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Gotta Love Twins Opening Day

March 29, 2018 - 2 Comments

 

Today I make peace with baseball.

It’s Opening Day and I don’t care if the Twins-Orioles game lasts until midnight. Each team can parade most of its pitchers to the mound, sometimes making two or three changes per inning. Batters can constantly step out of the box to adjust their underwear, or whatever it is they do.

Advertisers can toss in extra commercials between innings. The game can go 15 innings, or more. Nothing is going to lessen my enthusiasm for Opening Day.

Pace of play is an issue for 161 games a year but not today in Baltimore when our favorite MLB club begins another season.

On Opening Day I put aside the scandal that long ago stained many love affairs with baseball. The use of steroids by players has changed performances, altered the record books and cast suspicion over Major League Baseball. The purity of the National Pastime was erased a couple decades ago, and I am still in recovery.

But today anyone who cares a Cracker Jack box about the game of Ruth, Mantle, Mays, Puckett and Mauer can come together under one big tent of forgiveness. Opening Day in Major League Baseball is Americana—a time honored ritual of U.S. Presidents throwing out first pitches, kids skipping school and business people leaving work early for “appointments” not on their calendars.

If the Twins are on the road Opening Day, you watch. If they open at home, you watch.

The weather? Who cares? Today in Baltimore it’s supposed to be about 70 degrees at game time. That sounds heavenly compared to the 33 degree temps at a Twins home opener in the 1960s when snow bordered the outfield fence at Met Stadium.

Back then I actually welcomed inclement weather, particularly rain delays. The Twins broadcast team included Halsey Hall, a master storyteller who delighted listeners with tales about baseball while thunder crackled in the background.

Scott, Hall & Carneal

Hall was a beloved character who was heard on Gophers football broadcasts and read in the Minneapolis Star before the Twins came to town in 1960. He joined with Herb Carneal and Ray Scott to give the franchise the best broadcasting trio in its history.

Listening to Halsey’s tales and infectious laugh made listeners forget about rainy weather. And just looking at him even made you feel good. He had the appearance of a kindly, overweight grandfather. He often had a smile on his face, a cigar or green onion in his mouth, and greeted you with, “Hi, kid.”

Carneal, who passed away in 2007, had many Halsey stories. A favorite happened in Chicago when Halsey was smoking a cigar in the press box and flicking ashes on the floor. The ashes ignited paper on the floor, setting off a small fire. Halsey’s sport coat, hanging on a chair, caught fire.

Twins catcher Jerry Zimmer quipped, “Halsey Hall is quite a guy. He can turn an ordinary sport coat into a blazer in nothing flat.’”

I doubt we will see any press box developments like that today in Baltimore but the game will be an opportunity to form first impressions about the Twins like these:

How does new pitcher Jake Odorizzi perform in his first ever major league start?

Can newcomer Logan Morrison flash the uppercut swing that made him a home run hitter last season?

Byron Buxton closed so impressively last season he drew comparisons—gulp—to Willie Mays. Buxton didn’t fast-track the start of his career like Mays. Which Buxton will we see early this year?

What if Joe Mauer actually swings at the first pitch during one of his at bats today?

Can Miguel Sano play nine innings without injuring himself?

Could Ryan LaMarre, who surprised the Twins by leading the club in batting average at .475 during spring training, come off the bench with a big pinch hit against the Orioles?

Today’s game might prompt Twins GM Thad Levine to think about his dad. Growing up in Virginia, a five-year-old Levine attended an Orioles game in Baltimore. He fell in love with baseball and it forever impacted the relationship with his father.

“It’s the bond that has tied me to my dad,” Levine said last year.

Opening Day makes us all kids again. “It’s like Christmas, except it’s warmer,” Pete Rose once said.

It doesn’t matter that much whether the Twins win or lose today. They can blow a lead, or Sano can homer in extra innings for a win. The Twins can commit five errors and give the game away, or replacement shortstop Eduardo Escobar (he of limited range) can make a play for the ages to save a run and provide Minnesota a dramatic victory. The point is, it’s Opening Day and nothing can ruin the party.

And it doesn’t hurt the hopes for a winning season that there are 161 more games to be played.

Play ball!

 

Upbeat Outlook for Twins 2018 Season

March 27, 2018 - (0) comments

 

A Tuesday notes column leading off with the Twins.

Optimism characterizes the outlook for the Twins’ 2018 regular season. Minnesota opens the season in Baltimore Thursday afternoon against the Orioles and Twins president Dave St. Peter told Sports Headliners earlier this month he is “bullish” about the team.

After last season’s club unexpectedly made the playoffs, the early offseason outlook for 2018 was hopeful for more success, but a series of promising personnel acquisitions, including during spring training, has left observers even more upbeat.

