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MLB Missed All-American Opener

June 18, 2020 - 1 Comment


The decision makers of Major League Baseball may yet salvage a season this summer but for sure they have messed up the possibility of its 30 teams playing opening day on July 4. Contentious negotiations between the ruling powers of baseball and the players association have soured the public on MLB, and the window has closed on a best practice public relations move that would have scheduled the Minnesota Twins and other clubs playing for the first time in 2020 on Independence Day.

Imagine the Twins on the Fourth of July playing at Target Field against one of their American League Central Division rivals. No fans in the seats but a six-figure Upper Midwest TV audience watching from homes in Minneapolis-St. Paul and small towns across the region. America’s pastime showcasing the “boys of summer” on the nation’s 244th birthday of independence.

The diversion of baseball is always welcome by the game’s fans but it would be more so than usual this summer. COVID-19 and social unrest have hit this region hard in recent months. Washing down a hot dog with a beer (or two) while watching the home town team sounds like a brief prescription to feeling better.

How interesting it would be to see the long-awaited debut of the Twins’ newest star, slugging third baseman Josh Donaldson. Opening day starter José Berríos could take another step toward becoming one of MLB’s more dominant pitchers. Might a healthy Byron Buxton save the game for the Twins with a spectacular catch in center field? How about a perfect day at the plate for Luis Arráez, the terrific rookie who last year showed he might become Minnesota’s best second baseman since Hall of Famer Rod Carew.

MLB is embarrassed and should be, that there is still no final plan to have a 2020 season. It’s definitely too late to have a few weeks of training as a prelude to a July 4 opener—as cool as that would be. Summer time is baseball’s annual window but instead it’s looking like basketball, football, hockey and soccer could be center stage.

Perhaps there will yet be a MLB 2020 season, but the game has struck out on an Independence Day opener, missing a crackerjack opportunity to kiss and make up with its fans.

Worth Noting

This is supposed to be the Twins’ 60th season in Minnesota. The Washington Senators relocated here for the 1961 season and became the Twins. That year the Twins opened the season in New York, playing their first game in Minnesota franchise history. A mediocre Twins team defeated the mighty Yankees of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and other stars, 6-0.

With economics threatening the existence of minor league baseball, have to wonder if 69-year-old St. Paul Saints owner Mike Veeck could be interested in selling. A baseball source thinks the Saints might fetch $20 million in a sale.

Vikings offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak indicated yesterday in a Zoom call with media that Justin Jefferson, the team’s No. 1 draft choice this spring, is likely to play regular minutes at the slot position versus outside receiver. The slot was a primary position for Jefferson with national champion LSU last year.

Special teams coordinator Marwan Maalouf raised the possibility of Jefferson returning punts as he did for the Tigers. The Vikings may use two punt returners at times to improve returns, an assignment Maalouf indentified as a special teams priority. “He (Jefferson) could possibly be one of those guys,” Maalouf said.

The Vikings rotated multiple players in the punt return role last year without much impact. Fifth round draft choice and wide receiver K.J. Osborn is a definite candidate to return punts. Maalouf praised the rookie’s explosiveness, vision and skill in catching the football. He said veteran corner Mike Hughes is a possibility, too.

Kirk Cousins

Kubiak said quarterback Kirk Cousins has shown his leadership in the offseason, despite COVID-19 preventing players gathering in team workouts. “…I think Kirk came out of last year with a lot of confidence as a person and a player,” Kubiak said.

Kubiak talking about how communications with players and others has been mandated by technology because of the pandemic: “I know a hell of a lot more about computers than I did six months ago.”

When the Minnesota Wild begins playing there will be a focus on 23-year-old wing Kevin Fiala, who might emerge as the most exciting young talent on any professional sports team in the Twin Cities. His offensive skill set is so impressive he draws comparisons to Marian Gaborik and Dino Ciccarelli—two of the most gifted scorers in Minnesota pro hockey history.

Fiala had a fast close to the 2019-2020 season that ended early because of the pandemic, but he created a big impression. “He made everybody in the league look bad,” a longtime NHL observer told Sports Headliners.

Fiala tied his NHL career high of 23 goals last season. In the last five games he had seven points including four goals. He was acquired from Nashville during the 2018-19 season in what now can only be described as a smart move by former and much criticized Wild general manager Paul Fenton. Fiala now must show his skills consistently over a full season.

Condolences to the family and friends of former Gophers All-American and Minneapolis Lakers star Dick Garmaker, who recently passed away. Garmaker was one of the many natives of Hibbing, Minnesota who earned fame in sports, entertainment and politics. (Personal note: his wife Darlene was my seventh grade art teacher at Ramsey Junior High School in Minneapolis.)

Legendary Gopher football tackle Bobby Bell turned 80 yesterday.


History Making Awaits U WR & QB

June 16, 2020 - 1 Comment


With a 2020 college football season looking more probable by the week, University of Minnesota fans can anticipate potential history making firsts for a pair of Golden Gopher juniors—wide receiver Rashod Bateman and quarterback Tanner Morgan.

