Starting tonight the Twins have a three-game home series against the Yankees, probably the best team in baseball. The series will be the biggest challenge yet for the surprising Twins who lead the AL Central Division with a 32-24 record and are 4.5 games up on the second place Guardians.
Winning two of three against the mighty Yankees would be the best credibility development yet for the Twins who finished last in the division in 2021. Is Minnesota a playoff contender that can hang with the Yankees? Or is this year’s Twins club a pretender that has improved but also benefitted from a comfy schedule?
It’s r-e-s-p-e-c-t when talking about the Yankees who have won six straight and have MLB’s best record at 39-15. As every follower of Abner Doubleday’s game knows, pitching dictates success and New York’s is lights out this season.
The Yankees have the best team ERA in the majors, 2.74. New York has given up the fewest runs (156) among all 30 clubs. The Yanks’ runs differential of +102 is second best to the Dodgers (the Twins’ are +27).
New York’s starting pitching staff has a gaudy 2.55 ERA. While the Twins have yet to announce their starter for tonight, the Yankees will use Jameson Tallion. In his last start he pitched seven perfect innings against the Angels before allowing a lead-off double in the eighth. Tallion is 6-1 with a 2.30 ERA.
Wednesday the Yankees will go with Nestor Cortes (5-1, 1.50 ERA) vs. Minnesota’s Chris Archer (0-2, 3.89). The series finale Thursday matches Gerrit Cole (5-1, 2.78) vs. Dylan Bundy (3-3, 5.57.)
The Yankees lead the majors in home runs, partially because of 21 from Aaron Judge who is on pace to hit more than 60. In the team’s recent 6-0 homestand New York out-scored opponents 38-7!
The Yankees won in extra innings Sunday against the Tigers on former Twin Josh Donaldson’s sac fly. He is hitting a lowly .229 with five home runs. Ex-Twin Aaron Hicks is struggling, too, with a .213 average.
If the Twins were a stock, today could be a savvy time to sell. While dealing with COVID, plus injuries to key personnel and inconsistent performance, Minnesota is 3-5 in its eight games. Not only are the Yankees immediately ahead on the schedule, but also the Rays, 31-23, come to town this weekend.
If the Twins miss the playoffs—or exit in a hurry from the postseason—the results won’t set well with fans. A Sports Headliners reader recently emailed a critical assessment: “In many ways they are the classic Minnesota pro sports team—rarely bad, never great, always kinda hovering in the middle with an occasional year of breaking through a bit and (offering) hope. Then occasionally playing in the playoffs and being kicked to the curb by other teams who really have serious (pitching) talent.”
The reader pointed out the Twins were last in the World Series in 1991, while all the other Central Division clubs have been to the Fall Classic more recently. He also wrote that while the Twins are working on a 0-18 playoff record since 2002, his research shows the Tigers have won 25 post season games, the Royals 22, the Guardians 16 and White Sox 14.
Timberwolves CEO Ethan Casson recently talked about the growing ticket buying interest in the team. “We sold more single game tickets this year than we ever have in the history of the franchise,” he told Sports Headliners.
Interest is carrying over to new sales for the 2022-2023 season. “…We’re top five in the NBA today in total new season tickets sold for next year,” he said last week.
Casson declined to provide specific totals about new and past season tickets. He acknowledged sales have been “significantly down” in recent seasons because of the pandemic and disappointing team performance.
Who replaces Dave Benz as TV play-by-play voice of the Wolves? Casson said the selection will be “driven” by Bally Sports.
Wouldn’t it be interesting if the choice is a female broadcaster? Is longtime Wolves courtside reporter Marney Gellner interested?
New Timberwolves owner Alex Rodriguez considers this a basketball town and said fans are “starving for winning and stability.” He told Sports Headliners the organization is dedicated to making this a model franchise in every way. A place where the vision, capital and resources convince players they want to be here.
“I understand what it takes to be a champion,” he said. “I understand…(what) champions look like. I also understand that it is very, very difficult to win. …”
Mike Nowakowski from Ticket King said recently the hottest ticket for an upcoming event in town is the June 11 Eric Church concert at U.S. Bank Stadium. Floor seats were selling for $250 each late last week.
