By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (May 5) — Thoughts from a baseball road trip…
It is normal for a rabid sports fan to develop chronic myopia. The most reasonable, intelligent person in other walks of life will turn to emotional blubber when responding to the misfortune of his or her favorite team. Foremost among reaction is the knee–jerk longing for a coach or manager to be fired. We saw it with Randy Carlyle and the Maple Leafs as 2014 became 2015 and we’re seeing it now with John Gibbons of the Toronto Blue Jays. It’s a simple equation among sports fanatics: Tunnel Vision + Myopia = New Coach/Manager. It worked wonders for the Leafs. Carlyle was pink–slipped on Jan. 6 and Peter Horachek stepped into his shoes. By Feb. 20, Horachek’s record behind the bench was 2–15–2.
Nothing like a problem solved, huh?
Gibbons — at the moment — is manager of a pedestrian 13–14 club. The fact he hasn’t had a dependable starting pitcher through one month of the Major League season appears to not register among the majority of Blue Jay zealots. Or that his rotation is the strength of the Toronto pitching staff. The “fire Gibby” movement is again in full throttle — five unreliable starters and a blow–torch bullpen be damned. “How can the Blue Jays have such a poor record while leading the American League in runs scored?” ask the fans. “It must be the manager’s fault.”
These fans either have short memories or were not paying attention when the Maple Leafs led the National Hockey League in goals scored on Dec. 16. Quite the defining stat, wasn’t it? Teams that know best how to defend ultimately embark on lengthy playoff runs and win Stanley Cups. Accordingly, baseball teams that know how to pitch threaten to win the World Series most years. Neither trait is applicable in Toronto. Devoid of such, a coach or a manager has no chance. Carlyle didn’t. And, Gibbons doesn’t. All the howling in the world won’t change a thing.
DRIVING HOME ON SUNDAY FROM A BASEBALL WEEKEND IN CLEVELAND.
With the Blue Jays, there at least remains hope.
I’m not aware of a baseball “expert” that predicted all of Drew Hutchison, R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Aaron Sanchez and Starter No. 5 (Daniel Norris in the first month) to stink at the same time. Chances are that a couple or three of the aforementioned will get straightened away (Sanchez, on Saturday at Cleveland, and Dickey, against New York at home on Monday, had exceptional outings). The Jays also need some injury luck with their best player, Jose Bautista, whose sore shoulder is preventing him from throwing the ball. His absence in right–field has a domino effect on the line–up. It means more work at first base rather than DH for aging Edwin Encarnacion and a spot in the field for Ezequiel Carrera, a poor defender. The bullpen is a different matter and much more a failing of general management than field management.
Alex Anthopoulos entrusted the key role of closer to a raw, 20–year–old rookie… and held his breath. He’s lucky he didn’t turn blue. That freshman, Miguel Castro, has been optioned to Triple–A Buffalo as part of an incredible flurry that saw pitchers doing the Interstate–90 tango all weekend with the Blue Jays in Cleveland. Castro and Scott Copeland have moseyed on to the minors while Steve Delabar and Chad Jenkins were with the big club for the series opener against the Yankees (3–1 Toronto win). The Noah’s Ark routine will more–than likely continue.
Until it stops for awhile, Gibbons will wear a path between the dugout and mound. As would Leo Derocher, Casey Stengel, Sparky Anderson, Billy Martin, Tony LaRussa, Joe Torre or any Hall–of–Fame manager with this crop of hurlers. The Blue Jays need arms. Not field direction.