Both are being mentioned as potential 2021 first round NFL Draft choices. Minnesota’s program has never had a wide receiver or quarterback taken in the first round. The best for a wide receiver was Eric Decker going to Denver in the third round of the 2010 draft. John Hankinson to the Vikings in 1965 and Craig Curry to Miami in 1972, both drafted in the eighth round, are tops in program history for quarterbacks. Minnesota hasn’t had a player drafted in the first round since running back Laurence Maroney was chosen at 21 by New England in the 2006 draft.

Bateman, who appears all but certain to be drafted in the first round next spring, is already the first wide receiver in school history to be named All-American. He was Associated Press third-team All-American in 2019, plus being named the Big Ten’s best wide receiver.

Bateman is a Walter Camp Football Foundation 2020 preseason All-American. He was placed on the second team, and he will be a focus of attention for NFL scouts who might evaluate him as a top 15 pick. The Gophers haven’t had a top 15 first round player in more than 50 years.

Bateman, from Tifton, Ga., has caught at least one pass in all 26 games of his Gopher career (tied for seventh in school history). The elusive and sure-handed Bateman has 111 career receptions for 1,923 yards and 17 touchdowns. Those totals rank 12th, seventh and fifth respectively in Gopher history. He has seven 100-yard receiving games, including the top two for a Gopher in TCF Bank Stadium history (2019 Penn State with 203 yards and 2019 Wisconsin with 147 yards).

Morgan is a potential first or second round draft choice. There is consensus he is the Big Ten’s second best returning quarterback after Ohio State’s Justin Fields. A 247Sports April 12 story projecting the nation’s top 25 college quarterbacks had Morgan No. 7 and Fields No. 1.

Morgan was named second team All-Big Ten in 2019. In the last 30-plus years only two other Minnesota quarterbacks (Adam Weber in 2008 and Rickey Foggie 1987) have earned that distinction. The Gophers haven’t had an All-American QB since Sandy Stephens in 1961.

Tanner Morgan

The Union, Kentucky native is 15-4 as Minnesota’s starting quarterback and is praised for both his leadership and passing. A precision passer, Morgan set school season records in 2019 for his 66 percent completion mark, 3,253 passing yards and 30 touchdowns.

Looks like Bateman and Morgan, already history makers at the U after last season, are positioned to add more to their Gopher legacies this fall.

Worth Noting

In a 247Sports story last Friday Athlon magazine named Bateman first team preseason All-Big Ten and Morgan second team. Athlon referred to Bateman as a “potential top-10 prospect in the NFL Draft.”

Gopher junior running back Mohamed Ibrahim made the Athlon second team offense, as did junior guard-tackle Blaise Andries. Senior corner Coney Durr was selected for the third team defense.

Minnesota, 11-2 last season, is seen by multiple sources as a top-25 team entering the 2020 season. In a May 23, 247Sports online story Athlon ranked the Gophers No. 20 nationally. Big Ten West Division rivals Wisconsin and Iowa ranked No. 12 and No. 25.

Michele Tafoya, the Minnesota resident and prominent longtime national sports reporter on television, talked about her career experiences, COVID-19 and social justice on the Twin Cities cable TV program “Behind the Game.” Tafoya told host Patrick Klinger: “It’s really a soul-searching time.”

Tafoya, seen by millions in the fall as the sideline reporter on NBC Sunday Night Football, was supposed to cover the summer Olympics before they were postponed until 2021. One of the most successful female sports broadcasters in American history, Tafoya has been impersonated on television’s “Saturday Night Live.”

Although she has experienced several roles in her broadcast career, Tafoya said an NBA play-by-play assignment is something she would enjoy if the timing is right.Tafoya grew up in southern California and when she was young wanted to be “the next Meryl Streep.”

“Behind the Game” can also be seen on YouTube.

Speaking of COVID-19, top leaders from the Timberwolves, Twins, United, Vikings and Wild have been sharing ideas weekly this spring as professional teams here and across the country shape policies to start up again.

It’s believed the NCAA will vote Wednesday on whether to approve the University of St. Thomas’ request to participate in Division I sports starting with the 2021-2022 school year. That vote was to have happened in April but got postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Tommies are requesting a transition from Division III status to Division I after involuntarily being removed from the D-3 MIAC starting in 2021-2022.

The two Minnesota-bred thoroughbreds with the highest career earnings, Mr. Jagermeister and Hot Shot Kid, face off in the 10,000 Lakes Stakes Wednesday at Canterbury Park. The Lakes Stakes is six furlongs for a purse of $50,000.

Running Aces starts its live harness racing season Saturday.


Ubiquitous Mike Max Did It Again

June 11, 2020 - (0) comments


It was a surprise and yet it should not have been that Mike Max, WCCO TV’s sports director, was out on the streets covering last month’s social justice protests and rioting in Minneapolis.

Max, 55, has long demonstrated an extraordinary work ethic reporting on Minnesota sports for television and radio. The Gaylord, Minnesota native covers most everything from baseball to hunting and fishing. His deep network of contacts ranges from youth sports to hall of fame personalities. He thrives on working his beat and talking to sources.

