The seven biggest villains in Minnesota sports history

With A.J. Pierzynski declaring that fans weren’t booing him when he was playing for the Braves this week at Target Field, we can probably safely cross the former Twins catcher off of any list of greatest sports villains in Minnesota history.

But … who is on the list? To make the cut, a villain needs to have played a key role in either a sustained era or particularly acute moment that Minnesota fans will never forgive.

With the help of Twitter followers, I was able to come up with a list of seven. You’ll see no entrants related to the Wild, who have only had a few temporary villains during various playoff series. The Wolves? More than anything, they’ve tended to be their own worst enemy.

Consider these guys the not-so-magnificent seven, in descending order:

arod7. Alex Rodriguez: He never specifically wronged the Twins (unless you count a 1.020 career OPS against Minnesota and some crushing postseason hits with the Yankees … so yeah, maybe he did). But more than anything A-Rod came to symbolize the Yankees’ deep pockets and their stranglehold over the Twins in the playoffs — while also upsetting our Midwest sensibilities with his personality.

greggwilliams6. Gregg Williams: As the Saints defensive coordinator during the 2009 season, he became a central figure in the “Bountygate” scandal — and a coach Vikings fans largely associate with the questionable hits that epitomized Minnesota’s overtime loss to New Orleans in that year’s NFC title game. Williams was suspended but resurfaced as the Rams’ coordinator — where last year he raised the ire of fans and coach Mike Zimmer after a late hit to the head of Teddy Bridgewater.

cuzzi5. Phil Cuzzi: The MLB umpire badly missed a call on a hit by Joe Mauer that would have resulted in a double during the 2009 ALDS, and Twins fans have turned him into a villain ever since. It doesn’t matter that Mauer ended up singling to lead off the inning and that the Twins wound up with the bases loaded and no outs (before failing to score). Cuzzi’s call is all anyone remembers.

favrevikings4. Brett Favre: Before he had the greatest season of his career with the Vikings in 2009, Favre was a classic long-term villain for virtually all of his 16 seasons with the Packers. He was brash and seemed to relish the animosity, which only enhanced the sentiments.

secord3. Al Secord: The old North Stars vs. Blackhawks rivalry was classic, and the Chicago player who epitomized the hatred among the Minnesota fan base was Al Secord. He was just as likely to wind up in the penalty box as he was to put a puck in the back of the net. When you spawn your own chant that everyone still knows, you belong on this list.

drewpearson2. Drew Pearson: Vikings fans of a certain vintage still say the 1975 team was the best one of that era, and even if they don’t say that they say this: Pearson, playing for the Cowboys, pushed off when he scored a late touchdown to knock Minnesota out of the playoffs that year. My best friend of 30 years was born the day before that game, and he’s been mad about it seemingly ever since.

normgreen1. Norm Green: He took the North Stars and moved them to Dallas. What more needs to be said?

How much does it matter that Miguel Sano strikes out so much?

sanoAs strikeout totals have climbed in MLB in recent years, two competing thoughts have come along with them: the notion, often espoused by purists or traditionalists, that strikeouts are bad … and the notion, often espoused by newer thinkers, that strikeouts are a natural by-product of a more efficient, better way of hitting.

If you don’t land on either extreme, you’re left to wonder where on the scale strikeouts really land. This almost comes down to a “guilty until proven innocent vs. innocent until proven guilty” type of argument. That is to say: does striking out matter until it doesn’t or does it not matter until it does.

And watching these young Twins hitters — specifically Miguel Sano, but others as well — we have a great test case.

Sano, as La Velle E. Neal III wrote recently, had the most strikeouts in MLB history of any player in his first 150 games — 221, to be exact. He crushed Bo Jackson’s record of 204. It’s not a record anyone wants to have — Sano wouldn’t snap bats over his knee if he liked whiffing — but again we’re here to ask: how much does it really matter?

With Sano, as it is with so many young hitters these days, the answer is complicated.

In addition to all those strikeouts, Sano has 62 extra-base hits (including 33 homers) in his first 150 games. He has a robust .363 on-base percentage for his career, a by-product of taking a lot of walks — some of which come from his willingness to take close pitches, which sometimes are called against him for strike three instead of ball four. So you can logically conclude Sano might not be as powerful or get on base as much if he wasn’t so willing to strike out.

