi Racing, made it to victory lane for the 2008 Indy 500 and does it all with a calm focus. Actually, 2008 was one of Dixon's best efforts, with six total victories (including the big one at Indy) and his second series championship.

Watch him on the race track, and it's amazing the ground he can make up to gain positions. He's just an all-around good race car driver, and he doesn't seem to make a big deal out of his success either. He's pretty even-keeled.

Plus, in a time when IndyCar ratings and attendance are generally up as the sport gains traction, Dixon is putting on a show for the fans. It's not easy to stand out sometimes with such a diverse field of drivers, several winners, and a dominant Team Penske. But Dixon is showcasing what a talented race driver can do. He's one of the best if not the best of his era. After all, A.J. and Mario raced throughout the 1960s, 70s, 80s and early 90s. Michael followed along and overlapped before becoming the team owner he is now.

Scott Dixon will go down as the first top driver of this century.

Kohler GP back for a third year
This year's entry list for Road America contains 23 drivers, including 21-year-old rookie Alfonso Celis Jr., of Mexico, making his IndyCar debut. Indy Grand Prix and Indy 500 winner Will Power won Road America when the series returned to the track in 2016.

The 55-lap race on the 4.048-mile, 14-turn permanent road course is set for about noon on Sunday.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

April baseball is filled with blizzards and down time

The backyard.
It's April 15, and it hasn't stopped snowing for two straight days. Hello, blizzard of 2018.

This also means that the Minnesota Twins haven't played much baseball lately. They beat the White Sox at home on Thursday, the start of what was supposed to be a four-game series at Target Field. Instead, the final three games of that series were postponed (not canceled; there's a difference) because of inclement weather. In this case, "inclement weather" means there was a gigantic blizzard that hit the Twin Cities.

First, Friday was a mix of cold temps, sleet and rain that contributed to the game getting called off for the night. At that point (and even earlier in the week), everyone pretty much figured Saturday's game wasn't going to happen, with the snow arriving later Friday night. Yes, Saturday was also postponed as of that morning.

Sunday was initially questionable, because who wants to postpone three games in a row? But as the feet of snow kept falling, they canned Sunday's contest late Saturday afternoon. The White Sox could head out for their next road series in Oakland (enjoy!) while the Twins flew down to Puerto Rico Sunday afternoon to prepare for their two-game series there against Cleveland this week.

Oh, and last Sunday's game was postponed, too. That was against Seattle, a day after the coldest game in Twins history was played. The Twins already have four postponements on their schedule - and again, it's only April 15. The season just started.

Of course, it's been a very odd start to the season, thanks to the weather. When they've played, the Twins have been good. Jose Berrios has pitched well; he tied his career-high with 11 strikeouts in the first-and-only game against the White Sox. Joe Mauer reached the 2,000 hits milestone that same night, and it was cool for him to accomplish the milestone in front of the home crowd on a chilly April evening.

They opened the season in Baltimore on March 29 and lost in extra innings, but they recovered to win the series. They split a couple games in Pittsburgh, where the weather wasn't much better than Minnesota with heavy snow flurries and wind for the game-two night game.

The Twins won their home opener on April 5 to start a 10-game homestand with a few home runs in a 4-2 victory over the Mariners. Technically, the homestand is a season-long 12 games, since the Puerto Rico games are considered home games for the Twins. Still, having the Twins play 10 games in April to start their home schedule is kind of asking for the baseball-weather gods to screw you over.

With spring really not arriving at all so far, temperatures have been frigid for the brave fans who venture to the outdoor ballpark. Note: I will not get into a stadium debate in this blog. The coldest game in Twins history was 27 degrees at first pitch. The Twins lost to Seattle 11-4 that day. Technically, it was series split since the finale was postponed.

