Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A rough week for Minnesota sports

It's only Wednesday morning, and this has already been the worst week in Minnesota sports in a long time.

On Sunday, Timberwolves coach and president of basketball operations Flip Saunders passed away at the age of 60 after losing his battle with cancer.

Late Monday night, Twins outfielder and fan favorite Torii Hunter announced his retirement after 19 seasons in the majors.

And now, Wednesday morning, Gophers football head coach Jerry Kill announced his retirement due to health reasons, effective immediately.

I wanted to dissect everything here, since it had been a while since I've written here. So let's start with the most recent and work backwards. I woke up just before 8 a.m. Wednesday, and the news about Kill was already about 15 minutes old. I had to do a double take when I first came across the news on Twitter to make sure I read it correctly.

Kill's health issues have been well-documented. He's a cancer survivor who has also suffered epileptic seizures in recent years, including two on-field incidents with the Gophers. Yet the last I had heard, it seemed as if Kill's health was on the up and up. At one point, he was driving his truck again -- a good sign, since it meant he was seizure-free for a long period of time.

I covered Kill in his first four seasons at Minnesota but have not been around the team at all this year, so I can't speak for anything this season. But when I was around him, Kill didn't care to talk about his health much. All he wanted to do was coach football, and he had done that well in helping rebuild the Gophers program -- and had endeared himself to Minnesota fans in the process.

I haven't encountered many coaches as genuine as Kill, who was always gracious with his time with the media. He was a coach at a major college football program, but he still felt relatable. Even this Wisconsin alum had to appreciate the work Kill did at Minnesota.

Kill's press conference Wednesday morning was aired live, and it was hard to watch. I've never seen someone with such raw emotion during a press conference. Kill made the point several times that coaching football has been his entire life for 30+ years; he doesn't know anything else. It was absolutely heartbreaking to watch a man give up his dream, but he did so with his long-term health in mind. I wish nothing but the absolute best for Kill moving forward.

Two days before Kill's sudden and shocking retirement came perhaps a more predictable retirement as Torii Hunter called it a career. He broke into the majors with the Twins in 1997 and spent 12 seasons -- including his final year this past year -- with Minnesota. Hunter made stops in Los Angeles and Detroit after his first 11 years with the Twins, but came back to where it all started for what proved to be his final go-round.

Like Kill, Hunter was always a joy to cover from a media perspective. I grew up watching him make highlight-reel catches at the Metrodome and even got his autograph before a game once. (He was always more than willing to sign autographs for fans, something that stood out to me even this year. He'd been doing it for 18 years already but still found time to make kids' days.)

Some fans wanted Hunter back for one more year. Personally, I didn't think it would have made any sense for the Twins to bring Hunter back. They have several other young, promising outfielders in Byron Buxton, Aaron Hicks and Eddie Rosario -- a trio that can certainly cover some ground. Bringing Hunter back would have taken playing time away from one or more of those three. Hunter's production dropped off this season both offensively and defensively. He posted a career-low .720 OPS. On top of that, Hunter was a negative WAR (Wins Above Replacement) player for the first time in his career with a -0.8 WAR.

Yes, Hunter was undoubtedly a leader in that clubhouse and was a guy many of the young players looked up to. He brought the dance parties and the fun to the locker room, and I do think there was some value in Hunter's clubhouse presence. Plus, he was a go-to quote for the media. But from a baseball standpoint, it would have been a detriment to the Twins if they brought him back as an everyday player in 2016.

Lastly, and most tragically, Minnesota and the basketball community lost a great one Sunday with the passing of Phil "Flip" Saunders. Originally from Ohio, Flip made Minnesota his home. He was a mop-topped standout point guard with the Golden Gophers and broke into the NBA coaching ranks with the Timberwolves back in 1995. After a decade as the head coach of Minnesota, Saunders eventually coached the Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards before a brief stint with ESPN. Saunders returned "home" to Minnesota to take over the Timberwolves' front office and, once again, the head coaching role.

When I think of the Timerwolves' glory years -- and yes, that franchise did have them -- I think of two people: Kevin Garnett and Flip Saunders. Those two were reunited posted by Garnett: a shot of him sitting in an empty parking stall reserved for Flip.

last season when Garnett was traded from Brooklyn to Minnesota. Saunders was likely the only reason why KG returned. Perhaps the most heartbreaking image after Saunders' death was

It's amazing to see how quickly Saunders' health took a turn for the worse. In August -- not long after he and the Wolves landed the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft -- he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma. It was viewed at that point as a treatable form of cancer. However, signs started popping up that perhaps it wasn't as manageable as originally believed. The Wolves announced Saunders would miss the beginning of the year as he went through treatment. Later, the team said he would not return to coach the team this season, with Sam Mitchell taking over the head coaching duties. Then things went quiet in regards to his health, up until Sunday's awful news.

