Team Canada Needs Joe Thornton

November 23, 2009

by Jeremy Gibson… Steve Yzerman is either the luckiest or unluckiest man in sports. Depending on how you look at it, the Executive Director and General Manager of Team Canada at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games is either a dream job or a job full of such intense scrutiny only a lunatic could handle it. Yzerman literally gets to draft a fantasy hockey team from among the very best that Canada has to offer. A gold medal will forever cement his legacy while at the same time it will increase his odds of becoming a GM in the NHL. However, failure to win the tournament will be seen as a disaster, with Yzerman wilting under the pressure and suffocating under the scrutiny. The failure might stick with him forever – just ask Marc Crawford who is still remembered as the coach who did not use Gretzky in the shootout in 1998. Yzerman has surrounded himself with experienced and respected executives and coaches, but ultimately the final decisions are his and his alone.

But that is not stopping many hockey “experts” from doing all they can to lend their opinion to Yzerman’s cause. On a near daily basis another Canadian website, magazine, or newspaper is publishing their version of the 2010 Canadian team. Pierre McGuire, one of Canada’s leading hockey analysts, has been publishing his roster throughout the past year, with the latest version released on November 4th, 100 days before the start of the Olympics. While the core of his team is expected (Crosby, Iginla, Brodeur) there is one notable absence, a man who is also shockingly absent from many other lists – Joe Thornton.

The decision that Thornton is not good enough to represent his country is baffling. His hockey resume is outstanding. A first overall draft choice in 1997 he made the jump directly from junior to the NHL and was named captain of the Bruins in 2002 at the young age of 23. He helped turn Boston from an Eastern Conference bottom feeder into a force. After being traded to San Jose, he single-handedly transformed Jonathan Cheechoo into a goal scoring machine, and led the Sharks to four straight playoff appearances. Included in that run were three consecutive 100-point seasons and a Presidents Trophy. Joe is a 6-time NHL All-Star, has led the league in assists on four occasions, and was a winner of both the Art Ross and Hart trophies in 2006. He is the highest scoring NHL player this decade and is off to another quick start this season – tied for 6th in league scoring with his team on top of the standings.

Detractors are quick to point to his playoff performance, which admittedly is less than spectacular. In nine career playoff appearances he has yet to advance past the second round. Three times his teams have been upset by low seeds: 2002 and 2004 by Montreal, and last season by the 8th seeded Ducks. In all three playoff flameouts Thornton was heavily criticized for his lack of leadership and for disappearing when the games mattered most. Those analysts who do not have a place for Thornton on Team Canada say that the playoffs and the Olympics are very similar – short series, full of pressure and intensity where every player must be at the top of his game. If Thornton cannot deliver in the playoffs, how can he possibly handle the pressure in Vancouver?

What people easily forget, however, is that despite never winning a Cup, Thornton has delivered in the playoffs. Aside from 2004 when he was shutout in the 7-game loss to Montreal (while playing with broken ribs), Thornton has produced 53 points in 69 career postseason games. Throw out 1998 when we was a fresh-faced 18-year old rookie, and Joe’s point-per-game average in the playoffs is 0.84, higher than Pavel Datsyuk, Ryan Getzlaf, and Brenden Morrow, all of whom are considered Olympic locks.

What is more poignant is that while using the NHL playoffs as a proxy for Olympic pressure has merit, it is far from the most meaningful measure. After all, what is a better indicator of how well a player will handle the pressure of playing for his country than to look at how he has handled it while playing for Canada in the past? Playing for Canada in an international gold medal game is far more intense than facing the Ducks in Game 1 of a Western Conference Quarterfinal. When called upon internationally, Joe Thornton has delivered for Canada time and again. Consider his success:

· World Junior Championships – Gold Medal in 1997

· World Championships – Silver Medal and Leading Scorer in 2005

· World Cup – Gold Medal in 2004

Sure the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin was a disaster, but that disaster can be blamed on many members of that team, not Thornton alone.

In Canada, the national hockey team either wins or loses – silver or bronze is not good enough. In 1972, Paul Henderson led Canada past Russia in the Summit Series. In 1987, Gretzky and Lemieux helped Canada defeat Russia in the Canada Cup. In Salt Lake in 2002, Canada ended a 50-year Olympic drought behind Sakic, Iginla, and Brodeur. Those three teams will forever be known as winners, and Yzerman will attempt to have the 2010 team join that elite fraternity. To do that he must be careful to avoid the mistakes made by his predecessors: the inexplicable decision in 1998 to take Rob Zamuner to Nagano and leave Mark Messier at home, or the decision that Sidney Crosby wasn’t seasoned enough to play in ’06. Both of those moves backfired spectacularly, mainly because the best players available were not chosen.

Joe Thornton is one of the best hockey players in the world, let alone Canada. He deserves to be a member of Canada’s 2010 team. As an emotional leader he might be less than adequate, but as a pure hockey performer he is one of the best in the business. On a team with Iginla, Niedermayer, Pronger, and Crosby, there will be leaders aplenty. Though the pressure will still be intense, with the shackles of leadership not weighing him down Thornton can relax and focus on what he does best – play hockey at a high level. Hopefully Yzerman sees it the same way.

Eric Hinske starring in: Redefining Lucky

November 7, 2009

by Jeremy Gibson… “Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” – Lou Gehrig, July 4, 1939

“I’m one of the few who can say they have a ring from both places [Boston and New York], me and Eric Hinske.” – Johnny Damon, November 4, 2009.

In 1939 Lou Gehrig stood on the grass of Yankee Stadium on Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day and addressed a huge, emotional crowd. His “Luckiest Man” speech brought tears to the eyes of thousands, even the ballplayers standing behind him. Over time, that monologue has evolved into one of the most famous and well known speeches in history. In 2002 it was voted by fans as the fifth greatest moment in the history of Major League Baseball. It has been immortalized in video and audio clips, in books, articles, and essays, and in feature films. This past Wednesday, after watching the Yankees wrap up their 27th World Series title, one can be forgiven for assuming a re-enactment of the speech was forthcoming. After all, a brand new “luckiest man” had just been crowned – Eric Hinske.

Toronto fans will remember Eric Hinske. He was one of the key pieces in J.P. Ricciardi’s master plan to transform the Blue Jays into a young, versatile, and contending team. In his first season with the club, he batted .279, slugged 24 home runs, and drove in 84 runs while capturing the 2002 American League Rookie of the Year award. But instead of launching his career, that season only saddled him with lofty expectations, expectations that he never came close to meeting. In the following two seasons he completely fell apart: his power disappeared, his average dropped below .250, and his defense remained poor. He was criticized by Toronto fans and media for looking lazy and out of shape, including a famous quote from Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons accusing Hinske of “eating his rookie of the year trophy.”

The combination of poor performance and injuries eventually cost him his position, losing the third base spot to Corey Koskie and Shea Hillenbrand. The next season he was bumped from first base by Lyle Overbay, and then moved from the outfield in favour of Alex Rios. Finally, Toronto fans were put out of their misery when Eric was shipped to Boston for cash considerations. He was an ineffective player on a bad team and the fact that he was moved to a championship contender lead many to assume he would eventually be released, ending his career.

Funny how things worked out – Hinske is still an ineffective player, but he has now appeared in three consecutive World Series, winning two of them. As a member of the Red Sox he defeated Colorado in 2007. He joined Tampa Bay and came agonizingly close to beating the Phillies in 2008. Then the ultimate rabbit’s foot – after signing for the hapless Pittsburgh Pirates (one of the few teams who wanted him) he was traded mid-season to the best team in baseball, the New York Yankees.

