Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Observations on the Leafs, Jays, and Raptors: December 12

After making the move to Toronto for college, it's impossible not to see the massive hype around professional sports in the city. 24/7 sports talk radio, free copies of the Toronto Star and National Post at school, combined with studying journalism and analyzing the news on a day-to-day basis has given me a front-row seat to the attention that the Maple Leafs, Raptors, Blue Jays, F.C., and hell, even the Marlies receive. 

What makes it unique to be here now is that we're in an era where social media enables anyone to follow their favourite teams, along with the opportunity to have an ongoing discussion about the sport, the players, rumours, stories: anything. You also have to consider the mass volume of content, since the Leafs are one of, if not the most popular team in hockey, and the Jays/Raps are the only Canadian representatives in their respective games. Now, take into account that you have four major newspapers, two nationally televised sport-network's headquarters, dozens of radio stations, and just about anything else you could ask for sport-wise in Canada's largest city...it's inconceivable to think of the amount of scrutiny that follows these teams.

Two-game winning streak? Plan the parade. Lose three of four? Fire the coach. Blow a lead late in a game? Question the team leadership. The margin of error in T.O. is so small, even the top-tier talent of this town takes a beating following some sort of turmoil. Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf grind through flurries of questioning nearly every night, win or lose; Jose Bautista and John Gibbons had to face the music with every Blue Jay disappointment in the last few years, and -- before their recent success, which we'll get to in a bit --  the Raptors were an ongoing joke in the city and the Association. For being the fourth-largest city in North America, the lack of results has Toronto in a stranglehold to find any little bit of normality.

Closing the door on salute-gate

Something as asinine as salute-gate, the non-story that the Toronto mainstream media stretched as if its name was Armstrong, left a bitter taste in my mouth when the conversation turned to the Leafs. Ironic that a sports market that criticizes players for not putting in 100% and uniting as a group gets mad at something that could have potentially been the players pulling together and saying "eff you" to the same fans who have thrown jersey's on the ice multiple times after losses at home (which I so, so, sooooo hope it was). Phaneuf's name was dragged through the mud, as if he had done some heinous off-ice incident or said something offensive. Countless hours on every type of TV/radio/online sports show was spent having an opinion on nothing. It reached a point that you couldn't help but take a step back and try to catch your breath from the absurdity of the situation.

The only known photo of the Blue Jays off-season acquisitions together
(credit: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jays make moves

That's why the recent acquistions for the Jays has been that breath of fresh air that the city could use. Russell Martin five-year, $82 million free agent deal, plus late Friday night's trade that sent former-future-franchise player Brett Lawrie and several other players to Oakland for Josh Donaldson, who sat only behind Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw in Wins Above Replacement for 2014. Martin's signing shows the Blue Jays making big strides at adding elite free agents to Toronto (along with the idea of players wanting to play in the city), and the Donaldson trade shows general manager Alex Anthopoulos taking strides in reading the market and finding top-value in a major transaction. 

In acquiring Donaldson, the team says goodbye to the Canadian third baseman in Lawrie. His defensive play was among the best in the American League, his athleticism near the top of the entire sport. Unfortunately, an inability to find patience at the plate, combined with lots of missed time due to injury (he played 302 of a possible 486 games in the past three seasons) made Lawrie expendable. The 24-year-old still has time to find his game, and could find success in a new environment. It's a shame, I remember how much was riding on him when he arrived in Toronto following the Shaun Marcum trade (Marcum, in case you were wondering, is toiling away in the Cleveland Indians minor league system). 

But we got some time before baseball's back. It isn't the classic blue that represents the crown of Toronto sports right now, but a mix of black and red with a hint of purple...

Raptors are Toronto's team

The 2013-14 season that went from tank to home court advantage triggered what could be the future focal point in the 416 sports landscape. Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, (and yes, even) Drake are what now trend on a night-to-night basis -- #RTZ -- with their continued success into this season being felt, one game at a time. When Lowry made the commitment last July to play with the club for four more years, it was a message to the rest of the league that the Toronto Raptors expect to win, and they expect to win now. DeRozan has emerged as a star in the game, earning a spot on the United States men's national basketball team at the World Cup this summer. Even with the 25-year-old out indefinitely with a torn tendon, the Raps have a chance to test out Bill Simmons' Ewing Theory and see just how good they are when their best player is out of the lineup. This team is built from the bench out, with names like Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson, Chuck Hayes, and Tyler Hansbrough all bringing something to the table once their number is called. Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross, the Dinos 2011 and 2012 first round picks, respectively, still have moments where they'll make a mental mistake, but are showing great strides in maturity and adapting their game to the level needed to have a job in this league. The day before this column was posted, Dwayne Casey won the NBA's coach of the month for November, an indication of the team's Eastern Conference leading 13-4 record and how routine their performances are becoming. This team works hard, people. In a city where Wendel Clark and Gary Roberts are faces of lore, this Raptors squad should be adored. 

Mean muggin': three of the cornerstones of the Toronto Raptors
(credit: John E. Sokolowski/USA Today)
With a month left in the calendar year, it's been a disappointing 2014 with shades of optimism for Toronto sports. Regular season collapses from both the Maple Leafs and Blue Jays derailed early progress, causing each team to miss the post-season yet again. Let's not forget that the basketball team had a 3-2 series lead against the Brooklyn Nets last spring, only to let it slip away in seven. 

The blue and white have gotten seven out of a possible eight points in their last four games, the Raps are on a west coast trip, and the Jays continue to court the best of baseball's free agent class. The city is looking for someone to cheer for, they just need a little bit of a nudge.

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