Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Writer, journalist, blogger, author, social media: It's been a great decade

When I worked as a daily news reporter a few years ago, the time in between Christmas and New Year's was always tricky for getting work done. We still had an empty paper to fill six days a week, but it was often a slow time for news. Plus, any ideas that might come up didn't always result in a story because it was a question of being able to reach sources - everyone burns vacation time at the end of the year, you know.

So, we often put together year-end pieces, recapping things that happened on our beats throughout the past 12 months. I always enjoyed these stories when they pop up on the TV news. You forget about some of the things that were such big stories, and it's fun to reminisce.

As we approach the end of another year, I've seen plenty of stuff already circling the social media world about "best ____ of the decade." Whether it's the best local sports moment, best song or the best athlete, just to name a couple. Naturally, as I often do as a writer, this is made me reflect on all that I've done and accomplished over the past decade.

Just getting started 
First of all, the decade basically encompasses my entire career so far. At the end of 2009, I wrapped up an internship at a magazine group. It was a great experience, but the economic times didn't allow me to become a full-time hire, so I decided to test the waters elsewhere. That started with a part-time job as a sports copy aide with the Star Tribune. I still remember walking the halls of the now-torn-down building on a tour during my first night.

My first byline came in October 2010, covering the high school girls' state tennis tournament. It's kind of fitting since that, as I always tell people, was the one sport I played in high school. What was cool about that story as I talked to the singles champion was the little tidbit she gave me. After victories, she loves to eat frosting from a can. Hey, whatever works.

I plugged away and finally found my first full-time reporting job with the Post-Bulletin, working out of the Austin, Minn. office for the Austin Post-Bulletin. First jobs can be filled with nerves, and this was no exception. It was a news reporting job, but I had a desire for sports. I was going to chalk this up to earning some great experience and learning a bunch of new stuff.

First stop: Austin, Minn. 
When you're a young journalist trying to break into the business, you hear about going to a small-town newspaper (or TV station, for the broadcast folks) to get your feet wet and learn as much as you can. That's certainly what I tried to do. In our two-reporter newsroom, I had the education and city beats, plus listening to the scanner for breaking news opportunities and covering any other community events or feature stories.

In a unique scenario, our office was very small with all the editors, designers, etc. over in Rochester. I was extremely lucky to have a very experienced reporter by my side in Kay Fate. After all the struggles and rejections of trying to land a full-time job for two-plus years after graduation, it all made sense to me when I landed in Austin; Kay and I were meant to find each other as colleagues and friends. I'm so grateful to her for being patient with me, helping me along the way and making me laugh every day.

I covered city council and school board meetings and work sessions. Kay told me I'd be the most informed person in the city, and she was right. I got to see how the local entities worked, then find a way to break down the important information for the readers in my stories. The city council was particularly interesting because of the divided opinions. Getting a 4-3 vote on an issue after lengthy debates on the seven-member council was not uncommon.

Along with the annual budget discussions came other issues like opening a dog park in the city and then declaring dogs "dangerous dogs" after incidents at the park. I also covered the HRA, even catching it in an open-meeting law violation dealing with the future of the organization's executive director.

Elections were another fun thing to cover, with a very diverse pool of mayoral candidates. But I really enjoyed the education beat. Along with the school board elections, the district looked into building a new intermediate school because of the growth in the area led to overcrowding in the schools. As the board looked to pass a referendum to build the school, I reported on a bunch of features relating to the specifics of the overcrowding, like kids holding class in a section of a media center. The referendum passed and I followed up with more coverage as construction for the school got underway.

Among other stories, the Minnesota Wild Road Tour stopped in Austin, I covered events and activities at the local library and had the chance to cover breaking news. My very first fire call I went on will not be topped. I was alone in the office after an evening meeting, and I heard a call on the scanner for a garage fire. I grabbed the newsroom camera and headed to the destination. When I got there, I snapped a bunch of photos of the garage fully engulfed in flames.

I didn't realize at the time how abnormal this was. Most of the fire calls we hear aren't serious, are false alarms or don't amount to much visual damage, maybe a little smoke here or there. I'm still the proudest of this photo that landed on the front page the next day.

At the end of the 2012 calendar year, the Austin Post-Bulletin shut its doors. It was a sad time, but I found some part-time work down the interstate as a sports stringer for the Albert Lea Tribune. Getting some prep sports action again was a lot of fun. With a talented high school wrestling team, I learned about a new sport, too.

From SE to NW Minnesota
From there, I moved to Fergus Falls (a sister paper with Albert Lea) to take another news reporting job. I once again had the city beat and added crime/public safety to my resume. Covering the cops/courts was another great learning experience on how to objectively and safely report on crime. It's not as easy as one might think.

Fergus Falls had a similar feel to me as Austin - a small town just big enough to feel like a small suburb. In a county filled with lakes, Fergus Falls was also home to the Regional Treatment Center. Like the Austin school district growth, the RTC took up a lot of my coverage space in Fergus Falls. The old building on the list of historic places in the state of Minnesota was still standing and was once used as a mental hospital. There was an ongoing debate among the community as to whether it should be torn down or repurposed.

A couple of developers presented their plans to the city council but nothing panned out. There were even some closed-door meetings among council members regarding the RTC, which again seemed to speak toward violations of the state's open meeting law. In the everyday grind of covering stories to fill the paper six days a week, I was glad for the opportunity to take some time reporting on such a major story like this one.

The city's library needed more space, so I also followed that process of getting things approved to start construction on a new facility addition.

Back home for a fresh start
When I came back to the metro area a few years ago, I tell people I just kind of fell into freelancing. I wanted to meet with a lot of different people in the journalism and communications business to see what my next step might look like. But I still had the itch to get back into sports.

It all started with covering one football game. That started my relationship with the Star Tribune once again. I got connected on the preps beat and helped out the full-time writers with the extra coverage they needed during section and state tournament time for sports like football, volleyball, tennis, swimming, hockey, adapted floor hockey and soccer, and basketball. Thanks to David La Vaque for making this happen and for Paul Klauda for keeping me in the fold.

Over the past few years, I've had the chance to tell some great feature stories about prep athletes, starting with a weekly feature piece in the Star Tribune. I've also continued to cover playoff action on the preps beat, plus I spent some time covering Gophers men's hockey games and Gophers women's basketball. This coverage spilled over into working for SportsEngine to cover regular-season games during the winter season for preps.

Also in 2015, I connected with Gregg Litman, a former journalist who works for StoryTeller Media + Communications, during my quest to talk with folks in the communications industry. That meeting led to some freelance work, writing blog posts for Hazeltine National Golf Club.

Target Field has been a blessing in more ways than one 
After a winter season getting my feet wet with some freelancing, I found myself applying for a social media job with Major League Baseball, working with the Minnesota Twins, that I heard about after one of my networking meetings at the Twins offices. By the end of May, when my parents and I had taken a quick trip to Indianapolis to watch Carb Day ahead of the Indy 500, I found out I got the job: In-game social media coordinator with MLB/@twins.

Working in sports on a daily basis, finding my niche in social media and calling a major-league ballpark my office has been an amazing experience. After five seasons with the Twins, I've said that the team has seemed to go the opposite direction of expectations, which has been good (see 101 wins and the MLB home-run record in 2019) and bad (see 103 losses in 2016).

Along the way, I've developed many more working relationships and friendships with the writers and media members I've met in the press box, especially at Target Field. I don't take these ball games for granted, and I don't take these relationships for granted. I'm also thankful because more opportunities have come my way because of some of these great people.

