Can Leafs Break the Interminable Pattern?

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Sep. 29) — Our city attained an unseemly hat-trick this past week when the Toronto Blue Jays were inevitably and officially eliminated from the Major League Baseball playoffs for a 20th consecutive season (21st year — the playoffs were canceled in 1994). And, it was hardly the commendable equivalent of a “Gordie Howe” hat-trick (goal, assist, fight).

Instead, the Blue Jays broadened not only the longest post-season famine in baseball, they took sole possession of the longest-such drought in North American professional sport when the Kansas City Royals ended their post-1985 playoff vacuum. Factor in the longest current Stanley Cup drought, held by the Maple Leafs, and — presto! — we get the heinous hat-trick. Welcome, sports fans, to the Big Smoke.

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THE HOCKEY AND BASEBALL LANDSCAPE HERE IN TORONTO.

Another local pattern has been cast in stone by the Maple Leafs and Blue Jays of the past 20 years: Either falling apart in the midst of a playoff push or coming on like gangbusters once out of contention. Sometimes both. The Leafs of February–April have wilted amid playoff encumbrance in two of the past three years after “garbage time” gallantry in other post-2005 lockout seasons. The 2014 Blue Jays were the Monsters of May and the Stumblers of Summer. In the make-or-break month of August, the Birds were completely de-feathered.

So now — and may heaven be with us — we turn back to our hockey heroes. Can the 2014-15 Maple Leafs bust one of these patterns? Can they either sustain a playoff drive through the final four weeks of the schedule or – more simply – begin free-falling before Christmas? Though Leaf fans will typically live and die with every shift, might the most grounded among them hold off through the peaks-and-valleys of October to February before claiming triumph? Or, will we have a reprise of the Toronto Star declaring Mike Kostka a “rookie sensation” after the 2013 season opener in Montreal? Most would agree that if the final 14 games of last season didn’t provide Leaf watchers a lesson, nothing ever will.

Over to you, Boys of Winter.

EMPLOYMENT SECURITY: Here’s a perfect way for Alex Anthopoulos to all but guarantee his job as GM of the Blue Jays. March up to the ivory tower at Rogers and announce that he’ll slash payroll by swapping veterans for prime prospects. Double-A already has a tantalizing crop of starting hurlers. And some dandy sprinters in the outfield. Why not embark on a full-fledged youth program instead of guaranteeing more underachievement? Imagine what the Jays could load up on if they prudently dealt Jose Bautista (who might ask out, anyway), R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle to teams that are currently challenging or on the cusp of contention? The contracts of these players would mesh far more sensibly with baseball’s best than with the always middle-of-the-pack Blue Jays. Melky Cabrera is almost certain to flee as well. If Rogers is going to be cheap, why not do it the right way — with promising youngsters. Any fan of the Jays hallucinating over Max Scherzer in a Toronto uniform will ultimately come off his or her trip. The big boys aren’t venturing anywhere near our shores this winter. Nor will they until the club has a rock-solid foundation on which to build. That foundation doesn’t include Bautista, Dickey or Buehrle (Jose Reyes and Dioner Navarro as well). It does include Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Drew Hutchison, Daniel Norris, Kevin Pillar, perhaps Dalton Pompey along with such younger veterans as Brett Lawrie, Adam Lind, Edwin Encarnacion, Danny Valencia, Brett Cecil and Aaron Loup (Ryan Goins and Anthony Gose as well, providing they learn to hit Major League pitching). If Anthopoulos stays “in love” with everyone but Colby Rasmus and Casey Janssen, we’ll be having this conversation again one year from now.

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FIRST AND FINAL ACT: IT SEEMS LIKE ONLY YESTERDAY THAT I TOOK THE ABOVE PHOTO PRIOR TO THE BLUE JAYS HOME OPENER AGAINST NEW YORK ON APR. 4. LESS THAN SIX MONTHS LATER, IT WAS BYE-BYE BIRDIES (BELOW) FOR A 20th SEASON.

