Metrodome at least built memories that last

The Metrodome on its final MLB opening day in 2009.

There probably is no shortage of Minnesota Vikings fans lamenting Sunday’s victory against the Detroit Lions in the team’s regular-season finale. The Vikings were not in playoff contention, meaning the win only worsened the team’s draft position.

But I was glad to see the Vikings win in what marked the final major sporting event in the history of the Metrodome. The stadium deserved to go out with one last win.

The Metrodome was the stadium of my childhood. Often ripped by visiting players and coaches – and a lot of home fans too – during my youth for its appearance and its many shortcomings, there was no other place I’d rather be.

The eye-popping inflatable roof masked what was a pretty plain-looking stadium on the inside. The sightlines were terrible for baseball, which was more often than not the reason I was at the Metrodome. The turf – especially in its early days – looked like anything but grass.

But I sure loved being there. I first stepped into the Metrodome in the summer of 1987. My parents took my younger brother and I to our first Twins game. This was the summer that saw the Twins surprisingly in a fight for the AL West title. The season would end with Minnesota winning its first World Series.

But on that summer day, my mind was not at all focused on the standings. I was too in awe of the seemingly endless white roof over our heads or the big blue baggie in right field. There was Kirby Puckett in center field, the idol of my childhood. And, of course, who could forget the feeling of being pushed out of the stadium’s doors by air pressure when it was all over. Man, that was a rush, especially when you’re a first-grader going there for the first time.

My best memory was attending Game 163 in the 2009 season. MLB Network placed that game in its top 20 list that it broadcast a couple years back. It was a wild back-and-forth game that saw the Twins outlast the Detroit Tigers in a playoff tiebreaker, sending the Twins to the ALDS thanks to Alexi Casilla driving home Carlos Gomez for the winning run.

I remember after that game sitting at a Minneapolis bar with my co-worker Tom Mix and one of his friends. We had gone to the game just for fun, not to cover it. We were all just speechless afterwards at that bar, knowing we’d never go to a game quite as crazy as that one, especially considering what was on the line. I attended the ALDS Game 3 against the Yankees, which ultimately proved to be the final MLB game at the Metrodome, as the Twins got swept in the series.

The Metrodome was a lot of things. A baseball stadium should never have been one of them.

But it’s the big events that ultimately matter when you reflect on a stadium’s life. Whether it was watching the 1987 and 1991 World Series on TV or attending game’s like the 2009 AL Central tiebreaker, the Metrodome did have a lot to offer over the decades. And I’ll miss it. Target Field, TCF Bank Stadium and the new Vikings stadium have big shoes to fill.

Not every NFL game tonight should be ignored

It’s Week 4 of the NFL preseason, with all 32 teams playing tonight. But there’s an empty feel to it. Many of the teams will not even suit up their first-stringers, opting instead to give them one last week off before the NFL’s regular season kicks off next week.

The Minnesota Vikings, who have struggled offensively throughout the preseason, are not expected to use starting quarterback Christian Ponder tonight against the Tennessee Titans.

But there are a few NFL games worth keeping an eye on if you’re a hardcore football fan watching NFL Network nonstop this time of year.

Here are a few matchups I’ll be tracking:

  • Detroit at Buffalo: The Buffalo Bills have endured a few injuries at the quarterback position. Rookie first-round pick E.J. Manuel is out for tonight and may not be ready for Week 1 of the regular season. Backup QB Kevin Kolb sustained another concussion last week. That leaves undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel and recently signed veteran QB – and acclaimed ballroom dancer – Matt Leinart battling for the starting job for Week 1. Both will play tonight.
  • Cleveland at Chicago: The Vikings’ NFC North rival Chicago Bears were apparently so distressed by backup Josh McCown’s play in the preseason that they signed Trent Edwards and Jordan Palmer in back-to-back days two weeks ago. Considering how poor the Bears’ line is, Jay Cutler’s chances of playing all 16 regular-season games are never good. Edwards and Palmer could be battling tonight for first in line to replace him.
  • Oakland at Seattle: The Matt Flynn Bowl gets underway in Seattle tonight. Flynn, who was expected to be the starter in Oakland this season, will watch injured from the sidelines as Terrelle Pryor has the chance to lock up the starting QB job for the Raiders. This was very similar to a year ago in Seattle, when Flynn – then with the Seahawks – lost his job to Russell Wilson. Pryor will play tonight, albeit against the backup Seahawks.

