Before any MLB baseball loyalists become cranky reading this column, let me be clear: I like the sport. It’s just way overdue for MLB power brokers to shorten the duration of games.
The Minnesota Twins opened their 2021 regular season schedule last Thursday. The length of the game (including the 10th inning) was 4 hours, 14 minutes. The duration and lack of pace was annoying, despite the excitement of opening day. By 5:15 p.m. I was in an internal debate whether to postpone preparing dinner, or rub my weary eyes to better witness more of the marathon.
Three to four hour games long ago became the norm, a startling contrast to MLB’s golden age in the 1950s and 1960s when fans expected a game of two hours and 30 minutes, or less. It wasn’t even front page news when a game lasted less than two hours. Not only did we have Killebrew and Oliva, Mantle and Maris, Mays and Aaron, Koufax and Drysdale, but we had a game delighting us with the pace of play—with assurances there would be no conflict with dinner.
MLB has such a problem SI.com wondered recently if the game will become a niche sport within five years. Once America’s most popular spectator sport, baseball now moves at an agonizing pace while testing the patience of fans, including restless youth more interested in their phones than a parade of pitching changes on the diamond.
So it’s the start of the work week and I have ideas for change, even if they make Abner Doubleday and Calvin Griffith roll over in their graves. I am not the first—and sadly won’t be the last—to suggest revisions to bring America’s former pastime into the 21st century. MLB’s fuddy-duddy policy makers, along with the Players Association, should finally listen up and consider the following:
In a nine innings game, teams will be limited to three pitching changes. After removing the starter, a manager can make multiple changes in an inning but he will know only three total pitchers are allowed to come out of the bullpen for the entire game. (I know that’s a doozy, and yes, I am sober.)
Pitching changes eat up way too much time so in the future nobody lumbers from the bullpen to the mound. Walk briskly, jog, or have a golf cart available to expedite travel time. (Not to worry about pollution: use electric carts).
Upon arrival at the mound, more change: no warm-up pitches. A reliever has been throwing in the bullpen long enough to be ROA (Ready-on-Arrival).
Mound visits? The catcher and teammates can strategize with a pitcher for a maximum of 20 seconds, but just three times per game. The pitching coach or manager are allowed on the mound only for pitching changes and to offer a suggestion to the reliever (20 seconds max).
Twenty seconds has been the time allowed between pitches in the minor leagues. MLB should go with 15 seconds.
A pitch clock receives a yes vote here as do two other moves already made by MLB—second games of double headers are seven innings, and extra innings start with a runner on second base.
If rules changes are going to put zip back in the game time is precious. Once hitters step in the batting box they stay. No asking the umpire for “time,” and then step away from the plate to check a wristband, or contemplate dinner reservations. Maybe swat away an insect in between pitches, but no leaving the box.
Replays to review possible miscues by the umpires? The timeouts for replays are sometimes so long you can start and finish an argument with your spouse. And those replays, just like spousal arguments, don’t always get things right. Put baseball back in the hands of humans like in the golden age, and spurn technology except in the ninth inning or extra innings. Then each manager can have one appeal.
Close and controversial plays do stir debate, and make for grand theatre on the diamond. A manager will be allowed to jaw face-to-face with the umpire for two minutes max, and just one time per game.
TV ads during games? Advertising pays the bills but MLB should enforce this policy between half innings and innings: it’s exactly two minutes until the pitcher is on the mound and ready to throw his first pitch.
Now here is the mother of doozies. Hitters too often don’t put the ball in play, leading to extended stays at the plate. Batters foul off so many balls on three-two counts it seems like the Ground Hog Day movie sequel. Here’s what to do: each batter gets 12 pitches and if he fouls off the last one it’s a strikeout.
Rules need enforcement and MLB should not only institute serious reform but make sure policies are adhered to by assigning “law enforcement” at every game. A rules official sees to it that the new system is enforced including assessment of fines when appropriate.
So that’s about it, except for this: On Thursday the Twins play their home opener against the Seattle Mariners. With the likelihood of a long game, plus a possible rain delay, bring your knitting bag, and deep breathing manual.
