For a while, it seemed like something could happen: the Toronto Blue Jays could win the AL East! And then, it all kind of fell apart. Well, c’est la vie.
I only made it to two games this year, both of them right around the end of June. One was a loss to the White Sox, the other a walk-off win against the Brewers. When I think back to these games, a few moments stand out: an amazing video of Colby Rasmus wearing a straw hat and pretending to fish; watching Edwin Encarnacion hitting a game-winning home run (first time I’ve been in the stands for one of those!); a huge mass of people lined up for the subway at Yorkdale in Jays gear. Oh, and the new, not very good Pizza Nova pizza.
It’s been an interesting year for the Jays. Through May they were outstanding: they went 21-9, were slugging their way through games, leading the AL East and separating themselves from the pack. It peaked on June 6, with a 3-1 win over St. Louis: the Jays were 39-24, had won six games in a row and were six games up in the AL east. And then it all kind of fell apart: the hits stopped coming, the injuries started mounting (Izturis went down in April, then Brett Lawrie in June and Encarnacion in early July) . Per Baseball-Reference, Toronto scored 60 fewer runs in June. Combined with Baltimore’s steadily improving pace, Toronto was solidly in second place when I saw my first game in person.
The AL East was a little weak this year, but the American League itself was pretty damn hot for most of the year. When Baltimore passed the Jays on July 4, Toronto also fell below the second wild card spot, behind both the LA Angels and Seattle. For most of the year, the AL West was well above everyone else, with the Oakland Athletics looking amazing and two good teams a few games behind.
As fun as that was for a casual fan – there was some great stuff happening on the left coast – it wasn’t great for Toronto: even through the end of July, there was a logjam for the second wild card. Most of the Central was in play, particularly Cleveland and Kansas City, plus Seattle and New York. Hell, Tampa was six games out with two months remaining. But by September, Toronto was more or less out of it, even with a nine-of-11 win streak.
They had the bad luck to be merely decent in a year when a glut of good teams competed for the second spot. And Toronto was basically just okay: they hit a lot, but they allowed a lot of runs, too. As of this writing, they average 4.4 runs per game, but allow about 4.3 per game. The usual things to blame started popping up on JaysTalk: injuries, underperforming stars, bad management.
My favourite is how the Jays didn’t make any big moves at either trade deadline. But to get something, Toronto would’ve had to give something up. It’s a risk/reward proposition; giving up, say, Jose Bautista for, say, David Price (a deal I just made up, I should add) might shore up the rotation, but it’s gutting the team’s offensive production. Does that reward outweigh the risks? It’s a tough call. With prospects it’s trickier: you’re dealing with unknowns.
The same proposition goes down through the way the roster’s built. Once players started getting hurt or slumping, the same idea applied to replacements. Rasmus, for example, was hitting awfully all summer: for example, he went .197/.288/.380 in July. By September, Anthony Gose replaced him at centrefield. But Gose isn’t much better at the plate, hitting .221/.310/.270 this season. But he’s better at defense. It’s a variation on the same question: does that defense outweigh the lack of offense? Especially when compared to someone who isn’t producing at an expected level?
The same question popped up elsewhere. Does Kawasaki’s merits outweigh his liabilities at the plate? What about Adam Lind: against right-handed pitchers, he’s been outstanding (.357/.415/.548), but against lefties, he’s awful: .061/.162/.223. And here he is, playing regularly at first and DH.
When I think back to the 2014 Jays, I keep thinking back to the same few questions: what was happening when it all worked for the team? And why was it so unsustainable?
There was a great post on Drunk Jays Fans earlier this season about Dustin McGowan’s pitching. To that point, he’d been pretty good as a mop-up reliever. But a look at his numbers and pitch location showed some dangerous trends: his pitching was regressing and his pitches were often in high-risk areas. Soon enough he exploded on the mound: three hits, three walks and three runs in a blown save against Tampa. He’s melted down a couple of other times, too.
