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Twins & Other Fourth of July Memories

July 01, 2015 - 1 Comment

 

I suppose if you’re British—and loyal to the Queen, and also a sour grapes type— Independence Day in the United States isn’t your cup of tea.

But the Fourth of July holiday is special for many of us who experience family gatherings, parades, music and fireworks while remembering this country’s struggles for freedom, and the men and women who sacrificed so we could enjoy our lives.

Independence Day means multiple things to me including baseball.  I can’t think of the July 4 date and the Twins, without memories of pitcher Eddie Bane.  Some readers might say, “Who?,” but Bane earned a place in Twins history on July 4, 1973 when he made his major league debut right out of college after receiving a reported $55,000 signing bonus from our local franchise.

Twins owner Calvin Griffith didn’t like to spend money.  Someone summarized his thrifty ways like this: “Calvin throws nickels around like manhole covers.”  So because of Bane’s big check, Griffith might have been feeling sorry for himself when he left home for the ballpark on July 4 that year, but when he saw the huge crowd at Met Stadium he must have been grinning like a kid camped out near the Christmas tree.

The Twins had a dwindling fan base in the 1970s as the club faltered on the field.  The franchise drew only 11,941 fans per game at home during the 1973 season, but the public was curious and hyped to see the debut of Bane, the 21-year-old left-handed pitcher from Arizona State.  As I recall, a capacity crowd of more than 45,000 at Met Stadium hoped to celebrate the Fourth of July with the rookie.

Bane lost his debut game, although he only gave up a couple of hits and one run in seven innings against the Royals.  Almost unbeatable in college, he didn’t win a game all season with the Twins.  His major league career ended a few years later and he never established himself as a big time pitcher.

The legend of Eddie Bane is such that probably four times as many people claim to have seen him pitch his first game than were actually at Met Stadium.  What is fact about Bane is he was the scouting boss for the Angels several years ago when they drafted Mike Trout—perhaps now baseball’s best player.

In early July fifty years ago the Twins moved into first place in the American League.  About a week after Independence Day Harmon Killebrew hit a late inning home run at Met Stadium to defeat the defending American League champion Yankees.  It was a milestone moment in a year that saw the Twins win the pennant and play in Minnesota’s first World Series.

My mom, Virginia Shama

My mom, Virginia Shama

As a kid, everything kind of stopped at our house when the Twins were playing—especially for my dad and me.  The games were that important, whether we were at Met Stadium or watching on television.  That focus could even be a major part of our July 4ths but that didn’t mean we forgot about patriotism, including my mom who joked that she was a nurse in the Revolutionary War (as a five-year-old I was pretty sure this wasn’t true).

My mother had documented her ancestors all the way back to the 1700s and I think had at least one relative who fought in the Revolutionary War.  Mom belonged to the Daughters of the American Revolution, a service organization of women directly descended from folks who helped secure this country’s independence from England.  Mom couldn’t have been prouder of her American heritage—even if she had George and Martha Washington for next door neighbors.

I grew up with feelings of reverence for America and its symbols.  In grade school we saluted the flag each day and said the Pledge of Allegiance.  Chills went up and down my spine when we sang America the Beautiful at school.  Same thing when I sat in the stands prior to Gopher football games and the loudspeaker blared out John Philip Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever while the players warmed up.

Fireworks?  The ones I recall best were at a public park in Crosby, Minnesota.  The mosquitoes on those summer nights were big as grasshoppers.  Sitting in the car, waiting for dusk, seemed to take a lifetime.  It was like waiting for darkness at the drive-in movies—maybe worse since fireworks came just once a year.

As a kid, we were often in the Brainerd Lakes area during the summer.  A family we knew had a lake home just a few miles back from the highway.  The dirt road leading to the house sometimes could be a driving challenge because of muddy roads and “creatures “lurking in the woods.

Those “creatures” included skunks, and one night a little rascal—using its contemptible spray—targeted a Ford station wagon en route to the house.  The odor from the station wagon was so bad the vehicle had to be parked in the woods, at a suitable distance from the house.  And guess what?  That vehicle was sold and replaced by another station wagon within a week.

As a pre-teen that lake place is where I learned to drive the family car.  With no indoor toilets, everyone had to use the outhouse located a short distance from the house.  Although the walking distance was minimal, I convinced the adults to let me drive them to the outhouse.  The routine was this:  pick up people at the house, drive them to the outhouse, turn the car around, wait for “customers” to finish up, and return them to the house.

Best job I ever had.  (Well, not really).

A few years ago my Uncle John passed away at age 92.  John had many admirable qualities such as volunteering for various organizations.  He was also a patriot.  Every morning at his south Minneapolis home he put up the American flag near the front steps.  Later in the day he followed protocol by taking the flag down before dark.