The counter argument is that strikeouts, on their own, have no chance of being productive outs. Whereas putting the ball in play puts pressure on a defense and might advance runners depending on the situation, strikeouts — in the context of a specific at-bat — achieve nothing.

The Twins seem to be working on getting that message out to Sano, with hitting coach Tom Brunansky urging Sano to be like Miguel Cabrera and take free RBIs when “the infield is back, they are giving it to you. All you have to do is put the ball in play over on the right side.”

And indeed, this is where I think strikeouts become more damaging — maybe not individually, but as a collective. If the Twins only had one or two strikeout-prone hitters in their lineup, that would be one thing. But virtually all of their young hitters are vulnerable. The average MLB hitter this season strikes out in 23.4 percent of his official at bats. That trend line has been increasing to the point that strikeouts are no longer taboo, as you can see by these five seasons, each a decade apart, and the increase in Ks over time.

Still, the Twins are overachievers. Here are the career rates for Sano, Byron Buxton, and Byung Ho Park, all achieved since 2015:

Sano: 41. 2 percent.

Buxton: 38.6 percent.

Park: 37.2 percent.

Eddie Rosario (25.4 percent) and Max Kepler (24.9 percent) are closer to this year’s league average, but both still whiff about once every four official at-bats. That’s a lot of potential for rallies to die — as happened last night, when Sano struck out in a key spot late.

Park is in the minors now, while Buxton has shuffled back and forth. Sano, though, has been a lineup constant — a sign that the Twins have made a sort of uneasy peace with his propensity to strike out for a couple different reasons: 1) At-bats that don’t end in strike outs tend to be pretty good and 2) He’s still just 23 and figures to at least slow down from his historic strikeout pace as he gains more repetitions.

While it’s true that runs per game across MLB have also declined over the past two decades as strikeouts have climbed (from 9.7 in 1995 to 9.2 in 2005 to 8.5 last season), it’s too simplistic to say the rise in strikeouts is the root of it all without remembering the influence of the steroid era.

So on balance, just looking at Sano, I would say he tends to fall closer to the end of the scale that says strikeouts don’t matter until they do, rather than vice-versa. Even with those 221 strikeouts in his first 150 games, he was the Twins’ most productive hitter during that span.

For a player like Buxton, who isn’t otherwise producing, it becomes more glaring and emblematic of overall struggles — and his strikeouts will matter until they don’t.

Ex-Vikings WR Mike Wallace fails conditioning test with Ravens

wallaceFile this under: not really that big of a deal, but still a delight for Vikings fans of a certain mindset.

Mike Wallace, a bust in his one season with the Vikings before moving onto Baltimore, failed his training camp conditioning test with the Ravens, according to Baltimore Sun beat writer Jeff Zrebiec.

Zrebiec offered the requisite context, noting in follow-up tweets that Wallace will have another chance to pass the test before Thursday’s practice and that the Ravens are “pleased with how hard he’s worked” and “are not concerned about Wallace,” who “hit 5 of 6 benchmarks” on the test. He also added that other Ravens veterans have failed initial tests in past years and gone on to do just fine.

That said, if you’re a Vikings fan who is happy to have moved on from Wallace — who was paid big money last year but managed just 39 catches for 473 yards a season ago — you’re probably not interested in context.

Maybe there would be more forgiveness had Wallace not taken the time to say he needed a “quarterback who I know is proven and can get things done” after signing with the Ravens?

Wild asks fans: Change goal song to Prince’s “Lets’ Go Crazy?”

wildThe Wild traditionally has used Joe Satriani’s “Crowd Chant” as the song played after the home team scores a goal. You might not know what it’s called, but it is VERY recognizable, especially if you’re even a marginal Wild fan.

As far as goal songs go, you can do far worse. Some even think the Wild’s song is among the best in the NHL.

That said, the song has its detractors. Maybe it’s gotten stale? Maybe the team could do better?

Fast-forward to Game 6 of the last year’s first round of the playoffs against the Stars. It was the first Wild home game since the death of Minnesota icon Prince. The organization had many tributes to Prince during the game — including using “Let’s Go Crazy” as its goal song.

