The 92 annual Scripps National Spelling Bee wrapped up Memorial Day weekend. In the previous 92 spelling bees, there have been eight six winners and six two-way ties. This year was something else. After a Thursday evening round that went 5 ½ hours Bee organizers began to feel that there would be a large number of competitors at the top, which led pronouncer Jacques Bailly telling them, "We do have plenty of words remaining on our list. But we will soon run out of words that will possibly challenge you, the most phenomenal collection of super-spellers in the history of this competition."
He was not wrong. After another three rounds the eight kids at the top never missed a beat and went 24-24. Often times the parents of the competitors seemed rattled and seriously stressed out but for the most part the kids handled the pressure well.
For the first time ever, it was an eight way tie. Normally, the spelling bee champion wins $50 thousand dollars and the trophy. In the past, when there were two way ties, the money was split. This year, instead of splitting the prize money eight ways, bee organizers decided that each of the kids would receive $50 thousand and each will take home a trophy of their own.
As usual at the National Spelling Bee, the kids were largely supporting each other with high fives and hugs when their competitors friends got words correct. Sportsmanship at its very best, it’s actually really lovely to watch. The video linked to the front page is the very final round where they were told, if you get this final word correct - you’ll tie for the top spot as Bee Champion. Their were eight competitors left. All eight of them got their word correct.
One by the one the kids, in this order and the word they had to spell.
Rishik Gandhasri, 13, of San Jose, Calif.: auslaut.
Erin Howard, 14, of Huntsville, Ala.: erysipelas.
Saketh Sundar, 13, of Clarksville, Md.: bougainvillea.
Shruthika Padhy, 13, of Cherry Hill, N.J.: aiguillette.
Sohum Sukhatankar, 13, of Dallas: pendeloque.
Abhijay Kodali, 12, of Flower Mound, Tex.: palama.
Christopher Serrao, 13, of Whitehouse Station, N.J.: cernuous
Rohan Raja, 13, of Irving, Tex: odylic.
I don’t get to watch the National Spelling Bee every year but ever since the fantastic 2002 Academy Award nominated documentary Spellbound hit the theaters, I would certainly say the Bee is always on my radar. You should check the documentary out. I believe you can watch it free on YouTube.
And to the 2019 winners, all eight of you - well done!
One joy of studying history, especially the 20th Century, is to see how life has changed. To my great satisfaction, our daughter Karyn has a fondness for the subject and especially the aspect of it that shows how people lived then versus now, particularly as reflected in popular culture.
As some folks know, I still collect sports and non-sports cards. I believe in the adage that he who dies with the most baseball cards, wins. Such cards and related ephemera are a great reflection of the times when they were produced and a deep insight into the real history and culture of their eras.
Recently, I acquired a reprint set of the first issue of football cards, which included 35 National Football League players and the immortal Knute Rockne, who had coached at Notre Dame and shaped much of the early game.
The original set, produced in 1935 by the National Chicle Co. of Cambridge MA is too expensive for a non-corrupt former elected official, because it includes the most valuable football card ever, number 34 Bronko Nagurski, as well as number 9 Rockne. They can command five-figure prices in near-mint condition. My reproductions, easily distinguished from the real items, cost a few dollars.
Among other things, all the players are pictured in actual football poses, not with fur coats, bling and shades as some stars have been in recent years. The front sides are art, not photographs, and they use very bright colors, attractive compositions and simple designs with football backgrounds.
The text on the back of the cards, written by Eddie Casey, then coach of the Boston Redskins and formerly Harvard, shows how real sports and life were then as compared to today.
A few things really struck me. The first was the line in Nagurski’s biography on the back that said: “A product of the wheat farm country, he stills works the soil between action on the football field and professional wrestling mat.” This is a great example of a feature of many cards even into the middle-1950s: the discussion of the player’s off-season job.
Their pay was so modest that many had to hold an off-season job for a decent living. Quite the opposite of the sometimes multi-million-dollar guaranteed levels even for rookies in some professional leagues now and the long-term contracts with mid-eight-figure annual pay for some stars.
After baseballer Carl Furillo won the National League batting crown in 1953, he returned to his winter job as an elevator repairman for Otis Elevators, according to one of his cards. Perhaps more than any other fact, that illustrates what I mean about life being real then.
Another item is that the text on the first 27 cards is essentially a tutorial for kids and adults on how to play certain positions and actions, as depicted by the player on the front. From all aspects of kicking, passing, receiving and handling the ball both in the open field and when plunging into the line to the need for defensive ends on kickoffs to stay in their lanes and turn the ball carrier to the middle of the field, etc.
These cards were meant for real fans of the time, not for kids ripping open packs to find a rare insert or special card.
A third aspect of how real everything was then is the height and weight statistics. Only one of the 35 players tipped the scales above 220 pounds (number 11 Turk Edwards at 250) and none were taller than 6’ 3.” Some colleges today have all their starting linemen at 300 pounds plus.
Perhaps the most endearing thing is that coach Casey knew his football, as shown in the final text on Nagurski: “He is as much a tradition to [his alma mater] Minnesota football today as Red Grange is to Illinois.”
The text on the next card ends: “Now, reaching the end of his professional career as a player he is following the footsteps of Red Grange in becoming an assistant coach to the bears.”
Illini fans then and now have always known that Grange was the greatest college football player ever.
Now, if only my daughter Karyn would develop a taste for card collecting.
Ron Knecht is a contributing editor to the Penny Press - the conservative weekly "voice of Nevada." You can subscribe here at www.pennypressnv.com. His column has been reprinted in full, with permission.
Former Dallas Cowboy QB1 now CBS announcer Tony Romo blew minds and drew national headlines due to his uncanny “future reading” ability during the AFC Championship Game as he kept calling plays before they happened, during the Patriot’s victory over the Chiefs (37-31). And now he’ll be calling Super Bowl LIII (53).
Romo was so impressive that CBS immediately offered him a huge raise for him to return as a broadcaster for CBS because NFL teams were actually exploring the possibility of having Romo return to the league as QB. But … I don’t know about that. I mean, Romo is really great as a broadcaster and fans love him but as QB1 he was … well, he was good. Not great. But good. He was a starter for ten years, threw for 35k yards and went 78-49 in the win/loss category and was 50% in the playoffs (never made it to the Super Bowl). So, he was good. But he wasn’t THAT good. I mean, it’s not like he could predict the future during his games, as he appears to be doing as a broadcaster not only the AFC championship game but with numerous games in the past few years (go YouTube “Tony Romo predicts the future”). Which is precisely what the Onion joked about last week with their: “Tony Romo Realizes He Should Have Used Ability To Read Defenses Back When He Was Still Playing.”
But not everyone is as impressed with Romo’s ability to read the game and seemingly predict the future. Former NFL tight end and now writer, Nate Jackson wrote “Let’s All Calm Down about Tony Romo” for Deadspin.com. In it he writes:
“Romo’s predictions were mostly about the Patriots’ offense, and almost all in the second half and overtime. He had a firmer grasp on the Patriots’ offense than he did on the Chiefs’. It seems safe to assume, based on his lack of “predictions” when the Chiefs had the ball, that Romo did not know what plays they would run any more than the rest of us did. This is because the Patriots’ offense is more predictable … As any football game wears on, the playbook shrinks. This is typical of any game: as the thing starts to shake out, a game plan that can be hundreds or thousands of plays shrinks to five or 10 bread-and-butter options. These are plays that are working. Plays that everyone knows. Plays that can be communicated with hand signals. Simple plays. Effective football plays. Recognizing this is not prescience, this is just science.”
This are fair points and Jackson's entire article is good; you should read it (linked above). So, I don't know if Romo is predicting the future or just calling predictable plays but I do feel he was a pretty good QB1 and is a very good announcer (even Nate Jackson agrees with this). This will be his first, but probably not his last Super Bowl appearance.
Sadly, the appearance will not be, as he one day no doubt hoped, as a player, but still.
The NFL (at least the announcing booth) seems to be in good hands.
I am no gymnastics expert, but I certainly know a thing or two about a thing or two. In fact, back in the prehistoric age of the 90’s, I watched as Kim Zmeskal and Shannon Miller dominated American gymnastics and headed with high hopes into the 92 Barcelona Olympics. Alas, things didn’t work out for that team.
It wasn’t until the 96 games that the Magnificent Seven - Amanda Borden, Amy Chow, Dominique Dawes, Shannon Miller, Dominique Moceanu, Jaycie Phelps and Kerri Strug became the first US team to win the gold medal, as well as winning individuals medals for Miller, Dawes and Chow. Of course that team is probably best known for Kerri Strug winning the team gold medal while landing her 2nd vault performance on an injured ankle. Sadly, Zmeskal, missed the 96 games with a torn ACL.
But I haven’t really paid much attention to gymnastics since the end of the 90’s. So, imagine my surprise when even my non-gymnastic following ears perked up at the name Katelyn Ohashi.
“Wait,” Said I, “I’ve heard that name before. Hasn’t she had, like, a few perfect 10’s in modern competitions?”
Turns out, she has.
Twice on balance beam in 2017, three times for floor exercise in 2018 and now, the ultra famous floor exercise that is currently skyrocketing across the internet. That’s five perfect Collegiate level 10’s in the last year and half. And Ohashi does it with the most charming dancing/playset I’ve seen/heard in gymnastics - maybe, ever. Which, as Rebecca Schuman describes in her delightful Slate piece, Ohashi’s exact set (meet?) could only happen at the Collegiate level. From Schuman’s “Why Isn’t All Gymnastics This Fun?” story:
“You see, in the NCAA world, there are rules more befitting the humans of Earth … On floor, this means exactly three tumbling passes and a maximum start-value of 10. And because of this emphasis on execution rather than difficulty, NCAA gymnasts have the time and incentive to train in dance. Simultaneously, because elite gymnasts don’t really dance anymore as NCAA choreography has become more dynamic, with few notable exceptions (such as Dutch wood sprite Eythora Thorsdottir), elite choreography has become … belabored, which is the official gymnastics term for eeeeeeeeeech. The days of Bolshoi-trained masters of the avant-garde such as Svetlana Boginskaya or Olga Strazheva are as forgotten as a Yakov Smirnoff set.”
Wow! Schuman just name dropped Yakov Smirnoff! I forgot all about him. (No, seriously, I did). =)
Anyway, twenty one year old Katelyn Ohashi is at the top of her game right now and her delightful new floor routine shows it. I hope she continues strong and we can all cheer her on in the 2020 Olympic games.
I’ve only watched the video about a, ohhh, say - a dozen times, but I think her playlist from her recent 10 is as follows:
Proud Mary by Tina Turner
September by Earth, Wind and Fire
Maybe another song here but I can’t tell what or who because of the cheering
I Want You Back by The Jackson 5
Rhythm Nation by Janet Jackson
Remember the Time by Michael Jackson
The Way You Make Me Feel by Michael Jackson
Thriller by Michael Jackson
I don’t need to tell you that the College Football Playoff (CFP) needs to expand to include at least eight teams. You and everyone else already knows that. But you might not know why it's taken 150 years for college football's power elite to even consider adopting a college football playoff worthy of the most popular collegiate sport and its most loyal fans.