I did cover a few Saunders press conferences but never did get to know him. However, I'll never forget the excitement I had as a young Wolves fan many, many years ago when Saunders autographed my Timberwolves hat before a game. Even back then, he seemed so genuine and generous. The stories that have been shared in the days following his death have only confirmed it.

After the last several days of less-than-stellar announcements, Minnesota sports could use some positive news. On the plus side, the Lynx recently won the WNBA championship, and the Minnesota Wild are off to a good start. Those won't do much to help assuage fans in the Twin Cities who are mourning the loss of a head coach and the retirements of two beloved figures.

Sports gods, you owe Minnesota a few favors.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Blissfully missing a big sports weekend

This past weekend was one of the biggest sports weekends in local sports in quite a while.

The Minnesota Twins were still in the wild card race with three games to play. The Gophers football team was opening the Big Ten schedule with a road game against a ranked opponent. The Minnesota Vikings looked to improve to 3-1 in Denver against Peyton Manning and Co. And the Minnesota Lynx began the WNBA Finals by hosting Indiana. Oh, and my Wisconsin Badgers hosted rival Iowa at Camp Randall Stadium.

I didn't watch a second of any of it -- and I'm perfectly OK with that.

Instead of gluing myself to my couch all weekend, I spent the past few days camping with my wife at Copper Falls State Park in north central Wisconsin (and enduring 30-degree temperatures at night in our tent, which was an adventure). We've had this trip scheduled for several months and I was looking forward to it, but I'll be honest that I was originally bummed out that I'd be missing the Twins' final weekend.

When I booked the trip for this weekend, I didn't anticipate the Twins would be playing for anything in the last few days of the regular season. Sure enough, they entered their final series just one game back of the second wild card spot in the American League. I knew Target Field would be buzzing with excitement and anticipation after four disappointing seasons for the Twins.

Three losses later, their playoff dreams were dead and buried. I didn't see any of it, but it doesn't sound like I missed much at all. Instead, I took advantage of perfect fall weather to explore a beautiful state park filled with waterfalls and scenic trails.

Though I don't have much of a personal tie to the Gopher football team anymore now that I don't cover them as a writer, I was still curious to see how Jerry Kill's team would fare against an upstart Northwestern program. The Wildcats were ranked in the Top 25, meaning Minnesota had a tough test to open conference play.

One quick check of the score -- the Gophers were shut out 27-0 -- told me that my time was much better spent sitting around a campfire than around my television. (The same is true about my alma mater, Wisconsin. When I heard the Badgers lost 10-6 to rival Iowa, I knew I would have been beyond frustrated watching that game live. I was glad I was in an area with no cell phone reception, which meant no disappointed texts from my fellow Badgers fans.)

The Vikings have let me down plenty over the years, so I watch the purple with a jaded mindset. I go into each game fully expecting them to lose in some unbelievable fashion. With that said, I still enjoy tuning into games on Sundays.

Looks like I missed a patented last-minute choke job the Vikings have perfected oh-so-well over decades of futility.

I also noticed the Lynx lost at home in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals. Even the one winning team that Minnesota has been able to count in recent years laid an egg on what was a pretty abysmal weekend for Twin Cities teams.

No matter. I was too busy buying this sweet vintage Budweiser shirt for $8 to care about another local loss. --->

I love watching sports as much as the next guy; I even used to get paid to do so. Yet this weekend was a reminder that there is more to life than sports -- something I try to remind myself (or, rather, something my wife reminds me) every time I get worked up after a Badgers loss. I truly enjoyed looking at the beautiful scenery of northern Wisconsin much more than I would have enjoyed staring blankly at the TV following each less-than-impressive performance by the local teams.

I'm not pretending I'll never watch sports again, because that's clearly a lie. I still love sports as much as ever. But I'll be less averse in the future to missing out on a game to do something more enjoyable than watching my team(s) lose. Besides, with technology these days -- DVR, the internet, etc. -- you can re-watch the games you missed if you really want. (In the case of this weekend, I had no interest re-watching the mishaps.)

I encourage you to try skipping a sporting event in the future to do something that will bring you more enjoyment than a few hours of a game. If you're not into camping, do what makes you happy. Go fishing. Ride a bike. Go skydiving. Take part in a cooking class. Heck, take a nap if that sounds good to you.

