TORONTO (Oct. 24) — At least the New York Yankees won a playoff round and made it to the American League Championship Series, whereupon they were humiliated in a four–game sweep by the Houston Astros. The league–record 62 home runs belted by Aaron Judge, which created an international stir during the regular season, seems far–less significant today after the Yankees bowed out so meekly in the World Series qualifier. Fans and media following the Toronto Maple Leafs practically sainted Auston Matthews for his National Hockey League–leading (and franchise record) 60 goals last season, which turned into fancy window dressing when the Leafs were bounced from the opening round of Stanley Cup toil for the sixth consecutive time. All that noise over half a calendar year — 62 home runs in baseball by Judge; 60 goals in hockey by Matthews — amounted to nothing when the chips were on the table. Proving, again, the irrelevance of the long playoff warm–up in both sports.
This isn’t to minimize either achievement. Any athlete that breaks a team or league record in professional sport resides, quite exquisitely, above the fray. It’s just that baseball and hockey are synonymous with team accomplishment rather than, say, golf or tennis. So, the otherworldly performance that ends in April or September doesn’t carry weight into an elimination tournament for the league championship. I can guarantee that fans of the Yankees, today, are far–more engulfed in bitterness and disappointment over the ALCS no–show against the Astros than giddiness over Judge’s magnificent regular–season numbers. As were dispirited followers of the Leafs regarding Matthews’ team record for goals when that final horn sounded against the Lightning at Scotiabank Arena on May 14. I can still hear Joe Bowen lamenting, incredulously, over the radio that “… it’s happened again.”
AARON JUDGE (LEFT) SHAKES HANDS WITH AUSTON MATTHEWS AT ROGERS CENTRE IN SEPTEMBER WHILE MITCH MARNER LOOKS ON. JUDGE AND MATTHEWS SHARE THE EUPHORIA OF REGULAR–SEASON RECORDS AND THE DISAPPOINTMENT OF PLAYOFF DEFEAT. GLOBE AND MAIL PHOTO
The sample size, early this hockey season, would indicate that Matthews has undergone an epiphany. With but a goal through the first six games, No. 34 is playing, nonetheless, the best hockey of his career: a physical, 200–foot effort that, should it become the norm, will help the Leafs immeasurably once the playoffs begin. Whether this is a self–enacted blip, or Matthews has absorbed a message from elsewhere, will be determined as the season moves along. There’s the yarn, now part of hockey lore, about Scotty Bowman pulling aside Detroit captain Steve Yzerman after the consecutive playoff disappointments against Toronto and San Jose in 1993 and 1994, when the Red Wings were eliminated in the opening round by inferior opposition. Yzerman had enjoyed six consecutive years of triple digits in production, including a monstrous 155 in 1988–89. Bowman, hockey’s winningest coach, essentially told Yzerman that he could continue putting up massive numbers and hitting all his contract bonuses, but the Red Wings would never compete for the Stanley Cup; that unless Yzerman similartly dedicated himself to the defensive portion of the rink, Detroit’s championship quest would be indefinite. To his everlasting credit, the Hall–of–Fame center (and current GM of the Red Wings) took to heart Bowman’s appeal, never again attaining 100 points in a season. Detroit won the Stanley Cup — with coach and player — in 1997, 1998 and 2002.
So, I genuinely ask fans of the Maple Leafs: What if Matthews scores 40 or 45 goals this season, but develops the savvy and skill at both ends of the ice to lead the club into Stanley Cup contention? It’s a rhetorical question with an automatic answer. The regular season is showmanship. The playoffs are what separates the men from the boys. Matthews and Judge have provided, within five months of one another, the most–glaring–such examples.
30 YEARS AGO TONIGHT (and tomorrow morning)
It will always rank among the most–memorable nights of my 23–year career in radio. Actually, a night and early morning, as it required extra innings and nearly five hours for the Toronto Blue Jays to finally edge the Atlanta Braves and become the first non–American team to win the World Series. That it happened 30 years ago tonight at the old Fulton–County Stadium is beyond unimaginable, given how clearly I recall the final out of the game… and the unrestrained frolic in the visitors’ clubhouse afterward. As you can see (above and below), I still have loose copies of both Toronto newspapers from the morning after the historic match, to go with the full newspaper pages bound in my scrapbooks. Game 6 of the 1992 World Series occurred less than two months after CJCL AM–1430 became The FAN–1430, Canada’s first all–sports radio station. It was still more than two years until I began covering the Maple Leafs, full time; I had the privilege of being at all games of the ’92 American League Championship Series (Toronto vs. Oakland), then all six matches of the World Series against Atlanta. When relief pitcher Mike Timlin fielded a bunt from Otis Nixon of the Braves and tossed to Joe Carter at first base for the final out, I was standing in the visitors’ radio booth next to my colleague, Scott Ferguson, and behind Tom Cheek and Jerry Howarth, who described the action. I can still close my eyes and revisit the scene in that small enclave on the second level of Atlanta Stadium; then in the delirious Toronto clubhouse. An ethereal and poignant memory.
DOUG… and DOUG: WHAT AN ERA
They shared the same name and are still the most–spectacular athletes in the history of Toronto professional sport. Separated, merely, by the calendar year of 1995. First, it was Doug Gilmour of the Maple Leafs, putting up seasons of 127 points (1992–93) and 111 points (1993–94). Then, Doug Flutie of the Toronto Argonauts, leading his team to consecutive 15–3 seasons (1996, 1997) and back–to–back Grey Cup championships as the Most Valuable Player each year in the Canadian Football League. Never before (or since), in a half–decade juncture, had Toronto sports figures so dominated the local scene. I write this today because Flutie turned 60 years of age on Sunday. Which, again, is somewhat incomprehensible, given how brilliant and lucid the memories are of his two seasons with fellow Argonaut stars Robert Drummond, Mike (Pinball) Clemons and Paul Masotti. The 1997 Argos won their games by an average of 18.5 points. Still, it required a last–minute touchdown run by Clemons off a short pass from Flutie to tame the stubborn Montreal Alouettes in the Eastern Final at SkyDome and enable the Argos to repeat as Canadian football champions the following week, against Saskatchewan, in Edmonton.
Most memorable, of course, is the 1996 Grey Cup, on a snow–covered field at Ivor Wynne Stadium in Hamilton. When the Argos and Edmonton Eskimos exchanged remarkable offensive plays all evening that resulted in a 43–37 triumph for Toronto. Doug Gilmour and Doug Flutie. Same era. With nothing remotely to compare.
MY BAD… A BONEHEAD MISTAKE: If you regularly visit this corner, you’ll know that I credit, whenever possible, photographs and stories culled from elsewhere. But, I broke that rule in my previous blog when I cropped out Mike Boon from a selfie taken with Toronto sports–writing legends Dave Perkins and Bob Elliott. It was the best photo of recent ilk I could find that contained Perky, the subject of my blog. I erred, however, in not crediting Boon, whose Toronto Mic’d podcast has long been among the premier sports presentations on the Internet, and who was justifiably disappointed. Sorry, ol’ pal. Here is the full image, with “Santa” Mike at left: