North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

Ten Years of Posts: My Favourite Pieces

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I’ve been doing this a long time, but even though it’s been nearly ten years (or longer, depending if I count pre-North stuff), there isn’t really as much content as you’d think there’d be. Maybe because I spread stuff out so much. Or because I concentrated on other sites. Or because, frankly, I don’t have a lot to say.

Anyway, it makes picking my favourite posts pretty easy.

Over the years, I’ve had a couple of posts get big traffic. The first was a MVP column I wrote that somehow found it’s way into a Ball Don’t Lie link-post, which gave me literally thousands of pageviews. The second is a post I don’t even remember writing, where I picked apart some hack’s column for some reason. It’s not something I’d do now; it seems kind of petty and mean as I read it now. I’m not going to link to either here.

Instead, I’m going to focus on stuff I’m glad I wrote, posts that still hold up. I think all blogging is a transitory medium –  even the best stuff is meaningless the next day – so apologies for linking material that’s dated, stale and otherwise out-of-context. I still like these ten posts anyway.

A Final Memo From the Ugly Seats
November 2005

An early stab at reporting, from my pre J-School days, when I didn’t know how to put together a feature and my big inspirations were Hunter Thompson and Dr. Z. It’s a mess, but I can see something forming here: a little media criticism, some first-hand observations, and for some reason, a mention of violence in the city. It’s a mess, but it’s the only thing I wrote in the early years I’d still read. Even if it’s super derivative:

By the end of the Third Quarter the outcome of the game was sadly apparent – Montreal possessed the lead as Toronto fumbled or was intercepted seemingly every time they had the ball. Just down a few rows from me sat two lonely Montreal fans, cheering and screaming wildly whenever their team did something, from scoring to making a tackle to calling a timeout. The other people in my section would scream and throw food at them, but their spirits never dampened, they were the winners here and they knew it…

“Did…Did you not see the game? (Maniacal Laughter)” – Montreal fan, replying to slanderous insults

Is Sports Journalism Dead?
March 2009

Well, is it? Did Twitter, Bill Simmons and brand managers change the game? I could’ve written this post last week, you know. And I’m still not sure about the answer.

Five Hockey Pitches for 30 for 30
December 2009

I’d still watch any of these five films, you know: the 1987 World Juniors, the time the power went out during a Cup Final game, the 1993 playoffs, the closing of the Montreal Forum and the 1987 Canada Cup. And since then, they’ve released, what, one hockey movie?

Awarding the Sports Pulitzers
April 2010

Now talk-radio host Dan Levy mocked me on a podcast over this one! But at least people were reading me!

Just Asking A Question About Damien Cox Asking A Question
August 2010

What happens with a local columnist defends his baseless accusations by saying he’s “gotta ask the question?” Well, I’ll ask why he had to ask!

Radio Host Says Controversial Remark About Women’s Sports, Internet Outraged
March 2011

I don’t really remember the context here – I guess McCown said something stupid, as is his wont – but this was one of the first times I delved into the gender divide and it’s a topic I’ve written about a few other times. The particular story’s dated, but my attitude is the same:

It’s different than just watching the odd WNBA game and making cracks about how they can’t dunk. When you’re there all the time, one realizes there isn’t as much a difference between men’s and women’s sports. Talented athletes will excel at their sport regardless of gender. Yes, the WNBA only recently had it’s first dunk, but that’s doesn’t make it a lesser league, only a different one.

Words From the Worst Sports City in the World
September 2011

Conversely, when a popular website publishes a clickbaity piece by one of Canada’s most annoying writers, you’d better believe I’ll rip into it:

After all, it’s horrors beyond horrors that Toronto hasn’t won anything since 1993 (unless you count the Argos, which Marche doesn’t do until it suits his hypotheses). I wake up in the middle of the night with a jolt, sweat-drenched, angry beyond words about Tie Domi on a semi-regular basis. But it also isn’t that big of a deal: so what if the Leafs lose every year. The Cubs haven’t won a World Series since 1908 and life has gone on there ever since. The Jays lost tonight. C’est la vie.

Just Another Sunday at the Rogers Centre
August 2012

Even in a lost year, I found some things about the Jays season to remember, which is kind of what I try to here: even if Toronto sports can get negative really quick, there’s always lots of fun things to remember. Like Rajai Davis making a killer grab at the wall. Accentuate the positive, as NRBQ used to sing.

