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If you’ve ever read the Peanuts comic strip, you know that Charlie Brown’s baseball transcends his team’s ability to win. Snoopy isn’t a bad infielder, but Lucy always tries to find rational reasons why she’s not about to catch a fly ball in the outfield. They try, they come close, but they always invent colorful ways to lose.
Sometimes I feel like I’m living through the Charlie Brown times. I’m continuing to manage the SeaFoam Hawks Senior amateur baseball team, which was anticipated -- by me -- to be vastly improved this season after finishing last year by winning our final two games in the state tournament. We have much improved pitching, have shown fantastic defense, and we started the season hitting the ball sharply.
So why, I ask, are we still seeking our first victory? We play around in and south of the Twin Cities, with a game or two every week, which is good reason for me to be traveling back and forth from Duluth with considerable regularity. That first victory seemed certain to be coming last week, when we had a great battle with LeSeuer. Scoreless almost all the way.
They had a big, strong, No. 3 hitter, and after he singled in the first inning, I gave only one order to my pitcher and catcher: That guy gets nothing but breaking pitches, preferably around the knees. No more fast balls. We got him out, too, until late in the game. Wham! He gets a fast ball letter high, and hits it out of the park. We lose, 1-0.
Then last Sunday, we’re hooked up in another battle with the Southwest Outlaws in a game at Union Hill. Different pitcher, working his way out of several bases-loaded situations, and in the fifth, we manage to scratch a run across for a 1-0 lead. We’re playing great defense, and we’re getting great pitching, and in the last half of the last inning, you can feel that we’re going to finally win one. Oops! Error on a grounder. Oops! A hit batter. Well, we’ve worked our way out of trouble all game, and I’ve been holding my breath on the bench for three innings, so I can make it one more. The Outlaws’ No. 3 hitter comes up, and, sure enough, he gets a letter-high fastball and the crack of the bat was obscured by his Serena Williams-like grunt. His line drive cleared the left field fence and hit the farm house out there, the one with the chain-link fence wisely positioned on the outside of all its windows. We lose, 3-1.
The lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer are upon us, and while it’s a slow time for sports events in the Twin Ports, although the Duluth Huskies are fun to watch and we have our usual touristy sports attractions like fishing, hiking, and testing Lake Superior for floating trees as well as the usual hypothermia. So I can’t help feel the similarity to the Hawks and the Twins.
Commuting to the Twin Cities is common for me, test-driving an assortment of new cars for the columns that appear on CarSoup.com, and my own website, NewCarPicks.com, I get consistent test-drive mileage while I dash down to manage my trusty SeaFoam Hawks. I’ve also been enjoying some chances to sit in on KDAL 610 radio’s morning talk show with Dave Strandberg, from 9-11 a.m.
On Monday evening, I was driving from Minneapolis to Duluth in a dark green Porsche Carrera S, a spectacular sports car that is typically over-engineered. I’ve had an interesting stretch, with a Mercedes GLK350, then a BMW 335i, then a BMW 328i, and now the Porsche -- the newest of the traditionally potent 911. It’s a car that is a joy to drive, with its PDK twin-clutch automatic that directs that snarling engine’s power to the ground with such force that it’s a shame to have it and not have a road-racing course or an autobahn. The speedometer shows 200, and it’s not just for show in this beast.
As I cleared the Proctor exit and headed down the end of I-35’s construction-zone commute, I spotted the big lights on at Wade Stadium. So, needing a photo for this column, I pulled off quickly at the 27th Avenue exit and doubled back. I was wrong. The lights weren’t at a Huskies game; they were up in Thunder Bay getting rained out. They were the softball field lights. A pair of girls Under-16 fast-pitch games were going on, and I found myself focusing in on what it is that makes Hermantown such an annual power in high school softball.
Courtney Martin was windmilling her Hermantown team to a 20-2 victory over hopeful and game Carlton with a 4-hitter. I asked someone if Martin might be starting pitcher for Hermantown’s varsity next spring, and was told that no, she would be one of the pitchers for Hermantown’s junior varsity. OK. I understand. All the area U-16 fast-pitch teams work hard to improve in a fun, exciting environment all summer. But at Hermantown, where coach Tom Bang is having so much fun he keeps coaching even after retiring as a teacher, the program has attained such a high level of consistency that even being able to win big in the summer earns nothing more than the incremental step up to the next level. Patience and hard work will work out in the end, of course. But if you’re looking for some entertainment on a hot, summer night, head for Wade Stadium -- and don’t give up if the Huskies happen to be out of town.
At last week’s Major League Baseball All-Star break, traditionally the halfway point of the season, it was old news to reassess the Minnesota Twins: They started the season so poorly that it doesn’t appear they will have any chance of climbing into contention, or even to the .500 level. However, I reiterated my earlier feeling that despite their record, this Twins team is one of the more interesting ones to watch in franchise history.
