Thursday, December 18, 2008

Redemption's Path

“Loved and lost.” Is there a better description of the psyche of Vikings fans? “Four Lost Superbowls” is the catchphrase used nationally, but the hurt is both deeper and broader than that. For starters, it doesn’t include the second generation of Vikings fans which came of age on January 17, 1999 with two more catchphrases: “Take a Knee” and “Weeping Blonds”. But it also doesn’t encompass the older fans who watched the single best team they had ever seen lose long before the Super Bowl.

Right about now I have some regular readers who are about to leave an irate comment about how this is supposed to be a Twins blog. What they don’t know is that Monday I opened a fortune cookie that said: “Focus on the color purple this week to bring you luck.” I am not making this up. This story isn’t a departure. It’s a destiny.

Those who have loved and lost seek redemption. It is the scarcest of life’s gifts – the intersection of so many rarities – opportunity, performance, desire. But today Vikings fans redemption’s path laid out in front of us – and it makes us wince. Like eating something too sweet. (Especially since we’ve already grown accustomed to the bitter taste in our mouths.) It’s laid out in front of us, like rocks over Minnehaha creek. And we’ve already taken the first step….

Boy, I wish I was Frank Miller right now. Can’t you just see this story flanked by a heroically drawn Viking? Standing on a gridiron, staring into a driving snow, waiting for a long anticipated dawn? Isn’t that what this story needs? What we all need?

Game 14 vs. Arizona Cardinals - The Vikings trounce the Cardinals at Sun Devil Stadium, erasing the nightmare of their last appearance there. On Sunday, December 28, 2002, the Vikings needed to beat a pathetic Cardinals team for a playoff berth.

I wasn’t able to watch the game because I was in Philadelphia at my in-laws house, so I was watching my browser update. It said 17-6 with 2:00 minutes remaining, and I swear I still didn’t feel safe. And then……

“NOOOOOOooooooooo! NOOOoooooo! The Cardinals have knocked the Vikings out of the playoffs!” It’s a beautiful radio call, capturing the desperation and rage of forty years of futility. It was courtesy of Paul Allen, when Nate Poole caught a pass from Josh McNown as time expired to produce an 18-17 Cardinals win.

I suspect Allen cringes every time it’s replayed on KFAN radio (and that’s quite a lot) but the truth is that’s when we truly welcomed him into or arms. That’s when he truly understood what it meant to be a Vikings fan. It’s when he popped his Vikings cherry.

Game 15 vs. Atlanta Falcons – The Vikings have a chance to clinch a playoff spot this week with a win over the Falcons in the Metrodome, and their magic number is one with two games left to play. This is usually when disaster strikes.
Guys, I am begging you – do NOT take this game lightly. It’s deceptive. It’s the first of four tries to get into the playoffs, but it is absolutely your best chance to control your destiny. Not to mention to exact some revenge for …

The 1998 NFC Championship game. It was a breakdown on so many levels. From the mistakes that kept the game close, to the defense that finally broke instead of bending, to the first missed field goal of the season to the inept late game coaching that we all knew would end up ruining us. Falcons 30, Vikings 27 OT. The Star-Tribune’s cover page was of three beautiful crying blonds, looking like they had just witnessed a drive-by shooting. Essentially, they had.

There are, I think, two moments in the history of the franchise where Vikings fans understood that they were on a slow road to hell. This was the second, and it introduced a whole new generation of Minnesotans to what their elders had been bitching about for the last 20 years.

Game 16 vs. the New York Giants - The Vikings may have a chance to secure a bye week in the playoffs in the last game of the season. It will bring to mind another shot at redemption, one which ended tragically against a different New York Giants team.

The 2000 Vikings were not the unstoppable force that the 1998 Vikings were, but they were in the NFC Championship game – for all of about five minutes. Before the Vikings offense had taken the field, they were down 14-0 courtesy of two Giants touchdown drives sandwiching a fumbled kickoff return. By halftime the Vikes were down 34-0.

My friends and I watched Kerry Frickin Collins pick apart the Vikes defense while the Vikings refused to rush more than four players at any one time. I bet, between us, we must’ve yelled some variation of “Denny, please, blitz! Just try it. Just once!” fifty times in the first half. My recollection is that they never did. Not once. “Plan the work, work the plan” was Denny’s motto. Even if the plan made Kerry Collins look like Johnny Unitas.

NFC Playoff Game vs. the Dallas Cowboys – Of course, there’s nothing predetermined about playoff matches yet. Or is there? How could The Fates not line up a playoff game versus the Cowboys for a Vikings team that is seeking redemption? Either it’s redemption for the ultimate crushing loss, or it’s yet one more chance to twist the dagger. It’s a win-win karmically. And the scary part is that Vikings fans understand and accept this.

