Hurricane Fiona knocked out power across the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico beginning Sunday, rekindling memories of Hurricane Maria, the deadly Category 4 storm that hit in 2017 and exposed the weakness in Puerto Rico’s power grid. the island.
Now almost all of Puerto Rico’s estimated 3 million people are in the dark again, and five years after Maria, it raises new questions about the state of the grid.
WHO MANAGES PUERTO RICO’S ELECTRICITY GRID?
The state-run Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) owned and operated the island’s power grid when Maria arrived. PREPA has long been criticized for insufficient investment in its electrical system and failure to establish backup systems to maintain power in the event of a disaster.
Before Maria struck, the indebted government and PREPA were mired in bankruptcy, and a federally appointed Board of Overseers was created to manage the island’s finances.
In June 2021, Puerto Rico privatized the network contracting LUMA Energy to operate the system, although PREPA still owned the infrastructure. LUMA is a joint venture between units of Canadian energy company ATCO Ltd ATCx.TO and US energy contractor Quanta Services PWR.N.
A study by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) found that service restoration times and voltage fluctuations increased after privatization, largely due to a shortage of experienced workers. The island also suffered a power outage in April that cut power to a third of homes and businesses. Read the full story
LUMA did not immediately respond to request for comment.
WHY IS THE NETWORK STILL IN DIFFICULTY?
Hurricane Maria decimated the island’s power system when it hit in late September 2017, primarily by destroying transmission lines. Restoration work since then has focused on replacing those lines, while most other facets of the network have not been updated, said IEEFA’s Tom Sanzillo, who studies the power system of Porto Rico.
It took several years under the Trump administration for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to approve $9.6 billion in September 2020 to rebuild Puerto Rico’s power grid. About $3.4 billion more in federal funding has since been added.
Analysts say bureaucratic blockages, political disagreements and network privatization issues have slowed progress. Disputes over how to spend the funds have also hampered improvements. Read the full story
“Many companies, both for-profit and NGOs, want a share of the $12 billion in federal money to rebuild the grid,” said Sergio Marxuach, policy director at the Puerto Rico-based think tank Center for a New Economy (CNE).
WHERE DOES PUERTO RICO’S ELECTRICITY GENERATION COME FROM?
Natural gas-fired power plants account for 44% of electricity, while 37% comes from petroleum like diesel fuel, 17% from coal and about 3% from renewables, according to data from the US Energy Information Administration.
Under Puerto Rico’s Public Energy Policy Act, passed in 2019, the Commonwealth must obtain 40% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2025, 60% by 2040 and 100% from renewable sources. by 2050, according to the EIA. However, grid upgrades have also been held up by political disagreements over the use of renewables versus adding more natural gas, Marxuach said.
Puerto Rico must import all of its oil, coal, and natural gas because it produces no fossil fuels. It has solar and wind generation which has contributed to the production of renewable energy. Coal generation is expected to be phased out by 2028.
In early 2020, two of the island’s largest power stations were damaged in a magnitude 6.4 earthquake. These plants relied more on natural gas, causing Puerto Rico to shift its energy mix toward more oil, according to the EIA.
It might seem like restaurant openings have slowed down a bit since the pandemic, but I’m here to tell you that there are so many new and exciting restaurants in St. Paul that I’m having a hard time keeping up.
A west metro, food-loving friend of mine told me recently that St. Paul is where it’s at, and after compiling this list, it’s hard to argue with him.
Here, in alphabetical order, are eight relatively recently opened places (and one with a notable new chef) in St. Paul that are absolutely worth your time and money. It’s a good time to live in the Capital City!
EM QUE VIET
One of the newest on this list, Em Que Viet is the younger, hipper “little sister” of Minneapolis’ Que Viet. If you recognize the name, it might be because these are also the folks responsible for the delicious giant eggroll on a stick a the Minnesota State Fair.
The exterior of the Grand Avenue restaurant is hard to miss — a canopy of pretty pink flowers marks the spot — and the interior is bright and modern. There’s an adorable little patio in the back, too, to savor the last drops of fall sunshine.
