North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

2014 NHL Playoff Picks – First Round

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Something of an annual tradition around here: picks for each round of the NHL playoffs.

Eastern Conference

(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.

Western Conference

(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.

Now That The Choke Job’s Over

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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 »

Written by Mark

April 2, 2014 at 11:31 am

Off Season: The Jays in 2013

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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.

Written by Mark

November 1, 2013 at 9:00 am

The Good Point: On Equal Coverage

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Over at The Good Point, I’ve got a piece I’m pretty happy with, where I examine why more mainstream sports outlets – Sports Illustrated, ESPN, etc – don’t cover women’s sports like they do men’s.

In it, I spoke to a woman who runs a great site, The Scoreboard for Equality. There, she keeps an eye on the NY Times and other sites. As I wrote in my story:

A sample day: on July 12, the New York Times had 25 stories about men’s sports and just one about women’s: a lone story about golf in China. The night before, there were two WNBA games and a NWSL match between Seattle and Western New York. ESPN premiered the first of it’s Nine for IX documentary series just a couple days later. As per the report on Scoreboard, none of those events were on the publication’s main sports page.

Perhaps you’ve heard the Times famed motto: All the News That’s Fit To Print.

Click here to read the whole story!

Written by Mark

August 8, 2013 at 5:16 pm

Posted in Sports Media, The Good Point

Tagged with ,

Sinking Hopes in July – Jays Land, Part Two

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There hasn’t been a follow up to the Blue Jays win streak. There have barely been any wins at all, actually. Since the All-Star break, the Toronto Blue Jays have lost four games in a row and it’s been ugly, folks. Things are not looking good in Jays Land.

I don’t get to go to too many Jays games, but I managed to sneak down last Saturday. It was hot up in the 500s, sitting directly in the sun on a scorching July afternoon.

But it was actually a reprieve from the past few days. Earlier in the week, Toronto went through it’s first heat wave of the summer and the night before, a giant storm swept through southern Ontario, ripping shingles off my roof, slamming trees to the ground around town and knocking out power in parts of central Ontario.

The Jays were slammed around, too. Friday night was a 8-5 loss where the Jays blew a 4-1 lead. I had no way of knowing, but when Bautista hit a homer to left in the third, it’d be the last time all weekend Toronto would lead by more than a run.

View from the 500s

View from the 500s

The roads on Saturday were crammed with traffic. On highway 400, it was packed heading out of Toronto and once

I got into the 416, traffic was just packed. It took the better part of an hour to get from Yorkdale to the Bay Street bus terminal. Took a while to get to the game and I arrived late. Still, outside the Rogers Centre it was packed even some time after the first pitch. Packed inside, too.

In a story published at Canadian Business earlier this year, Keith Pelley – president of Rogers Media – said there are four types of fans: diehards, bandwagon jumpers, corporate types and what he called the “Fashionable fan.” They’re an interesting type of fan, jumping on a team because it’s trendy. In a phrase: baseball hipsters. In that story, Pelley said the Jays are “very quickly becoming a fashionable brand.” I know what he means: over the past couple years, crowds at Jays games have been a mix of older fans and younger ones.

But it’s come with a different type of fan, too. Crowds at Jays games can get dicey at times: I remember going to that $2-per-ticket game in 2008 where a bunch of drunken yahoos were arrested by The Cherry Beach Express. And even back in 2006, I wrote about rowdy fans at Argo games. But in the past couple of years it feels like there’s a lot more rowdy young bros at Jays games now, guys in Brett Lawrie jerseys, holding two cans of Canadian and giving lip to pretty much anyone, looking to start a fight. I used to run into them all the time in college. I ran into a group of them on Saturday when they were sitting in my seat. Ran into a bunch more later at the open-air patio in the 200s.

There isn’t a plague of them or anything, but these are the people Yahoo Sports meant when they ripped Jays fans earlier this year. Ditto for Deadspin. It was enough of a problem that The Toronto Star weighed in earlier this year, too. The coverage of unruley fans have tapered and so has their behavior: I only saw one guy get arrested at the game on Saturday!

