Wednesday, July 6, 2011

So Long, Doc

Something funny happened in Toronto this past weekend. Canada Day weekend, as always, is a memorable occasion for those thankful for their country. In Toronto, the sunbathed city streets were lined with red and white. Even the least patriotic appeared to have raided the darkest corners of their closets for anything resembling national colors, as if to do otherwise would have been akin to treason. And while I shared in the collective fervor of a country in the midst of a return to its glory days – peace through strength, what a novel concept – my gaze was fixated elsewhere: the SkyDome.

The Dome, now a giant multimedia store known as the Rogers Centre, is not the world’s prettiest ballpark. Hell, it’s not even a ballpark, it’s a concrete, soulless slab; but it’s OUR concrete, soulless slab. Nevertheless, on a beautiful summer day with the roof open it at least gives off the vibe of a Major League ballpark. That’s why, with a perfect weather report, the choice was simple: Canada Day weekend would be spent at the “ballpark”.

The choice, however, was never really a choice at all. Finally, Roy Halladay was returning to his former home as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies. Halladay, long burdened with the weight of Toronto’s failed sporting hopes on his shoulders, was well deserving of the hero’s welcome he received upon his arrival Friday. Greeted by 45,000 fans and a standing ovation as he presented the Phillies’ lineup card pre-game, he wore what was likely the biggest smile he’d ever had in the city of Toronto. And while he wouldn’t pitch ‘til Saturday, it didn’t seem to matter at the time. The Doc was home. But that’s when the unexpected began.

Somewhere between the national anthems, a tribute to the Canadian Forces, a plethora of Jose Bautista home runs (one even off Halladay, how symbolic), a horrendous piece of umpiring by the much-maligned Alfonso Marquez, and three hotly-contested, emotional games, it stopped being about Roy Halladay. That might not sound like much, but for a city so awash in its own sporting nostalgia – done so to make up for the failings of the present – it was a notable achievement.

Closure is not a term synonymous with Toronto sports fandom. We don’t win titles, we don’t make the playoffs, and we often lose our best and brightest to greener, more southern pastures. But this weekend felt different. Not different in the way Maple Leafs fans tell themselves that this season will be the one, or how Raptors fans hold onto the hope that this new tall and skinny European will be better than the last; but an actual, tangible, difference. For once it wasn’t about the past, or misguided dreams for the future. It was about a good young ball club competing hard over a weekend that saw around 110,000 fans join them in-person for the ride.

I was one of them, wearing my old Roy Halladay jersey – a fashion choice that seems silly now, but also fitting. For while I was berating Alfonso Marquez with unprintable expletives, and serenading Jose Bautista with chants of “MVP!” the name on the back of the jersey no longer mattered. It was about the name on the front. Something real.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Site Update

As of July 1st I'll be back to writing regularly. Your patience has been greatly appreciated.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Thoughts on the NBA Playoffs: The Dilemma of the Underdog

Of all the series in this 2011 NBA playoffs, there is none that exemplifies the David vs. Goliath narrative better than that of the L.A. Lakers vs. the New Orleans Hornets. With more size and talent at almost every position, the title-favourite Lakers were widely predicted to sweep the series in convincing fashion (by myself included). After four games, however, the only thing I’m convinced of is that New Orleans has got to be the most endearing underdog since the 2007 Golden State Warriors, who made history by becoming the first 8th seeded to knock off a no. 1 seed.

As of today, the Hornets have tied the series at two wins apiece behind a performance from their captain, point guard Chris Paul, that has been so terrific that attempting to describe it in passing couldn’t possibly do it justice, and a scrambling defense that has done an admirable job of stymying a veritable army of Lakers big men. In short, the Hornets are my ideal underdog, and choosing a team to root for whenever I turn on their games is by far the easiest decision of my day. Yet despite everything I’ve written above, part of me is conflicted.

It’s a part that I’m not happy about, a part that that doesn’t care about Cinderella stories or legendary upsets. It flares up whenever I read about the famous playoff rivalries from the 80s, the ones fought by the game’s biggest stars and signature teams. Because although watching this New Orleans squad knock back the titanic Lakers has been a joy in many ways, deep down I know that in order for one of my dream Finals matchups to happen, …L.A. must move on. If the Boston Celtics are to renew their war with the Lakers, or the Miami Heat are to collide with the Purple and Gold in a star-studded EVENT, this story has to end with the Villain prevailing.

