Best Of :: Sports & Recreation
Afton State Park's 1,620 acres make up one of the larger forest and prairie preserves in the Midwest, cut with winding paths and deep sandstone ravines. In this sense, the park has at least one thing in common with the Twin Cities: It's big enough to get lost in but easy to find your way out of. And clearly, it's not for the timid. Campsites are open all year and require that you hike in. All told, the trails stretch for more than 20 miles along the beautiful St. Croix River (a reasonable 30-minute drive from downtown St. Paul) with plenty of places to pause, like the summer beach. The park happens to lie in a migratory corridor, so bonus points for anyone who spies a turkey vulture or bald eagle.
Ever since his monstrous 2009 season was followed by four years of fundamentally sound yet lower-powered hitting, the question has lingered: How would Joe Mauer fare standing at the plate without all the wear and tear from nine innings of squatting behind it? While the productivity the Twins got from him in 2013 was strong — .324/.404/.476, with an OPS that would've ranked third in the AL among first basemen if he spent the majority of his season there — his post-concussion move to first takes away some of that "league's best player at his position" luster. But assuming his concussion symptoms have receded as much as we all hope, it's hard not to think back to that other hitting-scientist franchise player the Twins moved to first from a defensive-minded position where strong hitting was at a higher premium. We all know how Rod Carew's age-31 season turned out — a legendary flirtation with .400, an MVP award, and the clearest case for his Hall of Fame future. At the same age, Joe stands a good shot at making history repeat itself in the best way.
AP's 2013 wasn't on par with his out-of-this-world MVP campaign of a year prior, but he was still easily the best thing the Vikings had going. Purple Jesus ran for over 1,200 yards during an injury-truncated campaign, but the Vikings' fortunes sagged along with their best player's health and performance. AP will still be on the young side of 30 heading into next season, but with more than 2,000 NFL carries, one major knee reconstruction, and a number of other significant injuries already under his belt, it's fair to wonder whether his best days are behind him. Then again, we're talking about a guy who ran for more than 2,000 yards in a season just months removed from the aforementioned knee reconstruction. As always with AP, all bets are off.
Hockey is a brutal game. But it also demands grace, and few players have managed to skate this divide as deftly as Matt Cooke. His role as an agitator requires him to psych out the opposing team, meaning his contribution isn't measured solely by the scoreboard. Still, the left-winger ranks near the top of the Wild roster offensively and puts up fewer penalty minutes than his critics expected. Since signing with the Wild in July, Cooke has been dogged by one goon after another. The Ottawa Senators made an unfounded complaint that Cooke intentionally sliced a player's Achilles tendon. Cooke brushes all of that aside as being part of the game. The State of Hockey has provided Cooke with a shot at redemption, and he's definitely making the most of it.
The 2013-14 Timberwolves season may have been a disappointment, but Kevin Love's play was anything but. The sixth-year forward (can you believe he's been in the league that long?) continues to get better and better, culminating in his first-ever selection as an All-Star starter. Bottom line: When healthy, he's easily the best player employed at 600 First Avenue since a certain number 21. But T-Wolves fans should enjoy K-Love's unique blend of dead-eye shooting and rebounding while they can, because the Los Angeles native can opt out of his contract and become a free agent after next season, and the front office hasn't done a great job surrounding K-Love with greatness over the years. So if he doesn't sign an extension this offseason, our 2014 "Best Timberwolves Player" may become next year's "Best Trade Piece."
Since her 2010 homecoming to Minnesota, Lindsay Whalen has played the point for three consecutive Lynx teams that made it to the WNBA Finals, including championship teams in 2011 and 2013. During last season, Whalen, at the relatively old age of 31, posted a career high in points per game (14.9). Sure, you could argue that Maya Moore or Seimone Augustus are flashier players, but nobody has the ball in her hands more than Whalen, who has been remarkably durable despite the wear and tear she incurs during her repeated drives to the basket. Entering her 11th season, Whalen shows no sign of slowing down, and neither do the Lynx, who will try to become Minnesota's first back-to-back pro sports champions since the Minneapolis Lakers' three-peat in 1952, '53, and '54.