That freelance hustle, though 
While my baseball work is basically in-season, I still hustled on the freelance side of things in the baseball offseason, building up more freelance clips, hours and outlets. I covered a couple seasons of Gophers men's basketball (shout-out to Derek Wetmore at 1500 ESPN, now SKOR North). I dabbled a bit with USA Hockey stories thanks to a friend-of-a-friend connection.

I also became a children's author through the friends I met at Target Field. We were sitting at dinner before the game one night in 2017 when Dan Myers (current digital content coordinator for the Minnesota Wild) was talking to Pat Donnelly about his next book; Donnelly is an editor at Red Line Editorial who assigns the books. The next series coming up was Women in Sports. I believe it was Dan who essentially suggested to Pat, "why not Heather?" as someone to join the author ranks.

My first two books in 2017 were Women in Sports Media and Women in the Olympics. As of early 2020, I'll have seven published titles. They go out to school libraries; I know for certain they're at Crooked Lake Elementary School. ;-)

In 2016, I had the chance to cover the WNBA Finals in Minneapolis for USA Today. I've also covered NCAA regional volleyball at the University of Minnesota a few times. Thanks to Pat Borzi and Rachel Blount, plus the Star Tribune sports department, for thinking of me.

I also got to know Michael Russo, formerly the Wild beat writer for the Star Tribune and currently The Athletic. When the new site got going in 2017, he approached me to write some stories for The Athletic as a freelancer. I've written college hockey season previews, wrote some features on Krissy Wendall and Rob McClanahan, and covered the Minnesota Whitecaps in their first season in the National Women's Hockey League. The freedom to tell stories without the hindrance of tight deadlines and word counts is a blessing.

How else did networking lead to other work for me? I've stayed in touch with an editor I worked with briefly at the Red Wing paper. As he moved on to other places, he called upon me for freelance work. I wrote prep features, previews and some other feature stories on tennis players and a hockey player named JT Compher for the Chicago Tribune/Pioneer Press (suburban editions). Everything was done over phone interviews and internet research.

One interview for a basic boys' swimming preview led to one of the most in-depth stories I've had the chance to tell: "Glenbrook North swimmer learns to walk again after beach accident." Thanks to Ryan Nilsson for encouraging me to dig deeper and for providing consistent freelance assignments. When Ryan moved on to a paper in Indiana, the Times of Northwest Indiana, he tasked me with writing weekly notebooks on local athletes as they continued to excel in collegiate athletics.

Let's do that hockey 
On the hockey side, I started writing for Minnesota Hockey Magazine a little bit in 2015, even writing a profile story on goaltender Maddie Rooney when she played with the Andover boys' team before she became famous for her shootout save to win the gold medal in the 2018 Olympics. I also covered some state tournaments. My editor, Brian Halverson, has always been a great guy to work with in coordinating feature coverage.

Starting with the 2018-19 season, I became the main Minnesota Wild beat writer for Minnesota Hockey Magazine. I don't cover every game or write "gamers," necessarily. But it's been a great opportunity for me to explore having a beat with a professional sports team as a sports writer. I've enjoyed taking it all in and writing some fun feature stories on the team and its players.

My other hockey writing started with a now-defunct site called WildXtra.com. It was a chance to get writing about sports again and even write some columns about the Wild. When that site folded, I joined the ZoneCoverage.com (then Cold Omaha) team as a Wild writer in early 2017.

It was another press-box connection that helped me get to know one of the site's founders, Tom Schreier. I produced weekly Wild content with stats, columns and game stories. Throughout the 2017-18 Wild season, I produced game preview and recap stories for nearly every Wild game. I've also filled in some with Gophers basketball coverage, written stories about the Indy 500 and covered the state hockey tournaments for Zone Coverage.

In 2018, I started contributing to the Breakdown Sports preview magazines put out by Tim Kolehmainen and his team. I've written about baseball, softball, volleyball and hockey, focusing on big-picture feature stories previewing some of the top programs in the state in their respective sports.

Wrapping up the decade 
This past year was filled with one of the best baseball seasons in Twins history. The Bomba Squad won the AL Central Division and set the MLB home-run record. I covered the same smattering of tournaments on the prep side, covered my first full season on the Wild beat and watched the Whitecaps make history by winning the Isobel Cup.

Thanks to my parents, friends and colleagues who've been with me along the way throughout my work journey the past decade. It's been fun to explore so many different types of work as I try to establish my career. I didn't mean to leave anybody out by name, but if I did, you know who you are and I hope you know what you mean to me.

Cheers to 2020 and the next decade of work, friends!

Monday, December 30, 2019

Best of my freelance life in 2019

I thought I'd put together a list of a few of my memorable stories from the past year. It was another eventual trip around the sun covering the Minnesota Wild, prep tournaments and the Minnesota Whitecaps. Throw in a couple of extra assignments, plus another book or two, and it was another fun year of freelance sports writing to go along with a successful Minnesota Twins season.

Here are some of my favorites, presented in chronological order. The stories are linked in the headlines, and I wrote a brief summary about each below.

Husky Highs: Andover managed expectations ahead of Hockey Day Minnesota debut - Minnesota Hockey Magazine, February 2019 

Last year's Hockey Day Minnesota may have been one of the coldest days around, but it's still always a fun experience for the prep hockey teams that get to be a part of it. This time, it was two of the top boys' teams with Andover against Minnetonka. I talked with Andover defenseman Wyatt Kaiser and his grandpa, Blaine Comstock, who played for Bemidji State.

Breck's Ally Qualley comes up big again in Section 5 championship - Star Tribune, Feb. 15, 2019 

Breck has a solid girls' hockey program, which is evident by its back-to-back Class 1A championships. But there's something about the pressure and the spotlight that attracts forward Ally Qualley and brings her game to another level. The year before, she won the section title with a goal in overtime against Orono. This year, the end result wasn't in doubt. Qualley scored a pure hat trick in the first period on the way to a Breck 7-0 shutout.

In another twist, the co-head coaches of Breck, Steve Persian and Keith Radloff, coached Orono in 2018. It was much better to have Qualley on their side this time.

Hero's Welcome: OT winner caps off Donato's dynamite home debut - Minnesota Hockey Magazine, Feb. 24, 2019

Last season for the Minnesota Wild was marked by trades from then-GM Paul Fenton as he dealt parts of the "young core" away (Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund) for players like Victor Rask, Kevin Fiala and Ryan Donato. It was a Boston-for-Boston trade when Coyle, a Boston native, was dealt back home in exchange for the youngster Donato. How was Donato going to do with the Wild? Well, he came in with a bang.

Donato's first home game with the Wild came in late February against the St. Louis Blues, the eventual Stanley Cup Champions. Donato got the nod during overtime in a 1-1 game and scored the game-winner. It earned him the Hero of the Game honors bestowed on him by his new teammates.

Totino-Grace alum Matt Olson recalls high school memories - Star Tribune/Hockey Hub, March 2, 2019 

Boys' high school hockey section finals are what makes Minnesota the "state of hockey," in my book. The venues are packed, competition is fierce and a trip to the coveted state tournament is on the line. I've covered a few at the Roseville arena the past few years, including the Class 1A, Section 4 championship. Last year, it was between Mahtomedi and Totino-Grace, with Mahtomedi once again returning to state.

As I was set up with my laptop, I noticed a young man near me taking in the game. He looked familiar, though we had never met: It was Matt Olson, a former Totino-Grace hockey star who played with the team in 2014. He was there to support his high-school team, watching from his wheelchair; he suffered a severe injury to his neck and spinal cord after he fell headfirst into the boards during a junior-league game three years earlier in Chicago.

