Sometimes I am reminded why sports has played such a prominent role in my life. My latest wakeup call was prompted by reading Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville by the late Stephen Jay Gould. Gould’s 2003 book consists of essays he wrote about his lifelong passion for baseball that appeared in publications like the New York Times. Gould was a paleontologist but his intelligent musings about his baseball love affair introduced him to another audience.
A Harvard intellectual, Gould grew up in New York City in the 1940’s and 1950’s, a golden era for baseball in New York. He watched his beloved Yankees in the World Series almost every year. He saw baseball gods like Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle from the Yankees, and the Giants Willie Mays and the Dodgers Jackie Robinson.
Although Gould died from cancer in 2002 at age 60, his passion for baseball over a period of seven decades lives on, and his essays stirred something in me. As I read his book, I realized how the great and rare moments of sports have impacted my being while both enriching and frustrating my life.
I say frustrated because slogging through the mediocre and miserable performances of many teams and athletes year after year is no fun. It’s an experience that lessens my fervor for spectator sports and creates both apathy and anger that my sports world has frequently fallen on hard times.
The last great ride for me came in the autumn of 2009 watching Brett Favre. The legendary quarterback was 40 but in his first season with the Vikings he threw darts where no balls had any right to go. His statistics included career bests in completions (68.4 percent) and passer rating (107.2).
The Saints won the postseason’s dirty play of the year award with their shameless diving at Favre’s legs. Then the Vikings screwed themselves late in that infamous NFC championship game by killing a chance to win after being penalized for having 12 players on the field.
The Humpty Dumpty end to the season and Super Bowl chase couldn’t spoil my satisfaction in watching the old gunslinger will the Vikings to one of their best seasons ever. No Vikings quarterback since scramblin’ Fran Tarkenton in the 1960’s had brought such entertainment as Favre. Tarkenton—who seemingly could run away from tacklers so long you had time to make a sandwich—brought that rare skill level and excitement that we’ve seen too little of in this town.
Where have you gone, Kirby Puckett? The center fielder told teammates they should jump on his back because he would carry the Twins. Perhaps he never carried the load better than when his game six winning home run forced a seventh game in the 1991 World Series against the Braves. “And we’ll see you tomorrow night,” TV’s Jack Buck told the world.
The Twins unexpectedly won both the 1987 and 1991 World Series, the only two MLB titles in franchise history. The nation watched when Twins heroes like Puckett and pitchers Frank Viola and Jack Morris showed they were World Series competitors and heroes for the ages.
For the ages? Coach Herb Brooks and his 1980 Winter Olympics players are at the head of that line. Miracles are not forgotten and the US Hockey team’s 1980 gold medal triumph at Lake Placid still stirs emotions of all sorts including national pride. The best moment, of course, was America’s stunning upset of the Soviet Union. The US team consisted of amateurs while the Red Machine was capable of playing in the National Hockey League.
For years the Soviet Union had tried to bully America politically. Premier Nikita Khrushchev had long ago proclaimed, “We will bury you.” In 1980 America had lost prestige in the world and at home. When the Soviet hockey team humiliated the US in an exhibition game prior to the Olympics, America shrugged its collective shoulders and hung its head lower. But the US Hockey team’s semi-final ground-shattering triumph had Al Michaels asking the TV audience: “Do you believe in miracles?” Americans found new swagger and confidence about their country and themselves. The stunning upset and later gold medal win in February of 1980—35 years ago—helped jumpstart an American comeback at home and on the world stage that saw the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union empire.
Those who had known Brooks for many years may have been surprised by how far the former Gophers coach led the US team but they weren’t completely caught off-guard. The St. Paul native led the Gophers to national championships in 1974, 1976 and 1979. It was the greatest period ever for Gophers hockey.
The 1970’s and the immediate decades before delivered a scrapbook full of great sports memories for Minnesotans. Bud Grant’s four Super Bowl teams set the standard for a franchise that is still trying to climb back to the biggest stage. Tarkenton, Eller, Page, Marshall. Their jerseys are still worn by fans and their images are forever remembered.
Bill Musselman’s Gophers basketball teams created an electric environment in Williams Arena with their pre-game Harlem Globetrotters routine during the 1970’s. The coach got in trouble with NCAA rules but he ignited a passion inside Williams Arena that’s never been duplicated. The highlight of the Musselman era was the 1972 Big Ten championship team that included NBA first round draft choices Ron Behagen and Jim Brewer, and baseball Hall of Famer Dave Winfield.
