North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

Archive for the ‘from the reject pile’ Category

From the Vault: Michael Sam Is A Big Deal (2014)

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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news that Michael Sam has signed with the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes, it seemed like a good time to run this previously unpublished column I wrote for The Good Point back in 2014!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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by M.

May 22, 2015 at 11:32 am

From the vault: Roger Lajoie, The Busiest Man In Sports

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I was cleaning up my laptop the other day, backing up some writing, deleting some others, when I came across this: an unpublished profile of Roger Lajoie.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.

Written by M.

April 29, 2014 at 9:00 am

When losing isn’t a bad thing: A postcard from Toronto

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How long was Rasual Butler holding the ball for? Was it for a a full five seconds? Less? More? There’s a report he asked the referee to count out loud, which probably wasn’t enough. And for what it’s worth, he shouldered the blame, but that’s not what people will remember: they’ll remember him standing there, getting the ball for the first time all game, for what the NBA would later rule was 5.8 seconds, failing to get the ball in bounds.

That’s not fair to Butler, and it’s the wrong thing to take from Sunday’s game; which was, even after 48 minutes, exactly the best kind of game the Raptors could have played this season.



The Raptors went with a new coach this season, which I’m sure you already knew. And the team’s improved under Dwyane Casey, most notably with Andrea Bargnani. Again, I’m sure you’ve noticed this, even if only through the video at The Basketball Jones. What I’m not sure if anyone is noticing is how much better the team looks as a whole.

In the past few seasons, Toronto hasn’t just been bad, they’ve been atrocious. In the past two seasons, they’ve had the league’s worst defensive rating. They got blown out by teams on a regular basis, sometimes allowing close to 140 points in losses. Their draft history since taking Chris Bosh has been brutal: it includes busts like Rafael Araujo or Roko Ukic; underachievers like Charlie Villanueva; and talent like Roy Hibbert, who was flipped almost immediately for Jermaine O’Neal. They won six playoff games in 2001 when they were a basket away from the Eastern Finals; in the 10 seasons since, they’ve won a total of five postseason games.

This is a culture of losing, arguably the most hapless team team in the city Grantland called the worst sports city in the world. And Casey’s done a lot to change that, even in less than half a season. The loss on Sunday is a perfect example of how.

The first thing to notice is how Toronto lost: to a shot that put the Lakers up 93-92 with 4.2 seconds left. This game wasn’t a blowout. Toronto’s defence kept the Lakers, a team with an offensive rating of 103, to under 100 points. They held the Lakers to about their average points-per-game. And without Andrea Bargnani, too. Last year, Toronto lost both games against the Lakers, but allowed many more points. This is progress.

It sounds even better within the context of this game, since the Lakers took an early 18-point lead. They’re not a team that knows how to get stops when they need it – just see Bryant’s shot for that – but they are one knowing how to mount a comeback.

Part of them came from the play of Jose Calderon, who dropped 30 points (a high among both teams) and had six assists. His play this season has been great: his scoring and Assist Percentage are up while his Defensive Rating is tied for a career-best. If the Raptors were to sell him, his play is putting his stock as high as it have ever been. And remember, it wasn’t that long ago a Spanish newspaper quoted him as saying he’d like the chance to compete for a title.

Which isn’t something that’s going to happen in the next couple seasons in Toronto. But down the road? DeMar DeRozan’s play has been hot and cold this season, but it’s worth noting his play on Sunday had a season-high seven assists and him attacking the basket and getting to the line. Coupled with a nice (if not good) game by Ed Davis, it wasn’t a day to forget for the budding talent. And this isn’t to mention Jonas Valanciunas being named FIBA European Young Men’s Player of the Year, either.

And ultimately, losses are what this team should be thinking about: they’re not a good team, they’re not likely to make the playoffs (even if they’re 11th in the conference) and concentrating on the draft is what they should be thinking about. They still have a glaring hole at the 3; losing games would certainly help them in finding someone to put there.

Still, Sunday’s game was close and exciting. It had the Raptors coming back to almost win, had nice performances by two of the best players and even a pretty memorable moment, even if it’s another one where Toronto comes out on the losing side. So cut Butler some slack. You couldn’t have asked for a better game for the Raptors, even one where DeMar’s final shot drops.



Originally written for/pitched to a blog that shall remain nameless.

Written by M.

