Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Minnesota Sports Teams and Mediocrity

I was born in 1988. That means, technically, I was alive when the Minnesota Twins won the World Series in 1991. Of course, my first sports memories wouldn't start for years, so I have no recollection of the MOST RECENT Minnesota professional championship* win. Hell, that's even the most recent appearance! As a life-long Minnesota sports fan, my memories are filled with heartbreak and mediocrity.

*Sorry, I'm not counting the Lynx, mainly because this poll tells you all you need to know about the WNBA. I'm all for a women's pro basketball league, and I think it's great that the NBA uses a very tiny portion of it's billion dollar industry to subsidize a women's professional league. It's the right thing to do and I totally agree with it. I'm just not going to waste any time watching it.

Since that 1991 World Series championship, Minnesota sports teams** have emanated mediocrity. Teams from the frozen tundra have combined to go 0-6 in Conference Championship games, and that big fat zero obviously means we've seen zero Minnesota teams even compete for an actual championship since 1991. The state that gleefully calls ourselves the "state of Hockey" watched our professional hockey team move to TEXAS following the 1992-1993 season, and we had to wait 8 years before the Wild brought hockey back. It has not been a pleasant three decades for Minnesota sports fans. Today, we're going to take a deeper look into each franchise's mediocrity.

**For the sake of clarification, we are talking about NHL, NBA, MLB and NFL teams.**

First, let's take a look at each team's regular season and playoff record since 1992.

Honestly, that chart could be the end of the article. That screams mediocrity. But let's keep going anyway.

The Minnesota Wild made their NHL debut for the 2000-2001 season and sold out their first 409 home games in our beloved state, which lasted until September of 2010. While it's no secret Minnesota loves it's hockey, the Wild had maybe two truly good teams over that 10 year span of sellouts. Fans were coming out to watch hockey after they'd lost it for eight years; they would've watched the Little Sisters of the Poor for a decade straight I think. The Wild's overall regular season record since debuting is 607-616, which includes their franchise record 49 win 2016-2017 season. That is a mediocre regular season record.

Since their first season, in a league in which more than half the teams make the playoffs every year, the Minnesota Wild have made the playoffs 8 times in 15 seasons (the 2004-05 season wasn't played due to the lockout). By that barometer, the Wild have been exactly average.

During those 8 playoff appearances, the Wild have been seeded 2nd once, 3rd once, and then 6th, 7th and 8th each twice. The current seeding and playoff structure of the NHL playoffs is idiotic, but that's an issue for another time. Any way you slice it, the Wild have been at best average, although their heavy first round exits and below .500 regular season record ultimately make them mediocre in my mind.

The team has made the playoffs in each of the last five seasons, and they do seem to be getting better. Unfortunately, peaking this season as the #2 seed might be as high as they go, and wasting that great regular season by likely losing in the first round again (barring a 3-0 series comeback) is just disappointing on every level.

With aging veterans taking a large portion of the salary cap, the Wild will likely be handcuffed in improving their roster this off-season, which should lead to another first (or maybe second!) round exit next April.

The Minnesota Vikings are synonymous with heartbreak (or choking) after losing two of the most gut-wrenching NFC Championship games in the last thirty years while still never winning a Super Bowl. Since 1992, the Vikings have compiled a rather mediocre 214-220 regular season record. However, the team has made the playoffs 13 times, giving their fan base just enough hope to crush it at the first opportunity.

In 1998, the Vikings were clearly the league's best team, breaking several offensive scoring records thanks in large part to the arrival of the greatest NFL receiver of all-time not named Jerry Rice. Playing against a less-talented Atlanta Falcons team, the Vikings were in control of the game from the opening kickoff until the final few minutes, when they would miss a field goal to put them up 10, drop an interception on what would become Atlanta's game-tying touchdown drive, and then chose to kneel the ball to go to overtime with the greatest offense of all-time up to that point.. That 1998 Vikings team is one of the first teams I remember following religiously, and I'm actually thankful I was so young. At the time, I figured they'd just be back next year, completely unaware of how unlikely it was to have a 15-1 team in the NFL.

They've gone back to the NFC Championship game twice since then; a 41-0 embarrassment of a loss to the New York Giants in 2000, and yet another overtime loss in 2009 to the New Orleans Saints after Brett Favre*** threw an interception with the Vikings on the brink of field goal range in a tie game as time ran out.