I enjoyed meeting Matt and talking with him about hockey, his memories playing for Totino-Grace and what he's been up to in the time since his injury.

'We made it': The Whitecaps' rise to the model of success for the NWHL - The Athletic, March 5, 2019 

Winny Brodt Brown and Brooke White-Lancette are still playing professional hockey. Not only that, but I'm amazed to hear their stories about how much adversity they had to overcome as female hockey players growing up, when girls really didn't play hockey. For Brooke, it's obvious how much the sport means to her. Finally getting to play in a professional hockey league was a big deal, as it should be.

Winny and Brooke are the two original Whitecaps from 2004, when Winny's dad Jack and Dwayne Schmidgall started the team as a way for their post-college daughters to continue to play hockey. It really came full circle to see all the success and fan support the Whitecaps had in 2018-19 during their first NWHL season.

'On a cloud': Isobel Cup win is a dream years in the making for Whitecaps - The Athletic, March 18, 2019 

It was pretty fun to follow the first season of professional women's hockey in Minnesota. Sure, the Whitecaps had been around for years, but 2018-19 was the first season they joined the National Women's Hockey League, becoming the fifth team and the first outside of the east coast. This story was actually a bit challenging for me to piece together, simply because of how storybook it was. I wanted to make sure I did the moment justice.

Lee Stecklein scored the overtime winner for the Whitecaps to give them the NWHL championship - the Isobel Cup - in their first NWHL season. It was quite the scene to take in during the celebration and trophy presentation out on the ice. And the sold-out crowds at TRIA rink loved it, too.

SCSU falls to UMD in double OT, finishes as NCHC Frozen Faceoff runner-up - St. Cloud Times, March 24, 2019

Take opportunities when they come to you. I wore my freelance hat to cover the NCHC Frozen Faceoff final between defending national champion University of Minnesota-Duluth and St. Cloud State. With a double-overtime ending at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, this one was fun to watch and cover between two very talented teams.

Energized Mounds View freshman wins 2A singles title with sisterly inspiration - Star Tribune, June 8, 2019

Covering state tennis is one of the tournaments I enjoy quite a bit, especially in spring because it's really the only preps coverage I can do in between the MLB season. This time around, freshman Bjorn Swenson won the Class 2A singles title. He won in straight sets, but the other part of the story was that there was a missing face from his cheering section. His sister Marit died in August 2017 from an aggressive pediatric brain tumor. She and Bjorn grew up playing tennis together.

I talked with their mother, Jennifer, as well, who was very willing to talk about her daughter and the tennis connection she shared with Bjorn.

Rocky Mountain Rival: Walz, Stalock reflect on Avs rivalry from diverse perspectives - Minnesota Hockey Magazine, Nov. 21, 2019 

The Minnesota Wild got off to a rough start for the 2019-20 season. They lost their first four games, including the home opener. Top players couldn't get on the scoresheet. So, I decided to get creative with some of my feature-story ideas on the beat.

With the Wild set to face the Colorado Avalanche, it got me thinking about the long history between these two teams. Colorado is the only team that's been in Minnesota's division since the Wild joined the NHL as an expansion team in 2000. And with a few playoff series along the way, there's always been a rivalry there.

Specifically, I was thinking of the 2003 playoff run, when the Wild won their first playoff series in Colorado in Game 7 with that pretty goal from Andrew Brunette. I talked to current Wild goaltender and St. Paul native Alex Stalock about it. I also interviewed former Wild player and current FSNorth Wild analyst Wes Walz, asking him about the Colorado rivalry and NHL rivalries in general. It was a very interesting conversation.

Court Storm: Gophers Upset No. 3 Ohio State - Zone Coverage, Dec. 15, 2019

I've been off the Gophers men's basketball beat for a couple of seasons now. But when my friend Sam Ekstrom asked if I would fill-in for him while he covered a road Vikings game, I agreed. I, like I'm sure many people out there, prepared for a blowout game. The Gophers were hosting Ohio State, ranked No. 3 in the country. And the Gophers were coming off a pretty bad loss in Iowa.

Instead, the evening ended with a court storming. The Gophers took control of the game with a lead in the first half. They kept their foot on the gas in the second half and never let Ohio State get close, even though I kept waiting for a second-half surge from a team that had a No. 3 next to its name. The Gophers got a stunning performance from Marcus Carr, who put up a career-high 35 points. His moves to the basket and the shots he took were simply dazzling.


Thanks, as always, to anyone who's read my content or interacted with me on social media (@hlrule on Twitter and Instagram). See you in 2020!

Friday, September 27, 2019

2019 Minnesota Twins: It's already been a fun ride

Target Field, 2010.
I don't remember where I was when the 2010 Minnesota Twins clinched their division title. The year before offered up a thrilling Game-163 victory at the Metrodome, and I definitely have vivid memories of watching that game with my friend Cassie at Joe Senser's. Maybe after a decade full of division titles, it was more meaningful for me to remember where I was when the Twins were, once again, swept out of the ALDS in 2010.

After the dust settled on the game-3 loss to the New York Yankees, I remember being in the basement listening to the local sports radio hosts as they broke things down. Based on what they said, and my own feelings after the game, I remember feeling really down about their chances to get past the feared Yankees in a playoff round. The Twins had a bunch of chances throughout the decade, and they had one ALCS appearance to show for it, back in 2002. Either way, 2010 just seemed like the end of an era, whether we knew it at the time or not.

That certainly turned out to be the case. It took nine years, until this past Wednesday night, for the Twins to clinch another division title. Sure, the 2017 team made the postseason, but it's still hard to qualify that as the same thing, especially when they're the wild-card team that lost and didn't advance to a playoff series.

After 2010, the Target-Field era has been filled with struggling teams (remember those 103 losses in 2016?) and teams that seemed to go the opposite direction of pre-season expectations.

But 2019 has brought all the Twins optimism back. What a freakin' summer. As of Friday night's rain-shortened victory in Kansas City, the Twins have 100 wins in a season for the second time in franchise history.

New manager, new players for a fresh start in 2019
The Twins came into the spring with a new manager in Rocco Baldelli. After saying a fond farewell to Joe Mauer at the end of 2018, the front office went out and signed guys like Nelson Cruz, Marwin Gonzalez, Jonathan Schoop and C.J. Cron. Fast forward to the night the Twins clinched their division in late September, and those four players alone combined for 102 home runs.

This season has almost too many moments to recount or choose as favorites. That's the kind of year it's been for a group dubbed, in late May by Eddie Rosario, the Bomba Squad.

First, the Twins broke the Major League Baseball record for home runs by a team in a single season with No. 268 on Aug. 31, part of a six-homer game for the Twins, bookended by "back-up" catcher Mitch Garver. Talk about juiced baseballs all you want, but home runs will never stop being entertaining. To see the Twins put up these kinds of numbers this year in the home-run column is astonishing.

Beyond that, the team/franchise/MLB records fell all over the place. It was 226 homers to break the franchise record (Washington Senators/Minnesota Twins), then 268 to break the record set by the New York Yankees just last season. The day after the Twins clinched the division, Schoop hit No. 300 for the squad.

The home runs became such a regular occurrence that I started adding more stat columns to my personal Twins spreadsheet. I turned it into a color-coded column to mark the homers each game; it was rare that they didn't homer at all (only 30 homeless games with two left), especially in the first two months of the season. They've never gone more than two games without a homer. Funny enough though, the Twins had a slow start with the long ball. They hit just one in the first five games, but that could be attributed to some cold weather, too.