It’s a strange feeling, fist-pumping after every clutch Chris Paul play and booing every time Kobe is sent to the line on a weak call, when all I can honestly admit to wanting is a spectacular, seven game series where my team doesn’t win. A kind of double-think is required when watching these games, with a voice in the back of my head always whispering against my cheers. Watching Game 4, my eyes widened when Kobe rolled his ankle towards the end of the 4th quarter, and I breathed a sigh of relief at the knowledge that the Lakers would be unlikely to catch the Hornets that night with their star injured (but hopefully not too injured, whispered the voice, knowing full well that a healthy Bryant would be necessary to dispatch future foes). So, I will continue pulling for the underdog Hornets, shaking my head in wonder at the desperation of their play, hoping for a Game 7 that comes down to one final possession, one series-deciding shot…and that the Villain will walk away the victor.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Site News

With my University career winding down posting will be sparse due to an obligation to focus and finish strong. Apologies for my tardiness, in a perfect world I would be free to write about sports all day long. 

Monday, April 4, 2011

Swing Thoughts - The Masters

"Swing Thoughts" is a column that features my disparate thoughts on what is going on in the golfing world.

This year's Masters tournament marks the 25th anniversary of Jack Nicklaus' historic performance in his final Major triumph. Coming into the '86 Masters the Golden Bear had not won a Major since the 1980 PGA Championship. By the second nine on Sunday, Nicklaus was 4 back, and given little chance of catching the game's new star, Seve Ballesteros. Proving that the tournament doesn't really begin until the back nine on Sunday, Jack fired a closing nine of 30 to win his 18th and final Major championship. Count on seeing this video all week:

The importance of Phil Mickelson's win in Houston cannot be over stated. Phil had not won in his 40s, had played poorly most of this season, and had not won a tournament since last year's Masters. If not for Tiger's drought, Phil's poor play would have been the biggest story of the year. However, all that is history now. After admitting that he wasn't focused on Houston, but was using it to tune up for the Masters, Mickelson put together an incredible weekend of 63-65 to secure his 39th career victory. Win number 39 ties Mickelson with Tom Watson and Gene Sarazen for tenth all-time. Phil's distance off the tee was fantastic, he seemed to hit every green in regulation, and his putting was as good as it has ever been. While Scott Verplank put up a good challenge, Phil was too much to handle.

After his commanding performance in Houston, Phil Mickelson has to be the clear favorite to put on the green jacket at the end of the week. One of only four players to have won the Masters after winning the week before the tournament, Phil has proven that he can carry a hot hand into the Masters.

Odds makers put Tiger Woods at 8-1 to win the Masters. Only Phil Mickelson is more highly favored. No one really knows what to expect out of Tiger this week. Last year the Masters was Woods' first tournament back and he finished in fourth placce. However, at that time he was still working with swing coach Hank Haney. Since leaving Haney, Woods has been working on his new swing with instructor Sean Foley. Results have been mixed, with flashes of brilliance, but no wins and a lack of consistency. Tiger says he has been gearing up for the Masters all year. This week should answer a lot of questions about Woods' comeback.

Some players to keep an eye on this week could be: Bubba Watson and Anthony Kim.

With the Augusta National lengthened, it favors big hitters. However, the course still demands creativity and shot shaping. Bubba fits the bill on all counts. He is the longest hitter on the Tour, and the most imaginative with his shots. His 300+ yard "dink cut"is a perfect tee shot on many holes that demand a right-to-left ball flight.

Last year Anthony Kim finished in third place at the Masters, fueled by a seven under 65 on Sunday. Defending his title in Houston last week, Kim fired a round of eight under par to carry him into a tie for 13th place. He has rededicated himself to the game, and has shown the potential to go very low.

With all the talk of European dominance going into this season, Europe's stars have not looked particularly impressive as of late. One European player who may be flying under the radar this week is number 4 ranked Luke Donald. Donald played brilliantly earlier this year in the match play championship, and has had a fantastic week of practice at his home course.

As Jim Nantz puts it, the Masters is a "tradition unlike any other." The aura of the Augusta National Golf Club is unique in sports. From the club's founders, Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts, to the tournament's great champions, who can still play in the event, there is nothing in sports like the Masters. Professional golfers play courses in pristine condition every week, but there is no comparison to the way Augusta National is manicured. The drastic elevation changes, the swirling winds, the storied holes and the immaculate greens all add up to the the most exciting week in golf. Enjoy.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Hope Springs Eternal

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville - mighty Casey has struck out.

Hope is a superfluous concept for Toronto sports fans, as we tend to rarely see the forest through the trees. Each year we resemble the patrons in Ernest Thayer’s famous baseball poem “Casey at the Bat”, in that we expect failure, yet we still let ourselves become enraptured by false hope. Flawed free agent signings turn into parade planning fodder, winning streaks signal the birth of a dynasty, and mediocre draft picks are labeled as prodigious talents with ease. It’s just in our nature to overreact to mediocrity, because frankly it’s been ages since we’ve had anything worth cheering for.

