Patrick Reusse has been covering sports in the Twin Cities since 1968. He has been a Star Tribune sports columnist since 1988. His sportswriting credo is twofold: 1. God will provide an angle; 2. The smaller the ball, the better the writing.


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Moral victories must end for Gophers, Vikings

Posted by: Patrick Reusse under On the road, Quarterbacks, Vikings, Bears, Lions Updated: December 16, 2014 - 6:51 AM

Twenty years is considered a generation, right? That means Sid Hartman is working on his fourth generation of providing information with his unique spin to Minnesota sports fans. That makes him the sage of Twin Cities sports for all-time.

Trouble is, I think Sid is pretty much hopeless to support the upcoming declaration, so as a guy who started as a Twin Cities sports writer on Labor Day of 1968, I’m declaring myself to be Sage for a Day.

And in that role, I’m making this official:

As media and members of the local sporting public, we no longer have the privilege of embracing a defeat suffered by Jerry Kill’s Gophers or Mike Zimmer’s Vikings as a moral victory.

It is cut-and-dried going forward: If these football teams win on a given day, they are winners. If they lose, they are losers.

Please, join me in this, because I can’t stand it anymore.

The Gophers showed up with little enthusiasm at Texas Christian. From the start, Kill seemed more focused on trying to hold down the score than take the required risks to stay in the game.

And yet, when TCU turned out to be an offensive powerhouse and a top-rated team, this became the unusual moral victory awarded in retrospect by the hometown media and Gophers fans.

When the final score was close vs. Ohio State, 31-24, it was declared a magnificent moral victory and a game that the Gophers almost had won if not for a few mistakes. There wasn’t much attention paid to the fact that two big blunders from Ohio State were what kept the margin from being three touchdowns.

When the Gophers blew a 17-3 lead in Madison and lost to Wisconsin for an 11th straight time (34-24), the moral victory angle was boosted by complaints about the officiating.

The record book will say that the Gophers were 8-4 in Kill’s fourth regular season, but there was only one loss – at Illinois – that didn’t qualify as a marvelous achievement for the Gophers.

(Note: The Moral Victory Crowd (MVC) also has taken to saying that Illinois turned out to be better than thought, so even that loss stands as nothing to sneer about.)

Political maneuvering by Jim Delany, the Big Ten commissioner, has landed the Gophers in the Citrus Bowl vs. Missouri on New Year’s Day in Orlando. It’s a fine reward for the Gophers’ eight victories (particularly at Nebraska and the Iowa blowout), but I fear the MVC will again rear itself due to Mizzou’s status as winners of the SEC East.

The East is the second tier of the SEC, as is the West in the Big Ten, but the Gophers are underdogs, so a victory is likely to be labeled as a fantastic upset, and a hard-fought loss … oh, we’ll be told to be so darn proud, and so forth.

Listen: Mizzou lost to Indiana. It lost at home 34-0 to Georgia. It had narrow victories over the bottom feeders of the SEC East.

The Gophers should win this game. And if they lose, they are losers.

Kill has been much more willing to embrace magnificent defeat than Zimmer. That changed a bit after Sunday’s 16-14 loss at Detroit. Zimmer was into the “we did everything but win’’ mode on Monday.

OK, the Lions are 10-4 and probably going to playoffs. But they still are the Lions. When a player puts on the Honolulu blue, it is very difficult to overcome the urge to screw up.

The Lions went 0-and-8 vs. Mike Tice. The Lions had more to do with putting Bud Grant in the Pro Football Hall of Fame than the Purple People Eaters. And when faced with a rare opportunity for success, the Lions have been choking for more than a half-century.

The Lions were more than willing to do so again Sunday, if Teddy Bridgewater hadn’t run that one-minute drill with the aplomb of Spergon Wynn. Just because he has a stoic appearance doesn’t mean Teddy the Glove was different than 90% of young quarterbacks when faced with a chance to win a tense game on the road:

He gagged.

Sorry, no moral victory here, and none left on the schedule … with a game against the mediocre Dolphins in Miami, and a home game vs. the Bears that will be Marc Trestman’s last-ever game as a head coach in the NFL.

Two victories would lift the Vikings to 8-8. Our guy Sid said on Sunday, on the always-entertaining The Sports Show, that Zimmer should be the NFL’s Coach of the Year if the Vikings finish at .500.

I hate to argue with the Sage for All-Time, but at this point, the Vikings’ six victories have come against six losing teams with a combined record of 24-59-1.