Just Another Friday Night in the City
November 2012

I hung out outside the 2012 Grey Cup so you didn’t have to. I also linked to a video of a horse in a car.

It’s Been A While and It Might Be A While
May 2013

The only Leafs postseason appearance while this blog’s been operating. I picked Boston to win in si;  if only I knew how this series would end. A notable aside:

Some people who have died since the last Leafs postseason game: Kurt Vonnegut, Hunter S. Thompson, Gerald Ford, Jack Layton, Jay Reatard, Evel Knievel, Norman Mailer, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Trish Keenan

 

Written by Mark

May 11, 2015 at 11:29 am

Notes on a tenth year

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I don’t remember when I started this blog. The first post dates back to June of 2005, but I’m reasonably certain it existed in some form before then: I remember writing about the 2004 NHL finals and I have foul papers of NFL posts in notebooks dating back to 2003. So, in one way or another, I’ve been doing this a long time.

 

A lot’s changed in that time frame. The Internet’s a different place: ten years ago I couldn’t have imagined a site like Grantland, where there’s daily interesting takes on sports and pop culture. After all, one of the reasons I started writing was my general dissatisfaction with writing coming out of Toronto. I was sick of writers like Steve Simmons, Damien Cox and Al Strachan, people who reflected a viewpoint I didn’t share.

 

At the same time, I don’t really remember what the Internet was like back then. I suppose Bill Simmons was writing for ESPN, but I barely knew who he was. Both Deadspin and Truehoop were a little ways off and while I was one of thousands of people who started a blog back then, I genuinely don’t really remember reading anyone else’s: I just started writing online because I was already writing offline, in chapbooks, spiral notebooks and on an ancient IBM laptop that ran Windows 95 and barely at that.

 

Which has always been my raison d’etre, really. I’ve never worried about traffic and over the years, it comes and goes. I’ve always consciously written stuff I’d like to read and if nobody else does, I don’t care. Maybe not the best attitude, but it’s how I’ve always felt.

 

Over the years, being a borderline interesting sports blogger has given me some interesting paths. There was a blog founded by a bunch of teenagers who asked me to write a mailbag column, there was my spell writing a MVP column for Hardwood Paroxysm and, most memorably, I was a featured columnist for The Good Point for about five years.

 

That last one was easily the most rewarding experience I’ve had in these ten years and not jut because it was my only paying gig. Austin, Andrew and Rob, if you’re reading this, thanks for everything. You’ve been a big influence and I learned a lot from you all.

 

I’ve actually given thought to pitching an oral history of The Good Point to, er, someone, since it was an interesting, wild and talented place for a number of years. Just a casual look at the list of contributors is like a who’s-who of young sports writers: Andrew Bucholtz, one of Yahoo Canada’s/Awful Announcing best writers and as ambitious as anyone I’ve ever met; radio personality Chris Pope; Leigh Ellis, co-host of NBA-TV’s The Starters; John Matisz, Sun Media’s go-to hockey writer. There have been others, too.

 

I think if you track my writing over the years there, you can see my evolution as a sports blogger, going from a self-made sports guy to someone who’s really more interested in the margins and what happens off the field. When I started, I was interested in writing about events; by the time I stopped, I was more interested in talking to female writers about why female sports are ignored or how people are making sports culture more open and accessible. It’s to Austin Kent and Rob Boudreau’s absolute credit they never spiked my columns because they weren’t jock-ish enough.

 

Indeed, I think I’ve changed too. Back in 2005 or so, I intentionally set out to re-create myself as something approximating a sports guy. Like most people, I have my demons and this was something of an attempt to combat them: maybe by remaking myself in a certain image, I’d be able to drop them. It hasn’t worked that way, but that’s a learning lesson, too.

 

And now, a good ten years on, I’ve realized I’m not really that guy and maybe I never was. You can probably read it if you look deep enough into my articles and how they’ve evolved over the years. I’ve dropped the Hunter Thompson inspired prose, started reading authors like Imogen Binnie, bell hooks, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Kate Bornstein, people who’ve challenged how I see the world and myself.

 

Which is a way to say I’m not going away – if anything I’ve been more prolific than I’ve ever been lately – but I’m not the same person anymore, either. There’s a lot more to life than sports.

