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About Steve Hartman

Digital Sales Manager at Rivertown Multimedia. Huge sports fan from basketball to tennis, golf to football and everything in between.

2 Teams Going in Opposite Directions

After going through some struggles briefly around the All-Star break, the Milwaukee Brewers have opened up a 2.5-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals after winning 4 in a row. The free-falling Cinicinatti Reds are no longer relevant in the NL Central, and the Pirates are trying to hang around, but at 6 games back with 6 weeks to go their chances of winning division are slim.

Catcher Matthew Lucroy has been outstanding lately for the Brewers. Lucroy is poised to become the first catcher to lead either league in doubles. The Brew Crew’s recent sweep of the L.A. Dodgers in Chavez Ravine was noticeable on 3 fronts:

1. It caused a 3-way tie for the NL’s best record between Milwaukee, L.A. and the Washington Nationals. The owner of the best record obviously owns home-field advantage throughout the NL playoffs.

2. They beat Clayton Kershaw Saturday, owner of a 1.86 ERA and in doing so handed Kershaw his first loss in 14 starts.

3. The starting pitchers only gave up 7 runs in 3 games over the weekend. Jimmy Nelson (6 inn, 2 runs), Yovanni Gallardo (8 inn, 1 run) and Wily Peralta (6 inn, 0 runs) were outstanding.

Across the St. Croix, the Minnesota Twins continue to spiral down the standings even further, losing 3 of 4 to the 1st-place Kansas City Royals. The Twins are trotting out young players in “audition roles” for the 4th year in a row to see if they have anything for the future. SP Trevor May got another start Monday and continued to walk too many batters in 4 1/3 innings. The Twins are experiencing tough times even in the minor leagues. Star prospect Byron Buxton was hurt badly in an outfield collision.

General Manager Terry Ryan has a lot of things to consider before next season, most notably, is Ron Gardenhire the person to continue managing this team. Paul Molitor is waiting in the wings. I’m not sure Gardenhire wants to go through another rebuilding season, despite his contract extension. Obviously the manager isn’t to blame for all their ills, but something has to change within the Twins organization. There’s no guarantee that prospects May, Alex Meyer, Miguel Sano, Buxton and others will work out. We’ve already seen that one or two injuries will derail the youth movement in Minnesota.

At their current rate, the Twins will finish 72-90…their 4th straight 90-loss season. The mid-90s teams have made a resurgence. Fans can only hope that what followed, a 10-year run of contention and winning from 2001-2010, will show up sooner rather than later this time around.

 

Football: The Most Unique of Games

As the days begin to shorten I find myself becoming nostalgic. The smell of fresh cut grass on a football field, dry wheat being harvested and the wet dew in the early mornings. This is no doubt Football Season.

I grew up in a small community where football and farming were king. The smells of fresh-cut football fields went hand-in-hand with fresh-cut wheat fields. As the Fall moved forward, corn harvest was associated with cold, crisp evening games when the lights were on at kick-off. Football season is such a uniquely vivid time in an athletes life because of the associations made. When the season starts in Minnesota and Wisconsin, it’s 90 degrees, humid and there isn’t school. When the season ends, it can be snowing and 35 degrees. The change from Summer to Fall provides so much in terms of colors and temperatures. Football follows the same path.

Basketball by my own admission is my favorite sport. But there is just something about the gridiron game. I don’t know why I find more joy in the smells of barbecue at a pre-game tailgate versus fresh popcorn in a January gymnasium. Oh wait, yes I do. Beef and pork off the grill are so much better!

Football also bring players together unlike any other sport. There is a unique bond among players when it takes 11 on each side of the ball to commit to something and trust each other. In basketball, one player has a bigger impact on the game than one in football. The quarterback gets a lot of glory, but without linemen he wouldn’t survive. A good running back needs holes to run through. A receiver needs someone to get them the ball. As a QB, I will never forget my center. I spent a lot of time with this interesting guy over the course of 2 seasons. We aren’t close anymore, but there’s a bond between us that I’ll never forget.

