Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019


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Van Clemens


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Twins Fans Make a Statement

August 12, 2019 - (0) comments

 

Looking for a positive storyline from the Twins-Indians four-game series at Target Field? While the hometown club lost three of four to Cleveland, the fans came through for the Twins.

The Indians scooted out of Minneapolis in a first place tie in the AL Central with Minnesota but don’t blame local baseball patrons for lack of support. Series attendance averaged 35,568 with a four game total of 142,275—the fourth highest for a four-game series in Target Field history. The largest crowd was Sunday afternoon, a reported sellout of 37,849.

Fans turned out even though they could have stayed at home watching the series on HD TV. Many drove through rush hour traffic and construction for the Thursday and Friday evening games. Fans sat through a two-hour rain delay on Saturday night and arrived on Sunday despite threatening morning skies and a 2-1 series lead by the Indians.

Max Kepler (photo courtesy of Minnesota Twins).

At the ballpark fans mostly waited for something to cheer about, and when those moments arrived they roared their approval. The Indians dominated the series except for Saturday night when Cleveland killers Jake Odorizzi and Max Kepler led Minnesota to a 4-1 win. But seldom did patrons boo their heroes, while instead showing off their best Midwest civility.

Twins marketers entered this season facing an apathetic customer base. After the ball club disappointed last season with a 78-84 record, home attendance totaled less than 2 million for the second time in three years at Target Field, the much praised outdoor ballpark that opened in 2010. (The team had attracted over 3 million fans in each of the first two seasons in its new home.)

Before the 2019 season the fanbase looked at the Twins and wondered if the team might at best finish five or 10 games over .500? That didn’t stir a rush to the box office and neither did a roster lacking star power. Then a cold and soggy spring just put more gloom on attendance prospects for 2019.

But the Twins became the most homer-happy team in baseball with the likes of Kepler, Nelson Cruz, Eddie Rosario, Mitch Garver, Miguel Sano and others. Odorizzi and Jose Berrios pitched like All-Stars and Taylor Rogers was a savior out of the bullpen. The springtime Twins won a lot of games and jumped to a double-digit lead over the second place and defending division champion Indians.

The Twins became a happening story nationally and at home. The club’s marketers responded with a smorgasbord of ticket options. The fans dove in with newfound interest and passion. As of yesterday morning Minnesota ranked 15th among 30 MLB franchises in attendance, averaging 27,333 fans per game, according to Espn.com.

What this all means is that the 2019 Twins are reaffirming this is a quality baseball market—even if it’s not a great one. No, this isn’t St. Louis or Boston where owners might name their pets “Stan the Man,” or “Teddy Ballgame.” But give this area a fair shake with a competitive and entertaining ball club and the baseball public will respond.

Fans from Minneapolis-St. Paul and parts beyond have even made the Twins American League attendance leaders over the years. Since the franchise’s arrival here in 1961, the Twins have been tops in total home attendance three times. The club has also gone over the MLB coveted 3 million season mark three times.

This has long been a football town with the Vikings dominating sports interest for decades. If the Gophers could ever become elite the football madness will go to yet another level in the state. But the Twins have their hard-core following, too, with many in the fanbase looking like poster folks for our “Minnesota Nice” reputation as warm-hearted and family loving people.

The turnstile turnaround for the Twins (TV ratings are way up, too) comes at a time when others are in the public doldrums. Sources say the Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Wild are struggling with ticket sales. In this overcrowded sports market place, a downward trend for one organization can help another attract discretionary dollars from both the public and businesses.

In the summer, the Twins compete for attention from the Vikings, Gophers, Loons, Lynx, Saints and Canterbury Park. That’s not to mention the frequent magic of summer weather drawing people to so many recreational opportunities either in town—or as they say—“up north.”

The Twins are well positioned now for short and long-term success with their customers. Large crowds are certain for the remaining schedule, including possible sellouts when the Indians return to Minneapolis for a series September 6-8. And this fall the club will see resurgence in ticket sales including their season tickets that have been trending downward for years.

The Twins’ success comes at a time when MLB attendance is projected to be down for a fourth consecutive season, according to a July 11 Foxbusiness.com story. The grand old game has its issues including pace of play and length of games that typically log in at over three hours. Add in commuting time and families can be spending over five hours and more than $200 to be bored with their ballpark experience.