That seems to be the Jays in a microcosm this season. In some areas, they were great. Like hitting: for a while, the Jays had scored the most runs in the majors and they’re still near the top. But their bullpen was a mess all season. McGowan struggled, but he was occasionally good, too. But Sergio Santos, brought in as the new closer, barely made it through July before getting the boot. Steve Delabar’s is slightly better ad 4.91. Even closer Casey Janssen, nearly automatic for the first half of the year, has struggled of late: since August, he’s allowed 11 runs and 19 hits in just over 14 innings.
At the same time, I’m not sure how much I blame management for this season. I’d hardly call myself a baseball expert, but of the few questionable things Gibbons has done this season, I generally seem to get their logic. Like Gose over Rasmus, like relying on Janssen even after his ERA exploded last month. Some I don’t – what was Frank Francisco doing in the lineup so damn long? – but they don’t seem like something to fire someone over, either.
Likewise, Alex Anthopoulos seems generally okay by me. He didn’t add anyone by the deadlines, but he didn’t give up anything key to the team either. This year, there’s some weird tension over spending; who knows what’s been happening upstairs now. And, again as has been noted at DJF, it’s worth noting the Jays have focused on drafting high school players since 2010. Wrote Andrew Stoeten:
“… consider this: a high school draftee from 2010 is now around just 22 years old. Aaron Sanchez is one of them, and he’s just now reaching the big leagues, and one of the youngest pitchers in the majors. To repeat: a prototypical guy from A.A.’s first draft is now an exceptionally young big leaguer.”
It seems unreasonable to fire a guy over 22-year olds not playing like, well, they’re a few years older.
For everyone calling this Jays season a bummer, it’s worth pointing out it was a pretty fun year, too. The Jays won a 19-inning game, led their division into June and even had a stretch where Bautista basically carried the team: this month he’s hitting .288/.440/.545. And for all of his crappy starts, JA Happ has also pitched pretty well at times, too. That was maybe my favourite surprise of this season.
And for the first time in years, the Jays actually felt like they were in the thick of things. There was a palpable feeling in the air when I went to games, even outside the stadium. When I walked down to see them play the White Sox I was surprised by the amount of Jays jerseys, shirts and hats I saw everywhere: on the subway, hanging out at Yorkdale, even on the street. But then again, when I was in Toronto last weekend, on a day when the Jays played in New York, it was the same thing. There was people milling outside the Rogers Centre, people watching the game at bars up and down Yonge Street and a blue everywhere.
It reminded me a little bit of being outside the Air Canada Centre when the Raptors were in the playoffs. That was a big group of great vibes, people not just glad to see the Raptors in the playoffs, but just having a good time to boot. And after last year’s disastrous Jays season, it felt great to have a team winning more often than they lost.
Sure, there were rough patches. And the Jays might even finish this season under .500. But I’m also going to miss baseball being on almost every night once it’s gone, too.
I was cleaning up my laptop the other day, backing up some writing, deleting some others, when I came across this: an unpublished profile of Roger Lajoie. I wrote it some time in 2007, I think. No idea on the exact date. Below, I’ve added some reflections on this piece.
Roger Lajoie, The Busiest Man In Sports
Roger Lajoie bills himself as “the busiest man in sports” and it’s a claim that’s hard to disprove. He – often simultaneously – works for the Reuters newsgathering agency, for the FAN 590 radio station in Toronto, for Rogers Television, stars on Sun-TV’s “The Grill Room”, for the Toronto Maple Leafs baseball team and for the Oshawa Generals. This is all in addition to his freelance work and his two upcoming books.
Roger is best described as more of a freelancer then anything else. “I don’t have a typical ‘nine to five’ day,” he says. Instead he has many little jobs, all of which he enjoys. “My creed is that my work is my play”, he explains, “I don’t have to be as busy as I am, but I love it.”
His freelancing career started in 1998, when Roger left his job as editor of the Durham Post, leaving behind a career as a reporter. By doing so, he left behind a steady job for a series of part-time jobs, starting with the United Press International. “I traded the security of a full-time job for the flexibility of being able to do 10 or 12 things,” Roger says, “If had a full time job … I couldn’t go to the World Series next week, I’d have to go to work.” Roger worked for UPI for six years before leaving to become the North American sports correspondent for Reuters, a position he holds to this day. Among the various events that Roger covers for Reuters are: the World Series, the Super Bowl, the NCAA’s Final Four, the NHL’s Stanley Cup Finals and the NBA’s Finals.