Whatever it is, do it with intent. Don't check your phone for game scores. Don't text friends to see what's going on in the game. Chances are, whatever you're doing will be a better use of your time than the alternative.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

A Sano storm in September

The Minnesota Twins are playing meaningful games in September.

 Let me say that again.

The Minnesota Twins are playing meaningful games in September. 

During the four full seasons I covered the Twins, that was a statement I couldn't say with a straight face. By this date last year, Minnesota was 17 games under .500 and 15 games out of first place in the American League Central. The team basically had to go through the motions in the final month of the year because they knew it was over. The Twins were also 17 games under .500 at this point in 2013 and a whopping 20 games out of first place in the division. Again, the season was done, but there were still games to be played on the schedule.

Entering Wednesday's game against Chicago, Minnesota is five games ABOVE .500 at 68-63. Sure, they're 12 games behind the defending American League champion Kansas City Royals in the AL Central, but the Twins are just a game out of the second wild card spot in the American League. Fans who had given up at this point the past four years -- apathy had set in with many -- now have something to get excited about as Minnesota battles for a crack at the wild card.

How has this happened? Well, it's not exactly due to the fact that the Twins are excelling in any one area. They're 10th in the majors in runs scored (572), 29th in on-base percentage (.303), 22nd in ERA (4.17), and 28th in opponent batting average (.272). They don't have a bonafide ace in the rotation, and the bullpen went through a rough stretch before adding a few arms via trades.

As for the lineup, no qualified batter is hitting higher than .275 (rookie Eddie Rosario), and only three players have 60+ RBIs. Joe Mauer currently has a career-low OPS (on-base plus slugging) of .714, and Torii Hunter is showing his age at 40 years old.

Instead, the Twins' recent surge -- and the reason they're still in the hunt -- has had plenty to do with Minnesota's youth movement. The aforementioned Rosario set a team rookie record for triples and has demonstrated a strong arm in the outfield, nabbing a team-high 13 outfield assists. Eduardo Escobar (relatively young at 26) has taken the starting shortstop job and ran with it, and rookie Tyler Duffey is 2-0 with a 2.66 ERA in his last four starts -- all Twins victories -- since his rough major league debut back on Aug. 5.

But the brightest young star for the Twins, and a major reason for Minnesota being in the position it's in, is a kid from the Dominican Republic by the name of Miguel Sano. Entering Wednesday, Sano is already tied with Trevor Plouffe for the second-highest WAR on the Twins (2.1), per FanGraphs. His 14 home runs are fourth on the team, four behind Hunter and Plouffe, and Sano's 41 RBI are sixth-most on Minnesota's roster.

Oh, and Sano has played just 50 games in his big league career.

To be honest, I think we're running out of ways to describe the amazing things Miguel Sano has done in his short time in the minor leagues (and the puns that play on his last name are almost exhausted, too). Many tout his strength, while others simply use expletives to try and convey the impressive nature with which Sano hits.

However you want to describe Sano's first few month in the majors, just be sure to enjoy it. I wrote when he was recalled in early July that he would quickly become a fan favorite -- not only for his baseball ability but also for his big personality on and off the field -- and that has already come to fruition. I've seen plenty of Sano's No. 22 jerseys around town and at Twins games, and it looked like he and fellow rookie Byron Buxton were both a big hit at the Minnesota State Fair.

There is one month left in the season, which means another month to watch Miguel Sano do bad things to a baseball in 2015. He's given the Twins fans yet another reason to follow this team in September -- something that hasn't happened in these parts in quite a while.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Ranking my MLB stadiums

The other day, I got into a bit of a debate on Twitter about the ranking of various Major League baseball stadiums. Then, on the T3 Sports podcast, my co-host and I ranked the top three ballparks we've been to. That prompted me to put together this list.

As a big baseball fan, I'm a bit embarrassed to say I've only been to nine current MLB parks (the Metrodome makes 10...R.I.P.). There are plenty I'd love to see in my lifetime, and a few others I could probably do without.

With that said, I felt like ranking the nine that I have seen, just for the sake of some fun discussion. Keep in mind, this is only a ranking of the parks I've been to; I can't speak for the other 21 stadiums. If you agree or disagree with my rankings, let me know in the comments. Or feel free to give the rankings of the parks you've visited.

1. AT&T Park (San Francisco)
I mean...look at that view! Now, fairness in ranking, I have not actually seen a game at AT&T Park, but I did take a tour when I was in the area (I went to see games in Oakland on that trip, and the Giants were unfortunately out of town). But from everything I saw, it's an absolute gem of a park.