Alright, enough of my look back at my more fit, more athletic glory days. I wish all Fall athletes, not just football players, a great season. Stay healthy and enjoy the ride!

 

Vikings Training Camp: 6 Things to Watch

Here are 6 things I’m watching during Minnesota Vikings Training Camp and throughout the preseason.

How will Anthony Barr acclimate?

First-round pick Barr has made a strong impression thus far in Mankato, but will his lack of experience at the position rear it’s head once real NFL games begin. His pass-rushing skills are elite and his size and strength have been well-document, running over fullbacks in scrimmages or getting by RT Phil Loadholt. But many experts have questions whether he can cover well enough in passing situations to be a 3-down LB. My belief is Head Coach Mike Zimmer won’t put him in situations to fail and the schemes will be set to allow Barr many opportunities to play downhill and rush the passer.

Will the secondary improve with a new scheme?

I think many Vikings fans hope a new scheme, well, at least something from this decade, will alleviate problems in the secondary that have plagued the Purple for years. Even on the 2009 team that went to the NFC Championship game, outside of Winfield, the secondary was non-descript. Harrison Smith is about the only sure thing. The Vikings have to hope that 2nd-year CB Xavier Rhodes can stay healthy and take a step forward. The same goes for Josh Robinson. Captain Munnerlyn was brought in as a veteran who can play inside or outside, but early reports are that he’ll be mostly in the slot. The safety opposite Smith is up for grabs with guys like Jamarca Sanford, Mistral Raymond, Chris Crocker, Andrew Sendejo, and many others vying for the starting role. It’s a mish-mash of veterans, young guys, former starters none of whom have caught Zimmer’s eye, hence the arrival of Crocker, a former Bengal who played under Zimmer. Between injuries and unknowns I’m still not sold on the improved secondary, at least not until I see how the scheme fits with their skill sets.

 Will Kalil regain his rookie form and become an elite LT? 

By all accounts LT Matt Kalil had a down year in 2013. Some of that can be attributed to nagging injuries in his left knee. Kalil missed OTAs earlier this year after undergoing knee surgery. Protecting the QB, whether it’s the rather rigid Matt Cassel, or the more fleet-of-foot Teddy Bridgewater, is extremely important to the Vikings. Kalil’s improvement and return to form will be key in the QB play and thus the overall success of the team in 2014.

What does Cordarrelle Patterson do for an encore? 

Patterson emerged onto the NFL scene in spectacular fashion with his NFL-leading and Vikings record 32.4 yds kickoff return average. His sensational KO Returns made him a fan-favorite, including a NFL record-tying 109 yd return for TD vs Green Bay. However, Patterson’s true value could be in the passing game. Former Offensive Coordinator Bill Musgrave was slow to implement Patterson into the offense, rumored to be because he wasn’t understanding the playbook. With new offensive coordinator Norv Turner implementing a whole new offense, I’m interested to see how Patterson grasps this playbook. No doubt, the Vikings will use Patterson all over the field, like they did late in 2013. His game vs the Ravens will be on to remember. But will he make the leap in year 2 that all the coaches and fans hope he can? Only time will tell.

How will the Vikings handle playing in the elements of TCF Bank Stadium? 

This may or may not become a story throughout the season. It all depends how the coaching staff and players handle it. For a team built on a loud, home-field advantage in a climate-controlled teflon building, playing in a smaller stadium with wind tunnels during December in Minnesota could have some serious issues. It’s been documented how the Vikings have struggled at Chicago in years past. I expect conditions at “The Bank” to be a fairly similar, minus the footlong grass. Kicker Blair Walsh has had it probably the easiest, knowing for at least 8 games a year he wouldn’t have to worry about wind, footing conditions, etc. The Vikings seem to have an offense built for outdoor football, predicated around a power running game. I’m also intrigued to see how fans react to the new digs. It’s hard to break habits, and when that habit is knowing you can watch FB in 72-degree temps all season…outdoor seating may not draw the same crowd.