Revisiting some football predictions

Can you believe Week 17 of the NFL season is upon us? I can’t.

The weather outside sure feels like Week 17 weather, but it doesn’t seem all that long ago that I was among a few staff members making preseason NFL predictions both in The Forum and on this blog.

And heading into the final week of the regular season, I find my favorite childhood team the Chicago Bears fighting the Minnesota Vikings and others for the final wild-card spot in the NFC. I gotta admit: I didn’t see that coming.

Peyton Manning has lifted the Denver Broncos to surprising heights this season. Associated Press photo

Let’s first revisit some of my NFL picks:

  • I’m in pretty good shape to get half of the NFL’s division winners correct, which isn’t bad when you consider the way parity rules the NFL. New England, Houston and Green Bay have all clinched their divisions, and I had San Francisco winning the NFC West, which it leads by a half-game.
  • What went wrong in my division picks? Well, I underestimated Peyton Manning and the Broncos. And I underestimated the impact that all of the suspensions would have on the New Orleans Saints, who I picked to win the NFC South over Atlanta. Also had the NY Giants and Pittsburgh winning divisions. In my defense, I did have actual division winners Denver, Baltimore and Atlanta all as wild-card picks. So in all likeihood, the only division champ in the NFL that I didn’t have in the playoffs in the preseason is Washington, and even that division is up in the air.
  • Myself, Andrew Gottenborg (Twitter: https://twitter.com/awg316) and Michael Smith (Twitter: https://twitter.com/Smithmi) also picked MVP winners in The Forum before the season. Our picks, respectively, were Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. Quarterback is the smart way to go considering how QBs have dominated the award in recent years. But I’d be surprised if any of us are correct with those picks.
  • Our Super Bowl picks were Patriots over Packers (me), Packers over Texans (Andrew) and Packers over Patriots (Michael). We are all in good shape there.

And finally, I’ve made a point to annually write some sort of fantasy football prediction blog post.

I fared pretty well this year with my two teams. In my league (the league I live and die with), my team managed only a 5-8 record despite ranking third in scoring among 16 teams. What can you do? I can control my team, but not my opponent’s.

Fortunately, I have C.J. Spiller and Alfred Morris as potential keepers for next season at very team-friendly costs, with Colin Kaepernick, Knowshon Moreno and Reggie Wayne also worth considering in the two-keeper league format. Combine that with the No. 4 overall pick due to my team’s performance, and there’s hope for 2013.

I won the other league I played in, a 10-team league that saw my first three draft picks (Calvin Johnson, Rob Gronkowski and Brandon Marshall) pay huge dividends. Who would have thought a team with Reggie Bush as its No. 1 running back and waiver-wire specials as the No. 2 RB would go 11-1 and win a title?

Here’s what turned out pretty well from my preseason fantasy column:

  • Josh Freeman. I was expecting a big bounce-back year from the Tampa Bay Bucs QB, who got a big boost in the offseason with his team’s additions of RB Doug Martin, WR Vincent Jackson and OL Carl Nicks. Freeman is the 13th-best QB in fantasy. Drafted him in both leagues I was in, snagging him in my 16-team league in Round 12. From that standpoint, he provided tremendous value at a time when many owners are taking kickers.
  • Russell Wilson. Drafted him in one of two leagues. He ranks 12th in my league in fantasy scoring at QB, which again is pretty impressive when you consider that he was completely undrafted in my 16-team league. But that league drafted before he was named the starter over Matt Flynn.

And now, for the not-so-great picks:

  • Where to begin? Well, I expected a lot more from Ben Tate, who nearly ran for 1,000 yards last season as a backup to Arian Foster. Injuries did nothing to help him at the very least replicate his 2011 season. I still see plenty of talent in Tate, but the opportunity never materialized. Foster stayed healthy all season long.
  • I had another misstep at running back in Ryan Williams, who at one point did take over as the Arizona Cardinals primary ballcarrier before suffering another season-ending injury in his short career. I was betting against Beanie Wells when I should have been betting against the Arizona Cardinals in general.

