Return of the Roman Empire

[Lou] Lamoriello will surely add a defenceman at some point —
[Mike] Babcock would be a candidate for a nervous breakdown with a top
four of Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Matt Hunwick and Martin Marincin
.

— From my Saturday blog.

TORONTO (July 3) — I’m not convinced the Roman Polak era — Part 2 — will prevent the coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs from getting locked in a rubber room next season. But, it could soften the walls.

In the current Leafs era of building and tearing down with the same components, Polak becomes this year’s version of Daniel Winnick. Provide the $50–million man behind the bench some depth and leadership… then pack your bags before the beginning of March. As Sean McIndoe (a.k.a. “Down Goes Brown”) Tweeted on Saturday, Polak returns to the Blue and White with a “must–trade” clause in his one–year deal. Still, it’s the National Hockey League — and not a bad gig for the nomadic 30–year–old, originally acquired by Toronto from St. Louis (on June 28, 2014) for fellow blue–liner Carl Gunnarsson. At some point during next year’s draft in Chicago (likely the third or fourth round), yet another prospect will be added to the Maple Leafs’ stable in “memory” of Polak. More of these additions and subtractions are sure to follow, as Lou Lamoriello executes Year 2 of the “Shanaplan” while prepping for the Las Vegas expansion draft.

In the meantime, Babcock now has a workable top six on defense, with Polak returning and Nikita Zaitzev coming over from the Kontinental Hockey League. Zaitzev, of course, has to prove he can play in the NHL.

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ROMAN POLAK RETURNS TO THE MAPLE LEAFS BLUE LINE AFTER PLAYING FOR THE WESTERN CONFERENCE–CHAMPION SAN JOSE SHARKS. POLAK SIGNED A ONE–YEAR DEAL ON SATURDAY.

I was mildly surprised the Leafs didn’t re–up with forward P.A. Parenteau, who signed as an unrestricted free agent with the New York Islanders. Not so much for his team–leading 20 goals last season — remember, the Leafs are aiming for the Antarctic Circle once again — but rather for his maturity and professional comportment. Lamoriello, however, needs to craft space up front for Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Nikita Soshnikov, Zach Hyman and one or two others that showed well in their NHL auditions. So, Parenteau was deemed expendable. If healthy, he’ll thrive again in Brooklyn.

A few other observations… I think there was generally equal value in the trade between Montreal and Nashville that involved P.K. Subban and Shea Weber. But, I wonder if the Canadiens will regret the intangible they unloaded? There is no direct comparison between players, but I remember as a 20–year–old in December 1979 how upset Toronto was when the Maple Leafs dealt Lanny McDonald to the old Colorado Rockies. Punch Imlach, the recycled general manager, acquired a very good winger in Wilf Paiement, but McDonald had been so popular among Leaf fans that Paiement’s value was never appreciated. For all of Montreal’s bumbling after a quick start last season, Subban did not lose his appeal among fans and media in both official languages. This became evident when GM Marc Bergevin encountered a room–full of incredulous reporters in the hours after the deal. Bergevin was on the defensive throughout the media gathering — not because of a talent discrepancy between Subban and Weber, but rather for giving up a player that had clearly become a part of Montreal’s unique fabric. There were never Two Solitudes with the flamboyant defenseman. Perhaps a GM shouldn’t govern himself on that basis. But, once in awhile, a balanced trade — on paper — will implode because of a transcending factor. Let’s see how this one plays out… As I expounded on, I think David Backes would have provided the Maple Leafs immeasurable guidance and leadership during the infant stage of the Nylander–Matthews–Marner era. Beyond my laptop, however, the idea had no traction. Lamoriello wasn’t going to commit money and term to a 32–year–old and it’s unlikely Backes desired the current Toronto situation. Instead, he’ll be a prototype Boston forward, giving the Bruins wonderful depth at center alongside Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci. All players not named Victor Hedman or Aaron Ekblad were over–compensated on Friday, as happens every July 1st. But, I think the Bruins will get loads of value from Backes… Edmonton has taken heat for giving Milan Lucic the seven–year maximum, yet I like the decision. The contract is unreasonable only until you acknowledge how long the Oilers have been powder–puffs. By himself, Lucic will not transform the club, but he’ll provide some tenacity as the Oilers move into their new arena, Rogers Place. While playing soft, Edmonton has employed seven coaches since 2008–09: Craig MacTavish, Pat Quinn, Tom Renney, Ralph Krueger, Dallas Eakins, Todd Nelson and Todd McLellan. It was time for a change.