Of course, the views of the bay are what initially make AT&T Park such a great one. But it has character beyond that.? I love the brick wall in right field that counts the splash hits that have landed in McCovey Cove. There's plenty of history honored both inside and outside the park, with many Giants greats represented in one way or another. Given the success of the franchise (three World Series titles in recent years), I can only imagine the atmosphere at the park for games is electric.

The only knock I have on AT&T Park is that it's not exactly in close proximity to many restaurants or bars. But everything about the park itself is beautiful. I hope to get back there some day in the not-too-distant future

2. Target Field (Minneapolis)
Perhaps I'm a bit biased in that I've seen far more games at Target Field than any other ballpark, but I also have maybe taken Target Field for granted a bit after covering the Twins for the last 4.5 years.

Simply put, the Twins did things right with this ballpark. Many people were skeptical about how a stadium was going to fit into what was at the time a very small footprint in downtown Minneapolis, but it worked out marvelously. The amount of detail that went into making Target Field one of the best parks in baseball does not go unnoticed. Like AT&T Park, the Twins pay homage to players of the past, with a collection of bronze statues, an array of baseball card images on the back side of the stadium, and other pictures and paintings of Twins greats all throughout the park.

The food options are solid and include new offerings every year, and there's a good selection of craft (and local) beers, if you're into that. And for my money, the view from the third base side of the stadium looking toward the downtown Minneapolis skyline is about as good as it gets. It might not be the bay view in San Francisco, but it's a pretty nice consolation prize.

3. Coors Field (Denver)
Like AT&T Park, I have not seen a game at Coors Field, only a stadium tour. I was torn on my No. 3 ranking between Coors Field and Petco Park but give Coors Field a slight edge. The mountain views are pretty incredible. I also like the row of purple seats that indicate one mile above sea level.

Though the product on the field hasn't been particularly great as of late, the park has some nice features and is in a great area. LoDo (Lower Downtown) has a ton of fun bars and restaurants that are all within a stone's throw of Coors Field. The stadium has revitalized that part of Denver, and it's a fun atmosphere on game nights.

4. Petco Park (San Diego)
I saw two games here back in 2008. While there's not a whole lot of individual things that stood out to me about Petco Park, the overall vibe of the stadium was an enjoyable one. I particularly like the iconic Western Metal Supply Co. building that makes up the foul pole in left field and adds character to the park. There's also a sandbox just behind the fence in the outfield, which is a neat feature for kids.

Petco has good food options, including multiple fish taco locations (it is San Diego, after all). The beer list at Petco is quite impressive, although it is pricey. And similar to Coors Field, the area around the park -- the Gaslamp Quarter -- is quite enjoyable. You can find plenty of bar, restaurant and shopping options just a few blocks from the stadium. And you can even book a hotel with ballpark views (the picture above was from the rooftop bar of the hotel I stayed at, the name of which is escaping me...).

5. Wrigley Field (Chicago)
Sure, Wrigley Field is kind of a dump. It's old, and lacks many modern amenities that other ballparks in the majors boast. But there's a history at Wrigley Field that the newer parks simply can't replicate.

I've been to Wrigley a few times and always enjoyed myself. I've never sat with the "Bleacher Bums" in the outfield but have heard plenty of stories about that wild bunch. The food options at Wrigley aren't great, nor were the beer selections when I was there several years back. But it's tough to beat a day game at one of the most well-known stadiums in all of baseball.

Wrigleyville has plenty of options for before or after the game, too, especially when it comes to bars. And I always found it was pretty easy to get to the park via the train -- much more convenient than the other stadium on the south side of town, which we'll get to in a bit.

6. Busch Stadium (St. Louis)
Maybe my view of Busch Stadium is skewed slightly by the fact that I sat through 100 degree temperatures for a day game in the metal bleachers, but I'd rank it in the middle of the parks I've been to. The view of the famous Arch from behind home plate is nice, and I do like the look of the park from the outside, too (lots of brick).

St. Louis has a reputation as a great baseball town, and I certainly felt welcomed by the Cardinals fans I encountered during my time there. They're no doubt passionate about their team, and why shouldn't they be? The Cardinals are one of the model franchises in all of baseball. As for the rest of the stadium, I was left wanting a little more. I didn't dislike it, I just wasn't as wowed as I thought I would be.

7. U.S. Cellular Field (Chicago)
It's been over a decade since I was there, and they've made some renovations to the park since then (as you can tell by the picture; the seats are now green, not blue). There was simply nothing exciting about U.S. Cellular Field, which opened one year before beautiful Camden Yards in Baltimore. The White Sox just missed the boat on the retro-themed ballparks and were left with a rather bland U.S. Cellular Field.