Everybody hits on the Bomba Squad 
A few things stick out when it comes to the Bombas. Max Kepler hit three in the same game off Shane Bieber in Cleveland. Cruz added a pair of 3-homer games of his own. More recently, Cruz put an exclamation mark on the regular-season, home finale at Target Field by hitting his 400th career home run and 40th of the season. Not bad for a guy who turned 39 this season and shows no signs of slowing down, despite two stints on the injured list this year.

Seeing Cruz crush that home run against the Royals, then get the curtain call from the fans, was one of those great, milestone moments. It was a fitting way to end the home schedule, just like the 2018 finale when Joe Mauer came out in catcher's gear for the 9th inning.

Sanó has the power 
Miguel Sanó started out the season missing 41 games with a nagging injury, but he's certainly left his mark once again. In June, he went through a very rough stretch at the plate, piling up the strikeouts. Some adjustments were made, and the Bombas starting flying. He's had a few of the memorable ones.

On July 23, during a home game against the Yankees, the Twins ended up losing 14-12 in 10 innings (nearly missing a walk-off win after a diving catch from Aaron Hicks). This was a back-and-forth game that still goes down as probably the most exciting of the year for me - even though the Twins lost. That was really the only thing that was a bummer.

The Twins hosted the NL East Champion Atlanta Braves in early August. Though the Twins lost that series, the lone victory for the Twins was a thrilling walk-off victory, their third of the season and first via the home run. Sanó stepped to the plate in the 9th inning in a tie game with two outs and a runner on.

He's had a few home runs this season with a loud crack-of-the-bat. This was no exception as he blasted it deep to center field. The best part of the play was watching as the ball sailed high above Atlanta center fielder Ronald Acuña Jr.'s head, and then seeing the outfielder simply put his head down and start trotting in when it was obvious to him that the game was over.

Sanó's other big Bomba this season is what some started calling a "division dagger." Every series since the All-Star Break between the Twins and the Indians was labeled by many as "the biggest series of the year." The Twins lost 3-of-4 at Target Field in early August as Cleveland continued to dwindle the Twins' division lead. The Twins got back in control and could really put a stamp on the division during their final series in Cleveland in mid-September.

Division dagger
They were scheduled for a weekend series, but after starting a couple innings of the Friday night game, with Jake Odorizzi on the mound, the tarp came on the field as the forecasted heavy rain and thunderstorms invaded the area. The game was postponed, setting up a doubleheader the next day. On paper, this seemed less than ideal for the Twins, who would now have to go with two bullpen games instead of just one.

But there's just something about this team, right? Jorge Polanco's early two-run homer against Indians ace Mike Clevinger held up for a 2-0 win in game one. Clevinger hadn't lost a game in months. The Twins decided to go for it in game two, going with a solid lineup that included both Kepler and Sanó, each back for both games that day after missing some time with injuries.

The Twins first tied the game 5-5 in the 8th inning off an RBI double from Polanco. After an intentional walk to Cruz, then a non-intentional walk to Rosario to fill the bases, Sanó stepped up and destroyed another baseball, hitting his first career grand slam off Nick Goody to put the Twins in front for good, for a 9-5 victory. All those home runs, and it was only the second grand slam of the season for the Twins.

What a time for it. The Twins completed the doubleheader sweep to take the series and effectively end the division race with 13 games to play against the division bottom feeders to end the season.

A division clinch at home didn't end up happening, and like has been the case a few times, the Twins took care of business and then waited for the outcome of the Chicago White Sox game to determine their fate. They popped the bubbly late in Detroit after the Indians lost on Thursday.

Divisional foes play each other 19 times a season, and Comerica Park in Detroit has a special place as part of 2019 Minnesota Twins history. Garver hit the MLB-record-breaking home run there on Aug. 31. The Twins won the first two games against the Tigers (a team guaranteed to finish as the worst in baseball this year with old-friend Ron Gardenhire leading the way) in late September to clinch their first division title since 2010.

And then, the next day when everyone expected the "hangover lineup" to take a loss, Schoop hit the team's 300th home run of the season, making them the first team in MLB history to reach that milestone in a single season. For good measure, fan-favorite Willians Astudillo finished that game with a career-high 4 hits and homer No. 301 for the team (his fourth of the season).

I could go on and on about the memorable moments from this season, in no particular order...
  • The rise of rookie Luis Arraez
  • Joe Mauer's No. 7 retirement ceremony 
  • Rosario's throw to the plate to win the game at Fenway 
  • Twins sweeping a 4-game series in Texas for the first time
  • All the records this team shattered, which seems to happen on a daily basis
  • The 18- and 17-inning games at Target Field, with Kepler driving in the tying and game-winning runs in the 17-inning win over the Red Sox at Target Field in June 
  • Pretty much anything Astudillo does on the field, or his reactions in the dugout 
  • The dominance of Taylor Rogers as a closer, and the way guys like Trevor May and Tyler Duffey have rebounded to shut teams down 
  • Six winning months
  • 54 (and counting) road victories, the best in baseball and a team record 
  • 5 players with 30+ home runs, a new MLB record 
  • A pair of 8-homer games
  • Sweeping the Orioles 6-0 this season with 23 homers in the process 
  • Twins turned two triple plays at home this season with Martín Pérez on the mound
  • The Arraez at-bat in the 9th on July 16, when he entered for the injured Schoop with an 0-2 and worked a walk
  • Avoiding a 3-game losing streak until mid-July
  • Consecutive team shutouts in Toronto in early May 
  • 56 #Bombas in the month of May 
  • All the Garver home runs, including his 2-run shot in the 8th inning to break a scoreless tie v. the Royals on June 14 
  • 100 wins

All along, I've said how much I've enjoyed the ride this season. And with 162 games, you have to look at it that way. It's a grind, but this year has been so much fun. Do Twins fans want more? Of course, they do. Do they get nauseous when they hear the Twins will match up against the Yankees in the ALDS once again? Sure. 

Despite whatever might happen in the postseason, I will look back at this season and remember what a great run they had getting back to first place in the division, winning 100 games for the first time since 1965 and hitting all the home runs. 

I just hope they're not done yet. Bring on October baseball.

Editor's note: Did I miss your favorite moment from the 2019 season? Want to share your top moment? Let me know in the comments, or Tweet me @hlrule. Thanks for reading! 

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Indy 500: The field of 33 in 2019

Time for the 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500. Time sure flies; it feels like we just celebrated the 100th running in 2016.

I may have gone a little overboard here, but I've outlined the entire starting grid for the field of 33 drivers, which includes rookies, past winners and IndyCar champions. Like each of the past two years, there is just one woman in the race this year.

It's also the first year that NBC will broadcast the race, a partnership that made sense with the already-involved NBCSN. Before this year, ABC has always broadcast the Indy 500, so we'll see what changes might be in store, if any.

I didn't touch on every single driver below, though I covered most and tried to incorporate some tidbits about the race history with starting/finishing positions.

Happy Indy 500!

Row 1 

Simon Pagenaud - No. 22
Team: Team Penske
Engine: Chevrolet

Pagenaud is the first Frenchman to win the pole in exactly a century when Rene Thomas started first. For a while during the Fast Nine, it looked like Ed Carpenter was going to lock up his second consecutive Indy 500 pole and fourth overall. That was until Pagenaud turned in a four-lap average of 229.992 mph to take the top spot. He won the IndyCar Series title in 2016, but he went winless for Penske last season. He made a masterful run to catch and pass Scott Dixon in the closing laps of the IndyCar Grand Prix earlier this month, getting him back on the winning track and in search of a clean sweep on May.