A lot of people — myself included — mused that this should maybe be more than a one-game switch.

Power to the people: the Wild is listening. The organization recently sent an e-mail to season ticket holders with a five-question survey attached, along with the image seen above. After querying fans about expectations and the Wild’s brand, the final question was this (thanks to Twitter follower Randy for passing it along):

After Prince passed away in April, a few fans reached out to see if the Wild would consider changing the home ice goal celebration song to “Let’s Go Crazy”, in honor of the legendary Minnesota artist. We did use it as our goal song for Game 6 against Dallas. We thought it would be a good time to ask our best fans, our Season Ticket Holders, what they thought. Should the Wild change the home ice goal celebration song at Xcel Energy Center?

The four options presented:

NO! The current song (Joe Satriani’s “Crowd Chant”) is perfect!

YES! Honor Prince by adopting “Let’s Go Crazy!”

Yes! But let us pick the new one from a number of options.

Yes! And here is the song that I recommend:

Smart.

While this isn’t anywhere near the most pressing question in the offseason and fans would surely keep the current goal song if they could hear it more often during the season, it’s an in-touch move by the organization to crowd-source a question like this.

Pierzynski: Twins fans don’t remember him, so they stopped booing him

ajA.J. Pierzynski, one of the strangest villains in Twin Cities sports history, is in the midst of his 19th MLB season and is back in Minneapolis with the Braves for their two-game series with the Twins.

I say strangest villains because Twins fans have often booed Pierzynski when he came here as a visiting player even though:

1) Pierzynski was a very good player on the 2001-2003 Twins, at the outset of a era in which the team won six division titles in nine seasons. His home run in Game 5 of the 2002 ALDS proved to be critical in helping the Twins triumph in the only playoff series they have won since the 1991 World Series.

2) He was TRADED before the 2004 season to make way for Joe Mauer, and the Twins received a mighty haul (Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser) in return.

Sure, Pierzynski has a reputation for chirping. And yes, he played many seasons for the rival White Sox. But the boos have always felt strange given his success here and that his departure wasn’t via free agency.

Alas, it sounds as though Twins fans are coming to their senses. There was maybe a small smattering of boos for A.J. during Tuesday’s Braves victory, but it was hardly the full-throated venom of years past.

Maybe the crowd is older and wiser. Or … as Pierzynski said after the game, maybe nobody cares anymore?

Per a tweet from David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, here’s what Pierzynksi said after last night’s game: “It was kind of weird they didn’t boo me, then again I think no one in the stands remembered I played here it was so long ago.”

Ah, that could be it. Regardless, maybe we’re finally at the end of a weird era. If so, it’s for the best.

Twins, Wolves, Wild: After much noise, all quiet on trade fronts

rubiowolvesThis had all the makings of the summer of the deal, with three prominent Minnesota teams either publicly stating they were willing to trade or being strongly linked to a major deal.

But so far, it appears none of them has found the deal of the summer.

Wild GM Chuck Fletcher went into the offseason publicly professing a willingness to make trades as a means of retooling the roster. Earlier this month, he was quote as saying, “I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to more managers more often than I have the past few weeks.” As of late July, though, the volume on trade talk is low.

Before being fired by the Twins last week, Terry Ryan was open about the last-place club looking to deal. Interim GM Rob Antony continued that thread, saying recently, “We have had some good dialogue with teams. I hope it comes to fruition.” As of Tuesday afternoon, with the nonwaiver trade deadline looming Sunday, nothing has happened and even the rumor mill isn’t churning out much of note.

There was all sorts of speculation about potential Wolves trades just a month ago. The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski — almost certainly the most respected national NBA reporter, and perhaps the most trusted sports journalist in the United States — tweeted on June 23, “Minnesota has been shopping Ricky Rubio throughout the week. His future in Minnesota is likely coming to an end.” Yet here it is, July 26, and the only moves the Wolves have made have come via free agency.

If you’re a Minnesota fan who’s been hitting the refresh button on various trade rumor sites, it’s been in vain.