By working for a wire service, Roger encounters some unique problems – his stories don’t have to be ready in a few hours, they have to be ready as soon as the game ends – even if the outcome changes at the last second. “(Sometimes) you have to write it again,” says Roger, “but you can’t write too much because you don’t know what’s going to happen.” Smart writers, he says, learn to write small parts of the story as they happen and to leave the bigger details (who hit the game winning hit or who scored in overtime or whatever) until the end.
In addition to working for a wire service, Roger also works for “The Fan 590”, hosting a show on Saturday mornings and co-hosting “Late Night” with Norm Rumack three nights a week. He also does play-by-play on Rogers Television for the St. Michael Majors for the last seven years, as well as for the Oshawa Generals for the last two years – at the same time! He regularly appear on Sun-TV’s ‘The Grill Room”, a nightly sports talk show and is the official scorer for the Toronto Maple Leafs baseball team, a position he’s held since 1978. In addition to being their official scorer, Roger is also their PA announcer and writes their press releases.
All in all, Roger is indeed very busy, which Roger says he enjoys. “I’ve got my career where I want it, now,” he says. “I’m at the stage where my goal would be to do what I’m doing for 20 years.”
I vaguely remember why I wrote this: I had an interviewing class and this was likely for an assignment. If it’s what I think it is, I recorded this interview, wrote a profile story and handed in both the tape (this was how I did it then: I recorded all my interviews on microcassette) and the profile. One of my professors – probably Brian Legree, although I’m far from certain – would compare the two and assign a grade.
Somehow, I got in touch with Lajoie and we met in a strip mall, at a now long-gone coffee store in north Oshawa. I remember Lajoie saying he used to tape his broadcasts on cassette and listens to them in the car; Danny Gallivan’s influence on a young Lajoie; the frustrating 2001 World Series, when several wild ninth innings played havoc on his wire-reporting stories. Funny how none of those made their way into mine. But then, it’s probably the first profile I ever wrote.
I don’t remember what happened to this story. Did it run in the school newspaper? I doubt it. Then why didn’t I run it here? I don’t know.Reading it now, I’m surprised by how short it is, by how little I let Lajoie’s voice get into the story. Not how I’d write it today, but I guess was learning the ropes.
A final aside: two years after I wrote this, I started working with Lajoie on Oshawa Generals broadcasts. Granted, I was one of the guys who carried cameras, pointing them at people when instructed. One time I tripped over a camera cable in front of Lajoie talking on-air. Did Lajoie remember me? If he did, he kept it to himself.
The bus lets you off at the station on Bay and a tunnel takes you into the Bay Atrium next door. From there it’s just a short walk down the Path to Union Station and a series of tunnels that takes you to the Air Canada Centre’s doorstep. I made the trip yesterday with my buddy Eric, hoping to watch some Raptors magic.
It’s been a while since the Raptors were in the playoffs. I’m pretty sure it’s been even longer since they were on ESPN, since people in the US paid any attention to this team. Raptor fans have been waiting for a national spotlight like this for a while. And that’s not even getting into this season’s special circumstances, either.
Coming into this season, the Raptors weren’t highly regarded. Rudy Gay was a high-volume, low-output scorer, although laser eye surgery was supposed to help that a little bit. Near the end of last season, DeMar DeRozan had started playing a lot better and Kyle Lowry was, too. All three seemed like trade bait, a way to help the Raps quickly rebuild as they looked forward to a stacked draft, topped by local talent Andrew Wiggins.
The Raptors flipped Gay to Sacramento early in the season and almost immediately looked better. But they weren’t done: there was a rumoured deal to send Lowry to the Knicks, but someone in New York vetoed the deal. Soon the wins kept piling up and, amidst a poor Atlantic division, the Raptors were in the thick of it. They couldn’t tank, they were just too good in a bad conference: by year’s end, they’d finish with an identical record as Phoenix, a team that didn’t qualify for the postseason.
Juxtapose this welcome surprise against the Toronto sports landscape: the Jays disappointing 2013 campaign, the Leafs crashing and burning late in the season. Two teams everyone expected to go places, both of whom crushed fans in new and exciting ways.
