After being warned more than once that I’m not funny, I’m writing this dispatch to make you laugh.
At least smile?
I stayed close to home this weekend despite an array of attractions to cover including prep football, the Vikings, Lynx and Gophers volleyball. I passed, too, on the first-ever football game at Target Field where St. Thomas and Saint John’s set a Division III attendance record of 37,355.
The turnout at Target Field came close to the 38,686 attendance for a 2015 Division I game at Fenway Park between host Boston College and Notre Dame. Well, the Tommies and Johnnies showed those Eastern folks—never mind that BC stinks in football.
My friend and local emcee Dick Jonckowski might wonder if I spent the weekend hunting waterfowl. Jonckowski told a luncheon crowd earlier this month about an alleged encounter I had with a game warden who caught me shooting loons. After scolding and fining me, the curious law enforcement officer asked what loon tastes like.
“Somewhere in between a trumpeter swan and bald eagle,” I replied.
The Lynx play the Sparks in game one of the WNBA Finals this afternoon. The Minnesota franchise made a favorable impression with me years ago when I went down to the locker room after a game. Players were celebrating somebody’s birthday and invited me to have cake with them.
Hmm. I can’t recall that happening after a Vikings game. Must have forgot.
ESPN reported Saturday former Badgers coach Bret Bielema, struggling in his fifth season at Arkansas, will receive a $15 million buyout if the Razorbacks terminate him.
Why didn’t I go into coaching?
The Twins swept a four-game series from the Tigers and will qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2010. Too many Minnesota fans, though, think the “Boys of Summer” will flop right away in the fall postseason.
Never doubt a team with a starting pitcher named “Big Sexy,” a “Mighty Mouse” slugger in Eduardo Escobar and a hometown manager trying to save his job.
I did find time recently to revive my golf game. My swing, put in “mothballs” in August, was pretty consistent on Friday. Best advice to hackers for lowering your score: skip the 18th hole and head for “No. 19.”
Even better advice—this is no joke—is heed the words of Hale Irwin, the Hall of Famer who was in town this summer for the 3M Championship. He said two of the most common faults made by weekend golfers is they don’t use enough club for most shots and they rush their backswings.
Tennis got my attention last spring and summer. I took to the courts a few times including a couple of outings with best friend Myron who lives in Michigan but was in town for a visit. We have been tennis pals forever and historically there is a trophy awarded to the winner of our annual series. Long ago, though, Myron started winning with such frequency he stopped bringing the Turnbull Cup to Minnesota.
The epitome of arrogance!
But we now have a travelling golf trophy. Proud to say it rests in a place of honor in my home and not on Michigan soil. (Full disclosure: Myron hardly ever plays golf, except with me. By contrast, some weeks I spend hours at the driving range and watch golf videos on YouTube until bleary-eyed).
During the weekend I contemplated renewing my subscription to the Star Tribune. I am a fan of the sports section but not so much the news and editorial pages that have a definite “agenda.” Let’s put it this way, if a global catastrophe were about to happen, the Strib headline might be: “World to End, Homeless, First Offenders & Radicals to Suffer the Most.”
At my suburban Minneapolis library the St. Paul newspaper has shelf space labeled “Minnesota Pioneer Press.” On this side of the river we’re apparently not clear about the names of the Twin Cities daily newspapers. Is it the Star Tribune, Minneapolis Star Tribune, or “Newspaper of the Twin Cities”? At least one employee has referenced his newspaper as the Star Trombone.”
On my nightstand is a book called Conversations with God. It was published in the 1990s and pretty much explains everything about everything, and forever. Author Neal Donald Walsch talked extensively with God who patiently answered his questions.
I will let you know if I arrange a similar interview. Definitely worth a column—perhaps two or three dispatches.
Don’t expect Saturday’s near sellout crowd at Target Field to create Division I or II football ambitions for academic and athletics leaders at the University of St. Thomas.
Attendance for the Division III Tommies-Saint John’s game could total over 37,000 in the Twins’ home that accommodates a few thousand more fans than that for baseball. Target Field opened in 2010 but this will be the first football game ever played there and whatever the final attendance count the total will set a national record for Division III.
Tommies athletic director Steve Fritz told Sports Headliners his school is “very happy” in the MIAC and playing in Division III, with no intent to become a bigger player in college football despite the record interest in Saturday’s game that has even drawn national media interest. And don’t expect the Tommies to be back in a large Twin Cities stadium in the near future, including two years from now when St. Thomas again hosts Saint John’s in its famous rivalry game that is always a hot ticket in Collegeville or St. Paul.
