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Wild’s new ‘hometown hero’ Zach Parise ready to face ‘Joe Mauer phenomenon’

Zach Parise and Ryan Suter

Fox Sports North/ESPN Video

The Minnesota Wild's Zach Parise, left, and Ryan Suter greet the State of Hockey at a Monday news conference.

Zach Parise never noticed the “A,” the designation for alternate captain, on the new green Minnesota Wild sweater he pulled over his head until a reporter at Monday’s news conference-cum-pep rally asked about it. Parise did a double-take, as if noticing a chocolate stain on a white shirt. 

“I didn’t know,” Parise said later. “I’ve got some experience, but I was surprised, coming to a new team. From what I understand, it’s a pretty close group of guys [on the team]. Hopefully they’ll be all right with it.”

And if they aren’t? Well, as they say in farm country, hard cheese.

Ryan Suter, the Wild’s other big-splash free agent, received an “A” as well, reinforcing the responsibility that comes with their 13-year, $98 million contracts.

It’s big boy time in the not-so-new joint on West Seventh in St. Paul, and if anybody in that dressing room has a problem with Parise or Suter fashioning the talent-challenged Wild into a team worth watching, they’re not smart enough to play here anyway.   

Unveiling The Big 98ers

The Big 98ers found several other surprising elements at their welcoming Monday. The Wild often holds big press gatherings in the airy ticket lobby of the Xcel Energy Center. Monday’s made-for-TV event, shown live on Fox Sports North and streamed on the web, surpassed all of them. Several hundred people turned out, at least half fans and team employees who applauded vigorously when Parise, Suter, owner Craig Leipold, general manager Chuck Fletcher and coach Mike Yeo took the stage.

 It was quite a show for a franchise that took two major image hits in the last month -- more disturbing revelations in The New York Times about former Wild enforcer Derek Boogaard’s drug use, and allegations of fraud brought against minority partner Philip Falcone, a hedge fund manager, by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The Times story, based on information provided by Boogaard’s father, Len, a 30-year veteran of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, said Derek Boogaard received an alarming amount of narcotic painkillers and sleeping pills from multiple sources, legitimate and otherwise, from 2008 until his death in 2011. Wild and New York Rangers team physicians wrote many of the prescriptions. The full story, by 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist John Branch, is here.

Predictably, though, Monday featured only pomp and praise.

Parise, the former New Jersey Devils captain and the son of popular North Stars captain J.P. Parise, handled the attention with poise and the proper amount of wonder, a comfortable midpoint between “Is all this really for us?” and “Damn right, now where’s the marching band?”

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman even showed up, allowing Leipold, with cameras rolling, to publicly lobby for a practice facility across the street from Xcel. Coleman acknowledged Leipold by pumping a fist in a right-on gesture.

(Had Coleman a little more gumption, he could have said, “You just paid $196 million for two guys and you’re still looking for a handout? Build it yourself, cheesehead.” And after the press conference, Leipold created an odd juxtaposition by holding court five feet from a Wells Fargo cash machine.)

Some advice for Parise

It was the kind of day where everybody smiled and anything seemed possible. But the best advice anyone can give Parise at this:

Don’t get hurt.

And pray the Wild don’t handle your injury news like the Twins.

Two years ago, Joe Mauer was the baseball version of Parise, the high-achieving local kid who committed to the local franchise for the long term for big bucks. People praised the Twins for ponying up for Mauer — and praised Mauer for avoiding free agency to stay and chase a world championship with his hometown team.

Quickly, things turned. The vocal, shrill segment of Twins fandom that hates Mauer turned apoplectic when American League All-Star manager Ron Washington named him to the All-Star Team on July 1. A .325 average, fifth best in the AL, and a league-leading on-base percentage could not dissuade folks who declared Mauer a softie who missed too many games with weird injuries and did not deserve the honor.

Had Mauer and the Twins been straightforward about his slow recovery from  September 2010 left knee problems — the same knee he wrecked in his second major-league game in 2004, trying for a sliding catch in the Metrodome — people might have been more sympathetic.

