By: Dan Grant
It’s a funny time of year for sports. Not funny like LMAO or ROFLMAO or LMDBACAO or whatever damned acronym is the new YOLO, but funny like your Uncle Merle with the trick hip and the always-slightly-warm butterscotch candies in his pocket. Everyone has their version of an Uncle Merle. Generally a complainer, worried about his health, yet still swigging back eggnog with the force of a monsoon. You always had to keep an eye on him. What was he keeping in that flask anyway? It smelled like paint thinner and once, you swear you saw steam coming out… or was it smoke? And is that a cashmere sweater this year? No? It’s just a tie-dyed burlap sack? Oh Uncle Merle, you are the living end!
Was he pleasant? Sure, mostly. Interesting? Definitely. Weird? More than little. Just like this time of year! (Stay with me).
In other words, just like when Uncle Merle heads to the john, things are happening but they might not mean anything. Or who knows, maybe they might. It’s the same across the Toronto sports landscape. Whether you’re the wheeling and dealing Blue Jays, the hot and cold Maple Leafs or the front-running Raptors, there are a lot of balls in the air, but it’s going to take a while for any of them to land.
To that end: welcome to Quick Hitters, our trip around the sports teams of Toronto.
TORONTO BLUE JAYS
The Jays have kind of taken the air out of the balloon in terms of off-season speculation. Their acquisitions of Russell Martin and Josh Donaldson are likely their two biggest moves, with only some minor tinkering at second base and in the bullpen remaining. Knowing Alex Anthopoulos, a trade is always possible but the Jays core is probably just about set. So what’s in the wind? Let’s take a look.
1. Super agent (read: douche) Scott Boras has once again set his sights on the Blue Jays internal policy of five year contracts, for the second year in a row. Boras said:
“The baseball staff there is very astute, they know who these players are, they know how talented these major free agents are, but to attract them there, they’ve got to compete with the rest of the league,” said Boras. “What we’ve seen, certainly from my perspective, is a lot of the great players we’ve represented who received seven, eight, 10 year contracts, they’ve been precluded from even entertaining Toronto because of the limitations.
“They’re the only team that has said that limitation is five years. When you do that, you are cutting yourself off from a pool of talent that makes it very, very difficult to compete, particularly in the AL East.” (quote via Sportsnet.ca)
Really Scott? You’re concerned about Toronto’s ability to compete? Or are you concerned that more teams might stop signing players to horrendous contracts that make zero sense in the long term? I honestly can’t think of one player in the past five years who has signed a deal longer than five years and produced consistently, unless that player was young and still under team control. As we saw with the Vernon Wells deal, these contracts are seen as a reward for past production, which is a quick way to drown yourself in bad salary. Jays fans (myself included) clamoured and dreamed of Prince Fielder. Look how that’s worked out. We’ll stick to five years Scott, you stick to being a wang.
2. With all that said, there are now rumours that Toronto is after a Boras client, Japanese infielder Takashi Toritani. A shortstop in Japan, the 33 year old is said to be open to moving to second base to play in North America. A contact hitting lefty and solid defender, he could be a great fit for Toronto.
3. The search for Paul Beeston’s replacement made waves last week, with various big name candidates being floated. Regardless of who replaces him, Beeston’s absence will be felt in the Toronto organization, more than most people will rightly realize. Along with Pat Gillick, he helped to engineer the team success of the late 80’s and early 90’s and since his return in 2008, the team has replenished its farm system and put itself back on the right track. A coincidence? I don’t think so. While we’re looking forward with excitement, let’s not forget everything Beeston has done for the Blue Jays.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
After much gnashing of teeth and hotly contested debate over Randy Carlyle’s job, this Maple Leafs team has looked… competent! A 9-2 drubbing at the hands of the Predators appears to have been a turning point for the team, who sit 6th in the East after going 7-2-1 in their last ten games. How are they doing it?
1. They’re scoring. A lot. At 3.4 goals per game, they rank second in the NHL. The people shouting for a ‘number one’ centre need to give it a rest.
2. They’re defending well situationally. While they’re giving up a below average 2.9 goals per game (22nd in the NHL) they’re 10th in the league on the penalty kill, a huge improvement from last season. The return of Leo Komarov has certainly helped here, as has the addition of new fan favourite Mike Santorelli.
3. Jonathan Bernier has been good! Even if he doesn’t know who Nelson Mandela was. The Toronto media have a need to try and create a goaltending debate. Last season it was ‘Who is the true #1?!? We have to decide!’ and a discussion of whether this was even necessary. This season it’s ‘Are they playing Bernier TOO much?’, and constant criticism of the team when he has to play well for them to win. Listen, it’s a freaking hockey game. Your goalie needs to be good or you’re screwed. Let’s stop begging for good goaltending and then being upset when we get it.
I’m loving this Raptors season. Calming anyone who was worried that last season was a mirage, the Raptors have rolled to a 16-6 record and sit at the top of the Eastern Conference. Even with DeMar DeRozan injured, the team looks solid. Running into Cleveland twice in a week was unlucky but the early season schedule favoured Toronto – they were always going to come back to Earth. A few notes:
1. A brutal upcoming road trip (Chicago, LA Clippers, Denver, Portland, Golden State, Phoenix – yuck) could be an equalizer for a team missing its best scorer. Toronto already has a seven game lead in their division, but Cleveland is red hot, Atlanta and Washington are playing well and Chicago looks dangerous. The Raptors may not be long for the #1 seed that they’ve held for much of the season.
2. DeRozan gave fans hope when it was announced recently that his torn adductor muscle will not require surgery. The problem is, there is still no definite time table for his return. As someone who has injured a groin muscle myself, I can tell you that they’re tricky things. You can feel great for days and then you make one wrong move and it feels like someone jabbed a safety pin into the area where your leg meets your pelvis. The aforementioned seven game lead gives Toronto a nice cushion in the Atlantic. I don’t want to hear anyone pushing for DeRozan to come back if the road trip goes badly. Let the man heal.
3. I attended the Giants of Africa Toronto-Cleveland game last week, because I have the greatest wife on the planet. They honoured Dwane Casey’s Eastern Conference Coach of the Month award with a video montage set to Boogie Wonderland by Earth, Wind and Fire. They then cut to Casey, who was typically stone faced on the sideline, looking like he maybe tried dancing once in 1988, but didn’t care for it. Needless to say, I have questions. Did Casey have anything to do with the song selection? Does he get down to EWF? Is he nicknamed ‘Boogie’, like DeMarcus Cousins and Alvin Williams? Why the hell did they choose that song? Inquiring minds want to know Dwane! We want answers!
Anyway, that’s what’s up in Toronto sports right now. I have to go, Uncle Merle just got here and whatever he has in his flask smells like the tears of a clown. Maybe he’ll share.