There were probably college football fans calling for a playoff back in 1978, when Division I-AA (now the Football Championship Subdivision, or FCS) was formed and debuted a four-team playoff. While Alabama and USC shared the Division I-A (now FBS) national championship, Division I-AA crowned Florida A&M champions following a four-team playoff. Division I-AA enjoyed 36 years of certainty while Division I-A named co-champions five times, but the four-team Division I-AA playoff wouldn't last for long, and for the same reason the CFP can't remain a four-team playoff for long.
When it comes to determining a champion, a four-team playoff is only more right more often, not most right most often. The NCAA even realized this and remedied it rather quickly. In just its fourth season, the Division I-AA playoff was expanded to include eight teams. The very next season the playoff expanded to include 12 teams, and in its ninth season, the playoff grew to 16 teams. Now the FCS Playoff field starts with 24 teams. Meanwhile, in its fifth season, the CFP remains a four-team playoff despite FBS co-champions being listed in the NCAA record book last season, further frustrating fans longing for an NCAA-sanctioned, FBS playoff and national championship game.
The FBS remains the only NCAA sports division for which it does not sanction a yearly championship event. While North Dakota State University got one of those iconic NCAA National Championship trophies and another banner to hang in the Fargodome for winning the FCS Playoff in 2017, Alabama did not. The Crimson Tide took home the CFP National Championship Trophy, of course, and the NCAA did list them in their annual record book as a national champion—along with the undefeated University of Central Florida Knights, who were ranked number one in the country according to the Colley Matrix, a mathematical system used as a “selector” of national champions since 1992. It’s the same method that ranked Notre Dame ahead of Alabama despite losing the BCS National Championship Game 42-14 in 2013 because Notre Dame’s strength of schedule remained superior to Alabama’s if you ignore chronological order of the games.
Why and how it took the FBS so long to follow the FCS to the football playoff promised land is mindless, stubborn tradition that’s resulted from a messy start to the sport’s history. That tradition is responsible for the repeated failures of the NCAA to determine a champion upon which most can agree. Tradition is tunnel vision that limits innovation. The NCAA attempted to improve upon fatally flawed methods of selecting national football champions, and every time a new method of selecting champions was adopted, that method’s success was measured relative to its predecessor instead of relative to a possible playoff. And since the predecessor always stunk, the NCAA grew more and more content with simply being better than it was rather than the best it can be.
Since colleges were almost exclusively developing and growing the gridiron game, we can forgive them for almost half a century’s worth of inconclusive seasons over the sport’s first 67 years. Six teams shared the national championship in 1921, and 49 seasons ended without a "consensus" champion. But to be fair, there were a lot of other things to work out first—like the rules of the game and how to safely play it. Had football’s founding fathers known we’d still be changing rules and still not know how to play the game safely over a century later, they might have addressed the issue of 49 seasons basically ending in ties. But crowning the right champion wouldn’t be a problem much longer if football kept killing kids.
In 2000, Rodney K. Smith wrote for the Marquette Sports Law Review that “in 1905 alone, there were over eighteen deaths and one hundred major injuries in intercollegiate football. National attention was turned to intercollegiate athletics when President [Theodore] Roosevelt called for a White House conference to review football rules. … Deaths and injuries in football persisted, however, and Chancellor Henry MacCracken of New York University called for a national meeting of representatives of the nation's major intercollegiate football programs to determine whether football could be regulated or had to be abolished at the intercollegiate level.”
The result was the formation of the Intercollegiate Athletic Association (IAA), later renamed the NCAA in 1910, when the organization went about creating national championship sporting events for collegiate sports—all except football—which is why it was dubbed the “mythical national championship” way back in 1923.
Even when there were so few colleges fielding football teams, scheduling enough games to determine an outright champion was impossible given travel difficulties let alone injuries and deaths to players. So, naturally, white men who thought they knew college football started ranking teams. Both football polls and Bowl Games predate the founding of the NCAA. The earliest college football poll dates back to 1901, when All-America originator Caspar Whitney and Charles Patterson published their rankings in The Sun. The first Rose Bowl was played in 1902 before 8,500 people, so college football was already popular prior to “organized” collegiate athletics. The NCAA was formed in an attempt to save the sport from being banned due to injuries and deaths that resulted from playing the game.
The NCAA didn’t seem to mind that a system, however flawed, was already in place to determine collegiate football champions, and it still doesn’t mind the mythical end to the season of its sport generating more revenue on average ($31.9 million) than the other 35 collegiate sports combined ($31.7 million). The majority of NCAA revenue might come from its more-than-$700-million deal to broadcast its men’s basketball tournament, but when every conference gets its share based on its teams’ performances in The Big Dance, it still only accounts for 10 percent of revenues for Power Five conferences.
Starting in 1936, multiple polls and mathematical ranking systems would determine college football’s consensus national champion. From 1936 to 1949 there were just two unanimous college football champions, with four teams receiving a number one ranking from at least one official selector in the inaugural season. Some selectors still acknowledged by the NCAA predate the Great Depression, but the one it employed in an attempt to give fans the national championship they wanted resulted in more controversy, not less.
The BCS was immediately met with criticism in its inaugural season of 1998 that forced a change to the system. One-loss Kansas State, the third-ranked team in the country, was denied participation in BCS games in favor of Ohio State (ranked fourth) and Florida (ranked eighth). The “Kansas State Rule” assured the third-ranked team a spot in a BCS game. It was used eight times in the 15 BCS seasons.
The BCS was so inconclusive that only its final season ended without controversy according to the “Bowl Championship Series controversies” Wikipedia page. A Quinnipiac survey conducted in 2009 found that 63 percent of 1,849 respondents were ready to do away with the BCS, and a subcommittee in the United States House of Representatives even approved legislation that would make it illegal to promote a national championship game if it didn’t result from a playoff. It never became law obviously, but it likely motivated change.
The BCS was so bad that in 2014 the FBS was content starting where FCS did in 1978 rather than implementing the 24-team playoff model FCS was employing at the time. It made sense for FBS to keep it simple at the start, having failed to crown a consensus national champion in five seasons since the FCS Playoffs began.
The NCAA never showed an interest in captaining a Division I-A college football championship from the start, and that hasn’t changed. The CFP National Championship is captained by those whose plundering funds the NCAA's institutions. The Power Five conferences and their 64 institutions (independent Notre Dame makes 65) get 75 percent of the $608-plus million annual installment from ESPN.
The remaining 25 percent is “shared” with the 57 crew members of the five “other” FBS conferences and three independents, none of whom’s schools stand to earn more by actually playing in the CFP or even winning the national championship, making it as monetarily mythical to members of the American Athletic Conference—like the UCF Knights—as the treasure they’d find captaining an actual pirate ship.
The trip to the CFP is all-expenses-paid, however, with $2.16 million per game played going to each conference represented in the game. Some FCS schools also get drippings of $2.34 million. In 2016, the FCS generated almost $4.5 million in revenue but had over $17 million in expenses, so every little bit helps.
ESPN would willingly renegotiate the $7.3-billion, CFP broadcast deal that runs through the 2025 season (2026 Bowl Games) for the opportunity to broadcast more games. The contract won't hinder expansion of the CFP. Some things that might thwart expansion include the addition of too many games, allegedly making the other bowl games less appealing to viewers, keeping student-athletes away from their families during the holidays, and increased injury risk. And the CFP in its final form won't likely grow to include 24 or even 16 FBS teams since the difference between the top FBS teams and the 16th-ranked FBS team is so vast, while the FCS enjoys a bit more parity despite its own dynasty that rivals Alabama's dominance of its division.
Nothing in the 150-year history of blue-chip, college football has been done in a timely fashion. The FBS has proven to innovate off the field at the pace the National Football League (NFL) adopts college football innovation on the field. The FBS is finally emerging from the tunnel of tradition, leaving the BCS and the rest of the BS behind them. They're still blinded by the light at the end of the tunnel, having just emerged from a sea of money. But when their eyes adjust to the light and their pockets adjust for inflation, they'll discover the light at the end of the tunnel was really the FCS blazing the trail to the college football playoff promised land.
Back in April I called for Minnesota Timberwolves head coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau to step down as head coach--but not necessarily as president. The Jimmy Butler trade provides additional evidence of his ability as a team-builder, and his inbounds “plays” provide additional evidence of his inability to coach offense.
Good coaches get their guys good looks on inbounds plays and before the end of quarters. Thibs doesn't; he is not a schemer. That's why he needed Teague instead of Rubio. He wouldn't know what to do on offense without players who can create their own shots. He did build a playoff team playing mostly isolation offense with very little ball movement, though. It’s the second time he’s spit in the face of evolution and managed to hold his own in the ensuing fight. The first time was when he dared to win with defense as teams made it more difficult to defend by spreading the floor and exploiting the three-point shot.
The Timberwolves still aren’t moving the ball. They were 23rd in passes made and received last season and are 23rd again this season. They aren’t playing particularly faster either. The Timberwolves had the second-slowest pace on offense last year and are third-slowest this season. So they’re still not moving the ball or running the floor, which means they have to be shooting more threes, right? That they are.
Thibodeau knew coming into the season what his team needed to improve. Minnesota needed three-point shooting. The Timberwolves were dead last in three-pointers attempted (22.5) and made (8) last season because their best three-point shooter happened to be their center, and the only other player connecting on more than 40 percent of his threes attempted less than three per game.
Thibs addressed the three-point shooting by adding Anthony Tolliver instead of retaining Nemanja Bjelica. Bjelica is hitting more than half of his threes this season while Tolliver plays less and less, but given the lack of payroll flexibility, there wasn’t much more Thibs could do. And no one was up in arms over this deal. Bjelica was about to move back home and play in Serbia before Sacramento came calling.
Despite Bjelica finding his stroke in Sacramento, this season the Wolves are 21st in three-pointers attempted and 16th in three pointers made, which is directly related to the trade of Jimmy Butler and wouldn’t be possible had Thibodeau taken any of the other rumored offers from Miami or Houston. Only the 76ers had what the Timberwolves needed to win now, and Thibodeau managed to get it.
Last season Minnesota didn’t have one player average more than two made threes per game. This year they have one averaging three made threes per game, and it happens to be 2017-18 All-Defensive First Team honoree, Robert Covington. Covington is the very reason why I didn’t get bent out of shape like this guy when I heard of the Butler trade.
Covington’s under contract for this season and three more at a reasonable rate (just under $12 million annually on average). And not only is he an All-Defensive First-Teamer with length who can defend both guards and forwards and force turnovers. He takes a ton of threes and hits about 39 percent of them. He’s exactly what the Wolves lacked with Butler (three-point shooting) while providing Butler-like defense but with more length. And Minnesota got the bench version of Covington in Dario Saric, too.
Saric can’t defend guards for long, but he can assist Towns in the paint on forwards and centers. He too hit on 39 percent of his three-point attempts last season, but has struggled from long range thus far this season. Still, he provides additional length and depth Minnesota needed to alter shots.
On the offensive end, Butler isn’t much help beyond the arc, and wasn’t expected to be when he was acquired from Chicago with Justin Patton for Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, and Kris Dunn. It’s only fitting that Patton, who’s played four minutes in the NBA due to foot injuries, was shipped out to Philadelphia along with Butler to start anew.