John loved the USA and expressed his conviction mostly with actions, not words.  Honoring America by displaying the flag was one way.  He also made numerous charitable donations to veterans groups, and visited grave sites at Fort Snelling National Cemetery.  For many years, while travelling to the North Shore, he stopped in Duluth to visit the widow of his friend Jim who died in World War II.  The deceased soldier was survived by a wife and infant daughter.

Like many veterans, John never said much about his experiences in World War II.  Soldiers from that era often don’t.  But later generations appreciate those who have sacrificed in America’s wars throughout this country’s history of conflicts and defending freedom.  A few years prior to John’s death he and another elderly friend were at a restaurant.  As I recall the story, a stranger was somehow aware my uncle had served in the war.  The stranger paid for my uncle’s meal and for his friend.

I am certain that story has been repeated countless times across the nation but it seems appropriate to share it as we approach the holiday weekend.  Enjoy baseball, parades, family and other pleasures, but remember our nation’s founders and all those both living and deceased who helped make our lives what they are today.

Happy Independence Day!

 

GM Ryan: Molitor Doing ‘Heck of a Job’

June 29, 2015 - (0) comments

 

New Twins manager Paul Molitor and a revised coaching staff from 2014 received praise from club general manager Terry Ryan during an interview with Sports Headliners.  The Twins, who lost 90-plus games the four previous seasons, had a losing record a year ago but today are 40-35 and 5.5 games out of first place in the AL Central Division.

The work of Molitor and his staff ranks with the most effective managing and coaching performances in MLB so far this season.  “I’ve been impressed.  I’ve been pleased,” Ryan said last week.  “I think the players respond to all the staff.  We’re in a good spot.  We’ve got chemistry, camaraderie, and leadership and all that stuff, and more often than not you have to point to the manager.  Give him the credit where credit is due.

“We’re playing very good, competitive baseball, almost on a daily basis.  We haven’t gotten too giddy and we don’t get too far down when things aren’t going so well.  He’s (Molitor) done a heck of a job here leading this thing.  I am very happy for him, especially because he’s taken on a big responsibility here and he’s done something with it.”

The Twins are within six games of being halfway through the 2015 schedule.  Ryan said the Twins can contend for the Central Division title and playoffs.  “We’re in better shape than we’ve been the past four years by far,” Ryan said of a franchise that was last in the playoffs in 2010.

Ryan has been pleased with the team’s improved defense (including more athleticism in the outfield) and the starting pitching.  His optimism about the club’s possible playoff participation is also based on what has been an under performing offense.

“We’re a better offensive club I think than what we’ve shown,” Ryan said.  “Some of the guys that have produced the last year or two are still not back to even.  That just gives me some sort of optimism we should be able to score more runs here and give our team the ability to take a little of that pressure off that pitching staff.  That pitching staff has done a good job here.”

The performance of the starting pitching staff (including three starters with ERAs under 3.60) has surprised even the general manager and that’s boosted the overall pitching.  “It’s not one guy (of the starters) that’s rebounded here,” Ryan said.  “We’ve got a handful all of a sudden.  (And) the bullpen has been pretty decent really from start to finish.  We’ve had a couple of gaps but not too many.”

When former regulars Ricky Nolasco and Ervin Santana are ready to return from absences, the club will have too many starters.  Ryan isn’t prepared to say now who fits in and who doesn’t.  “We’ve got some difficult decisions to make, but they’re awfully good decisions because we’ve got a lot of competition for those slots,” he said.

The offense will be jumpstarted if Joe Mauer can hit like he did a few years ago.  Ryan said Mauer’s rib injury diminished results last year that included a career low .277 average.  The general manager said Mauer’s health this year isn’t an issue but the former three-time American League batting champion, who entered the season with a career average of .319, is batting just .260.  He has 37 RBI (tied for third best on the team) and four home runs.

Mauer is hitting .240 in the last 30 games—indicative of his struggles this spring—but in his last seven is batting .323.  With the season approaching the halfway place on the Twins schedule, Mauer will have to produce an avalanche of hits to finish with a .300 or better average.  Ryan thinks it could happen.

“Yeah, I wouldn’t put that (.300) by him,” Ryan said.  “I know he isn’t anywhere near that right now but I would not put that past him because he’s always shown the resiliency (to bounce back).  He’s had a little bit of a tough year last year.  We all admit that, but as long as he’s healthy—and he looks very healthy to me right now—I wouldn’t be surprised because there’s no reason, (with) his swing, his health.”