It’s 1975 and the 12-2 Vikings are facing the wild card Cowboys in Met Stadium. It wasn’t the Super Bowl, or even the NFC Championship game, and it was in frigid weather. But the Cowboys won by completing two consecutive long bombs, the last of which came with 24 seconds in the game when Drew Pearson threw Nate Wright to the ground before catching the ball. It was the first “Hail Mary” pass.

Alan Page was so incensed with the non-call that he got a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty assessed. Fran Tarkenton (the NFL MVP, by the way) spent the last seconds of the game arguing with the referees. Met Stadium fans threw debris on the field, including a whiskey bottle that hit referee Armen Terzian in the head and required 11 stitches.

I have never met Drew Pearson. And I hope I never do, because since I was eight years old I’ve wanted to punch him right in the mouth. The 1975 Vikings team was the single best Vikings team of all time, a heavy favorite for the NFL championship, and the team that the elder generation of Vikings fans can’t forget, no matter how much they try.

It remains the single most defining moment of Vikings fandom.

Super Bowl vs. Pittsburgh Steelers – In Super Bowl IX, the Steel Curtain faced off against the Purple People Eaters, and Terry Bradshaw dueled with Fran Tarkenton. The Vikings lost 16-6 in a game filled with turnovers and goofy penalties. It was also the last Super Bowl game played in inclement weather until Super Bowl XLI, because the Superdome was still under construction. The sloppy play might be partially attributed to a slick field caused by overnight rain. It was the third Super Bowl the Vikings would lose – Pittsburgh 16, Minnesota 6.

There’s no doubt that the Vikings had worse Super Bowls losses than they did against the Steelers in Super Bowl IX. But those didn’t happen while I was in second grade, falling in love with Alan Page, Carl Eller and Jim Marshall. I distinctly remember sitting in Mrs. Rogee’s class at St. Peters the Monday after the game, believing that when I got home there would be some announcement that it was going to be replayed because the officiating had been so unfair. I don’t even remember the specific calls I had a problem with, though I’m pretty sure they involved pass interference. That game had so many fumbles and goofy plays, it could have been anything.

Anyway, I got home and they announced no such thing. And for the next week, I felt incensed that nothing was happening, and it was all the worse because there was nothing to fight. And that's when I understood what it means to be a Vikings fan. It's when I popped my Vikings cherry.

These aren’t just losses to the fans. They’re scars. And it isn’t clear that a march through these opponents, or even a Super Bowl win, would heal those wounds. But this path provide a chance to start a new chapter for this franchise, and to redeem the love a fan base had shown for almost fifty years. The path is there, if we can only walk it.

Skol Vikings. Let’s go.


Give credit where credit is due on this story. I am totally ripping this idea off from LaVelle E Neal, who proposed this redemptive string of game for the Vikings yesterday on KFAN. Thanks LaVelle. It was really run to write this.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Prospect Handbook

Hey gang,

No Twins post tonight as I'll be watching MNF cheering on the Eagles with The Voice of Reason. Actually, to be more specifc, I'll be cheering on the Eagles kicker, David Akers, because he's her last chance in the fantasy football playoffs. Just a reminder that you might want to consider asking a loved one for Seth's Minnesota Twins Prospect Handbook 2009 for Christmas this year. You can order it here. You can also check out our podcast from Sunday night, where we talk about Nick Punto, Ty Wigginton, Joe Nelson, and my sleeper pick from the AL Central.


Sunday, December 14, 2008

Don't Overlook Joe

There is plenty of debate and watchfulness around Astros third baseman Ty Wiggington suddenly joining the free agent market, and that's appropriate. But for the Twins, Wigginton should only be their second priority today.

The top priority should be another surprise addition to the free agent ranks, this one courtesy of the Marlins. In a somewhat baffling move, they non-tendered right-handed reliever Joe Nelson. Nelson has only thrown 103 innings over four major league seasons and doesn't look like an especially shiny acquisition until you look at his numbers last year: 2.00 ERA, 60K in 54 IP, 1.185 WHIP in 59 games. Those are numbers you look for in a closer, let alone a right-handed setup man.

Nelson had labrum surgery which cost him all for 2007, but he sure looked to have recovered last year, He is also 34 years old, so this is his chance to finally cash in. With about $25 million in spending power for this upcoming year, the Twins should be able to help him with that. A two-year contract for $5 million, with a $2 million singing bonus and a reachable option for a third year would bring this team a piece that they have been missing since - well, all of last year and maybe as far back as September of 2006 when Pat Neshek started reporting his elbow issues.

Nelson has a chance to be the perfect piece to the Twins puzzle and has literally fallen into their laps. I'm hoping they show an aggresiveness we have yet to see this offseason and land this one into the boat.