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Wolves Owner to Find Answers Soon

May 23, 2017 - (0) comments

 

Glen Taylor will get some answers this week in a series of meetings with his basketball staff headed by president and coach Tom Thibodeau and general manager Scott Layden. The Timberwolves owner told Sports Headliners last Friday these will be the first face-to-face meetings for evaluating the team’s 31-51 season that ended April 12 without reaching the playoffs for a 13th consecutive year.

“We just thought we should just leave it go for a few weeks,” Taylor said about waiting until now to meet. “We have times set up to kind of talk about in-depth (on) our team, and our draft (NBA Draft June 22).”

Taylor has written input already from Thibodeau about last season, including evaluation of players and off-season expectations for them. Despite a talented corps of young players led by 21-year-old center Karl-Anthony Towns who averaged 25.1 points per game, the Wolves won only two more games than the previous season. Thibodeau, in his first season coaching the Wolves, had the first losing record of his six-year NBA career.

Glen Taylor (photo courtesy of Minnesota Timberwolves).

Taylor formed his own thoughts by following the team all season and from the written evaluations from the basketball staff, but he has no final determinations yet why his club was a major disappointment. “No, I don’t think I came to a conclusion yet. Otherwise, I would tell you,” said Taylor who wasn’t happy with the 31-51 record and was surprised by it.

Taylor remains confident in his franchise’s basketball leadership. Although Taylor wants to win and break the playoff drought, he isn’t encouraging rash thinking or panic. He doesn’t want to make the wrong off-season moves such as a very risky trade, or highly questionable transaction at next month’s NBA Draft where the Wolves have the No. 7 first round pick.

“You can always say we gotta get a better player, but who?” Taylor asked. “And do they fit in with the long range plan? So I am going to reserve that a little bit (change).

“I am not against if we need to make some changes…but gosh, I mean we got some good guys with some potential. I don’t want to just give up on them too early.”

Taylor compares his team with others in the NBA and likes what he sees for the future, including hopes for several years of success. “Even though we only won two more games, there were so many games that we were in and close to. There was even a time toward the end of the season that looked like we could get into the playoffs, the eighth position. So I don’t think it’s that far of a distance to get there.

“I don’t see why…we shouldn’t be able to be one of the teams that gets into the playoffs (next season). I think we have the potential. I think we have the players to do that. There were so many games this year that we could have won, that it isn’t that far away. Where the year before… I don’t think there was so much of an opportunity to win.

“You know the games I am talking about, the games where we were ahead by 20 points, or the games we played for three quarters that we were the better team, and then we just sort of folded in the fourth quarter when they (other teams) put the pressure on.”

The Wolves lost 22 of 46 games in which they built 10 point leads or more. That was more than any other team in the NBA. The club also lost 13 of its final 16 games.

“For whatever reasons we had lapses during games that are hard for me to understand,” Taylor said.

When asked about positives to the season, Taylor spoke about Towns and point guard Ricky Rubio. Towns, in his second NBA season, broke the franchise single season scoring record with 2,061 points, and deserved All-NBA recognition in the opinion of some observers. Rubio, the six-year point guard long criticized for his shooting, stepped up his scoring in the second half of the season and averaged career highs in points per game at 11.1 and field goal percentage making .402 of his shots. He had 25 double-doubles, with 23 of them coming in the final 45 games.

“…If he can build upon that, boy, that makes a huge difference to us and how we can play offensively,” Taylor said.

Worth Noting

New Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck is in a suburban Minneapolis house just a few doors away from Minnesota basketball coach Richard Pitino.

Maybe Vikings coach Mike Zimmer can get the best possible birthday present on June 5. He turns 61 that day, and isn’t coaching right now while recovering from his eighth eye surgery. A healthy prognosis from doctors in early June would be celebration news.

As the Vikings go through practices between now and the end of next month, it will be interesting to track the progress of several long shots to make the team. Among the most intriguing is Moritz Bohringer who the Vikings drafted in the sixth round in 2016. A gifted athlete who has only been playing American football since 2013, the wide receiver came to the Vikings directly from his native Germany. Bohringer was on the practice team last year and still faces a steep learning curve.

Mural in Faribault

The 28th annual Bruce Smith Golf Classic will be June 19 at Faribault Golf Club. The fundraising event benefits Faribault schools and honors Bruce Smith, the Faribault native who won the 1941 Heisman Trophy playing for the Gophers. More information is available by calling Bruce Krinke at 507 384-7968.

Challenges and solutions to making youth football a better experience, including the enhancement of safety, will be discussed at a free event starting at 9 a.m. June 24 at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Minnesota Youth Football Summit will include a panel of high school coaches and keynote speakers Joe Ehrmann and Dr. Uza Samadani.

Ehrmann is a former NFL defensive lineman known for his lessons from athletics. Dr. Samadani is the leader of the nation’s largest youth concussion study. More information, including online registration, is available at myas.org/football.

Bryant Pfeiffer, who for 10 years was with the MLS league office, has joined Minnesota United FC as senior vice president, sales & strategy. Prior to working with the MLS, Pfeiffer was employed by the Lynx and Timberwolves.

