To be a Minnesota sports fan, you need to be equipped with a few tools. These may include a thick skin, steadfast loyalty and perseverance, and an inferiority complex. We here in flyover country are very used to disappointment and we’ve come to mostly expect it. Any time a local sports team gets a makeover and starts selling hope, most fans will not allow themselves to get their hopes up because they have been crushed too many times in the past. Now, in 2014, the Minnesota sports scene is at something of a crossroads. Many teams have made significant changes and are at the beginning of completely new eras. In this mini-series, I’m going to explore The State of the Minnesota Sports Union. And, yes, sell some hope. Cross your arms and scowl, because here we go, sports fans!
The Northstars were an much-beloved team back in the day and their exit from the state in 1993 is one of the biggest “sports scars” Minnesota has. When the NHL installed the Wild here back in 2000, fans were reticent. They wanted the Stars, not some other franchise. But the Wild proved plucky to start out, making a deep playoff run in 2003. In 2013, the team made a splash by signing two huge free agents and firmly cementing themselves as an up-and-coming franchise.
I’ll confess that this is the team I follow the least in Minnesota, but it’s an important one. The team is relatively stacked at the moment. With their big free agents from 2 years ago, plus some more supporting additions, they seem to have a good core of players ready to contend.
The Wild obviously want to win a Stanley Cup in the next 2-3 years. Whether they will be able to accomplish the goal depends on the rest of the Western Conference teams and on their coach.
It seems likely that this team, if it can gel together, will at least make deep playoff runs each of the next few seasons.
Or they will implode, fire their coach and trade away all their stars for draft picks and start over again in 3 years.
We all know about the past. The Twins are the only Minnesota pro sports team to have won championships fairly recently. The Puckett-era World Series wins of 1987 and 1991 are still opening revered around here. The division-winning teams of the mid 00’s also had the area on the bandwagon and got a shiny new stadium built. Not too many “sports scars” here. However, once the stadium opened, the Twins hit a prolonged stretch of rocky seasons.
The Twins are on their way to a 3rd straight losing season. They’ve traded away many of their core players in favor of young guys, hoping to build the next generation of division winners. They have a few highly regarded prospects working through their farm system, but for now they are stuck in the MLB lobby waiting for their playoff room to be ready, watching their peers ascend the staircase ahead of them year after year. This season has seen some improvements, but not nearly enough.
The Twins have been snake-bitten by bad luck this season with both of their top prospects getting hurt. It still seems like both Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano will be called up to the majors next year at some point, but who knows? The bigger issue with whether the Twins will overhaul their coaching staff at some point. Rumblings persist that Ron Gardenhire should be held responsible for this bad stretch, especially when so many former Twins are succeeding elsewhere.
But with Buxton and Sano on their way up, plus some promising young players on the roster now, the Twins look poised to make some runs in 2-3 years!
Or these injuries will continue piling up and the promised help from the minors will evaporate, leaving the team in worse shape than ever.
You want to talk about “sports scars”? The Vikings have historically built incredibly effective torture chambers for their fans. They have made a number of deep playoff runs with amazingly talented rosters, only to be dismissed by completely unforeseen meltdowns at the worst possible times. We’ve got the 1998 NFC championship game missed FG, the 2000 NFC championship game 41-0 loss to the Giants and the 2009 NFC championship game when Favre threw an interception to the Saints late and a dumb penalty sealed it. This franchise is covered with scars.
The Vikings overhauled their coaching staff in this past offseason, dismissing the quiet Leslie Frazier and hiring the loud Mike Zimmer. They got approved for a new stadium and broke ground. They even drafted another quarterback and anointed him as the future star. They still have the best running back in the game and an up-and-coming receiver to boot. They will play their next two seasons at TCF Bank Stadium at the U of M while their new home is built. Lots of changes and lots of hope for the future!
The Vikings are playing both sides right now: short-term and long-term. They have a very talented offensive roster at the moment and have put Matt Cassel in charge of it. Their defense will be improved this year, but it’s really a work in progress under a new regime. The team knows that these next two years at a temporary home will be tough, but they are looking past that. They want to move into the new stadium with a hot young QB named Teddy Bridgewater at the helm and an array of weapons around him. If Adrian Peterson can be explosive for 2-3 more years, we’ve really got something here.
This team is ready to play this year and take the real leap next year or the year after that. With this much talent and a new, no-nonsense coach, they will make some noise in the NFL very soon.
Or Bridgewater will flunk, just like all our other highly touted QBs have recently. Adrian’s wheels will fall off and our fresh new (inexperienced) coach will wear out his welcome in 2 years. The Vikings will move into a shiny new stadium with one star WR and no supporting cast.
You’ve seen that each of the Minnesota sports teams has had it’s share of dysfunction in the last 10 years, but none of them can compare to the Timberwolves. After their first deep playoff run in 2004, the Wolves bottomed out and traded Kevin Garnett to the Celtics (where he promptly won a title). In their rebuilding process, they hit reset no less than 3 times. They fired coaches. They fired GMs. They completely botched multiple draft picks (Johnny Flynn over Steph Curry?!). When the finally got a future MVP type player in Kevin Love, they denied him a max contract and paved his road out of town. They haven’t made the playoffs since that 2004 run. It’s been a complete and utter disaster. Yeah, the Wolves’ “sports scars” are numerous and many are actually wounds that haven’t even closed yet.
After firing GM David Kahn, the worst GM in the history of the NBA, owner Glen Taylor turned back the clock and hired former Wolves coach Flip Saunders to run the team. Saunders got to work trying to clean up the mess. Now in his 2nd season on the job, things came to a head: Kevin Love demanded a trade. Flip showed why he was given the job when he patiently waited for the rest of the league dominoes to fall instead of pulling the trigger on a bad deal. When LeBron James left Miami and returned to Cleveland, the trap was sprung. Flip moved Love to Cleveland and landed the last two #1 draft picks plus a proven player with a similar skill set to Love. With Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and Thad Young added to the mix with draft pick Zach Lavine and the rest of our current roster, this will be a completely rebuilt team this season.
This is now Flip Saunders’ team. Flip even hired himself to coach the team, so it will be deja vu all over again when we see Flip calling out plays on the sideline this season. With this blown up roster at his disposal, Flip will be dialing up lots of running, athletic plays for his young guns to execute. Ricky Rubio isn’t a good shooter, but he facilitates an offensive very well. These new guys will have lots of scoring opportunities in this offense, which should excite them.
If the team gels together and plays unselfish offense and scrappy defense, we should expect an exciting season and a playoff berth in 2-3 years. And if Andrew Wiggins as a good as many experts predict, we could have the next NBA superstar on our hands!
Or these guys will all get sick of Minnesota, start dreaming of playing for a storied franchise like the Lakers or Bulls and orchestrate their ways out. The team will gift wrap some more championships for other teams and continue to play the role of “farm system” for the big boys.
So what kind of fan are you? Do you buy the hope that these teams are selling? Or do you prefer to keep your expectations on the floor because you’re just too scarred and afraid of being hurt again?
Me? I’m a Minnesota sports loyalist. Part of being a real fan means you take the knocks and get back on the bandwagon. When our teams finally hoist their trophies, the satisfaction will be that much sweeter knowing what we’ve had to endure to get to those moments.
And in 4 years, I predict one of these 4 teams will have won it all.