Miguel Sano was one of three Twins on the American League’s roster for last night’s All-Star Game in Miami. Being an All-Star could have prompted longtime Twins fans to make a few comparisons with the late Kirby Puckett.
Sano is 24 years old, the same age Puckett was when he played his first big league season with the Twins in 1984. Sano has already participated in parts of two seasons with the Twins but last night’s All-Star Game was his first.
Puckett initially played in MLB’s summer showcase at age 26. As with Sano, Puckett made the All-Star roster for the first time when he was in his third season with Minnesota. The year was 1986 and Puckett was on his way to a final batting average of .328, with 31 home runs and 96 RBI.
Sano and Puckett, both right-handed hitters with hefty physiques, drew comparisons earlier this season when Sano got to 10 home runs in 32 games, the fastest of any Twins hitter since Puckett pulled that off in 23 games. Those are numbers that can be indicative of a team’s best hitter—its biggest weapon in the batting order.
Puckett was the Twins’ leader for parts of the 1980s and 1990s during a 12-year career when he hit over .300 eight times. He finished his career with a .319 lifetime batting average and 207 home runs. Even more lasting to his legacy are the two World Series titles he helped bring to the Twins.
Sano has emerged as the Twins’ most important offensive player at the age Puckett was just arriving at the Metrodome. His home runs, RBI and slugging percentage are tops on the team. Those totals of 21 and 62, and the .538 percentage, rank sixth, third and ninth in the American League. His batting average is .276.
The Twins, who had a 59-102 record last season, are among baseball’s surprise teams at the All-Star break. The club is 45-43, only 2.5 games behind the first place Indians in the American League’s Central Division. Part of that success is attributable to Sano whose 62 RBI are 21 more than his nearest teammate (Brian Dozier).
Sano is starting to make his name more prominent nationally, and who knows if the path might lead to Cooperstown where Puckett is enshrined in baseball’s Hall of Fame. Monday night on national TV Sano reached the finals of the All-Star weekend’s Home Run Derby where he lost to Yankee slugger Aaron Judge.
In last night’s All-Star game Sano drove in the American League’s first run in a 2-1 win over the National League. Minnesota’s other representatives in the game were 34-year-old starter Ervin Santana and bullpen closer Brandon Kintzler, 32.
Santana, with a 10-6 record and 2.99 ERA, might be headed to the best season of his career but at his age he doesn’t have the potential to headline the Twins like Sano. As a reliever, Kintzler won’t assume that role either.
Joe Mauer, 34, has a resume of three AL batting titles and that 2009 league MVP Award, but he has been fading for years. He has missed the .300 batting mark for the past three seasons.
Byron Buxton’s fielding in center field could make even Puckett smile but he’s been hitting around .200 much of the season and the long-term prospect for becoming a threat at bat is up for debate, even though Buxton is only 23 years old. Sano is the team’s alpha dog already and perhaps will be for another 10 years or more.
Even at third base Sano has been a contributor. He has committed an acceptable 12 errors and his fielding percentage of .970 is 60 points better than his career MLB number entering this season.
The 6-4, 262-pound Sano has shown a nimbleness and strong arm in the field while contributing to a surprisingly strong defense that hasn’t received enough credit when discussion occurs about the team’s collective success.
Puckett was extraordinary in the field and seven times in his career reached double digits in stolen bases. Sano will never be the all-around player Puckett was, not even close. Puckett hit for average and power, and seven times he was a Gold Glove winner for his work in center field. He even reached double figures seven times in stolen bases.
Sano seems on track to become one of baseball’s best sluggers, easily surpassing Puckett’s career home run total. Puckett’s best home run years were when he hit 31, 28 and 24. Sano, who already has 64 career homers, is a free swinger who struck out 178 times last season in 431 plate appearances and probably will top that this year. Puckett never struck out more than 99 times in a season.
Sano, like Puckett, not only has the potential to be the club’s offensive leader for years to come but could emerge as a vocal leader like Kirby. What’s that Puckett once said to teammates? “Jump on my back, boys.” Sano, a native of the Dominican Republic, perhaps could say something like that in both Spanish and English to teammates in the future if the Twins have contending teams.