Not much complaining here, however. As the Twins push toward a possible division title for the first time since 2010, and threaten the all-time MLB record for home runs, the mantra from this marketplace is, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

 

Twins & Cleveland All about Close

August 07, 2019 - (0) comments

 

A Wednesday notes column:

Football is in the news but the sports focus in this town starting Thursday night and continuing through Sunday afternoon will be the Minnesota Twins-Cleveland Indians four-game series at Target Field. The Twins lead the AL Central Division by 3.5 games over the second place Indians in a tight race to determine the champion by season’s end in late September.

“It’s going to be a battle,” Twins president Dave St. Peter told Sports Headliners yesterday as he looked forward to the upcoming series. “Every game is going to be close. It’s probably going to come down to the final innings one way or another. Little things are going to make huge differences in terms of a team making mistakes and (the) other team capitalizing on those mistakes.”

In nine previous games between Cleveland and Minnesota, six have been decided by one or two runs. The Twins have won five of the nine games spread over three series, two in Cleveland and one in Minneapolis.

There are 10 games yet to be played between the two teams before the regular season ends, with seven of them scheduled at Target Field. The Twins, 70-43 overall this season, are 35-21 on the road, and 35-22 at home. The Indians are 66-46 overall, with records of 36-24 and 30-22 at home and away respectively.

It’s accepted doctrine playing at home is advantageous. Players sleep in their own beds, prepare for games in familiar routines, and know the quirks and nuances of the home ballpark. There is also the energy of the home crowd. “Our fans can play a huge role in what happens here down the stretch,” St. Peter said.

Thursday night’s game is expected to have attendance of over 30,000, with tickets also remaining for the final three games of the series, but St. Peter said Friday, Saturday and Sunday could sell out.

A Twins sweep will send Indians fans buying up Maalox in large quantities. If Cleveland wins all four games it’s problematic for the Twins but probably won’t boost Maalox sales here like in Ohio. “If there is a sweep either way, it puts a team in a hole,” St. Peter said. “I tend to think of it both ways.”

Twins center fielder Max Kepler had one hit in his first 19 at bats against the Indians this season. Since then he is 9 of 19 with five home runs and eight RBI. Those five home runs came in consecutive at-bats during June and July games against now departed Indians starter Trevor Bauer.

St. Peter talking about recently acquired reliever Sam Dyson who is on the Injured List after just two games with Minnesota: “We expect he is going to contribute mightily to the Twins.”

Ken Novak, going into his 31st season at Hopkins as boys basketball coach, is wowed by Paige Bueckers, the first-team prep All-American on the Royals girls team. “She is the only girl I’ve ever seen that I think could play for a good boys’ team,” Novak told Sports Headliners.

Paige Bueckers

He likens Bueckers, the dynamic point guard who will be a senior this coming school year, to the legendary Pete Maravich who played flamboyantly with jaw-dropping ball handling and passing skills. Novak said Bueckers combines so many fundamental basketball skills with a “flair” for the game. She has verbally committed to Connecticut for college.

Novak has his own star in 6-5 senior shooting guard Kerwin Walton, the only returning starter for the Royals. “He is one of the best I’ve coached,” said Novak, who has sent a long list of players to college programs including former Golden Gophers shooting guard Blake Hoffarber.

The legacy coach believes the 6-5 Walton compares favorably to Hoffarber as two of the better players he has coached. “He will be a great college player,” Novak said about Walton. “You don’t get recruited by Kansas (and) Arizona, those caliber schools, and not be really good. I think there is no doubt he is just going to get better.”

Walton, who averaged about 18 points per game last season for Hopkins and is having a high profile summer playing more amateur basketball, holds scholarship offers from 21 schools including Arizona, Kansas, Minnesota, Texas, West Virginia and Virginia Tech, per Rivals.com. But Novak said his star guard isn’t favoring any particular school including Minnesota. “He knows the coaches (at Minnesota) well, and he really likes them,” Novak said.

Walton has made improvements of late and more are expected, partially because of a work ethic that includes practicing four or more hours per day. “He really works at it (getting better),” Novak said.