April 7, 2018: The coldest Twins game in history.
When the Twins start play in Puerto Rico, they'll hold a 7-4 record with 11 games played in 19 days. That will be the fewest number of games played in baseball, I believe. Let me also point out that the Twins aren't the only ones that have had weather issues this season. On April 15, no team from the American League Central finished a baseball game.

There are plenty of off days to start anyway. With each team's home opener in a cooler city, there's an off day after the opener. So, the Twins had two off days after they played the first games in Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Then there was the off day after the home opener. They also have two off days built in around the Puerto Rico series.

It's just a strange start to the season, for all involved. First, they started the season in March. Then it's just been tough to get into a rhythm with so much cold weather and days without a baseball game. Because even when games have been played, the only relatively nice weather the Twins have experienced was in Baltimore. They came home to host the Mariners and then took two-of-three games from the defending-champion Houston Astros the beginning of last week.

Of course, there's nothing anyone can do about the weather. We just have to react to it and try to plan accordingly. In baseball terms, that usually means making up games with doubleheaders and taking away previously-scheduled off days to get the games in later in the season.

It's disappointing because the start of the baseball season is exciting. Opening Day is always fun and full of anticipation. Players are looking to get started on the right foot with their seasons individually. Teams hope to gain some momentum on their way to a division title or playoff berth at the end of 162 games. To borrow from a quote in car racing, you can't win a race on the first lap (April for baseball), but you can lose it.

It's just frustrating to not get the season started without a bunch of weather getting in the way. Here's to hoping better weather and more victories are in the future!

Sunday, March 18, 2018

A closer look at my own personal March Madness

One of the things I often tell people when discussing my work is that I love all the different things I get to do. It's true. I stay busy with a variety of different assignments and beats from a variety of different media outlets. Plus, there's the social media side of things, too.

It's never more evident than this time of year when tournaments are plentiful and the baseball season is on the horizon. There's basketball, hockey, even some state swimming/diving. I enjoy staying busy trying to cover as much as I can, or as my schedule will allow.

This past week, I started out with some spring training updates from home for the Twins. It hasn't been the best week for the Twins in terms of wins-losses and plays in the field, but it's spring training, and I don't think there's been this level of optimism with a Twins offseason in a very long time. Safe to say the anticipation of the season and building on last year's wild-card playoff game is pretty high.

State hoops: 3A quarterfinal
By Wednesday, I got set up at Williams Arena to kick off the girls' basketball state tournament with a Class 3A quarterfinal game between Alexandria and eventual-champion Robbinsdale Cooper. I'd seen Alexandria play a little bit during my time in Fergus Falls since they often played each other in the section tournament. Their coach Wendy Kohler is one of the most animated and fun to watch along the bench. Cooper had a storyline with fourth-year coach Kiara Buford, a former Gophers player who also won back-to-back state titles with St. Paul Central. Her younger sister Jada was just one of the stars on this year's Cooper team.

Sometimes quarterfinal games at the state tournament level can turn into blowouts, and I was glad this wasn't the case here. Alexandria held a lead for much of the first half before top-seed Cooper took over for a 58-51 victory. Afterward, Kohler was diplomatic in her comments about tournament seeding and saying she doesn't agree with it but respects the Minnesota State High School League. Her team was unseeded and faced no. 1 seed Cooper in the first game; Kohler advocated for a 1 through 8 seeding system, rather than the 1-5 system in place now.

Deja vu
Thursday, I had the same assignment from a year ago: The Class 3A, Section 6 boys' basketball section championship game. The opponents were the same, too, in 2-seed Orono and 1-seed and six-time defending state champion DeLaSalle.

This game between the Spartans and Islanders was played in front of a full house at Chanhassen High School that included Gophers men's basketball coach Richard Pitino; he was there to watch two of his recruits face off against each other in Orono senior Jarvis Thomas Omersa and DeLaSalle senior Gabe Kalscheur. The teams were introduced as the six-time defending Class 3A state champion DeLaSalle and the Orono Spartans, "the home of the Class 1A boys' hockey champions." I thought it was an interesting touch.