A sad note in any language, though, is that Puckett, who died in 2006, won’t be able to join his former teammates from the 1987 club for a reunion weekend in Minneapolis July 20-22 celebrating 30 years since the Twins were baseball’s world champions. Among those expected are ex-players Keith Atherton, Juan Berenguer, Bert Blyleven, Randy Bush, Sal Butera, Mark Davidson, George Frazier, Gary Gaetti, Dan Gladden, Kent Hrbek, Gene Larkin, Tim Laudner, Steve Lombardozzi, Al Newman, Jeff Reardon, Roy Smalley, Mike Smithson, Les Straker, and Frank Viola. Expected also are manager Tom Kelly, and coaches Tony Oliva, Rick Stelmaszek and Dick Such.
Based on figures provided by the Gophers athletic department late last month, the renewal percentage for public football season ticket accounts was up from 2016, but the total number of tickets sold was down by about 1,000.
For the upcoming 2017 seven-game home schedule, 87.7 percent of public season ticket accounts had renewed as of June 22, compared with 79.3 percent on that date in 2016. The Gophers reported a total of 6,518 accounts and 22,462 season tickets, compared with 6,898 accounts and 23,494 tickets in 2016.
The Gophers didn’t provide student season ticket sales, with an athletic department spokesman noting via email that while those tickets are available now the campaign marketing doesn’t begin until next month.
Another sales number provided was that 1,310 new season tickets were sold as of June 22. No comparable figure for 2016 was offered but it seems fair to draw some conclusions about the 1,310 total and the other public season numbers.
The improved renewal percentage is almost certainly impacted by the applauded decision last year by new athletic director Mark Coyle to eliminate a scheduled 2017 price increase on tickets referred to as “scholarship seating.” Prior implementation of extra pricing on tickets had annoyed a lot of buyers.
While fans aren’t storming box offices for Gophers football tickets, the hiring of new coach P.J. Fleck probably slowed the apathy toward the product that was visible in 2016. The Gophers averaged 43,814 for seven home games. That was the lowest average since TCF Bank Stadium opened in 2009.
Also provoking attention were the large number of empty seats at all games. Many of the seats were located in prime locations at TCF Bank Stadium.
Fleck’s reputation and outgoing personality hasn’t resulted in a lot of new sales yet, but he may have pushed back some of the malaise about Gophers football while creating at least a potential group of ticket buyers who have been wearing “Wait and see hats” for awhile. The Gophers will be selling season tickets for a couple more months and they don’t play their first game until August 31. That means the athletic department will add additional season ticket buyers, but not a lot—perhaps, though, pushing past 2016 final numbers for total accounts and tickets (unavailable today).
If Fleck shows he can coach, he will be the second coming of college football Hall of Fame dynamo and Mr. Marketer Lou Holtz. When Holtz was at Minnesota in the mid-1980s he arrived as a proven winner and a big name in the coaching business. The state accepted Holtz and his hype from day one. Within two years he had season ticket sales at 56,000.
Holtz came here from Arkansas, and had a national following for various reasons including his appearances on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” By contrast, the 36-year-old Fleck arrived in Minneapolis in January from Kalamazoo, Michigan—coming off a Mid-American championship but with a modest career resume at Western Michigan that included only four years as a head coach and 30-22 record.
But like Holtz, Fleck has big goals for the program. Holtz talked about turning Golden Gophers football into one of the better coaching jobs and programs in the country. Fleck—gulp—has spoken of eventually competing for national championships.
Fleck even got in front of an audience of state high school coaches last spring and shared his vision of expanding the seating capacity of TCF Bank Stadium—one of the smallest Big Ten football venues with its (embarrassing?) 50,805 seat capacity. He told the group that “three years down the road” he wants to expand the stadium to 85,000 seats.
Spend time around Fleck and may well be convinced he believes in his dreams of creating championship teams and large fan followings. But things aren’t going to magically happen within a few months. Can’t possibly, right?
The 2017 Gophers don’t represent a program rebuild but there are reasons to see this fall as a .500 season. Minnesota doesn’t have the talent at several positions to measure up with the Big Ten’s better teams. But Fleck, like Holtz, regards himself as a salesman, and there’s no target group, including fans, more important to him than high school recruits. Fleck knows success eventually will be realized if he can consistently bring superior talent to Dinkytown.
That’s not an easy task when your brand includes no championships since 1967 but Fleck has impressed recruiting analysts so far. His 2018 recruiting class ranks No. 27 in the 247Sports composite rankings.
Finalizing a top 30 recruiting class for 2018 won’t be easy, but Fleck knew what he was taking on when he accepted the Minnesota job. If he needed a recent reminder of the challenges, all he had to do was summon the ticket numbers referenced in this story.