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WEEKEND THOUGHTS: The Oakland A’s avoided catastrophe by blanking Texas 4-0 in Arlington on Sunday and holding off Seattle for the second Wild Card berth in the American League. A’s GM Billy Beane ventured from his patented Money Ball blueprint by trading for star pitchers Jeff Samardjiza and Jon Lester before the July 31 non-waiver deadline. The team nearly fell apart. As it is, Oakland must travel to Kansas City for its Wild Card showdown with the Royals Tuesday night – the survivor moving on against Los Angeles Angels in one A.L. Divisional Series. Detroit and Baltimore clash in the other ALDS. Over in the National League, San Francisco flies across country to Pittsburgh for the Wild Card game on Wednesday – the winner taking on Washington in the NLDS. Los Angeles Dodgers and St. Louis clash in the other N.L. Divisional Series… L.A. Angels posted the best record (98–64 .605) in baseball this season. Arizona Diamondbacks (64–98 .395) brought up the rear… The Blue Jays, at 83–79, were ninth in the American League and 15th overall in the Majors. Like I said: middle-of-the-pack… Among the areas totally revamped by the new Brendan Shanahan regime is the Maple Leafs media relations department. Gone are Pat Park, Craig Downey and Aaron Gogishvili — all terrific, hard-working guys. Replacing Park as the director of media relations is Steve Keogh, who comes over from a similar job with Ultimate Fighting Championship (or UFC). I got to know Steve while covering the Ottawa Senators playoff runs of 2003 and 2007 for The FAN-590. He was Ottawa’s assistant media relations guru and will do a good job here in Toronto… On-line reaction to the Blue Jays locking up TV broadcasters Buck Martinez and Pat Tabler for five more years was lukewarm. So long as a viewer keeps in mind that Buck and Pat are extensions of the ball-club, there is little to disdain. Just like the players, they are paid by the company that owns the team, the stadium and the television network that shows all 162 games. No one should anticipate objective commentary. Martinez is more apt to point out a club deficiency than Tabler, whose cheer-leading and reference to those by nickname (Lindy, Gibby, Hutch) is way over the top. In my view, there is more substance on the radio side with Jerry Howarth and Joe Siddall – both of whom tell listeners what is happening on the field with minimal slant toward the home team. Howarth offered Siddall a nice gesture after Sunday’s finale when he named his first-year broadcast partner the Blue Jays “player-of-the-year.” Indeed, Siddall – with no formal broadcasting experience – shone during his rookie season in the booth. My old pal Mike Wilner may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but he sure rouses the emotion of baseball fans in this city and therefore does his job exceptionally well. A bit of advice for next year, Mike: Simply tell your listeners, early on, that the season will not be “over” until the Blue Jays are mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. It will save you a lot of post-game grief in September…

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TORONTO BLUE JAYS RADIO TANDEM OF JERRY HOWARTH (LEFT) AND JOE SIDDALL.

Speaking of old friends, it’s good to hear Paul Romanuk calling the NHL on TV once again – as he did so efficiently for TSN in the 1990’s. Neither of us will forget working together on radio for a couple of Oshawa Generals junior games in 1984. I was color-man for Romanuk during a two-game trip to Windsor and Kitchener. When the Generals scored an empty-net goal to clinch victory at the old barn in Windsor, I startled Paul by saying, “Jeez, it’s like a stink-bomb went off in here” — in reference to fans poring toward the exits. Romey looked around, all wide-eyed, thinking there had indeed been an explosion. It was the last game I did with him. Just more than 15 years later, when the Maple Leafs actually spent some money on their in-house network (Leafs TV), Paul hosted a live, Sunday-morning round-table — The Reporters — on which I frequently guested. If you aren’t familiar with Romanuk, you’ll enjoy his call. If you are, you’ll welcome his return… Now that Rogers owns national telecast rights to NHL games in Canada, it will be interesting to see if the Maple Leafs are “treated” differently than the Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Winnipeg Jets, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks. Toronto is the lone Canadian club in which Rogers has an ownership stake (37.5%). Will play-calling and analysis of Leaf national games have the same “tone” as other Canadian telecasts? I think it’s a fair question… Sunday was the 42nd anniversary of the most significant goal in Canadian hockey annals: Paul Henderson beating Vladislav Tretiak in Moscow on Sep. 28, 1972. I will always remember watching that decisive Game 8 of the legendary Canada-Russia series on a black-and-white TV – with “rabbit-ears” for reception – in the class of my Grade 8 music teacher Michael Pepa…