BIRD SQUASH: While departing Cleveland for the 490–kilometer drive home to Toronto on Sunday, I had the Blue Jays–Indians game on the radio. Jim Rosenhaus, in his ninth year as Indians’ broadcaster, returned from a commercial with a rather unique story. “As I threw to break after the last inning, I leaned backward only to feel something between me and the back of my seat. Instinctively, I leaned forward and watched as a bird flew out of the booth. Now, what are the chances of that happening?… Late in the game — after Hutchison and the Blue Jays had fully mangled a 6–1 lead (they lost, 10–7) — Rosenhaus was talking about Toronto veteran Russell Martin. “If he has to catch this pitching staff all season, they’ll be wheeling him to the plate by August.”… The Jays were beaten Sunday despite arguably the dumbest play I’ve ever seen on a professional baseball field. With one out in the bottom of the second inning and Carlos Santana (not the Oye Como Va guy) on second base for Cleveland, Hutchison got Lonnie Chisenhall to pop up. The Toronto pitcher could have eaten the ball; head–butted the ball or stuck it down his pants and it wouldn’t have mattered with the infield–fly rule in effect. As soon as the ball left Chisenhall’s bat, it was an automatic out. Hutchison moved toward third base and made the catch. Somehow — and we may never know why — Santana was halfway between second and third. Russell Martin quickly prompted Hutchison to throw to teammate Ryan Goins. As such, Santana was doubled off on a pop–out to end the inning. When I got home, I PVR’d the replay of that brain cramp. I think I’ll keep it for posterity. And, maybe my grandchildren…
Interesting to hear a couple of reporters who cover the Blue Jays tell me that newcomer Josh Donaldson can be a prima–donna. Donaldson, among the finalists for American League MVP last season, was acquired from Oakland (Nov. 29) for fellow third–baseman Brett Lawrie and pitching prospects Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolin. Baseball players are among the most spoiled, pampered athletes in all of professional sport. I saw it first–hand in my years covering the Blue Jays (1988–1994) for The FAN–590… and how it negatively impacted such All–Stars as Dave Stieb, George Bell and Joe Carter — the latter morphing from amicable to snooty after his walk–off home run that won the 1993 World Series. Stieb, still the best pitcher in Blue Jays history, was a first–class schmuck during his playing days. After a game — win or loss — he would stand for endless minutes at a locker–stall with his back facing a throng of reporters. When he finally turned around, I wanted to smack him more often than not. Bell, the 1987 American League MVP, was notoriously rude to the media — until you stood up to him. Then he cowered, like most bullies. I had the fortune, however, of covering the World Series teams of ’92 and ’93 here in town that were bursting with professionals — on and off the field. Such players as David Cone, Jimmy Key, Roberto Alomar, Paul Molitor, Pat Borders, Ed Sprague, Tom Henke, Duane Ward, Dave Stewart and even the brusque Jack Morris were terrific to deal with. I’m told that Donaldson can be tough with reporters. If true, he should have a chat with Alomar — the greatest player in Blue Jays history — who came to Toronto from San Diego (with Carter) in December 1990 and told the media, “I’m here to be helpful any way I can.” He was a perfect gentleman through both World Series triumphs and that’s why the baseball universe reacted with such horror when he spit on umpire John Hirschbeck (Sep. 27, 1996) while playing for Baltimore against Toronto at SkyDome. Embarrassed over the incident and contrite to this day, Alomar became — in 2010 — the first (and, to date, only) Blue Jay to be inducted into the baseball hall of fame… Coincidentally, Hirschbeck was part of the umpiring crew over the weekend in Cleveland for the Jays–Indians series. He worked home plate during Toronto’s 11–4 victory at Progressive Field on Saturday…
It was nice to briefly renew acquaintance with Blue Jays TV voice Buck Martinez in Cleveland. He was another gentleman — as a catcher with the club in the early–80’s and as the broadcast partner of Toronto native Dan Shulman on TSN from 1995 to 2000. Shulman today stands alongside Joe Buck as the most prominent TV sportscaster in the United States… Whenever I watch the Cleveland Indians, Kansas City Chiefs, Washington Redskins, Atlanta Braves or Chicago Blackhawks, I’m reminded of how offensive it is, in this day and age, for teams to be so nicknamed. Washington Wizards of the National Basketball Association were known for many years as the Bullets. It was akin to naming a team in Beirut the Car Bombers. Sensitive to the history of gun violence in the American capital, owners changed the moniker to Wizards in 1997. Isn’t it time that native–Indians were spared the indignity of such racist nicknames?