Novak’s father, 90-year-old Ken Sr., expects to return as one of the Hopkins boys assistant coaches next season.

Eric Morken, writing yesterday for Echopress.com, reported Alexandria’s Treyton Thompson will transfer for next season to an Indiana prep school. A class of 2021 recruiting target, the Gophers have offered a scholarship.

It was 50 years ago this summer that Noel Jenke, one of the Golden Gophers’ best athletes ever, made his professional baseball debut as an outfielder with AAA Louisville. Jenke had hit .402 in the spring of 1969 playing in his first and only season for the Gophers. The Boston Red Sox were eager to sign him and Jenke, who represented himself, knew he had leverage in the negotiations because the NFL’s Vikings and NHL Blackhawks wanted him, too.

Now retired from corporate security work and living in suburban Milwaukee, Jenke never revealed the bonus amount the Red Sox gave him and he still won’t. “It was more than the Red Sox wanted to pay me,” he told Sports Headliners. “It was one of the highest bonuses paid in the MLB draft that year, if not the highest.”

Jenke’s negotiating leverage paid off after the Red Sox initially offered $50,000. Following his contract signing the team also gave him a Chevy Impala. Jenke, who negotiated the deal surrounded by “three piece suits,” was glad he remembered the advice of a tax attorney who told him, “It’s just as easy to ask for $100,000, as it is $25,000.”

An Owatonna, Minnesota native, Jenke only played one season of baseball at Minnesota because football coach Murray Warmath insisted he be available for spring practices. As a college baseball senior, with his football eligibility expired, Jenke became an All-American but as a professional never made it to the big leagues and ended up playing five seasons in the NFL with the Vikings, Falcons and Packers. He won seven letters at Minnesota, with three each in football and hockey, and one in baseball.

As with other sports, analytics has become important in the MLS including with the Minnesota United. CEO Chris Wright told Sports Headliners there are “global data and analytics companies” that provide details on every pro soccer player in the world who is a member of a club registered through FIFA.

Wright can call up information on thousands of players based on a description of what he is looking for. He and those who work for the United can also identify a specific player they are scouting to learn more about him via analytics.

Wright said his club also employs “two and a half full-timers” as scouts, while also having about 30 part-timers who take a look at players for the United.

Bloomington, Minnesota native Steve Rushin, a former National Sportswriter of the Year, speaks to the Twin Cities Dunkers group August 20.

 

Who Is Minnesota Twins MVP So Far?

August 04, 2019 - (0) comments

 

Enjoy a Sunday notes column starting with the AL Central Division leading Minnesota Twins and a couple of interesting questions about the club.

The Twins are among the surprise teams in baseball and one of the biggest success stories. As of early August, who is the club’s MVP?

Talk about a question with no consensus answer. A Sports Headliners baseball source said shortstop Jorge Polanco and right fielder Max Kepler are deserving of co-MVP recognition. Another authority chose Kepler, then hesitated when reminded about the contributions of staff ace Jose Berrios and bullpen savior Taylor Rogers.

Polanco, Kepler, Berrios and Rogers. Who to choose? “You could make a case for all four being deserving,” a source said.

But wait.

The sources referenced here were contacted a few days ago, prior to DH Nelson Cruz making baseball history. Last night he hit three home runs in Minnesota’s Target Field victory over the Royals—becoming the third man in MLB history to have two three home run games within a 10-day period. The 39-year-old, who four times this season has driven in five runs or more, is now tied for the club lead in home runs with 30. A clubhouse leader, he has to be in the forefront of any MVP discussion.

Polanco has been hitting over .300 most of the season, has solidified the team’s up the middle defense and played for the American League in last month’s All-Star Game. Kepler, with critics wondering if he was a bust last year, has experienced a career season leading the Twins in RBI with 76 and is tied with Cruz in home runs at 30, while not only playing outstanding defense in right field but being available to sub in center.

Berrios has won 10 games with a 2.80 ERA that ranks among the best in the majors. Rogers has saved 16 games and his effective work at the end of games has helped balance off a bullpen with shaky middle innings performers. “He’s been fabulous,” a source said.

