North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

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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 M.

November 1, 2013 at 9:00 am

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 M.

July 24, 2013 at 5:11 pm

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 M.

June 26, 2013 at 11:00 am

Six thoughts on Jays home opener

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Tuesday was opening night for the Blue Jays and arguably the most anticipated home opener since, well, since last year. All the November trades aside, every spring in the past couple seasons has come with expectations and words about how this year’s team is going to make the team a winner. And that’s cool: they gotta get butts in seats somehow, so it’s okay.

But the Jays lost. It’s a very Toronto way to begin the season (they lost their home opener last year, too) and gives more fuel to the self-loathing Toronto fire. So rather than write a full recap of the game and it’s hype and hoopla, I’m going to focus on a few things that stood out to me on Tuesday night. Read the rest of this entry »

Dickey Trade: Are the Mets Raiding the Jays Cupboard?

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I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know much about the Jays minor league ties. I know who Travis d’Arnaud is (even drafted him in a keeper league last spring) and I’m a fan of Moises Sierra, but once I get any deeper than them, I’m hopelessly out of my element. This is why I’m not sure how to parse the proposed trade for RA Dickey.

The trade as it stands rumoured: Toronto gets Dickey, the NY Mets get d’Arnaud and pitching prospect Noah Syndergaard. Dickey is coming off a 20-win, 2.73 ERA, Cy Young-winning season. He posted career bests in ERA, WHIP (1.053) and K/BB (4.26). He’ll be a free agent next year and while his value has never been higher, he’ll cost the Jays just $5 million in salary next year. By any stretch, he’s a bargain.

But to get him, Toronto has to trade two of its most highly touted prospects. D’Arnaud has long been called their catcher of the future and their best prospect. Coming in just behind him on the Baseball America rankings is Syndergaard, not only their highest-rated pitching prospect, but a projected number-one starter in a few seasons time. Last season, pitching in AA  A-level Lansing, Syndergaard went 8-5 with a 2.60 ERA and 1.080 WHIP. He was one of the team’s best pitchers.

The question then looks something like this: is it worth getting a top-flight pitcher, just coming into his own, for two highly rated prospects. On a macro level, it seems a fair enough trade to me: the 2013 Jays rotation is formable (Ricky Romero, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Dickey and probably JA Happ in some order) and while it maybe hurts down the line, this year’s team looks all the better. But it’s not exactly that simple.

After this season, Dickey is a free agent. As a Cy Young winning pitcher just coming off his best seasons yet, he’s bound to get a huge jump in salary. The Jays could try to sign him to an extension, but it’s hard to blame him for cashing in on a career highlights. Another wrinkle is his age: Dickey is 38 years old. True, he relies on knuckleballs and probably has a few years left in him (Tim Wakefield pitched until he was 44) but it’s fair to wonder if he’ll still put up as good numbers in a few seasons. Wakefield was still pitching well into his late 30s (his 2005 season, when he was 38, has his second-best WAR) but his last few seasons were pretty rough.

There’s more wrinkles, too. There’s d’Arnaud’s knees: he missed most of last season after blowing out his knee last June. Going forward, will his knees be an issue? Will he be able to spend most of the season crouching behind the plate or will he end up DHing/playing first (as was an alleged plan if the Jays couldn’t fit him behind Arencebia and Buck) for most of his career?

It seems the trade is best broken down like this: A Cy Young-winning pitcher who’s old, but probably has a few good seasons left in him, for two unproven (but highly touted) prospects, one of whom is getting over a serious knee injury. Again, seems fair to me. I’d rather see Toronto make a run at this year’s postseason with a deep roster than wait and constantly be a few players and a few wins short.

For what it’s worth, maybe the best measure of this trade is what’s happening online: Jays fans are freaking out online and in the comment sections of blogs, saying the team is giving up too much. And over at Mets blogs and the like, fans are saying the Mets aren’t getting enough! If both sides are saying the other is ripping them off, well, that seems as good a sign as any that this trade is pretty even.

Written by M.

December 16, 2012 at 4:02 pm

Jays Trade Makes for A Big Day in the GTA

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Yesterday was a pretty big day for Toronto sports: the Blue Jays pulled off what’s maybe their biggest trade of all time. How big was it? The Jays were splashed over the Toronto Sun’s front page today, even over news of new evidence at Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s libel trial (to be fair, that also made the cover). It didn’t bump hockey off the Star, though.

The trade, briefly: Toronto gets Jose Reyes, Mark Beuhrle, Josh Johnson and John Buck from Miami in return for Yunel Escobar, Adeiny Hechavarria, Henderson Alvarez and Jeff Mathis. The Jays gave up a shortstop everyone already figured was on his way out anyway, a nice prospect in Hechavarria and a nice young pitcher in Alvarez. And Miami has shed something close to $90 million from it’s 2012 opening day roster now.

It’s hard not to be of two minds with this deal: it’s great for the Jays, who at the least are showing a willingness to spend. After all, as per a TSN report, their payroll is up to $120 million now. Gone are the low-budget, sabremetric days of JP Ricciardi, where the mandate was to win while spending as little as possible. This is a nice splash in the AL East and at the very least, it shows the Jays are willing to compete for players with the rest of the division. Maybe the surging Baltimore Orioles last year lit a fire under ownership. Maybe a season plagued by injuries gave cause for a deeper rotation.