I can sometimes be accused of being a homer on behalf of Minnesota teams, but I think I’m just realistic, with a tendency to hope for the best. As I suggested, Twins pitching has been off the scale of inconsistency, the defense was atrocious to start with, and the hitting was spotty at the start, which doomed the Twins to secure last place through the first six weeks. But as they established the worst record, they started to play better. If you include the return of the injured Jason Morneau, this is an entirely renovated infield, and they started making plays, just from repetition. The outfield started making outstanding plays as well.
When the spotty pitching was spot-on, especially with Scott Diamond and occasionally Francisco Liriano, the Twins could beat anybody. They also could lose to anybody. Not a good formula for rising from the depths of the American League Central Division, but a compelling reason to watch every game, just to see what you’re going to get. There is never a certainty that the Twins will win, nor a certainty that they’ll get hammered. That uncertainty -- along with the artistry of Joe Mauer, the power of Josh Willingham, the speedy efficiency of Ben Revere, the surges of excellence from Denard Span, and the power and big-play ability of Trevor Plouffe, and the resurgence of Morneau -- makes this year’s Twins such an attraction.
Coming out of the All-Star break, the Twins lapsed again. They stumbled, and got beat. When they got swept by Oakland at home last weekend, the second-guessers stormed out to attack.
Now, things have changed a lot in sports journalism. The easiest way to write is to rip, and that has become fashionable. Another new trend is what you call your “center-piece,” which is to come up with a big feature you can display prominently on the front page of the sports section, and it will stand, no matter what.
The Twins looked so bad that Jim Souhan, a columnist for the Star Tribune and a radio commentator in the Twin Cities who is picked up in Duluth on occasion, decided that was the perfect time to bombard the Twins for their total ineptitude. He called the 2011 Twins the most disappointing in history, and wrote that this team makes the 2011 team look good in comparison.
Of course is was second-guessing, as much of rip-writing is. If you’ve got to write a column, and you have a feel for what’s happening, you can time your rip to coincide with another awful day by the home team. The Duluth News-Tribune picks up some of those Minneapolis columns by syndication, and the Trib ran that Souhan column as its own “center-piece” on the Tuesday edition sports cover. A giant headline “Fundamentally Flawed” ran under a four-column photo of centerfielder Denard Span flopping to the turf while the ball landed beside him, and right under the headline was a photo of Joe Mauer being called out on strikes.
That all struck me as curious when I first saw the paper, because on my way to Duluth, I had the Porsche radio tuned in on the Twins game, and they not only had played a record-shattering game to beat a solid Baltimore Orioles team 19-7, but Denard Span might have had his best game in a Twins uniform, making two spectacular catches in the outfield, and going 3-for-5 with five runs batted in, including a bases-loaded three-run double in a seven-run first inning. Mauer, the All-Star catcher who will -- I predict -- win his fourth AL batting title this summer, singled in the first run in the rally, and came up to whack a home run in the second. Revere, in right field, made a diving catch in the top of the first inning to prevent Baltimore from getting off to a good start, and got four hits with three RBIs as the Twins jumped ahead 7-0 in the first and 10-2 in the third.
Sure enough, over in a one-column story on the right edge of the sports page, and adjacent to the photo of Span prat-falling, the story of the Twins fantastic offensive display appeared. Upon closer review, the photo of Span hitting the turf and botching the catch was identified as “during a game against the Tigers” -- which was a week old. And Mauer was called out on strikes in Saturday’s game against Oakland. There were no photos in the Tuesday paper from the 19-run clobbering of Baltimore Monday night.
I can sympathize with the News-Tribune for a good idea gone awry. It’s just that trendy sports departments are more into planning center-piece features than conducting the traditional chore of reacting to the news of the day. In this case, the Star Tribune played its second-guessing shot large, and the News-Tribune picked it up and did the same. It’s easy to second-guess, and just as easy to second-guess newspaper second-guessers, but it’s rare to get the chance to second-guess two different newspapers with the unfortunate timing of overplaying the same second-guess column.
After their record outburst against the Orioles Monday, the Twins came out and fell behind Baltimore 4-1 Tuesday night, but before anybody could write another “rip” column, they chased the Orioles for six innings, battling to get back in the game, and came through with four two-out hits and a walk to gain the lead in the last of the seventh and win 6-4. Mauer, who got his third hit of the night to drive in the final run, also sprinted out of his catcher’s crouch to make a running, diving catch of a fouled bunt attempt to stifle a Baltimore rally. The second-guessers in the Twin Cities still write about how Mauer is a disappointment and hasn’t lived up to his lofty contract, even while Joe continues to prove he’s the best hitter and best catcher in the game. That’s NOT a second-guess. You could look it up.