The Minnesota Twins open their regular season tomorrow (Thursday) in Milwaukee against the Brewers with a roster assembled to compete now and probably for a few more seasons. This is a veteran team with players that should be entering their peak years, plus a couple of bell cows in 40-year-old Nelson Cruz and 35-year-old Josh Donaldson who are trying to make Father Time slow down. There are also nine pitchers who are 30 or older.
In addition to DH Cruz and third baseman Donaldson, here’s the early season projected lineup and ages of players: Mitch Garver, catcher, 30; Miguel Sano, first base, 27; Jorge Polanco, second base, 27; Andrelton Simmons, shortstop, 32; Kyle Garlick, left field, 29; Byron Buxton, center field, 27; Max Kepler, right field, 28.
Starting pitchers look like this: José Berríos, 26; J.A. Happ, 38; Kenta Maeda, 31; Michael Pineda, 32; Matt Shoemaker, 35. In the bullpen are Jorge Alcala, 25; Alex Colomé, 32; Randy Dobnak, 26; Tyler Duffey, 30; Hansel Robles, 30; Taylor Rogers 30; Cody Stashak, 26; and Caleb Thielbar, 34.
Twins president Dave St. Peter told Sports Headliners his club has the talent, depth and experience to be one of baseball’s better teams. “I wouldn’t describe us as a young team. We certainly have some young players but the core of this team has been together for a long time. …”
That core has produced consecutive AL Central Division titles, and the win-now window continues. “There’s no question the focus now is on 2021 and we think we’re well positioned to win a lot of baseball games,” St. Peter said.
After a lengthy rebuild with youth, the Chicago White Sox emerged as a division threat to the Twins last year. The White Sox might be a more popular choice in 2021 to win the division than Minnesota. MLB.com authorities are picking the White Sox and so is Sports Illustrated, offering a prediction Minnesota makes the playoffs as a Wild Card entry with a 92-70 record. “The White Sox get a lot of hype and deservedly so with some of the offseason moves they’ve had,” St. Peter said. “The players that they’ve accumulated there, they have a lot of talent.”
Among reasons for liking the White Sox is the bullpen. MLB.com says it’s the best in baseball, with the Twins checking in at No. 10 led by Colomé and Rogers.
The White Sox have not only arrived but there is more talent coming to Chicago. Andrew Vaughn, at DH or first base, and second baseman Nick Madrigal, are early favorites for AL Rookie of the Year. MLB.com ranks the White Sox No. 9 for top farm system pitching prospects, with two other AL Central rivals even higher—the Detroit Tigers at No. 1 and Kansas City Royals No. 5.
The Twins already have an advantage over the White Sox and the long season ahead. St. Peter said his team is collectively healthier coming out of spring training than any in years, while the White Sox will play most or all of the season without injured star outfielder Eloy Jiménez.
Expected starters for the three-game series in Milwaukee Thursday, Saturday and Sunday are Twins right-handers Maeda, Berríos and Pineda against Brewers righties Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes and Adrian Houser.
When the Twins open at home April 8 against the Seattle Mariners, the 10,000 fans allowed at Target Field will represent the largest gathering in Minnesota since March of 2020. Former Twins manager Ron Gardenhire will throw out the ceremonial first pitch to son Toby Gardenhire, who will manage the Triple-A St. Paul Saints this season.
Gardenhire, 63, retired as the Tigers manager last year. The Twins expect to dialogue with Gardenhire about a future role in the organization. “To be determined, I think would be the answer there,” St. Peter said about rejoining his franchise.
Former Pioneer Press sportswriter Gregg Wong, local book author Stew Thornley and Mayo Clinic physician Kyle Traynor are returning as the official scorers for Twins games at Target Field. They will be back in the press box after scoring games at home in 2020 because of the pandemic.
Wong remembers Kirby Puckett and his big personality as the favorite athlete he ever covered with the newspaper. Before games Puckett would enter a quiet clubhouse and start agitating teammates. “He brought life to everybody,” Wong said.
On the road Wong would go to Puckett’s hotel room and the two ordered room service and played gin rummy. “We would talk about everything except baseball,” Wong said.
Former Twins pitcher and broadcaster Bert Blyleven turns 70 next Monday. He is now a special assistant with the organization, like other Twins greats such as Rod Carew and Tony Oliva.