Pretty much a mixed bag of predictions. I’d argue that Steve Smith and Justin Blackmon were solid enough players even if they didn’t meet my expectations.

And I’m still convinced Aaron Hernandez was going to do big things if he hadn’t gotten hurt in Week 2. Hernandez has managed to rank 16th among tight ends in scoring despite playing in barely more than half of his team’s games. I won’t shy away from taking Hernandez next season.

Fantasy football: Players I like more than you do

I just completed the second and final draft for the two fantasy football leagues I’m in. I have to admit: Those drafts get me awfully excited for the NFL season.

Fantasy football was a bit of a mixed bag for me last year. My team in my 16-team league went 6-7 and missed the playoffs despite scoring the fifth-most points in the league. It was one unlucky, poorly managed team.

My other team went 12-2 en route to a championship thanks to a pretty good draft and midseason pick-ups like QB Cam Newton and WR Victor Cruz.

It’s safe to assume that I like Ben Tate more than you do. Associated Press photo

There was some ups and downs for my teams, just as there was with my fantasy football post last year. I was right about Matthew Stafford, DeMarco Murray and Eric Decker. I was very wrong about Josh Freeman, Felix Jones and Lee Evans (and many others).

I’m taking a bit of a different approach with this year’s post. I’m in two leagues, and a couple of players ended up on both of my teams. It wasn’t my intention; I apparently just think more of them than everyone else.

And that’s what I’ll go with for this post’s purposes. It’s players I like more than you.

QB Josh Freeman (own in both leagues). I’m all-in on this guy once again. Two years ago in his breakout season, he was seventh among fantasy QBs in scoring in my Yahoo pretty-standard scoring league. Last year in a very down year, he was still 14th. With Vincent Jackson in the fold, I think Freeman will at the very least be closer to his 2010 self than his 2011 self. Can he be the 10th-best QB in fantasy? My guess is most of his owners this year would take that.

RB Ben Tate (own in both leagues). I’ve always been a big fan of drafting talent (see Jamaal Charles, 2010 fantasy drafts). Sounds obvious, right? Of course it is. I understand Tate has Arian Foster playing in front of him, and Foster is an all-world running back. But Tate ran for almost 1,000 yards last year, and he only started three or four games. I’m convinced Tate is at least a top-10 back if Foster gets hurt, and I’m willing to roll the dice on Tate. And that’s despite having not had the chance to take Foster in either of my drafts.

WR Steve Smith – Panthers version (own in both leagues). Smith doesn’t fit the bill of a guy that I usually go out of my way to get in drafts. There just isn’t much potential – or room to grow – here. He just has seemed terribly undervalued in the leagues I’ve been in. Maybe this is the year age catches up with the 33-year-old. And maybe this recent foot infection will hamper him heading into the season (though he will reportedly be fine for the opener). I don’t know. The guy had almost 1,400 receiving yards last year. Sixth among WRs in scoring last year. Yet I’ve gotten him with the 48th overall pick (how did that work out?) in both drafts I was in. The draft I just conducted tonight, I made Smith the 17th receiver selected, taken after guys like Percy Harvin and Marques Colston.

WR Justin Blackmon (own in both leagues).Now this is a little more my style. Young up-and-coming wide receivers often have me going crazy in fantasy drafts. I went out of my way to select him in the 16-team league. Tonight, he fell to the ninth round before I decided to make it a Justin Blackmon sweep in both leagues. He doesn’t seem to have the physical gifts of some previous high selections in the NFL draft. I’m not expecting Calvin Johnson Part Deux to show up or anything. But from the preseason games I’ve watched, he has looked the part of a very physical receiver who can create enough space to get his hands on the ball, and he looks pretty sure-handed (though I’m certainly no expert on the Jacksonville Jaguars).

He may not be on the Patriots or Saints. But I’m hoping the Jaguars can find a way to make Justin Blackmon a good value for your fantasy teams and mine. Associated Press photo

Here are a few more players I like heading into the season:

QB Russell Wilson. Deep sleeper. Had more than 50 rushing yards in recent preseason game. Just named Seahawks starter.

RB David Wilson. Was a deep sleeper, but caught everyone’s attention in last preseason game. I’m sold. He could be this year’s DeMarco Murray. There, I said it.