Some players labour their entire career and never win a championship. Names like Dan Marino, Ted Williams, Darryl Sittler, and Karl Malone come to mind. Eric Hinske now has two titles, and to say that he is extremely undeserving of both is a massive understatement. Take a look at the contribution he has made, both in the regular season and playoffs, in “earning” his two rings:

2007 Boston Red Sox

Regular Season

Games:84   At Bats:186   Average:0.204   HR:6   Runs:25   RBI:21

Playoffs

Games:3   At Bats:2   Average:0.000   HR:0   Runs:1   RBI:0

2009 New York Yankees

Regular Season

Games:39  At Bats:84   Average:0.226  HR:7  Runs:13  RBI:14

Playoffs

Games:1   At Bats:0  Average:0.000   HR:0   Runs:1   RBI:0

Normally, those regular season numbers are enough to get a player sent to the minors or released. Somehow Eric Hinske parlayed those horrid stats into a spot on two World Series Championship rosters. This year he only saw one plate appearance, a Game 5 walk against Cliff Lee. But that one plate appearance earned him one World Series ring.

It is hard to imagine how players like Vernon Wells and Roy Halladay must have felt watching Hinske celebrate alongside Jeter, A-Rod, Sabathia, Rivera, and Teixeira, while they sit at home year after year, playoff virginity intact. Are they jealous, angry, or disappointed? Or do they simply wonder – how does it feel to be the luckiest man on the face of the earth?

The 2009 MLB Playoffs: So Far So Bad

October 30, 2009

by Jeremy Gibson… The 105th World Series began on Wednesday with the defending champion Philadelphia Phillies defeating the powerful (and highly paid) New York Yankees 6 – 1 in a cold and wet Yankee Stadium. The Yankees were an absolute beast of a team during the regular season and had little trouble advancing past Minnesota and Los Angeles, but were thoroughly dominated by mid-season acquisition Cliff Lee. Regardless of how one-sided Game 1 appeared, this series has all of the ingredients to be a classic. New York boasts a ferocious lineup, with AL HR and RBI leader Mark Teixeira, AL Wins leader CC Sabathia, the always dangerous Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and Johnny Damon, along with the greatest closer of all time in Mariano Rivera. Philadelphia is also rich in talent, with stars Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Jimmy Rollins leading the way, not to mention Raul Ibanez and Jayson Werth. On paper it looks like a dream series for Major League Baseball: two evenly matched teams, two passionate fan bases, two proud, historical franchises, and two large markets.

MLB now must hope that it lives up to its classic potential, because to this point the 2009 postseason has been terrible. There are times when the 162-game regular season seems to drag into eternity, but the entire point of the long schedule is to set the tone for the crown jewel event of the season – the playoffs. Regular season play is an appetizer to the main course, a Caesar salad to the postseason’s steak and potatoes. Unfortunately this year the salad tastes better than the meat. All six playoff matchups have been brutal, failing to deliver much drama or excitement. The baseball itself has been dreadful, and is not helped by cold, wet weather and long, drawn out games. Despite some wonderful storylines, such as Alex Rodriguez exorcising his playoff demons, and Brad Lidge shaking off a disastrous regular season, 2009 is shaping up to be the worst edition of the playoffs in recent memory. Here’s why:

Closers

A team’s most dominant reliever is the closer, the man responsible for shutting the door on close games and keeping ninth inning leads safe. Usually, a huge difference between playoff and non-playoff teams is that playoff teams have dominant closers. This year is no exception. But what we have seen is a dreadful display of finishing. Below is a comparison between regular season and playoff stats for the six closers who have been eliminated:

Regular Season

Playoffs

Name

Team

Saves/Opps

ERA

Saves/Opps

ERA

Joe Nathan

MIN

47 / 52

2.10

0 / 1

9.00

Jonathan Papelbon

BOS

38 / 41

1.85

0 / 1

13.50

Brian Fuentes

LAA

48 / 55

3.93

3 / 4

1.93

Huston Street

COL

35 / 37

3.06

1 / 2

13.50

Ryan Franklin

STL

38 / 43

1.92

0 / 1

0.00

Jonathan Broxton

LAD

36 / 42

2.61

2 / 3

4.05

Five of those six closers were All Stars this season, but none of them pitched like an all star when the games mattered most. Each and every one of them blew a postseason save, and in the playoffs, when every loss is crushing, that is unacceptable. Nathan was called upon to protect a two run lead in the bottom of the ninth of Game 2 against the Yankees, a chance for the massive underdog Twins to steal a road victory, but he blew it. Papelbon imploded in the eight and ninth innings of Game 3 to hand a series sweep to the Angels. Street was just plain awful against the Phillies, including single-handedly blowing the clinching game, and Broxton couldn’t hold a lead in the hugely important Game 4 of the NLCS. Only Fuentes and Franklin had lower ERA’s in the playoffs, but did they really pitch better? Fuentes unraveled in the 11th inning of ALCS Game 2, blowing the lead for the Angels, and came dangerously close to collapsing again in Game 5. He was so ineffective that manager Mike Scoscia skipped over him entirely in key situations. Franklin blew Game 2 against the Dodgers, and while it was Matt Holliday’s egregious error that started the downfall, it was Franklin’s inability to get anybody else out that ended it. Only two closers in the 2009 playoffs have not blown a save, and fittingly they are the two left standing – Mariano Rivera and Brad Lidge.

Errors

If defense wins championships, then nobody in this year’s playoffs wants to win. From Chase Utley suddenly turning into Chuck Knoblauch and not being able to throw the ball to first, to the Angels morphing into a little league team, failing to properly field a sacrifice bunt (twice in a row!), the fielding has been downright comedic. Of the eight playoff qualifiers, only the Cardinals were ranked in the bottom half in errors committed during the regular season. The other seven teams were ranked in the top ten. Fielding should be a strong point for these clubs. In the playoffs, however, every team but the Dodgers has committed multiple errors, lead by the Angles with an unsightly nine! Overall the number of errors per game in the playoffs for these teams has increased almost 10% over the regular season average.

But those numbers only include errors that make it into the boxscore. There have also been an absurd number of mental errors on the basepaths. Minnesota’s Carlos Gomez overran second base costing the Twins a run, and teammate Nick Punto did the very same thing in the very next game. The Angels were even worse: Bobby Abreu was caught between second and third, Erick Aybar forgot to touch second base while turning a double play, and Vladimir Guerrero was inexplicably doubled off first base on a shallow fly ball to the outfield. Without those mistakes, who knows if the Angels could have turned the series around?

It’s bad enough that a large number of errors are being committed in the first place, but worse is that these errors are occurring at critical junctures in games. Think of Matt Holliday dropping a fly ball that would have ended Game 2 and given the Cardinals a series tie heading to St. Louis. The Angels gave away two games in the ALCS, when Maicer Izturis threw a ground ball into the outfield in extra innings of Game 2, and Scott Kazmir and Howie Kendrick botched back-to-back sacrifice bunts in the eighth inning of Game 6. Fans are supposed to be seeing the best baseball of the year at playoff time, not mistakes reserved for spring training.

Umpiring

The issue with umpiring in this year’s playoffs has been well documented but is worth mentioning again: the umpires have been atrocious. Baseball umpires take a lot of heat in the best of times, and normally do a very good job. Missing a bang-bang play at first or the location of a 98 mile-per-hour fastball are forgivable offenses. But their performance in the playoffs is an entirely different story. Standing fifteen-feet from a ball landing 15-inches in fair territory yet calling it foul? Calling a baserunner safe when he is tagged with the ball while standing 18-inches off the base? Inexcusable.

