Yesterday was admittedly a pretty big day for Toronto sports, even by its usually outlandish standards. Two of the best athletes in the city left on the same day. I want to take a moment to look at each of them.
1. Exit stage left: Phil Kessel. Arguably the most talented player the Leafs have had in years and certainly the most divisive they’ve had since Tie Domi, Kessel is now a Pittsburgh Penguin.
Kessel’s time in Toronto was marred right from the get-go, when then-GM Brian Burke traded away two first-round picks for the forward. Could the trade really have been six years ago? A story of mine at the Good Point suggests it’s been nearly that long. I defended the trade then; these days, I don’t feel the same way, although I don’t know I care enough to bang out that many words on an off-season trade anymore, either.
The trade is easy to nitpick now. The Leafs lost out on a second-overall pick and Kessel, never much of a talker, burned bridges with the media. By the end of his time here, the Toronto Star’s Dave Feschuk was insinuating Kessel was a coach-killer and even positive stories on him still mentioned an image of laziness. Even now, as he leaves the city, sportswriters are throwing him under the bus for eating too many honk dogs.
In Scottish lore, there were people called sin-eaters. When someone died, these people went to the house and ate a piece of bread, symbolically taking the sins of the deceased onto themselves. The more I think about it, the more I think Kessel filled a similar role for this Leaf team. For basically his whole tenure here, the Leafs were bad. They made the playoffs once and collapsed on an almost annual basis. Problems abounded, but the media honed in on Kessel.
Why? Maybe because he didn’t play along with their games and make them feel like one of the team. Maybe because his trade symbolically defined an era of putting it all on red and seeing the ball land on black. Maybe because somebody had to fill that role and the media weren’t going to throw people they liked being around under the bus. But as the Leafs seasons collapsed into defensive miscues and teams that seemed rudderless, it was the guy who played hurt and alongside replacement level talent and still managed to score 60-points a season who caught the flak.
In all his time here, Kessel was one of the most exciting players on the Leafs to watch. Think I’m kidding? Go watch clips of him in full stride, taking a pass and moving in on the net. At his best, Kessel is a pure skater who can score with ease. He wasn’t always at his best because teams realized they could shut him down and not worry about players like Bozak or Clarkson. Even so, Kessel had moments like this, where he made it all look almost effortless.
I hope he scores 50 in Pittsburgh next year.
2. Exit stage right: Amir Johnson. Perhaps not the most talented Raptor, but certainly one of the most compelling, a fan-favourite who was a lot of fun to watch even when the team wasn’t and someone who genuinely loved the city, hanging out in Toronto long after the season ended. He is now a Boston Celtic.
When Amir Johnson came here in 2009, the Raptors were a mess. It was their last season with Chris Bosh and they came within a hair of making the postseason, but were eliminated on the last day. The next year, the Raps were in free-fall, winning as many games as the total of different players on their roster: 22.
Over the next couple of years, there was some ugly ball played by the Raptors. This was a time when Andrea Bargnani was avoiding contact and playing away from the basket, when Aaron Gray was making 40 starts at centre and when the Raptors offense struggled to score 90 points per game.
Through it all, Johnson was a blast to watch. He struggled with fouls, yes, and had some injury trouble. But he was a reliable bench option, good for about ten points and ten rebounds per 36 minutes. He was also a lot of fun to watch, someone who gave a lot on the court and looked like he was having a blast, too.
It sounds silly, but in the years after Vince Carter, who admitted he didn’t always try his hardest, after Bosh who left right as he hit his peak and after Hedo Turkoglu, who basically didn’t want to be in Toronto, it was refreshing.
In my files, I’ve got a pitch I wrote for The Classical that I don’t know if I actually sent. It was for a Why We Watch on Amir Johnson. Here’s a small excerpt:
Johnson came to the Raptors in Bosh’s last season. After Bosh left, he settled into a starting role, mostly in the same role: the other big alongside Barganani. He’s also filled another role, too: the fun Raptor.
He has his own Youtube channel, AmirTV. Along with DeMar DeRozan and Sonny Weems, he was part of a group calling themselves The Young Gunz. He’s released a mixtape. And he’s active in Toronto in a way few others are: right before the season’s start, he took part in a Toronto zombie walk. He hangs out here. Bosh was a nice guy, but he didn’t live here.
