La Velle E. Neal III
Star Tribune Sports
650 3rd Ave. So. #1300
Minneapolis, MN 55488
Dear La Velle:
Way back in 2003, you received an open letter from me offering advice on what not to do when covering baseball's winter meetings in New Orleans. This came from Uncle Pat's personal experiences in having the same assignment years earlier, which included requesting a 7:30 a.m. wake-up call and being informed by the hotel operator it was "a quarter to 8."
The time has come for another such communiqué, what with the information breaking that after 23 years of meritorious service on the Twins beat, you will be joining the Star Tribune's collection of sports columnists that includes Dennis Anderson, Jim Souhan, Chip Scoggins and Uncle Pat.
This is historic, for you are the first journalist of color to serve as a sports columnist in the 153-year history of this newspaper, as well as the first to openly root for the Fighting Illini, Bears, Bulls and Blackhawks, as far as we know.
I have it on good authority the Strib editors always wanted to move you onto the columnist roster once Sid Hartman hung it up, and who could have guessed the Great Man would not vacate the position — and this Earthly orb — until seven months past his 100th birthday?
Indeed, it's fitting that you are stepping up in our post-Sid era, considering the respect that he showed toward your opinions when we shared places on the panel for "The Sports Show," once a TV cult hit.
Often, you were able to get out the words, "The Vikings are …" before Sid would blurt, "What would you know about football?"
Now will be the chance to escape from the baseball pigeonhole and show off those wide-ranging sports insights you've shared in baseball press boxes (and rumored radio appearances).
What only a limited audience might know is that you cut your teeth in big-time sports by covering a soccer team in Kansas City. I've even overheard you say stuff like "table" and "fixture."
Thus, if our improving Loons have a big match next summer and you feel the urge to write a column, Uncle Pat feels as if he has the proxies for Souhan and Scoggins to state, "Go for it."
My first offering as an official columnist came on Feb. 5, 1979, in the afternoon St. Paul Dispatch. There was an overline at the top of the front page announcing the event, which would have been even more exciting if the surname hadn't been spelled "Ruesse" in that overline.
One thing I've learned in 42 years is there will be days when you are scheduled to produce a column and face a void of ideas. When those arrive, here are a few hints, based on long experience among Minnesotans:
• My friend Randy Galloway, a Dallas baseball writer turned sports columnist and now-retired radio legend, used to say, "When in doubt, talk [or write] Cowboys." In the Twin Cities, substitute Vikings for Cowboys.
(Note: I don't follow this strategy, out of stubbornness).
• Don't always give the readers what they want. Give them what they don't want a solid share of the time. Souhan's column on Wednesday morning outlining the truth about the popular Ricky Rubio's horrible play is a fine example.
• Gophers football zealots are the most sensitive collection in our midst. When it comes to P.J. Fleck, they are thousands of My Pillow guys to Donald Trump.
Thus, when P.J.'s lads give up 675 yards to Maryland, figure out a way to keep throwing it into columns for the next few months, even if you're writing about basketball or golf. The hits will keep on comin'.
• There are a few staples that can be called on. As you know as well as anyone, you can't go wrong mentioning the Twins' postseason losing streak — now at 18 games — as an example of Minnesota woe.
Another is Gary Anderson's missed field goal (now 22 years ago), with Blair Walsh's miss in 2016 an acceptable substitute.
"Yes, but we scored last" is usable after any crushing defeat. It's the tribute to Gophers football coach Tim Brewster that never goes away, even though Coach Brew did so in October 2010.
You also can throw Joe Mauer into any column — not those battling titles you watched him win (the only AL catcher to win one, followed by two more), but the ageless reference to "bilateral leg weakness."
You're aware of the oldies but goodies, but I still suggest keeping a list.
• Lastly, there is this sports columnist's creed to cover days that start with staring into the void:
"God will provide."
As evidence, Wednesday was one of those mornings, and then the Star Tribune announced it had added La Velle Neal III to its group of sports columnists.
Bingo … a topic.
All the best,