By the count of Sports Illustrated, there have been at least six blatantly incorrect calls to this point. MLB supposedly reserves the biggest games for the best umpires, those who have performed the best over the course of the season, but they might have missed the boat this year. What’s worse is that the umpires are escaping punishment from the league for their incompetence. The poor decision making is threatening both the quality and integrity of the postseason, and it’s only a matter of time before a bad call decides the outcome of a game. The umpiring crew did a good job in Game 1 of the World Series, including correctly awarding Jimmy Rollins a double play. Let’s hope the good work continues.

Lack of Drama

For some, the notion of saying that the 2009 MLB Playoffs have lacked drama is ludicrous. They will point to the following stats:

  • 11 one-run games
  • 3 games decided in extra innings
  • 6 ninth inning rallies to tie or take the lead
  • 14 lead changes in the 7th inning or later

It is true that numbers like that make for exciting games, but one or two exciting games do not make a postseason – exciting series make a postseason. To this point the playoffs have offered six fairly dull series. The Division series round resulted in three sweeps and a four game set, while the NLCS and ALCS ended in five and six games respectively. Teams facing elimination were a combined 1 – 6. Not a lot of magic or drama.

In order for a postseason to be special or memorable it absolutely must contain either one or two 7-game series, or at the very least a few intensely fought 6-game battles. The 1975 World Series between Cincinnati and Boston is widely considered to be the greatest ever played – seven dramatic, nail-biting, and close games. But if that series had been decided by four dramatic, nail-biting, and close games, would it still be considered a classic? In 1986, if that weak ground ball to first would have trickled through Bill Buckner’s legs in the fourth game of a five game blowout, would we still remember it as one of the craziest moments of all time? Doubtful.

So to this point, the playoffs have been a bust. But thankfully there is still hope, one more chance to salvage the conclusion of what has been a wonderful baseball season. It’s time to sit back and see if the Phillies and Yankees can deliver.

Rollercoaster Ride for Liverpool

October 28, 2009

by Jeremy Gibson… Read a season preview for any sports league and the following is bound to be written: “they have a solid group of players and if they can build on last year’s success their title drought may finally end.” Such a quote is applied annually to the Chicago Cubs, and this year fits the NHL’s Blackhawks and the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers. In the English Premier League, one team fit that description heading into this season – Liverpool.

The Reds were coming off their best season since 2002, an 86-point 2nd place finish behind Manchester United. They lost a mere two matches over the course of the entire schedule, and reached the quarterfinals of the Champion’s League. After an injury plagued 2008/09 Fernando Torres was expected to blossom even further in his third year with the club, and become the striker they had lacked for years. Despite the loss of midfielder Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid, Liverpool’s roster still dripped with talent, including captain Steven Gerrard. In addition, Liverpool’s three main rivals were hit hard in the offseason. Emmanuel Adebayor left Arsenal for Manchester City, Cristiano Ronaldo abandoned Manchester United for the green pastures of Madrid, and Chelsea was hit with a UEFA sanctioned transfer ban, preventing them from adding to their roster in any way, shape, or form. Liverpool looked to be in great shape to end their 19 year title drought.

But going into Sunday’s match against Manchester United, Liverpool has been a complete and utter disaster. In the nine league games prior to Sunday they sported a 5 – 4 record, the four losses doubling the amount they sustained in all 38 matches last season. They were floundering in 8th place, seven points adrift of the leaders, and riding a four match losing streak (including two in the Champion’s League). Not since 1987 had they dropped four straight. In addition, their Champion’s League campaign has been rotten. Two straight defeats, including one at home, and a narrow victory over tiny minnows Debrecen have them in danger of missing the knockout rounds entirely. They looked nothing like the club that was supposed to return to glory this year.

All of which makes Sunday’s 2-0 victory over Manchester United so shocking. Man U was riding an extremely rich run of form: six wins and a draw in their past seven Premier League matches; ten victories and a draw in their past eleven matches overall (Carling Cup and Champion’s League included). Compare that with the chaos surrounding Liverpool in recent days: financial troubles, ownership crisis, coaching rumours, player injuries, and fan protests. It was obvious that the last thing they needed was a visit from the best.

But a team in crisis usually plays with effort rarely seen, and that is exactly what transpired at Anfield. The Reds controlled the game from start to finish and were justly rewarded with a two goal victory. The negative momentum and publicity surrounding the club has, at least temporarily, been silenced. But the inspired effort leaves one question begging to be answered: which Liverpool side is for real?

Their season to this point has been as up-and-down as a rollercoaster. At times they have dominated – a six match winning streak throughout early and mid-September, outscoring opponents 18 – 5. At times they have struggled – dropping two of their first three matches of the season, including one at their home fortress. And at times they have looked terrible, so inept and awful that it is easy to picture them falling straight to the bottom of the table. As evidence see the recent four match losing streak, including being completely outplayed, outhustled, and outclassed by Lyon, Fiorentina, and Chelsea.

But one thing must be kept in mind when analyzing Liverpool’s performance: a team is never as good as they look when they’re winning, and never as bad as they look when they’re losing. The truth of how good this team actually is lies somewhere in the middle of their recent form. The bottom line is that Liverpool is stocked with world class players, but lack depth, and it is this lack of depth that will make it extremely difficult to challenge for both the Premier League title and the Champion’s League crown. At the same time, they definitely have too much firepower and class to fall out of the top four.

While it would be difficult to convince a manager like Rafa Benitez, and superstar players like Torres and Gerrard that they would be better off focusing solely on one competition, the reality is that Liverpool’s best (perhaps only) opportunity to taste success this year is to do just that. Nobody – fans and players alike – likes to see a weakened squad sent out for key matches, but saving the ‘A’ team for domestic matches is the strategy the Reds should follow. Consider this: since 2001 Liverpool has captured two Carling Cups, two FA Cups, the UEFA Cup, and the Champion’s League, but zero Premier League banners. In fact, the Premier League title has annually escaped them since 1990 – a fact very hard to swallow for their passionate fan base. It is hard for fans to accept their team as the best in Europe when they are continually second best (or worse) at home. Focusing on domestic play may give them their best shot at re-claiming the prize that the fans crave most – the Premier League title. The Reds just have to hope that it isn’t too late, that the hole they have dug for themselves isn’t too deep.

Karma Bites Jonathan Papelbon

October 20, 2009

by Jeremy Gibson… Sports are ingrained in our culture and society for a variety of reasons – competition, athleticism, escape, and team building to name a few. What draws me to sports on top of those factors is the innate fairness that is embedded within them. Underdogs and favourites, flukes and upsets, skill and luck, no matter the circumstances, over the course

of a game or a season everything always seems to even itself out in the sporting world.

There is another side to fairness than the evening out of wins and losses: the fact that sports have a magical way of fairly treating every athlete the way they deserve to be treated. Ever notice how players who play with honour and respect seem to get a few more bounces and breaks than those who don’t? If an athlete does not respect the game, or their opponent, they usually get what’s coming to them. It’s called karma, and Jonathan Papelbon got a huge dose of it last weekend.

There are many “take that” moments in the annals of sports. Before last weekend, my standout memory was Roberto Alomar in the 1992 ALCS, hitting a game tying, ninth inning home-run off of Dennis Eckersley. Eckersley had struck out Ed Sprague with two men on base the inning before, and celebrated by glaring into the Jays dugout, pointing, swearing, and walking cockily off the field. Alomar’s raised arms with index fingers’ pointing at the sky was a resounding “screw you” gesture to the arrogance of the A’s closer.

But there was something more satisfying in Papelbon’s Sunday implosion. Watching him blow the save to eliminate Boston was one of the highlights of the ’09 MLB season. As a writer I try to remain as objective as possible, but right now I will let my subjective opinion rule the day. I do not like Jonathan Papelbon, and seeing him lose the game – and season – for Boston was a perfect ending.

