ZimTown

Mar 26

New blog

It is with a surprising amount of sadness that I announce my personal space on the web will be moving again.

The Argus Leader is launching a redesigned website that will include in-house blogs to replace our tumblr blogs.

I didn’t realize it until I was told the news, but I had become pretty attached to this format. It’s easy to use, easy to read — I even once wrote an entire blog post about AJ Pierzynski — with photos — from my phone while drinking a few beers at a Canaries game. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do that anymore.

My new spot on the web is argusleader.com/blog/mattzimmer. That will be where I’ll be doing most of my online work going forward.

I say ‘most’, because this blog won’t be deleted, and as such I may still use it from time to time. I’m not sure how exactly, but at the very least it will remain as an archive. Maybe I’ll find something creative or non-work related that can go there. We’ll see.

As for the new blogs, and our website, I imagine you’ll find it a tad unwieldy at first — people always do. I don’t know if there’s ever been a web redesign that people didn’t complain about.

And to be honest, I know I’m going to miss certain aspects of this blog. I like its simplicity and cleanliness. The focus is on the words, which is why it’s such a good format for someone who tends to confuse the word ‘blog’ with ‘2,000 word essay’.

The new digs are flashier and more colorful. Eventually you’ll get used to it, and if you’re a reader who hated tumblr for being dull and gray, you’ll probably like it.

So anyway, see you at the new site. And always save a special place in your heart for ZimTown.

Mar 24

Wally Pribyl, remembered

News travels fast on social media these days, and on Monday night as I tooled around on my laptop aimlessly, I noticed this photo on my facebook timeline.
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Anyone who’s driven Highway 12 through Webster knows the A&W restaurant on the corner.
For almost 30 years, it was owned by Wally Pribyl and family, and Wally — who my family has known for 25 years — had been battling cancer of late.
Fearing the worst, I messaged my buddy Lee Schoenbeck, the former state congressman who grew up in Webster, and Lee quickly called to confirm that Wally had died Monday. I believe he was 65.

To current readers of the Argus Leader, Wally may only ring a bell, if at all, because of his son, Sam, who rose to prominence a few years back as an All-American pole vaulter at USD.

But he was also a pretty accomplished athlete in his day, playing punter and defensive back for the Golden Gophers in the late 60s. He was on the last Minnesota team to win the Big 10 football championship, in 1967.
He often told a story about his attempt to tackle OJ Simpson in a game against USC. Though I heard the story many times, I can’t quite remember how it ended, with Wally making the stop or getting run over.
Lee started to tell me the story on Monday, and when I told him I already knew it he confirmed that the story ended with Wally missing the tackle.
Still. OJ Simpson.
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I knew the Pribyl family because my own family purchased a cabin on Enemy Swim Lake in 1988, across a dirt path from the cabin owned by the Pribyls.
Wally and his wife, Kathy, had three sons, Steve, Todd and Sam. Steve was a few years older than me, but Todd and I were in the same grade, and Sam and my younger brother Mitch were just a year apart. We were at the lake nearly every weekend in the summers in the late 80s and early to mid-90s, and as you might imagine, us boys spent a lot of time together.
We played football in the empty lot next door (it was apparent even then that Sam was the best athlete amongst all of us), whiffle ball on the beaches, and me and Todd in particular spent hours and hours fishing, almost never catching anything.
I drank my first beer with Todd. It was an Old Milwaukee. It was horrid. I’m pretty sure he stole it from Wally. Or Wally’s dad.

I remember one time when Todd and I were probably 14, we took a 16-foot fishing boat that belonged to his grandma out on the lake on a harshly windy day — by ourselves. Sam came along, but I don’t think my brother did.
The waves were as high as I’d ever seen them on Enemy Swim. Todd and I took turns driving, but neither of us could really steer the boat because the water was so rough. I was afraid we’d get stranded or even capsize.
It was scary. Sam started to cry (sorry, Sam).

I tried not to panic, but I remember Todd looking at me and saying ‘put your life jacket on’. It’s one thing when an overprotective parent tells you to put your life jacket on — when your 14-year-old buddy tells you, then you know things are a little out of control.
Somehow, eventually, Todd got us back safely. Sam was still sniffling and I remember Todd slugging him in the shoulder and ordering him not tell anyone.
Then he looked at me and said, ‘Never tell my dad about this.’