Not making matters any better is the location of the park, which isn't exactly in the best part of town. It's a lengthy train ride to get there, and I was told you don't want to linger in that area for long after games. Perhaps the overall experience is better after the renovations. I'll have to check it out and see for myself, I suppose.

8. Miller Park (Milwaukee)
This stadium -- and one website's ranking of it as the No. 4 park in all of baseball -- is what got me started on this whole thing in the first place. I've been vocal in the past about my feelings about Miller Park, but to reiterate, here's my analogy: a game at Miller Park with the roof and windows "open" is akin to a car with the sunroof open. Games at true outdoor stadiums such as, say, Target Field, are like being in a convertible with the top down.

Miller Park is a monstrosity. There's no other way to put it. It's big. I've been to games when the roof is both open and closed, although it sounds like they close the roof far more often than they should. Other parks (namely Safeco Field in Seattle) seem to do the retractable roof the right way. Miller Park did not.

The one thing I will say Miller Park has that's a bonus is a great tailgating lot. You can smell the brats on the grill from a mile away, and there's plenty of room to spread out and toss around a football (or a baseball). But Miller Park isn't walking distance to anything; you have to drive there, which is too bad because I actually like downtown Milwaukee.

9. Coliseum (Oakland)
In a lot of ways, Coliseum (it had a different name when I visited) reminds me of the Metrodome, minus all the nostalgia (and minus a teflon roof). The concourse was drab, dark and depressing. The food choices left quite a bit to be desired. And the entrance from the train stop to the park itself were far from inviting, lined with chain-link fencing.

Once you're in your seat at Coliseum, things are tolerable. It's at least outdoors, which is always nice. But the upper level closed off with a tarp is just odd. And there's way more foul territory than should be allowed at a baseball stadium, which is one of the unfortunate byproducts of playing baseball in a football stadium. And I didn't even mention the sewage issue, which has led to the occasional flooded dugout. Gross...

Agree with the rankings? Want to share your own? Feel free to comment below. Also, be sure to listen to the latest T3 Sports podcast, where we discuss the rankings of our top three stadiums.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Top 10 things to do in Hudson, WI

Last week, I blogged about the idea of being a travel writer as I continue to search for what's next in my career. Today, after taking a stroll through my town of Hudson, Wis. -- where I've now lived for more than three years -- I decided to put my money (well, my words) where my mouth was. During my walk on what was a perfect summer afternoon, I brainstormed the top things to do in Hudson. Below is a list of 10 items I've compiled.

Hudson is about 30 miles east of Minneapolis and 20 minutes from St. Paul, a straight shot from both cities on Interstate 94. Located just on the Wisconsin side of the Wisconsin/Minnesota border, the town of nearly 13,000 people (not including surrounding towns/townships) is situated on the beautiful St. Croix River. While Hudson has the chain restaurants, Target/Walmart, Home Depot, and other similar retailers that can be found in bigger suburbs, its beauty lies within its small-town charm.

In no particular order, here are the top 10 things to do when you come to visit Hudson.

1. Go hiking in Willow River State Park.

The state of Wisconsin has nearly 50 state parks, and Willow River State Park happens to be in Hudson. Willow River has several hiking trails of varying lengths, most of which lead to a waterfall that provides picturesque sights. If you happen to go on the right day, you can find rock climbers scaling the high rock walls near the waterfall. Pack a picnic lunch and grab a seat on one of the benches located near the bridge at the waterfall for lunch with a view. Or wear your swimsuit and take a dip in the river (you can even climb under the waterfall) to cool off on a hot day. Also, climb to the top of the rock wall via the stairs for panoramic views of the park and of Hudson.

Willow River State Park does require a small entrance fee -- $7 for cars with Wisconsin license plates, $10 for out-of-state vehicles. Or if you plan to stop by several times a year, an annual pass can also be purchased at the main park entrance. If you're new to the park you can also pick up a map that shows the different hiking trails.

Camping is also available in the park, with the campground located walking distance from the waterfall. Camp sites can be reserved online here. Families with children might enjoy the beach near the main picnic area, located by the nature center. The park is open year-round, with some trails open to cross country skiing in the winter months.

Where to find it: 1034 Co Rd A, Hudson, WI 54016

2. Catch a free outdoor concert at the bandshell.

The summer months mean free music downtown Hudson, complete with views of the St. Croix River in the background. From mid-June to mid-September, the city puts on concerts at the bandshell in Lakefront Park. Music ranges from jazz to '60s rock to classical to Christian music to blues. Concert-goers bring blankets or camping chairs to stake their territory before the shows begin. Feel free to bring food or drinks, too. Alcoholic beverages are permitted, as long as they're not in glass bottles.