So LaVine, Markkanen, and Dunn basically became Covington, Saric, and a future second-round pick. More importantly, the Timberwolves rid themselves of a cancer that cost them games early in the season. Butler missed all but one practice of the preseason before posting an effective field goal percentage (EFG%) of 41.3 in Minnesota’s season opener at San Antonio. Butler’s EFG% was 51.2 in 2017-18. The Wolves lost by four. Butler then sat out a four-point loss at Dallas that saw 276 combined points scored in the second game of a back-to-back for Minnesota. Butler’s defense was missed as the tired legs of Karl-Anthony Towns played more than 33 minutes a day after playing more than 34.
Butler was meant to be a sort of security blanket for Towns. His ability to stick with just about anyone on the perimeter meant fewer drives into the paint that forced Towns to move his slow feet and close out on the ball handler. In those situations, Towns is always going to be in a pickle because of his footspeed. If he commits to the ball handler early to make up for his lack of quickness, then his man is wide open under the rim, leaving little chance help could come to close the passing lane. If he commits too late, he doesn’t block or alter the shot. But that was before the long arms of Covington and Saric were swiping at ball handlers driving the lane. Fewer drives are actually getting to Towns, allowing him to avoid that lose-lose decision he has to time and defend perfectly to win. Covington alone is averaging three steals per game to go with his almost three threes made per game.
The deal Thibodeau swung with Philly isn’t just the deal he wanted most, but the deal the Timberwolves needed most. He got an upgrade on defense given the remaining roster, which is incredible considering Butler’s defensive prowess, but he also added three-point shooting to a team that needed it most. He got another three-and-D guy in Saric at an even more affordable rate than Covington’s (owed roughly $6 million over the next two years), and a draft pick to boot.
The team chemistry has also visibly improved. Covington is a natural leader, but a soft-spoken one who might connect better with the similarly silent assassins Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Most importantly, Thibs is playing the game his way again (offensive schemes optional). Since Butler was traded to Philadelphia, the Timberwolves have the NBA’s best defensive rating, climbing over Dallas by holding San Antonio to 89 points and tying their third-best margin of victory in franchise history with a 39-point win. The 76ers are 25th in defensive rating.
In short, Robert Covington is the most perfect replacement Thibodeau could possibly find for Butler, both on the court and in the locker room. Thibodeau really did get the best deal for Butler, but I’m still not convinced he should be coaching offense. We’ll let him live until the Trade Deadline, though. It’s the Minnesota nice thing to do.
The Minnesota Wild have been one of the biggest surprises in the National Hockey League (NHL) this season, running out to a 12-5-2 record in their first 19 games—good for second place in the ultra-competitive Central Division, where just nine points separates six of the seven teams in the standings. But sometime in the next week, the State of Hockey will have the NHL’s best hockey team.
Last season, the Minnesota Wild had a brutal start to the season simply due to scheduling. They played five of their first six games on the road, but worse yet, they didn’t play for five days between their second and third game—both of which were on the road. There were six days off between their fourth and fifth game, too. Despite limping out to a 2-2-2 start, the Wild managed to make the playoffs and lose in the first round, as usual.
This season the Wild started on the road at Colorado in a rivalry matchup, but played four of their next five games at home. They again spent five days off between their second and third game, and the results were the same: a 2-2-2 start. But playing three of their next four at Xcel Energy Center helped the Wild to a five-game winning streak, including wins over Tampa Bay and Colorado.
Now the Wild get a week of teams they should beat, and they kicked it off by kicking the crap out of a Canucks (10-9-2) squad finishing a grueling, six-game road trip. Next up for the Wild is a visit from a Buffalo Sabres team (10-6-2) coming off a game against the unruly Jets (they lead the league in penalty minutes per game) in Winnipeg the previous night. Then the Wild visit the lowly Blackhawks (7-8-4) before returning to St. Paul to host lowly Ottawa (8-8-3).
Meanwhile, the Western Conference leading Nashville Predators (13-5-1) just dropped a one-goal game to the surging Coyotes (9-8-1), but more importantly, will be without two of their best players for quite some time. Nashville lost its second-leading goal scorer in Viktor Arvidsson for six to eight weeks, and P.K. Subban was placed on injured reserve as well. They host the sinking Kings (5-11-1) desperate for a win, followed by a visit from the East’s best Tampa Bay Lightning (13-5-1).
The Lightning, meanwhile, are at Philadelphia (9-9-1) on Saturday before visiting Nashville on Monday. They host Florida (7-6-3) on Wednesday and Chicago on Friday, but will likely be without top goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who is out indefinitely with injury.
It takes some luck to score goals, stop goals and win hockey games. The Minnesota Wild have been relatively lucky when it comes to goal scoring, and they are going to need that luck to continue. They’re a team that scores ugly goals. They rely on deflections like this one Eric Staal scored against the Blues for his 400th goal. They rely on redirects like this one by Nino Neiderreiter scored against the Canucks on Thursday night. Basically, unless the opposing goalie is standing on his head, the Wild are going to win games if they get a lot of shots on goal, because their defense doesn’t allow a lot of clean shots on goal, and their goalie hasn’t allowed much to get past him.
Devan Dubnyk hasn’t been lucky. He’s simply been pretty good at stopping goals (.926 save percentage is 13th overall), and he’s been pretty good for a long time (tied for 15th overall in goals allowed per game since 2014-15 season). But the Wild haven’t had to go without their goalie like the Lightning will. Dubnyk’s 18 games played this season is eighth amongst goalies, and since the 2014-15 season, he’s eighth overall in games started by goalies. The Wild have been extremely luck in this regard.
The Wild beat the Canucks without 34-year-old Zach Parise on Thursday, who took ill prior to game time. He’s expected back for the Wild’s next game against the Sabres. But to give you a sense of just how lucky the Wild have been health-wise, take a look at the injury report for the entire season. Not one of the eight reports has been to place a player on injured reserve. Two reports were simply to activate players coming off IR.
With the Wild entering a three-game homestand over American Thanksgiving where they’re 6-1-2, it’s not inconceivable for them to be the NHL’s best hockey team in the near future. A three-game tour of Canada in the first week of December as part of a five-game stretch against strictly Canadian teams will test their resolve and let us truly know what to expect from the Wild. The best test of that stretch will come against the second-best team in the East, Toronto (13-6-0) on Dec. 1.
With the points the Wild have already amassed (27) and the way in which they’ve earned them (12 points won on the road) puts Minnesota in an enviable position. They don’t have to be great on the road given their success at home, so down the stretch they can lean on their home crowd to collect enough points to make the playoffs. Whether the Wild are hosting an opening round series of the Stanley Cup Playoffs will depend on their health, and specifically, the health of Parise, whose PDO of 105.3 (his team’s shooting percentage plus save percentage with him on the ice) leads the team. Translation: with Parise on the ice, the Wild are at their best on both ends.
I’ve only just realized that I’ve never been a fan of any National Basketball Association (NBA) team, but simply a fan of fun basketball. The Minnesota Timberwolves helped me realize this by playing the least fun basketball I’ve ever seen on Friday night, while the Milwaukee Bucks repeatedly made me smile and laugh. My first love, basketball, has returned.
I gave up professional basketball for a long time after Michael Jordan retired a second time in 1999, but I never stopped watching Duke University men’s basketball. I’ve been a fan of Duke University men’s basketball for as long as I can remember. And I wasn’t a bandwagon fan like I was with the Minnesota Twins, with whom I took an interest because of a chubby, gleeful center fielder who carried his team to a World Series Championship in 1991.
Even though the Duke Blue Devils won it all in 1991 and got there on the back of Christian Leattner’s “Shot Heard Round the World,” I attribute by Duke fandom to my aunt’s indoctrination of me. She was a campus dispatcher at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and hated it, so she sent me a postcard featuring an overhead look of the Duke University campus surrounded by the Duke Forest. I think I checked their academic standards and immediately wanted to attend after high school, but when I first witnessed the energy at Cameron Indoor on television, I was hooked.
I was a nerd who was always a better coach than player, so I appreciated the idea of smart kids beating the talented kids with schemes and heart. I was bringing up the rear in the top 10 percent of my high school class of 88 graduates, so I’m relatively smart given where I grew up. My best friends were the two smartest kids in the state. But when I watched the 1991-92 Blue Devils, it felt like I was meant to go there. I didn’t have a very good concept of my family’s fiscal situation, however.
So while I relentlessly rooted for the Chicago Bulls of the ’90s, it was because they were so fun to watch. They played my kind of basketball—above the rim and in the paint on offense, and physical on defense. That’s why I came back to the NBA in 2009, when Derrick Rose arrived on the scene as Rookie of the Year, then All-Star, then youngest MVP ever. But I didn’t come back because of Rose; I came back because the Bulls were holding teams to under 90 points with physical defense.
Besides Michael Jordan’s final game at Target Center, it was Tom Thibodeau who got me watching the NBA for the first time in six years. It was Tom Thibodeau who brought Jimmy Butler to the Timberwolves and got me to spend money on a 10-game, season ticket package. And it’s Tom Thibodeau who now has me watching anyone but the Timberwolves.
I had already put down a $250 deposit to retain my season ticket package with the Timberwolves, but it wasn’t difficult to find 10 games I wanted to watch. In the NBA, there are enough athletic freaks to go around that aren’t playing for the Timberwolves and would be worth seeing. Giannis Antetokounmpo is one. Antetokounmpo alone, scoring just 15 points, made the $80 I paid to sit a little lower than I sat when Jordan played his last game in Target Center worth every penny. That and seeing Sterling Brown get into the game and score some points. His jersey was the first NBA jersey I ever bought, not for his play on the court, but because of the way he handled himself when questioned and then tased by Milwaukee police for parking in handicapped spaces. Despite a vast Milwaukee crowd, I was the only one in the building proudly sporting Brown’s jersey.
LeBron James is obviously another one of those athletic freaks worth seeing regardless of your team’s ability, and the Los Angeles Lakers visit Target Center twice this season. Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry are another two. Anthony Davis another. Joel Embiid is another. James Harden another. Kawhi Leonard. Kyrie Irving and his coach Brad Stevens make the list. Speaking of coaches worth paying to see scheme, Gregg Popovich is one. And with all the hoopla over Jimmy Butler’s trade request, the Timberwolves’ home opener against the lowly, LeBron-less Cavaliers was must-see. That’s 10 games worth watching regardless of whether Jimmy Butler or anyone else plays for the Timberwolves.
Now I’m even planning a basketball/ski trip to Utah during the first round of the NBA Playoffs. I don’t expect the Timberwolves to be playing Utah, and couldn’t care less who does. I like Utah’s game. They play pretty good defense. I also like the Lakers’ game. They score all the points they can in the paint and as fast as they can to make up for their collective inability to shoot the three. It’s exactly what the Timberwolves should be doing, but Tom Thibodeau’s in the way. I won’t let it stop me from enjoying my newfound love of fun basketball, and I don't even like the evolution of the game via the exploitation of the three-point line.
With cannabis now legal in Canada, I thought I’d help sports fans prepare for the circus that is the first day of cannabis legalization. If you’re going to be playing sports or watching them live or on TV, this comprehensive guide provides the perfect pot strains for enhancing your sports experiences.