Fritz is open to considering other options for 2019 but he is thinking his school will play the Saint John’s game at O’Shaughnessy Stadium on the St. Thomas campus. “Right now that’s what our thought is,” he said.
The Twins made the initial contact regarding the 2017 Tommies-Johnnies game at Target Field. The Twins organization is interested in hosting a few annual attractions that can be held during the baseball season when the club is out of town. The Twins are the promoter for Saturday’s game, taking the risk and gaining the reward regarding finances. Fritz said St. Thomas receives a financial guarantee similar to revenues for hosting past games with the Johnnies at O’Shaughnessy Stadium, and could be given extra compensation as part of the school’s deal with the Twins.
Fritz declined to reveal specific figures. As in any MIAC football game, the visiting team receives no share of the gate receipts or other game revenues.
Fritz predicts the crowd will be about evenly divided among St. Thomas and Saint John’s fans. Tickets are for reserved seating and are scaled at different prices up to $35. Student tickets are $10 and buses will run for more than two hours Saturday morning from the St. Thomas campus to Target Field prior to the game’s 1 p.m. kickoff. Contrast ticket prices with a 1989 game that the Tommies hosted against Saint John’s when adult tickets were $3, student tickets $2.
The Tommies and Johnnies always draw attention when they meet in a football rivalry that dates back to 1901, with attendance even totaling 17,327 for the 2015 game in Collegeville. But Saturday’s get together is an opportunity to accommodate many more fans in one of America’s acclaimed baseball parks. A spirited rivalry, plus the novelty of Target Field, has made for an attraction bigger than anyone, including the Twins, expected.
“This is really something,” Fritz said. “The Saint John’s game is always big and always fun and all that…but this kind of thing is hard to imagine.”
Reportedly the all-time single game attendance record for a Division III football game was set last fall when UW-Whitewater hosted UW-Oshkosh. Announced attendance was 17,535.
A St. Thomas spokesman wrote via email that the Target Field game is “on pace to surpass the attendance at 20 of the 40 FBS bowl games held last holiday season, including games that involved South Carolina, South Florida, Indiana, Utah, Baylor, Boise State, North Carolina State, Vanderbilt, Maryland, Boston College, Mississippi State and Colorado State.”
The 3-0 Johnnies, averaging 67.7 points per game, are ranked No. 6 nationally in the AFCA coaches poll. The 2-1 Tommies, who have won six of the last eight games in the rivalry, are ranked No. 11 in that poll. Johnnies fans prefer to remember a stretch between 1993 and 2009 when their team won 16 of 17 games against the Tommies.
The Tommies probably can’t lose Saturday’s game and retain much chance to qualify later for the Division III playoffs. Despite that pressure to avoid a second loss this season, and playing before a record crowd, Fritz said his coach, Glenn Caruso, isn’t taking an unusual approach to the game. “He’s as well prepared as anybody I’ve ever seen,” Fritz said.
Emotions will be intense for coaches, players and fans at Saturday’s historic game. Fritz acknowledged a win would mean even a little more than a typical victory over the Johnnies. “…Obviously this one is pretty special,” he said.
After 14 consecutive Tommies-Johnnies games played on artificial turf, the 2017 version will take place on a grass field running parallel to the baseball third base line. Part of the field will be the Twins’ dirt infield. Things could get sloppy if rain forecasts prove correct. AccuWeather.com predicts a 55 percent chance of thunderstorms around 1 p.m.
Precipitation won’t enhance the fan atmosphere on a special small college football afternoon. “I don’t think it ruins everything, but the better the day the better the atmosphere,” Fritz said.
Dave St. Peter runs the Twins with steady emotions. The club’s president is not about hype, or deep despair. He’s seen the franchise lose over 90 games during five of the six previous, but this year Minnesota ranks with the surprise teams in Major League Baseball and could be headed to the postseason as a Wild Card team.
St. Peter told Sports Headliners he believes the club is also on its way to a “sustained period of competitiveness” beyond 2017. “That’s what makes me excited,” he said. “I am incredibly excited for 2018 and beyond.”
The Twins finished with a 59-103 record last season. “A lot of our guys, frankly, underperformed a year ago,” St. Peter said.
What’s happened to the Twins this season is several of the younger players have come closer to reaching their potentials, while veterans like starting pitcher Ervin Santana and first baseman Joe Mauer have produced better than a year ago, and the club has found unexpected contributors who even joined the team since opening day.