Ed Carpenter - No. 20
Team: Ed Carpenter Racing
Engine: Chevrolet
Past Indy 500 poles: 2013, 2014, 2018

Before a qualifying run from Pagenaud in the Fast Nine, it looked like it could be an all-Carpenter Racing front row for the 500. There's just something about the speedway that agrees with the team, as it always seems to find the speed. Carpenter, in particular, has had success, which you could label as home-track advantage. The veteran driver and team owner only drives on ovals. He's still looking for his first Indy 500 win.

Spencer Pigot - No. 21
Team: Ed Carpenter Racing
Engine: Chevrolet

It's Pigot's fourth season with the team and second as a full-time driver. He made his Indy 500 debut in 2016 and started out as the team's road and street course driver. His best finish was back in 18th, so he's already put himself in a great position to win. He was born on Sept. 29, so that's cool. ;-)

Row 2

Ed Jones - No. 63
Team: Ed Carpenter Racing
Engine: Chevrolet

Jones is riding the solid work of the Carpenter Racing team. He'll race in his third Indy 500, just missing out on the front row after his previous best start was in 11th position. He crashed out of last year's race.

Colton Herta - No. 88
Team: Harding Steinbrenner Racing
Engine: Honda
Rookie, won the Freedom 100 in Indy Lights in 2018

Herta will drive the highest-qualifying Honda machine and try to make history as the youngest winner of the Indy 500. He turned 19 on March 30. He's already the youngest driver to win an IndyCar race after he took first at Circuit of the Americas this spring, just before he turned 19.

Will Power - No. 12
Team: Team Penske
Engine: Chevrolet
Past Indy 500 wins: 2018

Power is the defending Indy 500 champion. The last driver to win back-to-back 500s is Power's former full-time teammate, Helio Castroneves. Power bucked the trend of his unsuccessful runs on oval tracks when he won last year.

Row 3

Sebastien Bourdais - No. 18
Team: Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan
Engine: Honda
Best Indy 500 finish: Seventh

Bourdais tore it up in ChampCar, winning titles and races. He's still going strong in IndyCar, and came back from a horrifying crash in Indy 500 qualifying in 2017. He's led just four laps in the big race.

Josef Newgarden - No. 2 
Team: Team Penske
Engine: Chevrolet
Best Indy 500 finish: Third

With his teammate Pagenaud on the pole, and his other teammate Power having won last year, Newgarden might be feeling some pressure (self-imposed or otherwise) to win this race. Heck, everybody wants to win. But Newgarden, the 2017 series champion, has won plenty of other races for one of the series' best teams, and he'd like to check off the biggest race in the world.

Alexander Rossi - No. 27
Team: Andretti Autosport
Engine: Honda
Past Indy 500 wins: 2016

Rossi won the race as a rookie in one of the most memorable Indy 500s - the 100th running in 2016. A fuel gamble paid off, and he ended up in victory lane. He's only led 37 laps at Indy in three races.

Row 4

No. 98 Marco Andretti (runner-up in 2006 as a rookie)
No. 25 Conor Daly (improved on his previous best starting position of 22nd)
No. 3 Helio Castroneves (2001, 2002, 2009 Indy 500 winner; 4-time Indy 500 polesitter; running his 18th Indy 500)

As one of the most successful veterans in the race, Castroneves holds the lead in many Indy 500 categories among the active drivers. He's run the most laps (3,399) in the most races (18) and led 305 laps in 12 races. Only twice has his car not been running at the end of the race. Since the 2010 race, he's been on the hunt (and has gotten close) for his fourth Indy 500 victory, which would join A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears.

Marco would be one of the best storybook victories if he could pull it off. As has been mentioned throughout the month, it was 50 years ago in 1969 when his grandfather, Mario, won the Indy 500. Marco's father and team owner, Michael, still holds the record for the most laps led at Indy for someone who never won the race. Marco nearly won in 2006 as a rookie before Sam Hornish Jr. passed him just before the yard of bricks. Marco has eight top-10 finishes in 13 Indy 500s.

Daly, who's without a full-time IndyCar ride this season, makes his best Indy 500 start in his sixth attempt. He'll look to improve on his best finish of 21st.

Row 5

No. 7 Marcus Ericsson (rookie)
No. 30 Takuma Sato (2017 Indy 500 winner)
No. 33 James Davison (running his 5th Indy 500)

Ericsson, from Sweden, is a rookie in IndyCar and the 500, but he's no rookie when it comes to racing. He spent the past five seasons in Formula 1.

Sato crashed late in the race as he tried to make a pass for the lead and inside hit the wall in the 2012 Indy 500; Dario Franchitti won his third that year. Sato became the first Japanese driver to win the Indy 500 in 2017, the 101st running of the event.

Row 6

No. 14 Tony Kanaan (2013 Indy 500 winner; 2005 Indy 500 polesitter; running his 17th Indy 500)
No. 15 Graham Rahal (father/team owner Bobby Rahal won the Indy 500 in 1986)
No. 9 Scott Dixon (2008 Indy 500 winner; 2018 IndyCar Series Champion; 3-time Indy 500 polesitter in 2008, 2015, 2017)

After many years of bad luck, fan-favorite Kanaan finally got his Indy 500 victory six years ago. The Brazilian races for four-time winner A.J. Foyt's team and is one of the veterans on the grid. The only active driver to have raced in more Indy 500s is Castroneves. Kanaan has led in 14 of his Indy 500s, more than any other driver in the 2019 field, good for a total of 355 laps led. He's turned 2,952 laps in the 500.

Dixon has started in the top 10 in 10 of his 16 Indy 500s, including three times on the pole. He didn't make the Fast Nine in qualifying, so the defending IndyCar champion is in a bit of uncharted territory. However, you can never count out the guy known as "Ice Man." He nearly ran away with a victory at the IndyCar Grand Prix this year before Pagenaud caught up to him. Dixon has 11 top-10 finishes in the 500 and has led in 11 races with 439 laps led, more than any other driver in this field. Dixon is one of the best drivers in IndyCar history, but can he finally get his second Indy 500 win? It's been more than a decade since he hit victory lane.

Rahal has three top-10 finishes in his 11 starts as he tries to join his team owner and father, Bobby, as an Indy 500 champ.

Row 7

No. 77 Oriol Servia (2 top-10 finishes; running his 10th Indy 500)
No. 23 Charlie Kimball (best Indy 500 finish: third)
No. 48 JR Hildebrand (finished second in 2011)

JR Hildebrand, starting in his ninth 500, is connected to one of the most memorable finishes in recent years. He had the lead on the final lap in 2011 and looked well on his way to sipping the milk. But as he came out of the last turn, he tried to go around a lapped car, only to get too high and crash into the outside wall. As his car skidded along, Dan Wheldon was there to capitalize and take the checkered flag for his second Indy 500 victory. But Wheldon was not able to defend his title; he was killed in the season finale in Las Vegas.

Servia is one of the veteran drivers. He's had a lengthy career in ChampCar and then IndyCar when the series merged back together. His first Indy 500 was in 2002 (when Herta was a toddler).

Row 8

No. 28 Ryan Hunter-Reay (2014 Indy 500 winner)
No. 19 Santino Ferrucci (rookie)
No. 4 Matheus Leist (finished the Indy 500 13th in his rookie season)

Sure, Hunter-Reay would probably like to be starting further up on the grid. But remember that when he won in 2014, he started in row seven. He was just the sixth winner to come out of that row and first since 1987. However, only two drivers have won from row eight, and you have to go back to 1935 to find the last one: Kelly Petillo started 22nd, the same place Hunter-Reay will start on Sunday.