The great columnist Bob Verdi once wrote of the Bears, “They didn’t beat a good team all season, including in the games that they beat themselves.’’

That applies to the 2014 Vikings, and it won’t change with what happens vs. Miami and Chicago.

As Sage for a Day, I insist: No more moral victories for the football Gophers or the Vikings, as far as we can see into the future.

Another position for Tovar: A spot in Twins' HOF

Posted by: Patrick Reusse Updated: December 16, 2014 - 6:52 AM

The Twins started a Hall of Fame in 2000. As someone who had watched them since the first-ever game at Met Stadium, I felt as if the Twins Hall of Fame was a hollow place as the years went by without Camilo Pascual being elected as a member.

That was rectified in 2012, when the Twins’ original ace and curveball master finally made it past the voters without the strong tie to major league baseball’s first decade on the Bloomington prairie.

Camilo was inducted, and I’m now at peace with the Twins Hall of Fame.

A year ago, we decided to vote in Chuck Knoblauch, ignoring his link to steroids, his demand to leave the Twins and the ugly reception given to him as a Yankees’ left fielder by Metrodome customers with cheap hot dogs to spare.

The voters decided to recognize Knoblauch as an excellent Twins player, while also providing an opportunity for a Minnesota reconciliation.

No surprise, Knobby messed it up, getting charged with domestic assault against an ex-wife. The honor and the induction ceremony were canceled (not postponed).

The new ballot arrived last week with 16 names and a limit of five selections. I voted for one: Cesar Tovar, the marvel of versatility here for seven full seasons from 1966 to 1972.

The headline on most Internet searches of Tovar is that he played nine positions on Sept. 22, 1968. That was a desperate attempt to sell tickets at the end of a noncontending season.

There was no gimmick to Tovar’s adaptability. In 1967, he played in 164 games (two ties) and started from four to 70 games at six positions. Max Nichols, the baseball reporter for the Minneapolis Star, voted for Tovar as the MVP, notoriously costing Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski’s unanimous selection in his Triple Crown season.

I can’t defend Max’s vote. I can say that a man of Tovar’s skills would be even more valuable in today’s baseball, with its three- and four-player benches.

A guy who could hit some, steal bases and field adequately at six positions … 30 clubs would covet that.

Plus Three from Patrick

Three things to know about Cesar Tovar:

• Small and wiry, he died of a heart attack in his home of Venezuela in 1994 at age 54.

• Acquired at ’64 winter meetings from Cincinnati; a surprise deal with Twins giving up young lefthanded starter Gerry Arrigo.

• ”Pepi’’ led the American League in doubles (36), triples (13), hit 10 home runs and had 30 steals in 1970.

Playing for title in new WCHA's not bad, but ...

Posted by: Patrick Reusse Updated: December 9, 2014 - 2:33 PM

MANKATO – The main purpose for a journey to the prairie on Saturday was to chronicle the NCAA Division II football quarterfinal, featuring No. 1-rated Minnesota State Mankato and No. 2 Minnesota Duluth.

This was a reminder that, even as a number of storied programs have left this division to play second-tier Division I in the FCS, there are a good number of outstanding athletes playing at the top level of Division II.

There were passes thrown and catches made and hits delivered among the Mavericks and Bulldogs that would’ve been as effective at the higher levels of college football.

The trip also gave me a chance to actually attend an MSU Mankato hockey game in its home arena, the Verizon Wireless Center, for the first time.

(Note: It also gave me a chance to stop at Pagliai’s Pizza a few blocks away in downtown Mankato, but that’s another story).

Two years later, it remains astounding to me that the greedy sons of a gun from the Big Ten were willing to blow up the grand little sports community of college hockey – astounding because of hockey’s unimportance in the big picture for the Big Ten and its TV network.

Commissioner Jim Delany and his TV advisers clearly have no conscience. No matter the circumstance, greed always wins, and the in-person customers always lose.

Example A is the poor suckers who still pay premium prices to watch Gophers basketball in Williams Arena. First, they are stuck with a half-dozen December home games against nobodies and with a ticket price value of zero, and then the great tradition of Saturday afternoon conference games in the Barn has been lost.

You’re more likely to see a 5 p.m. tipoff on Sunday than a 2 p.m. tipoff on Saturday. Pathetic, but that’s Delany and his TV network.

The six-team Big Ten Conference is a joke. Ask any regular at Mariucci Arena about the Big Ten and 90 percent will say, “I hate it.’’

The few defenders will say, “If and when they add a couple more teams, it will be better.’’