Don’t get me wrong: Papelbon is a fantastic pitcher. He is a dominant closer at a time when many teams lack a surefire stopper. He is Boston’s all-time saves leader, and the owner of incredible career stats and a World Series ring. But it is his character, his integrity, and his arrogance that rub people the wrong way.

Papelbon likes to run his mouth. He considers himself an outspoken leader on the Red Sox, but his age and lack of experience (only 28 with 5 career seasons) do not qualify him for a leadership role, especially on a team that has many grizzled, veteran leaders. Names like Jason Varitek, Tim Wakefield, and Mike Lowell come to mind. But it is not the fact that he is outspoken that brings him down. His problem is with the things he says and the method in which he says them.

Many players, at least those who have garnered league-wide respect, deal with conflict or player issues internally. Not Papelbon. He prefers to air his dirty laundry in public, through the media. A few years ago he gave an interview in Esquire magazine, calling ex-teammate Manny Ramirez a “clubhouse cancer” who was eating away at the team. Earlier this season he voiced his displeasure on a Boston radio show about the acquisition of Billy Wagner, stating “What has he done? Has he pitched his year?” He even took a shot at the greatest closer to ever play, the respectful Mariano Rivera, before last year’s All Star game, saying that he deserved to close instead of Rivera. The list goes on. He is like the Sean Avery of baseball.

It was a game this September against the Blue Jays where Pabelbon riled me the most. With two outs in the ninth inning Adam Lind stepped to the plate with a chance to match Carlos Delgado’s record of four home runs in a game, having already launched three out of Fenway Park earlier. Unfortunately he never got a chance as Papelbon drilled him in the elbow with his first pitch. Not only did Lind not get his chance, the incident also effectively ended his season as he sat out the final few games with an elbow injury.

Sportsnet.ca columnist and Blue Jays statistician Scott Carson recently wrote a column about how disgusted he was with Papelbon’s behaviour that day, citing how the pitch was uncalled for in a meaningless game. To go one step further, it was also highly unsportsmanlike. I understand that he did not want to be known in baseball history as the pitcher who gave up the fourth home run to Lind. But he easily could have walked him to spare himself that ignominy. It was almost as if he was issuing a warning to all of baseball – mess with Boston and pay the consequences. His official explanation after the game was that the ball slipped. But consider that to that point he had thrown three pitches, all pinpoint strikes, and that the “slip” just happened to occur against Lind and you can clearly see the farce in that explanation. The pitch was full of intent.

On a team full of respected veterans, hard-working youngsters, and classy players, Papelbon stands out like a sore thumb. Until he starts behaving like a professional more and more fans across North America will enjoy watching him struggle. Hopefully the Angels ninth inning rally will serve as a lesson for Jonathan. There’s no escaping karma – just ask Eckersley.

The Legacy of J.P. Ricciardi

October 11, 2009

by Jeremy Gibson… It is hard to imagine a more difficult job in sports than General Manager. GM seems like a lofty and glamorous position, but in reality it brings immense pressure, enormous responsibility, and very little recognition – except for when things go wrong. Everything associated with a pro sports team is in the GM’s hands, such as: hiring coaches, signing/drafting/trading players, controlling the minor league system, balancing the budget, negotiating the salary cap (if applicable), and heading up the ticketing, scouting, and sales departments. He also must be accountable to the owner, the media, and above all the fans. One slip-up in any of those areas results in losing a championship. No championships and the GM is vilified by fans and ultimately fired. Considering only one team wins each year, the failure rate is astronomical. But win and your legacy is cemented forever.

In Toronto, Pat Gillick is still viewed as a genius and a hero for winning the World Series in 1992 and 1993. Leafs fans still hold Cliff Fletcher on a pedestal for acquiring Doug Gilmour and restoring pride to the blue and white in the early and mid ‘90’s. Conversely, John Ferguson Jr. is so widely reviled in this city for the way the Leafs crumbled under his watch that he may never again be able to walk safely down Yonge Street.

This leads us to J.P. Ricciardi, the embattled Blue Jays GM who was let go last Saturday. Ricciardi was hired in November of 2001 with great hype. Here was a man who was going to take Toronto to the next level, a statistical genius set to usher in a new era and set the baseball world on fire. His presence alone helped to rejuvenate a stagnant franchise, a team riding a streak of eight consecutive playoff-free seasons. Fans had become disillusioned with Gord Ash and his high-salaried veteran teams that continually fell short. J.P. was going to radically redefine Blue Jays baseball.

Well, we all know that did not happen. Despite early promise the Jays never did return to the postseason and now find themselves further away than ever before. What happened? Why did he fail so dramatically? Looking back, Ricciardi made a lot of very sound baseball moves. Players like Aaron Hill, Adam Lind, Ricky Romero, Shaun Marcum, Brett Cecil, and Travis Snider are all J.P. draft picks. Trading for Eric Hinske (remember – Hinske was actually good at one time) and Ted Lilly were shrewd moves, both on-the-field and off-the-field with their cost effective salaries. Unfortunately, the bevy of terrible moves made subsequent to those have forever tarnished his legacy. He will not be remembered as the man who drafted baseball’s next superstar in Aaron Hill, but as the man who botched the Roy Halladay trade talks, ruining what could be his final year as a Jay. Below are three more lasting (and negative) impressions of the Ricciardi years.

The Phantom Shortstop

Shortstop has always been my favourite position, both as a player and as a fan. Tony Fernandez remains my favourite player of all time, with John McDonald my favourite current Jay. Shortstop is considered the general of the infield, the rock of the defense and one of the most important players on the entire team. Derek Jeter, Cal Ripken Jr., Ozzie Smith – all the unquestioned leaders of their respective franchises.

But in recent years this position seems to have vanished from the Blue Jays. From the day Ricciardi took control of the club at the end of 2001 to this season, Toronto has utilized eleven different starting shortstops, with each receiving a substantial amount of playing time. The list includes Alex Gonzalez, Chris Woodward, Cesar Izturis, Felipe Lopez, Russ Adams, Chris Gomez, Mike Bordick, Royce Clayton, John McDonald, David Eckstein, and Marco Scutaro. A team can not find consistency or identity when it experiences that much turnover at a marquee position in eight seasons.

Baseball experts list shortstop in the “needs” column of Toronto’s season previews each and every offseason, yet the need is consistently left unmet. This year the Jays finally found consistency at the position with Scutaro, only to face the very real possibility that he will leave in the offseason via free agency. Why J.P. never addressed this need is beyond me. One can offer the same argument about the catcher position, but at least Gregg Zaun and Rod Barajas served a few good years. For some reason shortstop remains an unfillable void.

Giving Up On Players Too Soon

Chris Carpenter won the N.L. Cy Young in 2005 with the St. Louis Cardinals and is a front runner for the award again this year. He was originally a Toronto Blue Jay. Jayson Werth won the World Series with the Phillies last year, and this season made the All-Star team while finishing with 36 home runs, 99 RBI, and 20 stolen bases. He was originally a Toronto Blue Jay. Cesar Izturis was an All-Star shortstop in 2005 with the LA Dodgers. He was originally a Toronto Blue Jay. Get the picture?

To be fair, predicting future success for players is impossible, especially when it comes to Carpenter who was coming off several injury plagued seasons. Seeing players blossom in other environments is something every GM in every sport has to deal with. Consider David Ortiz who went from bench player in Minnesota to home run basher in Boston, or in hockey when Martin St. Louis went from undersized scrub in Calgary to NHL All-Star in Tampa Bay. In fact, thousands of Leaf fans are expecting Nik Antropov to score 50 goals this year now that he is out of a Toronto uniform.