The most popular concert each year is the performance by the Minnesota Orchestra. Hudsonites (and others from surrounding areas) get there extra early for that concert, which boasts the top orchestra in the area. If you plan to attend, get there at least an hour early if you want to snag a good spot.

Most concerts take place at 7 p.m. on Thursday evenings, although there are several exceptions. Be sure to check the city's website for the most up-to-date concert information.

Where to find it: 505 First Street, Hudson, WI 54016

3. Take a cruise on the St. Croix River.

Though the Mississippi River dominates the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, I would argue that the St. Croix River is more beautiful and scenic than its big brother to the west. The St. Croix divides the Minnesota and Wisconsin borders, and downtown Hudson is situated just a few blocks off the river.

If you own a boat (or know someone who does), don't hesitate to drive it over the border and drop it in the water in Hudson. The city offers a few boat landings downtown, although they can get busy at peak hours.

If you don't have a boat but would still like to cruise the river, the Hudson Afton Cruise Line has you covered. The Grand Duchess, which has a capacity of around 300 guests, offers brunch, lunch and dinner cruises and launches from the pier in Hudson. Cruises run from mid-April to October, with prices varying based on the type of cruise. The St. Croix Sailing School is an option for kids, as they provide youth sailing lessons.

4. Stroll through historic downtown Hudson.

If you want small-town charm yet still desire great restaurants and shops, be sure to spend some time walking the main street through downtown Hudson. Second Street is the road that runs through downtown and is the same street you'll exit onto if you take Exit 1 off Interstate 94. Find a spot to park -- meters and free parking are both available -- and walk the several-block stretch of Second Street through downtown.

Hudson has several great restaurant options in the downtown area. If you're looking for a good burger, try Agave Kitchen, which also specializes in Tex-Mex food. Across the street is Winzer Stube, a classic German restaurant located in the basement of a building. Though dark, it offers authentic German cuisine, which is sometimes accompanied by a lederhosen-clad man playing the accordion. You'll also find several offerings of German beer, which you can purchase in a mug or a glass boot for bigger groups. Speaking of beer, stop into Stone Tap for the best selection of craft beer in town.

San Pedro Cafe breaks from the traditional with a menu of delicious Caribbean flavors and great cocktails. If you like spicy, I'd recommend the Puerco Diablo wood-fired pizza -- it's my personal favorite. Another restaurant option located just off Second Street on Locust Street is Postmark Grille, which is situated in the old post office and is decorated with items from the old post office days. Postmark specializes in Italian-American fare. If you're lucky, you might snag a seat in the old vault. If you're into the late-night dance scene, Smilin' Moose -- a log cabin-themed bar and grill -- often has DJs or live music on weekends.

Once you're done eating, stop into any of the boutique shops that line the downtown streets -- Lavender Thymes, The 715, Farmhouse Inspired and Dilly Dally in the Alley would be a good start. The Seasons on St. Croix art gallery is also worth checking out. And if you're in the mood for dessert, be sure to read item No. 5 on this list.

Where to find it: Second Street, Hudson, WI 54016

Knoke's offers a wide variety of candies.
5. Take in the sights, smells and tastes of Knoke's Chocolates.

Knoke's, an old-fashioned candy shop, has been a mainstay of downtown Hudson for more than 15 years. Now located in an old brick building on Locust Street, Knoke's continually churns out delicious home-made chocolates and also entices visitors with a wide selection of ice cream flavors. If you'll stop in, you'll likely see owner Dave Knoke working hard in the back of the store, whipping up another one of his chocolate delicacies.

Both walls of the store are lined with glass containers, all of which are filled with various colorful candies. Grab a paper bag and load it up with your favorites. You pay by the weight, and different candies have different prices, so be sure to note what you're getting when filling up your bag. Anything with chocolate is worth getting, but Knoke's also has childhood favorites like Big League Chew, Jelly Bellys, gummy worms and much more.

Where to find it: 220 Locust Street #2, Hudson, WI 54016

Grab a pint at American Sky in Hudson.
6. Sample the offerings from Hudson's two microbreweries.

Beer and Wisconsin are often synonymous, and Hudson has gotten into the brewing scene in recent years. The city has two breweries, both of which offer different styles both in beer and atmosphere.

American Sky Brewing Co. has been making beer in Hudson since 2012. Both the taproom and the beers have an aviation theme, focusing on the World War II era. The homage to military pilots can be found in the name of the brewery's flagship beers: Tailgunner Gold, Amber Salute, and USA IPA. The brewery's taproom, named "The Hangar," is open Wednesday and Thursday from 4-9 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 2-10 p.m., and Sunday from 12-4 p.m.