 

MLB Finds Time Can Move Slow

May 21, 2017 - (0) comments

 

The view from here is the average time of a nine inning major league baseball game appears similar to the continual complaining about the 60,000 page federal tax code—not much seems to change.

Typical games last over three hours and some “marathons” push toward four hours or beyond.  A review of this morning’s 11 box scores for nine inning games in the Star Tribune showed six lasting over three hours, and five under that total.  All the three hour games were at least three hours and 20 minutes, with the longest game clocking in at 3:50.  The times for the games under three hours were: 2:35, 2:52, 2:52, 2:56 and 2:58.

These times are typical of MLB games and there are days when games played in under three hours are minimal.  Decades ago games weren’t so lengthy, with three hour affairs a rarity. Common were games that lasted around two hours and 30 minutes, or less.

Fans and owners have been wrestling with the problem of lengthy games for years.  Back in 2010, Baseball Prospectus reported games lasted an average of 2:55, but by 2014 the average was 3:08.  The next year MLB decided to enforce rules speeding up games and for the 2015 season the average came in at 2:56, according to an October 2015 A.P. story.  The average before the All-Star Game was 2:53 but after the mid-season break the average was three hours.

In 2016 the average game was back to three hours, according to an October 15 article by the New York Times that credited Baseball-Reference.com.  The Times story pointed out the Nationals-Dodgers five-game playoff series last fall averaged over four hours and there was an inning that lasted 66 minutes.  Times writer Benjamin Hoffman noted that in 1919 the Giants and Phillies played a nine inning game in 51 minutes.

MLB seems to have periods of lacking willpower in enforcing rules to speed up games.

St. Paul Saints owner Mike Veeck told Sports Headliners three hours is the “magic” number to avoid. Veeck, known as one of baseball’s great marketers during a career that included front office assignments with the White Sox and Rays, spoke about ways to speed things up.  He said there should be 90 seconds between innings (instead of two minutes or more).  He also emphasized there needs to be enforcement of 20 seconds or less between pitches, and hitters can’t be allowed to fiddle away time by stepping out of the batter’s box.

“The umpires have to have more say on the field, and the owners have to back them up,” Veeck said.

Mike Veeck

Veeck suggested owners know they can sell a lot more popcorn and beer during a long game than a short one.  There are also other revenue streams like team stores in stadiums that help line the pockets of owners.

While a captive audience for a long game can mean more cash for the home club, baseball runs the risk of alienating fans. Many fans find a long game boring.  Baseball is a leisurely game to watch and while it can be relaxing at 2:30, it may become tedious when it’s an hour or more longer.

MLB teams play 81 home dates and the fan who wants to attend several games or more has to consider the time investment.  Allow a couple of hours to go to and from a game, then add on nearly four hours at the ball park, and that becomes a hefty time investment for some folks to make several times per year.

“I think this is one instance where you have to absolutely do what’s right by the fans,” Veeck said. “If we are losing attention span, then we have to speed it up any way we can.”

Baseball should particularly fret about getting in front of younger generations with their limited attention spans.  A new marketing tactic is that Facebook is partnering with MLB to broadcast 20 Friday night games this season.

Twins general manager Thad Levine thinks baseball can look at things to speed the game up like requiring a pitcher to face more than one batter in an inning.  His suggestion is more than valid because often the No. 1 factor in making for long games is the parade of pitchers used over nine innings.  Baseball purists won’t like it, and Levine didn’t offer it, but certainly another way to speed up the game would be to limit the total number of pitchers than can be used in an inning.

During a conversation with Sports Headliners Levine placed emphasis on the question of what baseball leaders can do to make games more “compelling,” not necessarily faster. He said the effectiveness of relief pitching often means outcomes of games are pretty much determined by the sixth inning or so.  The depth and quality of bullpens frequently neutralizes offenses.  Football and basketball have more late game drama and heroics.

Despite critics who insist baseball is too long and boring, the game remains popular.  More than half of the 30 MLB teams are drawing 28,000 fans per game or more, with eight clubs attracting over 35,000, according to ESPN.com.  Those attendance numbers could continue to climb as summer approaches, and also because MLB has a bumper crop of exciting players.

The star list is long, impressive and youthful led by the likes of superstar outfielders Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. “I think the game is in a terrific place right now in the sense that there is just such a slew of young, exciting players in the game,” Levine said.

The Twins don’t have a superstar but third baseman Miguel Sano, 24, might qualify some day.  Sano is part of a Twins youth movement that shows promise on the field and for selling tickets for a franchise that has seen home attendance decline every season since 2010. Sano and centerfielder Byron Buxton, 23, were named this month to Keith Laws’ best under 25 list for ESPN.com.   Pitcher Jose Berrios, 22, looks like he has star power, too.

 

Twins GM Talks Draft, Risk-Taking

May 18, 2017 - (0) comments

 

Sports Headliners had an in-depth telephone interview with Twins general manager Thad Levine last week.  The 45-year-old executive talked not only about next month’s MLB Draft but other topics including risk-taking, trades, his sense of humor and love for baseball starting at five years old.