Written by Mark

May 10, 2015 at 1:52 pm

House Show: Notes on seeing the WWE live in Oshawa

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I’m not really a pro wrestling fan. I enjoy reading about it, I like the personalities and I follow it a bit here and there, but I’m not the kind of fan who sits and watches Raw every Monday night, let alone Smackdown or the minor leagues.

So when I went to a WWE house show in Oshawa last Sunday, I was glad to go with my buddy Eric, someone who does all of those and more. It certainly helped me figure out who was who. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Mark

May 7, 2015 at 10:00 am

Blowing up, down and around (or What To Do About the Jays)

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(Optional soundtrack to this post)

Right now, the Jays are in the cellar. They’re 13-15 and in last place. Funny: it wasn’t long ago they were in first and I was going crazy over Jose Bautista again. Funny how things change in a month. Hell, just two weeks ago, there was snow on the ground and today I sat outside and read in short sleeves bare feet.

And things have changed for the Jays. Their youth movement wasn’t paying off quite as well as everyone hoped. Their bullpen has struggled and, at times, so has their offence. All of which means it’s time for that annual Toronto tradition, when hockey minds slip into something more comfortable for summer weather – a loose fitting T-shirt, I imagine, and a pair of jorts – and diagnose the problems of Canada’s lone baseball team.

Why here’s Steve Simmons weighing in on if John Gibbons should be fired! Here’s Jeff Blair, making the same argument! Spoiler: both say it’s not his fault. And I’m sure Michael Grange had a bad opinion somewhere recently, too, although I can’t find it at the moment. On Twitter, perhaps?

Firing Gibbons is the kind of move sportswriters love to pontificate about because it seems like a power play: you’re not producing, so you’re gone. It’s a big bang, the kind of simple, big solution everyone always has for the Jays. And while I agree with Simmons and Blair for once, just writing a column asking that question is throwing fuel on the fire.

Should Gibbons lose his job? No, of course not. There are problems with the Jays, but they’re not really huge problems and, further, they’re not problems Gibbons has any real control over. They include slow starts by some players, young rookies not playing like established veterans and a couple of bullpen meltdowns.

One such problem is the Jays defence: the 145 runs they’ve allowed is the most in the majors this season. But that’s been inflated recently: they allowed 12 in a loss to Tampa on Apr. 24, 10 in a loss to Cleveland on May 3, and nine in another Cleveland loss on May 1.

One thing that’s not a problem is their offense, which is the MLB’s best. Forget blowing this team up, they’re blowing around the bases! They’ve scored more than anyone, are sixth in OPS, and average over five runs per game. That’s pretty good! And not something you’d get from Toronto’s Finest. Writes Simmons:

Next on the list is Jose (K) Bautista. K for strikeouts which he is doing too much of… The slow start for Bautista is nothing new — he will find his way, he always does — but his inability to get hits in key situations has factored in games.

Bautista did show he can still make a difference late Monday night against the Yankees. He got a key hit, scored a large run, did what he is paid to do and hasn’t done enough of yet this season.

Never mind how Bautista is fourth on the team in slugging, has five dingers and absolutely showed up Baltimore’s pitching. Never mind how he’s the face of the Jays powerful offense and probably gets more junk than anyone, gets thrown at more than any other Jay. If only there was a way to chart how he’s being pitched to! The guy gets more flak than anyone and when he’s gone, I’m going to genuinely miss the guy.

Thank god for reasonable voices in the Toronto media, like Andrew Stoeten or Arden Zwelling. And especially Mike Wilner. I’m usually hot-and-cold on JaysTalk, but man, he’s had some incredible calls this season and he takes ’em like a champ.

(I think my favourite was when someone earnestly asked if he’d ever tried to play professional baseball, since he likes the sport so much. Not in an accusatory way, more like they just couldn’t understand why he never tried. Wilner asked if he was getting set up, but it never veered into “you can’t if you didn’t” territory, somehow.)

Anyway, I expect the Jays will recover and it’s not all Doom and Gloom. This is a team that can hit and has been all season. Their bullpen’s been iffy, but I imagine it’ll settle down. Look at RA Dickey, who is 1-3 with a 4.50 ERA, but pitched a gem the other night. Look at how young this team suddenly is: 12 players are 26 and under, 27 of them under 30. It’s going to take some time for everything to gel and until then I have faith their offense will hit them out of some lousy pitching nights.