It wasn’t a surprise that Todd safely navigated us back to shore, or that he hadn’t seemed particularly nervous or scared during what remains the scariest boat ride of my entire life.
The Pribyl boys always had sort of a daredevilish streak within them, which obviously manifested itself in Sam’s high-flying track career.

Shortly after our family had moved in across the road, Wally had brazenly volunteered — insisted, you might say — that he would teach my brother and I to water ski.
Wally was an expert on the skis, popping up effortlessly and zipping around the lake well into his 50s. The dude was a pro.

But neither Mitch nor I really had that wildman gene that the Pribyl boys did, and we never showed much interest. To this day I’ve only been on waterskis a couple of times, and I can remember the one time I agreed to take a lesson from Wally that he was visibly let down by my lack of enthusiasm and distaste for getting water sprayed up my nose.

All the Pribyl boys worked for their dad at the A&W, which seemed to me to be a rite of passage for just about everyone who grew up in Webster.

"It’s staggering," Schoenbeck said to me last night, "how many people Wally gave their first job at the A&W. Everybody knows Wally and the A&W."

It’s true.
A few years ago I was assigned to do a profile story on Brock Lesnar, the pro wrestler turned failed Minnesota Viking turned MMA heavyweight champion.
I requested an interview through Lesnar’s agent, and when Lesnar called me one night from his cell phone while driving in his car, I could tell he wasn’t enthusiastic about doing the interview.

But Lesnar grew up in Webster, and I knew instinctively that there was pretty much no way that he didn’t know Wally.
So to try to warm him up a little bit, I mentioned to Lesnar that I’d actually spent quite a lot of time in Webster as a kid.

"Oh yeah?," he yawned, probably not believing me.

I told him that I’d spent a couple weeks one summer working at the A&W for Wally Pribyl. That wasn’t actually true — though Wally had made offers, I think the closest I ever came to actually working there was helping Steve carry some buckets of ice from the back door to a truck one time, but Brock Lesnar didn’t have to know that.

He laughed.
"Good ol’ Wally," he said. "That son of a bitch."
Trust me, he said it with an endearing tone, and I could hear him smiling over the phone. He quickly let his guard down and gave an engaging 45-minute interview.

My favorite Wally story, though, comes from about 15 years ago. Late on a Sunday night, our home phone rang (land line days), and I answered it.
"Is this Matt?" a woman’s voice asked.
"Yeah."
"Hi, Matt, this is Kathy Pribyl, is your dad home?"

That seemed weird. What could she want? On a Sunday night?
I gave the phone to my dad, and after he listened for a minute his eyes opened wide as he spit out a couple of “OKs” and “Uh, all rights”.

When he hung up the phone, he laughed.
Turns out Wally had been working on his pickup (I think it was a pickup) in front of the cabin, when he went to go get a tool or something. But he left the truck in gear. It slowly backed down the front yard, across the dirt path and into our yard, and into the side of our house, smashing through a tool shed and the front door, coming to a stop in the middle of the kitchen.

Wally had been too embarrassed to make the call himself, so Kathy delivered the news. Wally had it fixed right away and paid for everything — it might’ve even been fixed by the next time we were back up there, I can’t quite remember. But it was a hilarious story that I would tell girlfriends after introducing them to Wally when I’d run into him at the lake in later years.

I didn’t see the Pribyls much after growing up. They were rarely at the lake on weekends anymore, and I only make it up there a couple times a summer myself. I bet I haven’t seen Todd for 15 years, Steve for almost 20.
I did run into Wally at one of Sam’s track meets that I was covering at the DakotaDome several years back, where he wasted no time in explaining the intricacies of Sam’s vaulting to me, in great detail.
He went on for awhile before I said, ‘Wally, I’m not gonna quote you in my story, OK?’ He laughed. Sam laughed harder.

Every now and then I’d still see him at the lake, usually fixing something, never wearing a shirt. I’d always at least take a few minutes to chat.
He was a great story-teller and a guy who loved doing things for other people. That’s the kind of person people miss.

I always thought it’d be fun to sit him down for an interview for this blog, let him tell some of his old Gopher football stories or anything else from his years in Webster, and now that he’s gone I wish I’d done it.

