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Twins Expect Leadership from Donaldson

February 06, 2020 - (0) comments

 

The Minnesota Twins start spring training in Fort Myers later this month with considerable attention focused on third baseman Josh Donaldson, the $92 million free agent the club recently signed. Expectations are in place, and not just on the field.

“For Josh, it starts with his play on the diamond but…what he brings off the field is going to be equally important. Much like Nelson Cruz did a year ago,” Twins president Dave St. Peter told Sports Headliners.

Veteran DH Cruz was a clubhouse leader on last season’s team that won 101 games on its way to the AL Central title. Now Donaldson adds more leadership and offensive power to a lineup that hit a MLB record 307 home runs in 2019.

Donaldson, 34, struggled with injuries in 2018, but played 155 games last season with the Braves. He was named National League Comeback Player of the Year after hitting 37 home runs, with 94 RBI, 96 runs scored, 100 walks, and a .379 on-base percentage and a .900 OPS, per statistics provided by the Twins.

He finished fourth in league walks and was one of only two players in the majors with at least 30 doubles, 35 home runs, 90 RBI, 90 runs scored and 100 walks. He was second among all MLB third basemen with 15 defensive runs saved (per FanGraphs), trailing only the Athletics’ Matt Chapman (18).

Since 2013, Donaldson ranks second in the majors in Wins Above Replacement, trailing only Mike Trout of the Angels, according to both FanGraphs (40.6 to 62.6) and Baseball Reference (43.6 to 61.5). During that seven season period he ranks seventh in the majors in walks (541), 10th in home runs (209) and runs scored (617), 11th in RBI (608), extra-base hits (430) and slugging percentage (.520), and 13th in OPS (.895).

“He’s been one of the elite third basemen in the game,” St. Peter said. “He plays a great defense (and) he had a really strong offensive year in Atlanta bouncing back from a year of injuries. I think we’re confident we’re getting a great player.

“We (also) like the intangibles that Josh brings. He brings, I think, an intensity. He brings an urgency to his game that we think can be a very positive thing for our club—particularly young players in…modeling some of those things that may be difference makers for our team.”

St. Peter expects the presence of Donaldson will give manager Rocco Baldelli even more flexibility in making out his batting order. Depending on the game, Donaldson could hit anywhere from two through five. “I think for the most part that’s where Rocco sees it,” St. Peter said.

Miguel Sano (photo courtesy of Minnesota Twins).

The arrival of Donaldson is all but a no-brainer in strengthening the club’s infield defense because erratic third baseman Miguel Sano will now be the regular first baseman. Sano has previous experience playing first and will work with various instructors in spring training including coach Tony Diaz. Twins Hall of Famer and former first baseman Justin Morneau is likely to be an instructor, too. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see Justin spend a fair amount of time with Miguel early in spring training,” St. Peter said.

Sano, 26, has struggled with his weight in the past and with injuries. “He’s in great baseball shape,” St. Peter said. “He’s ready to roll. He’s healthy, and I know he’s very excited to be in Fort Myers.”

Sano, who the Twins signed this winter to a new three-year contract worth $30 million, hit all 34 of his home runs last season after May 1. That was the sixth most in the American League following that date.

Worth Noting

The Twins have a pending trade to acquire starting pitcher Kenta Maeda, according to multiple reports. The 31-year-old native of Japan pitched for the Dodgers last season, compiling a 10-8 record and 4.04 ERA.

St. Peter said earlier in the week three of the team’s five starting pitching spots appear committed to Jose Berrios, Jake Odorizzi and Homer Bailey. Presumably Maeda could now fill a fourth spot, with several other candidates competing for the fifth during the season including Michael Pineda and Rich Hill who won’t be available early in the year.

It wouldn’t be that much of a surprise if with more frequent off days early in the season, manager Rocco Baldelli and pitching coach Wes Johnson decide to use a four-man starting rotation for awhile.