Brewery tours at American Sky are free and occur on the second and fourth Saturdays of the month. The Hangar also offers several weekly events such as a movie night on Fridays, live local music on Saturdays, and Beer and Bacon Sundays. (What more do you need besides beer and bacon?)

Pitchfork Brewing, located off Exit 4, is newer to Hudson but offers an excellent selection of beers. Though the taproom at Pitchfork is smaller than the Hangar at American Sky, Pitchfork often has a wider variety of beers to chose from. Typically, seven beers can be found on tap at a time, as well as the occasional firkin. Get a flight of several beers to determine which is your favorite.

Pitchfork tends to be a bit more experimental in their beers than American Sky. Though food is not served at the Pitchfork taproom, you can place food orders next door at Paddy Ryan's Irish Pub and they'll deliver the food to you at the brewery.

Select beers from both breweries can be found at many establishments in Hudson. American Sky also distributes several of its beers in bottles throughout the area, while Pitchfork does not. Stop at historic Casanova Liquor to grab some on your way out of town. And remember, Hudson even sells beer on Sundays, a plus if you're visiting from Minnesota.

Where to find it: American Sky -- 1510 Swasey St., Hudson, WI 54016; Pitchfork Brewing: 709 Rodeo Drive, Hudson, WI 54016

Hudson's Booster Days
7. Enjoy a small-town carnival.

Booster Days is Hudson's version of the carnivals you see in towns throughout America. In Hudson, it typically takes place around the 4th of July and runs for several days. Along with the rides and carnival games, you can enjoy playing bingo just a stone's throw away from the St. Croix River. Or grab a beverage in the beer garden and indulge in the fair food.

One of the highlights each year of Booster Days is the live music that takes place in the bandshell at Lakefront Park. Local acts -- both from Hudson and the Twin Cities -- are featured, with multiple bands playing each day. Uncle Chunk, a local cover band, is often a fan favorite.

Though technically in the town of North Hudson, Pepper Fest is another local fair that draws people from the surrounding area. Running in mid-August, Pepper Fest heralds itself as "the Little Village Celebration with a Big Italian Flavor." If you check out Pepper Fest, be sure to catch a performance by The Dweebs, a family band from Wisconsin that knows how to have fun.

Where to find it: Booster Days -- 505 First Street, Hudson, WI 54016; Pepper Fest -- 400 7th St. North, Hudson, WI 54016

The view from Prospect Park.
8. Soak in a sunset view from an overlook.

Two parks near downtown Hudson offer spectacular views of the St. Croix River and of the downtown area itself. Prospect Park is the town's oldest park and is just a short walk from downtown. All year long, locals stop by the park to watch the sun set over the St. Croix. The steeples of Hudson's churches line the panoramic views. Grab a seat on a bench or a swing and let the views capture your imagination. Or bring a picnic blanket and spread out on the park's grassy area for lunch or dinner with a view.

Closer to Interstate 94 is Birkmose Park, which also gives guests great views of the river. Birkmose contains a glimpse at history as several Sioux Indian burial mounds are scattered throughout the park.

Where to find it: Prospect Park -- 511 Wisconsin St., Hudson, WI 54016; Birkmose Park -- 50 Coulee Road, Hudson, WI 54016

9. Watch the balloons at the Hot Air Affair.

Though Hudson is admittedly better to visit in the warmer months, locals still find ways to have fun during the cold winters. Among the most popular winter activities is the Hot Air Affair, which has taken place every year in February since it began in 1990. Nearly 40 hot air balloons take flight during the weekend, launching from a field at E.P. Rock Elementary School. Depending on the weather conditions, the balloons will launch twice a day. Feel free to walk up to the balloons before they launch. The owners are happy to answer any questions you may have about the balloons or how they work.

Other activities associated with the Hot Air Affair include a 5K race, the popular Smoosh Board competition, crafts for kids, and a small farmer's market that takes place inside the school. Local venues also have special events during the weekend, including karaoke, live music, bingo and dancing.

A parade through downtown Hudson -- complete with the balloons themselves -- helps to kick off the weekend. On Saturday night, be sure to stop back at the launch site to see either the Moon Glow (when the balloons are inflated on the ground) or Field of Fire (held in case it's too windy to inflate the balloons). This is a good opportunity to snap some photos.

Keep an eye on the weather that weekend and stay up-to-date on the event's website as to whether or not the balloons will launch. Low winds and good visibility are ideal conditions.