Leist, the 20-year-old Brazilian, is fresh off his best IndyCar finish in his second year in the series. He took fourth at the IndyCar Grand Prix earlier this month on the speedway's road course.

Row 9 

No. 60 Jack Harvey (running his 3rd Indy 500)
No. 42 Jordan King (rookie)
No. 81 Ben Hanley (rookie)

This row is filled with three Brits. King is an Indy 500 rookie, but he has a few years of racing experience under his belt, including last season in IndyCar. With Ed Carpenter still racing ovals, King would usually take over for road-course duties.

The Manchester, England native Hanley found some speed as a first-year driver with a first-year team to get into the race without being on the bubble or in the Last Row Shootout.

Harvey makes his best start in 25th position for his third Indy 500. His best finish is 16th.

Row 10 

No. 26 Zach Veach (running his 3rd Indy 500)
No. 10 Felix Rosenqvist (rookie)
No. 39 Pippa Mann (only woman in the field)

It wasn't long ago that there were multiple women - four, actually - in the race. Danica Patrick is the most famous, retiring after the Indy 500 last year. As it turned out, Patrick was the only woman in the race last year, after Pippa was bumped. As a one-car, one-off team coming to Indy every year, you had to feel for Pippa. But 2019 has been a time for smiles. There was no doubt she made it, when she landed in the last position (30th) on the first qualifying day. She was in and didn't even have to worry about getting bumped out. Pippa will race in her 7th Indy 500, with her best finish being 17th. She's turned 1,032 laps in her Indy 500 career.

Rosenqvist is also a rookie at Indy, but he's competed in all kinds of racing from Formula E to the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Row 11

No. 24 Sage Karam (best Indy 500 finish: 9th)
No. 5 James Hinchcliffe (2016 Indy 500 polesitter; failed to qualify for the 2018 field)
No. 32 Kyle Kaiser (bumped Fernando Alonso from the field in the Last Row Shootout; running his 2nd Indy 500)

No driver has ever won the Indianapolis 500 when starting from row 11. With the new qualifying format this year and the Last Row Shootout, these three were just happy to make the field. They were the three that made it out of six drivers last Sunday. It would have been devastating for Hinchcliffe had he missed the race for a second consecutive year. He's had quite the roller coaster at Indy the past few years, from a crash that nearly killed him, to winning the pole and then missing out last year.

Kaiser was the final car to make the field this year, bumping F1 champ Alonso. It's a true underdog story. Kaiser has fewer laps run in the Indy 500 than any other driver on the starting grid this year (110); he finished 29th last year after a mechanical issue ended his day a little early.

Other storylines and tidbits: 
  • The three oldest drivers in the field are all 44 years old: Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan and Oriol Servia. Kanaan is the only one of the three who's still in IndyCar with a full-time ride. 
  • Simon Pagenaud will look to become the 21st driver to win the race from the pole position. The last time that happened? Castroneves with his third win in 2009 and Dixon a year prior. 
  • There are seven Indy 500 champions in this year's race: Castroneves, Rossi, Sato, Power, Kanaan, Hunter-Reay and Dixon. Castroneves is the only one who's won the race more than once. 
  • In the past 10 years, the winner has come out of the front row three times (2009, 2010, 2018). However, though the winner has traditionally come from the first three starting positions - a total of 43 times - it's been more of a less predictable, mixed bag the past few years. It was row two in 2011 and 2017, row four in 2013, 2016, row five in 2015, row six in 2012 and row 7 in 2014. 
  • Only six winners out of 102 races have come from as far back as rows 8-10. The last time it happened? 1974 when Johnny Rutherford won it from the 25th position in the ninth row.

Friday, May 24, 2019

1969: The lone Andretti (driver) win at the Indy 500

The 1969 Indy 500 winner, driven by Mario Andretti.
Mario Andretti started on the front row for the 53rd running of the Indianapolis 500 in 1969. He was the first car to cross the yard of bricks after 500 miles to earn his first Indy 500 victory. At 29 years old in his fifth Indy 500, it seemed like it would be the first of many wins for Mario.

Fifty years later, he's the only driver named Andretti to win the storied race.

It just doesn't seem right, really. With Mario and later his sons Michael and Jeff, nephew John and grandson Marco all strapping into a race car, one would think the victories would pile up for the family. While there was plenty of racing success, especially for Mario and Michael, it just didn't seem to happen at Indy. Their bad luck developed into what's commonly called the Andretti Curse.

Mario first ran at Indy in 1965, finishing third to take Rookie of the Year honors. He won the pole in 1966 and 1967 before finishing in the last and 33rd position in 1968.

According to IndianapolisMotorSpeedway.com, Mario had this to say: "When I won it, it was only the second race that I finished there. I dominated more than once. I could have had won it so easily in 1966 and ’67 because I had the car so quick. I was getting really frustrated, wondering what it was going to take. So when I crossed the finish line to win in ’69, it was like a huge weight was lifted off of my shoulders. I thought, ‘At least I’ve got that under my belt, and now we move on.’”

Even in 1969, it's not like the win came easy for Mario. He had to compete in a backup car after he crashed his Lotus-Ford in practice, leaving his face burned up, with burns that were visible on race day. Mario wasn't able to beat A.J. Foyt for the pole but managed to qualify second with an average speed of 169.851 mph in his the Brawner Hawk backup car. Mario started in the middle of the front row in between Foyt and Bobby Unser on the outside.

Perhaps it wasn't significant at the time, but that's a stacked front row of racing legends. Foyt became the first four-time Indy 500 winner, and Bobby won the race three times. They didn't have to contend with another legend, Bobby's brother Al Unser. Al was fast in practice but didn't race that year. He fell and broke his ankle while going motorcycle riding in the speedway's infield.

Before the race, the starting front row drivers pose for a traditional photo shoot with their cars on the front stretch of the track. Maybe this was common knowledge, but I didn't find this out until recently: Mario wasn't in the photo. There was still a guy who looked like Mario but without the facial burns. It was his twin brother, Aldo. I think it was mentioned in a recent Racer Magazine story I read, and Mario mentioned it on the NBCSN documentary, "Drive Like Andretti."

At the drop of the green flag on race day, Friday, May 30, 1969, Mario jumped into the early lead. He surrendered the lead to Foyt within a few laps following some water temperature issues with the Brawner Hawk. Foyt had engine trouble and spent a significant amount of time in the pits, effectively putting him out of contention for the win. Lloyd Ruby led the race at the halfway point, but his own bad luck reared its head when he pulled away from a pit stop with his fuel hose still attached. The tear in his car's fuel tank ended his day and put some good fortune Mario's way.

Mario was all alone in the lead and raced around the 2.5-mile oval for the final 95 laps to earn his first - and what turned out to be his only - Indianapolis 500 victory. He led a total of 116 laps and set a race record finishing at 156.867 mph. Dan Gurney and Bobby Unser finished behind him.

One of the most iconic - yes, iconic - scenes in victory lane at the Indianapolis 500 came with Mario and his car owner, Andy Granatelli. It's been shown over and over in various Indy 500 video montages over the years. After Mario had climbed out of the car, Granatelli grabbed Mario and planted a big, wet kiss on his cheek. At least Mario was able to get a swig of milk first.