Essentially, going into Saturday, there was a lot of pent-up emotion.
The crowd outside the ACC packed into a tight square. There was a big fence and off to one side, a pile of steel bleachers. Some people brought signs, others brought their kids. One guy in front of me had his son on his shoulders, each wearing Raptors gear. I got there as the second quarter started and the Raptors were keeping pace with the more-experienced Nets team. People were shouting, yelling when calls didn’t go their way. When someone – Vasquez or Lowry, it usually seemed – made a play, they all cheered. It was a good scene and the lone TSN camera outside – a lens on a pole, occasionally swinging around like a pinata, just above our heads – didn’t do it justice.
The Eaton Centre is a changed place from even last December. The big Sears is gone, replaced by a gaping white tunnel. The food court is open now, looking more like a restaurant than the place where you could buy Sbarro’s. There’s nice tables, the food stands give you plates and flat screen TVs on every wall. All of them were on the Raptors game.
Eric and I sat there to watch the end of the game. Even here, in a crowded food court, people were yelling and shouting about the Raptors. The guy behind me was there with a young woman and a kid; we often yelled variations of the same line right around the same time. Usually something about Lowry, who was carrying the team on his back. He scored baskets, gambled on huge steals and created the fast break that led to the game’s highlight dunk.
Lowry was doing it alone, it seemed. DeMar DeRozan shot 3-of-13 and seemed even less a factor than that; Amir Johnson scored two points in over 20 minutes of play. Going into this series I worried about the Nets outside shooting and what’d happen if it went to the wire, if Toronto has someone as willing to take the big shot as Brooklyn’s Paul Pierce is. Now I wonder if it’ll even be close – if Toronto can even recover from this game. Lowry was going everything, doing everything.
I remember one possession well: after a turnover, he rushed it back up the court and was fouled hard on his way to the basket, landing on his side and slamming into the base of the net. He was down for a moment; all I could think was how he can’t do this alone. He was still trying, though, in a way I haven’t seen a Raptor try in years. I don’t think I’m alone: as I left the crowd outside the ACC, people were chanting “Ky-le! Ky-le!”
Something of an annual tradition around here: picks for each round of the NHL playoffs.
(1) Boston over (WC) Detroit in six
I’m still not quite used to Detroit being in the Eastern conference, so it’s a little weird to see them playing Boston in the first round. It’s actually the first time since 1957 they’ve played at all; back then, Boston won in five before getting trounced by Montreal in the final. And yes, the Leafs weren’t in the playoffs that year either. Funny how things change. Anyway: this year, I expect Boston to hold off the Red Wings. With Tukka Rask, they’ve got arguably the best goalie in the conference and Jerome Iginla’s had his best season in years.
(3) Montreal over (2) Tampa Bay in seven
This could be a close one. In four meetings this season, Montreal’s won just one but lost in overtime once and in a shootout twice. They’ve been outscored eight to five, their last meeting was the only one decided in regulation. I’m pulling for Montreal this postseason and I think they’re coming into the playoffs on a nice streak, winning eight of their last 11 games – although I should note Tampa’s won their last four. I expect a close series regardless, so I’m going with who I’d like to see move on.
(1) Pittsburgh over (WC) Columbus in four
I haven’t caught too many Pens games this year, but the game they played against Philadelphia last weekend was one of the best I saw this season. Sure, they lost, but they looked great. Columbus? I haven’t caught them once, but I feel confident writing them off: they’ve lost all five games against the Pens this year and were outscored seven to 16. Nobody dismantled them as thoroughly this year.
(4) Philadelphia over (3) New York Rangers in six
Again, could be a close one. They’ve split their four meetings this year, including two in March. I’m going to give the edge to Philly based on my limited exposure to them: I enjoyed the way they came back against the Penguins last weekend in particular. Either way, this will be a fun series. I bet NBC gets the best ratings of any series with this, too.