The crowd was much bigger than last year, and I'm wondering if either school had a girls' hoops team playing at state at the same time, or if there was just that much more interest in the future-Gopher matchup. Either way, it was an outstanding section final, just like the year before when DeLaSalle won by three points.

The teams were tied at the half, giving an early indication of just how competitive they are against each other. It was a tight game of runs for most of the way, with the scoring staying close. That is until Orono opened up a 12-point lead with just a few minutes to play. I started preparing to write the "Orono upset" story. Related: I should have known better.

The Islanders came back down the stretch, thanks in large part to Kalscheur's clutch shots, including a trio of 3-pointers inside two minutes remaining that got his team within two points, within one and then tied the game with 13.9 seconds left. He just kept answering; he ended up with a season-high/game-high 38 points.

It sure looked like overtime was on the horizon (which is not very friendly for my print deadline, I think to myself selfishly). But as time was expiring, the officials called a foul on Thomas Omersa with less than a second left on the clock. It sent DeLaSalle senior Christian Dickson to the free throw line, and the two shots gave the reigning champs an 80-78 victory. A comeback filled with experienced players, and a heartbreaker for the Spartans who fell short yet again.

More girls' hoops, different venue
I was back on the state tournament beat by Friday evening, this time from the floor of the newly-renovated Target Center. I haven't covered much at this Minneapolis venue, so it was fun to be on the floor on press row getting a close look at the game. I had back-to-back games, covering the Class 2A semifinals.

First, it was Sauk Centre taking on Norwood-Young America. Team names are always fun from some of the schools around the state. I think Awesome Blossoms from Blooming Prairie is still my favorite, but Sauk Centre has the Mainstreeters. Sauk Centre had to come back from a halftime deficit in their quarterfinal win over Byron, and the coach mentioned after Friday's game how similar they two contests were, at least at the start.

They were tied at the half 23-23 but used a 16-2 run in the second half to take control and coast to a 54-45 win to keep their perfect season alive. For NYA, their coach mentioned after the game that they've been to state three of the past four years, and Sauk Centre has ended their championship hopes each time (twice in the quarterfinal before this year's semi loss).

In the second game, the defending-champion Roseau Rams needed a comeback victory to beat Maranatha Christian Academy (a team that moved up from Class 1A and making its ninth straight state appearance overall). Maranatha led by five points at the half and used free throws to keep pace early in the second half when both teams when for a long time without a field goal. Kacie Borowicz just couldn't miss in the home stretch, and she scored a season-high 40 points.

The Rams won 78-66 to get a rematch with Sauk Centre in the title game.

All the sports 
Those were just my experiences with sports. So many other things happened (in no particular order, and I'm sure I'm forgetting something):

  • Gophers women's basketball won an NCAA tournament game for the first time since 2009 
  • Gophers men's hockey will not make a trip to the NCAA tournament after a perfect storm of events
  • St. Cloud State lost the NCHC Frozen Faceoff
  • A 16 seed beat a No. 1 seed in the NCAA basketball tournament for the first time ever 
  • Everyone's bracket is busted
  • Two girls' basketball teams finished with undefeated seasons (Sauk Centre in Class 2A and Eastview in Class 4A)
  • Minnesota United kicked off its season
  • The Wild swept the season series against the Vegas Golden Knights
  • The Vikings wined-and-dined and signed a quarterback, but I don't think much has been written about that
  • Legendary race car driver and IndyCar team owner A.J. Foyt is apparently O.K. after a second attack by killer bees on his Texas ranch
  • IndyCar kicked off its season last Sunday with a race in St. Petersburg, Fla. Sebastian Bourdais, who sustained severe injuries in a horrific crash at Indianapolis Motor Speedway during 2017 Indy 500 qualifying, won the race.
  • Tennis from Indian Wells

They don't call it March Madness for nothing. Next up: Bring on baseball season!

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Like sports? This is your time.

