Local Pro Sports Gaining Momentum

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (May 26) – We begin the final week of May with Toronto Blue Jays the hottest team in Major League Baseball and vivid memory of Toronto Raptors taking Jolly Green Giant-type steps in the National Basketball Association. For those that care – and I’m among them – Toronto Argonauts won the Grey Cup two years ago and lost in the Eastern Final last season. Though somewhat a disappointment so far, Toronto F.C. is trending upward after prolonged dormancy in Major League Soccer. And, Toronto Marlies are a very good bet to play for the Calder Cup (American Hockey League) championship this spring.

Signs of professional sporting life abound in our city.

If only that other hockey team could get off its ass.

Indeed, we can usually count on your Toronto Maple Leafs to keep things interesting one way or another… and, usually, it’s another. Though Leafs continue to rule these parts emotionally, they are a fairly distant sixth in level of performance among teams; in effect holding back Toronto from recognition as a burgeoning sport metropolis. Right now, it doesn’t appear to bother those in charge of the Blue and White – seemingly content with the withering status quo. That may change as the summer progresses but there is no indication of it as we speak; the puzzling retention of coach Randy Carlyle being the lone indicator.      

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MY PHOTO, FRIDAY NIGHT AT ROGERS CENTRE, OF BRETT LAWRIE AND EDWIN ENCARNACION – KEY FIGURES ON THE HOTTEST TEAM IN MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL.

I was asked, probably for the hundredth time, in an email over the weekend why the Maple Leafs continuously reward failure. For years, this has been a question without an answer. In most cases, probably because it’s the easiest option; the path of least resistance in a city that will complain with voice, not with wallet. In other cases, because of salary cap restriction. Whatever the case – and as I’ve written here repeatedly since the end of the regular season – Leafs have virtually no chance to weather a crisis with their current leadership triumverate (Carlyle, Dion Phaneuf, Phil Kessel). This is a matter of record more than opinion, as all have witnessed during the past three NHL seasons.

At the moment, however, Leafs can be shelved. The Blue Jays have the fourth-best record in the American League (29-22) and seventh-best in the Majors. A 16-5 eruption in their past 21 games has elevated the Jays two lengths beyond the Yankees for first place in the A.L. East and eight games ahead of the defending World Series-champion Boston Red Sox, loser of ten consecutively. It will be three months before we know whether the marvelous month of May is typical of the 2014 Blue Jays or an illusory outburst similar to the 11-game win streak of last year’s forgettable team. At the moment, however, there is nothing at all fluky about the club’s torrid pace. Any baseball team with five starting pitchers throwing superbly at the same time cannot be beaten.

That’s what Jays have right now with Mark Buehrle, Drew Hutchison, R.A. Dickey, J.A. Happ and newcomer Liam Hendriks. Add to that a terrific “holder” in Brett Cecil and perfect closer Casey Janssen (7-for-7 in save opportunities and 0.00 ERA since returning from injury) and you have a fairly potent mixture. Baseball, as we know, is all about pitching.

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CASEY JANSSEN FINISHES OFF OAKLAND A’s FRIDAY NIGHT AT ROGERS CENTRE. THE BLUE JAYS CLOSER HASN’T YIELDED A RUN SINCE RETURNING FROM INJURY.

Of course, other factors are contributing to the Jays’ terrific performance – Edwin Encarnacion hitting the cover off the baseball; Jose Reyes being healthy at the top of the order; fellow speedster Anthony Gose coming of age and running down gappers in the outfield, and superb infield defense. But, none of this would matter in the absence of pitching, particularly among the starters. Right now, the Jays simply have it all going. The way the team dusted off Oakland in three games on the weekend here in town cannot be overstated. A’s came into the series at 5-1 on a nine-game road trip and with the best record (30-17) in the Majors. Blue Jays made them look very ordinary.

More of my images from Oakland at Toronto Friday night:

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IT CAN BE LONELY OUT IN RIGHT-FIELD.

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MANAGER JOHN GIBBONS TAKES THE BALL FROM STARTER LIAM HENDRIKS AFTER 5.2 SOLID INNINGS IN THE PERTH, AUSTRALIA NATIVE’S DEBUT.

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RELIEVER BRETT CECIL UNLOADS FROM THE MOUND.

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“HOW ‘BOUT STEAK? NAW, I’D RATHER HAVE CHINESE.” DURING LATE-GAME PITCHING CHANGE, BLUE JAYS INFIELDERS (LEFT-TO-RIGHT) STEVE TOLLESON, EDWIN ENCARNACION, BRETT LAWRIE AND JOSE REYES DISCUSS THEIR DINNER PLANS.

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LOOK OUT! OAKLAND BATTER BARELY AVOIDS INSIDE PITCH.

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JUST MORE THAN 21,000 FANS ATTENDED THE GAME.

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BALLPARK AND C.N. TOWER AFTER BLUE JAYS VICTORY.

