October 27, 2010

This is the season ...

It begins tonight, the post-Chris Bosh era. And without a lot of -- any? -- bloody optimism. But the show, horrific as it might be, must go on. The Maple Leafs went through it when Mats Sundin skipped town. The Blue Jays when their relationship with Roy Halladay ended, albeit amicably. It's now the Raptors' turn. A right of passage, in a way, to what is a new and youthful era -- and hopefully more goddamn successful -- for Toronto's big three sports teams.

And as is always the case before tip off, this is the season.

The season Andrea Bargnani realizes he's seven feet tall, averages nine rebounds a game, and becomes a premier help defender.

This is the season of The Young Onez ...

The season DeMar DeRozan, after learning the ropes, proves that he does indeed "got us." The season Amir Johnson sticks it to all of us who said he'll never live up to his massive contract. The season Sonny Weems proves March and April 2010 were no fluke.

This is the season Leandro Barbosa, only 28 years old next month, returns to form.

The season Linas Kleiza, fresh off his European sabbatical, important for any 25-year-old, makes the most of an opportunity, and thrives.

This is the season Reggie Evans is healthy, and rebounds. Until he's traded.

The season Jose Calderon learns how to play def... Nevermind. Let's not get crazy.

This is the season Jarrett Jack becomes a legitimate starting point guard in the NBA.

The season Jay Triano figures it out.

I know what you're thinking. I agree; that's a whole lot of "this is the season." There's only so much "this is the season" to go around.

But there's one more. The most important one. This is the season the Toronto Raptors, to a man, take their team's projected 26.5 wins personally. And win 30. Bet the over. I did.

This is the season. Until it's not. Then it's the season after.

Image of the chosen one courtesy The Associated Press, via Yahoo! Sports.

October 26, 2010

A twist in the narrative

A day later, and I still don't know much about John Farrell.

He left Cleveland; there's certainly nothing surprising about that. He won a World Series in Boston. He turned down job interviews while waiting for the right opportunity to manage. Today, he's a Blue Jay. While the headlines read that the Toronto chose John Farrell, John Farrell, in fact, chose Toronto. In a welcome break from what we've gotten far too used to around here, Toronto, for once, was the ideal situation. And, damn, does it ever feel good to be wanted.

Farrell's a pitching coach. He's tutored the young arms of Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and Daniel Bard. (Yeah, he's worked with Josh Beckett, John Lackey, Jonathan Papelbon, and strike zone hater Daisuke Matsuzaka, too, but let's just focus on the kids.) And I'm sure you'll agree that pitching coaches have had a way of endearing themselves to us in recent years. While I don't remember much of the Mark Connor and Gil Patterson eras, Brad Arnsberg and the fan base, we were close. Five years, it was a good run. It was tough to watch him take his talents to Houston, and we thought we'd miss him, until Bruce Walton came from Arnsberg's very bullpen and into our lives.

Now they'll work together, Farrell and Walton, and I expect nothing less than the opposite of Cito Gaston's reign of bullpen terror. They'll work with Brian Butterfold, too, who isn't heading south to Baltimore to join his pal Buck Showalter, which is telling in its own right. Butter didn't get the job he wanted; it was his goal to manage the Blue Jays. But even in his disappointment, he too picked Toronto. Double rainbow.

Farrell's hiring is sweeter in the knowledge that he joins the Blue Jays from the Boston Red Sox, and that they're -- both organization and Massholes fans -- smarting over his departure in New England. The Bostons and New Yorks, they take far too much from everybody else in baseball. It's nice to snatch one of theirs.

I don't know how Farrell will manage. Nobody does. He's never done it before. But if he takes to his new job the way Alex Anthopoulos took to his, the Blue Jays are in good hands. Experience; it's overrated. While we may not know a lot about Farrell -- we don't even know how many years he's expected to be in town -- we know without a doubt that Anthopoulos chose him having done the due-st of due diligence. And if Anthopoulos doesn't yet have your trust, I don't think he ever will. 

Farrell chose to come to Toronto. Butter chose to stay in Toronto. If it were up to Manny Ramirez, he'd pick Toronto. And let me tell you, I could get used to this. It almost makes me wonder: what does Cliff Lee think of our fine city?

*Update: It's a three-year deal. That sneaky Anthopoulos!

Image of a styling Mr. Farrell courtesy of Reuters, via daylife. 

October 24, 2010


This one comes to us via uber-CFL blogger Andrew Bucholtz ...

*I know, it's the Argos. But during heady times, beggars can't be choosers.

(CFL) Playoffs!!!1

October 21, 2010

We know they won't back down ...

And as per the glorious NHL standings, it's apparent that Phil Kessel and his Toronto Maple Leafs have indeed turned their swag on ...

Make it happen, Sportsnet. 

October 14, 2010

If Joe Posnanski ruled the world ...

"You kind of took it for granted around the Yankees that there was always going to be baseball in October." 
- Whitey Ford

That's got to apply to their fans, the Yankees faithful, too. It has to. I'm 28 years old. The Toronto Blue Jays have played in the postseason five times in my lifetime, winning, of course, two World Series. And let's be honest: I was far too young in 1985 and 1989 to truly give a damn. Were I a Yankees fan, those numbers would be 15 and five, respectively. And let's not kid ourselves: 14 straight years of October baseball in the Bronx -- 1995 through 2008 -- would have made me the most insufferable Yankees fan of them all.

I bring all this up because of Joe Posnanski's latest blog post. If it were up to him, he'd do away with the wild card and go back to baseball's old format: "two divisions in each league, a championship series, then a World Series." Posnanski would also not "be opposed to getting rid of the playoffs altogether and just taking the best team from each league and going right to the World Series."

No playoffs. "Getting rid of the playoffs altogether." Imagine such a baseball world. Fear it. God help the Blue Jays if Posnanski's ever running the show.

In all seriousness, the Posnanski piece is a thoughtful one. He's right: this year's race to the top of the American League East wasn't a race at all. It was a joke. And in the end, as is usually the case, the Minnesota Twins were the punchline. Anyway, Posnanski understands that if the playoffs were shortened, the economics of the game would have to be changed. He also understands that it's not going to happen; that there's no looking back on the wild card now, yo. And that's a good thing, because I'm all for the idea to add another wild card into the mix, and have two wild card teams face off in a best of three -- not a best of one; baseball doesn't roll that way --to determine who moves on to play in the division series'. Hell, I hope the change is in effect for next season.

I used to think the baseball season was too long. A hundred and 62 games? Are you kidding me? Now I realize it's the perfect length. Every game matters. Ask the San Diego Padres. Adding another wild card team makes one through 162 matter even more. Is this interest self-serving, so the Blue Jays can one day qualify for the playoffs? Absolutely. Toronto needs all the help it can get to scale the mountain, and end their almost two-decades long drought. Other than "Toronto Maple Leafs" and "Toronto Blue Jays," the blog label I've used the most at Sports And The City is "I miss the god damn playoffs." Were I in charge, I think everyone might make the playoffs. One versus 30, two versus 29, and so on. Playoffs for everybody!

While we're talking about October baseball, how about Saturday night: Lincecum against Halladay. The Freak versus The Doctor. Quite possibly the apex of a pitching matchup in the playoffs. I can't wait. And I'm grateful, Baseball Gods. Thank you. 

The photograph above -- me in about 40 years -- comes to you from Getty Images, via Yahoo!

October 08, 2010

Game in Six Sentences

Because, let's be honest, if every Toronto Maple Leafs game can be whittled down to six minutes, it can surely be pared down to six sentences. Probably four. But let's go with six.

1. Before the game, during player introductions, Tomas Kaberle was given the loudest ovation, redeeming my faith in Leafs fans.

2. I kid you not: The Maple Leafs were three-for-three on the penalty kill.

3. The Maple Leafs were zero-for-five on the power play

4. Who cares? Ron Wilson's troops are the best -- the best, 100%! -- at killing penalties in the NHL.

5. All Phil Kessel does is score goals.

6. So that's what it's like to have a goalie -- J.S. Giguere -- make massive saves in the late third period, while his team is leading, on home ice.

One-and-oh, yo.

And, to commemorate opening night, a special seventh sentence. Here's to a new season:

7. Mike Zigomanis.

Okay, fine, let's make it eight sentences, just this once:

8. Playoffs!!!1

Image of Tim Brent -- who? -- courtesy of The Associated Press via daylife.

October 07, 2010

Celebrating Doctober at Big League Stew


The post below -- a Blue Jays fan's take on watching Roy Halladay's no-hitter -- has been cross-posted from Big League Stew. A hearty thanks to 'Duk for having me.

Roy Halladay's first postseason start was 12 years, 2,297.1 innings and 346 games in the making.

It was well worth the wait.

I'm going to be honest with you: As soon asShane Victorino slid safely into home plate in the bottom of the first inning on Wednesday, giving Halladay and thePhiladelphia Phillies a 1-0 lead, a little voice in my head sprang to life:

"No-hitter," it said.

Yes, in the first inning. Know why? Because I'm from Toronto. My name's Navin, I'm a Blue Jays fan, and I've watched Roy Halladay pitch many more times than you have. And along with my Canadian brethren north of the 49th, we're not surprised by what transpired at Citizens Bank Park.

Because, much like Doc's perfect game in the regular season, we knew that history was coming. When you've watched him as often as we have, you come to expect greatness. And perfection — or as close as you can come to it.

We know that Harry Leroy Halladay III has always risen to the occasion. In his second start as a professional, way back in 1998, Doc was one out away from a no-hitter at the SkyDome before Bobby Higginson went and ruined the party. He followed it up with more of a decade of battling and beating the beasts of the American League East. He has always known how to make an entrance.