Written by Mark

May 6, 2015 at 11:59 am

Things We’re Not Interested In: The NFL Draft

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With the NFL Draft plastered across the TSN networks for three nights this week, it’s a busy weekend for Stuff I Don’t Care About. It’s a fun time, folks!

See, the NFL Draft is an exercise in hype and hyperbole, the kind of thing they could bang out in an afternoon if they so wished, but it stretched out to Pantagruelian proportions and covers a few nights of TV. And really, what for? To watch a bunch of young adults put on a jersey?

While I won’t begrudge them a moment in the spotlight, it’s worth pointing out the only interesting story to come out of the draft in recent years is when Michael Sam was drafted –  in the seventh round, no less – and planted a kiss on his boyfriend.

Last year, I wrote a column about Sam – I don’t think it ever ran, either –  and how he was a big deal. From my unpublished notes:

When Sam plays, LGBTQ people will be watching. Some, I’m sure, will be inspired to keep playing their sports without keeping an important part of their life hidden; others will start paying attention because of Sam. When Cuban said he a player’s sexuality shouldn’t matter, he was right: it shouldn’t. But in this environment, where Arizona is flirting with allowing businesses to openly discriminate, it does.

In the year-and-a-bit since I wrote that, things have gotten messier, but maybe clearer, too. Sam spent part of the NFL season on Dallas’ practice squad and never played in a game, while Indiana recently passed a law that allows businesses to discriminate under the guise of religious objections. One business managed to parlay that law, and it’s resulting backlash, into gobs of capital. (I’m sure you know Mencken’s line)

At the same time, there has been pushing the other way, too. Sam hasn’t faded away like most practice squad players: he was recently on Dancing With the Stars and there’s still talk he may play in the CFL, if not in the NFL. And there’s Bruce Jenner’s coming out as trans a little while back, important in it’s own way but also relevant to this discussion. Remember, Jenner was a hell of an athlete back in the day.

But back to the draft: last night, Shane Ray was taken by Denver late in the first round. And as Outsports noted, there’s a lot of similarities between Ray and Sam. Funny how that works, eh?

Which sort of gets me to the second-biggest problem I have with pro football: it’s hypocrisy. This is a sport that lets people get away with being awful human beings. They can beat their kids until the police get involved and still have careers; be a big enough star and they’ll even try to sweep your abuse under the rug. Players get arrested, players sometimes even go to jail. But when Sam comes out, it’s a distraction. It’s also a load of horseshit.

But so is the draft, which is literally three hours of talking, handshakes and posing. It’s unbelievably dull. And, frankly, it’s annoying that TSN is airing it over playoff basketball.

Written by Mark

May 1, 2015 at 11:12 am

When the Take’s Too Hot

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It’s been a long time since I was in journalism school, but back in my J-School days we had an ethics class and used to have long discussions about what was and wasn’t ethical to publish.

Generally, these talks revolved around ideas like going undercover: if you gave a false identity to get information, does that information outweigh the act of lying? Or, in other words, if you were dishonest to one person, why should the reader believe you’re being honest to them? It was all very academic and looking back at it, makes me wonder if I attended The College-on-the-Hill.

It all kind of came back to me the other day when I read about a scorching hot take which ran over on a Blog I’m Not Going to Name. Basically, it was a vile opinion that wished actual, literal death on Josh Hamilton for being an addict. It was stupid beyond words, a vicious, ugly piece of hot garbage.

This post isn’t about that, though. It’s about what happened in the layer above the post: the editor who ran it, quickly deleted it but gave the writer a chance to write a self-congratulatory, tone-deaf ‘apology.’ How does that happen?

The goal of opinion writing is supposed to be to present an informed take on a subject and present it in a way that makes a logical argument. If I were to write something about how the Toronto Raptors should fire Dwane Casey, I’d have to make a case for why he’s failed at his job, why Toronto should move on him and maybe even argue a case for who should be coach. I’d have to write about something concrete: wins, losses, defensive meltdowns and short rotations.

I wouldn’t launch a personal attack.

For one, that’s rude and distasteful. Second, it doesn’t actually mean anything: if I start calling people names and slandering them, it’s only making me look petty and uninformed and unintelligent. And again: it’s stupid. My job as a ‘sportswriter’ – anyone who has that job, really – is to argue about sports and be able to back it up. Ad hominem attacks are lazy, uninformed and a waste of everyone’s time.

