First Impression – ugh!

It’s hard to look worse in your first four games than have the Twins, and although the first week of a baseball season is an unreliable indicator I fear the prospects for Minnesota this year are pretty clear, and pretty grim. I have only witnessed one game myself – yesterday’s home opener against the Angels – but I suspect my initial conclusions will hold up. I would love to be wrong.
The Angels are one of the more loaded teams in the American League, but there are at least five others at their level, on paper, so it is not farfetched to compare their lineup to the Twins. Other than possibly Denard Span in center, there isn’t a single position where the Angels don’t have superior talent. Joe Mauer is the Twins’ best player, but he played first base yesterday, where the Angels have Albert Pujols. (Not that Mauer looked particularly good yesterday, making one error and striking out twice.) Danny Valencia at third and Alexi Casilla at second are both on “cross-your-fingers” status, players the Twins brass are hoping, without much justification, will have break-out years. It’s more likely that this will be the year their “promise” is snuffed out. At shortstop, 38-year-old Jamey Carroll is a stopgap, someone to hold the fort while minor leaguers develop. He got fist-bumps and pats on the back yesterday for hitting a short fly to left.
The only two players who impressed at all yesterday were Josh Willingham, a defensive liability in left but a professional hitter, and in all an upgrade over Delmon Young of last year, and Glen Perkins, who is the real deal as a lefty reliever. Saddest of all is the duo of Mauer and Morneau, both shells of their former MVP selves. They will make contact along the way, but may not hit 25 homers between them. They form one of the least fearsome lineup middles in the league (cf. Cabrera and Fielder in Detroit). Then there is Trevor Plouffe, a good AAA hitter but not ready for prime time.
After knocking the Twins position players, it is worth noting that they are not considered the weakness of this team: that would be the pitching staff. Francisco Liriano is a head case. Carl Pavano and Nick Blackburn are competent and can usually hold the opposition to four runs, which is three more than the Twins have so far been able to score. I like Scott Baker, but it appears he will not be healthy at all this year. If the Twins were to ever be in the lead in the ninth, Matt Capps is unlikely to make it hold up. He throws straight fastballs that opposing hitters invariably square up on.
Finally, there is the intangible of team chemistry. Much has been made, as it should be, of the fact that Mauer and Morneau, the team leaders, are quiet individuals who don’t do much leading. With 14 new players on the roster, many others are unsure of their own status and unlikely to rally others. Valencia is unliked, Casilla’s head is in the clouds, Parmelee, Plouffe and Revere are basically rookies, Doumit, Willingham and Carroll are newcomers with modest credentials. That leaves Denard Span, who is mostly in the Mauer-Morneau mold and fighting his own concussion history. When the Twins come to bat, you sense nine individuals simply doing their job, not a united, aggressive bunch eager to attack the pitcher.
Which raises the question, what do you do with Ron Gardenhire? Traditionally, a manager who presides over back-to-back 99-loss seasons would be history. The Twins, almost unique in pro sports, have shown great loyalty to managers, and it’s hard to blame Gardy for the mediocre players he’s been given. Still, if this season goes as I expect it to, I would applaud shaking things up by bringing in a new manager, sooner than later. The Twins need an edge, which is something Gardenhire can’t provide. And a new manager would spare us Gardy’s postgame bromides – the opposing pitcher who was throwing the heck out of the ball, the way our boys kept battling back, etc. – or at least provide some new ones.

March Be Gone

What a dismal month for sports was March!
The number one story on Sports Center was, where will Peyton Manning play next year? If you aren’t already sick of Peyton Manning from the way he calls the game at the line of scrimmage, let alone his commercials, the O.J.-like coverage of his every plane trip would surely have sealed the deal. It only got worse when he signed with Denver, for then we had to endure more weeks of analysis concerning the Jets’ new second-string quarterback, Tim Tebow. Oh, and don’t forget the hyperventilating over the Saints’ bounty program. As someone else pointed out, the bounties weren’t the problem, it was the refs who failed to call a penalty when the Saints hit Brett Favre too low and too late.
As for the NBA, the air went out of the ball when both Ricky Rubio and Jeremy Lin were injured, ruining the only two new and interesting stories of the regular season, which, as always, is largely a yawn. I’d just as soon skip to the playoff finals between the Heat and the Thunder, but that won’t take place until June.
We gave tennis a shot by attending the opening round at Indian Wells, but anything less than the majors is skippable. I did watch one set of the Federer-Isner finals, but found it the most uninspired, uninspiring tennis final I’ve seen. As for the women, the top U.S. player is ranked 35, which raises the question, if one Russian beats another Russian, does anyone notice? The golf season, of course, begins in April with the Masters.
With no football or baseball, no NHL or NBA playoffs, and no majors in tennis or golf, the sports world is made to due with March Madness, the college basketball tournament that receives more hoopla each year. While admitting that I watched almost none of the games, I must say that this year’s was the least interesting in a long time. After two opening round upsets, there was nothing in the Cinderella department to root for, and that is always my main rooting interest. No VCU, Belmont, George Mason, or even Gonzaga. Nor, to judge from the daily highlights, was there any individual star to follow: no Jimmer Fredette, Bryce Drew, Dwayne Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Larry Bird. Everyone gushed over Anthony Davis, and he may be a wonderful team player; but so is Tim Duncan, and no one pays to see him play. The fact that the best team won, and won handily, took some life from the event.
In short, I am more than ready for the newness, the unpredictability and the daily interest of the major league baseball season. The Twins have 14 new players and a new radio announcer. Bring on baseball! But protect us, please, from the Tigers.