"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Monday, April 22, 2013

Minnesota: our self-image as shaped by weather

How it used to be at the old "Met"
Minnesotans used to feel defensive in a way that people close to the coasts would never feel. There was something about the Upper Midwest that made us feel second-tier. This was unjust of course. The Twin cities were as vibrant a place as any metropolitan area.
We didn't become big league until 1961. What a hugely significant year for change. Where would we be today without our big league sports teams? I for one could live without the Vikings but I'm an exception. It's not hard to notice how consumed people are with football. In the 1950s you would have been focused on the Gophers.
The Gophers seemed to spiral downward once the Vikings got established. Cal Stoll made a last stand to try to keep the Gophers prominent. He was a good warrior, under-appreciated, and he went down fighting. Paul Giel said Stoll had become too hard to "sell."
Actually the Gophers found themselves in a new environment. They made a bid to get the spotlight back with Lou Holtz. It seemed to be working for a while. Then it flickered. The Vikings with their four Super Bowl appearances were the fashionable football team to be focused on. And to think this team didn't even exist before 1961.
Can you imagine the boomer generation being satisfied with minor league? That's what we had in baseball with the Minneapolis Millers and their Nicollet Park. Nicollet was built in the 19th Century. The Millers moved into the new Metropolitan Stadium in 1956. We might forget that "the Met" didn't usher in the Twins right away. It was built to lure major league baseball.
Can you believe major league baseball needed five years before it could finally put its blessing on having a team here? Today I would suggest the Minnesota market is essential. It's hard to believe it wasn't, up through 1960.
The Twins and Vikings got planted here in time to satisfy the boomers' entertainment cravings which were going to be substantial. The Gophers were going to have to try to get along in the background. The U of M would have to stick its neck out to try to get a taste of its old primacy. Getting Holtz here was an example. So was the meteoric tenure of hoops coach Bill Musselman.
The Gophers can occasionally excel. But they aren't the kitchen table fodder for discussion they once were. Their primacy is associated with the days when your average citizen could list the prime celebrities on WCCO Radio. Your typical farm family awoke to Maynard Speece. We would retire with the laid-back Franklin Hobbs (the late-night "Hobbs House").
I remember attending a Twins game with a college friend and we both started doing our best Hobbs impersonation, with his segues, deliberate pauses and shameless plugs etc. He was too laid-back for today. He wouldn't take to the tabloid subjects that get attention today. There was more a sense of proper decorum. The tenor was quite apt for the World War II generation which was in its prime.
Even when we got big league sports, it was a while before we got proper respect. We'd hear belittling comments based on the kind of adverse weather we'd get here. There seemed to be a subtle air of prejudice against the Upper Midwest.
I read an op-ed that suggested one reason we were so delighted with our World Series wins of 1987 and 1991, wasn't just because we won, but because we had "put on a good show." In other words, we felt we had to sell ourselves. This thought wouldn't cross New Yorkers' minds.
The odd "green monster" of Fenway Park, Boston, has an air of charm and history. If the very same ballpark had been in Minneapolis, it would be considered an abomination. The elite press would be pulling hair out over it. But the east coast power corridor gave a different context.
We don't see that same problem today. The (weather) elements we have dealt with at Target Field do get the attention of ESPN analysts. But it's not an issue of respect, or lack of, anymore. I don't sense any condescension.
Part of the reason might be the nature of the media. The big league sports owners have learned how to apply some pressure to the media. They strive to make the media a PR extension as it were. If you are privileged to have a job covering a big league team, you should speak with a basic air of respect about the team you're covering, and the league.
It was not always that way. When I was young, I remember "name" media people talking about "dog" teams and "dog" matchups. They might talk about how cold it would be in the Twin Cities, suggesting they might not want to come here.
Today, considering what tremendous cash cows all these franchises have become, any belittling tone is put forth with great risk by any media person. Media people talk with respect about all but the very worst teams.
It makes sense when you pause and think: The NFL has the very best football players in the world. It would seem illogical that half the teams might be candidates for disparaging talk. But such used to be the case.
I would suggest that part of the problem was the game's cosmetics. Howard Cosell pondered this once. He asked a colleague, "what's wrong with the NFL?" Granted it seemed wildly popular. But there were too few teams that exuded a strong air of quality. When they played each other, everything was fine. Not so when the "dog" teams played. Monday night football dealt with this by "making a bad game hip," according to one sports historian. But oh my, that was cynical.
There would be no room for cynicism in a few years.
In the first decade of the Metrodome, there were managers and media people who would speak disrespectfully, one calling it "a joke ballpark." When they said "homer dome" it was a putdown. In New York City, these very alleged defects would be a source of charm and fascination. But not out here in the tundra. Not in 'CCO Land.
Many critics feel the 1987 Twins didn't even deserve to be in the World Series. At the time, I interviewed a Morris area media person, Steve Van Slooten, who was very well aware of this. Steve was in radio and I was in print. I interviewed Steve because he was at the World Series. He displayed the classic Upper Midwest defensiveness about it all. I'll paraphrase. He asserted that no matter what all the naysayers might want to say, about our talent level or stadium or whatever, "we did it." We went and won the World Series, and the historical record will always show that.
I'm not writing this to criticize Steve - heaven forbid - I'm just presenting it as an exhibit.
Today I think team managers and top media people actually have it written into their contracts to "not cross a line" of showing disrespect. Try to take all the teams seriously.
Oh by the way, "what was wrong with the NFL?" to repeat Cosell's question. He did offer one specific answer: "All the passing is under the coverage." Rules changes have helped fix that. Fans like seeing receivers catch the ball in stride downfield. The customer is always right.
Fran Tarkenton managed a high completion percentage because he threw lots of "dink" passes. It worked for its time. We got to three Super Bowls with him. (The first was with Joe Kapp.)
Let's step into a time machine and go back to 1962 - a chilly spring. It would be therapeutic considering the very long winter we have endured. There is precedent for that. Let's go back to April 12 of 1962. The Twins were in their second season. A winter storm blew in. It wiped out the scheduled opener for the next day. The southern two-thirds of the state got a foot of snow. Six inches of white stuff were recorded in the Twin Cities by 6 p.m. on 4/12. The Twin Cities had received 81.3 inches total for the year.
And here we were with big league baseball. Then we got to April 13. Holly mackerel, it was the coldest April 13 on record. The thermometer registered two above.
Would you believe that on May 2, 1976, there was a fleeting spring snowstorm? By May 2, the snow had better melt quickly. It did, but there were still patches of snow on shadowed ground for the Twins game against Milwaukee. It was a Bat Day game. I'm surprised Bat Day was that early in the schedule. The field at the old Met was soggy, needless to say.
Such circumstances made many elite media people shake their heads.
Then let's talk about the Vikings game on December 3, 1972. I'll quote from Joe Soucheray: "From a saloon in Tampa or Phoenix or San Diego, imagine watching on television as the Vikings hosted the Bears. . .in the coldest football game ever played at the Met. The temperature at kickoff was two degrees below zero, with a north wind at eleven MPH creating a wind-chill of minus 26."
There were nearly 50,000 fans there! The Vikings won 23-10. We had only one offensive touchdown, on a pass reception by John Henderson.
By contrast, in a pre-season game in 1976, against Cincinnati, the temperature was 88 degrees amidst hazy and muggy conditions. We had games marked by wind too.
Did we really think we would get Target Field built and be excused from the weather this time? Granted, it's engineered better than the old Met with all sorts of special strategies to combat weather. But weather here can oftentimes win. I'm typing this on April 19 when school has been called off for Morris Area. Obla-di, obla-da (life goes on).
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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