I’m sure it would’ve been entertaining.

(Live chat returns today at 2)

Mar 23

TWTW: The Twins look really bad

I’ve got bad news, you guys.

The Twins are probably going to be really bad again. That would be the fourth year in a row of really badness.

This past week there were some headlines coming out of the Twin Cities media with Ron Gardenhire complaining about his team’s feeble offense, and assistant GM Rob Antony publicly calling out several players for ‘not stepping up’, apparently not considering that said players just aren’t very good.

Yes, the Twins finally started talking a good game near the end of last season — about holding people accountable, about being sick of losing, about spending money and blah, blah, blah.

And let’s give them a modicum of credit. They spent some money, signing free-agent pitchers Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes to the two-most expensive free-agent deals in team history. They re-signed Mike Pelfrey, and were also in on Matt Garza, Ervin Santana and Bronson Arroyo, among others.

But Nolasco and Hughes weren’t signed to help the Twins win now. They were signed to help them win by 2015 or 2016, when the much-hyped farm system would presumably start bearing fruit.

The Twins rotation should be better this year, but that’s what was said last year, when Vance Worley and Scott Diamond formed a seemingly decent 1-2.
Nolasco and Hughes could both be solid, but they could also both post an ERA around 5.00.
Same thing with Pelfrey. And Kevin Correia. And Kyle Gibson, who won the 5th starter spot, and Sam Deduno, who will open the year in the bullpen.

What’s the best case scenario for this rotation? Probably middle of the pack in the AL. At best.

And that’s scary, because the Twins lineup looks like it has the potential to be truly awful.

The Twins ranked second-to-last in the AL in runs scored last year, and in the off-season they replaced Justin Morneau with Jason Kubel and Ryan Doumit with Kurt Suzuki.
Those are both downgrades.

Kubel has been awful this spring, which, coming off a dreadful 2013 season, makes you wonder if he isn’t just finished.
Suzuki isn’t much of a hitter. Josmil Pinto is a nice prospect, and will apparently make the team even though Suzuki is expected to be the starting catcher, but it’s hard to rely on him based on a strong September callup.

Chris Parmelee proved that, as he’s now a candidate to get cut, hitting just .200 in a spring training in which he’s out of options.

Trevor Plouffe has also had a bad spring, following a bad year, and he’s the only real option at 3rd with mega-prospect Miguel Sano out for the year with elbow surgery.

Joe Mauer has hit .273 with one extra-base hit this spring. I’m not worried about him, but the assumption that he’s automatically going to hit better by moving out from behind the plate might be wishful thinking.

Brian Dozier had a breakout season of sorts last year, leading the team with 18 homers, but he still only hit .244 with a .312 OBP. And he’s probably the leadoff hitter.

Josh Willingham fell off a cliff last year after a big 2012 season, and is now 2-for-29 this spring. He’s 35 and coming off an injury-plagued season. He’s the cleanup hitter.

Aaron Hicks was dreadful at the plate last year, but has had a nice spring, hitting .342. He’s fun to watch, but looks more like an 8-9 hitter than the leadoff man the Twins tried to make him into last year.

The best reason for hope might be outfielder Oswaldo Arcia, who batted .251 with 14 homers in 97 games as a 22-year-old last year.
Would it be too much to ask for .275 with 25 homers? Maybe not.

The Twins are batting .105 with runners in scoring position over the last nine games. They’ve hit 12 homers in 23 spring games, last in the majors. The only guy on the roster to hit more than one homer this spring is Brandon Waring. I don’t know who that is, either.

Obviously spring training stats aren’t always totally reliable barometers, but there’s just very little to suggest the Twins are going to be watchable this year.

Here’s the probable lineup:
Brian Dozier, 2B
Kurt Suzuki, C
Joe Mauer, 1B
Josh Willingham, LF
Oswaldo Arcia, RF
Trevor Plouffe, 3B
Jason Kubel, DH
Aaron Hicks, CF
Pedro Florimon, SS

And the rotation:
Ricky Nolasco
Kevin Correia
Phil Hughes
Mike Pelfrey
Kyle Gibson

And the bullpen:
Sam Deduno
Anthony Swarzak
Jared Burton
Brian Duensing
Casey Fien
Caleb Thielbar
Glen Perkins

This is a bad baseball team, folks.
And Sano’s injury just adds salt to the wound.

