Ask the Sportswriters

Following are opinions from Mille Lacs County Times  editor-sports editor Gary Larson, reporter Luther Dorr and former Times intern Logan Marxhausen. Note: This feature is written on Monday each week.

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•Question:  The Minnesota Vikings lifted their record to 4-1 by drubbing the Tennessee Titans 30-7 Sunday at the Metrodome. What are your thoughts on that game? And, should we now consider the Vikings a playoff contender, something few thought would happen this season? Minnesota is at Washington next week, then has home games against Arizona and Tampa Bay.

-Dorr: It may have happened because of the mediocre opposition but it was the first game in which I thought the Vikings really dominated the other team on both sides of the line. Some incredibly dumb penalties, remindful of 2011, kept the domination from happening earlier than it did but Minnesota was by far the best team against a Tennessee defense that has to  be one of the worst in the league. Playoff contender? It’s way too early for that. If the Vikings win three of the next four and move up to 7-2, then you can put them in that category, although playing the Bears and the Packers four times in 36 days at the end of the season isn’t the best schedule to have, especially with back-to-back games outside in Chicago and Green Bay. I guess I differ with StarTribune columnist Sid Hartman in that respect. He thinks it could be favorable for the Vikings, even speculating Monday morning that those teams could have some concussions or other injuries by then. Hasn’t it has been fun to watch the Vikings be competitive so far this fall?

-Marxhausen:  Considering the Vikings as playoff contenders is a very exciting thought with the way they are currently performing week by week. The frustration last season had to do with inexperience, inconsistency and injury. Quarterback Ponder is looking very solid controlling the Viking offense and marching them down the field. A lot of criticism has been put on Ponder for settling for the short pass too often and not taking shots down field, but Ponder has looked comfortable in the pocket and has been making good decisions when rushed. Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin have shown how well they can make plays. The Titans had a tough time controlling Harvin as Minnesota utilized him through the air and on the ground. The Viking defense certainly blocked off any advances from the Titans until the fourth quarter when Titans quarterback Matt Hasslebeck finally pushed the Titans into Viking territory for a score. The Vikings look more experienced, have everybody healthy and look consistent week by week. Washington, Arizona and Tampa Bay are all winnable games as long as they do what they have been doing week by week. I don’t want to acknowledge that the Vikings are in playoff contention, but they are putting up a sound argument that they are worthy of consideration.

-Larson:  I’m two or three more victories away from jumping on the band wagon. While Tennessee is headed nowhere, the Vikings did take charge early and didn’t let the Titans back in the game in the second half. Adrian Peterson, coming off serious knee injury, is running like a bull and Percy Harvin may be, after five week’s, the NFL’s most explosive player. Quarterback Christian Ponder and young tight end John Rudolph are a nice combination, with Rudolph rarely dropping a pass. The defense has been solid, especially the secondary, which is a surprise. Don’t you like the way rookie safety Harrison Smith goes 100 percent on every play? I’m sure Smith has caught the eye of longtime Milaca coach Herb Claffy.

Sunday’s game at Washington will give us a good read on just how good this Viking team is.

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•Question:  Last week Minnesota Twins General Manager Terry Ryan, no longer interim GM, fired bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek, third base coach Steve Liddle, first base coach Jerry White and head athletic trainer Rick McWane, along with some other team personnel. He also reassigned hitting coach Joe Vavra and bench coach Scott Ulger. All are longtime Twins fixtures. Manager Ron Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson retained their positions, but Gardenhire’s contract, which expires next year, was not extended.

1. What did you think of the moves? 

2. Is Ryan the guy to get the team turned around?

(Note: next week the sportswriters will look at the current Twins roster and what needs to change for 2013.)

-Dorr: The weird thing about the housecleaning was that pitching coach Anderson, the guy who handled what I think was the worst part of the team, kept his job. I don’t know who made the decisions – Gardenhire, Ryan or the owners -  but I thought it strange that Anderson is still there. Maybe those guys all made the decisions together. Has a first base coach or a trainer ever won or lost a pennant? It all seemed like window dressing to me but I suppose someone has to take the fall for the terrible season that mercifully ended at 8:28 p.m. on Oct. 3.  Ben Revere hit .219 in September, with 22 singles among 23 hits; Justin Morneau hit .236 in September and didn’t hit a homer after Sept. 9; Josh Willingham missed the last eight games, hit only two homers in September, only one of them after Sept. 13; and in the last four hard-to-watch games, all one-run losses, the Twins were 6 for 36 (.167) with men in scoring position, a problem the team had all year. (Joe Mauer hit .388 in September and drove in 16 runs, although he missed six games.) Ryan is probably capable  of  leading the charge to turn things around but he will need lots of luck with his signings. Who will want to come here?