But the situation under Ricciardi is different because of the sheer number of players who exploded elsewhere. On top of the three mentioned above, you can add Felipe Lopez (All-Star shortstop with Cincinnati in 2005, still playing well for Milwaukee), and Brandon Lyon (excellent closer for Arizona last season and dominant set-up man for Detroit this year). Five players all jettisoned at about the same time, and all five blossoming into excellent or star players at about the same time. Outside of trading Werth straight up for Jason Frasor, the Jays received virtually nothing in return.

What makes it even harder to swallow is that each of those players plays a premium position, lineup spots Toronto is currently struggling to fill. Starting pitching, outside of Halladay, continues to be inconsistent. Chris Carpenter would have solved that problem. Werth, a big hitting, powerful outfielder, would fit perfectly in the batting order, especially with the struggles of Wells. The complete collapse of B.J. Ryan has left the Jays without a closer, a role Lyon could fill nicely. As far as shortstops go - refer to the section above. Hindsight is indeed 20-20, but those are five huge mistakes.

Forgetting His Strategy

When Ricciardi was hired he brought with him a managerial style made famous by the book Moneyball by Michael Lewis. Moneyball, a revolutionary way to build a baseball team, was created by Billy Beane of the Oakland A’s, Ricciardi’s mentor before Toronto. The strategy focused on finding players who excelled in getting on base, who played above-average defence, and who were smart base runners. It stressed the importance of salary management for small market teams, teams that could not afford to throw money at players, and had to find creative ways to win. This meant eschewing the traditional big money statistics like home runs, RBI’s, and batting average, and finding players who excelled in more obscure stats such as OBP, OPS, UZR, and VORP. It also stressed the importance of never paying a high price for a closer – a closer was nothing more than a failed starter and could be created from within the system.

Ricciardi was a huge stat-head and he promised to bring this way of thinking to the Jays. In the beginning he was relatively successful. By 2005, players who didn’t play his style of game, especially those who ate a huge chunk of payroll, were gone. Carlos Delgado, Raul Mondesi, Brad Fullmer, Darrin Fletcher, Billy Koch – all sent packing. In their place came players who played the “right way”. Eric Hinske, Reed Johnson, Bobby Kielty – these players played sound defence and drew walks.

But something strange happened to Ricciardi at the end of the 2005 season. He seemed to lose his way, abandoning the strategy he had patiently implemented four years earlier. If he was supposed to be a GM who used advanced statistical analysis to find cheap but effective players, how else do you explain Gustavo Chacin, and Josh Towers? Below are the 2005 statistics for the two pitchers:

Josh Towers: 13 – 12, 3.71 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 112 Strikeouts, 208.2 IP

Gustavo Chacin: 13 – 9, 3.72 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 121 Strikeouts, 203 IP

Using traditional statistics each pitcher had a very good season, especially considering that they played in the tough AL East division. But Ricciardi was not a man to be fooled by common stats – he was a genius who went deeper than the normal GM. Or did he? According to Baseball Prospectus, there are several advanced pitching stats that are better equipped to tell a pitcher’s effectiveness than the traditional numbers used by most baseball analysts. Some of these stats include: dERA, which shows a pitcher’s true ERA independent of defence, ERA+, which adjusts ERA for ballpark effects and league averages, K/9, which shows pure strikeout ability, and Game Score, which measures the overall dominance of a pitcher. The higher the game score the more dominant the pitcher, with a season average of over 80 being outstanding, and anything in the 50’s meaning the pitcher is nothing more than average. Now, take a look at the advanced statistical seasons of the two:

Josh Towers: 4.00 dERA, 50 Average Game Score, 120 ERA+, 4.8 K/9

Gustavo Chacin: 4.39 dERA, 50 Average Game Score, 119 ERA+, 5.4 K/9

Those stats tell us that neither pitcher was as good as they looked in 2005, more a product of luck and bullpen help then of pitching power. Yet consider what J.P. Ricciardi, the touted statistical genius, did. He made Chacin his number two starter for 2006, and re-signed Towers to a two-year $5.2 million contract. Very baffling. In 2006, Towers reverted to his regular form, going 2 – 10 with an 8.42 ERA and losing his starting job, while Chacin went 9 – 4, but with an unsightly 5.05 ERA and vastly reduced strikeout rate.

It wasn’t just his abandonment of advanced statistics that proved he completely reversed his strategy. He also broke his own rules in terms of player salaries – never overpay, especially for one dimensional players or closers. Looking back, it’s as if J.P. panicked. The turnaround he promised was going slower than expected, Rogers offered to increase the payroll, and suddenly gone was the philosophy he preached when he was hired. He threw money around recklessly, signing B.J. Ryan to a 5-year $47 million contract (never overpay for closers), A.J. Burnett to a 5-year $55 million contract (with a foolish opt-out clause that was exercised), Frank Thomas to a 2-year $18 million contract (despite him clearly being on the downside of his career), and most famously Vernon Wells to a 7-year $126 million deal. None of those deals worked out. Things would have been much worse if Chicago hadn’t agreed to entirely absorb Alex Rios’s 6-year $64 million contract, another blunder.

It’s true that if those moves would have worked out, if injuries would have been avoided and if the sharp downturn in performance didn’t occur, we’d be praising Ricciardi as a genius. But the reality is they didn’t work out and his legacy will always have to deal with the consequences.

For me, however, it isn’t the fact that his moves backfired. That happens to every GM – even the Yankees and Red Sox make mistakes. No, it’s the fact that he turned his back on everything he promised in the first place. He touted the fact that the Jays were going to be a small market team that would bully its way to the playoffs, but ended up whining that he couldn’t win in a big spending division. He promised to never overpay for players, but in the end he threw money and big contracts at over the hill has-beens and one-year wonders. For me the problem with J.P. Ricciardi was that he inherited a team with little payroll flexibility due to enormous contracts for underperforming players, a team that was stagnant with no direction and an impatient fan base. Despite his best efforts, he is leaving the Jays as a team with little payroll flexibility due to enormous contracts for underperforming players, a team that is regressing, a team that still has no direction but now, if the sparse Rogers Centre crowds mean anything, has even fewer fans than before. Despite his best efforts Ricciardi became exactly who he promised he never would – Gord Ash.

The PGA Tour Playoffs: A Nonsensical Disaster

October 2, 2009

by Jeremy Gibson… At its heart, golf is a simple game – put the ball in the hole. But golf is also a frustrating game because many obstacles stand in the way of that goal. The course layout adds severe difficulty, with bunkers, rough, trees, and water swallowing errant shots. Equipment decisions, such as graphite or steel, flex-shaft or stiff-shaft, hybrids or long irons add complexity, not to mention the constantly evolving golf swing with terms like club head speed, takeaway angle, and contact position being thrown around. Even if a player has mastered that, all it takes is a turn from Mother Nature – high winds, intense heat, rain – to throw everything off again. Even worse is that every player, expert or hacker, is constantly fighting a losing battle with his mind and emotions. But beyond that, beyond the complexities and stresses, lies the simple truth: get the ball in the hole in fewer shots than your opponent and you will succeed.

One problem: in the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup playoff system, that fact isn’t necessarily true. The playoffs wrapped up on Sunday, with Tiger Woods winning the Cup and the attached $10 million bonus. Yet Tiger Woods did not win the tournament on Sunday. He finished in second, three shots behind Phil Mickelson, and one ahead of Sean O’Hair. Because of the confusing point system, Tiger had accumulated enough of a cushion that winning the tournament was not necessary in order for him to win the Cup. Strange isn’t it? That would be like Detroit, even though they fell to Pittsburgh in game seven of last year’s Stanley Cup Final, still winning the Cup because they had a better regular season record and beat a stronger team in the conference finals. Fair? Absolutely not, and it isn’t in golf either.