All the nitrates you'd want in a $11 hot dog!

All the nitrates you’d want in a $11 hot dog!

The Jays weren’t playing too well, either. They were down early and stayed there. It wasn’t for lack of chances: in the fifth, Jose Reyes was at third with no outs. In the eighth, Toronto loaded the bases with no outs. Toronto scored just one run between these two chances. The eighth was particularly frustrating, with two strikeouts ending the inning. This was about the time I left the 500s for some shade and the new open-air patio.

I’ve given Rogers some flack over the years for the way they run Rogers Centre – bad food (Air Canada Centre has better hot dogs), expensive drinks, a sterile environment – but the patio’s a good move. Up to last year, it was Windows restaurant and was rarely used for much of anything. I managed to get into it last year for a game and it was a sad place: a couple of old paintings from the glory days of the early 90s, some tables you could stand around and a bunch of old, disused TVs, the boxy kind with the tube in back.

This year, they ripped all that crap out. There’s no tables, no dusty TVs. A few beer stands and food vendors have replaced the line buffet of hot dogs, peanuts and canned pop. There’s a couple of big TVs showing replays and a box score. And those huge windows are gone. It gets crowded, but it’s a nice spot to watch the game.

The new patio in the 200 level

The new patio in the 200 level

If only the rest of the game was that nice: Rajai Davis was called out on a close play at first, Reyes struck out and Lawrie scored on an Edwin Encarnacion single. With runners on second and third, Adam Lind – who finished with three walks on the day and leads the Jays in on-base percentage – grounded out to close out the game. Ugh.

On the way out, I dropped by the Jays outlet store. If you don’t mind wearing the jersey of a bigot, you can get a jersey for $40. There’s a ton of them! There’s a couple of Rickey Romero twitter shirts, too, which reminded me how quickly those things go out of date. I assume JP Arencebia’s shirt will be there, too.

Next day, it was the same story: Toronto went down, rallied late and couldn’t pull it off. Glad I didn’t make the trip that time: this was the day the Jays honored Carlos Delgado, who was a great Jay (and almost won a MVP award once) and left the Jays as a free agent. His era wasn’t a great one: Toronto continually finished third in the AL East, hovering around .500 despite having Delgado, Roger Clemens and Pat Hentgen. It makes me wonder what’s going to happen down the road: will Toronto put Vernon Wells name up on that wall? Encarnacion? I think it’s pretty safe to think Bautista will get there eventually.

The Jays will, too. Eventually. Things were admittedly worse for the Jays on Monday: a 14-5 loss to the Dodgers, their worst of the season. But Tuesday brought a players-only meeting and a burst from the Jays bats. . But if it’s not one thing, it’s another. The Jays bullpen, so solid all year, collapsed and Toronto blew an 8-3 lead. So it goes in Jays Land.

Written by Mark

July 24, 2013 at 5:11 pm

Breaking Down 100 Good Points

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I don’t know if there’s any writing more disposable than sportswriting. Maybe grocery lists. Certainly posts like this. The best sportswriting is timeless: nobody’s ever going to forget about Pat Jordan, Red Smith or WC Heinz, let alone pieces like Norman Mailer’s report in the Ali/Frazier fight. But mostly, it’s uneventful stuff. “Then the Habs scored two quick ones, bang, bang, and it was 3-2 for the good guys,” that kind of thing. Most sportswriting is on deadline and is dated by the next day. It’s not meant to be read a week later.

That said, what I do is less reporting and more blogging. My title’s Contributor and I almost never get press credentials, although I don’t apply for many to begin with. And I’ve been lucky enough to bang out words on a weekly (and more usually, biweekly) basis for The Good Point, so there’s a little more latitude when it comes to writing. So instead of covering things, I usually write about whatever’s been happening in the world of sports and react to them. On a bad day, I’m not any more interesting than a hack columnist on some small town newspaper, offering uninteresting and instantly dated opinions (see: this column about the NHL coming to Markham). I feel for editor and general behind the scenes wizard Rob Boudreau, who deals with me every two weeks. He’s probably my most regular reader.