Mauer was a catcher his first 10 years with the Twins before moving to first base last season.  Catching is the most physical and punishing position in baseball.  Because of all the games Mauer caught, is he an old 32?  Could that explain his decline at the plate?

“I don’t think so,” Ryan said.  “In fact I think he’s a young 32 because he takes care of himself. …He knows what it takes to be prepared and he has done a good job of that.”

Worth Noting 

Ryan talking about closer Glen Perkins (first in AL saves with 24), who could the Twins lone representative in next month’s All-Star Game:  “Perkins has done nothing but impress this year and he’s put himself in a good position.”

Gary Trent Jr., the Apple Valley High School basketball player who will be among the most coveted college recruits nationally in the class of 2017, is among six “Faces in the Crowd” athletes featured in the June 29 issue of Sports Illustrated.  Trent was recognized for his 19 second half points leading the U.S. 16-and-under team to a victory over Canada in the gold medal FIBA Americas game in June.  The magazine also reported Trent was named tournament MVP, and earlier this year led Apple Valley to the Class 4A championship with a win over Champlin Park.

Bill Robertson

Bill Robertson

Bill Robertson, the men’s WCHA commissioner who offices in suburban Minneapolis, hopes to meet with Arizona State Athletic Department officials in Tempe this summer to discuss ASU joining his hockey league.  It’s believed the Sun Devils are also being courted by the Big Ten and NCHC.

The Sun Devils have been playing club hockey but plan to be affiliated with a conference starting with the 2017-2018 season.  Robertson said the ASU brand is “tremendous” and among the many reasons he is intrigued about the Sun Devils being in the WCHA is TV exposure from the Pac-12 Network.  The Pac-12 is the conference home for other ASU sports but doesn’t offer hockey competition.

Among ASU officials is athletic director Ray Anderson who at one time was the agent for former Vikings coach Denny Green.  Robertson sees the western United States as a “real growth area” for college hockey with the possibility some day of two major hockey schools on the West Coast—along with the two Alaska schools already in the WCHA.

Nearly 10,000 athletes from every state will compete and vie for medals in 19 sports during the National Senior Games that start here next month.  Presented by Humana, this is the largest multi-sport event in the world for senior (ages 50+) athletes.  The 800 competitions will take place July 3–15 at 26 venues in Bloomington, Minneapolis and Saint Paul.  Events are free and open to the public.  More at NSGA.com.

Volunteers, including scorekeepers in archery, badminton, basketball and volleyball, are needed.  Airport greeters are also sought.  More at TeamMNvolunteer.com.

 

State Making Basketball History Now

June 26, 2015 - (0) comments

 

The state of Minnesota made basketball history last night during the NBA Draft.  Tyus Jones and Rashad Vaughn became the first pair of Minnesotans to be selected in the draft’s first round.  The Timberwolves for the first time in franchise history had the NBA’s overall No. 1 pick and chose Karl-Anthony Towns.

A long list of native Minnesotans—from Cole Aldrich to Royce White—have been first round draft choices but never in the same year have two players from the state been selected as Jones and Vaughn were last night.  Jones was expected to be selected before Vaughn but the shooting guard was the No. 17 pick of the Bucks.  Jones landed with the Wolves after a trade with the Cavs who chose him at No. 24.

Towns, the 6-11, 250-pound center from Kentucky, was anticipated to be the team’s first draft choice.  He can score inside and outside, and is an athletic defender.  “He’s incredibly versatile,” ESPN draft analyst Jay Bilas said last night on the air.

The network reported last evening the Wolves are now the first NBA team to ever have three overall No. 1 draft choices on a roster.  In a trade with the Cavs last year the Wolves acquired 2013 No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett and 2014 No. 1 selection Andrew Wiggins.  In April Wiggins became the first Wolves player in franchise history to be NBA Rookie of the Year.

Minnesota prep basketball made history this spring with the announcement Apple Valley High School players Gary Trent Jr. and Tre Jones earned roster spots on the USA Basketball Men’s Under-16 team.  It was the first time two Minnesotans have been selected for the Under-16 team at the same time.  With Trent and Jones being from the same high school, the achievement was even more distinct.

Tre Jones, of course, is the brother of Tyus who saw four other point guards selected last night before his name was called.  But the 19-year-old former Apple Valley and Duke star couldn’t have asked for more than to start his NBA career in Minneapolis.

It was a special night for Vaughn, too, who played at Cooper High School before finishing his prep career in Las Vegas.  Only 18, Vaughn played as a freshman at UNLV before declaring for the draft.  Vaughn is known as an excellent shooter with a big time stroke who could be a “steal” for the Bucks.