Brian Cosgriff, who coached Hopkins to seven girls’ state titles in 21 years before retiring last year, is planning a return to coaching while sorting out options. “I definitely missed it,” the 60-year-old Cosgriff said.
Part of the appeal is to reunite with brother Barry Cosgriff who assisted him at Hopkins. “He’s the best assistant in the state,” Brian said.
The overhyped Big Ten not only didn’t place a team in the 2021 men’s Final Four but also has only one NCAA Tournament champion in the last 30 years, Michigan State in 2000.
Wishing the best for New York Times best selling author and former Gophers golfer Harvey Mackay while he continues his recovery from COVID-19. Mackay’s latest book came out in January, “Getting a Job is a Job.”
Gophers hockey forward and captain Sammy Walker talking about his team that almost qualified for the Frozen Four: “Especially the last couple years, we haven’t been where we want to be. I think after this year, we’re definitely taking the steps to getting back where we want to be as a program.”
With Barry Alvarez expected to soon announce his retirement as Wisconsin athletics director, it will be interesting to see if school leaders are savvy enough to let him name his successor.
When Lindsay Whalen was hired as the University of Minnesota women’s basketball coach three years ago the cheers were heard from Cannon Falls to Thief River Falls. The home state hero had a halo above her head after a storied playing career with the Golden Gophers, WNBA Minnesota Lynx and US Olympic team.
Whalen, always the coach on the floor from her point guard position, led the Gophers to their only NCAA Final Four appearance early this century. Then she became one of the WNBA’s best playmakers while helping the Lynx to four league titles. Throw in two Olympic gold medals and you have a dream playing career.
Gopher fans figured Whalen would dazzle as the U coach after being hired by athletic director Mark Coyle.
Being a head coach requires a much different skill-set than playing. Whalen and the public have seen evidence of that in her three seasons leading the Gophers.
Whalen’s Big Ten record is 21-33, with 9-9 (her first season) the best she has done. Marlene Stollings, Whalen’s predecessor, went 27-25 in her first three Big Ten seasons. Pam Borton, Whalen’s coach at the U, started out 33-15 the first three years.
Prior to Borton, Brenda Oldfield (now Frese) coached Minnesota for one season, going 11-5 and tying for second place in the conference standings. That was one year after Cheryl Littlejohn ended her four-year train-wreck with a 1-15 season. Frese, who left the Gophers for Maryland, remains the gold standard for women’s basketball coaches at Minnesota.
Gifted coaches do things early on that are observable and command attention. It might be an extraordinary influx of talent within a year or two. Head coaches need to know what type of talent they need, where they can get it and possess the salesmanship to close the deal. They also must hire a staff that recruits at a high level.
Even without over the top talent, a skilled coach/teacher can immediately impact his or her team and the results with the schemes and plays they use, adjustments made during games, the development of players and effort put forth. As an example, look at video from the Loyola of Chicago-Illinois men’s tourney game played earlier this month. Coach Porter Moser’s team destroyed Illinois’ offense with defensive schemes and “hair on fire” effort to knock the No. 1 seed Illini out of the tournament. The Ramblers put on a clinic offensively, too, with an unselfish style featuring ball movement, precision screens and cuts, and high percentage shots. Twice in the last four years the low profile Ramblers have earned their way into the Sweet 16 of the “Big Dance.”
By hiring Whalen, Coyle took a chance on a first-time coach who will need to achieve much better results in the next three years. Her contract, extended by a year in February of 2020, ends in 2024. Whether it’s the 38-year-old Whalen or someone else, the program has the potential to not only be a Big Ten winner but to become the first money making women’s sport at Minnesota.
Coyle has gone risky again, hiring Ben Johnson as the new men’s coach to replace the failed Richard Pitino who in eight seasons had one Big Ten winning record. Johnson, 40, has many years of assistant coaching experience including five spent under Pitino. Now he finds out how different the role of a head coach is and all the components that go with it.
Having that assignment in the Big Ten, one of America’s premier basketball leagues, is no Sunday stroll in Dinkytown. Pitino, hired at age 30, had one season of head coaching experience before controversial U AD Norwood Teague brought him to Minneapolis. The Gophers paid Pitino about $15 million over eight seasons for what one critic described as “on- the-job training.”