Last week, baseball’s All-Star game was a total bummer. Justin Verlander, Detroit’s ace who is the best pitcher in baseball, admitted that he tried to put on a show for the fans in Kansas City by firing 100-mph fastballs. Unfortunately, the National League hitters zoned in early and buried Verlander and the American League in an eight-run first inning. The only remaining drama was how long the ineptitude of a very strong AL lineup could fail to score.
The home run derby that now has become such a feature of All-Star games wasn’t much better. So it’s time for Major League Baseball to try my idea, which could be run alongside the home run (yawn) derby. That is for each team to send its fastest player to compete in a sprint around the bases. The final could be the top three from the American League against the top three from the National League.
The idea came to me in 2007, when I was covering a Twins series against Tampa Bay at the Metrodome for MLB.com -- the Major League Baseball website. Carl Crawford was a young left-fielder who couldn’t stop running. In the first game of the series, he hit one to left-center and sped around second, head down, and sprinted for third. Unfortunately, and inexplicably, the third-base coach had held up the base-runner ahead of Crawford, and when he got to third, he realized he wasn’t alone. His teammate broke for home and was nailed for an out, and Crawford, feeling guilty, dashed back for second base and was thrown out for a double play. It was the talk of the game: The Rays started the inning with a single and a double and wound up with nobody on and two out.
In Game 2 of the series, Crawford smacked another one to left, and when it bounced off the wall, Crawford resembled a Roadrunner cartoon as he virtually flew around the bases for an inside-the-park home run. After the game, I talked to the Fox Sports North crew and asked if they’re replay the home run and put a watch on it. I have no idea who might have been the fastest player in Major League history at circling the bases, but the stopwatch showed that Carl Crawford went from the crack of the bat to crossing home plate in 14.12 seconds.
I declared that the fastest it was ever done, and nobody could prove otherwise, because with all its dependence on statistics both valid and meaningless, MLB has never thought of clocking such an intriguing record. The best way to prove or disprove it would be to conduct an All-Star base-circling sprint. As you yawn at the home-run derby, and yawn some more at the get-everybody-in All-Star game, tell me that such a base-running race wouldn’t be a true attraction.
Brothers Bobby and Tommy Archer rewrote the record books in Sports Car Club of America road racing, winning eight consecutive World Challenge Cup titles in Eagle Talon sports coupes. The little Talons had turbocharged engines and all-wheel drive, and so dominated running nose-to-tail that SCCA finally outlawed turbochargers from the series. So the brothers coaxed Chrysler into offering the Talon with all-wheel-drive and without the turbo, and they won again. So SCCA then outlawed all-wheel-drive. So they switched and won truck racing titles with their legendary “bump-drafting” technique, and later went up to V10 Dodge Vipers, and separated to win more on the national and world stages.
The Archer Brothers, whose other brothers gave them an unfair advantage as pit crew and mechanics, have been named to the Class of 2012 of what is still called the “DECC Athletic Hall of Fame.” They will be joined by Annie Adamczak, Bernie Kukar, and sportscaster Bob Junkert.
Annie Adamczak (now Adamczak-Glavan) singlehandedly put Moose Lake athletic teams into the state’s consciousness. Bolstered by good teammates, her records may never be challenged. She played volleyball, basketball and softball, making annual trips to state tournaments. As a junior, her Moose Lake teams went 69-2 and won state titles in volleyball and softball, while finishing second in basketball. Incredible as that is, her senior year was even better -- a perfect 71-0 and state championships in volleyball, basketball and softball. She was All-State in all three sports both her junior and senior years, and was Miss Basketball in 1982. She played shortstop as a freshman and sophomore in softball, then switched to pitcher where she led the Lakers to state titles in 1981 and 1982, when she reportedly had an .005 earned run average. She later was All-America in volleyball at Nebraska and played professionally, before becoming a highly successful coach and athletic director.
Kukar was a multisport star at Gilbert and played quarterback, running back and defensive back at St. John’s, where he also was a star basketball player. He officiated in college and in the NFL for two decades each, and worked two Super Bowls.
Bob Junkert worked for 28 years at WDSM 710 radio and Channel 6 television, where he was a broadcasting rival of Marsh Nelson at KDAL radio and TV. The two would do play-by-play side-by-side in UMD press boxes and at top high school games, and Junkert also broadcast many seasons of Duluth Dukes baseball. Through his sponsoring group of Duluth-Superior Sports Broadcasters Association, Junkert started the original DSSBA Duluth area hall of fame, the predecessor to the current hall. Junkert died in 1982.