The Twins Rod Carew flirted with baseball’s immortals when he chased a .400 batting average and graced the cover of Time Magazine in 1977. The sweet swinging Carew was hitting over .400 in early summer of that memorable season before finishing at .388.
The Twins were an American League power in the 1960s led by a wrecking crew of home run sluggers captained by the great Harmon Killebrew. Long ball baseball put an excitement on the field during that era which the Twins have never duplicated. The team high point was reaching the World Series in 1965. Invincible pitcher Sandy Koufax and the Dodgers were too much for the Twins in their first Minnesota World Series appearance.
The Gophers made two trips to the Rose Bowl in the early 1960’s. The second time they got it right with a 21-3 win over UCLA. The glory of that win, though, didn’t match the Gophers winning the 1960 national championship. That was Minnesota’s seventh and perhaps last national title. The Gophers, led by legendary coach Bernie Bierman, won national championships in 1934, 1935, 1936, 1940 and 1941. Coach Henry Williams also led Minnesota to a national title in 1904.
Bierman’s titles came before another glorious run in Minnesota. The Minneapolis Lakers dominated pro basketball from the late 1940’s through 1954, winning five world titles and boasting pro basketball’s first superstar. George Mikan, the giant 6-10 center, was so revered that he was commonly called Mr. Basketball. When the Lakers once played in New York’s famous Madison Square Garden, the marquee said “George Mikan vs. the Knicks.”
Olympic gold, national championships, world titles, men named Bierman, Brooks, Carew, Favre, Grant, Killebrew, Mikan and Puckett. Whew! That’s the kind of high life this town knew.
Kevin Dorsey is the only Rivals.com four-star recruit in the Gophers’ 2015 class. The point guard from Clinton Christian High School in Upper Marlboro, Maryland is also a leading candidate to start for the Gophers next fall.
The Gophers starting point guard for most of this season, DeAndre Mathieu, is a senior. The team’s top shooting guard, Andre Hollins, is also in his last season of eligibility. Minnesota coach Richard Pitino will be looking for replacements and while freshman Nate Mason can play the point he might be a better fit in the starting lineup next season as a shooting guard.
Ryan James, the basketball recruiting authority for Rivals affiliate Gopherillustrated.com, told Sports Headliners that “without a doubt” Dorsey could be one of the Big Ten’s top dozen freshmen next season. James has seen Dorsey play five times and also watched him online.
James said to his knowledge Dorsey is the highest-ranked point guard the Gophers have ever recruited out of high school. While James won’t predict Dorsey as an immediate starter, he is confident the teenager will be a major contributor. “I just know he’s going to get a lot of minutes just because he’s an excellent on-ball defender and off-the-ball-defender, and he’s one of the best pace pushers you will see. I mean he will fly with the basketball in the other direction, and he often ignites it with his own defense.”
At about 5-11, 160, Dorsey certainly doesn’t impress with his stature but his athleticism, including his quickness, draws attention. So, too, does his competitiveness and aggressiveness. “Yes, I don’t think I saw a guy on the summer circuit that played as hard in an AAU-style of game defensively,” James said. “He was always drawing the other team’s best assignment, and that said everything.”
Pitino is an advocate of fast play offensively. Grab the defensive rebound and push the basketball fast toward the Minnesota goal, or create a steal and accelerate into a fast-break. Dorsey sounds like a clone of the point guard prototype for the Pitino system.
“This offense is perfect for him,” James said. “This is exactly the right fit.”
A weakness? James said Dorsey is an okay shooter. “I saw him make jumpers but I think overall he probably has to get better in that regard.”
Dorsey is rated the No. 87 prospect nationally in the class of 2015, according to Rivals.com. In 21 games for Clinton Christian High School he has averaged 22.1 points, 3.8 assists and 3.1 steals, according to Maxpreps.com.
But it’s the eye test that also impresses about Dorsey. James observed that Dorsey wears basketball shorts that are short enough not to bother his knees while trying to move his feet and legs on defense. “He doesn’t care about the shorts. He cares about getting it done, and that’s another reason why people like him.”
While saying to heck with more fashionable longer shorts, Dorsey takes the court to create a frenzy including on offense. “You have to get in front of him or he’s going to hurt you,” James said.
Gophers fans hope he will do some hurting on opponents immediately next fall.
