Twins and Hawkeyes and Vikings, Oh My

I bet you’re shocked to find I’ve posted a new article here, aren’t you? If it seems like I’m never posting anything new any more, it’s only because I haven’t been posting anything new any more.

Why not? It’s pretty simple. I haven’t felt like writing anything. And if there is one thing I’ve figured out in my 15-ish months since retiring, it’s that retirement means you no longer have to do much of anything you don’t feel like doing.

But a few days ago, I wrote a new article (for which I had to actually get presentably dressed and go conduct a real interview!) and the process reminded me that I kind of enjoy writing.

(As for the article in question, you’re just going to have to wait until the 2017 Twins Prospect Handbook comes out to read it. I’m not sure when that will be, but I got my article submitted ahead of deadline, so if publication is delayed, it’s not my fault!)

Anyway, as I’ve reflected on the past few months, I’ve decided it’s time for me to speak out about some things, so let’s get on with it.

If you are familiar with my sports fandom at all, you probably are aware that I’m a devoted, if occasionally somewhat irrational, fan of the Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Vikings and Iowa Hawkeyes.

The mix is a result of spending my youth in the 1960s living in Minnesota and virtually the rest of my six decades on this planet in Iowa. I guess I also did spend brief periods in Arkansas and Wisconsin that were, at the same time memorable and forgettable, but I digress (this is about 2016, not my bizarre path through the mid 1970s).

Twins

Baseball is conducting their annual Winter Meetings at one of those giant Gaylord Resorts again, this time in suburban Washington, D.C. I’ve been there for conferences a couple of times, as I have to Gaylords in the Nashville, Orlando and Dallas areas.

I’m not a big fan of the Gaylords, but I can see why their ginormous size makes it an attractive venue for ginormous conferences, like the Winter Meetings. You can literally spend four days there, eating and drinking in a different place every night, without ever having to step out to breathe fresh air. I’m just not sure that should be considered a good thing (unless you happen to own a Gaylord, which I do not.)

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(Photo: SD Buhr)

Everyone involved with Twins baseball operations who is anyone is undoubtedly at the Winter Meetings, as are representatives from their minor league affiliate front offices. The dance cards of new Twins brass Derek Falvey and Thad Levine will be full, I’m sure. I hope they are a lot better at remembering the names of new people they are introduced to than I am.

If they struggle with remembering names, I would offer one piece of advice: Prioritize. Specifically, if the person you were just introduced to can throw a baseball well enough to miss a bat, THAT is someone you want to remember. You’re welcome.

A lot of speculation is circulating concerning the possible trade of Brian Dozier. If the chatter among Twitter feeds of people who should know about this kind of thing is accurate, there are several teams showing more than idle interest in obtaining Dozier and his team-friendly contract.

I like Brian Dozier and I wish the Twins were good enough that keeping him made sense, but they aren’t so it doesn’t.

Dozier’s value will never be higher, so Falvey and Levine (can we just call them “Falvine” until we figure out which of them is playing the bigger role in roster decisions?) need to make the best deal they can and hopefully that will include some high-ceiling near-MLB-ready pitching.

With all due respect to their signing of free agent catcher Jason Castro, fair or not, the return they negotiate for trading Dozier will establish their first impression approval ratings among a sizable contingent of Twins fans – and we all know how first impressions work in this organization. A bad first impression means you’re pedaling uphill to ever get respect from within the Twins community, while a good first impression could mean you’ll have a job for decades.

Good luck, guys. We’re all rooting for you. Until you screw up and we don’t root for you any more.

Hawkeyes (and, I guess, Vikings)

Let’s get this out of the way first – it’s going to be a very tough basketball season for the Hawkeyes.

The football team, however, is headed to Tampa to play the Florida Gators in the Outback Bowl on January 2.

If you had told me that was going to happen a few weeks ago after the Penn State debacle, I’d have said you were nuts. I wouldn’t have bet money the Hawkeyes would even end up being bowl eligible, much less finish 8-4 and going somewhere warm to ring in the new year.

(Photo: SD Buhr)
(Photo: SD Buhr)

What I forgot, as I tend to do almost every season, is that Iowa usually plays their best football in November.

Now, to be fair, that Penn State game was in November and it was a stinkbomb (that I fortunately did not witness, as I was attending the Arizona Fall League’s Fall-Stars Game that night), but the Hawkeyes used the following game against Illinois (which has come to be known as the “B1G West Division’s Second Bye Week”) to gear up to upset Michigan and destroy Nebraska in the season’s final weeks.