Athletics are the “candy store” of reporting, but Max showed sportscasters are journalists too, able to cover breaking news as it develops. And that’s where Max found himself late last month after WCCO TV news room boss Kari Patey chose her sports director to go out on the streets of Minneapolis to cover the chaos that became a national story after the tragic death of George Floyd Monday, May 25.

There was major unrest the night of Thursday, May 28, including the disturbing images of the police’s third precinct being burned down. Max had finished the 10 p.m. sports that night and headed to his house. “When I got home Channel 4 was still broadcasting live because of this monumental event, and I just remember feeling ‘God, I wish I was out in the field somewhere. I wish I was doing something out there,’ ” he told Sports Headliners. “It almost killed me being home when my colleagues were… working.”

The next evening more breaking news developed involving protestors and looters. Patey needed help in the field and Max eagerly volunteered. He didn’t know what to expect but that only added to his curiosity and adrenaline.

That Friday night and into Saturday and Sunday Max was live on the scene of the unrest in various parts of the city. Viewers tuned into Ch. 4 and there was the sports guy reporting on one of the most dramatic upheavals the city has every witnessed. It was both peaceful and violent and the memories for Max will long be in his consciousness.

Max knows he watched history with a “front row seat.” He was motivated by both not knowing what was going to happen next and needing to perform for his TV audience. Part of the experience he valued, too, was working alongside the station’s team of on and off camera professionals, all pulling together to report the news in a challenging environment.

“Because I grew up playing sports I love playing on teams,” Max said. “I love it when we’re working together to try to do something, try to accomplish something. In this case, try to bring you the best coverage that we can.”

Out on the streets Max didn’t try to complicate his assignment. Just the opposite. “You just tell them (viewers) what you see,” he said. “It’s a real simple thing, you know. You just ask people what they see, and there’s no right or wrong answer. So you just simplify it. …”

A Ch. 4 viewer watched Max so close to protestors and police he could literally reach out and touch them. A rubber bullet or runaway vehicle might have struck him and done serious harm. Was he afraid at times? “ It’s hard to explain but I never, ever felt like we were in deep danger,” he answered.

Max was nervous, though, when approaching a chaotic scene on Lake Street where rioters were attacking the local Wells Fargo and stealing money, and threatening the police’s fifth precinct. The situation appeared out of control and he felt his nerves and adrenaline spike.

But then the police arrived in force. “…All of a sudden they showed up just like the cavalry, and it was just unbelievable the way they walked in and took control of that precinct, of that situation. I ended up getting tear gassed as part of it, but not intentional. It was just tear gas that blew over my way. That set me back some, but I never, ever really felt like we gotta make a run for it.”

After covering the civil unrest for long hours over three days Max looks back and finds praise for both peaceful protestors and law enforcement. He found many individuals who wanted their voices heard. They were articulate and thoughtful. His impression was most individuals he encountered were Minnesotans, not outsiders, and they had no intention of creating chaos including destruction of buildings and people’s lives.

Max saw law enforcement that had a plan and executed it with precision. The police and others worked with discipline, controlling emotions even when tested by those who sought to provoke them. “The law enforcement was so fricking impressive, I can’t put it into words,” he said.

Max photo courtesy of WCCO photo journalist Will Greiner

On Sunday night near Bobby & Steve’s Auto World on Washington Avenue Max watched law officers arrest and take away curfew violators. He was impressed with the friendly interaction between law enforcement and protestors. He witnessed friendly conversation, smiling and laughing.

“It’s like, from Minnesota’s standpoint, we’re all in this together,” Max said. “We may agree on one issue or not, but we really are one team, and I thought that was pretty powerful to observe.”

In this spring of COVID-19 Max drew attention for not wearing a face mask while reporting. It was always deliberate because he wanted people to recognize him as the sports guy from Ch. 4. “…That was incredibly advantageous because enough of them knew who I was, and I could engage them, and find out what they were doing,” he said.

Days and nights were long for Max over that last weekend in May. He made his way home late at night, but he has no complaints about fatigue or endurance. “When you’re out there in the community your adrenaline kicks in. That’s big,” he said.

Max is also dedicated to a conditioning and exercise routine that enables him to work long hours week after week. He lifts weights at least five days per week. He does cardio exercises for a minimum of 40 minutes every day. “I am fanatical about seven days a week, getting a really good workout in,” he said.

Max attended Hamline where he played baseball for four years. When he went to college there was no plan to be a journalist. ”I was majoring in business and took a video production class for fun and my professor said you seem to have a passion for this,” Max told Sports Headliners in a 2010 interview. “I really enjoyed putting a video together. She said you should try to go get an internship in this and I didn’t even know an internship existed. And that’s when I started knocking on doors and finally I got in to Ch. 4. … It wasn’t like I set out to be a reporter. I literally kind of fell into it that way.”

The internship at Ch. 4 was in 1986 so Max has come a long way as a sports journalist whose face and voice are widely recognized in Minneapolis and throughout the state. Yet professionally perhaps he may never have felt so alive as when he covered the drama of the city’s unrest last month. It was an assignment he would repeat “in a heartbeat.”

“If things like this happen again, I just want to be able to raise my hand and have her (Patey) have the confidence in me that I can go do it,” Max said.


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