Was Sharks D Paul Martin as good of a Minnesota high school athlete as Joe Mauer?

paulmartin1Joe Mauer’s high school exploits at Cretin-Derham Hall are the stuff of legend, and for good reason.

Mauer was, of course, a tremendous baseball player — striking out just once in his entire prep career before being chosen by the hometown Twins with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2001 draft.

He was a great high school quarterback and had a full ride waiting for him at Florida State had he not decided to play baseball.

And Mauer was also an excellent basketball player on a Cretin team that reached the state tournament his senior season. In the state semifinals — an 88-82 loss to Osseo — Mauer, a guard, had 25 points, eight rebounds and five assists. He was later named to the Class 4A all-tournament team.

In the modern era of athletes, that’s a pretty hard 1-2-3 punch to top, especially considering the success Mauer went on to have in the majors (three batting titles and an MVP award).

That said, there is a case to be made that Sharks defenseman Paul Martin — a contemporary of Mauer in terms of era — is also in the same discussion in terms of how good of a prep athlete he was.

I started digging into this after some incredulity surfaced during Pittsburgh’s Game 1 win over San Jose last night, when Pierre McGuire casually mentioned that Martin was among the all-time great wide receivers in Minnesota high school history. It turns out McGuire wasn’t using as much hyperbole as some of us thought — and that Martin’s athletic talent branches in more directions than I remember.

*Martin, a 2000 Elk River graduate (one year before Mauer) was of course a standout hockey player. He was Mr. Hockey and the Star Tribune’s Metro Player of the Year as a senior. He went on to play for the Gophers and was the 62nd overall pick of the Devils in 2000. He made his NHL debut in 2003 and has logged nearly 800 regular-season games in the league.

*As a football player, he was arguably just as impressive — if not more so. According to the Star Tribune’s archives, Martin was a gifted wide receiver who graduated with the state career records for receptions (189) and yards (3,009). The two Star Tribune all-Metro wide receivers his senior year: Martin and future NFL standout Larry Fitzgerald Jr. of Holy Angels.

*As a baseball player, he was no slouch, either. Martin was a .354 hitter entering the playoffs as a senior. His final numbers aren’t listed, but that does add to his athletic legend.

*The kicker, though, is that Martin almost didn’t play hockey because he was such a good basketball player. He led youth basketball teams to state titles in 6th, 7th and 8th grade. As an 8th-grader, he didn’t even play hockey — though he had been on a dual track with the sports since his younger days. By 9th grade, he had a decision to make between hockey and basketball since the two season are concurrent. And per this 1997 story by Brian Wicker — who covered preps for the Star Tribune at the time and said he remembers writing more about Martin as a football player as a hockey player — it was agonizing:

It was probably the most difficult decision I’ve made so far in my life,” said Martin, who attended captain’s practices in both sports (basketball and hockey) before deciding. “I procrastinated longer than I should have. Maybe if I’d have made it sooner, it would have been easier.”

Basketball coaches were just as eager to have Martin on their team as Elk River’s hockey coaches. But the ice won out, in part because — as Martin would say as a high school senior — he figured he had a better chance to have a future in hockey.

So he was basically awesome at arguably the four biggest boys’ high school team sports (at least in the late 1990s). He quite possibly could have been a college football player and — who knows — could have perhaps been a college basketball player, at least, had he stayed on that path.

I’m not sure that quite puts Martin on par with Mauer, but it sure puts him in the conversation. At the very least, he was a far more accomplished multi-sport athlete than I remember.

Almost famous: What it’s like to be an extra in a Twins commercial shoot

If you’ve ever wondered how footage of sports fans in the stands is shot for commercials, I can tell you exactly how it happened in one specific instance.

I was there, and I participated.

You’ve likely since seen the commercial, which began airing recently: in it, Twins fans in a bunch of different scenarios stop what they’re doing — sometimes to the point of distraction — as Miguel Sano hits a long home run.

commercialticketThe shoot was April 19. The Twins, after sputtering to an 0-9 start, had won four games in a row at home and were playing a “getaway” game at 12;10 p.m. on a Tuesday against the Brewers.