It has been an interesting football season for me. While Iowa was losing to North Dakota State and Northwestern, the Vikings were being inked into the NFL playoffs and even projected by some as a Super Bowl contender.

Wow, did that change in a hurry.

Ironically, it was an article on Nebraska football by Omaha World Herald columnist Tom Shatel that provided some clarity to me concerning the difference between the fortunes of the Hawkeyes and Vikings.

The point of Shatel’s column (to me, anyway) was that, while Husker fans tend to look down their noses at the “vanilla programs” at Wisconsin and Iowa, Nebraska needs to emulate the Badgers and Hawkeyes, putting their past Big 8/12 days behind them, and figure out how to establish a similar physical identity.

Shatel wrote, “Wisconsin and Iowa know who they are and like who they are and don’t care what you think of them. It works for them.”

That’s mostly true. Sure. many of us wish a Kirk Ferentz team would show a little bit of offensive imagination (or, really, ANY imagination), but we’re also smart enough to know that no coach is likely to recruit four-star (much less five-star) skill position high school studs to play football in Iowa City (while staying within NCAA rules, anyway).

Iowa’s best chance of occasionally making noise on a national level is to bring in the biggest, baddest two-and-three-star linemen and linebackers it can find, spend a couple of years making them bigger and badder, then unleash them to terrorize the Nebraskas and Minnesotas, while battling Wisconsin for supremacy of the B1G West.

If you’re lucky, every once in a while, you’ll put together a group that will also give the big boys in the B1G East a challenge, too.

It’s seldom aesthetically pleasing to many of today’s college football fans, but Ferentz has taken 14 of his last 16 Hawkeye teams to bowl games and 11 of them were January bowl games (including two Orange Bowls and a Rose Bowl), so you can’t say it hasn’t worked.

Which makes me wonder if there’s a parallel between the Vikings and Cornhuskers.

Like many Vikes fans, I’ve been waiting for the next Culpepper-to-Moss combo to show up. Instead, we’ve watched as a parade of quarterbacks and receivers have failed to stretch NFL defenses, to the effect that almost the entire career of one of the most gifted running backs to grace an NFL field in decades has been wasted.

Yes, the Vikings lost the services of Adrian Peterson and Teddy Bridgewater before the 2016 season even got underway, but I can’t imagine any combination of skill players being successful behind the current offensive line. And I don’t want to hear about injuries to the O-line, either. Every team has linemen lose significant time to injury. Successful teams develop depth.

A moderately successful college program like Iowa, who must spend a couple years developing players to get a year or two of high-level contribution, can have its season derailed by critical injuries to upperclassmen linemen. But an NFL team that doesn’t have a constantly revolving recruiting cycle to contend with, should be able to develop and maintain enough depth to withstand some injuries on the line without seeing a promising season turn to crap the way Minnesota’s 2016 has.

The Hawkeyes will never be the Buckeyes, just as the Vikings are unlikely to ever become the Patriots. But if the Vikings will focus on developing beasts two-deep at each line position, and making that focus a part of their DNA going forward, maybe they’ll give the best the NFL has to offer a run for their money on a semi-regular basis.

Given the futility my fellow Vikings fans and I have endured the past couple of decades, I’d take that.

Hawkeyes Fall Short at the B1G Championship Game

So the Big Ten Championship football game didn’t exactly end the way Iowa Hawkeye fans hoped it would, with Michigan State beating our Hawks 16-13 after completing a 22-play drive that ended with a Spartan touchdown (barely) with less than 30 seconds left in the ballgame.

It was a tough way to lose a championship game, but it was an incredibly exciting game between two very evenly matched teams. You can’t ask for more than that.

Apparently, the College Football Playoff Committee agreed, as they dropped Iowa just one position, from 4th to 5th in their final rankings. The result is that the Hawkeyes will be taking on Stanford in the Rose Bowl.  

20151205_183826_HDRMy son and I made the trip to Indianapolis for the game and while it made for a lot of driving over the course of about 30 hours, but it was well worth the effort, despite the disappointment of the loss, and I decided to share a bit about the trip here today.

I made one good decision several weeks ago. A week or two before Iowa even clinched the B1G West title and the berth in the championship game that goes with it, I went to StubHub and bought a pair of tickets in what’s called a “Club III” section of Lucas Oil Stadium. I was able to get those tickets for about 60% over face value, but from the research I did online, the section for our tickets is considered one of the best seats in the stadium for football.

By the week after Iowa officially clinched the B1G West title, prices for seats in the same area had more than doubled.

Booking a hotel room was a different story, however.