February 15, 2012 at 2:56 pm

The ying and yang of the Blue Bombers and Alouettes

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Last Saturday, Montreal went into the fourth quarter of their game against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers up 25 to 10. When the game ended, the Alouettes lost by a single point, 26-25.

Winnipeg roared back into the game in the fourth on 16 unanswered points: two majors and a field goal. Blue Bombers quarterback Buck Pierce completed 9 of 13 pass attempts for 97 yards. Chris Garrett ran for two scores. Most importantly, the Bombers defence shut down Montreal: Anthony Calvillo was picked off three times in the game. In the fourth, he was limited to four completed passes. Five, if one counts the one intercepted by Winnipeg’s Jonathan Hefney.

How complete was the shutdown? Montreal picked up just two first downs in the final quarter.

The loss wasn’t just a blown lead. It was a complete collapse. And it’s happened before. About a month ago, Montreal nearly blew another game to the Bombers: a Montreal lead of 19 points was whittled away to just six. The game ended with Winnipeg on Montreal’s one-yard line after two failed quarterback sneaks.

That’s two games where the Blue Bombers have taken it to Montreal late in the game. That’s twice their meetings have ended with the two tied for the Eastern Division lead. The funny thing is, it shouldn’t have been that way.

The Alouettes have been good in recent memory. They’ve led the division for the last three consecutive years. This season, they have the best home record and a quarterback leading the CFL in passing yards, touchdowns and passer rating.

Earlier this season, Calvillo set the all-time record for total passing yards. Not the CFL record. The record for all of professional football. He even made the leap to the US, getting a profile story in Grantland. It’s not unfair to call Montreal the class of the CFL; in an offence-driven league, they’ve amassed the most points and set the standard.

But the Bombers are also good: they have an identical record as the Alouettes, 10 wins, five losses. They’ve taken Montreal right to the brink twice in the last month. And it came despite losing two running backs and questionable quarterbacking.

Their starting running back, Chris Garrett – the guy who scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns on Saturday – was released by the team after training camp and was only resigned in August. He only got onto the field after two Bombers running backs had season-ending knee injuries against Toronto.

Winnipeg quarterback Buck Pierce has not has a good year, either. He’s right in the bottom of CFL quarterbacks, with only Toronto’s two starters below him in passing yards. He’s thrown for just 14 scores (again, only above Toronto’s two quarterbacks) and his 17 interceptions are the most in the CFL. He is not their Calvillo.

So with a QB who has passing issues and a running back that wasn’t even on the team for most of the season, how are the Bombers tied for first in the east? Well, for the same reason why they’ve been such trouble for the East’s other good team: defence.

On Saturday, the Blue Bombers defence kept the Alouettes at bay. Not just in the fourth, but throughout the game. Calvillo was picked off three times, sacked six times and held to just 199 yards and zero touchdown passes. It was one of the worst games of the season for the CFL’s best passer. But this game was no outlier: the Blue Bombers defence has allowed the fewest points in their division.

Two Blue Bombers – Odell Willis and Jason Vega – are among the CFL leaders in sicks; together, they’ve picked up 22 sacks. And there’s three Winnipeg players among the top six in interceptions, too. As a team, they have 24 picks. This is not a defence to sleep on.

The Bombers had some luck, too: a call that went their way led to the league firing an official. And weak teams in Toronto and Hamilton hasn’t hurt their season, either: they’ve posted a CFL-best 7-2 record division record.

And they’ve had surprises, too: in only four games, Garrett’s ran for 353 yards, 13th in the CFL. And his 88 yards per game is highest in the league. Who expected that from a player so deep in the team’s depth chart?

There are issues. As said above, Pierce is not an ideal quarterback and Garrett’s far from proven. Their offensive line’s had troubles, too: in their victory over Montreal, Pierce was sacked three times; this season, . There’s special team problems too: their kicker missed twice on Satuday; this season he’s hit just over 72 per cent of his kicks, one of the worst percentages among the CFL’s kickers.

Still, Winnipeg and Montreal feel like the two sides of the same coin: where one has the league’s best offence, the other has the best defence. Their last two matchups have not only gone down to the wire, but have played a role in the division’s lead. With two games left in the regular season, each has a chance to clinch a bye-week. Montreal’s facing Calgary and BC, two teams who have clinched postseason spots but are still competing for a bye week. Winnipeg is also facing Calgary but they play Toronto, a team that’s living in the CFL’s cellar.