Worth Noting 

The Gophers men’s basketball team will play Oklahoma State of the Big 12 in a nonconference game on Saturday, December 12 at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls.  The schools haven’t played against one another since 1986.  Minnesota leads the all-time series 3-2.

The Twins have placed outfielder Byron Buxton on the 15-day disabled list with a left thumb sprain, an injury that occurred on Tuesday attempting to steal second base. To replace Buxton on the 25-man roster, the Twins have recalled infielder Danny Santana from Triple-A Rochester.  Santana has hit .308 (20-for-65) with six doubles, three triples and five RBI in 15 games for the Red Wings since being optioned by the Twins on June 7.

The Wolves had a full page advertisement in today’s Star Tribune featuring No. 1 draft choice Karl-Anthony Towns and also picturing five players from the current roster.  Noticeably absent was often injured center Nikola Pekovic.

The new Timberwolves and Lynx training center has interesting amenities including three plunge treatment pools and one therapy pool; three steam rooms and two saunas; five locker rooms and two film rooms; 9-foot doors and 8-foot showerheads; a players lounge and nutrition center.  The Timberwolves and Lynx Courts at Mayo Clinic Square is a $25 million (private investment) facility that is both a training center and corporate headquarters for the teams.  Located across the street from Target Center on First Avenue North, Mayo Clinic Square is a first of its kind facility in the NBA and WNBA. The Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center in the complex is available to all athletes.

Kundla and Presthus

Kundla and Presthus

Former Gopher basketball players Don Linehan, Larry Overskei and Paul Presthus visited John Kundla last week in advance of their ex-coach’s 99th birthday on July 3.

“I feel like a million but I’m only 99,” Kundla said with a smile at his living care facility in northeast Minneapolis.  Presthus reported the quip in an e-mail where he also wrote: “John looked great, is self-sufficient and was sharp as could be.”

Kundla was the Gophers coach from 1959-1968, and Linehan, Overskei and Presthus played for him.  “John is as humble as they come, a true gentleman, (and) one of the nicest men I ever met, and he always treated his players with respect,” Presthus said in the e-mail.

Before becoming Gophers coach, Kundla coached the Minneapolis Lakers to five world professional championships, the last in 1954.  Presthus said there was storytelling about the Gophers and Lakers, and plenty of laughs during the visit.  “We spent about an hour visiting with him before he had to leave to go to mass,” Presthus wrote.

The Wild want “to get bigger and more physical” with personnel moves at the NHL Entry Draft today and tomorrow, according to a hockey source who asked that his name not be used.  Playing better “around the boards and the net, and not getting outmuscled” is needed for the Wild to continue its ascent among NHL competition and to play more effectively against clubs like the Blackhawks, Ducks and Kings.

Wing Thomas Vanek, 31, had a disappointing initial season for the Wild.  The source said Minnesota might release or trade the former Gopher, speculating a return to the Wild could be 50-50.

The return next season of expensive 37-year-old goalie Niklas Backstrom seems unlikely.  He reportedly earned $3.75 million last season and will be paid more under terms of his contract for next year.  Of course the team’s goalie priority is re-signing 29-year-old Devan Dubnyk.  The source said Dubnyk wants $5 to $6 million annually and Minnesota might now be willing to pay $4 million.

Vanek is one of 17 Gopher Hockey alums who played in the NHL last season.  Here is the list: Mark Alt (Phila­delphia), Keith Ballard (Minnesota), Stu Bickel (Minnesota), Nick Bjugstad (Florida), Alex Goligoski (Dallas), Erik Haula (Minnesota), Seth Helgeson (New Jersey), Erik Johnson (Colorado), Phil Kessel (Toronto), Nick Leddy (New York Islanders), Jordan Leopold (St. Louis/Columbus/Minnesota), Paul Martin (Pittsburgh), Kyle Okposo (New York Islanders), Nate Schmidt (Washington), Jordan Schroeder (Minnesota), Thomas Vanek (Minnesota) and Blake Wheeler (Winnipeg).

About 2,000 fans are expected to attend tonight’s Summer Bash and NHL Draft Viewing Party from 6 to 9 p.m. at Xcel Energy Center.  In addition to watching the draft on TV from Florida, fans can visit the Wild locker room and press box.  Wild players Keith Ballard, Ryan Carter, Charlie Coyle, Matt Dumba, Jordan Leopold and Jason Zucker are scheduled for photos and autographs.

Players and coaches representing 79 schools and 27 conferences are expected to participate in tomorrow’s annual MFCA Tackle Cancer All-Star Football Game in Husky Stadium at St. Cloud State.  Players (2015 high school grads) and coaches were selected by members of the Minnesota Football Coaches Association.

 

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