Of course the last one is the most important: Who plays QB?

It’s been debated on numerous sports talk radio stations, on Twitter, in the newspapers, etc, but there’s a reason for it. QB is the MOST important position in football and largely dictates the success, especially long-term success when a team has that franchise QB. The Vikings signed Cassel to a 2-year, $10 million deal this Spring hoping to solidify something at the position. And they of course moved back into the 1st round of the NFL draft to select Teddy Bridgewater. I loved the pick of Bridgewater because he was projected as the #1 overall pick after the season ended. Only after a bad pro day did he drop out of favor with most teams. It was great value for the Vikings at #32. But that still doesn’t answer the question. My guess is Cassel starts and plays as long as he does adequately and the Vikings win. If the offense struggles, Cassel struggles or both, Teddy comes in. Once we see the preseason we will know more. The obvious will be known when the 3rd preseason game starters are announced. Regardless, I expect to see both under center in 2014.

Check back in the coming weeks for my season predictions for both the Packers and Vikings.

VIDEO: RiverTown Sports Roundup August 4



Update to the video: Thursday, July 31st, following the trade deadline the Twins signed catcher Kurt Suzuki to a 2-year extension with a vesting option in year 3. This is an interesting move to me because Suzuki’s value has never been higher and he’s having a great year. If you’re in “win next year” mode the extension makes sense. The Twins are clearly not there. They could have certainly gotten something for Suzuki. This reeks of a classic Twins move of paying players off career years. They paid Michael Cuddyer after a career year, Mauer, many former pitchers, and now Suzuki.

However, the real issue here is that the Twins organization doesn’t have anyone remotely ready to take over the everyday catching duties. They obviously don’t feel Josmil Pinto will fill that role in the next two years. So I think they made the decision to keep Suzuki around out of necessity. I like Suzuki as a player and feel he fits the team well…which may or may not be a good thing based on their lack of success the past 4 seasons. It’s just unfortunate that the organization can’t seem to maximize value in recent years. Because again, Suzuki will probably never play as well as he has in 2014 though the team is paying him to do just that.

Update to the Update: The Twins also picked up OF Jordan Schafer off waivers from the Atlanta Braves. He provides much-needed OF depth and can play all 3 positions. He’s a downgrade from Sam Fuld, but not by much. Essentially, the Twins keep a utility OF (trading Fuld and claiming Schafer) and gain an average starting pitcher in Tommy Milone. Nothing earth-shattering, but this will allow Manager Ron Gardenhire to move Danny Santana, the team’s surprise of 2014, into his more natural role of SS instead of everyday CF.

Packers Training Camp: 6 Things to Watch

Nearly a week into NFL training camps here are 6 things I’m watching at Packers camp in Green Bay.

How will Julius Peppers fit in?

For Julius Peppers’ entire 13-year NFL career he has played defensive end in a 4-3 system. After signing a 3-year, $30 million deal as a free agent this off-season, he will make the switch to OLB in Dom Capers’ 3-4 scheme. Some have predicted Peppers’ presence will free up Clay Mathews from double-teams and create a nightmare scenario for opposing offenses. However, Peppers is 34 years old and at the tail end of his career. His 7 sacks in 2013 were his lowest since 2007 and tied for his 2nd lowest single-season total of his career. Peppers still possesses the size to be intimidating but will he be agile enough to make plays in coverage or will he be relegated to 3rd down pass-rushing situations only?

Will the offensive line that starts together stay together?

Obviously the Packers are set at quarterback, but keeping Aaron Rodgers upright and healthy is, and has been, the key ingredient to Green Bay’s success. GB won the NFC North last season at 8-7-1, but easily could have been 11-5 or better had Rodgers not gotten hurt. JC Tretter is taking over at center. Having a 2nd-year player, one who didn’t play a snap in 2013, making calls at the line could be a scary situation for Packer fans. However, the rest of the offensive line is in tact, with some depth at both tackle positions behind G Lang and Tackles Bakhtiari and Bulaga. I can’t remember the last time the Packers went a season without some injuries on the line. To their credit, they’ve been able to weather those injuries and still win games. Staying healthy and being consistent could set the stage for a huge offensive year from the Pack.

