The time Bob Uecker made shadow puppets at a Bloomington dive bar and cracked up Howard Cosell

cosellSteve Hirdt is the executive vice president of Elias Sports Bureau and the director of information for Monday Night Football — roles he has been in, respectively, since the 1970s and 1980s.

Suffice to say, he has some fascinating perspective on the evolution of statistics and the NFL, which I’ll get to in an upcoming print/online Q&A that’s running Sunday.

But he also told an amazing story about his first time in Minneapolis, working for Monday Night Baseball (that was a thing) in the 1970s. It was too long and frankly way off-topic to include in the Q&A, but my goodness I can’t stop thinking about it. So here it is, from Hirdt:

“I think the first time I came to Minnesota was the late 70s for a baseball game at the old Met stadium. I think the Twins played the Red Sox and they had a pitcher named Paul Thormodsgard and Cosell loved saying the name.

“The thing I remember is after the game, there was a hotel we stayed in, very small hotel that was walking distance to the stadium, and after the game we came back and there was a little lounge. You might be too young to remember this but back then there was a character on Saturday Night Live played by Bill Murray where was kind of a lounge singer. … That type of thing was going on at this place. There was a small-town lounge singer, and this was Monday Night Baseball so it was Monday night in Bloomington Minnesota. The guy is performing in front of 15 people or so.

“We take a table in the back. Cosell was there and Bob Uecker was on the broadcast. Ueck realizes there is a spotlight on this guy that is kind of running right through our table. He starts by putting up like one finger or two fingers while the guy is performing, in this tuxedo, and you see these magnified images. Uecker starts to do a show of someone running or swimming, and then a shark coming to get them with the other hand. The guy had no idea what was going on. He was in the middle of some Sinatra song. I’d never seen Cosell before or after laugh so hard. It was just typical of something Uecker would do.”

 

‘American Marshals’ fan group honors Flip Saunders’ legacy

flipIt started at Valhalla in 2008 — incidentally, the last Ryder Cup won by the United States, with three defeats coming between then and this weekend’s event at Hazeltine.

There were a few different masterminds of the fan group that would become known as the “American Marshals,” but chief among them was Flip Saunders. Flip was between coaching jobs at that point, having been fired by the Pistons in June of 2008 and not yet with the Wizards, who hired him in 2009.

Never one to sit still, Saunders and some buddies conceived of a group that would out-cheer their European counterparts. They incorporated Vikings garb into their outfits (which later evolved into red, white and blue gear even though they kept the horns). They roared. They came up with chants (including a variation of “Skol Vikings”). They generally had a great time.

Jim Kopp, of the members of the 13-man group, said, “(Flip) was the one that came up and said, ‘this is ridiculous. We have to help the U.S. win this thing.'”

None of them would have imagined the turn Saunders’ life would take in the two years since the last Ryder Cup — from the highs of rejoining the Timberwolves as President and then head coach, to the extreme low of his diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma and ultimately his death from complications stemming from the disease on Oct. 25, 2015 — almost a year ago now.

All of it seemed particularly cruel and unfair — emotions stirred up again now that the Ryder Cup is in the state that became his home.

“It’s very bittersweet,” Kopp said. “We miss him dearly.”

Everyone else in the group agreed, and several added some form of this: “Flip is with us, just in a different way.”

For sure, the group is honoring the legacy and spirit of Flip at this year’s Ryder Cup. They were front-and-center Friday in the grandstand of the first tee, decked out head-to-toe in American colors in what is now the group’s fifth consecutive Ryder Cup.

flip2One imagines it’s just as Saunders would have wanted it.

On the backs of their jerseys were identical “We are 13” lettering. On the fronts, among other things, there was the now-familiar patch that reads, simply, “Flip” with the Wolves logo in the background.

The significance of “13” is that the Marshals consider themselves the U.S. Team’s “13th man,” so to speak, since there are 12 golfers per team.