(1) Colorado over (WC) Minnesota in five
Remember when the Avalanche were a doormat? It doesn’t feel like that long ago. But then again, it doesn’t seem like that long ago when they were winning Cups with Patrick Roy, Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg. Maybe I’m getting old. Coming into game one, the Avalanche look a little banged up – they’ve got four people listed as questionable – which might tip the scales a little. But I don’t think too much of that either. They’ve beat Minnesota four times this year and their lone loss came in a shootout. And Semyon Varlamov’s been nothing short of fantastic this year, too: a .927 save percentage, 2.41 GAA and 41 wins, if you’re into that sort of thing. This one could be over in a hurry.
(3) Chicago over (2) St. Louis in six
There’s a part of me that doesn’t trust the Blues. They collapsed in the playoffs last year, blowing a two-game lead to the Kings and the year before lost in four straight, also to LA. I’m not sure what it is, but I don’t ever feel confident taking them in the postseason. But that’s just a gut feeling, so here’s some numbers: this season, the Blackhawks beat the Blues twice. Twice more, they took them to a shootout. They’ve outshot them four times, too. I’m sensing a trend here: usually the team who can regularly outshoot the other will win. That’s not a gut feeling, that’s called being a Leaf fan.
(1) Anaheim over (WC) Dallas in five
This is the first time since 2008 the Stars have been to the postseason, I believe, and with 91 points they’re also the worst. But somehow, they’ve managed a winning record against the Ducks: two wins, including a blowout 6-3 victory back in November. But they’re still the worst team in the playoffs and it’d be a big upset to upend the Ducks, who’ve won more than anyone in the West. I’ll hedge a little: the Stars will take a game, but probably not much more than that.
(3) Los Angeles over (2) San Jose in seven
There’s an ad on American TV where two people meet in a bar through some sports dating app and each is a fan of the above teams. In real life, I can’t imagine anyone resorting to online dating really gives a shit about who the other cheers for (I’d be happy they actually like hockey, myself) but maybe I’m a weirdo. After all, I didn’t know this was even a rivalry, really. And it’s a curious one: the Sharks have a better overall record, but the Kings have played them hard this season. In five meetings, the Sharks won just once in regulation, a 2-1 win in early April (they also won a shootout in November). And the one game where the Sharks outshot LA was a 1-0 Kings win. Confusing, eh? Last year, the series went seven games, the final two decided by a goal apiece. I’m willing to bet something similar happens this year and again, I like the Kings.
Last night, the Toronto Maple Leafs won a hockey game for the first time in a couple of weeks. Even up here, I could hear the collective exhale: maybe this season isn’t a wash after all.
Over the end of March, the Leafs dropped eight games in a row, slowly sliding down the playoff bracket until they dropped off it completely. As far as losing streaks go, it was an interesting one: the Leafs lost close and they lost big but in every loss, they didn’t even pick up a point. Going by that measure, it was their worst streak since the mid-80s, when the team was a perennial doorstop, played in a decaying arena out by College Station and a guy named Harold Ballard owned the team.
Trust me, it’s been fun: when I plowed through a crossword puzzle during the Detroit/Toronto game, I realized I was more interested in a seven-letter word for Tea Time than if Phil Kessel scored a goal. It helped with my reading too: with the game on in the background, I’ve been plowing through Robert Caro’s The Master of the Senate, only occasionally glancing up to look at the score (“Oh, it’s 3-1 Detroit, what did Dion Phaneuf do now?”). Read the rest of this entry »
A few Fridays ago, me and maybe 17 thousand of my closest friends caught a Jays game at the Rogers Centre. It was a fun game: RA Dickey pitched well, settling down after allowing two dingers in the first two innings and Brett Lawrie caught a pitch in the face, then slid into second a few minutes later because why the hell wouldn’t he. I enjoyed myself. It was one of those late summer games that felt fun, even if the lineup was all second-stringers and AAA callups and the results didn’t really matter. It was a feeling I had for most of this Jays season.
Last winter, the Jays revamped the team, adding a great young shortstop, another good pitcher and a guy who’d pitched a perfect game once. Then, in a separate deal, they added a Cy Young-winning pitcher for good measure. This came on top of an already a promising young team: in 2012, the Jays had hung in there until a disastrous injury streak blew their season to shreds. They had dangerous hitters like Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnación. Hanging out in centre field is Colby Rasmus, who alternately disappeared and played like a beast.