A few days earlier, I had heard about a commercial shoot for a new Twins spot and made arrangements to sit in on it. Why? Well, after spending roughly half of my close to 40 years on earth working in sports media in some capacity, I’m always looking for new experiences about which to write.

This certainly qualified.

The protocol was fairly simple: the extras were supposed to meet outside of Gate 29 before the game to get their (free) tickets and then gather in Section 126 (down the left field line) before the game started. We were encouraged to wear Twins gear, but otherwise non-logo gear. And once the shoot was done, we were free to watch the rest of the game (which the Twins ended up losing 6-5).

commercial directorI headed to the section about 20 minutes before first pitch. Folks from Periscope — the agency putting together the commercial — were milling around and getting set up. There was a VERY fancy camera and a lot of important-looking people (director, camera operators even a make-up person!) preparing for the work.

I took a seat next to Robert Meshbesher, another extra who said he found out about the commercial shoot from Facebook. He said he used to have season tickets but no longer does. He hadn’t been to a game yet that year and figured this was a great way to make one. Some extras had won contests to be part of the shoot; others had answered casting calls.

And then there was me. I wanted to write about it. I wanted to participate in it as part of that process. But secretly I was hoping that I wasn’t actually IN the finished product.

In any event, we got down to business as the game started. Basically, we were there for two scenes: one in which we all stopped what we were doing and looked in the same direction, and another in which we were supposed to stand up and cheer wildly.

If you think that sounds easy, it is not.

On the first scene, where we all looked in the same direction, we must have done at least 15 different takes. The director gave instructions, as directors do: less leaning forward; don’t look so eager; make sure you stay focused until the camera stops rolling. They rearranged us into different seats. They gave some of us different shirts to wear.

Same thing with the second scene: be excited but not too excited; OK, that was toned down too much. Take after take. It was fascinating and strangely nerve-inducing. You don’t really realize how hard acting is — or what a bad actor you really are — until you have to do something on command instead of naturally.

And in the midst of it all, the Twins kept getting hits (can you believe it?), which messed up the timing of a couple takes. And there were ACTUAL fans there to see the game. If something unscripted happened in the background, that could ruin a take.

But we made it. All of our *hard* work ended up being for less than five seconds of a 30-second spot.

Overall, I liked the fact that they filmed the spot during an actual game. In my head, I assumed these things typically happened in empty arenas or ballparks — or at least not during the action. In this case at least, the filming happened right in the middle of a real game.

Twinscommercial4 - CopyAnd as you can see in the frame grab (courtesy of Periscope, click to enlarge), I got my wish: I’m in one of the two scenes, but just barely — hidden behind a fan in a white Twins jersey, you can barely make out the side of my face and hair.

Meshbesher, who was sitting next to me on my right (beard and glasses), got all the glory.

Maybe if I had been just a little better at leaning forward?

New Falcons stadium: $2 hot dogs, $5 beers, expensive seats. How do Vikings compare?

usbankstadiumThe new Atlanta stadium slated to open in 2017 — with multiple tenants, including the Falcons as the primary one — generated some positive press last week with the announcement of reasonable prices for many food and drink items. Indeed, in comparisons to other arenas the prices are downright cheap. Per a news release, these prices will be in effect for all events at the stadium in 2017, including Falcons games:

$2: Non-alcoholic beverage products with unlimited free refills; Dasani bottled water; hot dogs; pretzels; popcorn

$3: Peanuts; pizza; nachos; waffle fries

$5: 12 oz. domestic beer

Compare that to NFL stadium averages: $4.70 for a soft drink, $5.40 for a hot dog and $7.50 for a beer. One of each of those at an average NFL game would cost almost $18. At a Falcons game, it would be $9 — half that price.

It made me curious what the price points will be at U.S. Bank Stadium — and whether the Vikings are considering any similar deals.

With that stadium set to open in a couple months while Atlanta’s is a year away, I was a little surprised to find out that prices haven’t been set yet. That was confirmed by both the Vikings and Michele Kelm-Helgen, the chair of the Minnesota Sports Facilities Commission.