The story goes that the kiss from Granatelli is what started the Andretti Curse. Granatelli had his own previous bad luck at the speedway, so perhaps he was passing that along to the Andretti clan. The curse, for those who believe, has been lessened in the past few years as Mario's son and IndyCar team owner, Michael Andretti, has won the big race as an owner after having never won from the driver's seat.

One of the biggest joys for the Andretti family could come in the form of an Indy 500 victory for Mario's grandson and Michael's son, Marco, come Sunday in the 103rd running of the race. What a cool storybook ending to a 50-year chapter that would be for the Mario and his family.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Round-number Indy 500 anniversaries

In sports, like with other things, anniversaries or milestones are celebrated with round numbers. Fifty years, 200 games, 1,000 hits. It gives people the opportunity to reflect and remember, even if the round number is simply a round number.

That said, I figured I'd take a look at the round-number anniversaries when it comes to the Indianapolis 500 this year. It's 2019, the 103rd running the great race. The biggest milestone being talked about is the 1969 Indy 500, Mario Andretti's lone win 50 years ago. I'm definitely touching on Mario and 1969 on some other blog posts, so stay tuned.

The other big years that followed - 40 years ago, 30, 20 and 10 - also have great stories, too. Let's go down memory lane a bit.

Rick Mears is one of three drivers in the four-timers club when it comes to Indy 500 victories, along with A.J. Foyt and Al Unser. During qualifying for the 1979 Indy 500, Tom Sneva was looking to win the pole for the third straight year, something no one had ever done before. Sneva had provisional with an average speed of 192.998 mph. But it was Mears who bumped him from the top spot to win the pole, going 194.847 mph for Team Penske.

That's about 2 mph difference between two drivers for the pole. To compare, there's about 2 mph difference from the 2019 polesitter and the drivers who were bumped from the field. That's how close things are now.

It was Sneva and Al Unser joining Mears in the front row, and Unser took off at the drop of the green flag and led 85 of the first 100 laps, only giving others a chance on pit stops. Unser was driving a new car in that race, a Cosworth-powered Chaparral nicknamed the "yellow submarine" because of the paint scheme. His new car let him down on lap 105, however, as smoke came out of the rear of the car.

His brother Bobby Unser took over, with Foyt and Mears close behind. Mears took the lead on lap 182 when Bobby had to drop out of the race. This certainly wasn't a case of Mears being dominant all day. He capitalized on others' misfortunes and had to drive a clean race. He led just six laps before taking the lead in the final stretch. The young Mears had to keep Indy 500 champion Foyt at bay. Foyt's car also let him down though.

With a late restart on lap 196, the 27-year-old Mears had just a few laps left to maintain his lead, which was aided by lapped traffic in between him and second-place Foyt. The veteran driver didn't get a good jump on the restart, and his car slowed and crawled to the finish line thank to engine trouble. Foyt still took runner-up honors.

It was the first of four Indy 500 victories for Mears, three of which would come from the pole position (a race record).

This goes to show you how long ago this race actually was, because not only was it the first Indy 500 win for Mears, it was just the second for team owner Roger Penske. The Penske name has become synonymous with success throughout the past few decades. He's won with drivers like Al Unser Jr., Helio Castroneves, Sam Hornish Jr. and Will Power. Penske driver Simon Pagenaud will start on the pole this year, the 18th pole for Team Penkse.

The Rookie of the Year award in 1979 went to a guy with a great racing name, Howdy Holmes, who took seventh place.

It's not one of the closest finishes in Indy 500 history, but it's certainly one of the most exciting ones. And really, had the result been different, fans might not have been treated to such emotion in victory lane three years later from Al Unser Jr. when he choked back tears as he said "You just don't know what Indy means" after he won what still holds up as the closest finish in Indy 500 history.

Emerson Fittipaldi qualified third to start on the outside of row one, reaching 222.329 mph. The average qualifying speed for the field of 33 reached 216.533 mph to mark the fastest field in Indy 500 history to date. Fittipaldi jumped to the lead on the first lap of the race, setting an opening-lap record with 209.200 mph, 7 mph faster than the record Michael Andretti set in 1986.

Fittipaldi led for much of the way and was aided by Mears and Michael Andretti dropping out of the race thanks to engine problems. Unser Jr. was second and got closer after he stayed out instead of pitting late in the race to get more fuel. Lil Al chased down Fittipaldi and grabbed the lead with five laps to go on a move on the inside along the backstretch.

With 1.5 laps to go, the two leaders came across lapped traffic on the backstretch. Fittipaldi was on the inside of the track, with Unser Jr. diving down as well to get by another car. They ran side-by-side into turn three when they touched wheels, sending Lil Al's car into the outside wall. Fittipaldi continued on, eventually taking the checkered/yellow flags to win his first Indy 500.

Once Lil Al was out of his car, he walked up the track onto the apron on the final lap, wanting to salute Fittipaldi in some way as he drove by on his way to victory. Luckily, he kept it PG with what many saw as a sarcastic clap-and-thumbs-up gesture.

Fittipaldi found the finish line first after he came in second in the 1988 race won by Mears. He's also one of the few drivers to win both a Formula 1 championship and the Indianapolis 500. Unser Jr. still finished second, as he and Fittipaldi were six laps ahead of the rest of the field. If both cars would have crashed with the contact, it would have been the first time since the 1912 race that a driver would have had to unlap himself in order to pass the crashed leading car for the victory. Fittipaldi also became the first Indy 500 driver to win $1 million in prize money.

Fittipaldi and Unser Jr. are each down in history as two-time Indy 500 winners, with Fittipaldi also winning in 1993 and Lil Al winning in 1992 and 1994 before both failed to make the field in 1995, the final year before the dreaded CART/IRL split.

I'll make this one really simple. This was during the CART/IRL split years, aka a time when my dad and I didn't pay much attention to Indy since we were CART fans. Kenny Brack won the race. That is all. Brack ended up in CART, so I have nothing against him. I'm just a firm believer that split is something from which open-wheel racing will never totally recover.

For the past 10 years, we've had to hear about whether Helio Castroneves will become the fourth four-time Indy 500 winner. We'll hear it again for the 2019 race. That's because Castroneves won in 2009, giving him his third victory after he won back-to-back in 2001 and 2002, which is also the last time there's been a back-to-back winner of the race.

If any of you pay attention to my racing Tweets, you might have seen me point to Castroneves with an asterisk or refer to him as a two-time winner. That's because of the controversy surrounding the 2002 race. I'm Team Paul Tracy on that one; Tracy made a pass for the lead late in the race around the same time a crash occurred resulting in a caution flag. The ruling was that he didn't complete the pass in time, so the lead and eventual win went back to Castroneves.

The 2009 race, marking the start of the Centennial Era, was also my first Indy 500 that I attended. I'd been there to see the museum and for other events like a Formula 1 race, but this marked my first 500 in the stands. We had seats on the main straightaway behind pit wall. Again, here's another plug to put it on your bucket list to go see the greatest spectacle in racing in person. It's worth it.

Castroneves jumped the start, so officials waved off the first green flag. Once it finally went green, Mario Morales and Marco Andretti crashed into the wall in turn one. Remember kids, you can't win the race in the first corner, but you can certainly lose it in the first corner.

We some saw action along the main straight. Ryan Hunter-Reay crashed in turn four, with his car coming to a halt right in front of us. Graham Rahal left some tire marks on the outside wall as he skidded down the main drag.

Castroneves dominated as Team Penske often does, leading from lap 142 until the finish. He became the ninth driver to win the race three times and was the first non-American driver to do so. This came at the height of his popularity after winning that ABC show "Dancing with the Stars," so at the very least maybe the event got some more publicity out of his win. Castroneves and his crew climbed the fence along the start/finish line in celebration. He was nicknamed Spiderman for his celebrations.