The big expected question mark was hanging out at third: Lawrie, who has a ton of potential and a ton of rage. He’s like the guy who knows what he wants and knows he can do it, but when he tries, everything just slips through his fingers like sand. As it turned out, there were more pressing concerns this year than him, but watching Lawrie progress was an interesting experience. There were times when he seemed like everything was coming together and there were times when it seemed like everything was falling apart, like when he banged up a water cooler.
Indeed, the biggest question this season is “what happened?” As in, what happened to the team that 19 different ESPN Experts thought would win the AL East. Hell, four people even had them in the World Series (one even had them winning!).
It’s a question I’m kind of tired of hearing about. This summer, sports talk radio was brimming with angst and loathing, with pundits picking at everything and offering their expertise. Some people had better ideas than others; some people even held out hope the Jays could compete until mid-May. But by the time Canada Day rolled around, it didn’t matter what any of them had to say. Between injuries, problems with the starting rotation and an overtaxed bullpen, this wasn’t the Jays season. The moments that stick in my mind are the ugly ones: JP Arencibia dropping knuckleballs in the home opener, Rasmus walking back to the dugout after yet another strikeout and Jose Reyes exploding at an umpire.
The only positive thing standing out is the legend of Munenori Kawasaki. Called up from Buffalo in late April, he had a memorable year and, improbably, became a fan favourite here in the GTA. An example: against Baltimore on May 26, Toronto went into the ninth inning down by three runs. They rallied: Arencibia knocked in Encarnación, Mark DeRosa scored Adam Lind. With two out and runners on first and third, Kawasaki hit a line drive, scoring the game-winning run. His postgame interview went viral; I actually remember it getting more coverage than the game itself. He had other moments: a game-tying home run (his only one of the year) in June, getting four hits against Baltimore in September, knocking in two runs (with another scoring on an error) in the ninth against Cleveland in July. By the time I saw the Jays in late September, Kawasaki – who hit just .229/.326/.308 over the year – was playing at DH. His 66 jersey was all over, too: I’m sure I saw more of those around than I did Reyes, Buehrle or Encarnación jerseys.
So, what happens from here? I don’t really know. Some of my friends think the Jays should fire Gibbons. My dad thinks both Gibbons and Alex Anthopoulos. I don’t think Toronto needs such a drastic change: pitchers have bad seasons, injuries can strike any time and sometimes they can all happen at once. It wasn’t bad management that led to Reyes getting hurt early in the season and Brett Lawrie getting hurt before it even began. But there are gaps: Arencibia’s struggled and barely remains more than a replacement-level player and the pitching rotation often seemed ragged: Happ was constantly lackluster, Josh Johnson’s battled injuries and an ERA that rose above 6.00 and quick fixes like Chien-Ming Wang often went down in flames.
For me, the big takeaway from this season is the disastrous effects of hype. Toronto went into this season riding a crest of anticipation and hyperbole, in no small encouraged by the also Rogers-owned Sportsnet radio and TV stations. They were hyped to the heavens and sold as a winning team. The ads for the Jays had them posing on a stage in front of wild crowds as Metric’s Stadium Love boomed in the background. The implication was celebration before anything had been achieved. Funny how that one turned out: when things didn’t go swimmingly, people felt scorned and turned on the Jays. As the sportswriter cliche goes, that’s why they play the games.
Remember how four ESPN staff picked the Jays to win it all? The same number of people had Boston making the playoffs. Nobody had them winning anything. It’s like William Goldman says: “Nobody knows anything.”
And I suppose Boston is the flip side to this season. They went from worst to first, poaching the Jays old manager in the process, and had all the success people thought would go Toronto’s way. Maybe some part of me is supposed to be upset about them winning, maybe I’m supposed to still feel angry at John Farrell. Truth be told: I don’t really care anymore. He didn’t want to be in Toronto so he left. Personally, I’ve have fired him for losing control of the clubhouse, but I don’t have any sympathy for him either. I just don’t care. Last night, for the first time in a few years, I turned the World Series clinching game off early and went to bed. 2013 wasn’t a great baseball season, but at least the new one is only a few months away.