No it won’t. My grandkids aren’t going to live long enough to care about the Gophers playing Ohio State, Penn State, Illinois and Nebraska in hockey. There’s nothing there; never will be.

Did the Gophers even bother to skate around with the trophy after winning the first full-season Big Ten title last March?

The entire drama of U of M hockey is now dropping the puck in October and waiting for the regional to which the Gophers are assigned in late March, with nothing but yawns in between.

Even playing North Dakota, UMD and St. Cloud State here and there means 20 percent of what it used to: no McNaughton Cup implications, no playoff series, no Final Five showdowns, just a few non-conference games.

I was searching for an answer to this question when dropping in on MSU Mankato’s game against Alaska (Fairbanks) on Saturday:

Is it more exciting for prairie hockey fans to see the Mavericks playing for first place in the new WCHA? Or did they feel better served in the old WCHA where reaching the first division was a feat, but Minnesota, North Dakota, UMD, St. Cloud, Denver and Wisconsin would generally dot the home schedule?

(Another note: Apologies for the Wisconsin reference. We’re going back to a time with Badgers hockey when getting swept at home by Penn State would’ve been considered a surprise).

Mike Hastings, a long-time USHL coach and a short-term assistant for Don Lucia at Minnesota, was hired as MSU’s third coach in April 2012. The Mavericks finished fifth in the WCHA in his first season and reached the NCAA tournament for the second time since moving up to Division I in 1996.

Last year, the WCHA became a 10-team mix of teams left as orphans from the breakup of the former WCHA and the CCHA (now defunct). The Mavericks finished second to Ferris State in the regular season and won the Final Five playoff for the automatic bid to the NCAA.

MSU Mankato came into this season as the WCHA favorites, and so far has made that stand up. The Mavericks were 9-1 in the conference, 11-3 overall and rated No. 2 in the country heading into the weekend series with Alaska.

The Nanooks surprised them with a 5-4 victory that ended MSU’s six-game winning streak on Friday night. On Saturday, the crowd was announced at 4,077 inside the 4,800-seat arena.

There’s hockey in Mankato now, at the two public high schools, with a youth program, but it’s still southern Minnesota – an area without a hockey heritage. A lot of 50- and 60-year-olds have had to make themselves Mavericks’ hockey followers with no background in the sport.

I know. I grew up even farther south in Minnesota.

By all accounts, the Mankato fans had no trouble being frenzied when the Gophers or the Former Sioux came to town, because these were the blue bloods … the programs that looked down on the Mankatos of the hockey world.

But the Nanooks? Not so much.

There were cheers when the Mavs came close or scored, and boos when they were called for penalties, but the 5-2 victory for the home team was more appreciated than a cause for frenzied celebration.

MSU Mankato is now 12-4 overall and has its last non-conference series vs. Princeton this weekend. Then, there’s a three-week break, before the WCHA schedule resumes with a trip to Northern Michigan on New Year’s weekend.

The Mavericks are ranked No. 3 in the USCHO ratings, and stand No. 1 in the more-important Pairwise Ratings for the NCAA tournament.

That’s fun, but I think Mankato misses the real WCHA, just as do the occupants (players and fans) of Mariucci Arena.

Back again, Hunter joins the boomerang club

Posted by: Updated: December 6, 2014 - 8:54 PM

Torii Hunter will turn 40 on July 18 and does not seem fearful of the idea that the end is nigh, maybe after the 2015 season, or perhaps the next. Either way, it’s going to be fun having him around, both for professionalism as an outfielder and a hitter, and for his personality.

Still, the time clock for athletes and the current state of the Twins make it unlikely that Torii will be able to gain a place among the top echelon of successful players returning to a Minnesota pro team.

Fran Tarkenton holds first place on such a list, having departed the Vikings on March 7, 1967, for four high draft choices. He would return five years later and lead the Purple to its last three Super Bowls.

General Manager Jim Finks had turned the Giants’ draft choices into Clinton Jones, Bob Grim, Ed White and Hall of Famer Ron Yary, a bonanza that assisted greatly in making the Vikings a powerhouse.

Tarkenton was about to turn 32 when Finks brought him back on Jan. 27, 1972, for Grim and not much else. Sir Francis completed 1,611 passes over the next seven regular seasons, and was the all-time leader with 3,686 completions when he retired.