The good news is the Twins still haven’t committed themselves to any terrible contracts or anything.
If Kubel, Willingham, Correia, or Pelfrey overachieve, the Twins can and should trade them, because this team really shouldn’t still be in rebuild mode in 2015. They’ve been bad since 2011. It’s not supposed to take that long.

Hopefully by next year the Twins can seriously entertain at least competing, hopefully playing .500 baseball. And then by 2016, if they’re not ready to make a run at a division title, things have gone off the tracks again, at which point Terry Ryan and Ron Gardenhire would not be able to survive another overhaul.

By 2016, the Twins could look like this:

Byron Buxton, CF
Brian Dozier, 2B
Joe Mauer, 1B
Miguel Sano, 3B
Oswaldo Arcia, RF
Josmil Pinto, C
Aaron Hicks, LF
Eddie Rosario, 2B
Danny Santana, SS
(Yes, there are two second basemen there, somebody would have to DH, and there will possibly be a free-agent in there somewhere, or Dozier could move back to short, or Sano could move to first and Mauer could DH, etc.)

Rotation
Alex Meyer
Ricky Nolasco
Phil Hughes
Trevor May
Kyle Gibson (With, hopefully, last year’s No.1 pick Kohl Stewart steadily working his way up the system)

I’ve been wrong before, but I don’t see how anyone hoping the Twins can compete this year won’t be disappointed.
Seeds have been planted, but the garden isn’t going to be feeding anyone for awhile yet.

Mar 21

Tom Billeter to USD would be good for Coyotes, Augie

If you follow Stu Whitney on twitter (of if you’ve paid attention to what I’ve been saying since Dave Boots retired in the fall) you know by now that Tom Billeter is apparently a finalist for the head coaching job at USD.

This is not a surprise.
I suspect there might be some USD fans who would be underwhelmed by Billeter because he’s a “D2 coach” (you know, the same thing Scott Nagy, Aaron Johnston, Boots and Tim Miles, among others, once were), and I know with certainty that Augie hoops fans are pretty much going into full-on panic mode at the prospect of seeing the architect of the Vikings basketball renaissance leave. The fact that he’d be going to a former NCC rival would, for some, just make the pill even tougher to swallow.
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But I’m going to go out on a pretty sturdy limb here. If Billeter ends up landing the Coyote job, it’s going to be a good move. For both schools.

I’ll start with why he’s a good fit for USD, because it’s an easier sell.

* People forget how bad the Vikings were when Billeter took over. They hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1989, or even been an NCC contender since that time, never finishing more than two games over .500 from ‘89 to Billeter’s arrival in 2003-04.
Rather than try to make the Vikings instantly competitive with transfers, as many expected, he gutted the program and started over.
They went 6-21 in his first year. 8-20 in his second. Then 12-16. Then 16-12. And then in 2007-08, they finally made the NCAA tournament, going 22-9. They were still in the NCC then. So was USD, entering the season ranked near the top of the national polls.
The Vikings swept the season series from the Coyotes and finished ahead of them in the standings.
Since then, the Vikings have been regular contenders, going 21-10, 24-7, 18-9, 17-11 and 22-9 before faltering this year under the weight of injuries and defections (they finished 16-14).
The Vikings made four of five NCAA tournaments before this year, and frankly, they were, in my opinion, unfairly left out in 2010-11.

* Billeter already recruits Division I players. Cody Schilling, Cam McCaffrey, Drae Murray, Dan Jansen and Zach Huisken all had Division I offers. Some of them had offers from SDSU and USD. He’s been able to compete with those schools for recruits without even being at their level. It’s fair to assume he’ll be able to do even better when selling a D1 experience.

* USD is in a somewhat similar place to where Augie was when Billeter took over.
No, they’re not a doormat by any means, but they are in transition. Still looking to improve facilities, fan experience, etc. Billeter had a major role in improving those things at Augustana.
When Billeter came to Augie, it was not an attractive job. If he leaves now, the Vikings job will be very highly sought-after.
That’s what Tom has a chance to do at USD. Take a job some might see as less than attractive and make it so.