My pitch is a huge mess – probably why I never bothered sending it – but I think that label is as true now as it was in late 2012. Johnson was a lot of fun, on the court and off. Even now, as his role on the team has been eclipsed by DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Terrence Ross, Johnson was still a sentimental favourite, someone who had bad ankles and still picked up fouls at a ridiculous rate, but had captured something among the fans. Just look at the goodbyes he’s getting from blogs like Raptors Republic.
Remember, it wasn’t all that long ago they were literally giving Raptors tickets away. I was at a game with my friend Eric and an usher came up to us and just handed us a pair of free tickets to another game. We didn’t even have to ask. They have a lot of cultural cache now, thanks to consecutive playoff runs and Drake’s stamp of approval, but for a while there wasn’t much to cheer for. But there was Amir.
A towering, monumental biography of a huge, powerful civil servant, Robert Caro’s The Power Broker is a hell of a biography. It illuminates all the aspects of Robert Moses, who build up New York in a way nobody else had before and probably never will again.
Here’s a good way to sum up Moses. Right from the earliest points of his career, he led crusades to build parks for the general public, arguing with the robber barons who controlled the land he wanted and had the money to fight him. At the same time, he worked in ways of keeping the urban poor – minorities, generally – from using his parks and wasn’t above lying to people to get them to do what he wanted and dropping them the second they stopped being useful.
Or consider this. At one point, Moses was simultaneously building a huge hydroelectric dam, the world’s longest suspension bridge and planning a world’s fair. When he was in his 70s.
Caro’s book has all this and more. It’s huge and impressively detailed. It goes the gamut of his life, going through Moses days at Oxford and up to his fall from power in the late 1960s. It covers the ups, downs and many, many moves of power that Moses made to crush people in his way. They could’ve been anyone: newspaper reporters, mayors and other elected officials, even entire neighbourhoods. He didn’t care about anything, anyone but himself. Caro captures this arrogant, aloof attitude, which is why this book is so compelling: the average writer might have simply written off Moses as someone who grew old and out of touch; Caro shows him as a ruthless manipulator who was unwilling to bend to anyone, even the President of the United States.
It’s more than just that, though. Caro’s book doubles as a history of New York City through the 20th century, from the days when Tammany Hall controlled the city, up through the troubled mayoralty of John Lindsay. He explains the shifts in population, the way the city’s power shifted between parties and the rise of a more outspoken media. But where he comes through most is the rise of the automobile and it’s relationship to the city.
Which was Moses doing. More than anything – even the parks which made him famous and powerful – Moses was a highway-building man. He built parkways, highways and bridges. Toll-collecting made his Triborough Authority richer than any other authority in the city and Moses extensive ideas and planning for highways gave him a grip of power on the city. He didn’t just have the ideas for how cars should flow through the city, but he was the only guy with both the power and the money to get it done. And he did. His parkways gutted homesteads, slashed through neighbourhood and caused more congestion than they did relieve drivers.
It goes deeper: the specific ways in which Moses built his highways defined how the city would be shaped long after he was gone. He built bridges so low that buses couldn’t use the parkways, limiting them to the middle-class and higher. He evicted scores of people, pushing them into already-packed slums and public housing and destroyed neighborhoods. And his refusal to even consider public transit meant subways and trains wouldn’t have a part, but they never would: by the time he was finished, the land would be too expensive to buy.
Did Moses care? Hardly. As Caro relates, this was a man who laughed at people who were angry with him, scorned those who dared challenge him and refused to talk to anyone who wasn’t there to help him. He was arrogant, yes, but he had built himself so powerful he didn’t need anyone’s help, really.
And, as Caro relates in the book’s final sections, this arrogance undid Moses. He fought with the press, with the city and even people who wanted to put on free plays in the park. It’s a cliche, but I kept thinking of Lord Acton’s old line about power.
At well over 1,000 pages, Caro’s book is pretty weighty (even makes a nice dull thud when you drop it on a desk), is packed with numbers and figures and can occasionally get a tad overwhelming. But it never lets up on the drive and once Moses drive for power and arrogance towards everyone starts getting in his way, the book takes on a new power. Perhaps it’s because Caro was around for those battles, but maybe it’s just because Moses started losing these fights.