OTHER STUFF: Even in this day and age of everything being on TV, there is still nothing quite like watching the Indianapolis 500. Especially when the race comes down to the final lap, as it did on Sunday with Ryan Hunter-Reay edging Helio Castroveves by a car length. This was particularly engrossing given that Castroneves could have tied A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears with four Indy 500 victories. I have twice visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway between races; have gone around the 2½-mile oval in a van and have stood on the original bricks at the start/finish line. As a kid, I remember watching Unser, Mario Andretti, Mark Donohue, Gordon Johncock and Bobby Unser win the Memorial Day Weekend event. I’ll never forget, as a 14-year-old, watching the tragic 1973 race – shortened by rain and held over the span of three days because of weather. There was a major crash on the first turn and I can still see the legs of driver Salt Walther protruding from the front end of his sheered-off car (he was severely burned). On the third day, Swede Savage lost control coming out of Turn 4; veered toward the infield and slammed into an angled wall at nearly full speed. His car exploded in a fire-ball and smoke soared above the racetrack. Somehow, he survived, only to die later in hospital. While running toward Savage, 22-year-old Armando Teran – a member of driver Graham McRae’s team – got hit on live TV by a fire-truck. Teran was thrown 50 feet and pronounced dead moments later. Safety measures have dramatically improved and the Indy is not the grave-pit it used to be… 

THE INCREDIBLE CRASH OF DRIVER SWEDE SAVAGE DURING THE 1973 INDIANAPOLIS 500. SAVAGE SURVIVED THE ACCIDENT BUT DIED A MONTH LATER IN HOSPITAL.

So long as he continues to work on his skating, defenseman Matt Finn of the Guelph Storm will play for the Leafs in the not-too-distant future. I remember talking with now-former Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford a day after the 2012 NHL Draft in Pittsburgh, during which the Leafs selected Finn and Morgan Rielly. Rutherford couldn’t stop talking about Finn’s potential as a big-league player. “Brian Burke had a hell of a draft,” Rutherford told me. Finn would provide the Leafs with not only talent, but much-needed character. By all accounts, he was the consummate captain of the Ontario Hockey League champion – loser, 6-3, to Edmonton Oil Kings in the Memorial Cup final on Sunday…

JUNIOR DEFENSEMAN MATT FINN AT THE CONSOL ENERGY CENTER IN PITTSBURGH SHORTLY AFTER BEING SELECTED BY TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS AT THE 2012 NHL DRAFT.

As I watch baseball, I can’t help but shake my head at the utter stupidity of fans that boo opposing pitchers when they check a runner at first base. As soon as the pitcher throws over, the boos rain down. Trying to hold base-stealing threats is among the eldest and most critical strategies in the game. I don’t remember fans booing when Rickey Henderson, Tim Raines, Vince Coleman, Willie Wilson and others in my youth were similarly checked. It is mind-boggling. The only thing more brainless is a fan throwing a home run ball back onto the field. Idiot: You have just caught a premier souvenir (and likely injured your hand in the process). Instead of getting the ball mounted and inscribed, you toss it away as a silly act of defiance – egged on by people that are dumber than you. Some hapless ball boy wanders over, picks it up and tosses it into the pile of other used balls. Where does common sense escape to in a situation like that?… I recently criticized Blue Jays’ TV color-man Pat Tabler for what I consider his over-the-top boosterism of the team. But, I really admired Tabler (and play-caller Buck Martinez) for their objectivity during Sunday’s telecast. In the bottom of the sixth inning, the umpires reviewed an “out” call at second base on Toronto right-fielder Jose Bautista. From every angle I saw, it was a bad call, but the command center in New York apparently did not have enough “indisputable” evidence to overturn it. Instead of harping on the injustice, however, Tabler and Martinez praised Oakland pitcher Jim Johnson for alertly covering at second base. It was good TV… Either New York Rangers are poised to qualify for the Stanley Cup final or Montreal Canadiens are about to mount a brilliant comeback for the Eastern Conference championship (Rangers lead the best-of-seven series 3-1). Whatever the case, at least one pre-expansion team will play for the silver mug again this season (two if Chicago rebounds from a 2-1 deficit against Los Angeles out west). Of course, here in the center of the hockey universe, the Leafs haven’t appeared in the title round since their last victory in 1967. In the interim, the other five pre-expansion teams have made 33 trips to the Cup final, winning 20 of them (Montreal 10; Detroit 4; Boston 3; Chicago 2; New York Rangers 1). Again, the totals could be 35 and 21 after this spring… It was 25 years ago last night (May 25, 1989) that Doug Gilmour, Lanny McDonald, Al MacInnis, Cliff Fletcher and the Calgary Flames won their lone Stanley Cup and became the only visiting team to parade the mug around the hallowed ice at Montreal Forum. It was the first Cup final I covered for what is now Sportsnet-590 The Fan – still more than three years before the launch (in September 1992) of Canada’s first all-sports radio station.

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JUBILANT CALGARY FLAMES HOIST STANLEY CUP AT THE MONTREAL FORUM 25 YEARS AGO LAST NIGHT (MAY 25, 1989). DOUG GILMOUR (39) IS AT LEFT IN PHOTO.

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