The basketball Gophers have players settling into dorms this week. Next week team practice with the coaches begins.
Reid Travis, the DeLaSalle alum, has played pro basketball in Japan the last two years.
Minnesota hockey authority Lou Nanne told Sports Headliners the “only chance” the Wild has to retain restricted free agent forward Kevin Fiala is to move on from defenseman Matt Dumba and his reported salary of about $5.2 million. The guess here is that without Dumba and some tweaks to the payroll, the team salary cap can work allowing a new deal for Fiala.
It’s a direction Nanne would go if the former North Stars president was running the Wild. A gifted playmaker, Fiala was second on the team in points during the regular season. “I think Dumba is easier to replace than Fiala,” Nanne said.
Tongue-in-cheek offseason advice from Nanne to Kirill Kaprizov, the Wild’s gifted scorer: “Stay healthy.”
Tony Sanneh, the former international soccer star and founder of The Sanneh Foundation, is the latest guest on the “Behind the Game” TV show. He talked about his path from youth soccer in his native St. Paul to being a key contributor for the United States in the World Cup, and also his foundation’s work to improve lives and opportunities for Twin Cities youth. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tVztKwZ5gYc
Glen Mason remembers the last time he saw Marion Barber III. It was not long after Barber retired following the 2012 NFL season and he was back in town.
Over the years Barber called his former Gopher coach and this time he wanted to have dinner. Barber was thinking of moving back to Minnesota where his parents and siblings lived.
Mason said to come over to his house for dinner. Barber, who didn’t drink alcohol, arrived with an expensive bottle of champagne. He insisted Mason drink the whole bottle, while it was at its bubbly-best that evening.
“I am not a big drinker,” Mason told Sports Headliners Friday. “I got half shit-faced. I mean he was laughing at me. He said, ‘Coach, you’re slurring your words.’ I said, Marion, it’s your fault.”
Police from Frisco, Texas found Barber, age 38, dead in his apartment several days ago. Media reports are police were at the apartment as part of a wellness check but the cause of death hasn’t been publicized.
Barber had been detained by police in Texas in 2014 and given a mental health evaluation. The online Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported recently that a year ago former Dallas Cowboys teammate Dez Bryant tweeted that “he’s down and out bad.”
After leaving the Gophers and Mason following the 2004 season, Barber became a key contributor as a running back for the Cowboys. He played six seasons with Dallas, then finished up his pro career playing for the Chicago Bears.
Mason, who was Minnesota’s head coach from 1997-2006, believes the last time he talked by phone with Barber was about 18 months ago. He wanted to fly down to Texas, show up at Barber’s door and the two could spend time together. Mason didn’t know specifically what Barber’s issues were, but he was aware there were problems.
The coach was aggressive about arranging a visit but Barber pushed back and said he was busy. “Well, after I did that, any time I called him, he didn’t take my call and he didn’t return my call,” Mason remembered.
Most of the world, including in Minnesota, knows Barber’s name as a football player. Mason, who saw Barber almost every day from 2001-2004, will tell you that as good as the former All-Big Ten running back was on the field, he was a better person.
“The kid was a delight. When I thought of Marion Barber I did not think of him as the football player. I thought of him as the kid walking down the hall.
“He was kind of shy. …I wouldn’t say he was a class clown but he was kind of a practical joker. He’d give you a laugh all the time.
“Everybody liked Marion. Over a four-year period, he didn’t give me one minute (of a) problem. He never did anything wrong. I don’t know of a player I liked more than Marion Barber.”
About a month ago Mason was down in Florida and encountered Bill Parcells, Barber’s first head coach with the Cowboys. The Pro Football Hall of Fame coach told Mason that Barber was one of his favorite players. “That guy knew how to play football,” Parcells said.
Barber played high school football at Wayzata before attending Minnesota. Younger brothers Dom and Thomas followed Marion to the Gophers. Their father, Marion Barber Junior, was a great running back for Minnesota in the late 1970s.