But the last quarter of this book is as exciting, as riveting as anything Caro’s written in his Lyndon Johnson biographies – if I had to rank it among those, it’s slightly behind the third volume, which is my favourite of the four, and just ahead of volumes two, four and one (in order). Granted, I would’ve liked to see more maps and maybe a postscript of what’s happened since this was first published, but those are minor gripes. If you’re looking for a political biography, how people carve out a position of power for themselves and keep it, this is your book. Recommended.
A little over a month ago, things looked pretty bad for the Jays. When I last wrote about them, they were 13-15, writers were calling for John Gibbons’ firing, and Bautista was getting thrown under the bus for some reason. Now? Things are a lot better and the chorus has slowed down a little bit.
Going into Monday’s game against the Mets, the Jays have won 11 games straight. They ripped into Boston, staging a late-game comeback on Friday, an extra-winning win on Saturday and a crushing 13-5 win on Sunday. It was pretty cool and couldn’t have come against a better opponent; by weekend’s end, there was drama between the Red Sox and their manager John Farrell.
So things have been good. The Jays are hitting, even as injuries limit the amount of at-bats Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion get. But the rest of the order is hitting. Take Josh Donaldson: he hit a dinger in the 11th on Saturday to put the Jays ahead for good. And this month he’s hitting .327/.357/.462. And Russell Martin is hitting .324/.395/.676, too!
But really, the guy I keep thinking about is Jose Reyes. Right after the win streak started, the big story was over some dumb comments from Jays broadcast Jerry Howarth made on the dumb Fan morning show hosted by a guy once fired for being a homophobic jerk on the air.
Essentially, Howarth said Reyes was declining by the game and it was really tragic and so forth. And while Reyes isn’t the player he once was, he’s still been a decent player for the Jays. At the time of Howarth’s remarks, Reyes was hitting .284/.299/.353. This month alone, he’s hitting .333/.393/.490, with his only two home runs this season.
It goes deeper than that, too. Just a couple of days after Howarth’s remarks, Reyes’ basically won a game for the Jays. Down 4-6 in the bottom of the ninth, Reyes knocked in Munenori Kawasaki, stole second and third, then scored on a Chris Colabello single. And he’s supposed to be depressing to watch? Hell, I find even reading the game log exciting.
See, the thing about this team is that it’s pitching sometimes isn’t all there, but it can hit its way out games when that happens. Between Donaldson, Martin, Bautista and Encarnacion, Toronto has a wealth of slugging, not to mention complementary bats that Gibbons can platoon and use depending on the opposing pitcher.
Which is what I’m finding I love about this team. I enjoy good pitching as much as the next fan, but truthfully, it’s rad to see the Jays hit a bunch and knock in a ton of runs. As cool as it is to see Buehrle pitch a succinct, quick game, it’s a lot of fun to see Donaldson hit one into the former Windows Restaurant or Martin knock one into the seats. It’s even cool to see Kawasaki – someone who isn’t really all that good, really – hit a ground-rule double in the ninth of a close game.
And that’s maybe the thing to remember about this team: they’re at least one arm short of making a real run for the AL East (probably), but when they’re hitting, they can really hit. And frankly, it makes them a lot more fun to watch right now than the Yankees or Rays.
An oral history of the punk movement, Please Kill Me is a gossipy, entertaining read but one with a small scope and stories that’ve circulated for years.
The thing about punk rock is how ingrained it’s become in music culture, which is kind of surprising when you think about it’s origin as backlash to more pompous forms of 70s rock.
After all, back in the mid 70s, bands like Emerson Lake and Palmer could sell out Madison Square Garden and were featured on TV specials like California Jam. This was a band that didn’t have a guitar and played covers of classical standards like Pictures at an Exhibition! It wasn’t exactly the greatest time for rock, really.
Punk was kind of a reaction to that; it was simple, loud, aggressive music. But it went deeper, with influences ranging from Chuck Berry to The Velvet Underground to The Stooges. And it wasn’t just a reaction, it was often musicians finding their own styles and then co-mingling with other, like minded musicians and sharing influences. After all, punk only really became punk after bands like The Ramones, Blondie and Television started playing at CBGB’s.