Can the secondary be healthy & productive?

Expectations are high for the Packers secondary, even from within the team. But health and production will dictate their success. Casey Hayward looks to have a bounce-back season after hamstring problems hampered his 2013 campaign. Rookie safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix comes in highly touted, but has yet to play a snap in the NFL. Micah Hyde will push Clinton-Dix for the starting spot. But again, the depth here is great as Sam Shields, Tramon Williams and Morgan Burnett solidify a group looking to replace Seattle as the best secondary in the NFL. Watch the safety position specifically. Corner is the strength of this team, but any injuries or poor performances from the safeties could spell problems against high-powered offensive teams like Chicago and Detroit.

How does Lacy build on his rookie season?

Second-year RB and 2013 Offensive Rookie of the Year Eddie Lacy is looking to follow his sensational rookie season with an even bigger year in 2014. Lacy rushed for nearly 1,200 yards and 11 TDs in 2013 giving Green Bay it’s most potent running game since Ahman Green. When Rodgers is behind center it all but guarantees less than 8 in the box and plenty of running lanes for Lacy. Teams are unable to deal with the Packers passing attack and therefore leave them susceptible to Lacy’s punishing running style. Look for another big season from Lacy, perhaps not in yards, but in TDs and Yards per Carry.

Who fills TE spot with Jermichael Finley’s departure?

The easy answer to replace Finely, still recovering from a neck injury and unsigned as of today, is free agent Andrew Quarless. The former Detroit Lion only had 2 TDs and just over 300 yards in 10 games during the 2013 season. The team says it has depth and hopes to have a starter earn the spot. That is coach-speak for “we don’t have anyone we feel great about and hope someone steps up.” Another option is 3rd-round pick Richard Rodgers, who has shined in mini-camp, OTAs and training camp. How does the saying go, “If you have 7 TEs, you really have none”? Even this guy has a chance to make the team! This is the one position on GB’s offense that lacks star power and stability. But the Packers weapons on offense are plentiful and if they get adequate play from this position they’ll score plenty of points.

Cobb, Nelson and who else?

It’s been proven Rodgers can make WRs look really good. (Picking up on a theme? I REALLY like Aaron Rodgers.) So maybe it doesn’t matter who the other WRs are, but the battle for the 3rd and 4th spots should be exciting to watch. Local favorite Jarred Abbrederis is in the mix and is getting lots of cheers at training camp. The former Badger has lots of company though. Fresno State rookie Davante Adams has also impressed. Jarrett Boykin proved in 2013 that he’s more than capable of making plays and being a top target in the Packers system. The battle between these 3 should be exciting for fans. Regardless, all will likely see the field and be complementary pieces to Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson. This group will be tough to handle for opposing secondaries.

Stay tuned for my “6 Things to Watch at Vikings Training Camp” coming up next week. After the 3rd week of preseason games I’ll post my 2014 predictions for both teams.

NFL, NCAA stories take twists

For those following the Vikings/NFL and NCAA Men’s Basketball closely these won’t be new topics. But controversial stories with potentially long-term ramifications came out in recent weeks.

Kluwe vs Vikings

This story has dragged on for longer than it should have, but with today’s news that former Viking punter Chris Kluwe will not file his lawsuit against the team and would rather talk it out brings up some interesting storylines. It appears that Kluwe has felt the backlash from his supposed supporters who believe in gay rights and gay marriage. Here’s a great analysis from Outsports. His issues with the Vikings go well past his dismissal because of his views. Kluwe now claims that this case is about opening up the Vikings for covering up illegal activity and a total lack of transparency. How we got here, I don’t quite know. MPR maybe does. But Kluwe’s a very smart guy, son of a doctor and biofuels executive. My take is he’s mad he got let go by 2 teams, looked for someone to blame, noticed the timing of being released came after his controversial stance and appearances and figured he should get something because of it. He fails to assume any personal responsibility for being let go, such as his downward production, rising age, and relatively high salary for his position. That’s not to say the Vikings are a clean organization always on the moral high ground. The contrary actually, they rank 2nd in NFL arrests since 2000. This is the reason I’ve failed to fully commit to Purple Pride. The Vikings are well-known has having troubles off the field. However, both sides need to move on. Kluwe rescinding his lawsuit, for at least today, is a good sign they will.