This observer’s opinion on the Gophers’ chances of winning on Thursday night at Michigan State: 10 percent. Minnesota, 5-10 in the Big Ten, has lost three consecutive games and plays a Spartans team, 10-4, that has won four straight and leads the conference in field goal percentage defense. Coach Tom Izzo has the Spartans on another classic bull run to season’s end.
The Vikings announced this morning the signing of free agent linebacker Brian Peters who played the last two seasons with the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League. In 2014 the former Northwestern player led the Roughriders with 78 tackles, plus he had three sacks, one forced fumble and two interceptions.
The Twins open their home spring training schedule at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers next week with exhibition games against the Gophers March 4 and Red Sox March 5. A dugout box seat costs $15 for the Gophers game but $44 to see the Red Sox. Both games will be telecast on Fox Sports North Plus starting at 6 p.m. Minneapolis time.
Twins second-year slugger Kennys Vargas was listed at No. 25 by USA Today in a February 13 article about “young players primed to make impacts during the major league season.” The 24-year-old designated hitter and first baseman hit .274 with nine home runs and 38 RBI in 215 at bats last season for the Twins. Vargas, 6-5, 290, was the only Twins player listed in the article headlined “The 50 names you need to know.”
Kevin Garnett is 38 but he remains feisty. He was suspended one game last month for head-butting Dwight Howard of the Rockets. Known for his temper when he played for the Timberwolves from 1995 to 2007, Garnett’s altercations with teammates included Wally Szczerbiak and Rick Rickert. Garnett, who was traded by the Nets last week to the Wolves, averaged 5.1 points and 17.4 minutes per game during January. He makes his home debut with the Wolves Wednesday night against the Wizards.
Timberwolves rookie star Andrew Wiggins has his 20th birthday today in Houston where his team plays the Rockets. Wiggins was about five months old when the Wolves drafted Garnett in June of 1995.
Jim Petersen, Timberwolves TV analyst and Lynx assistant coach, turned 53 yesterday. The former Gophers and NBA player was a McDonald’s All-American at St. Louis Park High School. As a prep senior he was also the 1980 Minnesota Mr. Basketball winner.
Gophers football fans can take encouragement from a recruiting analysis article in the February 9 issue of Sports Illustrated. Big Ten powers Michigan State and Wisconsin averaged No. 6 and No. 13 in the final Associated Press rankings from 2010-2014 despite neither program having high enough averages to be in the Rivals.com top 25 team recruiting rankings during the same period.
The possibility draws a yawn from Gophers basketball fans but the team that once had NCAA Tournament goals is now more realistically competing for a spot in the National Invitation Tournament.
The Gophers, 14-9 overall and 3-7 in the Big Ten, have eight remaining regular season conference games including four at home against Purdue, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Penn State. The Gophers must play Iowa, Indiana, Michigan State and Wisconsin on the road. Of those seven opponents, only Northwestern, 1-8, and Penn State, 2-8, have losing records in the Big Ten. The other five teams are a combined 33-15 in league games.
Let’s say the Gophers win four of their final eight regular season games—leaving them at 18-13 overall and 7-11 in league games going into the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago March 11-15. That resume won’t interest the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. To qualify for the “Big Dance” the Gophers probably would need to win all their games in Chicago, earning automatic entry into the NCAA field of teams as the Big Ten Tournament champion. The chances of winning the league tourney are minimal because several conference teams have superior personnel.
If the Gophers win one Big Ten Tournament game before losing a second, the team’s overall record could be 19-14. That probably earns a place in the NIT, the postseason tournament for second level teams.
But what if the Gophers only win three more games? If they went 3-5 in their remaining regular season games and then lost the Big Ten Tournament opener, Minnesota’s record would be 17-15. Last year Indiana finished 17-15 and was left out of the NIT’s 32-team field. A record around .500 is no sure thing to win the approval of the NIT Selection Committee which must include Division I teams that won their regular season league titles but weren’t invited to the NCAA Tournament.
The Gophers have participated in the NIT 14 times and won three championships, although the 1998 title was later vacated because of NCAA violations. Minnesota’s record in 2013-2014 was 25-13, including five consecutive victories in the NIT to win the tourney. With four starters returning, the Gophers looked like a team that could finish among the top six in the Big Ten standings and be selected for the NCAA Tournament. Minnesota breezed through a mostly unchallenging nonconference schedule, playing 10 games at home and compiling an 11-2 record with impressive team numbers in steals and assists.
But the Gophers haven’t recovered from a slow start in the Big Ten with a schedule that had them playing three of their first four games on the road. Minnesota also lost its first two home games on the way to a 0-5 start.