Why would the playoffs be any different?

I'd be lying if I said Jays fans aren't conflicted. To root, or not to root, for Doc. Over the past 10 days, Stoeten at Drunk Jays Fans has let it be known that he finds it "kinda pathetic" for Jays fans to be rooting for another team's success no matter who's pitching.

The Tao of Stieb, the most thought-provoking in the powerhouse that is the Blue Jays blogosphere, wrote: "So, yeah. Knock 'em dead Doc. Show the world how great you are. And go **** yourself while you're at it."

But while I respect those two writers greatly, I do not share their sentiments. Not since 2006, whenCarlos Delgado was a member of the New York Mets, have I had such a vested interest in Major League Baseball's playoffs. I'm rooting for Halladay. I'm rooting for the Phillies. Doc left Toronto to chase a ring, and I want him to get it.

Was it bittersweet, watching Halladay throw a no-hitter, and forever tying his name to Don Larsen's while wearing a red uniform instead of a Blue Jays jersey? Of course it is.

Would I trade Halladay's gem for one Blue Jays postseason game? Say, Ricky Romero and Toronto, instead of David Price and Tampa Bay, facing Cliff Lee and the Texas Rangers? Without a doubt.

But I don't have that option right now. Because Toronto is without postseason baseball for the 17th straight season, Doctober is as good as it gets.

Look, I'm tired of the "why should I cheer for my ex-girlfriend?" analogy. We're not talking relationships, here. We're talking baseball. The window closed on Halladay's time in Toronto, and, before it did for good, the Blue Jays made the right decision in sending their ace to Philadelphia, receiving prospects in return.

What's there to be bitter about? Doc gave us his formative years. And a rebuilding Blue Jays franchise won 85 games in 2010, after being predicted to finish below the Baltimore OrioLOLes. A young, cost-effective, and efficient starting rotation let it be known that the clubhouse was a more enjoyable and relaxed place to be, minus Halladay. Doc didn't ask to be traded, like Scott Rolen. He didn't opt-out of his contract, likeA.J. Burnett. With the Blue Jays headed in the right direction, but once again on the outside looking in at the postseason, what the hell is wrong with celebrating Doctober?

I'm also sick of the "We've known Doc was this good for the past five years!" complaints. The bitterness towards the American media, and casual baseball fans, who are only now learning about the greatness that is Roy Halladay, is absurd. Look, the real baseball fans know about Doc. The real baseball fans have always known about Doc. The same way I know, living in Toronto, thousands of miles east of Seattle, that Felix Hernandez deserves the 2010 Cy Young Award.

I dealt with the woe is me emotions, and the bitterness, in the aftermath of Halladay's perfect game, back in May. I was disappointed, and hurt. Yeah, it should have happened in a Toronto Blue Jays uniform. But it didn't. And, more than than anything, I'm glad it happened, period. I've overcome. Doc's one of baseball's "good guys." He deserves every ounce of success he's earned. He's the sole reason I went to the Rogers Centre in 2009.

What we in Toronto always wanted, always desired, was the opportunity to watch Halladay pitch in the postseason. Well, it's finally happened. Doc just happens to be wearing a Phillies uniform while doing it. Unfortunate? Sure, yeah, it is. But Halladay in the playoffs as a Phillie is better than Halladay not in the playoffs at all.

And in the end, it isn't about the Blue Jays, or the Phillies, or any team for that matter. It's about a man born to pitch in October, finally getting his chance to do just that.

And the best part?

Doctober's only begun.

"I just wanted to pitch in the postseason. ... To go out and have a game like that, it's a dream come true." — Roy Halladay

Epic image courtesy of Getty Images via Yahoo! Sports.

October 06, 2010

The Oregon Trail

I've always wanted to do this. I figured, what better day to make it happen than the day before the Toronto Maple Leafs begin the 2010/2011 regular season with a trashing of the Montreal Canadiens. Ladies and gentlemen, Brian Burke and the Toronto Maple Leafs hit The Oregon Trail. Think of it as a microcosm of the Leafs' journey towards the promised land; towards Lord Stanley's Cup.

If you don't know what The Oregon Trail is, I'm old, and may God have mercy on your soul. Let's do this.

To begin, we've got three choices. To be:

1) A banker from Boston.
2) A carpenter from Ohio.
3) A farmer from Illinois.

Brian Burke's from Rhode Island, which is pretty much Boston. And while he's a lawyer, he's general manager of the Maple Leafs, with millions upon millions at his disposal, which in Oregon Trail speak makes him a banker.