There’s plenty of traditional Vietnamese food — including those ridiculously delicious giant egg rolls — on the menu here, but also some harder-to-find items like a silky beef carpaccio and Banh Xeo, or a crispy, bean-sprout-filled Vietnamese crepe. There are tons of vegan and vegetarian options here, and they have a full liquor license. The cocktail list includes craft drinks using Asian ingredients and flavors (like an espresso martini with Vietnamese drip espresso or a whiskey sour with Japenese whiskey).
Great for a date night or a business lunch, Em Que Viet is a welcome addition to St. Paul’s dining scene.
1332 Grand Ave., St. Paul; 651-330-4363; emqueviet.com
Mussels at Emerald Lounge in St. Paul. (Jess Fleming / Pioneer Press)
Chips and dip at Emerald Lounge in St. Paul. (Jess Fleming / Pioneer Press)
Shrimp and grits at Emerald Lounge in St. Paul. (Jess Fleming / Pioneer Press)
Cocktails, including The Huntress, foreground, at Emerald Lounge in St. Paul. (Jess Fleming / Pioneer Press)
This pretty little cocktail lounge has been an instant hit in the Capital City. But if it’s full when you arrive, don’t worry — tables generally turn quickly, and a friendly staff never makes you feel out of place while you wait.
The snack-heavy food menu here is short but tasty — try some tender mussels in a Thai-inspired coconut broth or chips and two kinds of housemade dip (French onion or harissa aioli). The menu changes frequently, but most everything we have tried has been tasty.
Cocktails here are thoughtfully crafted and well-balanced. The martini of the moment is always a great selection — it’s usually a variation on the classic gin drink. The Huntress, an aquavit version of the martini that includes white balsamic vinegar and an anchovy and a pickled onion as garnish, is a savory revelation. It wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but I love aquavit and a salty drink, so I really, really loved it. The wine list focuses on some underrepresented varietals. If you haven’t heard of it, order it anyway.
Overall, it’s an awesome spot to meet up with friends and have a nosh and a drink — whatever your preference.
455 W. Seventh St., St. Paul; 651-410-1650; emeraldstpaul.com
GABE’S NEIGHBORHOOD BAR & KITCHEN
Birria quesadilla at Gabe’s Neighborhood Bar & Kitchen on Lexington Parkway and Energy Park Drive in St. Paul. (Jess Fleming / Pioneer Press)
Loaded Brussels sprouts at Gabe’s Neighborhood Bar & Kitchen in St. Paul. (Jess Fleming / Pioneer Press)
This Como Park neighborhood staple underwent a branding change and brought on chef Scott Brink, who was the chef at The Happy Gnome for many years, and his wife, Emily Brink, who is running the front of the house.
The changes haven’t been huge — a few new menu items, fun daily specials, a bathroom remodel, a new logo and sign — but the food, especially the new items, are great for bar food.
My dining partners and I especially liked the birria quesadillas, which include tender beef, lots of cheese and a rich, spice-infused consomme, and the loaded Brussels sprouts, which include bacon, queso fresco and sriracha aioli. Bang bang shrimp tacos, with crispy shrimp, crunchy cabbage and a mildly spicy bang bang sauce, are also worth an order.
991 N. Lexington Parkway, St. Paul; 651-646-3066; gabesmn.com
Sea bass at Gus Gus in St. Paul. (Jess Fleming / Pioneer Press)
Chips with speck and creme fraiche at Gus Gus in St. Paul. (Jess Fleming / Pioneer Press)
Jell-o shots at Gus Gus in St. Paul. (Jess Fleming / Pioneer Press)
This beloved Mac-Groveland neighborhood restaurant space (it was 128 Cafe for many years, and after that, Stewart’s) is happily still one of my favorite eateries in town.
Hospitality vets Anna Morgan (front of house) and Kevin Manley (chef) opened Gus Gus this spring, and it’s as comfortable, and approachable, as ever. The killer Stewart’s burger is still there, but also fun bar snacks like house-made potato chips topped with bits of speck ham and creme fraiche and simple, well-executed entrees like sea bass on a white bean ragu and a tender, beefy ribeye.