If I know this, why doesn’t the editor at Blog I’m Not Going To Name? Why doesn’t his boss at A Much Larger Blog Network know this? Were they even in the loop? When the blogger went back and wrote a goodbye post, was it something they approved or even knew about? Who the hell knows.

But it’s not just this one post – although it kind of pushed me to write this – but it’s something I see all the damn time these days: Hot Take after Hot Take, often just out there to shock readers into a few clicks. As a certain four-letter network says, Embrace Debate.

Which brings me back to my days in ethics class: we used to talk and argue these things and hear multiple points of view. Which is what I think every good blog needs: communication. You need to talk with editors to help shape your piece. You need to think about your words and how they’ll impact people.

As we used to say: it’s impact, not intent. I could mean the nicest thing in the world, but that’s moot if they start pissing people off. And once you start coming off like an asshole, it’s pretty hard to gain trust back from readers. Maybe that’s why I avoid a lot of sports media these days.

Written by Mark

April 29, 2015 at 11:32 am

Posted in Sports Media

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Thoughts on a Raptors sweep

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The headlines today are as witty as they are predictable: “Sweep the North,” wrote the Toronto Sun, for example. The Raptors season is over with a dud of a game four, a blowout I didn’t even bother watching. Because let’s be real: this series ended after game three and the whole team spent last night going through the motions.

It sucked, but this Raptors season has more or less been a downer since the New Year and I can’t say it’s overly shocking now I look back at it.

Going into this, I picked the Raptors in six. It seemed like a good idea at the time and frankly, I wasn’t alone: only five of ESPN’s experts picked Washington and none had them winning in five games, let alone four straight. It made sense: Toronto swept them this year and the Wizards were not looking great, certainly not as good as they looked in all four games.

But Toronto certainly looked as bad as they ever did this season. And in game four, which I admittedly skipped watching live, they probably played their worst game all year. But maybe the signs were there all series long, like when Lowry went 5-of-22 shooting in game three. Or when he went 2-of-10 in game one. Hell, through the series, Lowry had a .316 shooting percentage, down from his .412 this regular season.

Lowry’s getting a lot of blame, but he’s hardly alone. Lou Williams – who won this season’s Sixth Man Award – shot a dismal .314 and jacked up about 13 shots per game. And DeMar DeRozan averaged 20 shots a game and hit about 40 per cent of them.

Given how this Raptors team lived by it’s offense all year, it’s fitting they died with it in this series. The Raptors couldn’t match the offensive production of John Wall or Bradley Beal, let alone slow it down. And in the close games, the Raptors couldn’t get stops.

For example, late in game three, the Raptors took a lead on a hell of a possession: Lowry made a steal, moved the ball quickly up court and dished to Amir Johnson, who slammed it home. It was 85-84 with about six minutes left. After that, it was downhill: Toronto’s shooting went ice-cold and they took some long threes. As the fourth wound down, Washington scored six points in under a minute and the Raptors lost 106-99.

In sum, it’s worth noting that Toronto averaged over 104 points a game this season, but broke 100 points in only one game.

But whatever, the season is over and frankly, I’ve moved on. I’m sure there’s going to be handwringing and gnashing of teeth, but really what is there to do with this team? Even on their best nights, they’re not really that good defensively and they’re not well constructed; remember, it wasn’t long ago that this team was getting blown up. Lowry was nearly traded to New York!

So what comes next? Is firing Dwane Casey the answer? Can you salvage this roster’s core and make another run? Or should they sell high-ish on DeRozan, Lowry and Valanciunas and start a rebuild? I don’t know if any of those are the answer; if anything, the Atlantic division is so weak, this team could probably make the playoffs again next year, even without a major overhaul. But they’d still probably lose in the first round.

My mind keeps going back to Bosh’s heyday here, when two good Raptor teams made the playoffs and amounted to basically nothing. And even though Bosh is arguably one of the best players they’ve ever had, his tenure here was vaguely depressing and kind of frustrating. They won a few games, picked up a division title and never made it out of the first round.

Maybe the Lowry era is the same way: they have a very good player, a couple of good supporting players but not enough. Lowry took a ton of shots this series, but maybe he had to since nobody else’s shots were dropping, too. That’s also how I remember the Bosh era ending, too.

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