What that means is either team can still win the division. And while it’s no given that the two will face each other in the postseason, it feels like they will. If it’s been anything like their last two meeting have been, look out: the team that shouldn’t be there on paper could be the one that makes it out.

Written by M.

October 23, 2011 at 8:10 pm

There’ll never be another like Al Davis

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The Raiders press release called Al Davis a maverick. If there ever was an understatement, this was it. Davis was a maverick of the old school, from when the word wasn’t a political cliché or a fighter pilot. He was unpredictable, cunning and a hell of a lot of fun to have around.

Al Davis was a lot of things, including a progressive. He hired the first black coach in the modern era, the first Hispanic coach and quarterback and hired the NFL’s first woman CEO. He gave many of his players a chance to play pro football when nobody else would – just think of how many people he picked up off the scrap heap.

He was a champion of the rights of owners, challenging the NFL’s monopoly and asserting the right to move his team as he saw fit. He was the person whom so many clichés originally described: a maverick that did things his own way and just won, baby.

There are less fun details. He shuttled his team up and down the California coast, twice leaving behind a vibrant community of fans. He gave off the sense of a paranoiac, especially in dealings with coaches and the media. And he was a constant thorn in the side of former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle; one biography of Rozelle all but blames Davis for the commissioner’s health problems and early retirement.

Everybody sees the Raiders are Davis’ team. But his contributions to pro football far outweigh just one team. As commissioner of the AFL, Davis led a drive to sign away NFL talent, a move that all but pushed the competing leagues together and ushered in the modern era of pro football.

But by 1970, when the two leagues merged, Davis had long since returned to the Raiders as part owner and head of football operations. The teams he built in that decade are some of the NFL’s most infamous and talented, with players like John Matuszak, Kenny Stabler and Fred Biletnikoff. In the golden years of the Raiders, they were good on the field and wild off of it.

When Stabler’s biography details on training camp with the Raiders, it reads like a Hunter Thompson story: all-day practices and all-night parties, fuelled by pills and booze (Matuszak was partial to Crown Royal and Quaaludes). Indeed, Hunter Thompson once described the Raiders as the flakiest team in pro football and compared Davis to Sonny Barger.

In his seminal book on football, Paul Zimmerman was more blunt: he called Davis a “master spy, master trader wheeler-dealer and rogue.” He detailed the tricks Davis used to pull: changing visiting team’s practice spots at the last minute, have his grounds crew unroll tarps while the visiting team is still practicing and the time he snuck workers into Shea Stadium on the eve of an AFL championship game to build an illegal heating tent on the Raiders bench. Davis cultivated an aura of pushing things to their breaking point, doing everything he could to give his team the advantage.

Every obituary on Davis makes one point crystal clear: Davis personified the Raiders like no other owner, coach or manager ever has or will. The Raiders were his baby, right from the get-go. Everything, from team colours to management went through Davis. As the recent years have shown, he was a control freak. He’d fire coaches with little warning and even less pretext, once burning through three in five years. When the move to Los Angeles gave the Raiders ownership of luxury suites, the Raiders started charging rent to the stadium’s other users.

And culturally, it’s hard to think of another football team that mattered more than the Raiders. When asked why NWA wore Raiders colours, Ice Cube said “it’s a thing where you looked right, it felt right.”

One is tempted to define him on the above, with a glance to his long-term successes: the Raiders once went from 1968 through 1978 without a losing season. They won three Super Bowls with Davis around and went to another in the 2002 season. Doing this misses the point.

I didn’t know Davis, but it’s pretty easy to say he was complex man. A story that paints him as a colorful rogue(“His clothes seemed to matter more than half the players he ever drafted”) looks past how he helped former players. Another that suggests maybe he overdid it (he “often pushed the boundaries of what some people thought was acceptable”), never mentions how often he won when challenging the NFL.

It’s foolish to think about Davis and the Raiders without addressing everything the man did for pro football. What he did with the team almost never happens in culture, especially in so short a time. The Raiders almost exist outside of pro football. Their black and silver are iconic, representing not just a team, but also an attitude.

It cannot be said enough: no owner will ever mean as much and make the same impact on professional sports as Davis did with the Raiders. And that’s a shame.

Written by M.

October 9, 2011 at 12:00 am