The bar program is better than ever, especially for cocktail lovers — the list of inventive craft drinks is long, and everything we sampled has been great. You can also get fancy Jell-o shots, made with Aperol, blood orange and bubbly, which are delicious and are a fun way to kick off your experience.
I also love that you can get a reservation, but they keep bar seats open for spontaneous drop-ins.
128 N. Cleveland Ave., St. Paul; 651-645-4128; gusgusmn.com
Lumpia with banana ketchup at Kalsada on St. Paul’s Selby Avenue. (Jess Fleming / Pioneer Press)
Chicken adobo at Kalsada on St. Paul’s Selby Avenue. (Jess Fleming / Pioneer Press)
Carrots Ginataan, lumpia and a tomato cucumber salad at Kalsada in St. Paul. (Jess Fleming / Pioneer Press)
The outside of Kalsada in St. Paul. (Jess Fleming / Pioneer Press)
Filipino food has been hard to find in these parts, and I’m thrilled that this restaurant in the former Augustine’s space on Selby Avenue has filled that void.
Chefs Leah Raymundo and John Occhiato, who also own Cafe Astoria and Stella Belle in St. Paul’s West Seventh neighborhood, did very little to the pretty space here, which already had a tropical vibe.
Raymundo is channeling her home country with modern, soulful versions of dishes like lumpia, chicken adobo and kinilaw, the Filipino version of ceviche. The flavors are bright, deep and tropical and the vibe very comfortable and neighborhoody. There’s a full liquor license in the evenings — and a long list of tropical cocktails — and a full espresso program for weekend brunch.
1668 Selby Ave., St. Paul; 651-340-0496; kalsada-stpaul.com
Pizza, for some reason, really evokes strong feelings in people. It’s why I’ll never do a “best pizza” story — I’d never see the end of the emails.
But if you are a lover of a thick crust, this new spot from the owners of Estelle is for you. I personally love all pizzas if they are done well, and these springy-crisp-crusted pies, which are topped with just the right amount of sauce and cheese — are definitely done well.
There’s a lot of complaining among food writers I know that it’s tough to get a really good sandwich in the Twin Cities. That’s still true, but I’d definitely put the hoagies here — with their sesame-crusted, house-made bread — in the really good category.
The restaurant, in the former Tillie’s Farmhouse space on Cleveland Avenue, has plenty of space for eating in, but the team is also doing a brisk takeout business.
232 N. Cleveland Ave., St. Paul; 651-207-5252; mariosstp.com
Pepperoni pizza at Momento in downtown St. Paul. (Jess Fleming / Pioneer Press)
Salmon at Momento in downtown St. Paul. (Jess Fleming / Pioneer Press)
It was definitely a sad thing for many St. Paulites when Pazzaluna never reopened after pandemic closures.
Happily, the restaurant’s wood-fired oven has been fired up again with this (much smaller) restaurant. The bar here is front and center, and for many people, that’s where they preferred to be at Pazzaluna anyway. Momento is the latest restaurant from Morrissey Hospitality, which ran Pazzaluna and also runs St. Paul Grill across the street.
It’s clear they’re going for quick service for people headed to events downtown in the evenings (they are also open for lunch), and they have accomplished that. I’ve been there before several concerts, and the service is brisk and the food comes out fast.
The food — burgers, tacos, pasta and the like — is decent, and the cocktails are solid. The best thing we had in three visits was definitely the thin-crusted, properly topped pizza.
360 St. Peter St., St. Paul; 651-223-7000; momento-stp.com
A duck dish from Myriel in St. Paul. (Jess Fleming / Pioneer Press)
Black lentils at Myriel in St. Paul. (Jess Fleming / Pioneer Press)
Celery root soup at Myriel in St. Paul. (Jess Fleming / Pioneer Press)
I have long admired chef Karyn Tomlinson’s sparse, Nordic-inspired cuisine, and Myriel, in the former Bar Brigade space on Cleveland Avenue, is the perfect place for the first restaurant of her own.
Tomlinson, who was at the helm of Minneapolis’ beloved Corner Table when it closed, also won the national Cochon 555 competition. She’s a big believer in whole-animal butchery — which also means using every part of the pig, cow, lamb or whatever is on the menu. That also means that the menu changes frequently. I usually recommend a la carte dining here, unless you want to make an entire evening of dinner, as that experience has run three-plus hours for me several times.