The four Maple Leafs traveling with Mr. Burke are:

Phil Kessel. After dealing two first-round picks, and more, to get him, Burke's fate is tied to #81's. Dion Phaneuf. Acquired in another trade, he's now Burke's captain. Tyler Bozak. Burke's prized collegiate free-agent signing who's now expected to be a legit number one center. And, last but certainly not least, Tomas Kaberle. For my own sentimental reasons.

The journey to Oregon begins in April. Ironic, considering that's when the 2010/2011 Maple Leafs so desperately want to be playing their best any hockey. Before they set out, with $1,600 to spend, supplies had to be bought. And being the richest banker from Boston certainly helped in this regard. Burkie made it rain.

Two oxen to a yoke. Three were recommended, but Burke bought four. Two-hundred pounds of food were recommended for the team. Burke bought 250. Yes, one of Burke's priorities had been to change the culture around the Maple Leafs, and he would, but they had to eat. Also: Burke had to spend most of his money, otherwise deal with annoying fan unrest. Ten sets of clothes were recommended. Burke bought 15. Think of it as new jerseys for each person half-way through the journey. Twenty boxes of 200 bullets were bought. Burke's an avid hunter, yo. Throw in two wagon wheels, two wagon axles, and two wagon tongues, and the Maple Leafs were set to go, with $1,140 left under The Oregon Trail cap.

Before the Maple Leafs wagon set off for glory, Burke had to set the pace: steady, strenuous, or grueling? With the Kessel trade, Burke had given building steadily through the draft the middle finger. Two of them, actually. One for each first-round pick. So, the pace was obvious: Grueling. The Leafs' road to the Stanley Cup wasn't going to go down Chicago Blackhawks or Pittsburgh Penguins style. Burke was doing it his way, and fast.

What about meals?

Bare bones. From day one, Burke had set about changing the culture of the Toronto Maple Leafs. For far too long had players in the Maple Leafs dressing room been eating filling meals.

On April 2nd, the journey began, and 102 miles into Toronto's quest, they came upon the Kansas River crossing. Burke didn't bother to look around; the team's ultimate goal lay thousands of miles away.

Burke had three options:

1) Ford the river: pull his wagon across the shallowest part of the 5.7 feet deep, and 635 feet wide, Kansas River, with his oxen still attached.
2) Caulk the wagon: seal his wagon so that no water could get in, and then float the wagon across the river.
3) Use a ferry: have the Leafs' wagon placed on a boat and sail it across the river.

Burke, a tall man full of confidence, wanted to ford the river. But with deep MLSE pockets at his disposal, he chose to caulk his wagon, and take fewer risks. I know, not very Burke like. Rumour has it he was overruled by the suits upstairs at MLSE. Always meddling, those guys.

Regardless, it worked.

From the Kansas River crossing, it was 83 miles to the Big Blue River crossing. The Leafs made it in no time, having traveled 185 miles up until that point. Their health fair, and the weather warming up, Burke decided to throw them a bone. Rations were changed from bare bones to meager. Meals were "small, but adequate."

The Big Blue River was only 245 feet across, and 4.4 feet deep in the middle. Burke, carrying a ton of gear, once again went the conservative route. The Leafs caulked the river, with no problems, and set off for Fort Kearney, 119 miles away.

Still on the grueling pace they set out with, the Leafs made it to Fort Kearney in no time, and Burke chose to carry on, right away. It was 250 miles to Chimney Rock, and the team's health was fair.

On April 11th, the Leafs faced their first test. With hot weather rolling through the Midwest, one of the oxen was injured. That's life in the NHL, on The Oregon Trail. Burke was prepared, having bought four oxen, and he summoned one from the farm to step up and fill the void.

On April 12th, some more bad news: Phil Kessel was suffering from cholera. The man Burke traded two first-round picks, and more, for, was in ill health. Burke was not a happy man. A day later, the team's morale down, and in the hopes of improving his young sniper's health, Burke slowed the team's pace from grueling, to steady. Kessel's well-being was paramount, Burke told Oregon Trail reporters.

To ease his troubled mind, Burke went hunting, and it went well. Seventy-two of meat pounds well, to be exact.

His team feeling better, Burke's Leafs set off once more. On April 20th, 66 miles from their next landmark, their health had improved to fair. Spirits were high, and, on April 24th, the Leafs arrived at Chimney Rock, where they proceeded to rest for a couple of days. Team bonding exercise, Burke said. Gives everyone a chance to get to know each other a little better. On April 26th, the Leafs' wagon was back on the trail, 86 miles out of Fort Laramie.

They arrived on May 1st, the weather fair, along with the team's health. But they were low on food. With $1,140 left in cap space, Burke visited the market, and picked up 200 more pounds.

From Fort Laramie, it was 190 miles to Independence Rock.

Along the way, Burke stopped to hunt. As general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Burke promised himself he would never stop hunting for ways to make his team better. On this particular occasion, it didn't go so well.

On May 5th, Phil Kessel got lost, costing the Leafs one day. At least he was feeling better, Burke told himself.