TWO–PRONGED ATTACK

If you can move beyond the “partnership” between Sportsnet and the Toronto Blue Jays, which is often challenging, the network TV production of baseball in our country works rather well.

Saturday, however, provided a notable exception.

The backdrop during a pre–game show was Friday’s 19–inning exercise at Rogers Centre between Toronto and Cleveland — longest in the Blue Jays 39–year history. Overshadowing the Indians’ club–record 14th consecutive win (2–1, enabled by the home team using infielders Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney as pitchers late in the game) was a swirl of controversy around home–plate umpire Vic Carapazza. An objective viewer would have noticed that Carapazza struggled for much of the long afternoon; his strike zone all over the place. The Blue Jays — often whiny to begin with — had justifiable difficulty with Carapazza, who ejected designated–hitter Edwin Encarnacion, catcher Russell Martin and manager John Gibbons.

This remained the focus on Saturday during the run–up to Game 2 of the series (known as Blue Jays Central). At one point, host Jamie Campbell was joined in studio by my old FAN–590 radio colleague, Mike Wilner, who still looks healthy despite having to endure the hysteria of a post–game call–in show each day (or night). Campbell and Wilner have forgotten more about baseball in the past 48 hours than I’ll ever know. Both are good guys and diligent workers. But, neither shone during a double–barreled attack on Carapazza for his weak performance behind the plate on Friday. In fact, the segment known as Wilner’s Wise Calls was the hockey equivalent of a 2–on–0 breakaway toward an open net, with no defense permitted on the ice.

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JAMIE CAMPBELL (BLUE SUIT) AND MIKE WILNER DURING THEIR PRE–GAME SEGMENT ON SATURDAY.

During a full two minutes, Campbell and Wilner pounded on Carapazza for his apparent conspiracy against the Blue Jays. Wilner called his performance “embarrassing” while invoking un–named Toronto personnel that suggested it was the worst umpiring performance they had ever seen. Campbell added that his post–game chatter included players citing Carapazza for “not being very good at what he does.” There was neither balance in the conversation nor a shred of culpability toward the Blue Jays for their part in losing the 6½–hour marathon. It was all about an umpire that stole a match from the home team.

Of course, Campbell and Wilner know better — and usually are better than they were on Saturday.

Unintentionally, I’m sure, they added fuel to the perception of a Blue Jays telecast being a three–hour infomercial for the ball club. Both the Blue Jays and Sportsnet are owned by Rogers Communications. This profound conflict of interest is hardly novel here in Toronto, where cross–pollination between ownership and media involving all four professional teams often garners biased opinion and analysis. Objectivity and, at times, credibility are swept under the rug when management, players and broadcasters draw a paycheck from the same company. Though he or she may not realize it, the viewer is compromised.

Those involved with the Blue Jays on TV often handle this conflict professionally. The subject of Carapazza provided a glaring exception. For example, this is what you did not hear about Friday’s 19–inning game:

Edwin Encarnacion is the Blue Jays most valuable player and a mid–season candidate for American League MVP. Prior to Sunday’s action, he had 23 home runs and a Major League–leading 73 RBI. His bat is even more vital to the club in the absence of fellow slugger Jose Bautista — currently sidelined with a “turf–toe” condition. The Blue Jays are battling every day to remain alive in the American League East (and Wild Card) playoff race. Why, then, did Encarnacion throw a tantrum after his plate appearance in the first inning? Yes, Carapazza rung him up on a third strike out of the zone. So what? As it unfolded, Encarnacion may have come up seven or eight more times during the game. Instead, he threw down his bat; waved his arms, and mouthed off at the umpire. Carapazza justifiably ejected him; then ran Gibbons for coming out to argue.