After all, the Jays pitching was seriously short in depth last year. Four of their five starters, including Alvarez, were hurt in one 12-game span last June. They made moves to bolster their rotation, including a trade for JA Happ, but without a ton of success. They slipped down below .500 and stayed there as the season wound down. Now there’s reason to believe their 2013 rotation will look something like this: Romero, Beuhrle, Johnson, Happ and Morrow. I think it’s great.

But it’s hard not to feel a little bad about this. Yesterday was the third time the Miami Marlins have had a fire sale in their short history. Three times they’ve dumped a large portion of their talent and slashed their payroll. As recently as last season, when they adopted new uniforms, a new stadium and signed big names, it looked like they wanted to make a run at the postseason. Now? This is yet another time Jeffrey Loria’s name is attached to the gutting of a baseball team. In a typically fiery column, Yahoo’s Jeff Passan levels blows at Loria, Bud Selig and others. He’s joined by a chorus of voices from disgruntled fans and disgruntled players. It’s a really shitty deal for Marlin fans.

It reminds me a little of a famous Toronto trade people here like to remember.  A little over 20 years ago, Cliff Fletcher fleeced the Calgary Flames in a trade that brought Doug Gilmour to the Leafs. In essence, Calgary traded a Hall of Famer for someone who was flipped again after 60 games, someone who scored five goals in two seasons, two replacement level defenceman and a career backup. Where you live depends on how you view that: was it the best move the Leafs ever made? Or did a big city team with money to burn rip off a small market team? I don’t really know how I should feel, at least not yet.

A final thought: right now, I’m reading Rosie DiManno’s new biography of Pat Burns. I’ll have a review of that shortly at The Good Point, but an excerpt seems appropriate right now.

When Burns came to the Leafs in the summer of 1992, the Jays were the darlings of Toronto, even over the Leafs. Truth be told, the Leafs had been pretty awful for a long stretch – hadn’t posted a .500 season since the 70’s – and the Jays were winning the AL East. But still, it’s weird to imagine something like this happening now:

By October 26, Toronto had surprisingly racked up five wins in their last six starts. And still most sports fans were far more preoccupied with baseball. Burns liked it that way, even when the Gardens crowd broke off to applaud Jays score updates on the scoreboard. “It’s a tough feeling for the players, hard to concentrate with all the baseball cheers.”

Just yesterday, I was lamenting how Toronto’s a Leaf town first and foremost. And while I don’t see that changing anytime soon, it’s pretty easy to overlook how successful the Jays were 20 seasons ago. They were selling the SkyDome out on a regular basis, were being blasted all over Canada via CTV and TSN (back when they weren’t the same company, I believe) and people were cheering for them even at Leaf games.

Remember, it wasn’t all that long ago that Stephen King called the SkyDome the “Spookydome” because it was cavernously empty during a 2004 Leafs playoff run. If the Leafs are still awful (or even not playing) when opening day comes around, could we see something like this happen again? God knows I’d love to see it.

Written by M.

November 14, 2012 at 2:10 pm

Farrell To All That

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News broke over the weekend that the Toronto Blue Jays were going to flip John Farrell to Boston for a shortstop. At first, I wasn’t really sure what the proper response was: was I supposed to be pissed that he decided to jump to a division rival? Especially over how happy he seemed to be out of Toronto?

There’s the feeling that he used the Jays to some degree, and maybe that’s true. He showed he can manage a team a little better than Bobby Valentine, even when everyone gets hurt and your ace pitcher doesn’t win a game all month long. I’m not surprised some are feeling scorned by the way he left. But I think the most reasonable take is what Dustin Parkes took over at Getting Blanked: he’s just a manager and this doesn’t really mean as much as some media people might let you believe.

For however annoying the way he left was, and I found it plenty annoying, there’s still a few things to be said about his 2012 season, and the way this Jays season melted down. Remember when Brett Lawrie chucked his helmet at an ump? Remember when Yunel Escobar wrote on his face? When Omar Vizquel called out the coaches? Maybe something was amiss in the clubhouse. Maybe Farrell read the writing on the wall as Valentine flamed out in Boston and the Jays bottomed out. Who knows. The team certainly careened out of control. A shakeup in management isn’t the biggest shocker.

The long and short of Farrell leaving is he wanted to go and the Jays let him. They asked for something back, and while they didn’t get quite they asked for, they got something: Mike Aviles, who I more or less assume is a replacement-level shortstop meant to replace Escobar. It could’ve been worse. God knows Toronto teams have let more important people walk for a lot less than this.

This past season was a wreck for the Jays, even if it had some unexpected advantages: Encarnacion’s hitting, surprising young talent like Moises Sierra and Adeiny Hechavarria, Casey Janssen as a closer. But the chaos is over. 2013 is a new year.

I’m not worried that Farrell is gone. I wish him luck in Boston, a team that’s run two managers out of town in two years. I hope whoever replaces him – be it Sandy Alomar Jr, Don Wakamatsu or somebody else – has a better season. There’s no hard feelings here.

***

In addition to stuff at The Good Point and Flashfact, I’ve started doing occasional political stuff for The Ogopogan. I don’t really know what my specialty there is yet, but I’ve been doing stuff on Quebec and Canadian Media (my latest is about the CRTC rejecting the Astral/BCE merger). Keep an eye on my Twitter feed if you’re especially interested.

Written by M.

October 22, 2012 at 11:19 pm