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Rambling about 60 Seasons of the “Griffs”

May 12, 2020 - 1 Comment


This year we are supposed to be celebrating the 60th season of the “Minnepaul Griffs.”

“Minnepaul Griffs?” Let’s explain.

The American League’s Washington Senators received permission to relocate to Minnesota in the fall of 1960. In the early weeks of the transition, the Twin Cities “think tank” of media and fans speculated about what to name their new Major League Baseball franchise. It was certainly clear that Senators wasn’t a fit as part of the name in Minnesota.

Minnepaul drew some “votes,” even if it was an awkward way of combining Minneapolis and St. Paul. Griffs was a better offering, nicknaming the club for the Griffith family that owned the franchise moving from its longtime home in the District of Columbia.

Minnesota Twins won out in the name-that-team derby, although an early legal document involving the Griffith’s franchise referred to the Minneapolis baseball club. There was also early memorabilia with the Minneapolis name—not Minnesota.

While the Griffiths were advised not to slight St. Paul, it was Minneapolis powerbrokers who had been trying to tantalize big league franchises like the Cleveland Indians, New York Giants and the Senators to relocate here in the 1950s. Also, the national sports media and fans knew this area from the fame of the five-time NBA champion Minneapolis Lakers.

The COVID-19 pandemic has so far delayed the 2020 MLB season, but it can’t stop this writer from being optimistic the “Boys of Summer” will take the field sometime in the weeks ahead. If so, the Twins will celebrate their 60th season in Minnesota.

I like to be first to a party, so let me offer further history lessons and reminiscing about the baseball franchise that has been entertaining us in the Upper Midwest since 1961.

The arrival of MLB was a big deal, and sadly, much more important to the public than the departure of the Lakers for Los Angeles after the 1959-1960 NBA season. The Vikings, an NFL expansion franchise that also took the field in 1961, were greeted with interest but nothing like the Twins because decades ago it was baseball that was the “national pastime” and not football.

Back in the early 1960s, drawing over 1 million fans through the gate was a financial sign of success in the bigs and a statement that your town supported baseball. The Twins announced total attendance of 1,256,723 fans their first season. Then they cruised through nine more seasons of passing the 1 million mark in attendance, as fans came from near and far including by private airplanes. The financial windfall was important to the Griffith family whose personal wealth would not be confused with the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, or even the Pohlads.

Team president Calvin Griffith was tight with a buck, with at least one player quipping the Twins boss threw nickels around as if they were manhole covers. Griffith found a money machine in Minnesota in the early years, and he seemed to like living here. His lifestyle included fishing near his home on Lake Minnetonka. Lore has it, though, that he didn’t care so much that an exclusive suburban Minneapolis golf club didn’t want him as a member.

Griffith was a character and no one, including Calvin, knew for sure what words might come out of his mouth. I never saw the man smile, although he always treated me with respect. I can’t recall his ever turning me down for an interview. He might waive me into his Metropolitan Stadium office and say, “Shama, sit down.”

Tony Oliva

Griffith was certainly not a high society elite, but he knew baseball. Even before he moved his franchise to Minnesota, he and his aides were building a promising talent pool that included players from Cuba. American players like Harmon Killebrew, Bob Allison and Jim Kaat, and Cubans Tony Oliva, Zoilo Versalles and Camilo Pascual, formed the core of a Twins team that won the American League pennant in 1965, and then lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series.

There was no better way to spend summer days and evenings in the 1960s than at Metropolitan Stadium—and get paid for it. My dad bought primo seats for a dozen or more games per season, but I also was part of the crew that prepared food for the vendors who sold hot dogs, soda and popcorn in the stadium stands. I was paid something like $7 per game but would have worked pro bono (if I knew then what that meant).

There were about eight of us working in one of the stadium’s side rooms used for preparing items for the vendors. We became friends and we were constantly doing what teenage boys do—verbally baiting one another and occasionally exchanging punches. We also found time to experiment with the cuisine including boiling the hot dogs to twice their normal size. Coca Cola found a new partner when we mixed the famous soft drink with orange soda.