RB Ryan Williams. Going well after Beanie Wells. Wells is physical back; Williams more explosive.

WR Kendall Wright. This rookie for the Tennessee Titans has gotten plenty of publicity. He has made some really nice catches this month. Can he do it when it counts?

TE Aaron Hernandez. Drafted him in 16-team league. Hardly a sleeper. He was third-best tight end in fantasy last year, yet in both leagues I’m in he was not close to being third TE selected. Boston Globe speculated that Hernandez, not Rob Gronkowski, is Tom Brady’s No. 1 target (hat tip to Yahoo’s Brad Evans).

TE Jacob Tamme. Don’t forget how good this guy was in 2010 when Dallas Clark was injured. Tamme reunited with Peyton Manning in Denver. Didn’t draft him in either league, and I might regret it.

Finally, my rosters:

16-team league keeper (8th pick, snake): QB Tom Brady, QB Josh Freeman, RB Matt Forte, RB Ben Tate, RB Stevan Ridley (keeper), RB Kevin Smith (keeper), RB Tim Hightower, RB Taiwan Jones, RB Rashad Jennings, WR Steve Smith (CAR), WR Justin Blackmon, WR Mike Williams (TB), TE Aaron Hernandez, K Justin Tucker, DEF Green Bay Packers. NOTE: A little light on receiver depth. Drafted Vincent Brown at draft last Saturday afternoon. On Saturday night, he breaks ankle on a touchdown catch and is out for 8 weeks. Fun times!

10-team league PPR (8th pick again, snake): QB Ben Roethlisberger, QB Josh Freeman, QB Russell Wilson, RB Steven Jackson, RB Reggie Bush, Ben Tate, RB David Wilson, RB Ryan Williams, WR Calvin Johnson, WR Brandon Marshall, WR Steve Smith (CAR), WR Justin Blackmon, WR Randall Cobb, TE Rob Gronkowski, K Dan Bailey, DEF Chicago Bears.

Vikings stadium official Bagley noticed “difficult” environment at Minnesota Capitol

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I was at the Minnesota Associated Press Sports Editors convention on Tuesday in the Twin Cities.

I blogged yesterday about what one of our two speakers – former University of Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi – had to say to the group. You can find that here.

Our second and final speaker was Lester Bagley, who is the Minnesota Vikings vice president of public affairs and was the point man for the team’s pursuit of a new stadium. The Vikings will get that stadium after its bill was passed and signed during the last legislative session in St. Paul.

Lester Bagley has been the point man for the Minnesota Vikings’ pursuit of a new stadium. Photo by Don Davis / Forum Communications

Here are a few notes from our Q&A session with Bagley:

    • On a couple of different occasions, Bagley referenced the difficult environment at the Minnesota Capitol due to the lack of bi-partisanship. I asked Bagley if he thought partisanship was worse now than it was when he started working on the team’s need for a stadium. Bagley said, “Yes. I do. I think it’s a difficult environment down there. … In my estimation it has gotten much more partisan. I don’t think it’s one side or the other. … It should be hard (to get a stadium built). But it also shouldn’t have been as difficult. I hope it gets better over there.” He thought both sides were seeking election advantages.
    • On the stadium’s potential design: Bagley said there are “five or six stadium architects” that the team has to choose from. “It’s an open competition.” He said the Wilf ownership group has an idea for a winter garden train station. He also mentioned they would like to see a place for fans to gather, like there is at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
    • He reiterated that the Wilfs would like to get a retractable feature “in some capacity” at the new stadium. The Wilfs have committed $477 million to the $950 million stadium project, and Bagley said he’s be surprised if the Wilfs went beyond $477 million in order to fund the retractable feature. It would have to fit into the pre-agreed to budget for the stadium.
    • On the struggles to get a stadium built: “It did seem up front many times that this was not in the cards. … I don’t believe the Wilfs would ever have moved the team.”
    • On the team’s ability to play at TCF Bank Stadium while waiting for a new stadium to be built: Bagley said that TCF would need improvements, notably weatherization, increased seating (possibly in the end zone under the scoreboard) and increased concessions.
    • On the team continuing to hold training camp in Mankato: Bagley said that the Mankato contract was among the contracts that had expired. He said there “are things that need to be addressed” in Mankato, but said that “it’s really a special place and relationship” for the Vikings.
    • On a future Super Bowl: Bagley said the team had “put an oar in the water” for a Super Bowl in 2017.