It was Manager Ron Gardenhire, remember, who blabbed about the lubricating injections into Mauer’s knee in February 2011, a sure sign he needed more time. And that “bi-lateral weakness” business insulted everyone’s intelligence and led to all sorts of preposterous speculation.

Now, Mauer has done everything his critics demanded. He plays part time at first base. He’s more available to the media, and more open about what ails him. With two strong legs beneath him, he hit like the old Mauer in June (.397, two homers, 15 RBI) and sits 15 points behind sensational Angels rookie Mike Trout for the A.L. batting lead. It’s fair to argue whether Mauer or Josh Willingham should have been chosen to represent the Twins, but not to denigrate Mauer as unworthy of the conversation.

Fans’ high expectations

“Sometimes envy just overtakes people,” said Lou Nanne, the former North Stars player, coach and general manager and a former teammate of J.P. Parise. “It’s just unbelievable.

“When you look at Zach, he’s been under pressure all his life. He played at Shattuck-St. Mary’s. He played at North Dakota, a big hockey school. He’s accustomed to it. And pressure is what you make of it. If you concern yourself with it, it can crush you.”

Parise and Suter won’t lift the Wild if the organization’s much-vaunted prospects flame out, and guess who’ll be blamed if the Wild don’t end their four-year playoff drought fast enough. Not Suter, the Wisconsin guy, but the kid who spurned the University of Minnesota for the Fighting Sioux. Parise said he’s ready for the responsibility.

“I’m fine with it,” he said. “I understand how passionate the fans are here about this team, just seeing the excitement that’s kind of come about the last few days. I get it. I understand how it works.

“I can tell you that I’ll play my hardest every game. Things aren’t always going to be great. I’d love to score every game, but that’s not realistic. It’s not going to happen. I will play hard every game and give my best effort, and hopefully things will go well.”

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Comments (5)

Pat, take the Homerism down a notch.

I'm tired of people getting tagged with the "envy" label for daring to criticize Mauer. You correctly note the whole "bilateral leg weakness" fiasco, but Mauer contributed as much to that as the organization. But there's also another valid criticism. At the time he signed his contract, Mauer was not only hitting for a high average, but was hitting 20 HR's and catching virtually every day. That made him worth $23 mil a year. Even now, he's just a half time catcher who's nothing but a singles hitter. And that's not worth $23 mil. He's paid in the top 5, but he's not a top 5 player. It's not out of line to still feel disappointed and saying so.

Homerism? Really?

I swear I can hear Twins executives laughing at that from my house. And you missed the point. There's a difference between being disappointed, like you are, and calling Mauer a worthless stiff who shouldn't be an All-Star. Those are the people I take issue with, as did Nanne. And BTW: He's always been mainly a singles and doubles hitter. Mauer hit 20 homers once, in 2009 (well-timed, eh?), and exceeded 10 homers only one other time (13 in '06). The three batting titles -- unprecedented for a catcher -- and two Gold Gloves through '09 got him the big money, not his power.

The money

Paid to pro athletes is obscene regardless.

Why do the whiny fans get the most attention?

Maybe it's just the squeaky wheel getting the grease, but I don't understand why a few complainers drives the sports discussion. The Twins and Mauer didn't want opponents knowing what problems he was having, or at least that's what they said at one point. Seems plausible to me. The NHL let's teams be vague about injuries and no one thinks there's anything dishonest about it, so why not baseball?

If fans let it make them so miserable, why don't they become fans of something else? Or just accept that championships are rare. The Kings went through the Gretzky and Dionne eras without a cup. The Capitals have been almost perpetual contenders for decades no, but never won a cup. The Rangers went 54 years between cups, half of that in the six-team era. The Canucks won the Presidents Trophy the last two seasons, but have never won a cup. Making the playoffs better be acceptable, because that's probably all there is.

longevity

No great surprise but the more contact involved in a sport the shorter the playing lives of the athletes. Mauer plays a position with some contact but nothing like hockey. Look at Crosby whose young carrier is one hit from being over.