“I think we feel very good about our team,” St. Peter said. “We believe we have closed the gap to some extent with the Cleveland Indians at the top of our division. We certainly look to our club to be not just in the hunt for the division (title) but certainly the Wild Card going deep into the 2018 season.”

St. Peter spoke before Twins shortstop Jorge Polanco was suspended by Major League Baseball for the first 80 games because of a drug violation, but that shouldn’t reduce the optimism by much about the team. Veteran Eduardo Escobar, 29, provides experience at the position and playing a utility role last season produced career highs in home runs with 29 and RBI, 71.

Sports Illustrated’s preview issue has the Twins finishing 86-76 after last season’s 85-77 record. The magazine likes the club but reminds readers the pitching staff needs an ace in the starting rotation. S.I.’s candidate is Jose Berrios and his emergence could mean the Twins “will flirt with 90 wins,” according to the magazine.

For now, though, the publication believes the Twins will fall just short of taking the last wildcard spot in the playoffs. That position will go to the improved Angels with a predicted 89-73 record.

Berrios, 23, was impressive last season, with a 14-8 record and 3.89 ERA. He is scheduled to start Sunday in Baltimore in the finale of the three-game series against the Orioles.

Vegasinsider.com reported last Friday odds are 25/1 Berrios will win the 2018 American League Cy Young award, per the Las Vegas Westgate SuperBook. No other Twins and only nine other pitchers had better odds.

Newly signed Jake Odorizzi will be the Twins’ starting pitcher Thursday. The No. 2 starter for the Rays last season, Odorizzi is making his first MLB Opening Day start. Kyle Gibson starts for Minnesota Saturday in Baltimore, after Friday’s off day.

The Twins are opening on the road for the seventh time in nine seasons dating back to the first season at outdoor Target Field in 2010.

The weather forecast in Baltimore for Thursday is for 70 degrees and cloudy around game time, according to Accuweather.com.

Members of the U.S. gold-medal winning curling team will throw out the ceremonial first pitch at Target Field for the Twins’ home opener April 5. Minneapolis rapper Dessa will perform the National Anthem.

The IDS Building, Nicollet Mall, and the Target Corporate Building will be lit in Twins colors the week of April 2. The Lowry Avenue Bridge will be lit April 4 and 5, and the 35W Bridge April 5.

Minnesota’s home opener was announced as sold out on Monday. In eight home openers at Target Field the Twins have averaged 39,096.

Creativity in candidates is likely to be a priority when Gopher athletic director Mark Coyle searches to replace Don Lucia as hockey coach. Just look back at Coyle’s hiring of football coach P.J. Fleck who is skilled at promoting his program externally and internally including through social media, television and community volunteerism.

Gopher hockey fan Kirk Detlefsen bought 14 new season tickets for 2018-2019 last Tuesday after it was announced Minnesota will have a new coach. “I am optimistic ‘Pride on Ice’ will be back,” said the Lakeville resident who purchased four lower bowl season tickets and four club seats in 2017-2018.

Detlefsen, who has bought season tickets for more than 20 years, is renewing his tickets from last year along with buying the 14 new ones. He will gather with friends before next season and do a “ticket draft” to divide up the tickets. He had been doing that in the past too but found interest lacking. “Nobody wanted to go to games anymore,” he said.

Fleck will speak at the Minnesota High School Football Coaches Association’s Clinic April 6 at the DoubleTree Hotel in St. Louis Park. There will also be a panel discussion that evening with former Gopher coach Glen Mason, Vikings executive Kevin Warren, and former Vikings and Ravens center Matt Birk. More at Mnfootballcoaches.com.

Tracy Claeys

It will be interesting to follow the Washington State football program the next couple of seasons. Head coach Mike Leach is known as an offensive master but for years the Cougars have often struggled defensively. Now with former Gopher head football coach Tracy Claeys in Pullman, Leach has one of the best defensive minds in college football as his coordinator.

Eric Musselman, who nearly coached Nevada to the Final Four this year, might have been the Gopher coach had Richard Pitino turned the job down in the spring of 2013. It’s believed that Musselman was athletic director Norwood Teague’s next choice before hiring Pitino. At that time Musselman, who had never been a college head coach, was an assistant at Arizona State.

The Timberwolves (42-33) looked panicky in the closing minutes of last night’s 101-93 loss to the Grizzlies (20-54). The Wolves scored only 11 fourth quarter points in a loss that could contribute to not qualifying for the playoffs.

Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns has double-doubles in 62 games this season—the most in the NBA. Last night Towns had 15 points and 12 rebounds.