Please Kill Me starts with the influences but generally sticks to New York City and even then, generally to a handful of bands: Iggy Pop, The Ramones, The Heartbreakers, Television and a few others. By no means is it complete: there’s scarcely a mention of Talking Heads, for example. And other cities almost barely get into the picture: there’s nothing about the scene in Toronto, Boston or Los Angeles.
And really, it seemed like most of the stories here followed the same general format: some male musician got really loaded on booze or heroin and made an ass out of themselves, usually in public. The characters and setting change, but the story’s the same, be it with Iggy Pop, Sid Vicious or Stiv Bators. There’s a lot of behaving badly; maybe when I was 15 I’d have read this and thought they were cool, self-destructive people but now? I just see them and get kind of sad.
Because at it’s heart, this is a tragic, almost mournful book. There were a handful of geniuses involved in punk and a bunch of talented musicians. But, by and large, they all burned out and faded away without leaving too much behind. It’s really kind of sad.
Take Johnny Thunders, for example. Here was a hell of a guitarist and someone who could write a pretty good song when he set his mind to it. And, as is noted in the book, bands throughout the 80s and beyond made tons of money by aping his style, both in clothing and on the fretboard. But what did Thunders leave behind? A good New York Dolls album and a couple of memorable singles: “You Can’t Wrap Your Arms Around A Memory,” and “Chinese Rocks,” which he didn’t even write.
Indeed, Iggy Pop looms large in these pages, both as a character and as an influence. When he came into the picture, there wasn’t really anyone like him: Iggy was dangerous, in your face and captivating. But he also was addicted to, well, whatever you had on hand and probably almost died more times than anyone can bother to count. And the thing about him is, people tried to be him. They did as much smack, drank as much booze and lived as hard as he did. Iggy was lucky; he’s still alive. Many of his followers featured from this book aren’t.
At the same time, some people were able to leap out from the fringes and into the mainstream thanks to punk. Take Patti Smith, for example: in only a few years, she went from performing in front of small crowds at St. Mark’s church to selling out stadiums in Europe, while still generally sticking to the same material. (But then again, Patti was a shark; there’s more than a few stories here about her poaching talented musicians from other groups for her own! David Bowie would be proud!)
Still, for music nerds and people generally interested in the history of punk, there’s plenty to chew on. There are stories about the Dolls playing at the Mercer Arts Center, fascinating looks into the early days of CBGB’s and many legendary bands and, most interesting of all, a look at how a jokey, almost goofy scene in New York took on a life of it’s own, becoming political and tapping into a cultural vein in England.
He’s not as prominent as many of the other people here, but Malcolm McLaren stands out as the most important figure here. Without him, it’s likely punk would’ve come and gone like so many other scenes; the way he was able to take a scene and tie it into England’s culture essentially changed the way punk was perceived; it was a stance and a style, not a genre. The bands come and go, but the look and attitude McLaren worked to promote have outlived even him.
There are other histories of punk that generally cover the same ground. But Please Kill Me has a loose, rambling and gossipy vibe to it that other books lack. It’s fun, it’s opinionated and even if the same stories are available elsewhere – Phil Stongman’s Pretty Vacant or Victor Bockris’ Transformer come to mind – a bunch of the stories here were new to me.
Editor’s Note: With today’s news that Michael Sam has signed with the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes, it seemed like a good time to run this previously unpublished column I wrote for The Good Point back in 2014! It never ran, maybe my take was too hot? I can’t remember why it was rejected.
On Sunday, the Brooklyn Nets signed Jason Collins to a ten-day contract. This is the time of year for those: the post-trade deadline, as teams make a push to get into the playoffs. On that level, Collins’ signing isn’t any bigger than, say, Glen Davis signing with the Clippers.
But, for reasons I’m sure you already know, Collins’ signing is much bigger news.
(Apologies for that title, but I couldn’t resist)
Today’s news on the Toronto Argonauts is really interesting to me on a variety of levels. Of course, the big one is how the Argos are moving out of the Rogers Centre and into BMO Field, current home of the Toronto FC. This alone is pretty big stuff: the Rogers Centre is a cavernous stadium even at the best of times and frankly, when the Argos play there is just seems more like a cavern. And I say that as someone who’s paid to see them, multiple times! Read the rest of this entry »