Second place goes to Bert Blyleven. He was a lad of 25 with 99 victories on his résumé when traded in a very raucous atmosphere on June 1, 1976. Texas gave up Roy Smalley, Mike Cubbage, Bill Singer, Jim Gideon and $250,000 (our guy Calvin Griffith liked that part) for Blyleven.

On Aug. 1, 1985, Blyleven, then 34, came back in a deal that sent shortstop prospect Jay Bell (and others) to Cleveland. Blyleven won another 50 regular-season games for the Twins and, more notably, three in the postseason of 1987.

And No. 3? I’d say Bobby Smith. He already was the best player in North Stars history at age 25 when traded to Montreal early in the 1984-85 season … for Keith Acton and Mark Napier.

He won a Stanley Cup with Montreal in 1986, came back for a fourth-round draft choice in 1990 and, at 33, assisted the Stars’ unlikely run to the 1991 Cup Finals.

Plus Three from Patrick

Other Twins returnees who found success:

Rick Aguilera: Traded to Boston on July 6, 1995, then re-signed that winter as a free agent. Tried to be a starter; went back to being an effective closer.

Roy Smalley: Left in a trade to the Yankees in the Twins’ salary purge of 1982, came back in 1985 and was a valuable extra player on the 1987 champs.

Sal Butera: Left as a light-hitting backup catcher in 1983, returned as a trusted backup receiver with those ’87 champs.

The frustration of a Timberwolves' ticket buyer

Posted by: Patrick Reusse Updated: December 4, 2014 - 2:54 PM

A basketball fan named Bruce Hoberman e-mailed this to me following Wednesday night’s abomination at Target Center – an 85-77 victory for the previously winless Philadelphia 76ers over the Timberwolves.

It was a copy of an electronic letter that he sent along to his ticket representative. I thought it was worth passing along the view of a Timberwolves’ customer.

By BRUCE HOBERMAN

As an announcer of high school sporting events the past 35 years for St. Louis Park Cable Television, I have announced close to 500 amateur basketball games over the years and attended many more.

I attend Timberwolves games with my son, who is 14 and such an avid NBA fan that he even watches D league games and can tell you every player on any NBA team.

Last night’s game goes down as the worst basketball I have seen at any level, amateur, college or professional.  I haven’t seen as many air balls in a game since watching my son’s first grade team play.

We have partial season tickets and my son who normally can’t wait for the next game to attend asked me if we can return our tickets.  He was so disappointed and appalled by the performance of this team and coaching staff. 

I am realistic that this team is missing 3 of its best players, but can’t believe the lack of rotation and passing in an offense.  This team still has good athletes but they run an offense that many time has one pass and eventually a contested shot at the basket.

There is no flow to the offense that Flip is running and I don’t feel that Flip has the ability to find a system around the players he has.  I am also confused as to why he continues to have confidence in his starting 5 and doesn’t try different combinations. It’s obvious to me when a player like Thad Young is in a slump and is not having a good shooting day, he shouldn’t continue to be in the lineup to miss his next 6 shots.

Last night Corey Brewer had a 3-on-1 with Shabazz Muhammad on the wing for an easy dunk but instead Corey went in contested and lost the ball.  This is basic basketball and a dunk may have given the crowd something to cheer about.

While this team may not have as much talent, they do have athletes and yet we see at most one dunk a game.  Why Shabazz has to always come off the bench when to me he energizes the team makes very little sense to me.

I can honestly say that I am not an expert in coaching but I have had a discussion with my analysts that work the games with me, people who have coached for 30 years. They have said they are absolutely confused at the lack of rotation in the offense and can’t believe how few passes the Wolves complete in an offensive set.

It’s easy for a coach to win with talent, but I am convinced that Flip is in over his head and the Wolves organization has a dilemma because they have a coach who is also in charge of the basketball operation. 

Lastly, the Wolves organization has done a horrible job making the game day experience enjoyable to the fans.  They do very little during stoppages of play and the mascot who has been so entertaining over the years has mostly disappeared.

There is no rhyme or reason to when there is going to be a good halftime performance. A number of guys in the office were giving me a hard time for sitting through that game and about why I invest in Wolves tickets.  These are guys that love basketball but can’t watch the Wolves anymore.

I am paying twice as much for a ticket as I have paid in years past but right now would prefer to enjoy a high school sporting event than deal with the frustration of the Wolves organization.

One last thing:  With the arena only 35% full, my son asked that we move over a section because the guy in front of us was taller and he had trouble seeing through him. We moved over to the next section and the security guard made us move back to our seats saying he couldn’t let us sit in unattended seats if they weren’t ours.

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