That being said, everything I have eaten here, including the best duck I’ve ever tasted and black lentils that I’m still craving six months later, has been delicious. It’s where you want to take your food-loving friends when they visit, or where you want to linger over pretty plates of food on a romantic night.
470 S. Cleveland Ave., St. Paul; 651-340-3568; myrielmn.com
NOYES & CUTLER
Salmon at Noyes & Cutler in St. Paul’s Lowertown. (Jess Fleming / Pioneer Press)
A porterhouse at Noyes & Cutler in Lowertown. (Jess Fleming / Pioneer Press)
The dining room at the new Noyes & Cutler in Lowertown. (Jess Fleming / Pioneer Press)
Another space that has been rebooted since the pandemic, Noyes & Cutler has opened in the former Public Kitchen + Bar space on Mears Park in Lowertown.
Noyes & Cutler, named for the historic building in which it resides, calls itself a modern American steakhouse, and if you’re going to hang your hat on steak in these beef-obsessed cities, it had better be good. Lucky for us, it’s great — especially the juicy, perfectly cooked prime rib, which comes with horseradish sauce and au jus. It’s kind of a hard cut to find, and many places that offer it do so only certain days of the week.
Chef Aaron Cave is also making a killer porterhouse, which seems really expensive at $70 with no sides until you see the thing and realize it’s enough meat for four, easily. And the non-beef options we’ve tried, including a lick-the-plate good salmon preparation, have all been special-occasion worthy, too.
Public Kitchen never really found its footing, but I’m happy to say that Noyes & Cutler has food befitting the beautiful space in which it resides. Hopefully enough people find it to keep it around.
229 E. Sixth St., St. Paul; 651-968-1050; noyescutler.com
Q: Hi, Ira. With Kyle Lowry, Duncan Robinson, Hassan Whiteside, James Johnson, Dion Waiters and Tyler Johnson, it isn’t that people were mad they spent the money. It’s the apparent disconnect between continued evaluation of these players when initially signed to these unwarranted sums and lengths of contracts to extend them. The Heat seem to do fantastic at unearthing hidden gems that either go undrafted or were outcasts. But then when the time to further secure their services comes, they overvalue their worth and give out these contracts that they shouldn’t. That’s the real problem. – David, Miami.
A: And yet that also is part of what makes the Heat the Heat, that they value living in the moment, that they don’t write off seasons. So, yes, if they need James Johnson and Dion Waiters in the moment, they sign them in the moment. And in the wake of the Big Three breaking up, they take the risk with Hassan Whiteside. Similarly, when an upgrade at point guard becomes available, they put aside concerns about Kyle Lowry’s age. And the reality is they ultimately were willing to give a third guaranteed season to P.J. Tucker. Why? Because the moment matters. The greater issue is the toll exacted by such long-term expenditures by living in the moment. And, to the Heat’s credit, they have gotten off that bad money before the ends of those contracts, with Waiters, Whiteside and the two Johnsons dealt, often in exchange for something better, be it Jimmy Butler, Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder or tax or cap relief. There is plenty to be said about living in the moment. And there also is plenty to be said about a front office that also recognizes when it is time to move on. Soon there could be similar decisions on Max Strus, Gabe Vincent and Omer Yurtseven, as we wait to see how this all plays out with Duncan Robinson. In the end, it could come down to whether Robinson is flipped, and what might come back in return.
Q: Omer Yurtseven has the potential to be the best undrafted, diamond-in-the rough find for this franchise yet. If he can hit the three, look out. He is a very underrated passer out of the post, as well, who can draw attention and kick it back out for an open three. He needs to be in the rotation. – Joe.
A: All of the elements you cite factor into the playing-time equation for Omer Yurtseven. But, more than anything, it will come down to his defense. That cannot be a net minus. What will be interesting to see is if Erik Spoelstra is prepared to meet him halfway, design a system other than requiring his big man to switch so often on pick-and-rolls. Spoelstra did that for Hassan Whiteside, and has done that with Dewayne Dedmon. So it could come down to a willingness to play more drop coverage when Bam Adebayo is out of the game and Yurtseven is in. That’s if Yurtseven gets in.