* He has Division I experience. A lot of it.
He’s been an assistant at Arizona, Rice, St. John’s and Texas A&M. Those aren’t mid-majors.
And he wasn’t just a tag-along. I spoke to Lute Olsen this fall, and I pushed the legendary coach pretty hard on just what kind of role Tom had with the Wildcats, and Olsen made it clear he demanded a lot of him, even as a young GA.
Anyone who knows Tom knows he’s a name-dropper, but in fairness to him, he really does know a lot of dudes. He’s been everywhere. He took the St. John’s job because he wanted to develop connections on the East Coast, the one place where he had none.
From Arizona to Texas to North Dakota to New York, the guy’s been around.

* He’s hungry.
I know this might be hard for Augie fans to hear, but I’m pretty sure Tom really wants this. He’s been working toward a Division I job his whole life. He’s put in the work. I think it means a lot to him to be a part of that world.
I wouldn’t say that Tom looks at what SDSU has been doing in recent years with jealousy, necessarily, but I know he believes that if given the chance he could do the same thing. If USD (or someone else) eventually gives him that chance, I’d be surprised if he didn’t succeed.


As for why Tom’s departure might not be so devastating for the Vikings:

* The Vikings aren’t ready to go Division I.
I’m pretty sure that if Billeter remains at Augustana, he will continue to push for them to make the transition to Division I, and while I admit to not being as privy to all the goings at Augie as the people who work there, I don’t think they’re ready at this time.
I felt like USF made the move from NAIA to Division II too soon, and while the first few years of their transition have had lots of highlights, the overall returns have been mixed.
The stakes are a lot higher making the jump from Division II to Division I, and I feel like if the Vikings did make the move, they’d be doing it for the wrong reasons. Namely, because they want to be with SDSU and USD.
That’s not the right reason to go.
When USD made the move, it was time. They looked at their options and realized they had more in common with the low-to-mid D1s than they did with the schools in the NSIC.
I’m not convinced at this time that the Vikings have more in common with SDSU or UNO or Oral Roberts or whoever than they do with Concordia-St. Paul or Mary or Winona State.

If Billeter is gone, I suspect that would mean much less of a ‘We need to go D1’ push within the program. I could definitely be wrong about that, and whoever becomes the new AD will probably have a say in that eventually, but it’s my hunch.
If I’m right, it might be a good thing for Augie to feel less pressure to keep up with SDSU/USD so they can focus on other things, like improving football attendance, making the move to the Arena work, getting the volleyball and wrestling teams back to national prominence and coming up with a solution for track facilities.

* The Augustana men’s basketball job is now a very attractive job.
Since Tom took over, the Vikings have added a practice gym, secured a new home court that I think is going to be more well-received than people think, and developed a winning tradition.
They’re in a conference that is strong, particularly in basketball. The Vikings are fully-funded and finally added a second-full time assistant before this season. Augie would offer a very good salary.
If Tom leaves, there will be no shortage of very strong candidates.
Assistant Jeff Trumbauer might be a candidate, but he might also go with Tom to Vermillion.
If he doesn’t, the Vikings would not just hand him the job. He’d have to interview, and he’d have competition.
It’s possible that some of the best head coaches in Division II would apply, along with some D1 assistants.
There would be coaches within the NSIC that would apply. Maybe not Mike Leaf or Matt Margenthaler, but well, maybe. Sioux Falls is arguably the best city in the league from a total package standpoint.

* Notoriety doesn’t hurt.
It isn’t a bad thing if an Augie coach, be it Billeter or someone else, uses their job at Augie as a stepping stone to a higher level. For some reason, a lot of Augie folks tend to think that all of their coaches should view Augustana as a final destination, and anyone who doesn’t is considered disloyal or whatever. That’s dumb and arrogant.
People at SMSU are proud to claim Tim Miles. NDSU fans are proud of Bob Babich. Kalen DeBoer is a legend at USF.
If Billeter goes to USD and takes the Coyotes to the NCAA tournament, that’s a feather in the cap of the Vikings. It’s a recruiting chip. It’s free advertising. It’s brag-worthy. There are literally no negatives associated with something like that happening.