On May 9th, the Leafs' wagon went down the wrong trail, and cost themselves another day. It was all part of the process, Burke told reporters. A team had to get lost before it could find its way.

On May 16th, Dion Phaneuf came down with dysentery. Dysentery! Not cool. With his captain suffering from severe diarrhea, fever, and abdominal pain, Burke rested his troops for two full days. They set out again on May 18th, and arrived at Independence Rock on May 23rd, having traveled 830 miles. Only 32 pounds of food remained.

At Independence Rock, Burke put on his trading hat. He had his boys at a steady pace, and was feeding them meager rations, but he needed some food. Burke was offered 197 bullets for one set of clothing. No deal. Another GM came at him asking for 201 pounds of food. Like first-round draft picks, Burke didn't have that amount. Another offer: 53 pounds of food for one box of ammunition. Burke didn't have 53 pounds of food! He was incredulous. A fourth offer: two wagon wheels for one ox. Burke declined. He was focused on food. Finally, he found a deal worth making: one wagon axle for 45 pounds of food. Deal.

On May 29th, the Leafs set off for South Pass. Buoyed by the trade, and another few days rest, Burke decided to use his rifle some more. He did even better this time ...

Burke killed a total of 1,001 pounds of meat. Unfortunately, he was only able to carry 100 pounds back to the Leafs' wagon. So it goes. With only 115 pounds of food left, Burke set rations back to bare bones. "If you want it, you've got to earn it. You've got to stay hungry, and pay the price," he told the beat grunts. On May 31st, Burke had another successful hunting outing: 55 pounds of meat.

On June 3rd, still on their way to South Pass, Kessel came down with a fever. Burke elected to rest his men for one day. Kessel was a star, after all. And Burke had to take care of his stars.

On June 5th, more bad news: one of the oxen had died. The one who'd been called up from the minors. It had given its all. On the same day, after the oxen who was in the lineup on opening night was activated from the injured list, the Leafs' wagon stumbled upon an abandon wagon, with 42 bullets inside. Finders keepers, Burke told himself. Three days later, Burke learned from reporters that it was the Vancouver Canucks' wagon he'd found, and that Canucks GM Mike Gillis had lodged a formal complaint with the league. He wanted his 42 bullets back.

On June 5th, less than a week away from South Pass, the Leafs' health was fair, their pace steady. Then, on June 10th, suddenly, tragedy:

As soon as he'd arrived, Phil Kessel was gone. No rhyme or reason. Not even an explanation. One day he was fine, and his cholera was a thing of the past. The next, he was gone. Brian Burke, and Kessel's teammates, especially Bozak, were inconsolable. But Burke refused to let grief consume them. He ordered the Leafs to move on, and on June 11th, they arrived at South Pass.

Rattled by the sudden passing of Kessel, Burke gave the team a few days off. In the meanwhile, he tried to land some more food via the trade route. He finally got a half decent offer -- one set of clothing for 35 pounds of food -- and accepted.

On June 15th, halfway through their journey, their pace steady and their rations still bare bones, the Leafs took off once again. And it was here that Burke was faced with an important decision: head for Fort Bridger, or the Green River Crossing. Needing to stock up on food, it was a no-brainer. To the fort, 125 miles away.

On June 18th, with the team running out of water, and in poor health, Burke stopped to hunt. Of course, he didn't return empty-handed. He threw 100 pounds of bear meat into the wagon. And, now that Kessel was gone, Burke increased rations for his team from bare bones to meager. Kessel would have wanted it that way.

On June 28th, 1057 miles into their journey, Burke and the Leafs arrived at Fort Bridger. Burke, in an ornery mood as usual, bought one ox, and 500 pounds of food. With over $885 still left to spend, never would his Maple Leafs go hungry again.

From Fort Bridger, it was 162 miles to Soda Springs, and, after losing the trail, and one day in the process, Burke set his wagon's pace to strenuous. His troops were eating better, so they might as well move a little faster. On July 8th, the Leafs lost the trail once again, and this time lost five days. Had coach Ron Wilson been on the wagon, he'd have surely been fired that day.

Finally, on July 14th, the Leafs arrived at Soda Springs. The weather was hot, and the team's health fair. Over 1,200 miles had been logged by the hard-working oxen. But it was only 57 miles to Fort Hall, so Toronto's wagon kept on moving. At Fort Hall, Burke bought one wagon axle, and 200 pounds of food. With his team's health fair, Burke changed their pace back to steady. Phil Kessel still weighed heavily on his mind. Two first-round picks, yo. Tyler Seguin! It put things in perspective. There was no rush. Slow and steady wins the race.

From Fort Hall, it was 182 miles to the Snake River Crossing. And this is where I, Navin, thought to myself: "This game seemed a helluva lot shorter in elementary school."