It's tough to find a busier time of the sports year than late February and early March. Well, I suppose it depends on what sports and levels you follow, but there are plenty of options.

Let's see, there's spring training for Major League Baseball. Pitchers and catchers reported on Valentine's Day this year before the game schedule got going. The start of baseball season can be something that sneaks up on you, especially for those that live in wintry wonderlands like Minnesota. It's always fun to have the anticipation of the season ahead - even if the lineups feature a lot of high-numbered jerseys.

Hockey and basketball are still in full swing with their regular seasons. Plus, teams have trade deadlines and playoff pushes to think about, which keeps fans interested if their team is any good. The Wild just won their season-high fifth game in a row and have moved into third place in the Central Division in the NHL - before losing to the league's worst team in Arizona. The Timberwolves are trying to end a lengthy playoff drought.

The NFL is in that brief in-between period following the Super Bowl and before the draft. Oh wait, the Scouting Combine is this week. Never mind. Football really doesn't seem to have an offseason.

Racing, hoops and tourneys
In the racing world, the Daytona 500 to kick-off the NASCAR year is already behind us. This year, Danica Patrick, with her beau Aaron Rogers in tow, crashed out to end her NASCAR career. Don't worry; she'll be at the Indianapolis 500. Speaking of IndyCar, the open-wheel drivers start their season in St. Petersburg, Fla. on March 11. (One of these years, I've got to change some priorities and make a Florida trip with a St. Pete-spring training combo.)

Of course, the true March Madness goes back to the NCAA Basketball Tournament. The bracket-busting is just around the corner, also a time when work productivity goes down as basketball fans stream games and check the scores online. It's also the one time of year when people pretend to be hoopster fanatics, even though they haven't watched a single minute of a college basketball season. But hey, sports can be a social event, so it's all good.

This time of year is also filled with high school state tournaments. It starts with girls' hockey, the one tournament in February that really can catch you off guard in a "already?" kind of way. On the bright side, it starts weeks of playoff games with section and state tournaments for all the other winter sports. Actually, I'm forgetting the skiing which comes before girls' hockey, but that's not something I've covered so it's out of sight, out of mind. Not to diminish the sport by any means.

From the sports I've covered, it's developed into a bit of a routine of what to watch. There's girls' hockey, then boys' swimming and diving (wrestling is the same weekend), the most prestigious boys' hockey tournament in the country, followed by the girls' and boys' state basketball tournaments.

This year had one other sporting event to the mix: The Olympics.

The world comes together for sports
Every four years, the Olympics come around for some winter entertainment, too. I remember when the Olympics would come on TV as a kid. It was a little different then without a billion cable channels and social media to keep the world over-updated on all the events happening. Anyway, I remember my parents encouraging me to watch the Olympics because they only came around every few years - and I could watch Rugrats any time.

It was always fun to watch them. There are so many events that are unique to the Olympics. For instance, how often do you watch ski jumping or speed skating on TV?

I didn't get to watch as much as I would have liked, a result of covering so many sports myself. I kept up the most with women's hockey, probably because I covered Team USA in December when they played Canada in St. Paul. Oh, and if you haven't heard, goaltender Maddie Rooney played for Andover, Minn. (!), plus I wrote a story about her during her senior season. #humblebrag

Anyway, I watched most of the first couple games which started at 1:40 a.m. Central time. The night owl in me didn't mind. I caught the third period, overtime and shootout in the gold medal game against Canada before writing something up for ZoneCoverage.com.

That was probably the best moment of the Olympics for Team USA. Well, that and then the men's curling gold medal later in the week. I know that was a huge feat as well; I just still am not well versed in the curling rules and strategy, so it was hard to get into it. (I was also falling asleep after covering the girls' state hockey tournament for four days.) But all the congratulations to the Minnesotans who led the way.