Don’t get me wrong – I am a fan of a playoff system in golf. For far too long, the end of the golf season was a disaster. Between the PGA Championship and the Tour Championship was nothing but a vast wasteland of low echelon events. Absent were most, if not all, of golf’s big names. Fields consisted of journeymen golfers: those after their first career win, those playing in their first tournaments, or those trying to scrounge enough prize money to retain their tour card. Not to sound offensive but replacing Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk, and Mike Weir with Kevin Stadler, Kevin Na, Nathan Green, and Jason Duffner does not make for compelling viewing. The PGA Tour was made aware of this by falling attendance and sagging TV ratings. They needed to add incentive to attract the top players in the world to the final few events of the season. Thus the playoffs, known as the FedEx Cup, were born.

The format has undergone a few changes but is basically the same as at inception. Players earn points along with their prize money at each tournament. At the end of the season, the top 125 points leaders qualify for The Barclays, the first playoff event. After each playoff event the fields are whittled down: the top 100 qualify for the Deutsche Bank Championship, the top 70 reach the BMW Championship, and finally the top 30 reach the final event – the Tour Championship. Before the final tournament begins the point values are reset. The highest ranked golfer, no matter how many points he has accumulated, begins with 2500. From there a declining scale is used, with the 30th ranked golfer receiving 210 points. The reset ensures that every golfer in the final event has a chance to win the cup. The hope was that the event would make for incredible drama.

But there lies the problem of the playoffs – the 30th seed has as much chance to win as Rocky V had of winning Best Picture – none. Though it was theoretically and mathematically possible, consider what had to happen for John Senden to vault from 30th to 1st:

  • Win the event (zero tour wins in 2009, one in his career)
  • Heath Slocum (5th on the points list) – finish 3rd or worse
  • Zach Johnson (4th on the points list) – finish 4th or worse
  • Jim Furyk (3rd on the points list) – finish 5th or worse
  • Steve Stricker (2nd on the points list) – finish 7th or worse
  • Tiger Woods (1st on the points list) – finish 29th or worse (AKA second last)

Senden didn’t need one or two of those to take place, he needed ALL SIX! The odds were not only astronomically high, they were practically insurmountable. So much for the incredible, breathtaking, anything-can-happen drama that the PGA wanted.

Perhaps a bigger problem with the current system is that fans had no idea who to cheer for. A Phil Mickelson supporter spent a good part of the day cheering for Steve Stricker and Sean O’Hair. If they finished ahead of Tiger then Phil had a slight chance to claim the Cup. Fans of Steve Stricker were pulling for Mickelson because Mickelson had to beat Tiger for Stricker to even think of winning the overall title. Most bizarre was that Tiger fans were openly cheering for Phil because Phil finishing ahead of Stricker clinched the Cup for Tiger. In a strange twist of irony, the final dagger in the FedEx Cup occurred when Mickelson drained a putt that officially eliminated Stricker, handing the 2009 championship to his bitter rival – Tiger Woods.

The Solution

As I said, I am a fan of the concept of a playoff system in golf – just not the current one. There is one aspect of the current format that does make sense however: regular season points carry forward into the first three playoff events. This accomplishes three things: puts additional weight on regular season events, ensures that a good portion of the top thirty will make the final event, and encourages golfers, plodders and superstars alike, to play in as many events as possible – thus increasing the star power of many tournament fields, and in turn increasing revenues and TV ratings. In other words, the regular season matters and is not just a stepping stone for the playoffs.

However, it is after the conclusion of the third playoff event that the PGA has missed the boat. While I understand the logic that the 30th seeded player should have to overcome high odds to win, they have taken it too far. As demonstrated by the John Senden example earlier, whoever goes into the final in 30th might as well not even show up – the mountain is too high to climb.

What the PGA should realize and embrace is the North American love of two things – underdogs and elimination style playoffs. In recent times the most lovable teams have been underdogs, including the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays and their improbable run to the World Series, 10th ranked Davidson reaching the elite eight in the 2008 March Madness tournament, and the plucky Calgary Flames getting all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals in ’04. One of the most beloved teams of all time in the USA is the 1980 Miracle on Ice hockey team, who won the gold medal in one of the biggest upsets in sports history. Fans love rooting for the underdog – always have and always will – which is why golf’s harsh treatment of the bottom seeds is hard to understand. The low seeds should have a legitimate chance to shock the world.

As far as elimination style playoffs are concerned, consider the four major North American sports. The most exciting, memorable, and passionate moments occur in the postseason. The games are intense, with a loss ending championship dreams for a franchise. There is no such thing as second or third, and absolutely no way that by losing you can still finish first, as Tiger accomplished last weekend. Fans are thrilled by the finality of the event.

The solution I propose to fix the FedEx Cup playoff system is one that embraces both of those concepts – a match-play competition. Leave the first three playoff rounds untouched as stroke play events. They work extremely well in paring down the number golfers en route to the final. Expand the field for the finals to 32, adding two more entrants. In order to give golfers incentive to finish as high as possible in the first playoff events, offer the top 8 seeds a first round bye, an automatic slot in the sweet sixteen. The first round would pit the 9th seed against the 32nd seed, and so on, with the winners advancing to face the well-rested top 8. From there, a straight knockout format eliminates golfers until a 36-hole final.

What is not to like about this? First of all, the lower seeds are given a realistic chance at winning, but with the top 8 earning a first round bye, they still have a tough hill to climb. With one-on-one matches, fans can easily identify underdogs and cheer for them from start to finish, instead of being forced to follow constantly updating scoreboards to see how somebody else is affecting their favourite player. A player’s fate is controlled by himself and himself alone. Secondly, the playoff ladder is easy to follow and doesn’t require a computer to shuffle players up and down the final standings. Simply win and advance.

The PGA governing body will cite scheduling issues as to why a match play format will not work. They will say it will take too long and be too exhausting for fans and players. But the Accenture World Match Play Championship currently pits 64 players in a knockout format. The six rounds are played over five days, with the quarter and semi finals both being played on Saturday. My proposal would require one less round, meaning one less day than the Accenture – a total of four days, or the same as the current Tour Championship. Scheduling would not be an issue.

The popularity of match-play should make this a no-brainer. Outside of the four majors, one could argue that the most popular events in golf are the Ryder Cup, the Presidents Cup, the US Amateur, and the aforementioned Accenture World Match Play Championships. These events gather the cream of the crop in professional and amateur golf and the common theme is that each is a match-play event. If fans already embrace it, why not give them more?

2009-2010 UEFA Champions League: Five Things We Learned from Matchday One

September 25, 2009

by Jeremy Gibson… European soccer’s flagship competition got underway in earnest last week, as the group stage of the 2009/2010 UEFA Champions League kicked off. The action saw sixteen games involving thirty-two teams taking place in eleven different countries. With the big spending that took place in the off-season, this years installment of the Champions League is possibly the most anticipated ever. Questions abound: Will Barcelona repeat? Will Real Madrid’s massive expenditures translate to on-field success? Will three English Premier League teams make the final four for the fourth consecutive season? It will take about eight months to fully answer these questions, but it is possible to provide some initial thoughts. Here are five things we learned from the first Matchday of this year’s Champions League:

1. Yes, Real Madrid is Good

Real Madrid spent an exorbitant amount of money in the off-season constructing a team of superstars designed to terrorize both Spanish and European competition. The goal was simple: take back the Spanish Primera Division title, and reclaim the Champions League crown. Sound familiar? The Spanish giants used the same formula in the early 2000’s – the Galacticos era – bringing in David Beckham, Michael Owen, Luis Figo, and Zinedine Zidane among others. Back then, the results were entirely underwhelming, with zero trophies captured and little magic created. Many were curious to see if this year’s version would become the unstoppable force as planned, or just another collection of overbearing egos. A 5-2 thrashing of FC Zurich in Matchday One suggests the former.