There are other names worth considering for MVP, too, regardless of whether balloting was inside or outside the clubhouse. Left fielder Eddie Rosario has just four fewer RBI than Kepler and is a fan favorite. Pitcher Jake Odorizzi, who has dropped off in performance after a lights out start to the season, still leads the team in wins with 12, a total among the best in baseball.

And here is the other question for the day: in a playoff series, who should be Minnesota’s third starter after Berrios and Odorizzi? A couple of sources didn’t recommend Kyle Gibson who has won 11 games, the second most on the starting staff.

“I am not a big Gibson fan,” a source said. “He is almost afraid to throw the ball over the plate. He is a picker, and throws too many pitches. Every time he pitches I get nervous.”

Martin Perez and Michael Pineda received more support as the  third starter in a playoff series. Perez is 8-4 and Pineda 7-5 on a starting staff Twins fans hoped the front office would bolster before the July 31 trade deadline. With Berrios and Odorizzi, Gibson and Pineda all being right-handers, the left-hand throwing Perez could be the choice as the third starter in a playoff series. However, he needs to improve his work having allowed eight home runs in his last four starts, after giving up seven in his first 18 appearances of the season.

Reliever Sam Dyson, acquired from the Giants last Thursday at the trade deadline, has allowed six earned runs in two-thirds of an inning and has an ERA of 81.00 in two games.  It was announced this morning the Twins have placed him on the 10-day Injured List because of bicep tendinitis in his right arm.

Former Twins closer Joe Nathan and club president Jerry Bell are inducted into the team’s Hall of Fame this weekend. Overdue for inclusion, too, is the late Halsey Hall, the former Twins broadcaster and master storyteller who delighted radio and TV audiences in the early years of the franchise.

Possible names under consideration for the Minnesota Wild general manager’s job: Chris Drury, Ron Hextall, Dean Lombardi, Tom Fitzgerald and Bill Zito.

Mike Modano, hired earlier this year as an executive advisor for the Wild focusing on business operations, probably isn’t interested in the GM job because it’s so time consuming.

Mike Zimmer

Quoting Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer on a fan he encountered at Canterbury Park: “…A guy says, ‘If you win the Super Bowl, we’re going to elect you governor.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to be governor, that’s the last thing I want to do.’ “

The Vikings, who along with other NFL teams opened training camp late last month, have until August 31 to reduce their rosters to 53 players each.

The first of three Golden Gophers football practices open to the public was yesterday. The other two are August 9 (4:30 p.m.) and August 16 (4:15 p.m.)—with both on the outdoor fields at the Athletes Village.

The Big Ten Network will report on all 14 Big Ten Conference training camps, including Minnesota’s August 16.

Among the early leaders to win the Gophers’ placekicking job is sophomore Brock Walker from Sioux Falls. Coach P.J. Fleck said on WCCO Radio’s Sports Huddle a week ago that Walker, who was an All-State defensive back and 4.0 student at Washington High School, had an impressive offseason.

Those anxious for the start of college football can get an “early fix” watching Villanova and Colgate August 24 on the CBS Sports Network. The Gophers have one of the earlier starts in college football, hosting South Dakota State August 29. FS1 will televise the game.

It will be interesting to see if the basketball Gophers offer a scholarship to 2020 Rochester Mayo shooting guard Mason Madsen. Rivals.com reported last Thursday Madsen has offers from Cal Poly, Colorado State, Furman, Green Bay, Northern Iowa, South Dakota, Southern Illinois and William & Mary. Rivals also reported Iowa, Northwestern and Wisconsin have expressed interest in Mason whose twin brother Gabe Madsen is on the Mayo team coached by their father, Luke Madsen.

Gabe, also a shooting guard, is the more highly recruited of the twins, with offers that include Iowa, Green Bay, Marquette, Minnesota and Northern Iowa, per Rivals. Will the Gophers eventually be interested in offering scholarships to both players?

With the state financial crisis in Alaska, it’s still not known if the men’s college hockey teams from Anchorage and Fairbanks will be competing next season. Bill Robertson, men’s commissioner of the 10-member Twin Cities-based WCHA, is waiting word on both programs, while making contingency league schedules for 10, 9 and 8 teams.

The National Sports Center in Blaine generated more than $89 million in visitor economic impact from July 1, 2018 to June 30, 2019, according to an annual report from NSC.

 

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