The quietness combined with the constant clamor for something to be done underscore two things:

1) It’s not easy to make a trade, or at least it’s not easy to make a good trade. With contract terms, public perception, potential vs. known and various other factors all weighing into deals in a sports landscape that has become both more lucrative and more scrutinized, nobody on either side wants to be left thinking they got the short end of a trade.

Even Antony, who has limited time to make an impression before the GM search widens, has maintained he needs to do the “right things” when presented with offers.

2) Trade rumor season is just as exciting (if not more so) for some fans than the actual season. I can’t even really criticize this rationale because I know from my own online behavior I’m far more likely to click on a link this time of year that’s about a potential trade than a game that has just been played.

Much like player drafts, trades offer subjective winners and losers that can be analyzed and dissected. If the Twins lose 5-2, we can second-guess some decisions. But there’s no doubt they lost.

I get the sense there are some Minnesota fans who are disappointed right now. Maybe this is just the calm before the storm.

Or maybe everyone will just have to re-calibrate and set their sights on Vikings training camp battles if they want some controversy.

Teddy Bridgewater, a PFF top-15 QB, throws out first pitch at Marlins game

teddyTeddy Bridgewater has now been the starting pitcher in a major league baseball game for more teams than Sandy Koufax.

OK, right, he hasn’t actually appeared in the official game. But he has thrown out the first pitch for two different teams. In 2014, he did the honor for the Twins. And on Monday, he did the same for his hometown Miami Marlins.

Hey, the Vikings are asking him to cut it loose more this year. And it must be said that Ted doesn’t look out of place at all in a baseball uniform:

The Vikings’ official Twitter account, of course, noticed something was missing — something a baseball player (and Bridgewater, on the football field) normally wears:

I can’t find video of last night’s effort, but the form looks solid.

Bridgewater, of course, will trade a baseball for a football later this week when the Vikings open training camp Friday in Mankato. Many have written this is a crucial year for Bridgewater, suggesting that if he can move into the upper echelon of NFL QBs the Vikings could be primed for a Super Bowl run. Interestingly, Pro Football Focus suggests he was already in the top half of league QBs in 2015.

It’s not time to panic (yet) about Miguel Sano’s 3B defense

sanoerrorBroadly viewed, Terry Ryan’s dismissal as Twins GM a week ago came as a result of bad decisions in talent evaluation. You don’t fire someone at the top of the personnel food chain, after all, if a roster is stocked with complementary, talented pieces.

Narrowing the view, pitching was the critical area with the most missteps, both in terms of organizational development and outside acquisitions.

I’d posit there is another narrow view of what went wrong — much of it, still, in the pitching department but also spread across the roster.

It is this: the Twins under Ryan fell victim too many times to small sample size decision-making, particularly when the small sample was positive. Perhaps it comes from believing too much in your own scouting. Maybe it comes from wanting to believe.

In assembling this year’s club, the Twins overvalued Kevin Jepsen and Trevor May as back-end bullpen guys based on strong performances down the stretch last year. Jepsen’s ERA ballooned to 6.16 this season before he was dumped. May is still battling back from a brutal stretch that has left his ERA at 5.66.

Massive hopes were pinned to Miguel Sano and Eddie Rosario (and to a lesser extent, Byron Buxton). While the Twins were measured in their expectations to a degree, officials also weren’t shy about proclaiming the team could contend for a playoff spot this season. And to do that, it’s pretty clear those guys would have needed to play crucial positive roles.

Going back in time, the Twins rewarded Ricky Nolasco for a decent 2013 season in the National League with a four-year, $49 million deal — never mind that he had been subpar from 2009-2012. Predictably, he’s been subpar since signing. Rather than let Phil Hughes’ initial three-year, $24 million contract play out after he excelled in his first season (2014), the Twins added three years and bigger money to it. Hughes very well might bounce back in 2017 once he is healthy, but right now it’s fair to question the wisdom.

There are other examples, but I’ll stop the long windup here and get to the headline, which is about Sano’s third base defense.

Early on Monday, while mulling Sano’s 10th error at third base in his past 15 games — a pace that would put him at more than 100 for a season, which math tells us is not good — the over-reacting part of me was ready to crank out a post about how maybe it’s time to just give up on Sano being anything but a designated hitter.