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ENCARNACION BUMPS AGAINST CARAPAZZA AND IS RESTRAINED BY GIBBONS. SPORTSNET IMAGES

This was a thoroughly–selfish act by Encarnacion, who had no reason to blow up so early in the game. Catcher Russell Martin was also ejected by Carapazza, but not until crouching behind the plate and trying to “work” the umpire for 13 innings. During Saturday’s telecast, color–man Pat Tabler pointed out that “Encarnacion was starting to walk away from Carapazza” when he was tossed. Why should that be a factor? The player turned around, still in very close proximity, and yelled something profane at the umpire. (UPDATE: ENCARNACION HAS BEEN SUSPENDED ONE GAME BY MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL FOR BUMPING INTO CARAPAZZA; REMARKABLY, HE IS APPEALING)

During the course of Friday’smatch, the Blue Jays stranded a runner at third base on five separate occasions. In the fourth, fifth and 14th innings, they left the bases loaded. In the 16th inning, they had runners at second and third with one out. As it happened, one measly run would have made the difference for a capacity house on Canada Day. Instead, the Jays were 1–for–10 with runners in scoring position; stranded 17 men, and struck out 18 times. In the series opener on Thursday, Toronto batsmen whiffed on 17 occasions in nine innings. The astonishing 35 K’s — perhaps three or four unwarranted — were conveniently overlooked by Sportsnet commentators while censuring Carapazza.

Needless to say, Saturday was not the network’s finest hour.

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

5 comments on “Return of the Roman Empire

  1. Couldn’t agree more, Howard. I argued with Jays fans on Twitter after Friday’s game on three fronts:

    1) Yes, Carapazza was not very good, but a fair number of the pitches with which the Jays took issue? They were strikes. Carerra’s caught looking? At the top of the zone. Martin’s strike two? Clearly a strike.
    2) At what point do you as a team adjust to the zone? Cleveland’s pitchers clearly took advantage of the big zone and worked at the top and on the inside and were rewarded for it. Jays’ hitters just stood, staring and slack-jawed as the pitch their teammates were punched out got them the same result. Shocking, huh?
    3) Encarnacion had a beef and probably shouldn’t have been ejected, but then I’m quite sure the Jays’ bench was already working Carapazza over from Donaldson’s AB. Apparently, Edwin said the magic word and the shower duck came down. But Martin’s ouster was plain selfish. Buddy, you KNOW this guy has already had enough, and probably is even aware he’s not have a great game, so you want to turn around in the 14th inning of a game where your bench is just about gone and again try to show him up? Just plain stupid. We won’t even mention Saunders trying to draw a line in the box ON A STRIKE.

    The Jays have Bautista Syndrome, in that not only do they think they know the strike zone better than the umpires, but also believe they should be free to express their displeasure in whatever manner they see fit. Well, fellas, you don’t and you shouldn’t. I don’t pay to see the umpire either, but when you act like a bunch of spoiled toddlers, I’m definitely paying to see him run your sorry asses.

    Want to bitch about the loss? Try thinking about your inability to get a runner in from third, about running out of pitchers, about losing two of your best players to their own hubris. Then talk to me about Carapazza.

    1. Wayne: I’m not thinking for a moment that the Jays didn’t have reason to be frustrated on Friday. Carapazza WAS terrible. But, we all have bad days at the office. And, I hope you don’t think I’m anti-Sportsnet, anti-Wilner or anti-Campbell. Those are two of my favorite guys in the business. But, Sportsnet – because of its direct affiliation with the Blue Jays – absolutely must present a balanced argument and we didn’t get that on Saturday. The Jays lost by a single run in their longest-ever game. There is every reason to think that may not have happened if Edwin had been available to hit after the first inning. It was totally irresponsible of him to blow up so early in the match. And, I thought maybe I’d hear such an opinion from the TV guys on Saturday. Instead, it was all about the umpire. As such, today’s blog.

      1. Sportsnet isn’t there to be unfailingly sanguine about umpires. Sometimes, giving expression to the justifiable anger of fans is a pre-game show’s purpose.

        As for umpires and their calling balls and strikes, generally, this is a thing that is no longer required. We have computers that can call a ball’s location within the strike zone with more consistency, predictability and precision than any other human being on the planet. We need to replace ALL umpires in the Major Leagues with machines when it comes to pitch location.

        Calls on the field and interpreting swings and other contact will still be necessary. There are a host of things that a Home Plate Umpire does during a game that they should continue to do — indeed — MUST do.

        But calling balls and strikes due to pitch location is not one of them. Get rid of this, FOREVER. Do it for the start of next season.

        1. Disagree totally, Robert. Enough of the human element has disappeared from sport. Your suggestion isn’t practical. But, I appreciate your comment and participation.

  2. Lucic is a GOON and someday will hurt someone badly
    IMO, shouldn’t even be in the league…
    but, oh well….

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