Pot strains don’t just get you high in varying degrees. Some strains are relaxing and help relieve pain, inflammation, even depression—perfect for postgame pain and blues after a loss. Some strains are uplifting, energetic, and facilitate creativity, which might be nice prior to your recreational flag football game. Now that you can legally purchase cannabis in Canada (some places), our readers in Canada might find this insight helpful in pairing pot with their favorite sports.
I’ve done the first day of legal cannabis sales before. I was there in Denver, Colorado covering the first legal purchase of recreational marijuana in the United States in 75 years for The Leaf Online. Before the dispensary opened its doors to the public, members of the press packed the pot shop to capacity to witness and report history. Coloradans and out-of-state visitors to whom I spoke happily braved the cold New Year’s Day morning in 2014, forming a line that spanned the length of the street. One older couple said they were “hippies from Indiana and just had to be here.” I was surprised to find anyone who drove further than me just to be there. That couple eventually bought something, though. By the time the press conference was over the line wrapped around the block, and I had a deadline to meet, so I drove 1,400 miles round-trip to spend 36 hours in Denver in the first days of legal weed sales and not get high.
You’re going to be spending a lot of time in line if you plan to make a purchase on Opening Day, so it’s best to have an idea of what you want before you get to the pot shop as to not hold up the line for other cannasseurs. Most stores will have their menu of goodies available on their website, so check that out before choosing a retailer. Just give it a quick look to see if they have what you want. You’ll have plenty of time to investigate further while standing in line.
So what do you want, and who am I to tell you? Well, my cannabis credentials have been earned over 12 years of regular consumption for both medical and recreational purposes. I had a medical cannabis prescription for two years in Montana, during which I used indica strains to alleviate back pain resulting from degenerative disc disease and used sativa strains to get my indica’d ass off the couch and take advantage of the moments I was pain free.
I wrote two bills to legalize and tax cannabis in Montana, familiarizing myself with the medical cannabis industry and its regulatory structure in so doing. My work obviously connected me to like-minded people throughout the state who smoked me up and introduced me to countless strains. If it’s a strain grown in Montana, I’ve probably smoked it at some point. I’ve also made recreational, or as we advocates now call it, “adult-use” purchases in Colorado, Washington, and Nevada.
Since I love to cook and bake, I experimented with multiple cannabis recipes because eating it was so much more effective on my back pain. My friends and I made Mint Cheeba Chocolate Chip Ice Cream, Literal Laughy Taffy, cakes, cookies, and, of course, brownies. I still love to eat edibles on an off day, but when I was introduced to waxes, sugars, and shatters, I knew I’d seldom smoke again.
Smoking anything, cannabis included, is bad for your lungs. While there’s no rat poison in joints (yet), simply burning the cannabis flower will result in you inhaling tars, and if you have a back problem like me, a seemingly insignificant cough can aggravate that nerve pain and kill your buzz. That’s why I mostly vaporize concentrates.
Concentrates are concentrated Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive substance in cannabis, in resin form. I’ve seen shatter that’s 98 percent THC, which means you could work on the same gram of shatter for weeks and hardly make a dent. Concentrates are for veteran tokers, though, so when I recommend them, it’s with the assumption that you have run the gauntlet yourself and have graduated to a more healthy and effective means of cannabis consumption.
Now that you know that I know what I’m talking about, here are the perfect pot pairings for playing and watching sports live and on TV. If I haven’t tried a strain, you’ll find a link to Leafly to learn more about it.
Snoop Dogg’s Tangerine Man is a strain I’d love to try before a flag football game. It supposedly “pairs wonderfully with daytime physical activity.” Of course, I’d probably eat it to preserve my lung capacity. Maybe at halftime I’d pile on a Trainwreck taffy or two, a hybrid that provides an uplifting, energetic boost while also treating pain. Postgame pain is best treated with Purple Urkle, which will relax every muscle in your body and eventually bring satisfying sleep.
My first Minnesota Vikings game at U.S. Bank Stadium was an overwhelming experience. My buzz from vaping some sativa pregame had mostly worn off by the time the Vikings took the field, which nearly made me weep tears of joy. I think my next game I’ll eat some Lemon Jack. “Like a strong cup of coffee, Lemon Jack is a daytime strain,” and it apparently makes you talkative, which is an important part of being a good football fan. You need to make noise when the opponent’s on offense.
At halftime I’d keep the energy and stress management going with Light of Jah, which I’ve actually smoked but never eaten. It’s a long-lasting high, so eating it should get you through the second half no problem. Postgame I’d smoke or vape Grape Ape to relax and manage any stress resulting from a poor performance by my boys in purple.
I wouldn’t stray too far from the pot pairings for watching football live except instead of eating cannabis I’d probably vape it simply because I can. Lemon Jack to start with Jock Horror at halftime to enhance your halftime appetite and Grape Ape postgame seems reasonable. If you’ve got things to do besides watching football after the game, substitute Jack Herer, Green Crack, Durban Poison, or Super Lemon Haze for Grape Ape.
My co-ed softball team in college was named Bozeman Toast because most of us were toasted for every game. It did not enhance our performance, but it made the game more fun, especially playing in rain and then sleet and then snow in the mountains of Western Montana.
We always smoked sativas before a game. I remember Super Silver Haze and Sour Diesel both being employed often in those days. They are energetic strains that foster creativity and will have you smiling even if you misplay a ball in right center that you try to undo with a dive into a puddle that leaves you soaked and clears the bases.
The best game we played that season was when we came across some Green Crack. We scored 16 runs and lost. It was the rain/sleet/snow game, during which I saw our center fielder make the best catch I’ve seen while on the field of play. It was on a sinking line drive she got a great jump on and dove for at the last possible moment. Green Crack, as you can imagine, is an ultra-uplifting, energetic strain that facilitates focus rather than creativity. You might not have as much fun playing the game as you would with Super Silver Haze or Sour Diesel, but you’ll be alert out there and light on your feet.
No pregame pot party is going to get you through a baseball game, which is where edibles come into play. The high from eating cannabis lasts much longer than smoking or vaping it. I remember having a bunch of Strawberry Lemonade shake that I used to make butter for cookies and ate a couple before a Minnesota Twins game that made for a most euphoric evening. Strawberry Lemonade is a sativa/hybrid mix, so it’s both uplifting and relaxing. Eating it, though, provides an hours-long body high that makes your cold, plastic chair feel like your favorite recliner at home.
I also enjoyed some sativa-dominant cookies I bought before a game at Safeco Field in Seattle, and we had some five-milligram lozenges to stimulate the buzz for hour three of the game. It was a quick one, as Felix Hernandez barely bested Phil Hughes in a pitching duel. I believe that was the year Hughes set the MLB record for strikeout-to-walk ratio, but King Felix put up a zero to his one. We got so sick of the King’s Corner chanting “K” on every two-strike count (there were a ton), we started screaming at no one in particular, asking what all these Spanish-speakers wanted. “¿Que hora es? Is it the time you want? What?”
We had fun despite the loss, but we didn’t realize that the five-milligram lozenges we were eating were actually two, five-milligram lozenges stuck together, so my buddy, who’s a pot novice, got sick after the game from mixing too much booze with too much cannabis. Don’t do that. In fact, don’t drink any alcohol while using cannabis. Frankly, it’s a waste of booze.
If you’re eating edibles for the first time, go slow to start. Then, if you feel like your buzz could be better and you can handle it, eat a bit more. Like alcohol, your weight, activity, and whether or not you’ve eaten or drank alcohol recently effects your body’s absorption of THC.
If I could consume any cannabis I wanted before a baseball game, I’d try eating Cracker Jack. It’s an intense sativa combining two of my favorite strains: Green Crack and Jack Herer. Around the fifth inning, I’d sneak into the bathroom and take a few vapor puffs of any sativa. Baseball stadiums are more bag-friendly than other arenas, so I generally always have my vaporizer with me in it’s little, book-like case. After the seventh inning stretch I’ll take another trip to the bathroom for another sativa boost. Sativa, sativa, sativa…got it?
The beauty of watching baseball on TV in a place with legal pot sales is when you get to the third inning and feel like taking a nap until the seventh inning stretch, you can reach for an indica and set an alarm for an hour. Don’t be the guy who falls asleep at the ballpark. Baseball doesn’t need you advertising the lack of activity in the game. There are plenty of strikeouts already doing so.
I enjoy an indica-dominant hybrid when watching baseball at home, but usually start the game with a sativa. Durban’ Poison has been one of my favorite sativa strains since I first discovered it a few years ago during a vacation in Colorado. The sugar crumble concentrate keeps my body and mind uplifted even if the Twins do not. If they fall behind early by a lot, I’d reach for Northern Lights or Blue Cheese and get comfortable. If I fall asleep and miss something, I can always rewind. Sometimes I sleep right through until they air the replay, which is even better because I don’t know the score or outcome.
I wouldn’t recommend smoking or even vaping anything prior to playing basketball. You’ll be hacking up a lung within minutes. Instead, eat some high-energy sativa like Durban Poison, Jack Herer, or Green Crack pregame. At halftime, pile on an indica-infused edible to help manage cramps, inflammation, and muscle spasms. While I’ve never tried it, Kelly Hill Gold seems to be the perfect pot strain for playing the second half of a basketball game. Not only does it help manage pain, stress, cramps, inflammation, and muscle spasms, it’s an energetic indica, which is rare (it’s the only one I found). A postgame puff of Girl Scout Cookies (now known as GSC) will have you feeling fantastic (it really does taste great), and it’s half-sister Cookies Kush seems to be great for pain before bed. Use CBD oil on any specific pain.
It doesn’t take much to get up for a basketball game. Besides hockey, it’s probably the most entertaining sport I watch live on a regular basis. I think it’s the energy of the crowd and speed of the action that gets me. Basketball was my first love, so it’s easy for me to enjoy. I ride my bike to Target Center for around a dozen Timberwolves games every season, and before I hit the pavement I like to vape a calming hybrid like White Widow or Pineapple Express. If all I have is sativas, Lemon Haze and Sour Diesel are adequate alternatives.
I like to calm my nerves pregame because by halftime I know I’ll be incensed. I usually just grab a Coca-Cola and munch on the trail mix I brought with me and let my buzz dissipate at halftime. The crowd is my intoxicant in the second half, but postgame I’m either subsidizing my euphoria with Durban Poison if we win or treating my minor depression with Bubba Kush or Northern Lights if we lose. Chocolope is the perfect pot strain after a loss in a day game because it’s energetic, uplifting, and helps you handle stress and depression.
Watching basketball makes me hungry as hell, so when I’m watching at home I stuff my face. I don’t feel so guilty when I’m watching Duke University men’s basketball because I’m usually pacing the entire game. I seldom sit down and am usually bouncing with the Cameron Crazies during a Duke game. It’s sad really, but not much could make you sad with a bit of Jock Horror. I’ve never tried it, but I’ve tried just about all of its parents, and apparently it’s most notable side effects are maximum munchies, dry eyes, and dry mouth. Since you’re in the comfort of your home with the fridge and Clear Eyes just steps away, side effects be damned.
At halftime I’d switch to a hybrid like OG Kush just to make sure I’m still able to sleep well after the game. An indica like God’s Gift or LA Confidential will help with fourth-quarter stress and assure you sleep like you just played a basketball game instead of watching one on TV.