I’ll leave if for you to decide what role these fellows — and their dearly departed friend — are playing in this year’s cup, but the U.S. squad was a perfect 4-0 in the Friday morning matches.

Fire up the rumors: Kevin Garnett was at Clippers practice today

dockgLess than a week ago, Kevin Garnett retired from the NBA after 21 seasons following news that he and the Wolves had reached a financial agreement.

At that time, Clippers coach Doc Rivers — who coached Garnett in Boston when the Celtics won a championship (ironically with current Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau as an assistant) — said he wanted Garnett to join the Clippers but that KG was intent on retiring.

He doesn’t want to play,” Rivers told ESPN.com. “I’m sure he won’t play again. I think he realized, ‘Why am I doing this?'”

What in the world, then, was Garnett doing at Clippers practice on Thursday afternoon? Maybe nothing. Maybe something. But it certainly wasn’t a secret, since the Clippers put out on Twitter a photo of Garnett guarding Blake Griffin at practice.

The tweet called KG a “special guest” but KG doesn’t really do anything halfway. Even in the somewhat blurry photo, he looks plenty sweaty and into contesting the shot.

Rivers in that ESPN piece said he planned to offer Garnett some sort of role with the Clippers. So maybe he was there testing out the waters as some sort of special assistant. But he also said this of KG’s time in Minnesota:

“It wasn’t a great ending,” Rivers said. “I’m not going to say too much about it, but once Flip passed away it threw a wrench into everything.”

Rivers said that Garnett feels “really great” and was working out as recently as a couple of weeks ago. His knee issues, Rivers believes, could be handled with the proper regimen of rest and treatment. “The sad thing is he could play another year if he wanted to,” Rivers said. “Maybe that’s why he’s retired but not retired. He loves the young guys on that Minnesota team. They’re great listeners and he loved working with them. It’s too bad it’s ending like this for him.”

Also on Thursday, a report emerged that Cleveland’s Tyronn Lue is trying to get Garnett to join the Cavs’ coaching staff. The quotes within that story are interesting, too:

I talked to him about it. I know his wife is pushing for it a lot,” Lue said. “Brandi is pushing for it, trying to get him to come and coach. He says he’s not ready yet. He goes back, ‘I might do it,’ but he’s back and forth. We’ll see. But I’d definitely make a spot for him if he wanted to come back and coach.”

Lue referred to Garnett, who turned 40 in May, as “one of my best friends” and was sad to see him retire.

“Didn’t want to see him do it. I thought he would’ve been the first player in NBA history to play in his teens, 20s, 30s and 40s,” Lue said. “I just thought that would’ve been great for him.”

So what we know from that is Garnett isn’t ready to commit to coaching and that one of his best friends thought he would play when he was 40 (Garnett’s current age).

And what we know from Rivers is that he thinks KG didn’t go out on his terms and could play this year — and had him on the court Thursday.

I could see KG doing a lot of things with his life as time goes on. But in 2016-17, the thing I could still see him doing most is playing.

The Saints will win more games than the Twins this year

saintsIf you liked the apples to oranges comparison earlier in the week between the Vikings’ and Twins’ loss totals (premise: the Twins might lose 100 more games than the Vikings this year), you’ll probably enjoy another comparison.

This one is more of an apples to apples comparison, at least, since it involves the same sport (albeit in vastly different leagues). Here we go:

The St. Paul Saints of the American Association are guaranteed to win more games than the Minnesota Twins of the American League this year.

Big deal, right? The Saints were good. The Twins are bad (or, if you prefer a different descriptor, even worse than that). And the level of competition is completely different.

Well, yeah. But what grabs your attention at least a little is this: the Saints only played 100 games this year. The Twins will play 162.

And still, after a 61-39 finish, the Saints are guaranteed to win more games than the Twins — who would have to win their final four games just to go 60-102. One more loss by the Twins would set a franchise record for futility since moving to Minnesota more than a half-century ago.