Few, if any observers, foresaw the Twins having a 78-72 record on September 19, and holding on to a Wild Card spot for the postseason. “Are we overperforming in 2017? Possibly, based on the metrics, based on run differential and things of that nature,” St. Peter said. “But you know, I think our club…is making great strides—to be competitive, to be playing meaningful games deep into September, to be in position to go to postseason.”
The Twins are only +8 in run differential for the season, according Teamrankings.com. Thirteen out of 30 big league clubs rank ahead of Minnesota including Central Division rival Cleveland, a team that is +227 in run differential for the season and running away with the division title.
St. Peter appreciates the contributions of so many players to the Twins’ success, and brought up several names when asked who is the club’s MVP. Certainly Santana with 15 wins and Mauer, who is hitting over .300 and playing like a Gold Glove winner in the field, deserve having their names on any list.
Santana has been the kind of No. 1 starter a contending team must have. Mauer, dogged with health problems the last few years, hasn’t hit over .300 since 2013. “There’s no question in my mind that he’s healthier than he’s been,” St. Peter said.
The Twins total home attendance in 2016 was 1,963,912—their lowest total since moving into Target Field in 2010. Despite fan pessimism and inclement weather early this season, St. Peter said the Twins will draw over 2 million fans at home
Star Tribune columnist Sid Hartman, 97 and still using a walker after his accident late last year, continues to compete for news and regularly shows up at practices, news conferences and games of Minnesota teams.
College basketball magazines are on newsstands including the Athlon Sports 2017-2018 issue. The Gophers are ranked No. 16 in the nation, predicted to finish second in the Big Ten and advance to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament. The only Big Ten team ahead of Minnesota is No. 2 Michigan State.
The magazine includes Gophers Nate Mason and Amir Coffey on its All-Big Ten second team. Minnesota’s Jordan Murphy is on the third team. Reggie Lynch is ranked the No. 2 “rim protector” in the nation.
Minnesota coach Richard Pitno said on last Sunday’s WCCO Radio “Sports Huddle” program that “98 percent” of season tickets for home games have been renewed.
The Vikings started the 2016 season with a 5-0 record. Since then, and including their 1-1 start in 2017, they are 4-9.
Vikings players Mackensie Alexander and Jayron Kearse will sign items for a fee on September 30 from 11 a.m. to noon at the Triple Crown Sports Collectibles show at Southtown Shopping Center in Bloomington. Ex-Vikings John Henderson and Sammy White will also be at the show and signing for a fee from 10 to 11 a.m.
Show hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and pre-orders will be accepted for a limited edition bobblehead of former Vikings linebacker Matt Blair. Ex-Vikings coach Bud Grant, who had been scheduled for September 30, will be at the Triple Crown show February 17. More information about Triple Crown shows is available by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
The 3-0 football Gophers have given up only 24 total points and are unscored upon in the second half.
Jeff Sagarin’s USA Today rankings today of 254 college football teams has Minnesota No. 39. The teams Minnesota has defeated—Buffalo, Oregon State and Middle Tennessee State—are No. 119, 96 and 92 respectively.
Eden Prairie High School coach Mike Grant told Sports Headliners this morning that Benny Sapp III, held out of last week’s game against Prior Lake because of a sore knee will see a doctor today, but Grant believes his star cornerback, who has verbally committed to the Gophers, will be okay. The undefeated Eagles could be headed to another state championship under Grant. “Somebody will have to play great to beat us,” he said.
Although the college hockey season hasn’t started, the opinion here is Gophers Tyler Sheehy and Casey Mittelstadt should be on anybody’s candidates list for the 2018 Hobey Baker Award given to college hockey’s best player. Sheehy, a junior forward, was a finalist for the award last season when he was Big Ten Player of the Year and a first team All-American. Mittelstadt, a freshman forward, was drafted eighth overall by the Sabres in the first round of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft—making him the Gophers’ highest draft pick since 2006.
A Big Ten coaches poll has for the third time in five years named the Gophers favorites to win the conference title. Minnesota plays Alberta October 1 in a home exhibition game.
Bobby Heenan, the famous wrestling personality who died Sunday, is known better nationally because of his work for the WWE but decades ago was part of Verne Gagne’s Minneapolis Boxing and Wrestling Club’s operation. Former Gopher football player Jim Brunzell, who also was a headliner in Gagne’s organization, referred to Heenan as a “dear friend and blood brother” in an email. “He was a genius in our business and consummate performer,” Brunzell wrote.