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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.”

 

 

Lurtsema Predicts Teddy to Play in 2017

May 16, 2017 - (0) comments

 

Bob Lurtsema watched Teddy Bridgewater throw footballs last week and he predicts the Vikings quarterback, who missed all of the 2016 season because of a severe left knee injury, will soon be competing with Sam Bradford for the starting job.

“He’ll play in preseason,” Lurtsema told Sports Headliners. “He’s throwing sharp.”

Neither Bridgewater nor the Vikings have announced an official return to the field but Lurtsema, the well-known Vikings alum who remains close to the franchise, spoke confidently about a comeback for the 24-year-old who Minnesota drafted in 2014. When asked how Bridgewater’s knee is recovering, Lurtsema replied, “Very, very well.”

Before Bridgewater hurt the knee in a noncontact situation last summer, there was every confidence the former Louisville star was going to be the team’s starter and quarterback of the future. The knee injury was so severe, however, it cast doubt over Bridgewater’s short and long term future, with suggestions he might not ever play again.

The Vikings were forced to acquire the veteran Bradford late last summer. He not only learned the offense remarkably well on short notice but passed the football with amazing accuracy. His completion rate of 71.6 percent was even more impressive because of the injuries that devastated the offensive line. That percentage set an NFL single season record.

Bob Lurtsema

When asked about the Vikings’ likelihood to hold a competition in training camp this summer between Bridgewater and the 29-year-old Bradford, Lurtsema said, “Hell, yes.”

Who will win the job? Lurtsema said the selection will have everything to do with head coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur’s belief about who is better suited to run the style of offense they think best fits the club’s overall personnel. The quarterback who can best complement that offense and execute it gets the job, per Lurtsema.

When Lurtsema saw Bridgewater last week he expressed empathy concerning the knee injury and lengthy rehab. Bridgewater said injuries are part of the game and players can expect to get hurt. “I feel great now and things are going to be good,” Bridgewater told Lurtsema.

Worth Noting

The Vikings will open their regular season against former star running back Adrian Peterson who is now with the Saints. Coaches recently haven’t allowed the 32-year-old Peterson to have contact in preseason games. Lurtsema believes that is a mistake not getting the body ready for running the football and if Peterson follows the pattern as a Saint he will have minimal production against the Vikings in the season opener.

Lurtsema appeared at a Twin Cities Sabercats game last Saturday to sign autographs. The Sabercats are a semi-pro football team that won its 2017 opening game at North St. Paul Polar Field against a team from Iowa. The Sabercats have a playing roster of 53 and don’t receive compensation. Players range in age from 18 to their late 30s.

Bud Grant’s birthday is Saturday. The legendary former Vikings coach turns 90.

Sunday’s column about the 1967 Gophers Big Ten championship football team prompted emails from readers including former team student trainer Steve Nestor. Nestor remembered coach Murray Warmath used four different starting quarterbacks that season—Larry Carlson, Phil Hagen, Ray Stephens and Curtis Wilson. “Go figure! Has to be more than unique,” Nestor wrote regarding Minnesota’s last Big Ten title team that struggled to score points early in the season.

John Williams

The column referenced the late John Williams who was a highly recruited fullback from Toledo coming out of high school and he was pursued by legendary coach Ohio State coach Woody Hayes. The coach hung up the phone on Williams when he heard the schoolboy star was going to Minnesota, according to emailer Steve Hunegs.

Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck told WCCO Radio “Sports Huddle” listeners on Sunday his preference is to name his starting quarterback the first week of practice in August. Senior redshirt Conor Rhoda and junior Demry Croft looked like the favorites for the job coming out of spring practices.

As the new head coach in January, Fleck inherited a program that excels academically and made vast improvements in recent years. Eligibility was a major issue when Jerry Kill became head coach in late 2010, and part of what the public doesn’t know about the academic turnaround is football department staff went to classes checking on the attendance of players.

The May 15-22 issue of Sports Illustrated has high praise for Jake Guentzel, the Penguins rookie forward who is the son of Gophers associate men’s hockey coach Mike Guentzel. Jake’s teammates include superstar center Sidney Crosby who has helped make the Penguins a favorite to win the 2017 Stanly Cup. “He’s just so smart,” Penguins assistant GM Bill Guerin said of Guentzel. “Jake thinks the game at a high enough level that he can keep up with Sid.”

Former Gopher Phil Kessel scored the lone goal last night in the Penguins’ 1-0 win over the Senators to tie that Stanley Cup series at 1-1.

The same issue of S.I. included NBA leaders this past season in hustle statistics like charges drawn, contested shots, deflections and loose balls recovered. Among the leaders in scrappiness was Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio whose 3.8 deflections per game tied John Wall of the Wizards for third best in the league. Robert Covington from the 76ers led all players in that category at 4.2.

The Star Tribune’s Sunday night online story about the Gophers softball team not being selected by the NCAA to host a regional playoff series was the most read article on the website. The Big Ten champions will be sent to Tuscaloosa, Alabama where play begins Friday and the field includes the SEC’s Alabama. The 54-3 Gophers were faulted for having zero wins against top 10 nationally ranked teams and only two versus top 25 programs. All 13 SEC softball teams made the NCAA Tournament and eight of the 16 hosts for regionals are from that conference.

The St. Paul Saints open their season Thursday night against Gary and are giving away 6,000 tams in recognition of the late Mary Tyler Moore whose 1970s TV show was factiously based in Minneapolis. A Minneapolis statue of Moore, who died earlier this year, depicts her famous tam toss from the TV show.

Saints owner Mike Veeck had a hip replacement 49 days ago and is moving well. He and the Saints are celebrating 25 seasons in St. Paul this year.

Minnesotan Michele Tafoya, the sideline reporter for NBC’s Sunday Night Football, impressed with her presentation to the CORES group last Thursday. The next program is September 14 when Matt Birk, the former Vikings center who now works for the NFL, speaks to CORES. Darrell Thompson, the Gophers all-time leading career rusher and now the team’s radio analyst for games, will speak on November 9. CORES is an acronym for coaches, officials, reporters, educators and sports fans.

St. Thomas used four spring conference championships to win the 2016-2017 MIAC men’s and women’s all-sports title for the 10th consecutive year. It’s the 31st all-time title for the St. Thomas men and 26th for the women.

Target Center general manager Steve Mattson is leaving his position because of a family relocation to Seattle.

 

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