However: let’s please not have any “the Saints could beat the Twins” talk in the comments.

Randy Moss still bleeds purple, likes what he sees from Sam Bradford

moss2A few months back, it was announced that Randy Moss was leaving FOX and joining ESPN as an NFL analyst. As soon as he made the switch, he looked at the calendar and saw the Giants vs. Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium — a Monday Night Football game for which Moss will serve on ESPN’s Countdown program leading up to the game.

“I did circle it on my calendar,” Moss said during a conference call Thursday morning. “I know it’s going to be loud and fun to be back — and see these boys remain undefeated.”

If that last quote doesn’t tell you that Moss still has some purple in his blood, his Instagram video post from just before the Vikings/Packers game when he yelled “Skollllllllllllll” does.

His past (and present) allegiance aside, Moss broke down several facets of this year’s 3-0 Vikings during the call. Here are a few of this most interesting takes:

*On Sam Bradford: “Looking at the season so far and what they’ve done I think it was a smart move by the Vikings (to get Bradford). A lot of people had a question mark of why to bring Sam Bradford there. It’s still early but I like what I’m seeing.”

Moss added that he saw a renewed enthusiasm from Bradford during the Sunday night game vs. Green Bay.

“Going into a new locker room is very important and being embraced by the guys brings you to a different level,” Moss said. “That’s one of the things I saw from Sam Bradford in the Green Bay game with the smiles and (high) fives.”

*On what will be important for the Vikings moving forward: “I really think a lot weighs on the offensive line and Sam Bradford’s shoulders — to keep the chemistry going and momentum because the defense is playing some pretty good ball right now. And being able to keep the chemistry and relationship (with) Stefon Diggs and Kyle Rudolph. There’s a lot weight on Sam Bradford and the offensive line’s shoulders.”

*On what stands out to him about Vikings WR Stefon Diggs: ” I think his separation. He has good separation, and that’s something he’s going to need to continue to keep. As you get older you get slower.”

*On when or if Moss had an inkling the 1998 Vikings (15-1) or 2007 Patriots (16-0) were beyond good and potentially special: “To be honest with you, I think we just grew each and every week. If you look at the demeanor of the head coach Mike Zimmer and relationships he shows on TV with his players, they don’t seem like they’re getting ahead of themselves and he doesn’t look like a coach that will let them. … When I was in Minnesota with the 15-1 team I of course was young. I don’t know how the veterans like John Randle and Randall McDaniel took it but they didn’t show it if they were getting ahead of themselves. We practiced hard and did all the little things and making sure you understand what’s at stake every week.”

That said, scrutiny increases as you keep winning, Moss said.

“Now you have a target on your head and teams are coming at you each and every week,” he said. “I think it’s a good thing and position the Vikings are in because they have a defense that is really playing.”

Back at Hazeltine: 7 years is a long time

rydercupWe’ve known officially for 14 years that Hazeltine National would be host to three magnificent golf tournaments: the PGA Championship in 2002 and 2009 plus the Ryder Cup in 2016.

Those neat seven year increments are nice for symmetry. They’re even nicer as a marker for the passage of time. Having spent distinct amounts of time at Hazeltine in 2002 and 2009 — and starting to do so again this week — a couple things were striking while walking the grounds during Wednesday’s practice round:

*The evolution of technology, as seen through the lens of these three golf tournaments, is startling.

At the time of the first PGA at Hazeltine in 2002, there was no such thing as an iPhone. In fact, the first one wouldn’t be released for another five years. The gallery was decidedly analog — as was the Star Tribune’s coverage. Everything I did that week was geared toward the print section.

By 2009, the transition to a more digital age had begun. A sizable chunk of coverage had shifted to startribune.com and the expectations of fans at the event had shifted along with it.