Q: Udonis Haslem will always be a Heat legend. Let’s have a great last ride. – Charles.
A: Of course, it’s not actually a ride until you get onto the road, or, in this case, onto the court. And that remains to be seen. As it is, the Heat are overloaded with center types, but lacking in aguile power forwards. I’m not sure Udonis Haslem qualifies anymore as a mobile big man.
A Mendota Heights company is marking Orange Shirt Day, a Canadian grassroots movement to reflect on the treatment of First Nations people in the residential school system.
Patterson Cos., a large medical supplies conglomerate primarily in the business of veterinary and dental products, is promoting the holiday across its North American locations. While only 720 of Patterson’s 7,800 employees are Canadian or work in Canada, the company said it strives to promote holidays and days of remembrance from different cultures and backgrounds.
“Since this matters to Canadians, this matters to Patterson,” said Sarah Schoeneck, media relations manager. “We’re trying to foster a diverse culture and that means celebrating not just American holidays, but other holidays outside of the country.”
Orange Shirt Day falls on Friday, which is also National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Canada, a new statutory holiday that commemorates survivors and victims of Indigenous residential schools. Orange Shirt Day was founded by residential school survivor Phyllis Webstad, whose favorite orange shirt was taken away on her first day of school.
For the second-annual Orange Shirt Day celebration at Patterson, employees are able to purchase orange shirts through the company and are encouraged to wear them for the day. Several hundred T-shirts were sold across 47 locations in the company.
Proceeds from the shirt sales will be donated to the Squamish Neighbourhood Animal Partnership and Protection Society, which is run by a Canadian residential school survivor. Schoeneck said the company decided to partner with this organization due to Patterson’s involvement in the animal health industry.
This year, Patterson donated nearly $1,600 to S.N.A.P.P.S.
Many initiatives to foster diverse culture at Patterson have been led by the company’s Patterson Affinity Zone group, an employee-led initiative that promotes inclusivity within the company. The group helps provide context and education around holidays that may be unfamiliar to employees, according to Amir Abdou, an integrations consultant at Patterson and a member of the Affinity Zone.
“We’re just trying to educate and help folks who are underrepresented and work with our allies to figure out how we can keep things moving forward,” Abdou said.
While Orange Shirt Day is a holiday celebrated by many Canadians, Abdou said he feels that celebrating the holiday here creates an opportunity for Minnesotans to learn more about the state’s Indigenous communities.
“It’s just important for people and all large companies, especially in the U.S., to learn from this and maybe learn their own ties or their own history,” he said. “Native (Americans) are obviously all over America. So it’s just an opportunity to learn about that history, more than what we were necessarily taught in school.”
Issues of reconciliation and reparations have long been debated in Canada, where the country’s Indian Residential School system, a church-run, government-funded institution, took Indigenous children against their will and subjected them to abuse, neglect and dangerous living conditions as they attempted to assimilate them into white European culture and religion.
Survivors created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as part of efforts to advocate for recognition and reparations. The commission ran from 2008 to 2015 and afterward released a final report of 94 “Calls to Action” for the Canadian government.
One of these called on the corporate sector in Canada to do its part, according to Ronald Reyes, a category manager at Kane Pet Supplies, one of Patterson’s Canadian companies.
“It’s still going to take generations for this to be rectified and finally get reconciliation,” said Reyes. “But, you know, every small little step that we do today really contributes to that.”
Looking around the packed stands at Morgan Academy in Selma, Alabama, the nerves came to Terry Waters. He pitched in college, but never in front of a crowd like this, with so much riding on each throw.
In those stands were scouts from every team in Major League Baseball. The former Troy pitcher needed to groove batting practice to the player all those scouts were there to see, a 17-year-old named Gunnar Henderson with flowing blonde hair peeking out of his hat and boundless potential.
“That got me a little nervous, I’ll be honest,” Waters said, laughing now with the freedom of one who knows how things turned out. “I didn’t want it to be my fault he had a bad day.”
