Wednesday, April 15, 2020

My Favorite Iowa Fan

A couple weeks ago my wife and I were blessed with a son, our first kid. It’s been an incredible time of constant new experiences, terrifying moments of self-doubt, and a feeling of awesome responsibility. All of which is heightened by the fact that he entered the world at a time of, um, *gestures wildly at everything*. The experience of bringing him home after his delivery and knowing there was no nurse call button if we needed help, no way for his grandparents to come see him or give us a few hours to sleep, was one I’ll never forget.

The evening he came home, MLB Network was showing a huge moment in my life: Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. Sitting on the couch, holding my new son, I got to relive those memories in early-90s resolution, and tell him about that great season as if he understood.

As a 9 year old baseball-obsessed kid I stayed up late (on a school night!) with mom to watch the game.  In the 10th Inning when Gene Larkin sent a deep single into left center field over a drawn-in outfield and Dan Gladden jumped on home plate, we hugged and cried and jumped around the living room. Moments after the game ended our phone rang and I answered knowing who it would be. My grandpa’s voice on the other line was filled with happiness as he told me to remember this moment; it was special and even if I was lucky there would be few like it. Then he said something else: “Keep the book. You’ll never forget this.”

After my son went to bed I pulled out a giant, dog-eared book I hadn’t looked at in years: “Total Baseball: Second Edition” by John Thorn and Pete Palmer. It’s a massive book, 2,600 pages and 8 pounds of baseball history and statistics up to 1990. Grandpa had lent it to me after watching me spend hour upon hour with it at his house. On the inside of the front cover in the poor handwriting of a 9-year old is this:

Grandpa was right. In his memory, this is the story of my favorite Iowa fan.

My grandpa was born in 1928 in a small town in northeast Iowa. His father was the son of German immigrants who owned the local meat market. Nearly everyone in town was either a German immigrant or a 1st or 2nd generation American. Services at the church his grandfather had helped found and build were still in German until 1942, and the cemetery in is thick with German inscriptions in Teutonic fonts.

He was the middle of three kids and musical talent ran in the family. His older brother was a talented trumpet player, his younger sister a great singer, while he played trombone and tuba. But as much as music, he and his brother loved baseball. His brother, taller and more athletic, played for the local town ball team until being interrupted by World War Two where he was an aircraft mechanic in the USAAF, and then an emergency infantryman during the Battle of Bulge. He came home from war a different and troubled man and never played baseball or trumpet again. Grandpa was too young, only 17 in 1945. He eventually spent two years in the Navy during Korea, posted to a naval reserve air station in Kansas after training at Naval Station Great Lakes in Chicago, where he spent his only day “at sea” on Lake Michigan.

Like many rural kids west of the Mississippi before major league expansion, grandpa adopted the closest possible teams to follow: the Chicago Cubs, the Chicago Bears, and the Iowa Hawkeyes. His Cubs and Bears fanhood was necessarily limited to radio and newspaper until he finally got to Wrigley Field during naval training. However, an occasional trip into Iowa City was possible even for a rural kid and he had detailed memories of playing his trombone and tuba during high school band days at Iowa Field (now Kinnick Stadium). Planning to be a music teacher, he started at Wartburg College, a private Lutheran school in northeast Iowa because he was able to get financial assistance through his church. Naval service interrupted his studies and he never graduated, though he went on to have a very successful career in mortgage banking.

He was married in the early 1950s to a girl from a nearby small town and they had two daughters; the oldest was my mom. They moved all over Iowa as his career progressed, and then in the mid-1970s a promotion brought them to Minnesota. By then grandpa had added the Minnesota Twins to his teams due to proximity and his company's readily-available box seats at Met Stadium, but he maintained his Bears and Hawkeyes allegiances. He made it to Iowa games most years, especially to see his nephew in the marching band. His fanhood fell somewhere in between casual and die-hard; I don’t have strong memories of watching Iowa sports with him, but he spoke glowingly of Bump Elliott, Lute Olson, Hayden Fry, and Nile Kinnick.

I’m sure it’ll shock you to learn I was a weird, awkward kid. Cripplingly shy, challenged at making friends, and afraid of doing most things. My parents were concerned but their efforts to get me interested in what “normal” kids were interested in like sports and music mostly failed. I read encyclopedias for fun.

