Thursday, October 06, 2005

Minnesota Misery

I know I said 'I quit' a few months ago, and I haven't really rescinded that comment just yet, but since the site is still up and all (and won't be going anywhere for a while... I paid for the domain name, after all) I thought I'd periodically post some new content that I write for other things (most notably the newspaper that I work for). I'm thinking about doing a weekly post this winter also, but I'll let everyone know if I do that.

But for now, here's "Minnesota Misery".

What a difference a year makes.

One year ago this month, the Minnesota sports scene was flush with optimism. The Twins had just captured their third consecutive American League Central Division crown (in convincing fashion) and were favored by many experts to topple the mighty Yankees in the playoffs and advance to the World Series for the first time in 13 years.

The Vikings had started their 2004 season with a 5-1 record and seemed like a lock to gain one of the top seeds in the NFL playoffs.

The Minnesota Timberwolves were coming off the best season in franchise history, falling just one game short of the NBA Finals in 2003-2004 – they looked poised to capture the first NBA title in the team’s 15-year existence.

Even the oft-maligned University of Minnesota football team (whose record was 5-0 last Oct. 2) had garnered some in-state whisperings as a potential Rose Bowl participant.

Was it possible? Could every major sports team in town enjoy prosperity at the same time? It seemed that 2004 might finally be the year Minnesota lived up to its name as the "Star of the North."

What a difference a year makes.

Now fast forward approximately 365 days. What was once a proud and thriving sports landscape now consists of little more than battered dreams and drastically lowered expectations.

The Twins, who just finished their season last week, have to be considered one of the biggest disappointments in baseball. The chic preseason pick to win it all, the team endured a fall from grace that made Gerald Ford look like Fred Astaire. Despite being blessed with arguably the league’s best pitching staff, the Twins’ offense was, well, offensive for much of the season. The punchless Twins plummeted into third place in the division and missed the postseason for the first time since 2001.

What a difference a year makes.

While the Twins managed to at least maintain a winning record lsat season, the Vikings haven’t even entertained such illusions of mediocrity. Since that 5-1 start a year ago, Mike Tice and Commpany proceeded to go 5-11 in their next 16 games, including three embarrassing losses already this fall (in which the Vikings have been outscored 91-31). The team’s summertime Super Bowl aspirations didn’t even make it to the first frost of winter.

Lucikly, the Timberwolves won’t even get a chance to underachieve this year – they made sure of that last season. No team in the NBA did so little with so much in 2004-2005, as the Wolves went from potential title contenders to rebuilding mode in a span of less than six months. A 44-38 record kept them out of the playoffs for the first time in nine years and much expectations for the upcoming season. The Wolves start team practices this week with a new coach, a trimmed-down roster and with much hope for an influential title run.

What a difference a year makes.

Little was expected of the Golden Gopher football team this fall, but that all changed with a 41-35 double-overtime victory over nationally-ranked Purdue two weeks ago. Alas, the Gophers simply could not rebound from such a stirring victory and were promptly put back in their place last weekend in Happy Valley, handing Penn State an easy 44-14 victory.

"The Vikings had a valid excuse: They stink," wrote Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse about the two teams’ most recent blowout losses. "The Gophers didn't try, and that's worse."

It seems that such is the case with our local sports teams these days. When expectations are high, they routinely underperform, sometimes to a stunning degree. When optimism so much as peeks its little head above the ground, it is often bashed down quicker than the faux rodents in a Whack-A-Mole game.

Judging from the situation that existed just one year ago, no one could have predicted that Minnesota sports fans would find themselves in such an ugly predicament today. Their state is unlikely to produce one legitimate winner this season, a far cry from the rosy outlook that existed last fall. In the face of this rather depressing reality, all that can be done is to reiterate the oft-repeated (yet oddly appropriate) lamentation:

What a difference a year makes.

-Ryan Maus