But in 2016, technology is less of a mystery and more of a way of life. We are all amateur photographers — including several thousand smart phone toting golf fans on the course for this week’s early practice rounds. Giant video boards with amazing definition help folks on the course if they are standing at a bad angle, and if they need more help there’s an official app for the tournament. And the Star Tribune’s coverage is up-to-the-minute.

*The career arc of Tiger Woods as seen through 14 years is startling.

In 2002, Woods was a dominant 26-year-old who seemed destined to break some of golf’s most hallowed records. He finished second at the PGA to Rich Beem, but not before Tiger birdied the final four holes on Sunday to add to his legend. My assignment that week was to follow him everywhere for six rounds — two practice, four regulation.

By 2009, Woods was 33, had won 14 majors and still looked every bit like golf’s all-time great. He again finished second that year — this time to Y.E. Yang, after faltering in the final round. And again I followed him everywhere. A few months later, his personal life fell apart. His health started failing him.

And now here he is in 2016 — a vice captain for the U.S. Ryder Cup team but not a player in this year’s event. There’s no way one would have imagined in 2002 or 2009 that Tiger wouldn’t be one of the 12 best U.S. golfers in 2016, even at age 40. But he’s still stuck on 14 majors and has continued to battle a raft of injuries.

*If there’s a constant out here at Hazeltine, it’s the rhythm of the crowd and the sameness of the faces. Even at a much different tournament like the Ryder Cup — with its patriotism and relatively small number of golfers compared to the PGA — there is something very familiar about a Minnesota golf crowd, as well as the efficiency of the course layout amid the chaos of a snake comprised of thousands of human beings inching through it.

In other words, in big-time Minnesota golf as in life, so much has changed — but plenty remains the same.

Will the Vikings finish with 100 fewer losses than the Twins?

bradfordWhen the Twins lost their 100th game of the season Sunday and the Vikings won at Carolina to stay undefeated, it didn’t take a math whiz to figure out that the Vikings had 100 fewer losses than the Twins at that point.

As of Tuesday afternoon, that’s still the case. But the Twins will have six more chances to lose in the next six days before mercifully ending this season Sunday. The Vikings don’t play until Monday night.

So here’s a question: will the Vikings finish this season with at least 100 fewer losses than the Twins?

Your answer depends on a combination of faith in the Vikings and lack of faith in the Twins — both of which are in heavy supply right now in Minnesota.

The math is pretty simple since the gap is 100 right now. However many games the Twins lose in the next six, the Vikings can only afford to lose that many all season to keep the pace.

If the Twins lose all six, the Vikings could go 10-6. If the Twins go 2-4, the Vikings would need to go 12-4. If the Twins somehow run the table, the Vikings would need to go 16-0.

Although the Twins have been woeful this season and are playing on the road to end the year, they are also playing teams (the Royals and White Sox) who will have nothing to play for, either. Kansas City, one year after winning the World Series, is on the verge of being officially eliminated from the playoff race while Chicago already has been. Given that both opponents are probably disappointed, it’s not far-fetched to think the Twins could win a handful of these games.

My best guess: The Twins go 2-4 in the next six, meaning the Vikings would need to go 12-4 to keep the 100-victory cushion. I’m on record during this week’s Access Vikings podcast as saying the Vikings will do it, though I might regret it if the Twins have an unexpectedly strong finish.

The 100-win gap has clearly been done before — the 2003 Tigers made it impossible for the Lions not to get there by going 43-119 (even though the Lions went just 5-11). The 2005 Royals went 56-106 while the Chiefs went 10-6.

But the Vikings and Twins have never turned the trick. The Twins had only topped 100 losses in a season once before this year — 1982, when they went 60-102. Even with the “benefit” of a work stoppage that year, the Vikings at 5-4 couldn’t pull it off.

This year, though, there’s a real chance — which probably says more about the Twins than it does the Vikings but mostly speaks to the wide gap between the two franchises just one season after both seemed to be trending upward.