Today’s composite 247Sports 2020 college football recruiting rankings have Minnesota’s class No. 36 in the nation. Big Ten West Division rivals ahead of the Gophers are No. 20 Nebraska, No. 25 Wisconsin, No. 33 Purdue and No. 34 Iowa.

Gophers point guard Marcus Carr had 10 assists last night, more than the entire Badgers team in Minnesota’s impressive 70-52 win over Wisconsin. The Big Ten victory improved Minnesota’s chances of earning an NCAA Tournament invitation in March.

Last Sunday’s Super Bowl prompted dedicated Gophers basketball fan Steve Hunegs to email Sports Headliners regarding Minnesota’s January 28, 1990 upset win over coach Bobby Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers at Williams Arena. That game 30 years ago was played on Super Bowl Sunday with No. 21 ranked Minnesota defeating No. 12 Indiana, 108-89. The surprise Gophers, coached by Clem Haskins, went on to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.

Millions of American workers ditched work this Monday following the Sunday Super Bowl between the Chiefs and 49ers. Last Friday “The Rundown” by Jeff Crilley (using information from a survey by Kronos Inc.) projected over 17.5 million workers to miss work Monday. About 11 million would use pre-approved time, with millions more calling in sick or just not showing up for their jobs.

Minnesota Wild president Matt Majka is the latest guest on “Behind the Game,” the Twin Cities cable TV program co-hosted by Patrick Klinger and Bill Robertson. “Behind the Game” episodes can also be viewed on YouTube.

 

Ex-U Captain Lived All-American Life

February 04, 2020 - 1 Comment

 

Mike Wright had a lawyer’s analytical mind, a teacher’s warm heart and the gut instincts of a great businessman. He was a friend and mentor to me dating back to the 1970s.

The 1959 University of Minnesota football captain died last week at age 81 after living a remarkable life that benefitted so many organizations and individuals including this writer. We shared a passion for football and the University of Minnesota. Those two things brought us together, but the relationship never would have lasted if not for Mike’s kindness and wisdom.

I regret not telling him how grateful I was for his friendship. A few years back he approached me about writing a book on his life, but the project never developed. Certainly my loss, but in recent times we did occasionally see each other at a breakfast club we belonged to. A tall man at about 6-foot-4, Mike greeted me with his friendly smile and soft spoken words. I can’t recall those words ever being mean spirited about anything or anyone. I was pleased to hear more than once how he enjoyed reading my column.

I first met Mike in the 1970s when he was a young lawyer with Minnesota-based Supervalu Inc. I was the editor of the University’s M Club publication, and he was serving as the volunteer president of the organization. The M Club was one of many nonprofit entities that Mike gave his time to over the years, including chairing the Twin Cities United Way.

I came to Mike for support multiple times in the early 1980s on behalf of a nonprofit organization I worked for that sponsored the Minnesota High School All-Star Football Game as a fundraiser. Mike twice accepted the volunteer role as general chair for the game and made Supervalu a generous annual supporter. Not only that but he enlisted the financial support of other Twin Cities business leaders.

At Supervalu with Mike.

As chief executive officer, Mike led grocery wholesaler Supervalu to great success before retiring almost 20 years ago. A strong but humble leader, he was much admired inside and outside the organization. Those leadership skills were tested and developed playing tackle for the Gophers during trying times. Minnesota had losing records in all three of his seasons on the varsity.

As a sophomore, Mike played on the 1957 team that was a preseason top 10 choice in the national rankings, and a favorite to win the Big Ten championship. A conference title would send the Gophers to their first ever Rose Bowl. The Gophers won their first three games as a top-five ranked team but then stumbled, winning only once more and finishing with a 4-5 season record. The team was beset by injuries and lacked team speed.

The next two seasons, 1958 and 1959, Minnesota won a combined three games. Fans were more than cranky, with some crackpots throwing garbage on the Edina lawn of head coach Murray Warmath. On fraternity row, the coach was hung in effigy. A 1959 story surfaced in a Minneapolis newspaper reporting that downtown businessmen wanted to buy up the remaining years of Warmath’s contract.