But on a good day, I’d like to think I’m able to shine a little light into some of the more offbeat corners of sports. Over the four years I’ve been writing at The Good Point, I’ve covered a huge range of topics, including some I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone else write about; I’m not sure if that’s a reflection of wider interests than the average sports-scribbler or on my complete inability to function as a journalist.

I recently filed my 100th post for The Good Point. I have no idea how I got to this number, I never thought I’d be there for a full year (then again, I always thought I’d be a beat writer of some sort by now). What follows is a few links to some of my favourite posts and a few words on each.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Mark

July 23, 2013 at 10:00 am

Rising Hopes in Jays Land

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The other day I found out an interesting fact about the Toronto Blue Jays: their win over Baltimore on June 22 put them over .500 for the first time in nearly a year. I’d forgotten it’d been that long since the Jays had been, well, good. But then again, I was feeling positive about them even as the season was going to pieces.

Right now, every team in the AL East is above .500. It’s a meat grinder of a division, a marathon, all those comforting old cliches. It’s pretty damn exciting, folks. After what happened throughout April and May, if you had asked what my hopes for the season were, I’d have said just getting t0 .500 would be amazing but I’d have expected something like 75 wins, tops. As it goes now, the Jays have 38 and are two games above .500.

It’s been a rough spring, especially for their starters. RA Dickey, who cost the Jays a small ransom back in the winter months, hasn’t been his 2012 self and is struggling with a neck injury. Josh Johnson’s been hot and cold, swaying between gems like his seven-inning, ten-strikeout and zero runs allowed start against Colorado with a rough four runs allowed through six innings start against Baltimore on Sunday. JA Happ is still hurt and Ricky Romero might be finished after self-destructing back in May. The shining spot of late’s been Mark Buehrle, as any number of blogs have told you.

But even though things went south for the Jays pretty early, there was fun, shining moments. Filling this year’s Rajai Davis role – aka the role player inexplicably playing well and winning over fans – is Munenori Kawasaki. Last year, Kawasaki was unassuming for Seattle, hitting .192/.257/.202 in a little over 100 at bats. When Jose Reyes went down with a turned ankle early this season, Kawasaki was called up from AAA Buffalo. I don’t think anyone really expected much of anything.

While he’s hitting better in 2013, with a .341 OBP, Kawasaki is endearing himself locally by coming across as a fun, personable player. He’s given a memorable interview, played catch with fans and danced inside an airplane. Given some of the recent attitude to come out of the Jays locker room, this is a breath of fresh air. He’s not spouting mean-spirited jokes like Escobar did last fall. He doesn’t come across like Brett Lawrie, who cares so much he loses his shit. I don’t think it’s projecting too much to assume most people see Kawasaki as the everyman, getting his chance in the bigs and making the most of it: he comes across as more human than most of this loaded Jays team. It’s a lot more fun to root for someone like him than someone you expect the best from. When he hit a stand-up triple against Colorado on the 19th, the crowd was as into it as anything I’ve seen all season.

And the fans are into it. The Jays started this season, as they usually do, with a sellout crowd. This has, as it usually does, as the season has gone on. But the TV ratings are showing an interesting trend. Let’s break it down, point by point:

  • For the home opener on April 2, the Jays pulled in over 1.4 million viewers.
  • On June 11, they drew about 572,000 in a win over the White Sox.
  • As the Jays started winning games, the ratings started climbing: 604,000 for a game against the Rangers on June 14, then 686,000 on June 18. Last Friday, their win over Baltimore cracked 900,000.

I haven’t seen numbers for the weekend series against Baltimore, but I’m really curious if it’s kept going up.

The big win streak ended against Tampa on Monday night in a 4-1 loss, but that’s okay. It’s just nice to see the Jays mattering again, to see the team back in the thick of things and interest in the team starting to pick up again. Reyes is coming back sometime soon and hopefully JA Happ follows. Maybe another streak is on the horizon or at least a chance to move out of last place.

Written by Mark

June 26, 2013 at 11:00 am

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