Playing hockey hurts. Most of us aren’t playing full-contact football, so hockey is about as hard and painful a recreational sport you can play. That’s why we’re breaking out the high-THC strains. A Jack the Ripper cookie prior to puck drop will keep you energized and focused while treating your pain throughout the first period and into the second. It’s generally more than 20 percent THC, so be careful not to overeat it or you could end up “disoriented and paranoid.”
About midway through the second period a Dragon’s Breath edible will help you manage your fatigue and provide a lift for the third period. Postgame vaping of Harlequin is the ultimate pain reliever with a CBD/THC combination that won’t put you to sleep or over intoxicate you.
I can’t remember what specific strain or if it was even advertised on the bag of cookies my buds and I ate before watching the Minnesota Wild take on the Avalanche in Colorado, but I know it was a sativa that made us very focused on the game. And I never knew the strain of the shake I used to make Cocoa Canna Butterscotch Chip Cookies for when the Avs visited Minnesota, but I know it made us giggly as schoolgirls at a slumber party. It was fantastic, and the fact the Wild won in a shootout made it that much more fantastic.
So before puck drop I’d recommend eating some Super Green Crack or The Cough. Both have had me crying laughing, and hockey can be one of the funniest sports. People falling down is always funny. Eventually, though, you’ll want to come back down to Earth. Some Silver Haze edibles midway through the game will actually clear the haze while maintaining the euphoria. My postgame pot of choice after a hockey loss would be Headband for its ability to combat elevated stress levels and depression, even headaches, which can result from screaming at referees and cheap-shotting opponents. After a win, or anytime in my personal experience, Bruce Banner hits the spot.
Hockey’s probably my favorite sport to watch on TV. It demands my attention, so I oblige by vaping Durban Poison or Green Crack or Super Lemon Haze or Jack Herer or Chocolope or Harlequin. Whatever sativa I have on hand tends to be one that retains most of my focus faculties.
If it’s a day game and I want to accomplish things afterward, some Pineapple Express is perfect for the third period. It leaves you ready to take on a creative project. The third period of night games are best accompanied by Cinderella 99, a dreamy, euphoric, stress-reliever. My preferred pot postgame would be Aliens OG, but it’s not to be taken lightly. It’s one of the most potent strains of weed out there at up to 28 percent THC. MK Ultra would be second, and G13 would be a distant third. For you beginners out there, try some Cheese and forget to call me in the morning.
When I first looked at the Minnesota Timberwolves schedule when it was released, I figured there was no way I’d want to see the Timberwolves’ home opener against the Cleveland Cavaliers with LeBron James leaving for Los Angeles. Even with a free ticket, I figured I’d skip the home opener and take whatever I could get for the ticket, if anything at all. Now the home opener might be the must-see game of the year, and perhaps the last game worth seeing.
The televised circus that has been the Minnesota Timberwolves franchise history reached soap operatic status when the show’s star, Jimmy Butler, requested a trade on Sept. 18, dictating the teams for which he’d prefer to play and a date by which he’d like the deal done in a meeting with Timberwolves coach and president of basketball operations, Tom Thibodeau. Butler’s dumping of his longtime partner in basketball crimes (and crimes against basketball) might have come as a shock to Thibodeau, but not to anyone watching at home. Butler was giving Thibodeau all the signals; he just was blind to them.
Butler is a free agent when he waives his player option after this season and will likely sign the final max deal of his NBA career (he’s 29). But Butler stands to make the most money with whichever team is paying him at the end of this season, so he obviously doesn’t think the Timberwolves are a championship-caliber team now or maybe ever. Given Golden State’s addition of DeMarcus Cousins, Houston’s addition of Carmelo Anthony, and the Lakers’ addition of LeBron, he’s probably right. Things don’t look promising for any other Western Conference team either, but at least the Timberwolves with Butler are ahead of those other teams.
Before Butler went down with a torn meniscus last season, the Wolves had the eighth best net rating in basketball (2.6). After Butler’s injury the Wolves were 19th in net rating (-1.0), so to say Butler’s valuable to the Wolves would be an understatement. He’s invaluable, which is why Thibodeau is having such a hard time finding what he perceives to be a fair trade. Butler has allowed Thibodeau to not only minimize the defensive deficiencies of the young Towns and Wiggins, but hide his own offensive incompetencies. The Wolves took more contested shots than any team in the NBA last season and attempted the second fewest wide open shots.
Thibodeau isn’t putting his players in positions to succeed on offense; he’s relying on players to create their own scoring opportunities and always has. His dependence on Derrick Rose, trading of Ricky Rubio, a premiere facilitator on a team with three, top-flight scoring options, and his head-scratching acquisition of Jeff Teague, a score-first guard on a team with those same three scoring options ahead of him, are indicative of Thibodeau’s disinterest in offensive strategizing while the rest of the league enjoys an offensive evolution. It would be like seeing the earliest humans figure out upright walking for the first time and not only refusing to follow suit, but continue resisting after seeing the obvious advantages of having hands free to hold things like tools.
If championships aren’t part of the benefits package teams can offer Butler in contract negotiations, why wouldn’t he play where he wants to play for as much money as he can make? One thing Butler’s made pretty clear is that Minnesota isn’t where he wants to play with what’s left of his prime. I sensed this when I saw how much he was enjoying California during the offseason. Minnesota weather during basketball season is enough to make most any employee consider relocation, whether they’re playing a game for a living or waiting tables. Unfortunately for Timberwolves fans, the weather this winter won’t be as cold as Butler’s relationships with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
The feud between Butler and Towns has long been alleged and finally confirmed. Butler’s made it pretty clear that Towns and Wiggins are not the players with whom he wants to play for the rest of his prime years. calling Towns and Wiggins soft after a climactic clubbing of the Timberwolves’ first team while scrimmaging with the third team. And I don’t think Butler’s wrong.
In basketball just as in life, there are haves and have-nots. Those born into money don’t know what it’s like without it, and those without don’t forget what it took to make it without money. The same goes for athletic talent. Those with exceptional talent never know what it’s like to live without it, and those without talent never forget what it took to live without it. Towns and Wiggins are haves; Butler is a have not.
There aren’t many NBA players of Butler’s caliber who had to work harder and longer than Butler to get where they are today. Not even Michael Jordan, who was famously cut from his high school team, had a more difficult path to NBA superstardom. Butler didn’t have LeBron’s build or talent to enter the league out of high school; he didn’t even have the game for NCAA Division I basketball. After a year at Tyler Junior College he transferred to Marquette, where he spent another three years honing his skills. Then, after the Bulls drafted him with the final selection of the first round in the 2011 NBA Draft, he didn’t play in an NBA game until Jan. 1, 2012, with his first start coming 80 games later. He was already 25 years old when he was first named an All-Star. As of this writing, Towns is 22, and Wiggins is 23.
Obviously things came a lot easier for Towns and Wiggins relative to Butler, and Butler’s probably frustrated that a couple of gifted kids who haven’t put in the work he has are already earning max money. But he’s definitely frustrated that they aren’t meeting his demands when it comes to effort and intensity. He might be demanding more of his teammates than anyone else in the league, but so did Michael Jordan. Butler just doesn’t have the rings to justify his expectations for his teammates, and frankly, with this generation, I don’t know that rings would be convincing either.
Towns and Wiggins might think Butler’s demands are unrealistic—even unhealthy—but making youngsters uncomfortable and challenging them physically and mentally in practice prepares them for in-game adversity. You learn a lot about yourself when faced with adversity, but you can only learn to overcome it if you embrace it. Towns and Wiggins don’t seem to be the adversity-embracing types.
"Every time I get switched out onto you, you pass it,” he said of Towns in an interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols. When faced with adversity in the form of Jimmy Butler, Towns and Wiggins are passers; they avoid the adversity. It’s unfortunate for fans of Minnesota Timberwolves basketball that Towns and Wiggins aren’t willing to be led by Butler because what they need in order to get what they want are Butler’s lessons in leadership they’ve dismissed. They aren’t going to get what they need from anyone else, and what they want—to lead themselves—is more unrealistic than Butler’s expectations of them.
Regardless, Butler, Towns, and Wiggins are still, as of this writing, on the same team. But when the Cavaliers visit Target Center for the home opener, I urge Timberwolves fans in attendance to support their team. Booing Jimmy Butler during pregame introductions is not going to make him change his mind about playing in Minnesota, and even if nothing will, he’s not responsible for turning the Timberwolves franchise into the butt of a basketball joke. If you’re going to boo someone on Friday, boo Tom Thibodeau, because the guy who hired him, owner Glen Taylor, won’t be announced.
Despite the Land of 10,000 Lakes losing the second-winningest NBA franchise to a place with roughly as many lakes as Lakers in uniform, Minnesota has managed to become a mini-Mecca of American sports entertainment. In the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., you can see the Minnesota Twins and St. Paul Saints play professional baseball, watch one of the best women’s professional basketball teams, see one of the best American football teams and catch the Loons playing Major League Soccer—all in a three-day weekend. The same cannot be said for a much larger and more diverse market in Miami, and their respective histories of stadium funding and construction might have everything to do with it.
In April of 2018, Minnesota had four professional sports teams in action for the first time ever, two of which were in the playoffs. The “Minneapolis Miracle” at U.S. Bank Stadium on Jan. 14 served as a coming out party for Minnesota sports on the national stage. Relative to the “big four” sports leagues, the Minnesota Lynx quietly collected Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) championships in four of the past eight years. Despite it being the top league of its kind in the world, a dynastic WNBA team hardly nudged the needle gauging national interest.
However, adding a team from MLS, widely considered the fifth-best soccer league in the world, was such a good idea Vikings owners Mark and Zygi Wilf got written permission to pursue the opportunity when seeking approval for construction of U.S. Bank Stadium. The bill passed by the Minnesota Legislature in May 2012 included a clause allowing the Wilf’s to pursue an MLS franchise to play in their new stadium for up to five years. That’s not how it went down, but the Minnesota United Football Club (MNUFC) group fast-tracked its way to an MLS franchise regardless, while a larger, more soccer-friendly population in Miami is still waiting.
The addition of MNUFC makes the Twin Cities one of just 10 markets with franchises in all five of the major, American, professional sports leagues—the National Football League (NFL), National Basketball Association (NBA), National Hockey League (NHL), Major League Baseball (MLB) and MLS. Minneapolis-St. Paul is just the sixth market featuring teams in each of the five major, American, professional sports leagues while also supporting a Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) franchise.
You might be wondering how the roughly 3.5 million residents of the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and the modest reach of its 15th-ranked media market manage to support seven professional sports teams including the independent league St. Paul Saints baseball team. But what makes it possible now has a lot to do with what’s happened in the past.
When the roof of the Metrodome collapsed for a fifth time in 2010, its deflation left Minnesotans deflated. The amount of air Minnesotans collectively sighed over the thought of paying for another stadium would have raised the roof of the Metrodome. The residents and visitors of Hennepin County had just contributed $350 million, or 63 percent of the funding for Target Field’s construction through a county-wide, 0.15-percent sales tax hike. The timing couldn’t have been worse for the Wilfs, but at least the Twins didn’t give Twin Cities’ residents a reason to resist stadium construction like Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria did in Miami.