His victory a decade ago was the 20th time a driver won the from the pole position. He's also the last driver that's done it. Winners over the past 10 years have come from a variety of starting positions, including all the way back in row seven.

Castroneves is no longer an IndyCar Series regular, but he's still an entry for the Indy 500. The 44-year-old will start on the outside of row four in 12th position this Sunday.

Information in this post is credited to Autocourse Official History of the Indianapolis 500 Second Edition by Donald Davidson and Rick Shaffer and indianapolismotorspeedway.com. 

Friday, May 10, 2019

Success is all relative: A look back at St. Thomas football before and during the Caruso era

Play action from the Tommie-Johnnie game in 2011.
They should have won the game. For those that want to be salty about it, the Tommies were robbed. At the 1-yard line with a minute to play, running back Ben Wartman was handed the football and tried to break his way toward the goal line through the pile of players up the middle, looking to break the plane for a touchdown. It looked like he made it.

But the officials didn't call it that way. 

Wartman was ruled down just short of the goal line on a score that would have given the Tommies the lead in the first rivalry game under head coach Glenn Caruso against St. John's on Oct. 18, 2008, at O'Shaughnessy Stadium. On the next play, at second down and inches, the handoff from the Tommies failed to connect and St. John's recovered the fumble with 19 seconds left on the clock to seal their 12-9 victory.

Photos released after the game clearly showed Wartman had reached the endzone, according to an Oct. 31, 2008 edition of The Aquin, the St. Thomas student newspaper.

"After watching the film with [the head of officials], it was clear it was not only discouraging the call was missed, but that there was no conference between the officials to discuss [the play]," Caruso told The Aquin.

That Tommie-Johnnie rivalry game during my senior year was probably one of the most exciting football games during my years as an undergraduate at St. Thomas, and the squad didn't even win. It was their best chance though. 

The Tommies came off a 2-8 season in which they started 0-4 for the first time since 1969, didn't win a game at home and ended the season with the resignation of their head coach Don Roney. The 2007 football team lost 51-34 at St. John's, allowed 30-or-more points in seven of the eight losses and turned the ball over 31 times over the eight losses. Roney finished his 10 seasons with a 54-44 overall record, 52-32 in the MIAC. 

During my time at St. Thomas, the football team went 19-20, going a combined 0-8 against St. John's and St. Olaf. Attending a football game wasn't a top priority for a lot of students on campus, because let's be real, everybody loves a winner. Even those students that attended often made a mass exodus somewhere around halftime. Maybe homework seemed like a better option. 

Playoffs weren't on the radar, let alone competing for a national championship. There was no big radio deal with WCCO; that came later in 2011. The phrases "move up to DII or DI" weren't in the vocabulary when discussing St. Thomas football. 

Well, what a difference a decade and a new coach can make. 

One of my Aquin stories from 2007.
After Roney resigned on Nov. 13, 2007, Glenn Caruso was named to the head coach position the following January, hired at 33 years old by then-St. Thomas Athletic Director Steve Fritz, who retired as the AD at the end of 2018-19. Caruso is the 29th St. Thomas football coach and was chosen after a national search. Known for rebuilding programs, he came from down the street at Macalester College, where he inherited a program that went 0-9 and coached them to 2-7 and 4-5 records. He also helped to rebuild programs at North Dakota State and South Dakota.

The turnaround, once he arrived further west on Summit Avenue, was pretty immediate. It started with Caruso defeating Macalester in his first game on the St. Thomas side of the field with a 35-10 home victory. The 2008 Tommies finished with a 7-3 record, notching five more wins than the year's previous squad.

"The No. 1 thing that we want to do is we want to make sure that we change the culture around here and the attitude and the mentality that football is once again a dominant force on campus," Caruso told me before his first season with the Tommies, in an interview during my time as a student reporter on campus.

Though the word "culture" can often be seen as a cringe-worthy buzzword by some, Caruso certainly got the campus excited about football again. Seminarians were regulars at the games, "Caruso's Crew." There's now a victory bell and victory song. Right away, Caruso started a QB Club at the local watering hole, Plum's Neighborhood Bar and Grill, as an informal film session for an hour to discuss the previous and upcoming games with anyone from the public wishing to attend.

"The biggest thing we were looking for is somebody who really could kind of take this campus by storm," Fritz said.

Again, mission accomplished. 

Through 2018, Caruso carries a 118-19 record at St. Thomas, going 78-10 in the MIAC. St. Thomas had won a total of 97 games in the previous 17 seasons before Caruso arrived. To compare, he's won 118 games in his first 11 seasons under his "pride and passion" reign with the Tommies. They even went 10-0 with three perfect regular seasons from 2010-12. Twice he's led the Tommies to the Division III national championship game, the Stagg Bowl, with losses to the powerhouse Mount Union in 2012 (28-10) and 2015 (49-35).

When the Tommies won the MIAC championship in 2010 during Caruso's third season, it was the first time St. Thomas could claim that honor since 1990. The Tommies defeated St. John's 20-17 in a game played at Target Field in September 2017 with 37,535 fans in attendance. The two rivals also have plans to play on Oct. 19 at the new Allianz Field.

The Tommies ring the victory bell after a 2011 win over SJU.
So yes, there has been plenty of success for St. Thomas football under Caruso. They've dominated teams. They've become so good that there's a battle cry for them to "move up," which isn't as easy as fans think. 

But here's what I say: The success is all relative. St. Thomas helped found the MIAC 99 years ago, and the major dominance from the football team has come in the past decade. That's not that long.

That's why it seems so ridiculous about what's potentially, or even likely, to happen later this month. As reported by the Star Tribune last month, there's an effort among the St. Thomas MIAC rivals to expel the school from the conference. Nine votes would be needed out of the 13 schools in the MIAC. First, though, they'd have to change the league bylaws, since the only reasons on the books to expel a school at the moment included unethical or illegal behavior. That right there should tell you how absurd this is.

Any decisions regarding the issue were postponed at an April meeting, though the vote could happen later this month. If the vote is successful in ousting St. Thomas, the school would be out of the MIAC after the 2020-21 school year.

No one is really talking publicly about the situation, that is until I saw a story from the Star Tribune this morning in which the Augsburg president said there is a consensus to boot St. Thomas from the MIAC. The fact that everyone is being so quiet on the issue publicly is also rather odd to me. There can only be speculation as to which schools will vote in favor of tossing St. Thomas out of the conference.

The whole thing is mind-boggling. I completely understand other teams being frustrated with a good St. Thomas football team, one that defeated St. Olaf 97-0 in November 2017. I understand how that comes off as poor sportsmanship. I do. Running up the score and all that. But kicking the school out of the conference because you're mad about it, and having to change the rules in order to make that happen? It seems ridiculous.

By the way, the Tommies finished third in the MIAC in football last fall and didn't make the playoffs. Bethel and St. John's both made the postseason and are the two other powerhouse football teams in the conference.  If this vote goes through to oust St. Thomas, it's a slippery slope to see how long it will be before the rest of the schools come after the Johnnies and Royals. It's a precedent that shouldn't be set.

Even though the Tommies lost that close game to the Johnnies in 2008, it was still one of the greatest atmospheres to be part of for a football game on campus. The game at Target Field was a blast, as I'm sure it will be at Allianz Field. I'd hate to see that rivalry end. I'd also hate to see St. Thomas kicked out of its conference for some pretty juvenile reasons.