On July 22nd, Tomas Kaberle was suffering from exhaustion. Such a gamer, the Czech defenceman. In Kessel's absence, it was Kaberle who picked up the slack. Burke noticed, and promptly gave the team five days rest. He was taking no chances. On July 27th, the sun beating down, and the team's health fair, the Leafs' wagon returned to the trail.

On August 11th, after losing the trail for three days, the Leafs, tired but with plenty of food, made it to Snake River crossing. They'd traveled just under 1,500 miles. The Snake River was 1,000 feet across, and six feet deep. Burke took the latter as an omen, and, thanks to his deep pockets, hired a Native-Indian to guide the Leafs across the river. The Shoshoni guide asked for three sets of clothing in return. Deal, said Burke, and the Leafs' wagon made it across the river without issue.

Having crossed Snake River, it was 114 miles to Fort Boise, and Burke's Leafs lost one day, August 15th, thanks to heavy fog. That same day, Kaberle broke his leg. Poor Tomas, Burke thought. He just can't catch a break. (Pardon the pun.) Burke decided to rest the group for four days. He needed Kaberle for the stretch run.

On August 26th, an ox went down to injury, once again. It was the same ox that had been injured earlier in the journey, and it blamed the Leafs' trainers for rushing it back into action. Two days later, the ox was dead. Burke may have killed it. We'll never know.

On August 30th, 1,257 miles in the books, his team in poor health, and the weather turning cool, Burke's Leafs arrived at Fort Boise.

Fort Boise was the second-last fort on the journey. Even though Burke was carrying 346 pounds of food, he bought 300 pounds more, and changed his team's rations to filling. It was the stretch run; they were going to eat well. Burke also bought two oxen, and still had over $560 to spend. Think of Fort Boise as the trade deadline. Burke did. And he stocked up. The Leafs were going to do it for Phil Kessel, and stitched a massive 81 to the top of their wagon.

A hundred and sixty miles from the Blue Mountains, on August 30th, Bozak came down with cholera. Burke trudged on. On September 2nd, one of the oxen was injured. Burke knew he had to rest, and set up shop for five days. With time of the essence, Burke changed his wagon's pace to strenuous as he returned to the trail on September 7th.

On September 16th, the Leafs made it to the Blue Mountains. It was getting colder, but the team was in good spirits, having covered 1,732 miles. Again, Burke was faced with a decision: head for the Dulles River, or Fort Walla Walla.

For once, Burke went against his gut. He chose Fort Walla Walla, only 55 miles away. He did it for Kessel. He didn't want to lose Bozak, or Kaberle, or his captain, Dion.

On September 19th, his team's health extremely poor, Burke's wagon pulled into Fort Walla Walla. With 400 pounds of food still left, Burke bought 200 pounds more. He'd never run out. Thanks to a fanbase that supposedly won't support a rebuild, but that filled the building through the Raycroft and Toskala eras, Burke had cash to burn.

From Fort Walla Walla, it was 120 miles to the Dulles River. But Kaberle was breaking down. Burke knew it. On September 20th, Kaberle was bit by a snake. The snake was named, oddly enough, Cam Janssen. Tomas soldiered on. He was a veteran. And, deep down, Burke was proud of him. Proud that he'd not traded #15, and proud that he'd brought him on The Oregon Trail.

On September 27th, Burke and his boys reached the Dulles River. The weather was warm, their health poor, but they'd made it. Nobody reached the Dulles in good health. The Oregon Trail was a war. The toughest trail to conquer in professional sports. With over 500 pounds of food to spare, and having traveled over 1,900 miles, Burke gave the Leafs two days off, before their final journey. Before game seven.

From the Dulles, the trail divided once more. Burke had a decision: float down the Columbia River, or take the Barlow toll road. He'd come too far. And, at many times, conservatively. He was a Maple Leaf, through and through, however, and Burke led his Leafs to the banks of the Columbia River.

Countless rocks and boulders. Burke and the Leafs dodged them all.

On September 29th, they arrived in Oregon. They'd made it. The Toronto Maple Leafs were Oregon Trail champions. And they did it for Phil Kessel.

October 05, 2010

Stealing Home: High on baseball, part 1

On Sunday afternoon, the Toronto Blue Jays' season came to an end. And so did my summer of baseball. It's hard to believe that from April 11th to June 7th, I traveled all over the glorious United States of America, visiting each and every ballpark Major League Baseball had to offer. It feels like only yesterday, and 10 years ago, at the same time.

I've yet to wrap up Stealing Home, my blog at The Globe And Mail, chronicling what I dubbed, "the baseball road trip of a lifetime." And it truly was just that. The latest entry, part one of my visit to Coors Field in Denver, Colorado, is up over at Globe Sports, and in it I try to explain the difficulties I've had in writing about the home stretch of my journey. You can also read about meat loaf that came Jeff Blair recommended, and the incredible area -- LoDo -- that surrounds Coors Field.