Miami, a city with almost twice the population as the Twin Cities and a diverse population prime for MLS action, has a worse media market ranking than Minneapolis-St. Paul (16th-ranked). But the proximity of sports media competitors in Tampa-St. Petersburg (13th-ranked) and Orlando (18th-ranked) isn’t the reason for the struggles of David Beckham’s MLS investment group in Miami.
Like the Metrodome, the Marlins former home was an all-purpose stadium not meant for baseball. And like Target Field, Marlins Park had support of Miamians—as long as they didn’t have to pay for it. Despite both of these teams being guilty of fielding uncompetitive rosters for years, they both had two, relatively recent World Series Championships to ease the pain somewhat. The Marlins’ 2003 championship spurred the City of Miami to propose the construction of a baseball-only stadium next to the Miami Orange Bowl.
Miami-Dade County was more forthcoming with funding than the City of Miami, proposing a $420-plus million stadium at the Orange Bowl location. But the State of Florida and City of Miami resisted, sparking rumors of the Marlins relocating just as Loria’s last team, the Montreal Expos, did prior to Loria receiving (he didn’t put a dime down) ownership of the Marlins from then-commissioner Bud Selig to replace Loria’s failed business. This didn’t help soothe the anxiety of fans who saw their championship roster disappear over the course of two very bad seasons.
On Feb. 21, 2008, MLB COO Bob DuPuy threatened that if a decision wasn’t made with regards to funding a stadium for the Marlins that very night, it would be “the death knell for baseball in Miami.” Hours later funding was approved by the City of Miami and the County Commissioners for a $525 million home for the Marlins. The plan called for Miami-Dade County residents to flip just $50 million of the bill, with $297 million coming from tourist taxes. The City of Miami would incur $127 million in stadium-related costs.
The finalized deal, however, was for a $634-million stadium, 80 percent of which would be publicly funded. With interest compounding over 40 years, the actual cost to the county to repay the $409 million in bonds would be roughly $2.4 billion. The combined expenses incurred by the city and county for the construction of Marlins Park total $2.61 billion through 2049. Loria just sold the team for $1.2 billion, claiming a loss of $141 million, which would not only allow him to avoid paying the five percent of the sale's proceeds to the public that was agreed upon, but entitle him to the $50 million held in escrow for the city and county.
Like Loria’s Expos, the Twins were an alleged target for contraction for low revenue generation and the inability to get a new stadium built. But Govornor Jesse Ventura and the Minnesota Legislature did manage to agree on a ballpark funding proposal, and the Twins played the 2003 season and six more in the Metrodome. Target Field construction didn’t begin until May 2007, but Hennepin County taxpayers hardly noticed the 0.15 sales tax increase and probably thought it was worth it upon seeing the completed structure. It showed in the sixth-ranked attendance during Target Field’s inaugural season.
The same cannot be said for Marlins Park, where despite its shiny new digs and dancing marlin statue, the Marlins christened their new ballpark by finishing 18th in attendance.
When it comes to the Wilfs building the best stadium experience in sports, they have the Pohlads and Target Field to thank. Had the Twins saddled the county with billion-dollar debts or built a lemon, U.S. Bank Stadium might have been built for the Las Vegas Vikings. The environment the Pohlads left the Wilfs was as squeaky clean and inviting as the windows that had to be replaced on U.S. Bank Stadium because birds kept flying into them.
The Wilfs didn’t build U.S. Bank Stadium quite as clean and easy as the Pohlads did Target Field. Through infrastructure expenditures and other stadium-related spending, both the state and city have exceeded their respective $348-million and $150-million contribution limits that are called for in the state law governing the stadium deal. Also, Minnesota House Republicans want to spend $26 million in the stadium’s reserve fund, reserved in case the state is unable to pay its share of the stadium debt, to build veterans homes. But the Wilfs didn’t leave a wake like Loria’s.
While Beckham and his investors must now convince Miami voters to let them build a billion-dollar MLS soccer and commercial complex before the midterm elections despite it costing taxpayers nothing, MNUFC will move into its new, privately-funded stadium in St. Paul next season, it's third in MLS. Again, Loria’s wake has altered all boats in its path, regardless of the boat’s size or the size of its passengers’ pocketbooks.
MNUFC’s Allianz Field cost just $190 million, so not only did the MNUFC ownership group bring MLS to Minnesota swiftly but thriftly. The MNUFC group didn’t even have to put out any golf cart fires.
In December 2013, Miami-Dade County commissioners voted unanimously to allow Mayor Carlos A. Giménez to negotiate with David Beckham’s group of investors looking to bring MLS to Miami. Almost five years later, the hopes and dreams of David Beckham’s Miami MLS investment group are in the hands of understandably skeptical Miami voters, and they have to spend $35 million to clean up toxic soil and another $25 million to the city for park and walkway projects.
People don't easily forget when they've been swindled by billionaire owners of sports teams to pay for the construction of stadiums. Just ask anyone living in Cincinnati. They were swindled twice, and Miamians aren't going to let that happen. Beckham's group might be promising a privately-funded stadium, but everything, from taxes to fast food, gets more expensive when there's a new stadium to fill.
Baseball quite literally is not making ballplayers like Joe Mauer anymore. In fact, he’s potentially the last of a bygone era, during which striking out was still frowned upon by coaches and downright despised by some players.
Joe Mauer hates striking out — so much so he struck out just once in high school. Even as Major League Baseball evolved into a game with more pitchers throwing harder and nastier pitches than ever before, Mauer refused to change his approach and was good enough to not only get away with it, but force defenses to adjust to him just as Barry Bonds before him. Mauer received one of the most extreme defensive outfield shifts in baseball, and he got his hits despite it.
Of the top 21 seasons in overall strikeouts in MLB history, Mauer played in 15. He struck out more than 100 times just once, and his OPS+ was under 100 in just two seasons of his career. But some still think Mauer was overpaid given the expectancy for him to catch full-time.
Mauer, a soft-spoken, Minnesota-nice guy, has his share of haters who think he should have cowboyed up and got behind the plate to earn his $23 million every year despite a concussion issue that not only threatened his career but his life off the field. An issue that reappeared this season upon a dive for a ball at first base and might be responsible for Mauer’s indecision regarding his playing future.
Mauer’s haters should know over the course of his career, the Twins paid Joe just $374,856.42 more per win above a replacement player than the Marlins and Tigers paid Cabrera, and the Tigers still owe him at least $154 million. The Twins paid just $728,825.30 more per win above a replacement player than the Cardinals and Angels have paid Pujols, who’s still owed $87 million. If you average the WAR of both Cabrera and Pujols over their last seven years across the remaining years of their contracts, their cost per win above a replacement player balloons to $381,619.65 and $80,136.39 more per WAR than Joe, respectively.
Not being overpaid relative to his fellow first basemen won’t make Mauer a first-ballot Hall of Famer like Pujols and Cabrera, but it doesn’t hurt.
Most will say Mauer’s six All-Star appearances and 2,123 hits aren’t enough. Most will say he never won a playoff series. Most will say his 55.1 career Wins Above Replacement (WAR) isn’t even as good as another former Twin (David Ortiz, 55.3) despite it being top-100 all time amongst Hall of Fame position players and 151st all time in MLB history, according to Baseball Reference.
Mauer’s integrity and humility are Hall-of-Fame caliber, however. Unlike Ortiz, who failed a 2003 performance-enhancing drug test, Mauer’s legacy is unquestioned and untarnished. Although Mauer only played in the post-steroid era of Major League Baseball (the drug policy as we know it was first implemented and enforced in 2004), he’s someone who might have benefited from steroids and had an “opportunity” to use them after sustaining a knee injury in his rookie season. At 21, Joe knew better, and at 28, when his body struggled recovering from surgery and then fell ill with pneumonia, Mauer probably never even considered using steroids.
Mauer came back in 2012 to lead the league in on-base percentage (OBP), beating his 2011 OBP by 56 points (.420). His .351 OBP in 2018 is the worst of his career and was still the 50th-best in baseball and 10 percent better than the MLB average (.318). He was top-10 in league OBP and batting average seven times and top-10 in Adjusted OPS+ six times in his career.
Mauer’s .3063 career batting average is, ironically, identical to his Hall of Fame manager’s, good for 138th-best all time. But Paul Molitor has 1,196 more hits than Joe. Regardless, Mauer’s career batting average is sandwiched between Hall of Famers Ernie Lombardi and George Kell, and is better than that of the next-best hitting catcher of his era, Buster Posey (.306). Mauer’s the only catcher ever to win three batting titles, too.
But what makes Hall of Famers is their relative dominance of their respective eras. Barry Bonds didn’t have to beat Babe Ruth in career home runs; he just needed to dominate his era like Ruth his. Mauer is a Hall of Famer given his place amongst his peers.
When compared to his peers, from 2004 to 2018, Mauer’s batting average ranks ninth, between Mike Trout and Buster Posey. His OBP is twelfth, between Hall of Famer Chipper Jones and Bryce Harper. His Weighted Runs Created (WRC) is tenth, whereas Posey ranks 94th. On an All-MLB 2004–18 Team, Mauer would clearly be the catcher, and he’s probably the fourth-best first baseman of his generation, behind Miguel Cabrera, Albert Pujols, and Joey Votto — all first-ballot Hall of Famers.
Mauer’s numbers aren’t first-ballot-Hall-of-Fame worthy, but the way he represented the game of baseball and himself on and off the field is worthy of first-ballot consideration, which he’ll receive. Joe might even be a victim of the Hall of Fame shrinking the length of time players stay on the ballot from 15 years to 10. Mauer won’t be eligible for induction until 2023 at the earliest, but judging from the lack of retirees expected this season, he could benefit from a lack of competition. We don’t know if this is Adrian Beltre’s final season, and if it isn’t, Mauer could be sharing the ballot with holdovers from previous years, not including Bonds or Roger Clemens, who will fall off the ballot in three years.
Even if Joe isn’t voted into the MLB Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, he will most certainly get support from the Hall of Fame’s Veterans Committee. One way or another, Joe Mauer is a Hall of Fame player. Personally, I’d like to see if he’s a Hall of Fame manager.
I, thankfully, didn’t watch all of the Week 2 matchup between the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers on Sunday. That’s the case more and more these days, when in the past I’d hardly miss a second of a Vikings game. Rookie kicker Daniel Carlson, who the Vikings selected in the fifth round of the draft five months prior to waiving him Monday, missed three field goals to waste a valiant, 13-point comeback led by new quarterback Kirk Cousins in Green Bay. I stopped watching after the first two series of the second half with the Vikings down 20–7, and I couldn’t be happier with that decision given the resulting tie.
It bothers me that games featuring more than 100 athletes too big to be able to run as fast as they do repeatedly colliding into each other to obtain property like they’re at war are often decided by the least athletic of the 53 players on National Football League (NFL) rosters. NFL kickers are like generals sitting a comfortable distance from enemy lines sipping on Gatorade awaiting a request for an air strike from their foot soldiers taking heavy fire only to bomb their own troops on occasion.