A Friday notes column:
Former Gopher junior linebacker Blake Weber and players from three other schools are transferring to Glenn Caruso’s St. Thomas football program. The St. Thomas coach told Sports Headliners yesterday he is “tremendously happy” to have Weber, Michael Frankl, Peder Olson and Cody Stanger joining his team.
Weber, from Prior Lake High School, played on special teams for the Gophers in nine games in 2015 after transferring from Rochester Community and Technical College. He redshirted last season, and did go through spring practice this year with the Gophers before deciding to transfer. Linebacker is perhaps Minnesota’s deepest position going into the 2017 season.
Frankl is a quarterback transfer from Iowa State, while Olson is a linebacker joining the Tommies from North Dakota State. Stanger, a defensive lineman, comes to St. Thomas from Rochester Community and Technical College. Frankl played high school football at Ames High School in Ames, Iowa, while Olson is from Maple Grove and Stanger is from Stewartville, Minnesota.
All four transfers are expected to be eligible this coming season, joining a powerhouse program that is undefeated in the MIAC the last two seasons. Caruso is 99-15 in nine seasons at St. Thomas. He has won several Division III coach of the year awards.
Athlonsports.com ranked all 130 major college football coaches this week. The Gophers’ P.J. Fleck is No. 41 on a list that has Alabama’s Nick Saban first, Ohio State’s Urban Meyer second and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh third. Among those Fleck ranks ahead of are Nebraska’s Mike Riley (46), Georgia’s Kirby Smart (65), Florida Atlantic’s Lane Kiffin (80), Illinois’ Lovie Smith (106) and former Gophers defensive coordinator Everett Withers (127) now head coach at Texas State.
Kiffin, the Bloomington native, has his 77-year-old dad, Monte Kiffin, on the staff as a defensive assistant. Monte’s long coaching career includes eight years with the Vikings in the 1980s and 1990s.
Gophers fans followed ex-U quarterback Phil Nelson last year for his one season at East Carolina. Now the 2017 Pirates will have former Gophers defensive end Gaelin Elmore who will play his senior season for East Carolina.
Former Gophers assistant coach Tony Petersen is offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for the Pirates.
Congratulations to former Gopher All-Big Ten tight end Ray Parson on his recent 70th birthday.
A crowd estimated from several hundred to a few thousand watched the Timberwolves’ Jimmy Butler news conference yesterday at the Mall of America. Many more followed live coverage on local radio and TV, and NBA TV.
Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said of Butler: “He’s a great person. He’s a great leader. We’re thrilled to have him.”
Thibodeau coached Butler with the Bulls and helped take him from a late first round draft choice to an All-NBA guard. “Thibs has molded me into the player that I am today,” Butler said.
After the news conference general manager Scott Layden told Sports Headliners the Wolves are “excited” to have Ricky Rubio on the team. The veteran point guard is the subject of ongoing media speculation he will be traded because his shooting isn’t consistent enough to suit the Wolves.
Layden, though, referred to the strong play of Rubio as “incredible” in the closing months of the 2016-2017 season. Rubio’s shooting and scoring were at times the best of his six-year career. He had career highs at 11.2 points per game and field goal percentage, .402. He had 25 double-doubles during the season, with 23 in the final 45 games.
U.S. Bank Stadium, already the winner of local awards, was honored this week with the David Vickers Award for “Venue Project of the Year” in Dublin, Ireland. Part of the international Stadium Business Awards lineup, the award won by the Vikings was determined by a panel of global stadium industry leaders and online voting by stadium industry peers, according to a Vikings news release.
The award is “given to a new stadium, arena or major sports venue that opened (or re-opened after renovations) to great success between January 1, 2016 and January 27, 2017.” Among earlier awards presented to U.S. Bank Stadium was Best Sports Venue by Minnesota Meetings & Events magazine.
The expansion Minnesota United FC ranks No. 11 in average home attendance among the 22 Major League Soccer franchises, according to Wednesday figures from Soccerstadiumdigest.com. Playing at TCF Bank Stadium, Minnesota is averaging 20,115 per match so far this season. Atlanta United FC, another expansion franchise, leads the MSL in average attendance at 46,698.
The MIAC’s total of Academic All-Conference athletes for the 2016-2017 school year has set a new record of 1,033, one more than the previous year. Student-athletes must be sophomores, juniors, or seniors with a minimum cumulative GPA of 3.5 on a 4.0 scale to qualify for MIAC Academic All-Conference recognition.