Luckily I grew up a 10 minute drive from my grandparents. In the summer of 1989 my recently-retired grandpa told mom to bring me over for a day. When I got to his house he had laid out three ring binders, plastic sleeves, and multiple boxes of brand-new baseball cards. He told me we were starting a baseball card collection and we spent the whole day sorting cards by league, team, and alphabetical order. He told me about his own collection, how valuable it would have been if his mom hadn’t thrown it out while he was away at college. He told me stories about the 1927 Yankees, Murderer’s Row, Carl Hubbell’s 1934 All-Star Game, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, Ernie Banks, and the player he had grown up idolizing, Lou Gehrig. Lou came from German immigrants too.

I left that day hooked, and went back to grandpa’s house several times that week to watch the Twins and the Cubs and learn the game. My parents saw a transformation start that summer; dad didn’t have to force me to play catch in the side yard. I started to make friends at school, getting invited to birthday parties and sleepovers. I started playing little league and nearly every day we played pickup baseball at the field near my house. Sundays were always for watching baseball with grandpa. Kirby Puckett was my Lou Gehrig but I liked Kent Hrbek too since I was a 1st baseman.

After the magic 1991 Twins season I doubled-down on baseball, digging deep into the history, player, and team statistics. The math I learned from SLG, OBP, and ERA did more to prepare me for a career in chemistry and healthcare than high school algebra. I used Total Baseball statistics to build all-time Twins teams into my Nintendo games. No internet on my family’s IBM PS1, after all.

My baseball “career” ended in high school when I realized it was too late for me to learn to effectively hit curveballs and I focused on music instead, which led me to the University of Minnesota. I talked in more detail about that decision on the most recent TAWpod. That said, my parents were from Iowa and didn’t go to college, so my allegiance was at least theoretically up for grabs. But grandpa never pushed Iowa on me though I’m sure he would have been thrilled to see me go there. When I picked Minnesota I wondered what he would say; I needn’t have. He was thrilled because I was going to be in the band, and he said Hayden Fry had called Minnesota a “sleeping giant”. 

In college he was there for most concerts and watched every game he knew I was playing at, hoping for a glimpse on TV. When he saw me in the front row at Williams Arena he made sure I knew. When I was home for Christmas he asked what it was like to get to see a future legend like Marion Barber III. He doubted Dan Monson was going to turn the basketball program around and was right. He tried to learn hockey but his eyesight made it hard to see the puck. He never stopped following Iowa, and while I wouldn’t say he became a Gopher fan, he was always my biggest fan. Close enough.

After college the Twins got better and we talked more baseball again. Now we watched college basketball and football together too. He was still always there for me, in my career and personal life. He helped me prepare for my job, gave me life advice, picked me up when I was down. He slowed down, in body and mind as age and idleness caught up with him. But there was always a shine in his eyes when we were together.

In November, 2014 he suffered a bad fall and broken hip, then another fall that severely injured his neck, followed by more complications that led to a month of hospitalization. Thanksgiving was spent in the hospital, and by Saturday, November 29th it was becoming clear that he probably wouldn’t leave. I spent that day in his room with him. There were difficult things to discuss; surgical options (risky), medical options (none), and the inevitable what-ifs that eventually come for us all.

Despite the constant stream of friends, family, doctors, and nurses, he didn’t want to talk about that. Iowa had lost to Nebraska in overtime the day before, and he was hoping for some measure of revenge on the universe by a #22 Minnesota win at #14 Wisconsin. The constant interruptions prevented us from watching the game so I gave him score updates from my phone. When Minnesota was up over Wisconsin by two touchdowns in the first half it was the happiest I’d seen him in weeks. As the lead slipped away in the second half he remained optimistic; as a Gopher fan I knew it wasn’t to be. I don’t remember much from that day but what I do remember is that when the game ended he grabbed my hand (no small feat with all the tubes in his), smiled and said “Don’t worry, we’ll get ‘em next year.”

Unfortunately the Gophers did not, in fact, get ‘em next year and regardless he wasn’t around to see it. He died in his sleep in hospice on December 3, 2014. After a long day my parents had taken my grandma home to get sleep and I was alone with him, holding his hand as he took his last breathe. I had a silent moment with him between the time the nurse confirmed he had passed and my parents return. So much of what I am, my love of music, the fulfillment I find in sports, the ability to make friends, my sense of self-worth, and occasional bursts of confidence was due in large part to him, a man who decided to spend an idle summer day in 1989 starting a baseball card collection with his grandson.