Last season, 22.5 percent of all NFL games (including the postseason) were either decided by three or fewer points or featured scoring exclusively by kickers. Almost a quarter of regular season games played in 2016 were decided by three or fewer points. Between 2003 and 2015, 27.9 percent of games were decided by three or fewer points. As of this writing, 25 percent of 2018 NFL games have been decided by a field goal or less, and the average margin of victory in the NFL continues to fall. Whether it’s one in five or one in four games decided by kickers, one game decided by the least athletic player and the player seeing the least playing time is one game too many.
There were more field goals attempted and made last season than in any other time in the history of professional football, according to Pro Football Reference. The result was 3,664 points scored by kickers in 2017, or almost an even third (32.96 percent) of all NFL scoring. That’s an increase in kicker-exclusive scoring of 5.65 percent over the last 50 years.
Kickers have been ruining the game of football at all levels, especially youth levels, since the game’s inception. Finding someone who could kick and punt the ball were always the hardest positions to fill on our youth teams, and while kickers have gotten better over the years according to FiveThirtyEight, the problem of kickers over-influencing outcomes and under-entertaining fans has worsened with the implementation of longer point-after attempts and uneventful kickoffs.
Instead of stand-still kickoffs that were implemented this year, punters should simply punt the ball as they would on a free kick after a safety. Their teammates wouldn’t get a running start to protect players’ health, but free kicks would result in fewer touchbacks and a higher potential for kick return touchdowns — once the most exciting play in the sport now all but extinct. Most importantly, though, free kicks would make place-kickers entirely unnecessary.
My research found kickers were the exclusive scorers in six NFL games last year, and the touchdown-to-field-goal ratio has declined by almost an entire touchdown per successful field goal since 1975. While these ridiculous roughing-the-passer penalties will assuredly increase the touchdown-to-field-goal ratio, achieving the all-time high of 2.5 touchdowns scored per successful field goal converted is not probable unless kickers are removed from the game.
The more fourth-down plays there are in games, the more intriguing those games will be. Games’ outcomes need to swing on one play every series instead of one play every half. Football is not providing enough moments of perceived momentum shifting from one team to the other. Without place-kicking, fans would be on the edge of their seats more often, as the Dan Bailey bailout would be unavailable to the Vikings or anyone else, forcing coaches to utilize more forward passes — the play that saved American football from extinction and made it the behemoth it is today. There would also be fewer breaks in the action for commercials, but what’s the best option for solving football’s place-kicking problem?
Removing place-kickers from the game doesn’t necessarily mean field goals have to go away. While I think goal posts unnecessarily obstruct the views of fans, we don’t have to tear them down (although it’d be cool if they were moved behind the fans so they could go home with souvenir footballs). They are a symbol of the sport after all, and what would college students do on Saturdays after a big win if they couldn’t tear down the goalposts? They’d probably be at higher risk for alcohol poisoning if they didn’t exert that effort.
If the NFL wanted to continue employing place-kickers and make games more exciting, it could simply make field goals worth two points instead of three. How a field goal is worth more than a safety is disrespectful to defenses everywhere, even though your offense gets the ball back after the defense scores a safety. While kicking was highly emphasized when the game was conceived, the field goal’s point value decreased from five in 1883, to four in 1904 and three points in 1909, three years after what many believe to be the first legally completed forward pass.
After more than 100 years without a change to the field goal’s point value, I’d say we’re long overdue. But lowering the point value of a field goal does not affect the risk in attempting a field goal, which is the actual problem. Kicking is a bailout in football. Both punts and field goal attempts bail out an offense incapable of scoring touchdowns. I’ve got no problem with punters. I’ve seen punters make plays, but I’d prefer to watch the NFL’s place-kickers play soccer if they’re capable of running and kicking a moving ball. Removing place-kickers from football would enhance the intrigue of games by forcing coaches to be more creative and take more chances on both sides of the ball. That brings me to Rule 1 of football re-imagined without kickers.
“All teams must attempt a two-point conversion after scoring a touchdown.”
That’s where games should be won and lost — in the trenches between lineman at the goal lines. The men risking the most should determine the outcomes of games, but field goals wouldn’t necessarily have to disappear. They could just be altered. The NFL simply needs to make the field goal attempt a less enticing option for coaches — make the bailout riskier.
I recommend the NFL adopt something like the drop goal in rugby, where a player can drop the ball on the ground and kick it through the uprights on any down. The quarterback could avoid a sack and dropkick the ball through the uprights on second down for three points. That might be a big enough change to eliminate field goals altogether, but punters would eventually get the hang of drop-kicking to make it a less riskier option. It’s not as though they have much else to do during practice.
To up the ante even further, the ball’s placement on the field should depend on how close you get to the goal line. The closer a team gets to scoring, the more difficult a drop goal attempt should become. That’s why I recommend the hash marks running down the middle of a football field get wider and wider as they get closer and closer to the goal line. This might even be enough to keep place-kicking in the sport while minimizing kickers’ control over games’ outcomes.
An American football field is 160 feet wide. NFL hash marks are 70 feet, nine inches from the sidelines. That’s where they’d remain between the 40-yard lines on each side of the field because 50-plus-yard field goals are hard enough. At the 39-yard line, however, the ball would be placed on the hash mark 69 feet, nine inches from the sideline closest to the completion of the previous play. At the 38, the ball would be spotted on the hash mark 68 feet, nine inches from the nearest sideline, and so on. At the one-yard line, the ball would be snapped 31 feet, nine inches from the sideline nearest the last completed play. This would result in some new, creative formations, more fourth down plays as well as some drop goals attempted from truly amazing angles. This would make “four-down territory” even larger, increasing excitement even if it results in less scoring.
While we’re not eliminating a third of all scoring in football, points will be harder to come by in the game without kickers. A point-after attempt and two-point attempt have almost the exact same expected value, so forcing teams to go for two would result in almost the exact number of points as point-after attempts. But field goals alone accounted for 23.37 percent of points scored in 2017, and teams won’t be trading those field goals for drop goals or touchdowns at a 1:1 or even 1:2 ratio. That said, an effort should be made to counteract a potential decrease in scoring by providing more scoring opportunities.
Football and rugby are unique in that they offer multiple means of scoring points. You only score in baseball when you touch home plate. You only score in basketball when you put the ball through the hoop, and you only score in soccer and hockey by putting the ball or puck in the net. Scoring in football involves either kicking the ball through goal posts or taking it across a goal line (or downing it there in the case of a safety). But why stop at two means of scoring points? That brings me to Rule 2 of football re-imagined without kickers.
“Award one point for each sack or tackle for loss.”
Awarding one point for sacks and tackles for loss would almost replace every point scored by NFL kickers. Based on 2016 totals, there were 1,118 sacks and 2,218 tackles for loss, totalling 3,336 potential points. Kickers accounted for 3,669 points in 2016, and spreading those points around to players playing and sacrificing most makes for a more democratic game. And frankly, defensive players deserve to score more.
Defensive players seldom score, especially big defensive players. An offensive lineman can at least declare himself eligible and catch a touchdown pass. Defensive players have to either force a fumble, pick it up and run into the end zone, grab an interception and run into the end zone or tackle the ball carrier in their own end zone for a safety. And now that defensive players have to defy physics and somehow stop more than half of their body weight from falling on the quarterback during a sack, their team should at least get a point if it’s likely the sack will result in a 15-yard penalty and automatic first down for the offense.
While this rule might result in more coaches challenging the spot of the ball, I’d rather watch a replay of a quarterback sack or tackle for loss to determine if the ball carrier reached the line of scrimmage than watch a kicker come on the field and make or miss a kick sandwiched between commercials. And the NFL is far past due for placing sensors on the ends of the football and on the players’ knees and elbows to determine the exact location of the ball when the ball carrier is down by contact. But that’s another Grandstand Central story for another day.
Imagine the Vikings just scored a touchdown to tie the Packers with no time left on the clock and only the two-point conversion left to be played. With this rule, either team could win or lose the game right there at the goal line. The Vikings could either convert the two-point attempt to win or take a sack or tackle for loss to give the Packers the win. Green Bay could also intercept the ball or recover a fumble and return it for two points as well. That’s a whole lot more exciting than bringing a kicker onto the field to attempt an extra point converted 94 percent of the time in 2017. It’s also more indicative of which is the better team.
Unless the NFL takes place-kicking out of the game, I’m boycotting the league upon the end of Cousins’s tenure with the Vikings or if the Vikings win the Super Bowl — whichever happens first. And I’m not just saying that because of the Vikings’ rich history of kicking woes in big games. They are the franchise who had a kicker who shall not be named go an entire season without missing a kick only to miss one that would have sent them to the Super Bowl. More recently, they had a kicker who shall also go unnamed miss a 27-yard field goal that would have extended their playoff run in 2016. I just can’t bring myself to pay attention to the game of football anymore. The kickers keep kicking my attention elsewhere.
The one sport that stands to benefit most from advances in technology is America’s Pastime. My colleague Ben Beecken shares that sentiment and understands baseball’s big problem and how to solve it. But as a semi-traditionalist baseball fan, I’m not ready to take the umpires off the field in favor of robots. Something must be done, obviously, and Major League Baseball owners are apparently pushing Commissioner Rob Manfred to make “bold” changes to address what they believe to be a pace-of-play problem caused by the increased employment of defensive shifts. But baseball doesn’t have a pace-of-play problem; it has a lack-of-action problem that an electronic strike zone can solve without taking umpires’ jobs.
“Time flies when you’re having fun” they say, and that goes for a three-plus-hour-long baseball game, too. Shortening the game or speeding it up isn’t going to make the game more appealing to young people. You need action to appeal to the all-time low attention spans of young people, or they’ll just find their entertainment on that computer in their pocket. MLB isn’t providing that action and hasn’t for a decade or so.
Thus far this season, MLB’s collective batting average is .248 — the 21st-worst league batting average since 1871, according to Baseball Reference. Runs are down to 1956 levels, but on-base percentages, upon which run production depends, have remained steady, according to ESPN’s Buster Olney. But there’s never been more strikeouts in the bigs.
The league is on pace to break the strikeout record set last year, and the year before that, and in each of the eight years prior. That’s a decade’s worth of record-setting strikeout totals, so no one should be surprised by how often professional hitters are failing to hit. And you can’t blame defensive shifts for strikeouts.
This idea that the increased employment of defensive shifts has forced hitters to alter their approach at the plate to increase their “launch angle” and “exit velocity” to hit over the shift is ridiculous. Defensive shifts don’t force hitters to do anything except exactly what hitters have been expected to do since the game’s inception: hit it where they ain’t. If any professional ballplayer could bunt these days, and every one of them should be capable, or if managers valued baserunners over extra-base-hit potential, defensive shifts would all but disappear except for pull-happy, power hitters who aren’t paid to bunt — ever. The defense is the one taking a risk by shifting; most hitters risk nothing except their batting averages trying to hit over the shift and into the stands. We shouldn’t want more hitters bunting, however. We should want more action occurring from hitters hitting — or better yet, driving the ball.
Some of those hitters, like the Cubs’ Daniel Murphy, have explained why they don’t bunt against the shift despite having a gimme single if they can get it in play past the pitcher on the vacated half of the infield. Murphy’s reasoning is that he’s more valuable to his team pursuing extra-base hits rather than occupying first base and waiting for another two teammates to hit singles to score him given his lack of speed. “It’s really difficult to get three hits in one inning,” he told ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick, citing “how good pitchers are now” as a reason.
