Suffering Sports City: A Look Into The Heart Of The Twin Cities

Editor’s Note: The Twin Cities are having a rough go of it in the sports world right now, and TheSportsNotebook asked contributor Isaac  Huss, a native of the Minneapolis/St. Paul and diehard fan to communicate the distress the fans are feeling on matters big and small.

By all accounts, Thursday night should have been celebratory for Minnesota sports fans.

The longsuffering Minnesota Vikings had just chosen the best player available (Matt Kalil) as well as a player at their greatest position of need (left tackle).  On top of that, they were able to get three extra draft picks out of the deal by trading down one spot so Cleveland could take a player the Vikings didn’t want or need.

But if you think Vikings fans were able to rest easy because of their team’s good fortune, think again.  I think the mood of the night was aptly summed up by some dude at the bar who, immediately after cheering the Kalil pick, yelled out, “Great!  Now, go ahead and move to L.A.”

And who could blame him?  It’s hard getting excited about your team when in a few short months it might no longer be your team anymore.

Just a week ago, the Vikings’ new stadium plan was left for dead, presenting the biggest threat thus far that the franchise might become the next purple-and-gold-clad pro sports team to leave the great white north for Los Angeles, California.

And while there’s still a chance they’ll work out a stadium deal, you can see the reason for the muted enthusiasm regarding the Kalil pick.  It’s a bit like trying to get excited about your high school girlfriend finally getting her braces off, knowing that her newfound perfect smile is soon gonna kick you to the curb in favor of the captain of the football team.

And that pretty much sums up life as a Minnesota sports fan.  It’s not that Minnesota sports haven’t had any success in recent years, and there certainly are more cursed franchises and sports cities out there.  But perhaps no sports region in America has had such a roller coaster ride of near-successes coupled with agonizing failures as Minnesota.

I was born in suburban Minneapolis in 1985, so I was just old enough to experience (as much as a 6-year-old can, anyway) the Twins’ World Series championship in 1991, the last championship among the four major pro sports teams in MN (other than the Twins, no other championships since the Lakers played in Minny circa 1950).

The Twins had also won in ’87, so all I knew at that point as a baseball fan was success.  That quickly changed as the Twins suffered through eight consecutive losing seasons beginning in ’93, right about when I was old enough to realize what was going on.

Meanwhile, the Timberwolves were still figuring out how to play that sport called basketball, as it took them nine seasons to earn a winning record since their first game in ‘89.   Then the North Stars hockey team left for Dallas in ’93, just as I was getting used to them posting seven straight losing seasons.

In terms of wins and losses, the Vikings were the shining stars, posting only one losing season from ’86-’00.  And that’s about all you need to know about Minnesota pro sports.  If the Vikings are your best sports team, you are in for a world of hurt.

And not because there weren’t successes.  The Vikings have been to three NFC Championship games in my lifetime, 1998, 2000, and 2009.  But since we were so high, it made the fall all the more painful.  Those were perhaps the three worst losses of my sports-watching life, and each for different reasons.

Let’s start with 2000.  The Vikings had a good, yet flawed team.  But that team didn’t even bother to show up on that fateful January day, laying a goose egg against the Giants in losing 41-0.  And when a 41-0 loss a game from the Super Bowl is only your team’s third-most-agonizing NFC championship game in a decade, you start to want them to leave town.

Much more agonizing was 2009, as the heartbreak was delayed until the waning moments of the game.  Driving late, the Vikings had crossed midfield with the score tied and a chance to win against the favored Saints in a hostile Superdome.  A 12-men in the huddle penalty and a Brett Favre interception sent the game into overtime, where New Orleans prevailed.

And the granddaddy of them all was in 1998 when the 11-point favorite Vikings team lost at home to the Falcons, blowing a 7-point fourth quarter lead thanks to a missed 38-yard Gary Anderson field goal (his first miss all year) and a curious decision by coach Denny Green to run out the clock with 30 seconds left, perhaps forgetting that he had the highest-scoring offense in the history of the NFL at his disposal (I hadn’t forgotten).

Since ’09, the Vikings followed Favre’s deterioration to win a combined nine games the last two seasons.  And to add injury to insult, franchise running back Adrian Peterson’s knee was annihilated in a meaningless loss late last year, threatening the career of one of their few players who was worth watching.

So if the Vikings were a braces-faced girlfriend, my friends, family members, hell, even complete strangers would probably be screaming at me to dump her.  But somehow I stick with her even though she might leave me at any time.

Because who else is there?  The Twins have been the next-best local team of my lifetime, even with that near-decade of futility to finish the ‘90’s, thanks to a ten-year run which included nine winning seasons and six division championships.