I had not opened Total Baseball: Second Edition in nearly a decade. When I did it two weeks ago it didn’t bring me sadness. The memories were all good, and the legacy he left me will live on for my son. Someday this book will belong to him, if he wants it, in memory of a great-grandpa he never got to meet but would have undoubtedly loved and supported him in the same unconditional way he loved and supported me. I can only hope to do half as well as he did.

2,600 pages are a lot, but it’s time to read it again. Much love, grandpa. I hope you got to meet Lou Gehrig.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Fleck, Year 3 Part 3: Reelin' In the Years

Your everlastin’ season you can feel it fadin’ fast
So you spend a lazy Sunday crunchin’ numbers on the past
Would you know a Special Season if you held it in your hand?
The Gophs you take for granted I can’t understand

The 2019-2020 sports season has begun its death spiral towards the wet, hot summer in earnest. It won’t be long before we stop basking in the waning glory of 2019 and turn our attention to the hope of 2020 and try to learn what it means to have expectations. For today, let’s reel in the third-years of Gopher coaching history.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Fleck, Year 3 Part 2: The (Post-Bowl) Situation

This is a post-bowl update to Part 1 in a series evaluating where Minnesota is at in Year 3 of the Fleck era. If you haven’t read that already, maybe go do it. Or don’t. I’m not your supervisor.

We took the Christmas decorations down at our house this past weekend, and I hate how bare and dark the house it looks now. It’s a feeling I’ve had since I was a kid; my family has always gone all-out with Christmas decorations, and I’ve always felt joy with their arrival and emptiness with their departure. The feeling is similar to the end of college football season. Anticipation, excitement, now the void.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Looks Like We Made It! A Team Blooms in Tampa

If Future Frothy approached you in his flying Delorean back in August and told you that on January 1st Minnesota would be 11-2 with two wins over Top 15 teams and a bowl win against #12 Auburn, what would you have thought? Let’s assume he also told you that Auburn’s three losses were all against Top 10 teams and three of their wins were against Top 20 teams including Alabama? I’m assuming once you cleaned up your pants from being approached by a time-traveling giant you might not have believed it.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Fleck Year 3, Part 1: Where It's At

Evaluating where Minnesota is at in Year 3 of the Fleck era. In future parts we'll look at where we could have gone, and where we are vs. vs. historical Minnesota coaches.

The conference season is over, signing day has come and gone, and Bowl Season has begun. While we wait for the Outback Bowl, I want to start taking stock of where Minnesota is in P.J. Fleck’s third year at the helm. Let’s look at the other programs that are also on their third year and see how we compare.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

The Game and Where We Go From Here

Let’s get the nasty part out of the way first. The two losses that marred an otherwise incredible season for Minnesota shared a handful of features in common. Minnesota was out-schemed by teams that comprehended the Gopher’s strengths and weaknesses and schemed to put points on the board quickly. Minnesota also called a conservative offensive game that got away from many of the facets that made its offense so successful earlier in the season, making uncharacteristic decisions (a 50-yard FG attempt against Iowa and a punt from the 35 yard line against Wisconsin, both early in the game). Offensive line injuries compounded the challenge of mounting a comeback and magnified the effect of other mystifying decisions such as multiple running calls against Wisconsin from 3rd and long. For whatever reason, whether the intimidation of the big stage, distraction of national media attention, or old-fashioned nerves, the Minnesota that owned most of the game against Penn State was mostly absent.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Tomorrow is for Everything. Or is it?

Yeah, so, tomorrow, huh? Pretty, pretty, pretty big day for our favorite team, the U, the State of Minnesota, the Arctic ice cap, and cosmic justice. I’m going to do my best to just take it all in; but getting started at 5.30, watching GameDay, wandering bars/tailgates, hitting GopherHour and then sitting down for 200+ minutes of ulcer-inducing drama where the payoff is everything we’ve ever wanted is going to be a lot for my monkey brain to manage.