***I do not blame Brett Favre for that loss. He made a poor decision, but the guy was playing with one of the most gruesome leg injuries I've ever seen thanks to the New Orleans Saints bounty junk. The Vikings fumbled the ball a handful of times, and ultimately just pulled a Minnesota Vikings, pulling defeat from the jaws of victory.***

The Vikings have won 7 division titles since 1992, and have gone just 6-13 in the playoffs. Winning a division title is no small feat, especially when Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers has been the Packers quarterback every season in that span. However, zero Super Bowl appearances and a sub .500 regular season record clearly make the Vikings mediocre as well.

Why? Because they haven't had a franchise quarterback during that time. Daunte Culpepper is the closest they've come, as he had multiple pro-bowl caliber seasons in Minnesota before being traded to Nick Saban's Miami Dolphins. Randall Cunningham, Jeff George, Brad Johnson (twice), Brett Favre and others have filled in admirably for a season or two, but the team is always looking for an answer at the position. Not surprisingly, they still haven't found one, as they have two average quarterbacks in Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater. Until they do, a Super Bowl is nothing but a pipe dream.

The Minnesota Timberwolves should welcome being called "mediocre" because that's far too kind for the clusterf**k this franchise has been basically since day one. The Timberwolves are very likely the worst franchise in the history of the NBA and if they hadn't drafted a skinny high school kid in 1995 named Kevin Garnett, they'd probably be the worst franchise in the history of sports.

Since 1992, the Timberwolves have gone 812-1190 in the regular season with just 1 division title, which came in 2004. The team made 8 straight playoff appearances from 1996 to 2004. The franchise is just 2-8 in playoff series, and 17-30 overall. Both series' wins and 10 of the team's 17 playoff wins all came in 2004, when injuries derailed a potential NBA finals run and the team lost in the Western Conference Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers in 6 games.

With a seemingly endless supply of "future all-stars" that never pan out, the Wolves have been rebuilding forever. This season, the team was expected to finally contend for a playoff spot again after years of suffering, but that clearly didn't happen. As long as Karl-Anthony Towns is on the team, the future is bright, but he has a lot of young Shaq in his personality. When he leaves Minnesota for greener pastures like everyone always does, the Wolves will be screwed. Until that day comes, we can continue to hope for 8th seeds and first round exits, which has quickly become a Minnesota playoff staple, in all sports.

With a few solid veteran signings and a key trade or two, the Wolves could conceivably build a contender around Towns, the best young player in the game. Unfortunately, Tom Thibodeau hasn't done much to garner confidence through one season, and if he follows through on a Ricky Rubio trade this off-season, I might just turn in my Timberwolves fandom for good.

Speaking of first round playoff exits, the Minnesota Twins have mastered that ability. The team has lost in the first round of the playoffs in their last five post-season appearances, and since defeating the A's in 5 games in the 2003 ALDS, the Twins have gone just 3-19 in playoff games. They've been swept out of their last three post-seasons in just 3 games.

Since their 1991 World Series win, the Twins have put together a regular season record of 1,913 wins and 2,069 losses. They've won six divisional titles in that span, which resulted in all six of their embarrassing playoff appearances.

The Twins have managed to waste almost every top-5 pick they've made in the last five years, with players like Kohl Stewart and Nick Gordon still looking like potential big league players, but role players at best. Add in 6th overall pick Tyler Jay being moved back to closer after a failed bid by the previous regime to become a starter, and the team has wasted a lot of potential. It was clear in 2013 that the game had passed by long-time executive Terry Ryan by, yet the Twins waited until 2016 to make a change. Despite the team's early success this year, I still expect 2017 to be another sub-.500 season.

With several solid young pieces and a few prospects yet to debut, the future remains bright for the Twins. But they will need to draft a future star with the first overall pick this June, and they will need to develop some starting pitching sooner rather than later to truly contend in a talented American League.

Instead of hoping for our favorite teams to emerge as winners after decades as losers, it might be easier to simply accept the fact that Minnesota is not a good place for sports teams to prosper. For whatever  reason, that's been the case for almost thirty years, with no end in sight.



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