Two days earlier, Henderson held his first pro day. That one, on a Tuesday, was attended by just one team: the Cincinnati Reds. But word spread like wildfire after the infielder cranked home runs over the fence and onto the football field beyond it with regularity, with no part of the field spared from his power.
So when Thursday came for Henderson’s next session, not one team wanted to miss the rural Alabama teenager who seemed destined to become a star. Waters had seen it earlier that year, when he joined Henderson at various showcase tournaments. In those events, Henderson stood out, even among some of the top high school players in the country.
And while Waters worried about his own strike-throwing performance, there was no need to worry about Henderson. Even then, he seemed unflappable.
“He just crushed the ball,” Waters said. “And then every game he played, every scout was there. It was just unbelievable. And I know he was under super pressure every game.”
Henderson has been ever since, rising rapidly to become the top prospect in baseball, then becoming the youngest player in the majors with the Orioles. But his performances have belied his age, with an uncanny ability to hit for power the opposite way.
On Wednesday, he was named Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year, another feather in the cap of a player whose rise shows no signs of stopping. But before getting here, writing just his first name on the Green Monster at Fenway Park — a signature that will be known to all who come next — he was a little boy in a small town with a baseball glove.
Getting here wasn’t the idea — at least at first. Henderson just had fun playing ball with his brothers and his father, Allen. He hasn’t changed, even if his surroundings and teammates have.
A field of their own
As Gunnar and his mother, Kerry Henderson, rummaged around the house looking for baby photos to use during Gunnar’s senior year, they stumbled on a favorite. Gunnar sat in the dirt, with tears streaming from his eyes and blood on his face.
He was just 4 or 5 years old. But with his brother, Jackson, four years older, Gunnar partook in the same drills. On that occasion, a ground ball off the bat of Allen had kicked up and plunked Gunnar on the face, a startling revelation that baseball — while fun — could also hurt sometimes.
“Made us tough growing up,” Gunnar said. “We’re tough kids, and that’s just how we were raised.”
And they were raised out there, on the Little League field Allen built shortly after they moved into their house in Selma. The transformation was swift, turning a horse pasture into a ball diamond by killing off some grass, forming an infield, laying bases and purchasing a backstop to install.
It was more out of necessity, Allen said. Without many options in Selma for reliable ball fields, he saw the flat patch of grass and felt the solution was to make his own. When coaching city and travel teams for his sons, the Hendersons would host practice. Baseball was all around, from the batting tee and net hung in the garage to the 200-foot fences in the back yard.
“That’s where they lived for quite a few years,” Allen said. “Worked out quite well for him.”
“It was really fun to go from your back porch to your back yard to be able to practice baseball,” Gunnar added.
That’s also where Gunnar’s early development took place, with his father preaching the need to hit the pitch where it’s headed. Allen wanted to divide the plate, noting how young pitchers felt more comfortable pitching away — so Gunnar learned to step in slightly, driving the ball toward left.
With a net in the garage, Henderson would hit balls off the tee set up on the outside, learning how to let the pitch travel deep to avoid rolling over it. There are some “battle scars” in that garage, Allen said, from the occasional mishit balls that found wall instead of net. But that was only to be expected from a daily exercise.
And once Waters began throwing batting practice off the mound to Gunnar as an eighth grader, Gunnar saw more variance, a balance of inside and outside pitching. He always had fast hands, an ability to turn on the baseball; what he learned with Waters is how to react.
“When it’s thrown away, hit it that way,” Gunnar said. “My dad’s big thing: wherever the ball is, hit it that way. I feel like that’s been pretty good for me, it has worked for me, and I feel like that’s been a huge help for my success.”
Early in his time in the minor leagues, Gunnar developed a slightly closed stance. It helped him catch up to the sudden jump in velocity that follows pro ball. But as he rose the ranks in the minors, pitchers began to exploit Gunnar’s determination to hit the ball the other way.
They pitched him inside at Double-A Bowie, requiring an offseason adjustment to develop a more neutral batting stance. And by the time he arrived with the Orioles, his quick hands showed immediately in his second at-bat, as he crushed a thunderous homer to right field.
At Morgan Academy, Gunnar hit all but two or three of his senior year homers the opposite way. He maintained an even split in the minors. In his first month as an Oriole, he’s done the same, with two to right, one to center and one to left.