As The Globe and Mail's Stephen Brunt adeptly pointed out in a segment featured before the Blue Jays’ triumphant home opener, Toronto is a sporting city that has not had its fandom rewarded since the early-nineties; yet we still hold onto those memories like grim death. And it’s in that nostalgia that we lose focus on the failures of the present. In the hope for a return to the glory days, we have overvalued nearly every athlete or executive that has called our fair city home. And that’s not fair to them, or us.

Perspective has been difficult to achieve for a reason that’s fairly clear: as a city well versed in failure, any moderate success will be magnified. “You mean the Raptors weren’t eliminated from the playoff race until after the All Star break? Well gosh, what a marked improvement!” It’s in this mindset that we’ve let many meaningless last-minute playoff pushes lead us astray from the ultimate goal for the city’s sporting franchises: sustainable winning seasons. 

For all these reasons, anyone of a particularly strong faith would be justified in labeling Toronto as sporting limbo, because we’ve sat back and watched as over a decade’s worth of teams simply treaded water with no end or goal in sight. That’s what makes 2011 so foreign. Because, at the risk of drinking the Kool-Aid once again, it appears that perhaps there truly is light at the end of the tunnel.

The Blue Jays and the Maple Leafs will likely both miss the playoffs this year. And while that’s neither a new development, nor earth-shattering news, they carry with them a hope for tomorrow unseen since the glory days of those aforementioned early-nineties. The Maple Leafs, currently on an astounding late season tear, simply refuse to lose. And as the youngest team in the league, with a multitude of promising young players, and 20+ million dollars in cap room this offseason, it appears that General Manager Brian Burke has finally torn down MLSE’s iron curtain of ineptitude.

Off the ice and on the diamond, that future is even brighter. With a successful opening weekend under their belt – and one that drew over 100,000 fans to the SkyDome – hope is actually springing eternal on Blue Jay Way. With one of the best farm systems in the big leagues, a litany of young MLB-ready talent, and a bright young mind at the helm in Alex Anthopoulos, even the daunting task of life within the AL East has not crushed the spirits of baseball purists who see the vast potential for this team. Which isn’t to say that recent squads have been lousy, after all the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series with less wins than a Blue Jays team outside of the playoff picture, but the sheer amount of youth involved on this year's team makes it easy to dream of something more. 

So it’s with this renewed, albeit cautious optimism, that we move forward; a direction we haven’t taken in quite some time. Knowing our luck, or lack thereof, this bandwagon is likely to break down by the side of the road early on in the journey. But for once, just maybe, there will be joy in Mudville. And if not, so be it. At least for a change we have something actually worth believing in. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Welcome Back March Madness

Of the nearly six million brackets filled out for ESPN’s Tournament Challenge, only two of them correctly picked the Final Four this year. So in other words, welcome back March Madness. Not only did no number one or two seed advance to the Final Four for the first time in the tournament’s history, but also more importantly we have a break from the chalk-laden brackets of the past few years.

Half the fun of March Madness is in the upsets, and more specifically, the ones that you had penciled into your bracket. No one likes that guy in their pool who takes all one seeds in their Final Four, and sadly the past few years such milquetoast behavior has been largely rewarded. Here’s the past four years:

In 2007: We had Florida (1), Ohio State (1), Georgetown (2), and UCLA (2). 

In 2008: Kansas (1), Memphis (1), UCLA (1), and North Carolina (1). 

In 2009: North Carolina (1), Connecticut (1), Michigan State (2), and Villanova (3).

In 2010: Duke (1), West Virginia (2), Butler (5), and Michigan State (5).

It was a four-year period of such soul-crushing unoriginality that even US President Barack Obama was inspired to pick all one seeds in his bracket this year: a misstep that has surely delighted Republicans basketball fans from coast to coast. But perpetual partisan squabbling aside, this year we should give thanks, for it appears the basketball gods were finally listening.

The whole point of a 68-team championship field is to encourage upsets and to promote drama, so when the favorites steamroll through it defeats the purpose. So while this year isn’t exactly an otherworldly showcase of basketball prowess, Kentucky (4), Connecticut (3), Butler (8), and VCU (11) carry a sense of intrigue that should in part make up for the lack of star power.

Yes, the tournament can be gimmicky, and it requires an ample amount of luck to advance – such a Butler’s officiating gift against Pittsburgh. But it’s for the most part fair, and a baptism by fire is required to reach the pinnacle. The same can hardly be said for college basketball’s counterpart. 

Boise State can stroll through an easy schedule on the gridiron and be planted in a top bowl game, while a team like VCU has to earn its stripes on the hardwood against a perennial powerhouse like Kansas.  It’s in this proper spirit of competition that the tournament truly comes alive, and thankfully, at least this year, it has returned to the unpredictability that made it so popular in the first place.

Photo credit: Sports Illustrated