Becky Cantellano, who was the Executive Director for St. Paul Urban Tennis, left that organization this month to become ED at the United States Tennis Association Northern Section which promotes the sport in this region. She had been Director of Tennis Programs and Services at USTA Northern prior to joining St. Paul Urban in 2012.

 

Old School, New Start for Jerry Kill

March 22, 2018 - (0) comments

 

Beloved former Gopher football coach Jerry Kill started a new job at Southern Illinois a few weeks ago, but he has a new health concern. Kill, 56, talked to Sports Headliners by telephone this week from Carbondale, Illinois where he coached the Salukis to five FCS playoff appearances from 2001-2007.

Kill is about three weeks into his position as a special assistant to the Chancellor at SIU-Carbondale. His responsibilities include speaking on behalf of the school, increasing admissions and raising money from donors. “It’s a lot different (than) coaching football,” Kill said. “It’s a different pace.”

After 36 years of coaching high school and college football, Kill knew this winter he still wanted to work hard and help others but developments during the last six months convinced him and his family that the career path had to reroute from the profession he loves. As offensive coordinator at Rutgers last season, Kill had multiple seizures—more attacks from the Epilepsy that has targeted him for years. His body also took a severe blow after a sideline collision with an Eastern Michigan player during an early season game.

Kill, who resigned his position at Rutgers in December, has been told he is starting to lose short-term memory. He has experienced countless seizures since 2005, including those at Minnesota that contributed to his heartbreaking and unexpected resignation in mid-season of 2015. Those seizures have impacted Kill to the point where he now can’t make the kind of split-second decisions a coach must execute on the field during games.

“I can’t process like I used to,” Kill said. “In this job (at SIU) it’s good, because I got time to process.”

Medical authorities informed Kill and his wife Rebecca that it will be necessary to take future health precautions to give him the best chance of avoiding more short-term memory loss during the next five to 10 years. The information made it easier for Kill to decline recent football offers that would have involved him with recruiting or operations work, but not on the field Saturdays.

Despite his passion for football and developing young men, Kill knows the right decision was to accept the offer from SIU where he twice won national coach of the year awards and has long been familiar with the region and its people. The area has for years been the site of a family home. He and Rebecca have a residence on Lake Egypt, just a short drive from the Carbondale campus.

The house offers both recreation and peace of mind for Kill. He fishes and hunts there, and sometimes just sits back and enjoys the water and forest. “It’s just different,” Kill said about his new lifestyle that has him spending more time at home and not managing a college football program with all its demands.

But the story gets even better because grown daughters Krystal and Tasha live nearby. It’s been a long time since the family was in such close proximity, and now the group includes a three-month-old granddaughter—the first grandchild for him and Rebecca.

“Having those grandchildren, they’ll change your life,” Kill reflected. “No matter how bad things get…I can see her. If I am not close enough to her, I put her on FaceTime.”

Listening to Kill talk about enjoying life is reassuring to all his friends and admirers in Minnesota where he became one of the state’s most respected and popular coaches ever. He turned around a Gopher football program that was in dire shape by every standard when he arrived in Minneapolis in December of 2010. By the time he resigned as coach almost five years later he had led the Gophers to a January 1 bowl game for the first time since 1962. His 2013 and 2014 teams broke a losing streak against Nebraska that went back to 1960. Minnesota also defeated Michigan in 2014 for only the second time this century.

“Brick by Brick” was the program’s slogan and after two seasons Kill and his staff had the Gophers at .500 in Big Ten games. A year later Minnesota was 5-3, the program’s first winning conference record since 2003. He was named the 2014 Big Ten Coach of the Year.

But there was so much more to the success and the coach’s story. Players who were in freefall academically before Kill arrived improved their GPAs and started graduating. Off the field incidents involving misbehavior by players declined. Kill and Rebecca made a commitment to volunteerism in the community like few coaches ever have, including establishment of a fund to assist the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota.

Before that Kill and Rebecca started a cancer fund in Illinois to assist low income families. “I enjoy helping people,” said Kill who beat kidney cancer years ago. “I have had a lot of people come up and say, ‘Hey, you helped me.’ “

The cancer and epilepsy funds benefit from sales of Kill’s 2016 book Chasing Dreams: Living My Life One Yard at a Time. His autobiography is written to not only generate monies but to inspire readers including those who face adversity such as cancer and epilepsy.

Now Kill is also trying to raise money for Southern Illinois. “We got a lot of work to do because in the state of Illinois there is not a lot of money (for colleges),” he said.

Well, the Salukis have got the right man to raise money. Kill is a legend in Carbondale and has been revered wherever he has been. No matter the obstacles, he will proceed diligently and deliver results.

“Brick by Brick.”

 

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