Despite the disappointing record to date of 3-7 in the Big Ten, the Gophers have played competitively. Minnesota has lost six conference games by a total of 21 points.
What’s the problem? The Gophers need to be better defensively. They rank ninth among conference teams in points given up per game (league play only) at 66.3 points per game.
A major issue is defensive stops when needed, particularly late in games. That’s not just on the defense because other teams get second and third shots by out rebounding Minnesota. The Gophers rank 13th out of 14 teams in defensive rebounding.
The Gophers have created problems for themselves, too, with excessive fouling and giving opponents free throws. Also, Minnesota’s free throw percentage of .665 ranks 11th in the league.
Despite the struggles, coach Richard Pitino likes his team’s attitude. Since the 0-5 start, the Gophers are 3-2, with home wins over Rutgers, Illinois and Nebraska. “They’ve never really felt sorry for themselves, and just found a way to win,” Pitino said. “That’s the way it’s gotta be with our guys.”
Gophers senior point guard DeAndre Mathieu said if the team becomes better defensively they can beat anybody. “We definitely aren’t down on ourselves. We feel like we can win a few games.”
The Gophers played last Saturday against Nebraska and for the first time this winter don’t have a midweek Big Ten game. The rest is welcome during a long season when fatigue and nuisance injuries can pile up. “These guys are banged up,” Pitino said. “It’s never been a question of effort, so they need that break because we don’t have a lot of depth right now.”
The Gophers play a physical Purdue team tomorrow led by twin-monsters Isaac Haas (7-foot-2) and A.J. Hammons (7-feet). In the season opener at Purdue Hammons hurt the Gophers the most, with 11 points and nine rebounds in the Boilermakers’ 72-68 win.
The Gophers need different results tomorrow, because—strange as it is to write on February 6—this team is playing for an NIT invite more than anything else right now.
Timberwolves Rookie of the Year candidate Andrew Wiggins and Gophers center Mo Walker, both natives of Canada, know each other. “We’re pretty cool,” Walker said. “Like if I see him, I’ll say, ‘What’s up?’ He’ll say, ‘What’s up?’ He knows who I am and I know who he is.”
The Gophers football team opens its 2015 schedule on Thursday, September 3 against national championship contender TCU, but Michigan and Wisconsin have interesting first weekend games, too. The Wolverines will have a rare road opener at Utah on September 3 in a game sure to draw a boisterous crowd in Salt Lake City. The Badgers play Alabama, another national title hopeful, on Saturday, September 5 at neutral site AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
A hockey source told Sports Headliners he believes the Wild will “make several million” dollars from the outdoor game (NHL Stadium Series) scheduled for next winter at TCF Bank Stadium. The February 21 game against the Blackhawks—the Wild’s first outdoor game at home—can be a revenue stimulus for ticket sales and other income sources.
The source said the game represents a tryout for the Wild to one day host the prestigious and even more lucrative Winter Classic outdoor game held annually in a host NHL city during early January. The NHL’s Stadium Series and the Winter Classic are national TV attractions, generating revenues for the league and NBC TV.
The Wild has won four consecutive games. New goalie Devan Dubnyk has given up only four goals in the last five games. After a slow start before the NHL All-Star Game break, the Wild are trying to recover and make the playoffs. “They’ve got a lot of ground to make up,” the source said.
Minnesota State University, Mankato is the No. 1 ranked men’s college hockey team in the polls. Coach Mike Hastings might be the hottest college hockey coaching name in the country now. During the next couple years the Mavericks may have to fight to keep Hastings who reportedly annually earns $225,000. He is considered an outstanding communicator who relates effectively to players and others.
The Minnesota Minute Men announced the 10 candidates (high school seniors only) for the 31st Annual Mr. Hockey Award: Jack Achcan (Burnsville), Will Borgen (Moorhead), Dixon Bowen (East Grand Forks), Jake Jaremko (Elk River), Dylan Malmquist (Edina), Jack Poehling (Lakeville North), Nick Poehling (Lakeville North), Jack Sadek (Lakeville North), Peter Tufto (Saint Thomas Academy) and Christiano Versich (Saint Thomas Academy). Stephen Headrick (Breck) and Dyllan Lubbesmeyer (Burnsville) are the finalists for The Frank Brimsek Award in recognition of the state’s top senior goaltender. The 31st annual Mr. Hockey Awards Banquet will be held at noon on Sunday, March 8 at the Grand Ballroom at RiverCentre.