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AMONG MY MOST CHERISHED AUTOGRAPHED PHOTOS.

A professional sports triumph doesn’t come more deliciously than that experienced by Houston quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick on Sunday. Unloaded by Buffalo prior to last season, Fitzpatrick – though hardly stellar – guided the Texans to a 23-17 victory over the Bills at NRG Stadium. Buffalo selected EJ Manuel of Florida State 16th overall in the 2013 NFL draft and Manuel lost to Fitzpatrick in Houston. Bills fans are likely saying, “What else is new?”… Either of the Oakland Raiders or Jacksonville Jaguars could make a spirited bid this season to equal the 0–16 record of the 2008 Detroit Lions. Both clubs are an emphatic 0–4. Oakland got trampled 38-14 by Miami at London’s Wembley Stadium on Sunday while the Jaguars were routed 33-14 in San Diego. Jacksonville has yielded 152 points thus far, or 38 per game. Oakland has scored all of 51 points — 12.75 per match… Early indication – if accurate – suggests the Maple Leafs will endure their share of injury this season. David Clarkson, David Booth and Cody Franson are banged up while veteran defenseman Stephane Robidas – the club’s top free agent acquisition – is still recovering from a pair of broken legs. These are sustainable injuries. Those involving any of Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri or Jonathan Bernier would not be. Leafs are still small and fragile at center… Here’s hoping, for Leafs Nation, that Randy Carlyle is fudging when he intimates he still doesn’t have a clear-cut, No. 1 goalie. If Carlyle is indecisive and plays musical crease with Bernier and James Reimer early in the season, playoff hope will be damaged once again… I’m leaning toward a Los Angeles–Boston Stanley Cup final next spring, though I could change my mind before Opening Night… Sportsnet will continue to drive us a bit wacky with adds for its NHL coverage (I love Mark Messier, but please…), yet Rogers has taken a leading role in producing sports documentaries. The half-hour special on former Blue Jay bosses Paul Beeston and Pat Gillick was superb. Also enlightening was a look at how nutrition and equipment has evolved in hockey, through the words of ex-Leaf Gary Roberts and long-time Leafs equipment manager Brian Papineau. With the blatant dumbing down of TV in the “reality” era, it is refreshing to watch programs that are educational… TSN Radio-1050 here in Toronto made a good acquisition with former Carolina and Leafs winger Jeff O’Neill. Though rough around the edges, O’Neill provides unvarnished opinion in an era of otherwise guarded commentary. Jeff is now being utilized on the TV side, where he offers TSN the same genre of analysis that Gregg Zaun provides Sportsnet baseball watchers. I miss sparring with Jeff in the Leafs dressing room. We had some terrific verbal “battles.”     

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RYAN FITZPATRICK – LANNY McDONALD OF THE NFL – LED HOUSTON TO VICTORY ON SUNDAY OVER HIS FORMER TEAM, THE BUFFALO BILLS. CBS/CTV IMAGES

SO LONG TO…

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Former NHL defenseman Carol Vadnais, 68, died of cancer on Aug. 31.

AUTUMN COLORS — PART 1

For those that aren’t aware, summer was like autumn and autumn has been like summer in the Toronto area. More than a week of spectacular weather continued on Sunday, providing me an opportunity to photograph the early-fall colors. Autumn foliage here will not peak until early-to-mid October, yet there is plenty to look at right now:

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AND, WHAT A FINISH

Sunset produced quite a spectacle on Sunday:

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