“Our prices are still being finalized, but they’ll be competitive with other venues in the region,” Kelm-Helgen said in response to my query. “Our goal is to create a world-class dining program that enhances the overall stadium experience; this takes into account several factors such as menu variety, food quality and customer service.” Fair enough, and it’s worth noting Atlanta will surely have plenty of higher-end, more expensive specialty items in line with the options unveiled by the Vikings this week (also without prices). But it’s also worth noting that if the Vikings’ prices are “competitive with other venues in the region” they will not be cheap. Let’s focus on beer for a moment: If we’re talking other NFL teams, a small beer at a Bears game is $9.25 and at a Packers game is $7.75. If we’re talking other major sports teams in the Twin Cities, a small beer at Target Field for a Twins game is $7.50; a 20-ounce beer at a Wild game in 2014-15 was $9.50 — same as it was at a Wolves game last year, according to Statista.com. So Falcons fans will come out ahead there, and the team gets some nice press as a result. The flip side is that while a Falcons fan will presumably save on a hot dog and a beer compared to a Vikings fan, Atlanta is also harvesting a lot more front-end money from seat licenses — the one-time fee you pay before you can buy your season tickets — than your local NFL franchise. As of November, the Falcons had brought in $140 million from PSLs, with more yet to sell. Their most expensive license is $45,000. The Vikings, in contrast, were slated to get $100 million total from that source — with $9,500 being the highest-priced license. It’s all a matter of choosing which pocket from which you’d rather have the money taken.

Wild fundraiser for Alberta fires: big crowd, good cause

It’s startling enough to see images of the fires that have raged through Alberta for the past month, roaring through towns and displacing thousands of Canadians from their homes.

Hearing a first-hand account of just what that devastation has wrought brings the nightmare to a whole different level — and a personal one for members of the Minnesota Wild.

wildspurgeonDanielle Spurgeon (pictured), wife of Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon, said her parents were forced from their home in Edmonton as a result of a fire that raged during an extraordinarily dry spring in the province.

Their loss — and the losses of those around them in Fort McMurray — provided the impetus for a fundraiser Thursday to help those affected by the fires.

Jared Spurgeon and five Wild teammates — Erik Haula, Zach Parise, Jason Pominville, Nate Prosser and Jason Zucker — signed autographs at BMO Harris Bank in Edina, raising money for the Red Cross to support victims of the fires.

Danielle Spurgeon, the chief organizer of the event, was heartened by both the turnout and the willingness of her husband’s teammates to help out. Her parents, Colette and Norm LaRose, moved in temporarily with Danielle and Jared — a transition that was smooth but still difficult.

“When you walk inside (the house) and see all the destruction, that’s the really hard part,” she said. “Seeing that is what sparked this. I thought if my family had a lot of immediate help and it’s still really hard, it made me think of all the people who maybe didn’t have that help.”

Said Jared Spurgeon: “We’re fortunate enough that we can do something about it.”

The event was a hit with Wild fans and collectors, who were able to get six autographs — including a coveted one from Parise — for a $50 donation. The first 300 people in line were guaranteed autographs, meaning the event alone was slated to net a $15,000 donation.

wild2Alex Rand (pictured, no relation to the author) was the first person to go through the line when doors opened shortly after 3 p.m., and he earned it.

Rand, a memorabilia collector, drove an hour from Zimmerman and arrived to stake out his spot at 9 a.m. — six hours before the event began — after he heard that other collectors were planning to arrive three or four hours early.

“I’m so happy they want to support this,” Danielle Spurgeon said.

Rand said he considered the $50 price a “great deal” and bought a new jersey specifically to have it signed at the event.

wildpariseOthers moved through the line and chatted with players. Parise was in his element making small talk with a fan in a North Dakota jersey (his former school) and a family with twins (he, too, is a father of twins).

“It seems like (the fires) are affecting a lot of communities,” Parise said, noting the hockey world has been hit hard. “It’s good to help out as much as we can.”

Byron Buxton is destroying Class AAA pitching

buxtonByron Buxton struggled mightily in his second audition with the Twins this year, going just 7 for 45 and striking out 24 times. He was sent to the minors in late April, and he didn’t exactly set the Class AAA world on fire at the start — hitting just .214 through his first six games (28 at bats) with two walks and nine strikeouts.

The combination of those things, and particularly the way Buxton looked overmatched by big-league pitching, touched off several waves of alarm among Twins fans. The b-word (bust) was even tossed around.