It was suggested to Mason the family’s legacy at the University of Minnesota is unique—that the Barbers are the first family of Golden Gophers football. “All contributors, all-stars in their own right. I can’t think of a (comparable college football) program,” Mason said.
Mason revels in telling the story of how Barber came to his program. Although a successful running back and defensive back at Wayzata, there was minimal interest from college coaches. “Really no one was recruiting him, no big schools including us,” Mason recalled.
Mason lived within a short drive of Wayzata High School so he was aware of Marion. Another connection to the Barber family was that in the 1970s Mason was an assistant coach at Illinois when the Illini were recruiting Marion Jr.
As the recruiting period in 2001 was drawing to a close Mason questioned his staff about whether a scholarship should be offered to young Marion as a defensive back. Mason received push back from the staff and one assistant asked what made the boss believe Barber could play defensive back in the Big Ten. Mason answered because Barber was the one defender who intercepted Cretin-Derham Hall quarterback Joe Mauer.
Mason brought Barber to campus and offered him a scholarship—as a defensive back. No, thanks.
Barber insisted he was a runner and declined the offer.
A few weeks later Mason encountered Marion Jr. and inquired if his son had college offers cooking. The answer was no, so the persistent Gopher coach called Marion III and again offered a scholarship as a defensive back. “If you’ve got any sense you’ll take it,” he told Barber.
This time Barber accepted but the teenager soon showed his own persistence to Mason. While still in high school, Barber called and asked for a meeting.
He had a proposal. Let him play running back for his first season at Minnesota and if it didn’t work out he would be willing to play any position for the Gophers. Mason figured why not accept the deal because Barber wasn’t going to see the field anyway in his first year with the program.
But months later, at the first day of practice, the freshman running back was making an impression. After about 30 minutes running backs coach Vic Adamle told Mason the coaches had misjudged Barber and “this kid is good.”
Mason won’t take credit for how Barber surprised everyone from the start of his college career. “We gave a kid a chance mainly because his dad was a player here. If you can’t take care of your own, then shame on you. He did it all on his own and proved everybody wrong.”
Mason, whose previous head coaching stops also included Kent State and Kansas, can’t say exactly why Barber was misjudged out of high school and was so special immediately in college. He has a theory, though, that for whatever reason many Minnesota prep football players are late developers. He saw this prove out over and over again at the U, including with offensive linemen.
Barber ranks fifth all-time in rushing yards at Minnesota with 3,276. His 35 rushing touchdowns rank second and his 575 career carries are seventh. He made first-team All-Big Ten in 2003.
He and Laurence Maroney were the first pair of NCAA running backs to each produce 1,000 yard seasons in consecutive years on the same team. After Barber ran for 975 yards and 10 touchdowns for the Cowboys in 2007 he was selected for the Pro Bowl.
Barber deserves a place among the best U running backs ever. No one might have run harder, had more determination. Yet he could be shifty with a burst of speed, too. He also excelled as a pass receiver and the Gophers sometimes used him as a slot receiver to put both he and Maroney on the field at the same time. “He was just a tremendous running back,” Mason said.
With a love of contact, ferocious might be the word best describing Barber’s running style. “Strong, bruising runner,” Mason said. “I think it got to the point where people knew if you’re going to play Minnesota you better buckle it on. …”
In the next 12 months Timberwolves fans will know what impact new president of basketball operations Tim Connelly has made on the franchise. No “barometer” could be more telling than that of enigmatic point guard D’Angelo Russell.
His resume after three seasons in Minnesota indicates Connelly should find another NBA residence for D’Lo. He is a flashy talent but his resume is too flawed for a player who reportedly earns about $30 million per season.
In the closing minutes of the Wolves-Grizzlies playoff series Russell was sitting on the bench. Coach Chris Finch chose not to play D’Lo, supposedly part of the team’s big three of Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards. The decision was a condemnation of Russell whose team couldn’t find a way to win Game Six, and lost their first round playoff series this spring.
Russell averaged 18.1 points during the regular season but just 12 in the postseason. He averaged 31 points against the Grizzlies in four regular season games. In plus-minus rating he was -0.7 in the playoffs after being +3.2 during the season.