Tom Thibodeau on Wolves: ‘We want to close the gap’

thibspresserIf there is a slogan for this year’s Timberwolves — at least unofficially, since it wouldn’t be very catchy on T-shirts, posters or temporary tattoos — it emerged early and often during new coach/basketball president Tom Thibodeau’s opening session at Monday’s media day.

With the Wolves set to begin training camp Tuesday, these three words are sure to follow them around: “Close the gap.”

Thibodeau said it multiple times Monday, perhaps none more clearly than toward the end of one response.

“We don’t want to fool ourselves,” he said. “We’re a 29-win team. We want to close the gap.”

In other words, count on Thibodeau to keep his plenty grounded even as national pundits predict that the gap should naturally already be closing based on an improving roster and, frankly, Thibodeau’s presence. The coach talked at length about areas that need improvement. He also touched on a number of other subjects. Some highlights:

*How exactly are the Wolves going to close the gap? Thibodeau talked about the need to become a top-10 team in both offensive and defensive efficiency. They were close on offense last year (No. 12 per Basketball Reference) but woefully short on defense (No. 28). Part of the process of getting there, Thibodeau noted, is to both increase the number of three-pointers the Wolves make while cutting down on the threes they allow. That gap last season accounted for about a 10 points per game difference between the Wolves and opponents.

*A key to the season will also be staying focused on steady improvement instead of dwelling on the past or looking too far into the future, Thibodeau said. “Looking backward or looking ahead does you no good,” he said specifically in response to a question about whether he talks to his team about making the playoffs.

*The play of Karl-Anthony Towns, Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine and co. during the second half of 2015-16 stood out to Thibodeau as a positive when he went back to look at game film from last year’s team, but an overriding theme was that there “wasn’t a consistency to our defense.”

*”This is a very determined group,” Thibodeau said when asked what he’s learned about his players that he didn’t know coming in from the outside. He said he likes the team’s work ethic and mentioned Nemanja Bjelica as a key cog on the Wolves’ second unit because of his ability as a “stretch four” who can pass over players and run the pick-and-roll with other bigs.

*Thibodeau met a question about social justice issues head on and thoughtfully, saying he has talked to his team about it. It seems clear he’s in step with the league in wanting to be proactive and supportive of players expressing themselves. “The conversations are good, but the actions are even better,” Thibodeau said, adding: “Understanding what the issues are, try to make things better. I think that’s critical.”

*Thibodeau started off before taking questions by addressing the retirement of Kevin Garnett, a player he coached in Boston as an assistant. “He’ll go down as the all-time best Minnesota Timberwolves player and one of the best to play the game,” Thibodeau said.

The Twins have been terrible — and terribly unlucky with weather

twinsrainIf you’ve been paying attention at all this summer in Minneapolis, you’ve noticed two things: an unusual amount of rain and an extraordinary amount of bad baseball.

We’ve had a staggering number of heavy rains. And we’ve watched the Twins pile up 100 losses (and counting).

If you’ve thought about the two of those things together, you might have been thinking: doesn’t it seem like it’s been raining an awful lot when the Twins are at home?

During a wet summer, that’s only natural. But in looking a little bit harder at the data, we also can conclude that the Twins have been pretty unlucky when it comes to the worst of the weather.

According to Heather Rule’s calculations, the Twins have had 11 rain delays and three full postponements this season at Target Field.

Looking at the full season, there’s also this: by my calculations, using data from Weather Underground (thanks to Matt Brickman for the link) there have been 41 days between April 1 and Sept. 25 in the Twin Cities in which at least 0.2 inches of rain have fallen.

On 23 of those days, the Twins had a scheduled home game.

On 16 of those days, the Twins had a scheduled road game.

On 2 of those days, the Twins had a scheduled off day.

Even if it didn’t specifically rain during the game in each case, bad weather certainly influences attendance.

There have been two particularly sad/comical stretches of poor weather.

