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Those of us who enjoy watching sports events can click through satellite channels and find countless dramas to entertain us. Then along comes a mind-bending occurrence, such as our own “personal-best” record rainstorm, and the whole world recalibrates, as if to cause us to stop and see what is real and what is just fun and games.
As it happened, I was in San Diego road-testing the new Hyundai Veloster Turbo when the storm hit. I heard about it, and all the damage and road closures, and I was worried as I flew to Minneapolis, meeting a 2012 BMW 335i for another road-test, arriving in Duluth about midnight Thursday night. The scope of damage and destruction was cloaked by darkness. We were lucky, because we live on a hill, above the North Shore, so when Friday morning began with bright sunshine and blue skies, it looked more like a good day to mow the lawn than like the aftermath of a huge storm.
But the parallel hit me after watching various Olympic trials on satellite television. A man and his wife we’d known for years were visiting in Duluth so I drove them up to see Knife River. I knew there had been some river drama there, and I also was pretty sure my friends would appreciate Kendall’s maple-sugar-smoked salmon on one end of town, and a few Great Lakes chocolate shop delicacies on the other.
Instead, it was as though Mother Nature was trying to qualify for some Olympics of the Galaxy in the real-world javelin toss. Knife River itself had swept up to, and over, the bridges in Knife River, and with the water level back down, what remains are several full-size trees sticking up and into the superstructure of the bridges. Those trees had ridden along atop the fury of the flash-flooding stream and when the level reached the top of the bridge, those hurtling trees became mere projectiles to jam into the concrete openings in the bridge.
Amazing. The photo is worth 10,000 words, just as they are along Skyline Drive, Fond du Lac, the road from Carlton to Fond du Lac, and various other places. Meanwhile, the sports world continues to turn. We have the Twins, Wimbledon tennis, auto racing, and yes, the London Olympics.
ESCAPES FROM REALITY
On the heels (so to speak) of Grandma’s Marathon, I was talking on the phone the other night to a friend who is a running zealot. He told me he was out walking the dog, but he had set his video recording device to catch the women’s 10,000 meter run at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., and that it was going on as we spoke. I asked him which channel, and, 165 miles away, clicked over to it.
About a third of the way through, Amy Hastings, who had finished a heart-breaking fourth at the Olympic trial marathon, was leading. Fourth is hard to live with, by the way, when the top three make the U.S. team for the Olympics. So in a way, we had to pull for Hastings to win, but there running just off her right shoulder was Shalene Flanagan, who is the No. 1 U.S. qualifier in the women’s marathon, where Kara Goucher was third. Flanagan was running second in a tight pack, and looked in perfect position to win.
The announcer mentioned, after the halfway point, that a smaller girl, Natosha Rogers, was running sixth, which was surprising since she had stumbled and fallen early in the event, before picking herself up and making a spirited bid to get back up into the contending leaders. She was the one wearing the Texas A&M outfit.
On the final lap, sure enough, Shalene Flanagan made her move, and took the lead from Hastings. But as the leaders came around the final turn onto the straightaway, little Natosha Rogers, in her Texas A&M outfit, made a superhuman kick and passed all the leaders coming down the homestretch. I got up out of my chair at the drama of it all, as she passed Hastings and then Flanagan to take the lead. It would be one of the biggest upsets of all the trials. However, as they neared the finish line, Amy Hastings came back with a superhuman kick of her own, repassing Rogers to win the 10,000 in a time of 31:58.36. Rogers was second at 31:59.21 -- less than a second behind -- and Flanagan third at 31:59.69. The top three advance to the Olympics, but Natosha Rogers won’t be on the team. She had not run the established time standard, so her fantastic run was only for a personal and record-book thrill.
That’s the only Olympic qualifying event I’ve watched so far, and it was sensational. But you had to feel enormous sympathy for Rogers to run her heart out, against greatly heralded opponents, and will be watching the Summer Olympics on TV from home, like the rest of us.
TWINS MAKE A MOVE
The Minnesota Twins started off so horrendously this season, we all wrote off any hope of them being competitive. So what did they do? They became competitive. It has become trendy in the Twin Cities to belittle the Twins, to insult and ridicule them in the media, mostly talk radio and the TV broadcasters. And let’s not kid each other, the Twins are still in last place in the American League Central -- 7.5 games back of Chicago as of this writing.
But the Twins, who started the season with their pitching in complete disarray, their infield unknown and barely acquainted, their outfield turning routine fly balls into adventures, and more chapters in the continuing injury trail of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. But the mediocre fill-ins started to play better, and every once in a while they would hit good enough to win regardless of pitching inadequacies. Then the bullpen saved them with consistently strong performances.