But here are some comforting facts for Twins fans:

*Buxton is still just 22 years old. That’s really young. Just because we’ve been hearing about Buxton for years doesn’t mean he’s getting older at a rate faster than anyone else.

*Since that cool start in Class AAA, he’s been on an absolute tear. Buxton is hitting .380 in 71 May at-bats with 5 homers. His OPS is an eye-popping 1.105 this month. He’s been particularly hot in the last four games, going 7 for 16 with two homers and two doubles. That’s raised his overall average to .333 at Rochester — and this is after he hit .400 there in 55 at bats last year.

Dominating Class AAA doesn’t guarantee anything, but it is certainly an encouraging sign that Buxton is A) getting his confidence back and B) continues to make progress toward fulfilling all the potential he showed at the lower levels of the minors.

At the very least, anyone with even a vague notion that Buxton is a flop should calm down. He’s had 174 career major league at bats, which is still more than he’s had at Class AAA.

He might never figure it out at the major league level, but there’s a long way to go before we can make that conclusion — and more evidence mounting that says he’s on the right track.

The bigger question now becomes: when will we see him in a Twins uniform again? My preference would be sooner rather than later, but there can be a precarious balance between building a young player’s confidence and throwing him back into the fire.

Still, the Twins are drowning in a 12-34 season. Hitting major league pitching takes a lot of reps for most players. Maybe they should just let Buxton play here until he learns how to swim, even if he merely floats for a while.

Bridgewater meets young fan who invited him to birthday with rap song

heyteddyHere’s a cute story via Foxsports.com: Obadiah Gamble, a 6-year-old Vikings fan and huge Teddy Bridgewater fan, released via YouTube recently a rap song inviting Bridgewater to his upcoming 7th birthday party.

The young fan tweeted snippets of the song at Bridgewater over the course of time, and the Vikings QB retweeted him. His mom told Fox Sports that the Vikings “are sending some signed Bridgewater items to Obadiah, but she didn’t know if the quarterback would attend Sunday’s birthday party.”

heyteddyskolWell, that was Wednesday morning. By Wednesday evening, young Obadiah had received a pretty big thrill: meeting Bridgewater in person. The Vikings quarterback tweeted a picture of the two of them together:

And in case you missed it, the song itself was pretty awesome. Here’s the full version in all its glory:

Did the Timberwolves give Thunder the blueprint to beat Warriors?

wigginsLike the rest of the free world, I’m trying to figure out how the Warriors — after going an NBA-record 73-9 in the regular season — are suddenly in a 3-1 hole to Oklahoma City after two consecutive blowout losses to the Thunder.

Some short answer theories: Steph Curry isn’t 100 percent, and it’s taking a toll; the Warriors, after chasing history for 82 games, are exhausted mentally and physically; Thunder coach Billy Donovan, the architect of Florida’s NCAA titles and a conference semifinals upset of San Antonio, is a brilliant coach; the Thunder is clicking at the right time and can present matchup nightmares for the Warriors.

There might be some combination of all those things (and others) at play here, but let’s focus on the last two — which in a way go hand-in-hand. Let’s also examine them in this context: Can we make the claim that the Thunder is using the blueprint provided by the Timberwolves in a late-season win at Golden State as the main means for dismantling the presumptive favorites?

I think we can use that argument, albeit carefully.

When the Wolves won 124-117 in overtime at Golden State, putting the Warriors’ run at the record in jeopardy by handing them just their ninth loss of the year, they did it down the stretch using a small lineup: Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine, Karl-Anthony Towns, Shabazz Muhammad and Andrew Wiggins. Towns is the only true center/power forward in that group. That lineup outscored the Warriors by 12 points in the heat of the fourth quarter and in overtime, utilizing quickness and an attacking mentality.

Muhammad had perhaps his best game as a pro, putting up an absurd 35 points off the bench. Wiggins had 32. Towns had 20 points and 12 rebounds. That was the big three, with LaVine chipping in with 16 points and Rubio running the offense. Gorgui Dieng was 5 for 8 from the field but the Wolves were outscored by 15 points in his 19 minutes on the floor.

Clearly you need the right personnel to win when you go small, and the Wolves — particularly when Muhammad is playing like that, since he is aggressive enough to play bigger than he is — have the right players to do that. It paid off in a signature win.