I also watched some figure skating and some other random ski/snowboarding events. I saw Shaun White win his gold. I watched the USA figure skaters take bronze as a team. I started thinking about what a difficult journey it must be to get to the Olympics and then win a medal. This competition isn't like the Stanley Cup or World Series that happens annually.

These medals are given out for performances every four years. That's a long time to train, practice and sacrifice for just one shot at victory. And what if you mess up? What if you're not at your best that day? To me, it's almost unimaginable how much goes into these performances, physically and emotionally. Let alone the fact that I don't know how these athletes do it. The heights, the strength needed, the ways your body has to move and bend.

I applaud them, because I couldn't even manage a cartwheel after years in dance classes.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

So many strides for women in the sports world

I wouldn't say I'm a movie buff. I enjoy keeping up with favorite television shows more than movies.Still, one of my favorite films, especially in the sports genre, is "A League of Their Own." There are plenty of things to like about it, but it's also based on the true story of women playing professional baseball. The movie did a good job of explaining the premise of women going to work - and playing ball - while the men went away to war in the 1940s. 

That's just one example on the path girls and women have carved over the years. Feb. 7, 2018 was National Girls and Women in Sports Day. 

Technically, the day recognizes athletes and their achievements in sports. I'm jumping on board, too, as a female sports journalist, blogger, social media coordinator and author. Plenty has been accomplished in this arena as well. I'm proud to be a part of that. 

I didn't cover a game on this day, watch any sports or write much. That's weird in itself, I know. It's also Wednesday, which is typically a day for elementary school volunteering and church choir practice. I *did* finish up a story I was working on for an upcoming edition of Minnesota Hockey Magazine. I also conducted a phone interview with a high school softball coach. 

Sometimes, I think it's hard to fathom how things were in the sports world (or any world, really) years ago or before you were around to remember. Perfect example? I've watched plenty of documentaries and footage surrounding the John F. Kennedy assassination and days following. I still can't get over the fact that news anchors could smoke cigarettes on live television. 

It applies with sports, too. It's never been a question for me as to whether I could write about sports. That doesn't mean the job doesn't have it's own challenges - and there are still obstacles to clear in regard to equality. Still, I could do it. It's normal. Job descriptions for sports reporters aren't marked with weird things like "men only" or some such nonsense.

I had to chance to learn more about the women who've come before me in the business in writing my children's book, Women in Sports Media. Women who covered sports decades ago, when it really was a man's world. I read about a woman who sat down on the steps of a hockey arena, setting her typewriter in her lap, because they wouldn't allow her in the press box. Another sat outside in a snowstorm to cover a Minnesota Vikings game because she wasn't allowed into the press box - she sat on top of it. Allowing women in locker rooms? That just wasn't done, until women started pushing back. 

I'm grateful that I've had such positive experiences in this business. I really haven't had to worry about much. 

When it comes to athletics, there have been strides there, too. Just a few random ones listed here:

  • This year marks 20 years since women's hockey entered the Olympics
  • Title IX
  • I wrote a story last year about a high school wrestling team with female wrestlers
  • The WNBA
  • Athletic scholarships for girls
  • The growth of girls hockey over the past couple decades
  • Female race car drivers competing with male drivers
  • Volleyball, soccer, dance, basketball, swimming, tennis
  • And so much more

So many good stories are out there, told by and about women. There are still stories of many "firsts" for women in sports. Some see this in a negative light, asking why we should be celebrating something that should just be the norm. The truth is, it's important to recognize these milestones. In the future, it might not be a big deal when a girl wins a state high school wrestling title. But the first one, like anything done for the first time, is still special. 

Thanks to all the girls and women who have contributed in some way to the sports world. And remember, there's no crying in baseball. 

Friday, January 19, 2018

Stephens comments puzzling after opening-round Australian Open loss

A few months ago, tennis player Sloane Stephens was on top of the world. She won her first Grand Slam title in her first appearance in a slam final. It was a 6-3, 6-0 victory over fellow American player Madison Keys at the U.S. Open to finish off the slam calendar of 2017.