It’s the same thing he showed four years earlier at his pro day, driving ball after ball over the fence and onto the football field beyond.
“Most kids want to pull the ball and see how far they can hit it,” Waters said. “He’s just as interested in hitting it off the left-center wall on a line drive as he is with pulling it and hitting the ball 50 feet over the fence.”
‘Where it all started’
In that predawn fog, the kind that hovers around ground level in Alabama, Gunnar would drag his father outside for his favorite part of the day. He wouldn’t need to be in preschool until 9 a.m., and that’s also when Allen began work.
So the pair woke up at 6 a.m., went out in the carport and threw the baseball, an early morning warmup before returning to the field behind their house for a more full practice in the late afternoon.
When Gunnar’s eyes glaze over in the visitor’s clubhouse inside Fenway Park, that’s where his mind wanders — to the travel ball practices held at his house, the groundball he took to the face and the throwing and hitting sessions with his father. They all took place there in Selma, the town he still calls home in the offseason.
Shortly after Gunnar signed his deal with the Orioles, he realized he needed something better than a tee in his garage to practice. He helped design and build a 50-foot by 80-foot structure near an old horse barn on their property and down the right field line of the field he grew up playing on.
“It’s kind of like a dressed-up looking barn,” Allen said. “Then you roll the doors back and it’s a full cage with all the essentials.”
That’s where he’ll return once the Orioles’ season ends. For Gunnar, that’s where his love for baseball began, on the little field his father built. And baseball will never wander far from there, even as he becomes a star in the major leagues.
“It’s pretty special to be able to go back there and relive it,” Gunnar said. “Having the batting cage right where it all started, that’s pretty special to me.”
To appreciate what the Ravens’ offense has become under quarterback Lamar Jackson, consider where it started.
In Week 11 of the 2018 season, Jackson, then a 21-year-old rookie backing up a banged-up Joe Flacco, made his first career start. The Ravens were facing the Bengals, who in their Week 2 meeting in Cincinnati had allowed just 66 rushing yards. That was not an effective deterrent. To inaugurate his first drive as a starter, Jackson handed the ball off. Then he ran it himself. Then another handoff. Then another keeper. By the time running back Alex Collins reached the end zone, the Ravens had covered 66 yards in 11 plays, not one of them a pass.
As Jackson rose to stardom over the next three years, his success became inextricable from the offense’s identity: He was a dual-threat quarterback in a run-heavy offense in a pass-happy league. Jackson’s arm talent was abundant — he led the NFL in passing touchdowns in 2019 and set franchise and NFL single-game records for passing yards and accuracy, respectively, last year — but his rushing ability supercharged one of the sport’s best-ever running attacks. More often than not, Jackson made the math work for offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
Entering Sunday’s showdown with the Super Bowl favorite Buffalo Bills, the Ravens’ offensive efficiency has become as remarkable as their inverted approach. A run-first team has become a pass-first team, turning early downs into big-play opportunities and showcasing Jackson’s improvements as one of the NFL’s most well-rounded quarterbacks.
“It’s not the Ravens of the past no more,” Jackson said after a Week 2 loss to the Miami Dolphins, a game in which the Ravens averaged 8.8 yards per play — one of their highest-ever rates — despite paltry contributions from their running backs. “This is the NFL; it’s a new era. We’ve got to play ball. We’ve got to know that if the passing is working, we’ve got to keep passing it if we’re doing it.”
They haven’t stopped yet. According to analytics website RBSDM.com, the Ravens’ early-down pass rate — which measures how often a team passes on first or second down, except during garbage time — through three games is 63.6%, sixth highest in the NFL. Their matchup against Buffalo now profiles less as an old-school-versus-new-school battle and more as a modern NFL air show; the Bills, led by star quarterback Josh Allen, rank second in early-down pass rate (68.1%), behind only the Kansas City Chiefs (69.5%).
The Ravens’ philosophical shift, until this season’s opening month, was gradual. In 2019, when Jackson won NFL Most Valuable Player honors after overseeing the league’s most efficient rushing and passing offense, the Ravens were last in the NFL in early-down run rate (43.4%). One year later, they were 30th (44.6%).