College recruit goes overseas

Last week, Emmanuel Mudiay, one of the top-ranked players coming out of high school last year, made news by de-committing from Southern Methodist University (SMU) and legendary coach Larry Brown. Mudiay opted to sign a reported $1.2 million dollar contract to play professionally in China. His signing at SMU was a surprise to many to begin with and gave the impression that SMU was on the rise. Mudiay cited family issues, not grades as was initially reported, as his reason to go overseas rather than play in college. The reason he gave was that he wanted to provide for his family and mother. This is a completely reasonable and noble reason to skip college. Many of us would do the same if millions were at stake and our family was in dire straits.

What I find interesting is how this affects the group who demands college players be paid because so many others make money off athlete production on the court, field, etc. People have said for years it’s not fair and could be illegal for players to risk their bodies and health but yet never see a dime. “How can coaches, presidents, athletic directors make so much off young people?! Pay the players now.” This group makes it seem that there are no other options and the marketing players receive in the NCAA is the only way to the professional ranks. Listen, it’s the players/students choice to go to college. If you do, there are rules in place and you have to follow them. But there are options. If you don’t like playing for free in the states under the guise of the NCAA, feel free to go overseas, or to the NBA’s D-League. Make money for a year and enter the NBA draft. That is allowed. If you don’t like the NCAA rules, don’t go to colleg. And the best result for all would be enough players skip the NCAA ranks, play overseas where no one can watch and ratings, attendance, etc go down. That would FORCE the NCAA to change their rules. Until then, this is what is in place and make your decisions accordingly.

Brewers Slide Continues, McIlroy Becomes 3rd Youngest to Win 3rd Major

Coming out of the All-Star break, the Milwaukee Brewers were hoping to turn around their July skid. Things looked good after a 4-2 win Friday night over the Nationals. However, they dropped the final two in Washington and actually dropped out of 1st place until St. Louis lost later Sunday. The Brew Crew have lost 12 of their 15 games since July 1st. The Brewers, having had a sizable lead for much of the season, now are tied with the St. Louis Cardinals, and lead Pittsburgh, who just swept Colorado, by 1.5 games and Cincinatti by only 2.5 games. Ron Roenicke’s squad opens a 3-game series versus the Reds tonight in what has become a huge homestand. The Brewers need to regain some momentum and could do that by winning the series against Cincy, and by winning 3 of 4, or sweeping the series, against the NY Mets in the last part of the homestand.

The problems seem to be relatively minor, but minor mistakes in close games can cost you division championships and a chance at the playoffs. Manager Ron Roenicke was not happy after the most recent loss, a 5-4 setback to the Nationals after the Brewers were able to tie the game in the 9th inning. It comes down to mental mistakes. Rickie Weeks’ was thrown out at 2nd on the back-end of a double-steal with Carlos Gomez. In the bottom of the inning and a runner on 1st, leftfielder Khris Davis overthrew the cutoff man allowing Anthony Rendon to score the winning run with 2 outs. Obviously the manager isn’t happy, but the fans have to be on edge as well. One thing to be positive about, the Brewers are still on top of the division. However, there is a log-jam in the division AND the wild card race. Every game is important and Milwaukee needs to tighten things up.