It was a bright spot in women's tennis. One that fans hoped would spark some continued success. 

Well, now it hasn't. Stephens is 0-8 since winning her title, with the latest loss coming as the No. 13 seed in the first round of the Australian Open, a 2-6, 7-6 (2), 6-2 loss to Zhang Shuai of China. 

That's all concerning enough, but her words in the post-match presser in Australia were also a little troubling to hear. Sure, she isn't the only American in the women's field to get upset early in Aussie land. Venus Williams and Coco Vandeweghe, just to name a couple Americans that lost in the first round while fans back in the United States were still talking about that finish in an NFC playoff game. 

When it comes to Stephens after this loss, to me there's a difference between keeping a positive attitude and then being so nonchalant about your first-round upset that there's no anger or frustration whatsoever. Stephens didn't seem to have that balance at all. She talked about not getting too down with the long season still ahead. She said she's going to "stay positive." Totally understandable, but aren't you also upset that you were upset in the first round considering you're the last woman to win a Grand Slam? 

So, a reporter asked her, has she had a tough time since the U.S. Open?

"I wouldn't call them tough times," Stephens said. "Everyone's so depressed, so down. It happens to everyone. I'm going to beat someone eventually. I'm going to have the best Instagram picture when I finally snap this losing streak.  
"It's not tough times. It's just learning experience. It's a long journey." 
That's what I'm excited to see: The Instagram picture. 

While I can understand what she's trying to convey here, I'm not sure I follow 100 percent. This isn't like she's a tennis superstar who's hit a slump. The only tennis superstar on the women's circuit has been and still is Serena Williams. Anyone else still needs to prove themselves as a consistent and dominant player, in my opinion.

She said she's "going to beat someone eventually." While that's probably true, it doesn't inspire much confidence when you sit there and don't seem the least bit concerned that you haven't won a match since the biggest victory of your career. How do you plan to beat someone if you just shrug your shoulders about it? 

Now, maybe I'm using Stephens as the scapegoat here. She's just 24 years old and has already had some success; she will always be a Grand Slam champion. If she's happy with that, then who are we to judge?

"For me now, it's not that great," Stephens said. "But it's nothing to panic about, guys. Winning the U.S. Open was the best thing that happened in my tennis career."

Future of women's tennis still a question mark 
ESPN tennis analyst and former tennis player Chris Evert pointed out that with Serena not playing in the tournament (My opinion: She didn't want to come back yet because, while she could play, she doesn't want to return until she knows she can beat everybody.), that means the rest of the field might be feeling the pressure. Meaning, when Serena plays, they're not expected to beat her, so they have nothing to lose. With Serena out, everyone thinks it's up to them to step up and fill the void.

Instead, it's led to more upsets than anything else. Honestly, when I watch these slams, I go in expecting upsets rather than dominant tennis matches, especially on the women's side. And let's picture the women's tennis landscape without Serena in the fold, because that will happen at some point, whether it's in a year or a few years. What will that look like?

Who is going to come on the scene as the next tennis great in the women's game? Meaning, who can be a consistently-ranked player, win some slams and not get upset all the time? I don't have a name to add to this right now.

Maria Sharapova is a weird case, coming back after her two-year ban for breaking the drug-test rules, so the former Grand Slam champion is at a weird spot in the seeding process compared to her level of play. Caroline Wozniacki hasn't shown me she can keep it together mentally to win tournaments. Genie Bouchard is working her way back from concussion issues. Venus has surged back to some success but is still most definitely in the sunset of her career at 37 years old. Simona Halep is ranked No. 1 but has yet to win a Slam.

American fans have their fingers crossed for players like Stephens and Keys, the other U.S. Open finalist last fall who's still alive in the Aussie Open this year. But with every player of promise seems to come more disappointment.

I'd like to look forward to watching some solid women's tennis matches going forward, rather than upset after upset.