Last year, with injuries hurting the Ravens’ run game and a leaky defense forcing the offense to play catch-up, they ranked 12th in early-down pass rate (54.3%) — and fared well, ranking in the top 11 in both first- and second-down efficiency, according to Football Outsiders. It was a new look for quarterback and play-caller alike. Never before in Greg Roman’s four seasons with the San Francisco 49ers (2011 to 2014) and one full year with the Bills (2015) had an offense he coordinated finished above even 52% in early-down pass rate.
After an offseason and training camp in which Jackson passed as well as he ever has, if not better, the Ravens did not wait long to test out their proof of concept. They threw the ball on nearly three-quarters of their early downs in Week 1 against the New York Jets, then on over 60% of their early downs against the Dolphins. Even Sunday, when their rushing attack finally broke out in a win against the New England Patriots, the Ravens were among the NFL’s more pass-inclined teams.
“I try to mix it up,” Roman said last Thursday. “This time of year, we’re still kind of figuring out who we are, so I think I’ll get a better feel for that. It will change week to week; sometimes we’ll throw it more, sometimes we’ll run it more, but it’s going to be a week-to-week thing. I definitely think that the passing game is improving, but this is a whole new week, and we just have to keep getting better.”
Jackson said Wednesday that opponents this season have sometimes lined up on early downs as if they’re expecting the Ravens to turn back the clock. But defensive resources are finite. Teams committing to stopping Roman’s run game have opened up throwing lanes for a much-improved passing attack. According to the play index site nflfastR, the Ravens are averaging 10 yards on first-down pass plays (including scrambles) and 7.1 yards on second-down pass plays. Buffalo is averaging 6.5 yards and 7.1 yards, respectively, in those situations.
The Ravens’ early-down success has kept their offense on schedule and Jackson in command. Already an MVP front-runner, he’s first in the NFL in passer rating and fifth in rushing yards. Entering Week 4, the Ravens lead the NFL in points per game (33.0), yards per play (6.9) and offensive DVOA, a measure of efficiency.
“It’s Greg Roman and the offensive staff realizing people are going to play them a certain way,” CBS NFL analyst Charles Davis, who’ll call Sunday’s game in Baltimore, said in an interview. “I mean, they’re the Baltimore Ravens; you run the football, and you run it quite effectively. So when you throw the ball in the early downs, that’s countering what they planned for. … So I just think it’s Greg Roman and this staff saying, ‘Hey, we know how you’re going to play us,’ because we’ve earned that by how we run the ball. So we’re going to go counter to that and see if you’re going to adjust.”
Coach John Harbaugh, who lauded the Ravens’ “revolutionary” offense ahead of their record-breaking 2019 season, said Monday that “evolution kind of happens as it goes.” Amid departures from their passing game (wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown) and injuries to their running game (running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards) over the past year, the Ravens have tinkered and tweaked. Their offense is still unique, just in new ways.
“If you ask any defensive coordinator or head coach in this league, they’ll tell you that this offense is hard to defend,” Harbaugh said. “So that’s a pretty good measuring stick, right there. Now, executing and then keeping it going and coming up with ways to keep people off balance, that’s what coaches do, that’s what coordinators do. I really believe Greg is one of the very best in the business at that.”
The Bills won’t make anything easy Sunday. Despite a slew of injuries to key contributors, Buffalo has the NFL’s second-best pass defense and fifth-best rushing defense, according to Football Outsiders. If Roman and Jackson want to test an injury-ridden secondary, he’ll have to trust his protection against a fearsome pass rush. If they want to establish the run, they’ll have to overcome a defense that tackles the ball carrier at or behind the line of scrimmage nearly 30% of the time, one of the NFL’s best rates.
So: run or pass? Doesn’t matter to Ravens guard Kevin Zeitler. Inside the locker room Wednesday, he couldn’t even hazard a guess about how much the run-first offense he’d joined before the 2021 season had changed.
“You know, I honestly haven’t really thought about it too much,” Zeitler said. He added: “Teams like to do what they’re good at. If it’s passing, great. If it’s running, great. And I think if it works, it’s going to work.”
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