Judgment time begins for Vikings stadium

It’s taken a longer-than-expected session, but the Minnesota Vikings stadium bill on Monday will go under the most intense scrutiny that it has faced so far.

The Minnesota House will debate and is expected to vote on the bill Monday, though according to the Star Tribune, a vote could come after midnight depending on how long the debate lasts.

The House vote is just another part of the process, but this is definitely a big day for the stadium bill. Time is running out, and it can ill afford any sort of a hiccup at this point.

I’m starting to believe this thing will pass. Ever since NFL leaders paid a visit to the Capitol a couple weeks back, the tone has changed from many of the political leaders. And stories like this one that ran in Sunday’s Forum amp up the sense of urgency to do it now or risk losing the team.

In what was an interesting bit of timing for those of us living in Minnesota, CNBC aired a documentary last week titled “Sonicsgate,” which examined the NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics and their relocation to Oklahoma City after more than four decades in the Pacific Northwest.

I don’t mean to say this to stir up any fear. But there are some similarities between the Sonics situation and the Vikings’ current one.

Both teams were/are in mid-major markets and both have seen other pro/college teams around them in their respective markets get stadiums built in recent years. They both were/have been a part of their markets for a long time.

But what really marked the end of the Sonics was when Seattle-based Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz sold the team to Oklahoma City businessman Clay Bennett in 2006. The writing was on the wall at that point, and Bennett moved the franchise to OKC in 2008.

That’s what Vikings fans need to be concerned about. The Wilf ownership group seems committed to keeping the team in Minnesota. But if they want out, the next owner might not feel the same way.

Seau leaves behind legacy, questions

I’ve always thought that middle linebacker is the glamour position of a defense. It’s the quarterback on that side of the ball, as so many people say.

And for a lot of people my age, that glamour player at middle linebacker during our youth was Junior Seau. His play was both supremely intelligent and physically devastating to an opponent, all at the same time.

So you could imagine my surprise to see Seau had passed away Wednesday at the age of 43. Investigators believe he committed suicide.

Game planning to face the San Diego Chargers in the 1990s meant trying to stay away from Junior Seau. Associated Press photo

Seau was a 12-time Pro Bowler who played a 20-year NFL career that wrapped up in 2009. He was unquestionably the premier player at his position during the prime of his career.

Yet Wednesday’s news brings all sorts of questions. Seau is the biggest name among the tragedies that have surrounded former NFL players in recent years.

League and medical officials continue to debate and discuss the effects that concussions had on former players. And while no line can be clearly drawn between the hits that Seau took in his career and his untimely death, it’s hard to ignore the long line of players who have lost their lives – suicide or otherwise – in recent years.

It’s been almost 10 years since Hall of Fame center Mike Webster died at the age of 50 after suffering from amnesia and dementia during his post-playing career.

It’s been only one year since former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson committed suicide. Following his death, it was found that Duerson suffered from a neurodegenerative disease linked to concussions.

The most shocking fact of all might be this: Seau is already the eighth player from the 1994 San Diego Chargers team that reached a Super Bowl to pass away too soon, joining the likes of Chris Mims and Rodney Culver.

Why Seau supposedly chose to take his own life, we may never know. But hopefully some steps can be taken quickly to solve the concussion issue and at least help prevent future NFL tragedies.

Vikings stadium still tough sell with politicians

One of the more interesting excerpts among the many facts and quotes in Don Davis’ story about the Vikings stadium defeat on InForum is this quote from Vikings Vice President Lester Bagley:

“We have done everything we have been asked,” Bagley said. “What else are we supposed to do?”

Well, there’s always MORE that can be done. The team was to contribute $427 million toward the $975 million proposed Vikings stadium, which was defeated 9-6 by a Minnesota House subcommittee on Monday night.

The Vikings’ share – roughly 44 percent of the stadium’s cost – is pretty fair by today’s standards. For example, the Miami Marlins opened their baseball stadium earlier this month, with owner Jeffrey Loria contributing just shy of 30 percent of the stadium’s $515 million cost.