Where to find it: 340 13th St. South, Hudson, WI 54016

(Photo courtesy of the Phipps Center for the Arts)
10. See a show at the Phipps.

The Phipps Center for the Arts, known locally simply as "the Phipps," is home to many plays, musicals and concerts year-round and is one of the premiere theaters in the St. Croix Valley. The theater, which has a capacity of nearly 250, has been in operation for three decades. There's not a bad seat in the house.

While at the Phipps, be sure to check out the six art galleries that fill the space. Many local artists are featured, and the exhibits change throughout the year. The Phipps helps put on the Spirit of the St. Croix Art Festival every September, located in Lakefront Park -- very close to the Phipps. Art classes are also available for both children and adults.

Tours of the Phipps are available, where you'll get a the behind-the-scenes glance at what goes into making a theatrical production. You may also get a closer look at the Wurlitzer organ. Built in 1930 for a theater in Boston, the organ (a Wurlitzer Opus 2131) has been at the Phipps since it was donated in 2008.

Where to find it: 109 Locus St., Hudson, WI 54016

For more information about Hudson, visit the city's tourism site here.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Dreaming of travel

As much as I enjoyed being a sports writer, I would absolutely love to be a travel writer.

You know, a mix of Anthony Bourdain, Rick Steves and Andrew Zimmern (well, without the animal organs).

I've recently become enthralled with Bourdain's series entitled "The Layover," which airs on the Travel Channel -- and can also be found on Netflix. The premise of each episode is that Bourdain (a fascinating character) spends 48 hours or so in a given city and highlights that location's highlights. For Bourdain, though, the highlights are rarely (or ever) the typical tourist traps most travelers flock to. He doesn't go to Alcatraz in San Francisco or the Eiffel Tower in Paris. I'll admit, I've been guilty of stopping at a tourist trap or two in my time.

Walking the Great Wall of China in 2007. (I'm the guy in the red shirt.)
Anyway, what always fascinates me about that show is the fact that Bourdain can truly enjoy himself in any city in just a short amount of time. This makes me optimistic for my upcoming trip to Europe with my wife, during which we'll be seeing a lot of cities -- but none for any real length of time. The key, it seems, is to go in with an open mind and let the city show itself off.

The idea of being a travel writer absolutely appeals to me. This world of ours is such a big, beautiful place and there are so many cities/countries/regions to see. Very few people are lucky enough to travel to different continents, to sample foods from all over the world, and to experience the vast array of cultures out there. Bourdain, Steves, Zimmern and others do, and I'll admit, I'm jealous.

My international travel is limited. First, Canada doesn't count (and I've never even really been to a major city there; only to the same area for fishing a few times). In high school, I traveled to Germany for a three-week foreign exchange program. We visited Berlin and Munich before staying with a host family for two weeks. As a 16-year-old, it was an amazing experience -- and my first (and currently only) time to Europe. More than a decade later, so many things from that trip have stuck with me.

In front of the Forbidden City in Beijing
More recently, I ventured to China for another three-week excursion through the University of Minnesota. It was a three-credit class that focused on the globalization of sports. We were there in 2007, just as the city of Beijing was making its final push to host the 2008 Olympics. There was something truly humbling and eye-opening about experiencing a culture so different from my own.
As a 6-foot white male, I felt eyes were constantly watching me wherever we went. One random girl even ran up to me at Tiananmen Square, took her picture with me, and then ran away -- as if I were a movie star. Kind of a neat moment, I guess, but a bizarre one for me.

During that trip, I tasted foods I never thought I'd try (duck's feet...not my favorite), saw sights I'd only dreamed about seeing (the Great Wall, for one), and tried speaking a language that was very foreign to me. I took one semester of Chinese to prepare for my trip, but it wasn't much help. Thankfully, several people in our group spoke proficient Chinese, so we got by just fine.

For most of us, traveling just about anywhere is an expensive endeavor. I watch shows like Anthony Bourdain's or read books by Rick Steves and I daydream about what it would be like to get paid to travel the world.

Maybe some day...

I have a podcast

Before I started working at FOX Sports North, my good friend Todd Kortemeier and I put together a podcast called T3 Sports. We have now brought that podcast back from the dead.

Todd and I recorded our first episode of the newly-relaunched T3 Sports podcast. During the podcast, we discussed the Minnesota Twins' first half of the 2015 season, which included some surprises and some disappointments. We also examined the future of this team and what it might take to make the playoffs this year.

If you're so inclined, take a listen to it and let us know what you think. We hope to make it a weekly occurrence, or at the very least a bi-weekly event. In the future, we may have guests on the show or record from various establishments around the Twin Cities.