The Twins choose first in the June 12 first-year player draft and that means they don’t have to worry about any of the other 29 MLB clubs taking the guy they want.  The challenge, though, is figuring out who to choose.  “There isn’t a clear-cut No. 1,” Levine said about the top prospects available in the draft.

Falvey & Levine

Levine and chief baseball officer Derek Falvey will have a lot of authority on who the Twins choose with a pick that could help determine the success of the ballclub for 10 years or more.  Levine said they want the best player available and will not make their selection based on position need.

The Twins’ evaluators are looking for the most “talent and upside” they can find, according to Levine.  But who to chose?

Media speculation has names like high school pitcher-shortstop Hunter Greene, and collegians Brendan McKay (pitcher-first baseman) and Kyle Wright (pitcher) at or near the top of lists.  “We don’t have a guy who is unequivocally that person we are going to take,” Levine said.

As Levine, Falvey and the franchise’s other talent evaluators hold a progression of meetings, certain players get added into the mix each time and others drop out.  “I don’t know that we’ve necessarily inked in the three, four, five guys that we’re going to choose (from) come hell, or high water,” Levine said.

In the meantime, Levine and Falvey, who last fall were both hired to bring new direction to the franchise, are looking for opportunities to improve the existing roster.  The front office has already shuttled players back and forth between Minneapolis and the club’s Triple A farm team in Rochester. The promotions of DH-first baseman Kennys Vargas and pitcher Jose Berrios show promise.

Levine said he and Falvey have divided up contacts with the other 29 front offices, and are on the telephone everyday discussing information that could lead to trades.  The offseason acquisitions of catcher Jason Castro and key reliever Matt Belisle have helped the Twins play competitively, and sometimes Central Division leading baseball.

Since Levine and Falvey arrived from previous front office jobs with the Rangers and Indians, the two have added resources in technology and expanded the baseball staff tying to give the Twins an advantage in various phases of operations ranging from talent acquisition and player development to scouting the opposition.  Levine said what he and Falvey found already in place was an extraordinary work ethic among those employed in the club’s baseball department.

Levine worked for 11 seasons as assistant general manager with the Rangers before joining the Twins.  He was involved with player acquisitions, roster composition, contract negotiations, statistical and financial analysis, and international scouting.

He participated in a lot of decision making with the Rangers and that will certainly be true with the Twins.  What Minnesota fans may wonder is he more of a risk-taker, or a proceed with caution executive?

“I think some of that is circumstantial, so I would tell you I played different roles throughout my career,” Levine said. “I think Texas (the Rangers) by and large was an organization that embraced risk.  It was very risk tolerant, and I think in that environment sometimes I had to play the role of the voice of reason.

“Whereas in my early (time) in Minnesota, I may be more of the person pushing the envelope on the risk-taking side. …But I think the best decision making groups have people who represent all thoughts and all thought processes.

“I think one thing that I have found effective in my career is recognizing what the occasion calls for, and making sure I represent different points of view (so)…that we have everything really evaluated before we ultimately make our final decision.”

If Levine sounds like a bright guy, it’s because he is.  He majored in English with pre-med intentions at Haverford College in Haverford, Pennsylvania.  He has an MBA from UCLA and did some graduate work in South Africa.  He worked in marketing for Coca Cola, the Rockport Company and Reebok, Ltd.  In addition to the Rangers, his MLB resume includes stops with the Dodgers and Rockies.

As a youngster, Levine lived in Virginia and traces his love for baseball back to an Orioles game he attended with his family when he was five years old.  He vividly remembers his father Michael spilled a beer and lost a hot dog to grab a foul ball at the game.  A young boy thought to himself that getting a $3.25 baseball must be pretty important to sacrifice a beer and a hot dog, while keeping his son out of “harm’s way.”

“From that day forward, I think I really fell in love with the game,” Levine said.  “It’s the bond that has tied me to my dad.”

Seldom does a week pass that he doesn’t hear from his father, “suggesting a trade, or some kind of recommendation.”  Levine admits some of the advice is spot-on but he doesn’t let dad know.  “One call a week would (then) turn into three calls a week, and I don’t know if I could handle that,” he said.

That quip is part of the wit frequently heard from Levine.  His humor is often on display in conversations or speaking in front of groups. “I think this is something that was genetically passed down,” he said.  “My grandfather Arthur Levine passed it to my father Michael Levine, who passed it to me. I am hopeful I can pass it along to some of my children (Greta, Tess and Quinn).

“I have wrestled with it (humor) throughout my career. I think it is important to come off as being very professional and very capable.  But by the same time token, I enjoy levity and I enjoy putting people’s minds at ease—being able to connect with them sometimes through self-deprecating expression.”

When it comes to humor, sometime wives are sharp critics? Does Levine’s wife Claudette think he is amusing?  “Not at all,” Levine answered.  “She has heard most of my material.  She is by far the toughest audience for me.  If I get her to laugh, I know I have done something pretty special because she is a pretty stiff critic.”

 

 

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