Although we had an open invite to drink and eat as much as we liked, my favorite activity was leaving the room to watch the game. No more than a couple of us were supposed to leave at any time and go watch the Twins for a few minutes, but we played fast with the work rules. By the seventh inning we could start putting the food into storage and mopping the floor to close up the facility. The best scenario was for the game to be moving slowly in the late innings so that by the eighth and ninth I could watch the game without being sidetracked by my job.

The Twins played their last game at Metropolitan Stadium September 30, 1981. I had covered the team for a wire service in the 1970s but on that September day I sat in the stands as part of a small gathering of 15,900 fans. The Twins had fallen on hard times at the gate and on the field. The Metrodome awaited with better days coming at the box office and in the standings.

From the time the dome opened until its last season in 2009, the facility was belittled, but legions of Twins fans will insist that without its home field advantage their favorite team never would have been a combined 8-0 in World Series home games that ended in championships in 1987 and 1991. The stadium of the “Homer Hanky” was an inspiring place for the Twins to play and a nightmare for the St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves.

After the 1970s I didn’t return to covering the Twins as a journalist until 2006. In the old days I found Killebrew to be the most approachable Twin I could imagine. In the 2000s I found players more difficult to talk with, except for Torii Hunter who made you feel like the editor of Sports Illustrated. Among managers and coaches, there have been none more likeable this millennium than Ron Gardenhire and Rick Anderson.

I can’t let this piece go without listing my all-time Twins team. With apologies to Gardy, I have to make Tom Kelly the manager. The man could be a professor of baseball and its managerial situations at an Ivy League institution. Here’s how I fill out T.K.’s batting order for a 60th anniversary season team:

Leading off the second baseman, Rod Carew. Batting second, the catcher Joe Mauer. Hitting third, the center fielder, Kirby Puckett. The cleanup hitter and third baseman? “The Killer,” of course. Batting fifth, right fielder Tony Oliva. Hitting sixth and seventh are first baseman Justin Morneau and left fielder Torii Hunter. Batting eighth is DH Kent Hrbek and ninth is shortstop Zoilo Versalles.

If T.K. has to win one game for the ages I am giving him Jack Morris, the right-handed hero who pitched 10 brilliant innings in the seventh game of the 1991 World Series that made Minnesota the baseball capital of the universe that year. (Morris was 2-0 in the series with a 1.17 ERA). If Jack needed help in the ninth, it’s Joe Nathan to the rescue.

Scott, Hall & Carneal

Calling the action on local radio and TV would be the broadcast team of Herb Carneal, Halsey Hall and Ray Scott. They were both reporters and entertainers who charmed these parts decades ago. None more so than Halsey who had so many sidesplitting stories he could make a rain delay better than the ball game.

Hall had been a newspaper man for a long time before the Twins arrived. He loved having a big league ball club in Minnesota. His emotions about the hometown team could go to extreme. Once on the broadcast of a nail-biting game Scott quipped, “Halsey get up off the floor. You’re paid to watch.”

The 2020 Twins have yet to take the field, but for this writer the 60 seasons celebration starts today.


Gophers’ Assistant Coach Star Recruiter

May 07, 2020 - (0) comments


Joe Harasymiak was hired as a University of Minnesota assistant football coach around Christmas in 2018. Since then he has been a gift to Minnesota’s fast-rising program with both his coaching and recruiting.

Harasymiak and his safeties were major contributors to Minnesota’s 11-2 record in 2019-2020 that ended with an upset win over Auburn in the Outback Bowl on January 1. The bowl victory gave the Gophers two wins against top 10 teams, having also defeated Penn State in Minneapolis. It was the first time since 1904 the program had 11 wins.