It appeared Madrid had the power to score at will. The passing was crisp, the speed relentless, and the teamwork nearly perfect. Zurich’s quick netting of two goals will leave questions about their defensive prowess, but the offensive fireworks more than compensate for whatever shortcoming that presents. Besides, a 5-0 blanking of Xerez in the Spanish League directly following the Champions League match shows they do have the ability to prevent goals. The competition should be sterner in Matchday Two with French League runners-up Marseille, but for now Real Madrid looks like the real deal.

2. Jose Mourinho Ruined the Hype

By far the most anticipated game of the opening week, and perhaps the entire tournament, came in Italy, where Inter Milan hosted defending champions Barcelona. Besides being a battle of two high profile clubs, and matching the champions of Italy against the champions of Spain, it also marked a homecoming: Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Samuel Eto’o playing against their former squads. But for all the hype, the game did not live up to its billing. The result was a lackluster 0-0 draw, and though both teams created a few quality scoring chances, neither looked like they would score.

For this we can thank Inter coach Jose Mourinho. Very rarely did he order any attacking rushes, preferring instead to sit back and stifle Barca, focusing on containing Lionel Messi, Thierry Henry, and Ibrahimovic. The result was unfulfilling not only to both squads, but to the public in general, who were denied the opportunity to see two world class teams in action. For Barcelona, it’s never a bad thing to gain a point on the road in a hostile environment, and for Inter, they did hold the defending champs. But everybody wanted more. Hopefully we get more in the return match in November.

3. More English Dominance?

In 2005, Liverpool won the Champions League and Chelsea made the semi finals. Arsenal went to the final in 2006. Three English teams made the final four in each of the next three years. The Champions League was turning into a playground for Premier League teams. But coming into this season, it appeared on paper that Liverpool, Arsenal, and Manchester United were weaker, with the exodus of players such as Xabi Alonso, Emmanuel Adebayor, and Cristiano Ronaldo. Only Chelsea looked to have a real shot at winning.

Well, Matchday One came and went and the English teams look as strong as ever. All four Premier League clubs were victorious. While true that Liverpool looked underwhelming in scraping by unheralded Debreceni at Anfield, the other three looked fantastic. Arsenal used quick strike offense to storm back from two down against Standard in Belgium; Manchester United survived a long daunting road trip to Turkey; Chelsea bullied their way past Portuguese champs Porto in a ferocious downpour in London. Liverpool appears to have a tricky group to manage, but this is a team built for European play, a team that continually shines in the Champions League. If they can sneak into the knockout rounds would it really be a surprise to see another British invasion in the final four? Stay tuned.

4. No Place for Underdogs

The 2004 Champions League final pitted Monaco against Porto – only notable because that marks the last time a final did not include one of Europe’s traditional powers. 2005 – 2009 saw a who’s who of Europe’s elite in the ultimate match: Manchester United, Liverpool, AC Milan, Barcelona, and Chelsea. This season, UEFA amended the tournament format in attempts to open up the competition. More group stage places were reserved for champions of smaller European countries, while qualifying was more difficult for third and fourth place teams of large nations. The ultimate goal was to provide hope for smaller teams, that maybe they can become the next Monaco or Porto.

Unfortunately, Matchday One proved the big boys are better than ever, and that this tournament is no place for minnows. Of all the smaller clubs, only one, APOEL FC of Cyprus, was able to steal a point, a hard earned 0-0 draw with Atletico Madrid of Spain. Teams like Zurich, Debreceni, Maccabi Haifa, and Besiktas fought hard, but were ultimately no match for the Bayern Munich’s or Real Madrid’s. The gulf in class is simply too much to overcome, especially with many of the world powers placing more emphasis on the Champions League than on domestic triumph. It would be the shock of the year for the final on May 22nd to be played without at least one super club present. My money is on two.

5. Best Competition in the World

Despite its popularity the Champions League is still the target of many criticisms: too many teams, too many qualifying rounds, the competition is too long, smaller teams have no chance. But there is really no doubt that even with these criticisms, the UEFA Champions League is still the best sporting competition in the world. As soon as the Champions League anthem was heard on television sets, millions of people across Europe and around the world, even the critics, were transfixed. The atmosphere it presents is electric, so much so that even soccer followers thousands of miles away feel jitters. The tournament is so popular that millions of people log onto uefa.com to read play-by-play text updates of matches. The first Matchday of this year’s tournament certainly didn’t disappoint. From Arsenal’s thrilling two goal comeback, to Real Madrid’s official coming out party there were highlights aplenty. The action was intense and left many catching their breath. But be warned: Matchday Two is just around the corner.

Do the Blue Jays Still Care?

September 11, 2009

by Jeremy Gibson…

11,159.

That was the attendance at the Rogers Centre on Wednesday as the Blue Jays played the Minnesota Twins. Only eleven thousand fans bothered to show up and watch Roy Halladay, perhaps the greatest player Toronto has ever produced, pitch for what could be one of his final starts as a Blue Jay. That is the smallest attendance figure in the history of Rogers Centre/SkyDome. It is painfully obvious that this city no longer cares about the 2009 Jays. The collapse over the past few months has jaded everybody. There is no hiding it. They stink.

I was one of those eleven thousand paying customers, and while disappointed at the lack of support, I was not surprised. From what I saw, if it’s obvious that the fans no longer care, it is equally obvious that the team itself no longer cares. That is not meant to single out the players alone – the franchise as a whole has thrown in the towel. What I saw on Wednesday was a shell of a team, a sports franchise simply going through the motions, trying to end the season with as little effort as humanly possible. It was embarrassing.

From a player’s standpoint, it has been a long season – that is understandable. Beginning in March with spring training, players have played in a lot games, flown thousands of miles, and stayed in dozens of hotels. They are tired, beat up, and not nearly as motivated as in April, especially with Toronto buried in the standings. But they are still making huge sums of money, and the least we as fans can ask for is a little bit of effort. Aside from John McDonald, who plays his heart out every game and was diving all over the field, there was a total lack of hustle and heart (I’m looking at you Encarnacion). Instead of charging from the box on a ground ball with hopes of beating the throw to first, Blue Jays were simply jogging, resigned to the fact they were out. Instead of showing emotion when failing to drive in a runner from third with less than two outs, we were given only a shrug of the shoulders, a soft helmet toss to the first base coach, and a slow walk back to the dugout.

It even appears that the beloved Cito has packed it in for the year. Why else would he bat Jose Bautista second with Lyle Overbay in the cleanup slot? The worst, however, occurred in the 8th inning, with Toronto down 2-1. Scutaro walked, was bunted to second, and was a single away from scoring the tying run. Minnesota brought in a left handed pitcher from the bullpen to face back-to-back lefties in the Jays order, Adam Lind and Lyle Overbay. I can understand allowing Lind to bat, but the situation screamed for a pinch hitter for Overbay. Though Aaron Hill, the best offensive player all season, was unavailable, Cito still had powerful Randy Ruiz or even Kevin Millar on the bench but refused to bring either in for Overbay. The resulting weak groundout to the pitcher left everybody in my section scratching our heads.