As I wrote at the end of the latest entry at The Globe, thanks. For sticking around, for bearing with me, and for reading. I'm grateful. This was far and away the most enjoyable baseball experience I could have ever had. And it was an honour to share it with you, even if it has taken a lot longer to finish than I expected it to.

October 04, 2010

The age old question ...

When the Toronto Blue Jays exceed my expectations -- I had them good for 82 wins -- you know they've had a successful season. Just like that, the offseason is upon us, but what a season it was. I could go on and on: Jose Bautista's meaningful at-bats, and his assault on Toronto's, and baseball's, record books; the promising development of Toronto's top-four starting pitchers, with Kyle Drabek set to join them in 2011; the triumphant return of Vernon Wells; more, and quite possibly for the last time, yeomen's work from Scott Downs; home run after home run after home run after home run after home run; and, finally, Cito Gaston's farewell.

The polarizing Mike Wilner may have put it best, though:

"It was a tremendously fun year. We got to see one of the greatest games ever pitched, we got to see the greatest offensive season a Blue Jay has ever had, we got to see the greatest major-league debut any hitter has ever had, we got to see the Jays tie one league record with six doubles in an inning and another with six homers in a loss and we got to bite our fingernails as a Blue Jay starting pitcher took a no-hitter into the 7th inning an astounding FIVE times! Heck, we even got to go through the Nick Green era - remember that?"

I don't remember the Nick Green era, which is probably for the best. But Wilner's right: it was definitely a fun summer. And it wasn't supposed to be. That was the best part.

Let's not kid ourselves, though. It wasn't all double rainbows. Aaron Hill and Adam Lind did their best to kill my baseball buzz for six months, and before we look forward, we'll look back.

What comes first: patience at the plate, or confidence at the plate? Does confidence breed patience? Or is it the other way around? Without confidence, is patience in the batter's box impossible? Without patience, is confidence, and success, impossible? What the hell am I talking about here? What I'm trying to figure out is: How do two young, promising hitters go from being so successful to -- for one season at least -- below average Major League hitters?

To FanGraphs, yo. Let's start with Hill, and some of his year-over-year numbers, after he unfathomably spent most of 2010 flirting with the goddamn Mendoza Line.

O-Swing% -- the percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone:

2010: 31.3%
2009: 26.5%

A five percent increase in Hill swinging at pitches outside the strike zone. The money stat? Perhaps. 

Z-Swing% -- the percentage of pitches a batter swings at inside the strike zone:

2010: 72.1%
2009: 74.2%

So, Hill swung at fewer pitches inside the strike zone, and more pitches outside the strike zone, compared to 2009, his breakout season. This season, he looked lost. From the get go. More often than not. These numbers make sense.

Swing% -- the total percentage of pitches a batter swings at:

2010: 50.7%
2009: 51.1%

A negligible difference. Does it come down to confidence, and approach? Swinging at the wrong pitches?

O-Contact% -- the percentage of times a batter makes contact with the ball when swinging at pitches thrown outside the strike zone:

2010: 70.9%
2009: 60.8%

A huge 10% increase here year-over-year. Not only was Hill swinging at more baseballs thrown outside the strike zone, he was hitting more of them. And unless you're Vladimir Guerrero, more often than not, those are outs.

Z-Contact% -- the percentage of times a batter makes contact with the ball when swinging at pitches thrown inside the strike zone:

2010: 90.9%
2009: 91.4%

Again, year-over-year, that's hardly a noteworthy difference. So, is this a good time to bring in baseball's luck factor, and Hill's feeble .196 2010 BABIP? I would think so.

Contact% -- the total percentage of contact made when swinging at all pitches:

2010: 84.5%
2009: 83.8%

Hill's career Contact% average is 84.5%.

Zone% -- the percentage of pitches seen inside the strike zone:

2010: 47.6%
2009: 51.7%

Does a confident and patient hitter take more pitches in the strike zone? I'm so confused.

Let's take at look Hill's left/right splits:

2010 vs. LHP (120 ABs): .125/.226/.225, .124 BABIP, .206 wOBA, 22 wRC+
2009 vs. LHP: (171 ABs): .298/.335/.561, .290 BABIP, .379 wOBA, 134 wRC+

2010 vs. RHP (408 ABs): .228/.285/.444, .217 BABIP, .318 wOBA, 98 wRC+
2009 vs. RHP (511 ABs): .282/.328/.478, .287 BABIP, .348 wOBA, 114 wRC+

Hill didn't have a clue versus left-handed pitching this season, after owning southpaws in 2009. Against right-handed pitching, I don't see why Hill can't be expected to put up his 2009 numbers every year. Slightly above average numbers against RHP, and above average against LHP is what Hill certainly seems capable of.