Safety Antoine Winfield Jr. was a unanimous All-American and Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year. Chris Williamson, a safety and transfer from Florida, was selected in the April NFL Draft—one of five Gophers drafted. Another safety Jordan Howden, who struggled as a freshman in 2018, made a game-saving interception in the end zone when Minnesota upset No. 5 ranked Penn State. Minnesota finished second in the Big Ten with 14 interceptions.

Key staffers don’t just coach for head man P.J. Fleck. They’re expected to deliver in recruiting, too. Pursuit of new talent is close to a 24-7 mandate under the hyper-energetic Fleck, and Harasymiak has delivered including with four-star recruits.

Running Back Ky Thomas and wide receiver Daniel Jackson, four-star players from Kansas, are part of Minnesota’s 2020 recruiting class, and Harasymiak was the assistant coach who led the way to their accepting scholarships with the Gophers. Now Minnesota has 15 verbal commitments for the class of 2021 and four of those players are four-star recruits. Two of the four are preps Harasymiak is taking the lead with in making them Gophers.

Both players are cornerbacks and pursued by blueblood programs but as of now are committed to Minnesota. Avante Dickerson from Omaha is the highest ranked of Minnesota’s 14 verbal commits by 247Sports, and if he becomes a Gopher will be among the most hyped recruits in the internet era. Steven Ortiz from Goodyear, Arizona is highly valued, too, and among schools that have chased him is Pac-12 power Washington. Both Dickerson and Ortiz could play as freshmen.

Kansas, Nebraska and Arizona might be surprise talent sources to Gopher fans but that’s changed with the recruiting expertise and energy of the 39-year-old Fleck and 33-year-old Harasymiak. Among those who have noticed is Ryan Burns, the Minneapolis-based recruiting authority and publisher of GopherIllustrated.com.

“I mean these are just areas traditionally Minnesota hasn’t recruited well in, and all he’s done (Harasymiak) is get four four-stars from areas that aren’t very familiar to Minnesota’s recruiting territory,” Burns told Sports Headliners.

Yesterday came news Minnesota received a verbal commitment from three-star Covington, Georgia safety Darius Green. Per 247Sports, Gopher assistant coach Paul Haynes is the primary recruiter on Green with Harasymiak also contributing.

This winter Fleck rewarded Harasymiak by upgrading his title including naming him co-defensive coordinator. Harasymiak’s salary also jumped from a reported $215,000 to $380,000.

Ryan Burns

Still, Burns has written that Harasymiak is on a one-year contract and is concerned about keeping the talented young assistant at Minnesota. “He needs more money in his pocket if he is going to stick around,” Burns said.

Prior to joining the Minnesota staff, Harasymiak was head coach at Maine for three seasons. His 2018 team advanced to the school’s first ever Football Championship Subdivision national semifinal. He was named the FCS National Coach of the Year by the American Football Coaches Association.

Vikings Optimistic on Hosting NFL Draft

The NFL Draft continues to grow in popularity and the Vikings are optimistic they and other local groups can host the annual April event within the next few years. Viking executive Lester Bagley, who specializes in public affairs, said it’s possible the league could award this area the draft in 2024, 2025 or 2026.

Bagley’s optimism can start with the Minnesota track record of hosting acclaimed Super Bowls. As recently as 2018, the Vikings and other local organizations have impressed NFL decision makers with their success in carrying out Super Bowl infrastructure, logistics and hospitality.

A draft here would be in downtown Minneapolis, likely using U.S. Bank Stadium and outdoor areas either close to the facility or the nearby Mississippi River. Bagley estimates 80,000 or more visitors will come to town for the three-day draft.

The 2020 NFL Draft was the most watched ever, drawing more than 55 million viewers. Because of the COVID-19 virus, the draft didn’t have a host city. Las Vegas, originally scheduled to host the event, will be the 2022 site. Cleveland will host in 2021 and Kansas City in 2023.

The Vikings and others made their intention known to host a future draft in August of 2019, but Bagley said as of now there is no development from the NFL to report.