But anyone who roots for the Twins, or the Yankees for that matter, knows where this is going.  Four of those division championship seasons ended with first-round playoff losses to the Yankees, the last two being series sweeps.

Which offers a glimpse into the ever-growing inferiority complex of Minnesota sports fans in relation to big-market teams, specifically New York teams.  It seems whenever we have something good going for us, we run smack dab into a big-market bully who beats the crap out of us and steals our lunch money for good measure.

In addition to playoff failures, which include the Twins’ v. Yankees and should also include the Timberwolves v. Lakers, no Minnesota sports fan can enjoy watching a young star rise on one of our teams without worrying that a richer franchise (not to mention one with a more appealing climate and market) will lure it away in free agency.

Torii Hunter and Marian Gaborik come to mind as players who fled town for L.A. and New York, respectively, simply for bigger bucks, while Johan Santana was traded to the New York Mets for fear of losing him to free agency (which surely would have happened).  More heartbreaking was former Wolf Stephon Marbury’s trade demand (before he went completely nuts) based on the fact that Minnesota is, in his words, “too cold.”

Even the contract extension the Twins gave to Joe Mauer, while refreshing at the time that we were able to keep a hometown hero from the clutches of the evil Steinbrenner empire, was driven up by the threat of losing him to the point he may prove to be too costly in the long run.

However, money may have been no object had Mauer not come down with a mysterious leg ailment last year which limited him to his least-productive year as a pro.  Combine that with Justin Morneau’s concussion problems which have deprived him of most of his MVP-caliber productivity, and the Twins are spending upwards of $30 million/year on oft-injured former MVP’s.

Add that to a pitching staff which has gone into steep decline ever since Santana’s departure and you have a team coming off a 99-loss season which might be even worse this year.

But it wasn’t just Santana’s departure.  A sometimes-forgotten but no less devastating event preceded the Santana trade, and seems to have set off a string of calamities from which virtually no Minnesota sports team has been able to avoid: Francisco Liriano’s elbow injury.

In the summer of ’06, Liriano had set the sports world on fire by posting a 12-2 record, a 1.96 ERA, and 137 strikeouts in 115 innings.  He was arguably the most unhittable pitcher in the league already in his first season in the majors.  But he injured his elbow in August of that year and required Tommy John surgery, and hasn’t been the same since.

The Twins won 17 fewer games the following year.  Then, in 2010, posted 94 wins only to lose Morneau to a concussion for the rest of the season and bow out to the Yankees in three games in the playoffs.  Since then, the Twins’ best pitcher, Scott Baker, as well as their best pitching prospect, Kyle Gibson, were found to need Tommy John Surgery themselves.

And the Angel of Devastating Injuries struck elsewhere.  The Minnesota Gophers basketball star Trevor Mbakwe, the aforementioned AP, and most recently Wolves star Ricky Rubio each tore ACL’s in a four-month span this past winter.   Since Kevin Love suffered a concussion that ended his season eight games early, the rest of the Minnesota pro athletes have reportedly been afraid to leave their hotel rooms, and have been smearing slaughtered loons’ blood on their doorposts.

I can’t stress the catastrophic nature of Rubio’s injury enough.  Here’s a franchise whose lone memorable player, Kevin Garnett, was traded for pennies on the dollar only to see him win a championship the following season in Boston, and continue to dump on his former team whenever he gets the chance.

Rubio presented an opportunity to forget Stephon once and for all, finally move on from KG, and to team with Love and try to reverse a legacy of losing.  And he was doing it.  Until an L.A. Laker named Kobe “inadvertently” (ok, fine, it was an accident..) destroyed his knee.  We can only hope this isn’t Liriano all over again.

Nope, it’s hard to be a Minnesota sports fan these days.  Just in case you’re wondering how the rest of our sports teams have been doing, the Wild just became the first team to have the NHL’s best record in December to miss the playoffs.  Oh, and the Gopher football team hasn’t finished better than sixth in the conference since ’03, fourth since ’86, or third since ’67.  But at least we have a sweet new stadium!

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Minnesota Lynx’s 2011 WNBA Championship.  But forgive me if it seems like celebrating your little sister’s 8th preschool “graduation” after her six older brothers all dropped out of high school.  Yay Lynx!

Finally, the Gopher hockey team was admittedly decent again this year, which is great except nobody cares about college hockey outside of Minnesota and wherever the hell Ferris State is.

So you can see how one might be secretly hoping the Vikings put us out of our collective miseries and move to Tinseltown.  But then there’s this: if the Vikings move away, that means we might have to start rooting for the Packers…  And let’s be honest, nobody wants that.