Regardless of whether it’s regular or post season, Russell can perform more like an individual than a team player. He may force too many shots from too many precarious positions on the floor. As the floor leader at point guard, he can slow ball movement and not get teammates involved enough. Defensively, his reputation is about not being engaged and focused.
The words “he makes his teammates better” aren’t often associated with D’Lo. At age 26 he has played for four NBA teams. That’s telling in and of itself. Front office leaders and coaches have been tantalized by the talent but for whatever reasons no one has found him valuable enough to keep around indefinitely.
Connelly, who the Wolves hired off his reputation with the Nuggets as a top 10 NBA decision maker, will be challenged to figure out the D’Lo puzzle. Incoming calls from other teams inquiring about Russell won’t be frequent for Connelly, who is formally introduced today as the Wolves’ boss at a news conference.
If Connelly and Finch are shrewd about Russell, they will find a more complementary player for the “sum of their parts.” A steady point guard who can better run the offense and also be a contributor defensively. The help wanted sign should go up soon for a new player with attributes that include poise at the biggest moments, whether in the playoffs or nail-biting regular season games.
The Connelly watch starts now not only with D’Lo but the NBA Draft June 23. Minnesota has the No. 19 selection in the first round, plus three selections in the second.
The Wolves need help at power forward but rightly could take a too- talented-to pass-up player at any position. And what does Connelly do with those extra second rounders? Keep them all or trade one or more for better assets?
Connelly’s ability to judge talent will be scrutinized with this draft. Talent can be found anywhere in the draft and among college free agents. In 1999 the Spurs took Manu Ginobili with the No. 57 pick. They won four NBA titles with Ginobili as one of the team’s three stars. Ten years ago the Warriors found Draymond Green at No. 35 in the second round. Since then he’s been a huge contributor to the team winning three NBA championships.
Connelly will be tasked with producing more success than his predecessor Gerson Rosas who was fired last September for reportedly having an inappropriate relationship with an office employee and fostering a tense office environment. Outdoing Rosas won’t be accomplished with the snap of the fingers.
Rosas was hired in May of 2019 as president of basketball operations, taking over a franchise with a 36-46 record and MIA from the playoffs almost every year. Yes, the Warriors got the better of the deal that Rosas made unloading Andrew Wiggins and giving them a first round draft choice in exchange for D’Lo. And Rosas did whiff on 2019 first round pick Jarrett Culver, but Rosas reshaped the roster for the better and his decisions had everything to do with the Wolves qualifying for the playoffs in 2022. (Only the second time since 2004.)
Rosas made Edwards the NBA’s overall No. 1 draft choice in 2020. After two seasons and at 20 years old, Edwards has been spectacular and could become a top five NBA player. Trades by Rosas acquired promising 21-year-old forward Jaden McDaniels, starting power forward Jared Vanderbilt and guard Patrick Beverley, a catalyst either starting or as sub.
Role players off the bench who came via swaps and often helped are three-point shooting specialist Malik Beasley and power forward Taurean Prince. Contributors acquired through free agency are center Naz Reid and playmaking guard Jordan McLaughlin.
The Rosas ledger also includes hiring Finch as head coach a year ago last February. Finch is an effective communicator who listens to players and lets them know what is expected.
New owners Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez are credited with the Connelly hire. They’re drawing applause from long suffering Wolves fans for making the move. Although they don’t take over majority ownership of the franchise until December of 2023, they’re pushing the envelope with determination and creativity so far.
That was evident earlier this year when they, along with majority owner Glen Taylor, created a new staff position responsible for enhancing the experience of their players. In a basketball market not known for its glitz like Los Angeles, Miami, New York and other places, creating an internal culture valued by players could go a long way in both attracting and keeping talent in the Northland.
In a news release last week the Timberwolves, coming in at No. 11, were ranked among the Top 25 Most Innovative Teams in The World for 2022, per Sports Innovation Lab. The release said the annual ranking is based on three primary metrics: revenue diversification, technology enablement and organizational ability.