Rory 3rd youngest to 3 Majors

I was listening to a prominent local radio host in the Twin Cities and the discussion was about Tiger Woods and the lack of talent filling the void while he’s been off his game. The argument was that this allowed Tiger a chance to still win major championships despite not playing the best golf of his career. It looks like Rory, along with a slew of other young players, have no fear of Tiger and have plenty of toughness to win majors for years to come. Rory led from start to finish and looked dominant at times, despite a shaky finish to become the 3rd youngest player to win 3 majors. The other two? Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. That’s pretty elite company for McIlroy, winner of the 2011 U.S. Open, 2012 PGA Championship,  and now the 2014 Open Championship.

It’s obvious he’s going to fill the void, but he won’t be doing it alone. Players like Adam Scott, Martin Kaymer, Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and many others will continue to create compelling and exciting golf tournaments. Tiger’s run is over. No matter if you were a fan or not, that’s the truth. McIlroy, 25, is here to stay and he’ll be winning tournaments for many years. The question used to be “Will Tiger catch Jack in majors?” I’d argue the more relevant question is “Will Rory catch Tiger?”.

Lebron Goes Home, Carmelo Stays, Love Waits

I didn’t want to feed the beast with wild speculation on projected landing spots for various NBA stars. I figure 90% of what we hear from “sources” is nonsense and spin, meant to provide more leverage to teams, players and agents. Hence I stayed out of the conversation. All the “experts” do is guess. They have no more knowledge than you or I. Sources can’t always be trusted, and information isn’t always reliable.

But now that two of the NBA’s biggest stars have landed, we can begin looking at the landscape and assessing what’s going to happen next. Admittedly, Lebron going back to Cleveland was a bit of surprise to me. However, it makes sense from a story, legend, legacy standpoint. He can “right his wrongs” and bring a championship back to his home state. That is if Johnny Manziel doesn’t do it first. 

Carmelo Anthony resigned with the Knicks. This was not a shocker at all. He’s from New York, he played college in-state and, oh yes, NY is the #1 media market in the country. ‘Melo wants to be a star, wants to take shots and both of those things trump winning to him, at least that’s my observation.

Teams looking to make big improvements this off-season outside of Cleveland and New York, now look at Kevin Love as the biggest prize still available. Though he’s technically not a free agent, he is in all reality because the Timberwolves either trade him now or risk losing him for nothing but emptiness on the payroll after the 2014-15 season. Rumors still swirl that Love is going to Cleveland IF the Cavs offer up 2014 #1 overall draft pick, Andrew Wiggins, and a combination of Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, 2013 #1 pick Anthony Bennett, or a 1st round pick in the 2015 draft. This has to be Flip Saunders ideal situation. However, the Cavs could be fine with a rotation including Kyrie Irving (another #1 overall pick), Wiggins, Lebron and any other two players from your office. If that’s the case, the next-best option is the Golden State trade possibility of Klay Thompson and David Lee, though reports vary on what the Warriors are willing to offer the Wolves.

Pau Gasol to Chicago is another intriguing move, as is Luol Deng to Miami. The Bulls now have 2 of the best passing big men in the NBA with Joakim Noah and Gasol. But winning in the NBA now is about guards, small forwards and the ability to space the floor and hit 3′s (see Spurs, San Antonio; Heat, Miami; Thunder, Oklahoma City). The Bulls get markedly better from Derrick Rose returning from injury if he’s healthy, than Pau joining Noah in the frontcourt. Deng with Bosh and Wade in Miami is behind Cleveland and Indiana in the Eastern Conference hierarchy. But if losing Lebron and adding Deng allows Miami cap space to upgrade their inside play or point guard, and IF Wade can find some new legs, they can still be a top 4 seed in the East.

The intrigue of the NBA off-season is over, but storylines are still out there. Teams will still be trying to improve. Summer League is giving teams a look at their recent draft picks. The big moves have been made, but the most important moves, the supplement pieces that win championships could still be coming.

More from MLB’s All-Star Weekend

Exciting times at FanFest Friday for myself and my buddy, Derek. We were interviewed by Fox Sports for “All Star Fan Trivia.” This allowed me to drop my extensive knowledge on, among other things, ZUBAZ! Take a look below.