Looking for Twins TV Return in July

May 05, 2020 - (0) comments


Word is Major League Baseball will start the 2020 season in July. Sports Headliners was told by an authoritative source his understanding is an abbreviated schedule will be played with initially no fans in ballparks. If more control of the COVID-19 epidemic happens, fans could slowly be allowed into stadiums as the season develops.

To deal most effectively with the virus, it’s predicted MLB will be reorganized into three 10-team divisions representing the east, central and west regions of the country. Travel would be minimized with teams playing games only within their division. To start with, and perhaps continuing indefinitely, games could be played only at sites in Florida, Texas and Arizona.

MLB owners and players have yet to agree with a 2020 schedule plan. With the necessity to get a plan in place soon, the pressure is on for an agreement this month. Presuming agreement is reached, that would allow enough time for three or four weeks of training prior to an early July start of the schedule.

It makes sense that one of the details the two sides could agree on is an unprecedented expanded roster size. If illness or injury hit a team particularly hard, where does management source players without a deep roster? Usually when there is a roster need, MLB teams turn to their farm systems for help but at this time it’s uncertain what the status of minor league baseball is for 2020.

With so much pent up enthusiasm for baseball from the fans, TV viewership could be record setting in July both regionally and nationally. In a reorganized geographical central division, Twins fans wouldn’t see baseball’s best player, Mike Trout of the Angels. Nor would they watch the Twins against the Yankees and Red Sox, two blueblood clubs that have been coming to Minneapolis since 1961. But a division home in the midwest would have Minnesota playing American League traditional rivals in the Indians, Royals, Tigers and White Sox. Intriguing opponents from the National League in the Twins’ new division could include the Brewers, Cardinals and Cubs.

The Twins are expected to have one of baseball’s better teams and could be in some sort of revised playoff system that leads to a World Series winner in November. In these weird times, how strange would it be to play the Fall Classic in an empty stadium?

Worth Noting

MLB players are usually paid over a 162-game season, but would earn prorated amounts during the course of an abbreviated 2020 year.

Look for the NFL to announce its 2020 schedule within days. Each team will play the usual 16 regular season games, with no games outside the United States. Four games in London and one in Mexico City had previously been planned.

Mike Grant

Among the familiar events of spring in recent years is Bud Grant’s garage sale from his Bloomington home. Well, the legendary former Vikings coach, who turns 93 later this month, is secluded at his Wisconsin cabin, and there won’t be a sale this year. In the past the sales have been promoted as the final one, but son Mike Grant has a wait and see approach. “Never say never on these garage sales,” Mike said.

As head coach of the Eden Prairie football team, Mike will have Justice Sullivan as one of his captains this fall. Sullivan, who projects as a college linebacker, lived in Iowa until a couple of years ago and has verbally committed to the University of Iowa as a four-star recruit. Grant said Sullivan could play inside or outside linebacker like Carter Coughlin, the former Eagle who was one of the Gophers’ best defenders at the end position last season.

“Outstanding young man, and good student, great kid,” Grant said of Sullivan, whose dad Jake Sullivan played collegiate basketball at Iowa State.

During this period of public health uncertainty, NBA owners, including the Timberwolves Glen Taylor, have been told to refer media requests to the league office.

Despite the coronavirus epidemic, metro golf courses are busy. An avid player told Sports Headliners public courses are only taking reservations about a week out.

More outdoor activity starts Saturday with the fishing season opening for a number of popular species including northern pike and trout. To many Minnesotans, though, it’s the “Walleye Opener.” Media reports say license sales are brisk.

It just might be that two of the finalists for commissioner of the new Central Collegiate Hockey Association are names with ties to the University of Minnesota. The new leader of the CCHA is expected to be announced soon and be in place by July 1.

The 2020 Minnesota Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame honorees in the High School Division are Walter Hunting, Duluth Denfeld; Jeff Mumm, Thief River Falls; Mike Quist, Gaylord; and Karl Urbaniak, Mabel-Canton. Also joining the Hall of Fame from the Citation Division is Mike Turner of Varsity Photos.


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