In a book about Warmath’s career, The Autumn Warrior by Mike Wilkinson, Wright recalled receiving a note from the coach’s wife after a 33-0 loss to bitter rival Iowa in the fall of 1959. “She wrote to me saying coach Warmath was so down after the Iowa loss that he was mumbling about maybe resigning,” Wright said in the book.

But Warmath carried on and that was a leadership lesson for Wright who played with a young team full of promise in 1959 that just made too many mistakes. “I felt the team would be a good one the next year,” Wright said in the The Autumn Warrior.

Indeed. The Gophers went from a 2-7 record in Mike’s last season to a Big Ten title and national championship the next year. He was recognized as Academic All-Big Ten in 1959 but more importantly his leadership as captain contributed to the culture that would see the Gophers go 22-6-1 the next three seasons.

Warmath had a career record of 87-78-7 as Minnesota’s head coach. Hired in 1954, he was a controversial choice for a program that had won five national championships from 1934 through 1941. The people’s choice to take over in the 1950s was Minneapolis native and former Gopher lineman Bud Wilkinson who had turned Oklahoma into a powerhouse as head coach.

However, there was an anti-Wilkinson attitude within the University during that era. Mike told me that in the 1950s administrators and academics at the U didn’t want football to be too prominent. Warmath, considered a good coach already proven at Mississippi State, was a preferred choice to Wilkinson who had the potential to become a god with the state’s citizens. The Gophers might have turned into the kings of college football with Wilkinson’s high football IQ and recruiting charms that extended into talent-rich Texas.

After Warmath was forced out following the 1971 season, the Gophers struggled until Lou Holtz was hired in 1984. Holtz stayed only two seasons and left for Notre Dame where he became a legendary coach. I remember calling Mike when rumors swirled about Holtz leaving Minnesota. Ever the optimist, Mike asserted that Notre Dame didn’t allow redshirting of its players and that obstacle might factor into Holtz’s decision of whether to stay at Minnesota.

Mike yearned to see the Gophers succeed in football and even served on a search committee to fill a vacancy at Minnesota back in the days when LaVell Edwards of BYU was turning that school into a power. Mike said despite the U program being down, Edwards was interested in becoming head coach at Minnesota but that never materialized.

Something else that didn’t come about was a mutual interest I once had in going to work for Supervalu. The company had a communications opening and Mike thought enough of me to have a department head arrange a long interview process. Lengthy is an understatement because one day I spent about eight hours going through a series of tests and interviews. Talk about corporate America!

I certainly don’t blame Mike for not receiving the job offer because that wasn’t his call. The one thing I should have needled him about is deserting his south Minneapolis home to attend St. Thomas Military Academy instead of attending my beloved Washburn High School. The mighty Millers of the 1950s would have been even greater with Mike on the roster.

Mike’s many honors and awards (I could fill a long paragraph) included receiving the University of Minnesota’s Outstanding Achievement Award and membership in the school’s hall of fame for athletics. I know that if I asked Mike about his life, including those awards, he would offer a humble answer and deflect praise to others.

Mike, thank you for being part of my life.

 

Vikes’ 2021 Super Bowl Path Unclear

February 02, 2020 - 2 Comments

 

The Vikings, while deserving of a top 10 ranking among NFL teams, are clearly inferior to the two teams playing in tonight’s Super Bowl—the Chiefs and 49er’s. The question in this town is whether in the next 12 months Minnesota can transition to a Super Bowl quality team.

During the regular season the AFC Champion Chiefs, playing without star quarterback Patrick Mahomes, defeated the Vikings 26-23 in Kansas City. In the playoffs, the 49er’s dominated the Vikings and embarrassed them 27-10 in Santa Clara. The Vikings’ best moment in either the regular season or playoffs was their opening postseason win, 26-10, versus the Saints in New Orleans. Minnesota mostly struggled against quality opposition in a 10-6 regular season.