Then I calmed down and remembered that it’s bad form to want it both ways — on two different fronts.

First, if one is to advocate that this season became wholly about development after the first two months eradicated any playoff hopes, then it’s incongruous to argue that a young player should be stopped from developing — as Sano is doing, albeit painfully, at third base.

Second, if one is to hold the opinions already stated about small sample size and the failings of the Twins in that regard, it’s silly to demand the organization should draw hard conclusions after a rough two weeks.

This is a guy who came into the year with huge expectations, battled an injury, played out of position and is now back taking 100+ mph ground balls from the shortest distance on the field outside of a pitcher.

In other words: let’s not panic about Sano at third base. Grumble, sure, particularly about those dropped pop-ups. Hope for better days, yeah. But give it some time.

I’ll admit my track record on telling people when or when not to panic … well, it could be better.

There was this post about the Twins on Sept. 29, 2010 — precisely the time it would have been wise to start panicking about the Twins, who would get swept in the ALDS by the Yankees as an appetizer to the free-fall of 2011-present.

Still, that’s hindsight logic, which makes all of us look smarter (well, all of us except one of us in that specific case). Back in the present, Sano could very well prove to be a liability in the field to the point that he needs to be hidden as a primary DH. But we’re nowhere near reaching that conclusion — which is good because we’re nowhere near the point of needing to reach that conclusion.

Dennis Green mic’d up from 1998: A mixed bag of Vikings memories

dennyspeechIn the aftermath of Dennis Green’s death, NFL.com has a video feature of the former Vikings coach’s best mic’d up moments from 1998, when Minnesota of course went 15-1 before losing to Atlanta in overtime of the NFC title game.

That season is clearly the most complicated of the Green era when it comes to memories. It’s hard to forget just how great the Vikings, with Randy Moss as a rookie, were that season. That team completely transformed the fan base and the entire franchise — arguably paving the way, eventually, for U.S. Bank Stadium to be built.

But the finish to that year, with Gary Anderson missing the field goal, Green having his offensive juggernaut take a knee and then the dream suddenly dying — well, that’s hard to forget, too. The memories coexist with one another, but they do so uneasily.

As such, the NFL.com compilation — while well done and worth watching, as it clocks in at just under 90 seconds — is also a mixed bag. It’s almost more strange to watch it in retrospect, knowing what is coming at the end of the year. (Note: There’s also a clip in the middle talking about winning on the road at Atlanta, which most likely is actually from 1999).

When the video concludes with Green addressing the team after what must have been the Vikings’ final regular-season game of the season, he says this: “Three teams have been 15-1 in the history of the National Football League. Give yourselves a round of applause.”

Everyone was on top of the world then.

In any event, here’s the full video:

AquaJam, a Minneapolis skateboard classic, returns to Aquatennial

aquajamI don’t profess to have lived in Minneapolis during the era of the Aquatennial that featured AquaJam — a skateboard extravaganza that reached the height of popularity in the late 1980s/early 1990s before fading away — but I’ve heard from enough people to know that 1) it was pretty awesome. 2) It’s even more awesome that it is making its return this year.

Don’t believe me? Well: 1) there’s photo (to the side) and video (below) evidence that this used to be a thing; and 2) It is most definitely coming back — from 3-8 p.m. Saturday, in fact, at Boom Island Park.

 

Tucker Gerrick, director of marketing for Fulton Beer, and a longtime skateboarding enthusiast who remembers AquaJam from his youth, was instrumental in getting the event back on the schedule this year.

Gerrick, 36, said he moved with his family to the Twin Cities from Iowa in 1988 and it “blew his mind” that such a thing as AquaJam existed. He’s hoping this year’s event will provide a similar jolt for the thriving local skateboard scene.

“It was quite popular and super impressive,” Gerrick said. “Remember, this is pre-X games, pre-video games, anything that the general public is associating now with skateboarding being in the mainstream,” said Gerrick, noting the good timing of this year’s AquaJam after Minneapolis was just awarded the X Games for 2017 and 2018. “Not only to have be so well-attended but to have it happen outside the California context, that was pretty killer. On a lot of levels, It’s a testament to just how strong the scene here has been for decades.”