* Sometimes new blood is a good thing.
I’m not suggesting that things have gotten stale under Billeter, but he has been there for 10 years now. One reason I think he’s interested in the USD job is that it would energize him. Not that he’s going through the motions at Augie — he isn’t, and I think even if USD offers him the job it’s going to be tougher than people think for him to take it because of the potential of the current Viking roster — but because new challenges always give competitive people a shot in the arm.
The same could happen with the Vikings. Again, Tom would be leaving the program in great shape. A new coach with new ideas and new contacts might be just what the program needs to take the next step.

Mar 19

Mar 18

Mar 16

TWTW: One step closer to baseball

Basketball season is almost entirely off of my plate, which is something I always look forward to. Not because I don’t like basketball (if anything, I’ve gradually become a bigger basketball fan over the last year or so — I’ve covered so much of it that it’s just sort of grown on me), but because it means being that much closer to spring.

The weather finally warmed up last week (melting all of the snow off of my driveway I basically refused to shovel/snowblow after Christmas), the Summit League tournament and state girls tournaments ended, which means nown we’re just down to the state boys tourney. Then basketball, for me, is over.

Believe it or not, Opening Day is two weeks from today (well, not counting the stupid series in Australia this week, and the Sunday night opener).

The Twins will play at Chicago two weeks from today, with Ricky Nolasco taking the mound (and Chris Sale, I presume, opposing him).
In the meantime, with basketball almost entirely off of my plate, I should finally be able to start focusing some of my attention towards baseball.
I actually watched a couple Twins spring training games already, which I almost never do, and though I have no reason at all to be optimistic about the Twins chances in 2014, I admit I finally allowed myself to get excited about baseball.

The Twins have a lot of interesting decisions to make in these next two weeks. They definitely don’t have playoff-caliber talent, but they’ve assembled a roster full of equally mediocre players, and not all of them are going north with the big club.

Darin Mastroianni, a candidate for the outfield who spent much of the past two seasons in the majors, was sent down Sunday, but that still leaves plenty of question marks.

Will the Twins keep Josmil Pinto or send him down to get regular at-bats? Aaron Hicks or Alex Presley in centerfield?

And there are about 20 pitchers competing for a staff that’ll probably consist of 12 men. Last year Scott Diamond and Vance Worley were the No. 1 starters (Diamond earned it, Worley took the honor when Diamond had to open the year on the DL), and this year neither of them will likely even be in the rotation.

I’m hoping to touch on all of this stuff in more depth in the next couple weeks.
Be excited. Baseball’s almost here.

Mar 10

In which I compare the USD women to Team USA 1980


If USD women’s coach Amy Williams is looking for inspiration for motivating her team in Tuesday’s Summit League championship, Herb Brooks might be a good source.
The legendary hockey coach guided Team USA to arguably the single-greatest win in American sports history in 1980, when his team of college all-stars upset the Soviet National team 4-3 at Lake Placid.
But until that win was immortalized in film a few years ago, few people remembered that the win over Russia was not actually for the Gold medal, it came in the first game of the medal round.
They still had to beat Finland to clinch the Gold Medal the next day. Needless to say, the win over the Soviets would have lost much of its luster had the Yanks not completed the task.

Brooks certainly knew that, and while his players probably did, too, he still emphasized it pretty pointedly in the locker room during the second intermission of the Gold medal game.
According to 1980 team captain Mike Eruzione, Brooks’s speech before the third and final period was short and to the point.
Brooks entered the dressing room, looked at his players and said, ‘If you lose this game, you’ll take it to your (redacted) graves.’ He took a few steps towards the door, turned back and repeated, ‘Your (redacted) graves’, and walked out.

Now, that hockey game had a little more riding on it than the Summit League championship, although USD’s first appearance in the NCAA tournament would be no minor accomplishment. And while ending SDSU’s remarkable run of 5 straight tournament titles and 15 straight tourney wins marks the biggest win of USD’s D1 era, it isn’t that big of an upset.

Still. This is a game the Coyotes really need to win. I’m not suggesting the USD women will take it to their graves if they lose to a 9-22 Denver team, but, well, the win over SDSU isn’t going to be quite as great of a memory if the Coyotes don’t finish the job.

(No Live Chat this week. Sorry)