*Between the end of May and the end of July, the Twins played 10 home series. In nine of those series, there was at least one scheduled game in which it rained at least 0.2 inches on that date.

*September has been particularly brutal. The Twin Cities have had at least 0.2 inches of rain during six of the Twins’ last 11 scheduled home dates. And for as lousy as the weather has been lately, it looks like it is going to be beautiful for most of this week — when the Twins end the year on the road.

Then there’s this: in a far less scientific rendering of the weather, WCCO (again, our guy Brickman and his crew) likes to hand out “Top 10 weather days” in the metro area. While I don’t profess to know exactly what goes into the *official* designation of these days, I do know this:

There have been a total of 7 “top 10 weather days” in the Twin Cities during this baseball season (see #top10wxday on Twitter if you’ve never participated in this phenomenon).

The Twins have been at Target Field for just two of those seven (and in one of those, Sept. 1, they were competing against the State Fair, the Gophers’ opener, a Vikings preseason game, high school football and more). Seriously, I hope you guys enjoyed May 21 when the Twins hosted Toronto for a 1:10 p.m. game on a top 10 weather day. Weather Underground reminds us it was 80 degrees that day without even a trace of rain.

So the Twins have caught most of the rain and missed most of the truly glorious days. That doesn’t explain 100 losses, but it sure made them a little bit more miserable.

Vikings 22, Panthers 10: Minnesota is the team to beat in NFC

For the third time this season, the Vikings spotted an opponent at least a one-touchdown lead. And for the third time the Vikings won thanks in large part to a dominant defense and the uncanny ability to make game-turning plays. Make no mistake: even through all the injuries and problems with the offensive line/running game, this is a very good team. How good? We’ll get to that at the end. First, let’s recap Minnesota’s 22-10 victory over the Panthers with 5 GIFs (and a bunch of words, too).

ALLOW ME TO RETORT

Like I said, the Vikings have been spotting opponents early lead. This time, they gave Carolina 10 quick points and looked like they were in danger of getting their doors blown off. Instead? As has been the case in all three games this year, Minnesota stiffened after the initial wave and blasted past its opponent. The Vikings have given up 13 points (7 that weren’t in garbage time) beyond allowing those early leads this year. Like Samuel L. in Pulp Fiction, their retort game has been STRONG.

SAFETY FIRST

The shift started with a dominant defensive play by Danielle Hunter, with an assist to very good pass coverage, leading to a safety that trimmed Carolina’s lead to 10-2 at the end of the first quarter (which, frankly, sounds more like a Twins score than a Vikings score). That sequence felt like the beginning of a massive momentum switch that really never relented for the final three quarters.

SPECIAL TEAMS ACES
snl drinking wine alcohol alberta

Marcus Sherels also got an assist on that safety by helping down a Jeff Locke punt deep in Carolina territory. Then Sherels gave Minnesota its first TD with a sweet punt return. Add in Cordarrelle Patterson looking like a special teams whiz and it’s clear the special teams played a starring role in this victory (another missed extra point from Blair Walsh notwithstanding).

SAVAGE DEFENSE

But the biggest story (again) was the defense. The Vikings went up against the reigning MVP from a 15-1 team and sacked Cam Newton eight times while picking him off three times. Carolina looked miserable for three-fourths of the game, one week after Green Bay looked the same. Guys, I don’t know how to say this but if the question was whether the Vikings could go from a very good to an elite defense this year, the question has been answered with an emphatic, “yes.”

THE BEST
youre the best you are the best
My thought going into the Vikings’ game at Carolina was this: with the Cardinals and Seahawks struggling early this year, a Minnesota victory over the Panthers one week after defeating (and outplaying) Green Bay would establish the Vikings as the team to beat in the NFC. I can’t back off of that now, nor should I. Three weeks into the season, Minnesota has established itself as the new team to beat in the conference. That is subject to change, and the distinction carries far more weight in January. But after another dominant game from the defense and a very good second half from Sam Bradford, this is where we are.