The other thing that has become fashionable is that certain members of the Twin Cities media rip Joe Mauer. He’s a big target, as the hometown hero who has been plagued by injuries, and they love to hammer him for not hitting home runs, not driving in enough runs, and for not living up to his huge contract. To me, Mauer still has the sweetest swing in the Major Leagues. He still has a rifle for an arm, and can throw bullets right on the bag at second to eliminate stolen bases -- when and if the pitchers don’t dawdle in their deliveries. Because of the beating catchers take, manager Ron Gardenhire wisely uses Mauer at first base and as designated hitter to give him breaks from catching.
The other day, I heard a Twin Cities radio dude say Mauer shouldn’t make the American League All-Star game, and columnist Pat Reusse sang the praises of one of my favorite feisty players, A.J. Pierzynski, as a more worthy All-Star catcher than Mauer. I regretted when the Twins unloaded Pierzynski when Mauer reached Major League status, because I knew every team would need two, or three, catchers, and both of them could fill in as DH or somewhere else while giving the Twins the absolute best catching in the Majors.
One of the classics that should go into the Mauer scrapbook was his at-bat Sunday, in Cincinnati, with the Twins trailing 3-2. Pitching for the Reds was Aroldi Chapman, who was casually firing pitches at over 100 mph. Mauer came up and the battle was on -- left-handed pitcher throwing bullets and left-handed hitter with the sweetest swing and great eye. Mauer fouled off pitches of 100, 101, 102, and 97 mph, and he took sliders that were 88 and 91 mph -- faster than most pitchers can throw a fastball -- to run the count to 3 and 2. On the 10th pitch of their duel, Mauer lined a double off the left-field wall. Josh Willingham came up next, and later remarked about how closely he had watched Mauer outduel Chapman, and hit a home run to win the game.
Mauer was hitting .316 after Sunday’s game, which was the sixth best in the AL, and just coming back from a quadriceps injury. Pierzynski is having a good year, batting .284. But two days after returning to the lineup, Joe Mauer is hitting .323 -- third or fourth best in the AL, and rising. In his last 14 games, Mauer is hitting .449 with 13 RBIs. My old friend Patrick might want to reconsider. Otherwise, he can just keep watching Mauer swing, the hits keep coming, the average rises, and sometime a few months after the All-Star game, Joe Mauer might well win his fourth batting championship.
CAUGHT IN A DRAFT
Sorry, but I can’t get fired up over the amateur drafts, whether football, basketball, or hockey. Looks like the Wild got a couple good ones in the draft, but it will be years before we can tell.
Meanwhile, in case you missed it, the voting for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman came down to Shea Weber of Nashville and Zdeno Chara of Boston. But -- surprise! -- Erik Karlsson of Ottawa won the Norris Trophy. Before you scoff at a slim, slight, 22-year-old Swede winmning the award, consider that he scored 78 points for the Ottawa Senators this past season, and that was “only” 25 points more than any other defenseman in the NHL!
Karlsson may be comparatively unknown around the rest of the NHL so far, but this will help. So will his spirited play against the Rangers for the No. 8 seeded Senators in the playoffs. And so will the fact that he signed a seven-year contract extension for $45.5 million just before winning the Norris.
BCS, AND BS
Representatives from the 11 top football conferences in the country, plus Notre Dame, came to the decision that college football will start having a four-team playoff to determine the national champion as of 2014. Replacing the absurdity of a national poll of writers and coaches ranking teams and then selecting the top two to play for the BCS (Bowl Championship Series).
The ratings will still matter, for selecting the top four. My fervent hope is that the representatives will agree to not allow two teams from the same conference into the playoffs. Alabama, which lost to LSU last season, became a sympathetic vote-getter and rose to No. 2 and then beat LSU in the BCS title game. Fans from the Southeast Conference were giddy, but there is no way a team that has a chance to beat the No. 1 team and fails should get another chance at it. Now Alabama is the national champion, but in reality, they only split two games with LSU.
If my rules were in place this past season, and I could create the dream semifinals, LSU would have faced Boise State, and Oklahoma State would have played Oregon. Oklahoma State did end up third, Oregon fourth, and Boise State should have been higher than sixth with a 12-1 record. If you don’t like those, at least we know we would have been riveted to the tube to see if the wide-open and colorful offenses of Oregon and Boise State could have done a number on the outstanding LSU and Oklahoma State outfits. And regardless, the championship game would have been bigger than the Super Bowl.