Whatever the Vikings lack, whether it’s more star power, team speed, work ethic, player development or better coaching, general manager Rick Spielman, head coach Mike Zimmer and other decision makers better execute on a to-do list in the offseason. There is a truism in football that warns: “Your team either gets better or worse from season to season, but never stays the same.”

The 2018 Vikings failed to make the playoffs, so 2019 was a laudable upgrade. Spielman will be forced to make changes not only based on performance, but salary cap issues. Expensive quarterback Xavier Rhodes, who turns 30 years old in June, seems all but certain to be gone from next season’s roster. Cornerback play was a soft spot last season and needs to be fixed as does the inconsistent offensive line. Those struggling included guard Pat Elflein, who had many difficult moments.

Addressing the offensive line problem feels like the movie “Groundhog Day,” the Bill Murray classic where events keep repeating themselves. As the NFL draft approaches this spring, there will be the usual speculation about the Vikings targeting an early-round offensive lineman.

The draft could give the Vikings a boost as it did in 2019, with promising center Garrett Bradbury. He needs to be one of several players who have break-out performances to help the team improve overall.

A trade of talented but temperamental wide receiver Stefon Diggs seems possible. He and Rhodes led the team in visible temper tantrums in 2019. With wide receiver Adam Thielen fighting off injuries late in the season and playoffs, the front office could be cautious in moving the 26-year-old Diggs.

Minnesota has young star power in 24-year-old running back Dalvin Cook and 25-year-old defensive end Danielle Hunter, but this is an aging team in some starting positions on defense and offense. It will be intriguing to see which way the Vikings trend in the next 12 months.

Worth Noting

Kirk Cousins

It wouldn’t be shocking if 31-year-old Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins quit the NFL after next season at the end of his three-year, $84 million contract. NFL stars Rob Gronkowski, Luke Kuechly and Andrew Luck retired before they were 30 years old. Football is a collision sport, Cousins is a great family man, and suitors from the private and public sectors will be lined up at his door when he transitions from football. He is that impressive of a person.

History lesson: not only are the Vikings 0-4 in Super Bowls, their closest loss was by 10 points in the games (losing 16-6 to the Steelers in 1975). Overall, the Vikings were outscored by 61 points in the four games.

Linebacker Damien Wilson can become the first former Gopher to play on a Super Bowl-winning team since 2009 if his Chiefs win today. Ex-Gopher tight end Matt Spaeth played on the 2009 Super Bowl champion Steelers.

A Michael Bloomberg TV commercial on tonight’s Super Bowl telecast cost an estimated $10 million, per the January 17 Wall Street Journal.

Early departures for the NFL by three Wisconsin standouts including running back Jonathan Taylor could make Minnesota the pre-season favorite to win the Big Ten West and advance to a first conference championship game in Indianapolis. January top 25 national rankings for the next season included SI.com’s placement of the Gophers at No. 11, with the Badgers at No. 13.

It’ll be interesting to see what local golf courses new Twins super slugger Josh Donaldson frequents on his days off next summer. Nicknamed “the bringer of rain” for his baseball power, Donaldson appeared on the Golf Channel in 2014 and hit a golf ball an estimated 309 yards in a simulator.

Harvey Mackay, the University of Minnesota alum and former Gophers golfer, signed copies of his new book at Barnes & Noble in Edina last week. The book jacket of You Haven’t Hit Your Peak Yet includes this endorsement from former Gophers football coach Lou Holtz: “Harvey Mackay may be the most talented man I’ve ever met.”

Former pro wrestling “High Flyer” Jim Brunzell is wearing an immobilizing brace this winter after a third surgery on his right knee. Following a career of 5,000 matches over a 25-year career, Brunzell has had both knees replaced, plus a shoulder and hip. The ex-Gopher football receiver has undergone eight total surgeries in the last 10 years.

 

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