Fast-forward to Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals. The Thunder went with a very similar lineup — one that hadn’t worked well during the season, in fact — with great results in what ended up being a blowout win. Per ESPN.com:

The Thunder’s rout of the Warriors in Game 3 could be attributed to the Thunder using a five-man group that featured Serge Ibaka as the only power forward/center on the floor.  The Thunder’s best five-man lineup was Russell Westbrook, Andre Roberson, Dion Waiters, Kevin Durant and Ibaka. That unit was plus-30 in 12 minutes and shot 64.0 percent (16-of-25). This marked only the fourth time that Roberson and Waiters scored in double figures in the same gameEntering Game 3, that grouping was the Thunder’s worst five-man unit this season (including playoffs), getting outscored by 38 points.

The effect of the smaller lineup gave Golden State matchup problems. Warriors big man Andrew Bogut only played 11 minutes in Game 3 and had the same total in Game 4 Tuesday — when again the Thunder used a small lineup to dismantle Golden State.

All five of those aforementioned players from the Game 3 small lineup again were dominant — with each posting at least a plus-22 mark when on the court and all scoring in double-figures again. By contrast, traditional Thunder center Steven Adams was a minus-7 in his 25 minutes. OKC won by 24, meaning the squad was plus-31 in the other 23 minutes of smaller-ball.

Now, going small is not a revolutionary concept. But Donovan is a smart coach — and smart coaches know 1) how to poach good ideas from other teams when they work and 2) that it’s smart to keep pounding away with good ideas when they are working.

The Wolves had the personnel to go small, and it paid off. The Thunder is doing the same thing. If the Wolves win was stunning at the time, what the Thunder is doing is downright shocking. But maybe taken together, we shouldn’t be as surprised?

The one thing we know about sports: We don’t know anything

davismadsenHumans have a habit of comforting themselves with narratives driven by the past as a means to gain “control” over the future. It leads us to think we know everything — until we don’t, a point that can be profoundly dangerous in real life. (I’ve referenced this book here before, but I’ll do it again now).

In the world of sports, that danger is mitigated to relatively harmless consequences such as: looking foolish when our assumptions are flipped over 180 degrees. We can, say, look at Johnny Manziel’s incredible playmaking ability in college, ignore all his red flags because others have overcome immaturity and proclaim the Vikings should draft him.

(For example. Please don’t look back through my blog archive or Twitter timeline from April 2014).

One of the hardest things to say in life is “I don’t know” — and that difficulty only increases in a sports world full of hot takes and smarter-than-your analysis.

But it is the only thing we know about sports: that we don’t know.

Two months ago, the narrative was that the Twins were an up-and-coming team full of optimism after an 83-79 season a year ago. Even the most pessimistic predictor could not have conceived of the misery that would proceed through the first quarter-plus of the season.

And similarly, now that this awful trajectory has been established, few can imagine a reversal of course. A recent Startribune.com poll asked, “How many games under .500 will the Twins finish?” A staggering 42 percent of the roughly 1,800 respondents answered “45 games or more,” while another 34 percent said “31 to 45.”

The first category, in a 162-game schedule, would give the Twins no better than a 58-104 record. The second would top them out at 65-97. So more than three-fourths of voters say the Twins will lose at least 97. Only six percent had them better than 15 games under .500. That’s a high degree of certainty based on the very recent past.

A few days ago, the narrative was that Cleveland was unstoppable and could very well sweep its way through the Eastern Conference after starting out 10-0 in the playoffs. Some discussion had already shifted to a finals matchup with either the Thunder or Warriors.

Then the Raptors won twice on their home floor — hardly an unfathomable thing when you stop to think about it — and it seemed shocking because we thought we knew better.

The past can help us predict some things and establish probabilities (like, for instance, that Adrian Peterson has a better chance of running for 1,000 yards next year than Matt Asiata). But if we convince ourselves the Vikings are going to take another step forward simply because they won 11 games last year, that’s where the trouble starts.

Athletic gifts tell some of the story of sports outcomes. It’s hard, though, to believe that so much of what happens on a playing surface is determined by randomness and luck — but it’s true. And when what we think will happen actually does happen, it doesn’t necessarily mean we were smart. It quite possibly just means we guessed correctly and got lucky.