“A LOT” is about the only way I can describe tomorrow. The B1GW, the Axe, a chance at the Rose Bowl, a chance to knock off Ohio State for a B1G championship and a shot at the College Football Playoff, another year of not having that rancid fan base constantly chirping. It sucks that most of that list is still in play if we execute in the red zone just a little bit better at Iowa. Then tomorrow is just about the Axe and a better shot at the Playoff. It sucks if we lose, because it always sucks to lose to Bucky. Beyond that though, we win the division and have bragging rights and everything else to play for. Alas.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

So You Want to Beat the Badgers

I made my decision to go to the University of Minnesota on Saturday, October 9th, 1999. I was on campus that day for a formal visit, the details of which escape me other than the fact that it was a beautiful early fall day, and the 4-0 Gophers were playing the 3-2 Badgers at the Metrodome. I was in a tour group of several dozen high school seniors, almost all in maroon and gold. In those days before smart phones we got our score updates from our tour guides at the quarter breaks.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

On Losing and Moving On

After the victory over Penn State we experienced a week unlike any I can remember as a Gopher fan. Unprecedented levels of local coverage and interest (at least, unprecedented positive coverage), significant national exposure, and 4 separate blog posts from 3 separate authors on Still Got Hope dot com. And yet, for many it didn’t take long for the fear of a major letdown against Iowa to take the foremost place in a lot of minds. It’s an understandable response given our past Gopher fan experiences. Moreover, the Gophers haven’t won at Kinnick Stadium since 1999 and its associated curse is well documented. I was not immune from these feelings, but my efforts to turn over a new leaf led me to focus on the concept that this year and program is different.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

PJ Fleck has Already Won

PJ has been working to the point of exhaustion capitalizing on the opportunity of the unexpected and remarkable 9-0 start to the season. Watching him appear on ESPN’s College Football Playoff rankings show this past Tuesday, he looked as if he hadn’t slept in days as the media roadshow to promote the hell out of the program reached a fever pitch. It shouldn’t be surprising that he’d be pressing, considering what he told Adam Rittenberg in the wake of beating #4 Penn State:

"It's been so long, but that's what's so fun about hope*,” Fleck said in his stadium office about two hours after Saturday's game. "I'm a Chicago Cubs fan. Everybody always said, 'The lovable losers,' and then all of a sudden, they did it. They got the right people, they got the right GM, they got the right manager, and then they found a way to put the right team together to do it.
"It's going to happen here, and we just want to do everything we can to get our shot at it. What you saw today is the hope for the future, to say it's not just what used to be, it's what's going to be."

Thing is, if you’re measuring a program by interest, fan or general, PJ has already succeeded at changing the narrative. The 9-0 start has catapulted the Gophers into such rarified air that, short of a narrowing list of postseason accomplishments, what else does PJ need to prove to people who matter?

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The TCF Bank Stadium Slip

It's the 4th quarter. Two minutes and three seconds on the clock. Fourth-ranked Penn State has the ball on their own 40, down 31 to 26 to the 17th ranked Minnesota Gophers. The Gophers have been in control for most of the day, but Penn State is making a run to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and leave Gophers fans wanting in their bid for a Rose Bowl.

On first down, quarterback Sean Clifford drops back and finds Jahan Dotson wide open at the Gophers' 45. The defensive back guarding him, Benjamin St. Juste, loses his footing and falls over. A collective moan emanates from TCF Bank Stadium.

Smokey and the Frost-bit

There is a Big Ten football program that was once a national power. It was built on the backs of strong, corn-fed Midwestern farm boys wearing iconic uniforms that practically became their own mascot. When football changed they changed with it, finding speedy athletes in other parts of the country to bring into the fold, adopting new styles, and embracing innovation. Over thirty years they won over two-thirds of their games, boatloads of conference championships, nearly half a dozen National Championships, some of the biggest bowls in the game, and never finished lower than 5th in their conference.

After years of success, their long-tenured coach departed, taking an assistant role in the athletic department. Most assumed the successor would pick up where he left off. The decline started almost imperceptibly and took nearly a decade to pick up steam. Frustration from administration and alumni, tough questions from what used to be an obedient local media, increasing surliness by coaches, and suddenly what used to be considered “fluke” performances became something closer to the norm. After a decade or so, the fans looked around, realized that it was more trend than phase and started to wonder aloud what the hell happened.

If you think that sounds a lot like Minnesota football from the 30s to the 80s, well, you’re close but not quite.