But, again, luck. Hill's .286 BABIP in 2009 was below average, but 36 home runs certainly helped in putting up a .357 wOBA, and 119 wRC+. This season, as mentioned, Hill's BABIP checked in at a putrid .196. His fly ball rate jumped to 54.2%, compared to 41% in 2009. Yet he still finished with 26 home runs. My question: How do we account for the increased fly ball rate? 

Below is how Hill's season began in 2010. Remember, he hit the disabled list two games into the campaign.

April 2010 (37 ABs): .162/.311/.297, .179 BABIP, .277 wOBA, 90 wRC+
May 2010 (114 ABs): .184/.273/.395, .161 BABIP, .298 wOBA, 85 wRC+

And here are Hill's numbers over the first two months of 2009:

April 2009 (104 ABs): .365/.412/.567, .384 BABIP, .419 wOBA, 161 wRC+
May 2009 (127 ABs): .307/.331/.480, .314 BABIP, .352 wOBA, 116 wRC+

Polar opposite starts to Hill's seasons. In 2009, he could do no wrong, as evidenced by his .384 BABIP. It certainly did even out, and by year's end it was below the league average. So, my question is, how much value do you put into a hot start? After two months of hitting the cover off the ball in April and May 2009, Hill's confidence had to have been sky-high. And after his pathetic, and unlucky, first two months of the 2010 season, Hill probably never felt worse about his hitting prospects. Not to mention the injury.

Did pitchers figure Aaron Hill out? Or was he unable to work through the cobwebs in his own head? How much of a hitter's success at the plate comes from being "locked in"? From a hot start, and not holding the bat too tight, and not trying to do too much? What comes first? Patience or confidence?

Do you know? Are you as confused as I am? Help a brother out.

Either way, we're going to find out next season. Personally, I can't wait. Toronto's first Spring Training game is only five months away.

I'll tackle Adam Lind in another post. My head hurts, yo.

Reuters, via daylife, hooked up the image of one frustrated Aaron Hill.

October 01, 2010


The last time the Minnesota Twins played the Blue Jays, it was July 8th. Toronto belted five home runs that evening -- one of them by Jose Bautista, his 23rd of the season  -- en route to an 8-1 victory. Thursday night, three months later at beautiful Target Field in downtown Minneapolis, Cito's armed forces did one better. Six bombs, two of them from Bautista, his 53rd and 54th; his 29th and 30th home runs since the All-Star break.

Since that very All-Star break, the Toronto Blue Jays have hit more home runs -- 117 -- than the Seattle Mariners (100), Oakland Athletics (102), and Houston Astros (107) have hit all season, and as many as the Los Angeles Dodgers. I feel like we should be passing around cigars, or something. I know, an inordinate amount of home runs aren't the playoffs, but that doesn't mean they can't be celebrated. Because the numbers are frankly ridiculous.

From La Velle E. Neal III, in the Minnesota Star Tribune:

"On Thursday night at Target Field, [Francisco] Liriano suffered from a malady that most pitchers get when facing Toronto, the most powerful team in baseball."

The Toronto Blue Jays, the most powerful team in baseball. Say it again: The most powerful team in baseball. It sounds better when somebody else says it, but I like it. It's got a nice bloody ring to it.

More from Mr. Neal III:

"The Blue Jays' six homers gave them 253 for the season, the fourth most in history. That included two by soon-to-be AL home run king Jose Bautista, who has 54 this season. He homered to the opposite field for the first time this season and became the second player to homer into the third deck at Target Field with a grand slam in the seventh inning."

Jose Bautista, American League Home Run King. Jesus, I love the sound of that. And, take note: Bautista doesn't just hit home runs into the third deck, he hits grand slams. That's just how he rolls. Bautista bullied Twins pitching last night, forcing the shell-shocked home side to pick on DeWayne Wise.

If you read some of the comments to the Star Tribune article, a vulnerable Twinkies fan base is, well, losing their shit. And the way innocent baseballs were flying out of what's supposed to be a pitcher's haven, I can't blame them. The Blue Jays were ruthlessly violent Thursday night, even prompting Pat Tabler to say that Travis Snider "gangstered all over" his 8th inning bomb. Now, I'm pretty sure "gangstered" is not a word, but that's exactly what Snider did. Props to Tabler. He's finishing the season strong.

As is the aforementioned Snider. If Bautista taught us anything last year, it's that September matters. Snider's line in 24 September games, and 92 at-bats: .304/.319/.543. Six home runs, and 9 RsBI. Sure, Travis has struck out 24 times, but you can't help but coo at that .543 slugging percentage. More importantly, a .371 September wOBA, and 134 wRC+.

The home run record is held by Seattle, 264 in 1997. Toronto needs 11 to tie, in three games. Nothing about this team, especially that record falling, would surprise me anymore.

"I never get tired of seeing them," said Cito Gaston.

Me either, Cito. Me either. And I'm going to miss the bombs over the winter.