Will Cleveland beat Toronto? Are the Twins destined for 100 losses? Are the Vikings going to the Super Bowl?

I don’t know. And neither do you.

Was it a double-standard to leave Miguel Sano in after taking Eddie Rosario out?

sanorosarioMiguel Sano provided a lively moment for armchair managers last night (these are not to be confused with armchair quarterbacks, nor are they limited to people who actually watch games in armchairs).

Sano, who is learning to play right field after being an infielder, went back on a ball hit by Salvador Perez and, well, didn’t exactly read the carom correctly. More puzzling and questionable: after the ball hit the wall, he didn’t chase after it — instead, slowing down while center fielder Danny Santana raced after it. By then, the slow-footed Perez had an easy triple.

Even if we give Sano the full benefit of the doubt and surmise that he had gauged Santana would get to the ball before him, the sight of a young player on an 11-33 team grinding to a halt in the midst of another blowout loss just doesn’t look good. And as a result, there was speculation that the play could land Sano on the bench.

Sano, though, wasn’t pulled from the game. (We’ll have to wait a few hours to see if he’s in Tuesday’s lineup). In contrast, Eddie Rosario — another second-year Twins player who was struggling — was pulled from a game last week after mental and physical errors, then subsequently sent to Class AAA Rochester after the game. The final straw was a high-risk, low-reward steal of third, of which Twins manager Paul Molitor said, “I wanted to get Eddie out at that point.”

And GM Terry Ryan said at the time, “We can’t have any comfort in that clubhouse, and I mean none.”

Molitor talked to Sano about the play between innings and offered thoughts on the Sano play after the game Monday, noting that the outfielder has been working hard on improve and that he likely assumed a teammate would get to the ball before he would. “But yeah, you want him to go for the ball even if you think someone might be there to help you out,” Molitor added. “Sometimes you get caught assuming out there and it doesn’t look too good.”

Is that a double-standard? And if so — a more delicate question — is that necessarily a bad thing?

To the first question, I would say in just a simple one-to-one comparison with Rosario it appears that way. But it’s also worth noting that Rosario’s benching and demotion came at the end of a series of blunders and also had to do with his lack of discipline at the plate. He might have been pulled for having a series of misplays in one bad game, but that was far from the sole reason why he was demoted.

Sano, in contrast, has an .818 OPS in his last 32 games after a dreadful first 11. Even if he’s not hitting at the same pace he did as a rookie, he’s contributing to a lineup that needs every run it can muster even while he struggles in the field.

In the bigger picture, while both Sano and Rosario had breakout rookie years in their own ways, Sano is a potential future star while Rosario’s ceiling is probably lower as a potential solid contributor. While it’s fair to ask whether he’s earned special treatment and/or whether Sano is too comfortable — a reference back to that Ryan quote — it’s also a fact that stars, like it or not, are often treated differently.

Our own Patrick Reusse was dismayed enough by the Sano play to suggest he be sent all the way back to Class AA. That would be a loud message but an unlikely one. The Twins have already dispatched Rosario, Byron Buxton, Max Kepler and Jose Berrios back to the minors. Sano is the most accomplished of the bunch and the one who has at least shown some signs of life this year.

When you can hit like he can, you tend to get the benefit of the doubt and a little more comfort. We’ll see how much — and how much is needed — going forward.

Vikings TE Kyle Rudolph announces twins are on the way … at Twins game

rudolph twinsThe Vikings won 11 games last season in 16 tries. The Twins are stuck on that same number in 44 tries after another drubbing Monday at the hands of Kansas City.

The franchises are going in about as complete opposite directions as possible at the moment, but at least in the very short-term their worlds collided at Target Field when Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph was invited to throw out the first pitch. The timing seemed a little odd … except when considering the Vikings this week have OTAs (organized team activities, a fancy word for “practice”) … and when considering the news Rudolph shared with the world: he and his wife Jordan are expecting twins.

Rudolph was flanked by several teammates at the game, including QB Teddy Bridgewater. And he spent some time pregame with first baseman Joe Mauer — who of course not only plays for the Twins but has twin girls of his own.

It was a cute little side story — and hey, anything to take the focus off of the field.