Young fans are avoiding baseball because it’s boring. Hitters can’t hit because pitching is too good. Many hitters, like former MVP and batting champion Justin Morneau, say a hitter can expect one hittable pitch per plate appearance, and hittable pitches are fewer and farther between in today’s MLB than ever before.
Batters aren’t looking to get the ball in the air more often to avoid hitting into defensive shifts. Batters are looking to get the ball in the air more often because there are fewer pitches thrown they are physically capable of hitting hard in the air. There are fewer pitches thrown that have extra-base-hit potential.
In 2010, 50.2 percent of all pitches thrown in MLB were in the strike zone, according to FanGraphs. This season it’s down to 47.9 percent, and despite the percentage of swings at pitches in the zone at an all-time high over the 11-year history of this research, the contact percentage on those strikes is at an all-time low. Contact on pitches outside the strike zone is also at an all-time low, but why?
Before defensive shifts became the norm and launch angle was ever uttered, the approach to pitching had already evolved immensely in MLB. John McGraw had a dedicated relief pitcher on his New York Giants roster as early as 1905, according to the research of Bryan Soderholm-Difatte for “America’s Game.” That tactic became more popular in the 1920s after Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown’s career was shortened considerably having served as the Cubs’ ace starter and ace reliever from 1908 to 1911.
Even though the lengths of MLB pitchers’ careers were shortened by the now-incomprehensible number of innings pitched over a hundred years ago, there are still pitchers calling for starters to go longer in games and ignore pitch counts.
Hall of Fame pitcher Bert Blyleven reminding MLB’s aging audience that starters were expected to finish games as recent as the 1980s should consider how effective he and his peers were the third and fourth time through a lineup instead of calling it evidence that throwing more pitches leads to fewer injuries.
Real research conducted by real physicians found that throwing fastballs, not curveballs, is linked to Tommy John surgery, according to Sports Illustrated’s Ian McMahan. Blyleven made his living with his curveball, which is why he’s a terrible spokesperson for getting rid of the pitch count and treating today’s starting pitchers like it’s 1971.
Over his career, Blyleven allowed an OPS of .679 when pitching to opponents for a third time and a .711 OPS when seeing hitters a fourth time in a game. That’s respectable, but according to Total OPS+, or tOPS+, Blyleven’s teams, on average, would have been better off had Blyleven never pitched to a hitter a third or fourth time. That is, of course, if there was a relief pitcher on the team with a better tOPS+ when facing hitters for the first time in relief than Blyleven’s tOPS+ when facing hitters a third or fourth time in a game.
In 1971, at age 20, Blyleven’s tOPS+ against batters in their third plate appearance of a game was a fantastic 77 (the further below 100 the better a pitcher was in that particular instance). Only Minnesota closer Tom Hall was more effective in his first time facing batters as a reliever than Blyleven was facing batters a third time as a starter. And while Blyleven struggled a bit when facing batters a second time (107 tOPS+), he certainly had a good feel for his curveball when they stepped to the plate a third time.
Blyleven’s struggles the second time through lineups persisted throughout his career, but he actually got better as the game went on because he was throwing mostly curveballs, not fastballs. In 1986, Blyleven allowed an .853 OPS to hitters in their second plate appearance. But in their third plate appearance, opponents’ OPS was down to .733 and back up to .828 in their fourth look at Bert. So Blyleven, besides a knuckleballer, is the last person who should be calling for today’s pitchers to go longer in games because he was spending the early innings “finding” his curveball so he could throw it more often and more effectively late in games while pitchers today are throwing far more fastballs and fast breaking balls than he or anyone else in his era was throwing.
Since the 1980s, when the curveball gave way to the slider as the breaking ball of choice, pitchers have been throwing more fastballs and are understandably less effective against hitters a third and fourth time given that approach, losing their velocity and, in turn, movement. A curveball is difficult to track regardless of inning, but a fastball can be timed in a single plate appearance and exploited in the next. Sliders and cutters slide and cut less with less velocity, which is lost by pitchers faster in games these days due to the volume of fastballs and fast breaking balls thrown.
Since pitchers have been relying on fastballs more so than breaking balls, and rather effectively given the aforementioned statistics, pitchers ought not throw as many pitches as a curveball specialist given the medical research previously cited. Hence the advent of the pitch count.
Managers want to keep their starting pitchers healthy and able to start every five days, and the pitch count provides them with a guide for attempting to do so. But managers’ number one priority is winning ballgames, and throwing four or five electric arms at a lineup instead of one or two increases their chances to win games and preserve the health of their pitchers. But it doesn’t matter how fresh the arm or how electric the stuff if pitches thrown in the strike zone aren’t called strikes.
Baseball purists like my attorney and Blyleven think it’s the human element home plate umpires provide that makes the game of baseball great. Each home plate umpire having his (and “his” sadly is the proper pronoun, at least in MLB) own unique, strike zone does make the game great. It sparks dugout chatter and builds camaraderie as teammates badmouth that day’s enemy behind the plate while trying to figure out the one 60 feet, six inches in front of it.
Then questionable calls lead to looks of “whoa” directed at the home plate umpire, culminating in confrontation and eventual ejections followed by the truly inspired, laid-bare performances in response, as if these men, like all great thespians, forget they have an audience. Now that’s drama.
There’s nothing more entertaining in baseball than a player or manager getting their money’s worth after being tossed from a game. Maybe a three-homer game or a straight steal of home could rival Ron Gardenhire’s red-faced rants or the legend of Lou Piniella’s interpretive, dirt dances, but hitting for the cycle pales in comparison. An ejection can invigorate both a team and crowd for the entirety of the game like winning a fight in hockey. The cycle climaxes with a curtain call lasting a few minutes, while the ejected entertainers, also deserving of a curtain call, make for a lonely locker room to find some semblance of solace in a cold shower and comfort food.
Frankly, I think the decline in ejections has been detrimental to baseball and contributed to baseball’s problem attracting young fans, who have gravitated toward the soap operatic drama of soccer instead. Bad actors with no respect for the theatre of sport are taking advantage of baseball’s dwindling drama thanks to a surplus of soccer drama performed by characters like The Zlatan — too unreal for even MTV’s Real World.
The advent of replay has scrubbed the sport of baseball relatively clean when it comes to disputing plays on the bases, and that’s an unfortunate but necessary sacrifice to get the calls right. An electronic strike zone will have a similar effect, removing some of the drama that makes a baseball game both joyous and enraging for all involved.
I like when an incorrect call goes my team’s way as much as the next fan, and I scream at the television when an umpire or official misses one. Officiating-hating is part of the fun for fans of all sports. There’s a problem, though, when pitches outside the strike zone are called strikes in a game where even the best players fail seven out of 10 times. It makes a game ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian calls “the hardest game in the world to play” even harder for hitters.
Pitches these days are harder to hit than they’ve ever been. On average, they’re being thrown harder than they’ve ever been. Fastballs, split-finger fastballs, sinkers, sliders and even change-ups are being thrown harder in 2018 than they have since 2007, which is where FanGraphs’ dataset starts. Pitches are moving more, too. Sliders, on average, have more horizontal movement than ever, with a focus on spin rate making pitches move more and making it harder for hitters to recognize pitches.
So not only are we expecting MLB hitters to hit the nastiest pitches ever pitched, but we’re expecting them to hit the highest volume of nasty pitches despite an inconsistent strike zone that changes everyday, or twice daily for doubleheaders. The players are quite literally playing by different rules every game, and while Babe Ruth and Ted Williams dealt with similarly subjective strike zones in their eras, neither they nor the umpires of the day had to track an exploding slider or sinking and cutting fastballs thrown in the mid-90s all game, every game. Williams was subjected to defensive shifts, though, and they didn’t ruin the game back in the 1940s and won’t now.
Baseball is a contact sport in that it requires contact between bat and ball to provide audiences action. “Strikeouts are boring. Besides that they’re Fascist,” as Crash Davis correctly claimed in Bull Durham. “Throw some ground balls. It’s more democratic.” Contact equals action, and a lack of contact is a lack of action.
Baseball’s problem attracting young fans is a result of that lack of action, not pace of play. You could shorten games to a two-hour time limit and without contact, the game would still be boring to young people. But the game wasn’t boring when Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire were launching steroid-fueled bombs into the stratosphere back in the 1990s because we had contact — epic contact.
Since ending MLB’s performance-enhancing drug policy is unlikely, using technology already available and already being used to train umpires to provide players with a consistent strike zone will lower chase and swing-and-miss rates, increase contact rates and, in turn, increase action. If baseball wants to attract young fans, instead of Commissioner Manfred altering the rules to limit defensive shifts or defensive positioning, he should consider implementing an electronic strike zone that’s consistent from game to game, umpire to umpire.
The most fun I have watching the lowly Twins is when Logan Forsythe runs out to left field from second base to serve as a fourth outfielder and then running back to the infield. Players are probably getting more exercise than they ever have in the history of the game, and movement is action.
Defensive shifts are the most interesting thing baseball’s had to offer since the Steroid Era. That is until Tampa Bay’s use of relief pitchers to start games becomes the norm so starters can relieve the “openers” and face hitters during their higher-leverage plate appearances the second, third and fourth time through the lineup. But instead of hitters figuring out a starting pitcher in their second or third at-bat, they’re figuring out a new pitcher in their second at-bat. If you thought strikeouts were out of control now, just wait until flamethrowing relievers are facing hitters at their most vulnerable — their first plate appearance — and then starting pitchers come in and make hitters relive the horror of their first plate appearance all over again.
Not only do both hitters and pitchers have to figure each other out throughout the course of a game, but they have to figure out the home plate umpire as well. Pitchers test the edges of the plate to see how wide the umpire’s strike zone is that day, resulting in plenty of pitches thrown out of the strike zone slowing play to a halt. A ball off the plate that doesn’t entice a swing is a complete lack of action, and a ball off the plate that does entice a swing tends to result in poor contact and little action. Until pitchers are forced to throw strikes, why would they? Greg Maddux carved out a Hall of Fame career pitching out of the strike zone, and he didn’t have the velocity or wicked movement pitchers feature today.
So what’s the answer to baseball’s problem? No, not robots, but technologically enhanced umpires. I’m not talking about creating special headgear that projects the strike zone on a see-through visor like Google Glasses and makes blue look like RoboUmp, although that’s a cool option. That way home plate umpires still feel useful and in control of the game, with technology assisting the umpire in calling a consistent strike zone instead of dictating balls and strikes. Technology is a tool humans should use to do work better; it should not be a means to do away with work altogether.
A less cool but effective option would be to put a microphone in the ear or a buzzer in the pocket of home plate umpires that indicates when a pitch is thrown in the electronic strike zone, and the technology is close to doing so accurately. That way hitters come to the plate every game knowing exactly what a strike is and is not, so they swing at more strikes instead of chasing balls incorrectly called strikes, which will result in more contact, better contact and fewer strikeouts despite defensive shifts. It will also give managers one less reason to argue with umpires, which, unfortunately, might be one of the last reasons left. But the electronic strike zone will make a three-plus-hour game more appealing to the short attention spans of young fans.