While I knew I’d be able to recover most of the cost of my tickets (or, more likely, show a decent profit) if Iowa had flopped down the stretch and not played in the championship game, it turned out that I would not have been so fortunate with hotel costs if I made those reservations at the same time. Downtown hotels were getting over $300 per night and requiring either a nonrefundable pre-payment or, at best, requiring cancellation a week or two before arrival.

I wasn’t going to take that risk, so I found a room along I-74 about 40 miles west of Indianapolis for a more normal rate and with full cancellation privileges right up to the day of arrival. We were able to check in on our way into Indianapolis, then made the easy 45 minute drive out to the hotel after the game. It also resulted in a somewhat shorter drive home on Sunday, so that worked out well.

On advice of a friend of my son’s, we used ParkWhiz to arrange parking, in advance, and thanks to a discount code, we parked for just $5 about four blocks from the stadium. Upon arrival, it looked like we had pulled into a Hawkeye tailgate lot at Kinnick Stadium!

20151205_150133_HDRWe left Cedar Rapids about 6:30 Saturday morning and, by the time we stopped to check into our hotel and have lunch in Crawfordsville, we made it to downtown Indianapolis by 2:15 or so (which was only 1:15 Central Time). We spent a pretty pointless hour or so wandering around downtown trying to find a bar we could get into to watch some early football, but every place was packed beyond anything the Fire Marshall could have been comfortable with.

The Georgia Street Walkway in downtown Indianapolis was set up with food/beer vendors (including a Craft Beer truck with several local craft beers on tap), a large stage, a large video board and plenty of tables/chairs, so we stopped there and settled in to watch the SEC Championship game on the video board and listen to a really good cover band on the main stage.

20151205_170759_PanoBefore the band took the stage, however, they held a Iowa vs MSU shrimp eating contest on the stage. Two teams of four people ate shrimp from St. Elmo’s Steakhouse with their famous “very spicy” cocktail sauce. From what I’ve heard, “very spicy” doesn’t come close to describing it. The Spartan team jumped to a quick lead, but the #3 eater for the Hawkeyes virtually inhaled his bowl of shrimp to close the gap. Unfortunately, the Iowans fell just short of a successful comeback.

20151205_152340_HDRThe only down side to that choice was that the venue was outdoors and it was chilly enough to see your breath (maybe 40 degrees), but they also had portable heaters set up and, frankly, we knew we’d likely be spending a few hours wandering around downtown before the game, so we dressed warmly enough to not be too uncomfortable.

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We met up with some friends, had a few good craft beers, watched some football and then walked about three blocks to Lucas Oil Stadium when the doors opened. (Any time I buy pricey tickets on the secondary market and take electronic delivery, I try to get into the stadium early, just in case some jerk decided to sell his tickets more than once. I’ve never had that issue with StubHub, but did not want the first time to be at this game, either.)

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The seats were every bit as good as advertised. Right on the 25 yard line in a small section of seats that came with access to a “Club” area with its own concession stand, restrooms and tables/chairs. Again, there were some craft beer options, but as this was a college game, no beer was allowed in the seating areas. I really don’t mind that rule. It allows you to have a beer before the game and one at halftime, but keeps the NFL-fan-type drunks from making everyone in seats around them miserable.

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I also have to mention the turnout of Iowa fans. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Hawkeye fans outnumbered MSU fans at least 3-1. I shot a video of the Iowa Marching Band’s pregame set and, toward the end of it, I panned the stadium. MSU fans are in one quadrant of the stadium. The other 3/4 of the sections are dominated by black & gold.

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20151205_201838_HDR20151205_201928_HDRYou probably know all you need to know about the game. If you’re a fan of 50-45 games with no defense, this wasn’t something you probably would enjoy. I still believe defense is a big part of football (or should be), so I thought the game was incredibly exciting.

We checked out of our hotel by 8:30 Sunday morning and got back to Cedar Rapids in time for me to get to a bar for most of the Vikings game against Seattle. Yeah, that was totally worth getting back early enough to see. #sarcasm

The bottom line is this: If your favorite B1G team ever gets a chance to play in the championship game and you’re wondering whether it’s worth the time, effort and expense to go, just do it. I don’t typically go to Iowa’s bowl games, but if they are anything like what we experienced in Indianapolis, I may have to start making some of those trips, too.

The results weren’t what we wanted to see and it would have been incredible to have Iowa in the College Football Playoffs, but I’m still extremely proud of this group of Hawkeyes and already looking forward to the Rose Bowl and the 2016 season.

EDIT: By Monday, we were seeing this photographic evidence make its way around Twitter which proves conclusively that Iowa got screwed by the officials on the so-called final MSU touchdown! Damn blind refs!

IowaMSUTD