However, the biggest sign that the Toronto Blue Jays don’t care anymore lies not with the on-field product. Heading to the Gate 9 box office to pick up my tickets, I was walking down the stairs on the east side of the stadium, looking at the banners hanging from the facility. These banners are meant to celebrate the past and present of the team, with one honouring the back-to-back championship teams hanging between Roberto Alomar and Aaron Hill. Yet beside those three hung a banner depicting Alex Rios, the same player given away to the White Sox a month ago. Similarly the south side of the stadium is adorned with huge portraits of team members, including Cito and Halladay, and once again Chicago’s own Alex Rios. Even the background of the ticket face pictured Alex Rios, with RIOS spelled out in capital letters behind my seat number. I can understand that changing the external façade of the stadium is difficult and expensive to do mid-season, and perhaps removing a large banner might also be challenging. But how hard is it to change the paper that game tickets are printed on? Alex Rios was an underperforming player this season and one of the key reasons why Toronto fell so far in the standings. He played so poorly that he was allowed to leave via waivers, bringing back no compensation. The fact that Toronto still “honours” him by keeping his likeness all over their home stadium is both disgraceful and embarrassing. I love the Blue Jays, and will always stick by them through thick and thin. But judging by the attendance, not many others will. With management not giving fans any reason to care, why should they?

Sports in Toronto: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

September 4, 2009

by Jeremy Gibson… As the brilliant Charles Dickens once wrote: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” While Dickens was actually referring to Paris at the time of the French Revolution, a Toronto sports fan can be forgiven for taking it in a different context – the state of our sports franchises over the past twenty years. The “best of times” can easily be applied to the 1990’s, a decade that brought enormous success to the city. The Blue Jays won three American League East titles and two World Series crowns. The Maple Leafs returned to prominence with trips to the conference finals in ’93, ’94, and ’99. The Argonauts captured three Grey Cups. The Toronto Rock began a stretch of NLL dominance with a Champions Cup victory in 1999. The NBA expanded here in 1995, and with the ’98 drafting of Vince Carter the Raptors were set to challenge for NBA glory. Toronto seemed primed for a long and sustained run at the top of the sporting world.

Unfortunately for Torontonians, the success of the ‘90’s was fleeting. We now find ourselves in a major downturn, or “the worst of times” as Dickens would say. A combination of mismanagement through bad trades, terrible drafting, and poor player development, underperforming players, economic problems, and bad luck has brought Toronto’s teams to their collective knees. The bond we once felt with our teams has been strained, and our sporting egos have been beaten to the ground. For the first time in years it appears that none of Toronto’s teams will qualify for the post-season (the minor league-level Marlies aside). And these are not the 60’s when we only had the Leafs or Argos. Toronto currently has six professional franchises, and all are failing at the same time. This is not a slump. This is the worst performance by our city ever.

Consider the below table. This represents the performance by Toronto professional sports teams for the 2009 season. (Note that the Blue Jays, Argos, and FC have not reached the end of their respective seasons [records as of August 30]).

Team

League

Record

Finish / Current Standing

Toronto Maple Leafs

NHL

34 - 35 - 13

Division – Last
Conference - 12th of 15

Toronto Raptors

NBA

33 - 49

Division - Second Last
Conference - 13th of 15

Toronto Rock

NLL

6 - 10

Division – Last

Toronto Blue Jays

MLB

58 - 70

Division - Second Last

Toronto Argonauts

CFL

2 - 6

Division – Last

Toronto FC

MLS

8 - 8 - 7

Division - 5th of 7

Judging how each team finished, Toronto’s performance has not been bad – it’s been atrocious. Only TFC are currently slated to finish higher than second last place. And to make matters worse? 2008 was not much better. This has been a two year stretch of futility like no other.

To see just how pitiful the past two years have been, I compared Toronto’s performance to the success or failure of other major cities. For the purpose of this study I have included only the three major North American sports where Toronto is represented (NHL, MLB, NBA). While the CFL is a reputable league with enormous fan support, the NFL is four times larger (32 teams vs. 8 teams) and therefore (at least theoretically) four times more difficult to succeed. Comparing the two would be like comparing apples to oranges.

There are a total of thirteen cities with a team in each of the NHL, MLB, and NBA. Two clarifying points: first, teams that play in the same city were combined even if they are known by different names (i.e. Colorado Avalanche and Denver Nuggets) or have more than one team per sport (i.e. Lakers and Clippers). Second, Anaheim and Los Angeles have been combined as one, since they are considered to be the same general area (the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim think so anyways). The results are presented below (note: records for baseball teams in 2009 as of August 30th):

City

Teams

W

L

OTL

W%

Playoff Births*

Championships

Boston

3

399

205

22

0.655

6

1

Detroit

3

346

256

17

0.573

5

1

Philadelphia

3

334

262

22

0.558

6

1

LA / Anaheim

6

658

549

33

0.544

8

1

Colorado / Denver

3

326

283

12

0.535

4

0

Chicago

4

474

416

21

0.532

4

0

Arizona / Phoenix

3

316

292

14

0.519

1

0

New York

5

520

517

40

0.501

3

0

Toronto

3

288

306

24

0.485

1

0

Atlanta

3

293

313

14

0.484

2

0

Florida / Miami

3

289

310

20

0.483

1

0

Minnesota

3

283

318

19

0.472

1

0

Washington

3

260

344

16

0.432

3

0

*Includes 2009 MLB teams leading playoff races as of Aug 30th

Boston has been the most successful city over the past two years in terms of winning percentage, which is not surprising considering the turnaround of the Bruins, the continual success of the Red Sox, and the NBA title won by the Celtics in 2008. In fact, if the Red Sox hold their current 3 ½ game lead in the Wild Card, all three Boston franchises will make the playoffs in both 2008 and 2009, a feat only Philadelphia can match. The recent league championships by the Lakers, Phillies, and Red Wings have their cities at the top of the rankings as well. (Pittsburgh has the most championship titles but their lack of an NBA team has excluded them.)

But the top of the rankings do not hold as much interest as the bottom. At first glance, it appears that Toronto’s failure is no worse than that of other cities. We have won a total of zero championship banners, but so have eight other cities. Toronto’s winning percentage is higher than four cities and three cities match the one lonely playoff appearance in the past two years. So why is this article about Toronto’s failure when it could be about Miami or Minnesota (worse winning percentage, same amount of playoff births) or Phoenix, where the Suns are setting and the Coyotes could be leaving?

Looking beyond the scope of the table and at other sports tells us why. Going into the 2009-2010 season, the Minnesota Vikings are the defending NFC North division champions. They also signed a quarterback by the name of Brett Favre, making them potentially the most intriguing team in the league. The Miami Dolphins are the defending AFC East division champions, and have Bill Parcells running the show. As for Phoenix? Well, the Arizona Cardinals made the Superbowl last season, and came within a toenail of winning. Toronto has the Argonauts, 2-6, dead last in an eight team league and riding a ten game home losing streak. As I stated earlier, comparing the NFL to the CFL is like comparing apples to oranges, but it is obvious that those cities have some pretty big apples. Toronto has a tiny orange.

Most of all, however, each of the cities in the table, above or below Toronto, have something in common. It is something impossible to quantify, that can’t be measured by stats or graphed in a table – hope. Take Washington for example. They have the lowest winning percentage of all, pushed down by the worst team in baseball and possibly the worst in basketball. But they also have Alexander Ovechkin and the Capitals, poised to be perennial contenders. Atlanta is forced to endure the Thrashers on an annual basis, but the Falcons made the NFL playoffs last season with a young nucleus that looks set to get even better in the years to come. And despite having two of the worst run franchises in all of professional sports (the Islanders and Knicks) New York will always have the Yankees to buy themselves a playoff spot.

Toronto has none of this. Though Brian Burke and Bryan Colangelo are considered intelligent executives, the only hope the Leafs and Raptors have is to possibly sneak into the playoffs in 2010. The Argos, Blue Jays, and Rock look like they are heading into the rebuilding abyss. And Toronto FC, try as they might, just can’t seem to gather any consistency to make a solid playoff push. With that said, maybe the sports fans in this city do have hope. The hope that our sports teams have bottomed out, that the run of futility will soon end, and that the turnaround is near.

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