-Marxhausen: Those who called for change to occur in the organization got what they wanted. Terry Ryan has to bring in new personnel to change the outlook. It will be hard to see all those familiar faces leave the organization, but someone had to be blamed for the Twins’ poor performance. The coaches were the first on the chopping block and it looks like Gardenhire might be on deck. Ryan said the Twins were going to turn the team around within the organization instead of with free agency, so he is expecting the new coaches to help turn the team around. I am not convinced that Ryan should be the guy to turn the Twins around. He did help bring the Twins to glory once upon a time, so the Pohlad family is going to let him start from scratch once again.

-Larson:  As Luther points out, a first base coach and a third base coach likely had little to do with 96 and 99 losses the past two season. It was tiring watching Gardenhire, arms draped over the dugout fence, spit sunflower seeds out as the Twins were getting bombed. He looked clueless and probably was. Anderson was in charge of a pitching staff that never improved.

Ryan has been given somewhat of a pass on who’s to blame for the 2012 season, as folks cite that he didn’t take over from Bill Smith until mid-November last year. I don’t think he was working in North Dakota and missed the 2011 season. How could anyone who watched even part of the 2011 mess go into 2012 believing the same pitchers could get things done this season? While Ryan has had success in the past, he’s not the answer right now.

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•Question:  The baseball playoffs have started. What did you think of the two extra wild card spots this season and the one game sudden death playoff that saw the Texas Rangers and Atlanta Braves lose out? The new format also resulted in some division champions, that had better records than their opening-round foe, having to open the playoffs on the road. Who are now your picks to reach the World Series?

-Dorr: I said last spring that I didn’t like the one-game format and I haven’t changed my mind. But having an extra wild card team made the last week of the season more interesting for some, and the TV ratings for last Friday’s games were very good. Nor do I like that some teams with better records than their opponents had to begin the playoffs on the road. That doesn’t make sense. World Series teams? You mean that event that will probably end in very late October or early November, with freezing temps? No idea. How about the Yankees and Reds? Who do I want to be there? Baltimore and Washington, for a  Beltway Series. That would be the best story in baseball in a long time.

-Marxhausen:  It seems fair to have the two top teams who were not division winners vie for the last playoff spot, but it does not make sense to me when a playoff division winner has to go on the road to play at the wild card’s home field. Detroit and Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera are looking really strong against the Oakland and are my pick to make it to the World Series after they take on the winner of Baltimore and New York Yankees series.  The Reds are up on Giants and look strong to finish that series. I like the Cardinals against the Nationals just because of the offensive explosion they can produce on a short notice. Between the Reds and the Cardinals, I think the Reds will move on to reach the World Series against the Detroit Tigers.

-Larson:  Instead of one-and-done wild card games to start the playoffs, those opening series should be two-out-of-three. I’m sure Major League Baseball could squeeze the regular-season schedule a bit. Hey, how about some of those lovely oldtime doubleheaders where you got to see two games for the price of one? I know, I know, I’m dreaming. But, it’s disappointing to see two good teams knocked out so quickly.

In the classic movie “The Long Gray Line” (1955, directed by John Ford), actor Tyrone Power plays Marty Maher, a longtime athletic instructor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. A scene, which takes place in the early 1900s, has Army going up against Notre Dame in football. Marty makes a bet with his father, Martin Sr., played by the wonderful Donald Crisp, putting his hard-earned money on the Cadets. Notre Dame stuns Army and wins behind a secret weapon, the forward pass, and Marty loses his wager. As the Fighting Irish rag-tag parochial school band, led by a baton-carrying nun, leaves the field, the elder Maher tells his son, “Let that be a lesson to you – never bet against His Holy Mother, the Church.” I’ve taken the old fellow’s advice over the years and rarely bet against Notre Dame, even the past decade or so.

This is a roundabout way leading up to my World Series picks. I rarely bet against the Yankees, especially when they’re playing the Twins. So, it will be New York facing Cincinnati in the World Series.

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Do you have an opinion on any of this week’s questions? Do you agree or disagree with the sportswriters? Let us know by sending an e-mail to editor.millelacscotimes@ecm-inc.com or a note to Mille Lacs County Times, 225 S.W. 2nd St. Milaca, MN 56353. Or comment online.

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