But this is all a tough sell for the state of Minnesota, which has had budget issues in recent years and has signed off on two stadium projects – TCF Bank Stadium and Target Field – just in the last decade.

This is all a far cry from decades ago. If you’ve ever watched the HBO documentary “Ghosts of Flatbush” about the Brooklyn Dodgers – and if you haven’t, I highly recommend it – you’ll learn that the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles after owner Walter O’Malley offered to pay for the entire stadium in Brooklyn! O’Malley simply wanted the city help him put the parcels of land together, and the city balked, so the Dodgers moved.

But the days of owners offering to pay for entire stadiums are over. The modern-day stadium is paid for in large part by taxpayers. And unless Minnesota politicians can revive stadium talks before the end of the session, the Vikings could be following that Dodgers path to LA.

Minnesota pays for not following Pittsburgh stadium model

The Minnesota Vikings took another big step this week to getting a stadium of their own when team officials agreed to a deal with city and state officials. However, history may judge that the biggest decision during Minnesota’s recent stadium boom came nearly a decade ago.

It wasn’t all that long ago that Minnesota was facing significant budget deficits and was enduring a government shutdown. But on Thursday, it was announced that the state would fund $398 million of a proposed Vikings stadium, albeit without raising taxes.

The stadium deal still needs approval from the Minneapolis City Council and the Minnesota Legislature. But if it does pass, it would mark the third stadium built for a Metrodome tenant in the past decade.

As the Vikings stadium saga has dragged on, my mind wanders frequently to Pittsburgh. As one of the NFL’s smallest markets, the Steelers got a new stadium in time for the 2001 season. However, the team shares it with the University of Pittsburgh.

There were attempts to do a similar Vikings/Gophers shared stadium in Minnesota. But those attempts failed, as sides couldn’t agree to terms. All the while, University of Minnesota officials argued for an on-campus stadium, citing a lack of revenues generated at the Metrodome.

The Gophers would get their own stadium, with the state agreeing to pay for 48 percent of it. But as we in the sports world know, an on-campus site isn’t enough to generate revenue. Nothing puts people in the seats like winning, and even in TCF Bank Stadium’s first year, empty seats could be seen at home games as the Gophers struggled – and continue to struggle – on the field. On campus or not, the Gophers won’t draw fans if they don’t win.

I’m left wondering if the state would have been better off continuing to pursue a joint stadium deal. With the Vikings and Gophers football teams needing a stadium for a combined 15 or 20 home dates a year, does the Twin Cities need two football stadiums?

Of course, that isn’t a reason not to build a Vikings stadium, and that’s not what I’m arguing. But a little more foresight 10 years ago may have prevented my case of hindsight today.

Super Bowl day-after thoughts

I’m still riding a post-Super Bowl high today, even if my belly is telling me I downed too much nacho cheese last night.

I noticed this morning on social media that one of my friends thought last night’s Super Bowl was dull and that he went to bed before the game ended. I can’t help but feel sorry for him. Don’t worry, blog readers. I made sure to give him plenty of grief.

The game was close throughout and the finish was fantastic, with the New York Giants pulling out a four-point victory against the New England Patriots.

A few thoughts:

  • While his catch will likely not live on the way that David Tyree‘s did, you could argue Mario Manningham‘s catch was more impressive. There was an element of luck to Tyree’s famous grab in the Super Bowl a few years ago. Manningham’s catch on the Giants’ winning drive was pure skill.
  • People need to lighten up on Wes Welker for not making that catch that went off of his hands in the fourth quarter that could have helped the Patriots preserve a victory. That was a tough play. Could he have made the catch? Of course. He’s a Pro Bowl receiver. But that’s no gimme.
  • The Super Bowl win does mean a lot for Eli Manning and his legacy. But two championships to older brother Peyton‘s one does not make Eli a better player over the course of their careers. When I hear people even suggest that, you realize how much this society can be a victim of the moment. Don’t forget how great of a player Peyton Manning was (and is, if he can come back healthy). When you stack up the numbers during their careers, it’s not even close. It’s just that the Colts haven’t had the playoff success that the Giants have had.
  • Any Vikings fans thinking down the road to a Super Bowl in Minneapolis if a stadium deal can be approved? The thought crossed my mind. The Twin Cities hosted a Super Bowl two decades ago. Would be pretty cool if it returned.