… The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is located in Cleveland. It therefore stands to reason that music played during games at Progressive Field is about the best I’ve ever heard. The Beatles were featured throughout the weekend, beginning with Strawberry Fields Forever during batting practice and ending with John Lennon’s classic rendition of Twist and Shout in the late innings. The atmosphere at the ballpark was splendid. Unfortunately, the stands were two–thirds empty… If Blue Jays rookie Devon Travis were a hockey player, he’d be favored already for a spot in Legends Row at Air Canada Centre. Such is the overkill for the Maple Leafs and the comparatively subdued reaction for baseball here in town. Acquired from Detroit (Nov. 12) for Anthony Gose, Travis has been a monster at the plate in his first Major League month with seven home runs and a team–leading 23 RBI…
Speaking of overkill, I was in Cleveland on Saturday night when Floyd Mayweather defeated Manny Pacquiao at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Ever notice that anything big nowadays is “… of the century?” Mayweather–Pacquiao was the “fight of the century.” O.J. Simpson vs. the State of California was the “trial of the century.” Hurricane Sandy in New York was the “storm of the century.” To me, that term means “any time in the previous 100 years.” Which is ridiculous when you consider the legendary fights involving (among others) Joe Louis, Max Schmeling, Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Marvin Hagler and Mike Tyson. Sure, the O.J. trial was played out on live TV. But, was it really “bigger” than those involving Bruno Hauptmann (convicted kidnapper and murderer of Charles Lindbergh’s baby son); Charles Manson (of Tate–LaBianca infamy); Albert DeSalvo (the “Boston Strangler”) or James Earl Ray (convicted killer of Martin Luther King)? And, what if Lee Harvey Oswald had lived to stand trial for the assassination of John F. Kennedy? Where might that have ranked in “of the century?” Also, try convincing residents of New Orleans that Sandy was the storm “of the century.” What an absurdly overused term… I don’t think it will be long before Larry Tanenbaum (25 percent owner of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment) officially purchases the Canadian Football League Toronto Argonauts (in conjunction with Bell Canada Enterprises — 37.5 percent owner of MLSE) from David Braley and announces the club will move from Rogers Centre to BMO Field for the 2017 season. It could be the “football purchase of the century” (oops)…
HOCKEY TALK: Well, so much for my notion, prior to the Conference semifinals, that neither Carey Price nor Devan Dubnyk would lose four of seven games before a potential Montreal–Minnesota clash for the Stanley Cup. The Canadiens and Wild were routed in the first two games of this round — by Tampa Bay and Chicago, respectively. With the Rangers now in tough against Washington (trailing 2–1 in their East semifinal), even my New York–Anaheim Cup final prediction is in jeopardy. Perhaps I should stick to the Leafs. I am agonizingly accurate (most of the time) when writing about our beloved home team… Nice to know that the famed “Toronto Collapse” has trickled down to the American Hockey League, where the Marlies gagged on a 2–0 series lead against Grand Rapids in the Calder Cup playoffs. True, Grand Rapids was the better team in the regular season but no club — in any sport — should lose a best–of–five round after winning the first two games… Read absolutely nothing — and I mean nothing — into Mike Babcock attending Game 5 of the Marlies–Griffins series in Michigan. As Bob McKenzie of TSN pointed out well beforehand, Babcock planned to see Detroit’s AHL farm team in person on Sunday if the Red Wings were knocked out of the Stanley Cup playoffs by Tampa Bay. The more time Babcock spends with Ken Holland, the less I’ll be surprised if he chooses to remain in MoTown… Sad to report that friends of Hall–of–Famer Stan Mikita say the Chicago Blackhawks legend no longer recognizes familiar faces. Such is the scourge of Lewy Body Dementia, from which Mikita is suffering. Al Arbour and Harry Howell are other Hall of Fame members battling forms of the brain disorder… You will search far and wide to come upon a sweeter couple than Maple Leafs legend Johnny Bower and his wife, Nancy, who have been married for 66 years. Nancy Bower was admitted to hospital this week with apparent breathing difficulty. There are few things I enjoy more than chatting with that beautiful woman. I’m praying for her. As should all hockey fans… Also ailing for quite awhile now is Betty Armstrong, wife of former Leafs captain George Armstrong. The Chief — still a scout for the club at 84 — missed virtually the entire season at Air Canada Centre to be with Betty. I feel deeply for him. And for her… This Sunday — Mother’s Day — will mark the 45th anniversary of Bobby Orr’s legendary overtime goal against St. Louis that won the 1970 Stanley Cup for Boston. It was also Mother’s Day on May 10 of that year… I wonder if Phil Kessel has skated yet this off-season. Whad’ya think?
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