Gophers football fans remember the rocky path of Tim Brewster. Although he was known as one of college football’s top recruiters as an assistant, he had no head coaching experience. Brew won six Big Ten games before being fired about halfway through his fourth season at Minnesota.
Juwan Howard at Michigan has made a terrific entry into college basketball head coaching, despite no previous experience. He came from the NBA Miami Heat where both as a player and assistant coach he had superb mentors in front office boss Pat Riley and head coach Erik Spoelstra. Just as important, Howard put together a gifted staff of assistants that excels in both recruiting and X’s and O’s.
Johnson has made two coaching stops as an assistant in the Big Ten and one in the Big East. He worked for Pitino and also Tim Miles at Nebraska who tried for seven seasons to make the Cornhuskers an NCAA Tournament fixture (“danced” one time). Johnson’s most recent stop was Xavier where during three seasons at the Big East school the team record was 51-37, with no championships or NCAA Tournament appearances. He has been credited with both coaching and recruiting contributions there.
Johnson is known for his character and likeability. He has many friends and relationships in his hometown of Minneapolis where he played two seasons as a Gopher guard for head coach Dan Monson. He will “swim or sink” on the results of in-state recruiting where there is annually an abundance of Division I talent. Look for him to bring back home one or two assistant coaches who are state natives to help form the Minnesota connection with prep coaches and players.
Two weeks ago I wrote the following about the Gopher head coaching job:
“After the failed performance of Pitino and two predecessors, it is vital that the Gophers get the best hire for the first time this century. The program has the potential to annually produce teams landing in the top half of the Big Ten. Not to just have an occasional winning season here and there, but sustained success like the neighboring Wisconsin Badgers.
“There are never guarantees of future successes with a coach. That’s why Coyle should not pursue a person with limited, or no head coaching experience. The more successful a coach’s background at his previous stop, the more likely success can be expected at a place like Minnesota. No guarantees, but at least the margin for error has been reduced.”
A day after I wrote the above two paragraphs, Coyle announced he would cast a “wide net” in his national search. He also said expectations are for the Gophers to win championships. A week later he announced Johnson as his new head coach.
Whew! That’s moving fast. What about experienced coaches like San Diego State’s Brian Dutcher? A U alum and native of the state, Dutcher served up more than a nod of interest in the Gopher job last year when his new contract with the Aztecs included a minimal buyout if he were to leave for Minnesota.
A basketball lifer, Dutcher has more than 30 years of top experience as an assistant and head coach. He helped Michigan assemble the legendary Fab Five group in the 1990s, and at San Diego State convinced Kawhi Leonard to play for the Aztecs.
In four seasons as head coach at San Diego State, the Aztecs have won two Mountain West Conference regular season titles and two tournament championships. The last two seasons his record is 53 wins, 7 losses.
There was no buyout on Johnson’s contract and he reportedly will be the lowest paid head coach in the Big Ten. If money drove Coyle’s decision, why did it? Yes, the athletic department is tens of millions in debt because of the pandemic’s impact on finances. However, the total loss for this fiscal year doesn’t look as intimidating as once forecast. The U will be borrowing money to cover debts throughout its state system including the Twin Cities campus. A part of that borrowed money will go to the Gopher athletic department to pays its bills and meet future obligations including coaching hires.
If Coyle had pursued a more expensive coach, he could have said he was making a generational hire that was going to fix Gophers basketball long term. Someone who because of their accomplishments was likely to build not just a winning team or two, but set the course for sustained success. Part of Coyle’s position for spending more money on a coach could reference the TV revenues from Big Ten football and basketball that came through despite the pandemic. That wasn’t a given last summer when athletic department debt at $70 million seemed possible (perhaps $40 to $50 million now). Adding to a brighter picture is that the University system, like other major colleges throughout the country, is receiving millions from the federal government for pandemic budget relief.
In a reaction to debt last fall, Coyle convinced the Board of Regents (by a 7-5 vote) to eliminate three men’s sports. Did he move too quickly? The annual savings will be less than $2 million per year. If fan apathy at Williams Arena hadn’t been so prevalent for many seasons, the athletic department would have been generating that sum or more annually.
And that leads back to Whalen and Johnson, and whether they can produce a lot more wins and dollars at the box office than we’ve grown accustomed to for many years. No guarantees, not even close.