Sports And The City

It was 4-1.

Guest Post: On Hockey, Winnipeg & the Return of the Jets

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Saturday’s are synonymous with The Ack, weekend editor at The Tao of Stieb. If there’s one thing The Ack writes with, it’s passion. He refrains from “stat-hurling,” as @mererog so eloquently put it, and doesn’t come off the least bit condescending, something I appreciate more and more these days. I mean, I’ve got only so much time to read what people are writing; why bother if I’m going to be talked down to like I’m some idiot? I relate to The Ack. He’s a fan of baseball, a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays, and, more than anything else, wants his team to win.

Recently, though, I asked The Ack about his thoughts on the rumours — the rumours that just won’t go away — surrounding the Phoenix Coyotes, and how they’re Winnipeg-bound once their season is done. I remember The Ack writing that, once upon a time, he was the biggest hockey fan out there. The biggest Winnipeg Jets fan there could be. I knew it was a touchy subject, but, luckily for me, and us, The Ack obliged.

Thank you, Ack, for your most passionate post on hockey, your first love, Winnipeg, and your Jets. I can’t help but hope the rumours are true. Without further ado …

It comes across like a massive cliché – “When the Jets left, it felt like a death in the family.” But it did feel that way. It really did.

But maybe I should start at the beginning…

*

I don’t remember learning how to skate. I just know that I’ve known how to skate forever. Same thing about loving the game of hockey; I don’t have a “first hockey memory”, per se… I only know that I always did.

Here on the prairie, that’s just the way it goes. I imagine it’s the same experience for a kid in Toronto – or anywhere in Canada – but winters in Manitoba? Forget it. That’s all we had. And I would never have had it any other way. I loved the game and everything about it.

Growing up north of Winnipeg, I played on the local minor hockey circuit from the ages five through seventeen. Practices twice a week. Two or three games every weekend. And that was just the “organized” component of my hockey-playing love affair. There was the “free skating” time when the ice wasn’t booked at the local rink. There was the, um…. “unauthorized” shinny games when the barn was closed… access gained through a back door “mistakenly” left unlocked. Or maybe we’d make a few piles of snow for posts and throw down some road hockey. And the rare treat – scouring back roads for some virgin ice on a country pond. Yes, we really did things like that. That’s not just a bullshit scene made for wintery postcards.

And throughout all of that, there was always one constant.

I was Dale Hawerchuk making moves at centre ice. Sometimes I might have been Paul MacLean waiting to snipe at the side of the cage. Near the end, when you’re supposed to be too old to still dream about these things, I might have been Teemu Selanne streaking down the wing.

I – no, we – loved those Winnipeg Jets. A force in the NHL, they were never. But it mattered little to me (us), because they were ours. That was our team.

*

If my summertime dreams were narrated by Tom Cheek and Jerry Howarth (they were), my winter voices were Curt Kielback and Kenny “the Friar” Nicholson. Those names won’t mean much to you, I’m sure, but they meant everything to me back then.

“Heeeeere’s Hawerchuk…makes his move…pass to MullenbacktoHawerchuktoMacLean!…he scores!”

Isn’t it funny how you can still hear those calls in your head some twenty five years later? I listened to every game.  Every game! I’d bet the old man a quarter on each one, him always picking the other team just to let me have my fun. If you know Jets history, you’ll know that means I was out a few packs of gum, but I didn’t care. You have to bet on your team.

*

We always knew the franchise wasn’t the most stable. It was never a preferred destination for the players (and I’m being charitable). More than one talked their way out of town. The old Arena was an outdated mess of a building (but a fantastic atmosphere, especially in the playoffs) with 15,500 seats, of which maybe 13,000 had a halfway decent view of the ice. Local ownership had no money and didn’t even own the joint, and there were really no ways to improve the financial fortunes of the team. Luxury boxes? What’s that? It was a precarious existence, but we never thought, really, that it would come down to this.

And then the “for sale” talk got serious. And we all got nervous. We knew there would never be a local buyer. Actually, I wasn’t nervous. I was terrified.

*

As fans, we did everything we could. We held rallies. We congregated in the tens of thousands. There was a grassroots campaign. People were donating their own money – their own money! And it was in the millions! I’m talking kids emptying their piggy banks to “save the Jets”! That is not embellishment, friends. It really happened. Just pure, heartbreaking stuff, in retrospect.

Of course, it wasn’t enough. It never was going to be, but it was the symbolism that counted. The team was doomed to move, and we all knew it was simply a matter of time. The game hadn’t outgrown Winnipeg… but the NHL had. Goddamnit. We were losing our team.

*

The popular story is that 50,000 people will tell you they were at the last regular season game in that building of 15,500. I’m here to tell you that I really was one of them (courtesy tix from an ex-girlfriend. Thoughtful parting gift, don’t you think?). Watch this clip, if for no other reason than to obey the immortal words of Buck O’Neil: “Son, in this life, you never walk by a red dress.” Just trust me on this one.

I will never forget that game, that night, for as long as I’m alive. Never. I couldn’t even if I wanted to. Watch for the emotion on the face of Kris King near the end of the anthem. He got it. Kinger still gets it. He knew (and still does) what the Jets meant to Winnipeg. Having just watched the clip myself, I had the same reaction I did back in ’96.

I choked up. Just now, I choked up. Fifteen years later. It still hurts.

*

There were a few more home playoff games, and that was that. They were gone. I kept all the local newspapers from that day. I still have them tucked away, somewhere. Thought I might frame them to preserve the memory. But who wants to remember that?

*

For a long, long time after 1996, I decided that I hated hockey. The game turned its back on me, so I was done with it too. Of course, hindsight tells me how foolish that was. The game didn’t leave Winnipeg… the NHL did. It took me a while to realize that, but I’ve yet to re-embrace the league. I can’t. I don’t have a team. I’ve tried adoption and it just didn’t work out.

I know that I still love the game. Canada vs USA in Vancouver? Forget it. Heart-attack city morphing into bliss. I know the passion is still there, but it would be nice to unleash it more than once every four years.

*

And now comes word that we, in this forgotten part of the country, just might have another chance. You have to understand what this means to us. Winnipeggers are used to the comments. I refuse to be baited into defending against the same old same old – “Winnipeg is a wholesale town; they can’t afford it; it’s not big enough; there’s no corporate support…” – even if I can acknowledge that some of it might be true.

Go ahead and fire your slings and arrows. We’re a hearty bunch. Another cliché, but living where we do, you have to be. Keep telling us that it will never work. You very well might be right.

We just want that chance to prove you wrong.

Image courtesy Sharon Hayes.

Written by Navin Vaswani

April 16th, 2011 at 1:24 pm

NotGraphs: Photo: How to Propose at a Baseball Game

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What you’ll find below is another friendly reminder of the hard-hitting baseball journalism I regularly drop over at NotGraphs. Now, I’m assuming the ladies in the photograph below are Canadian, from somewhere in beautiful British Columbia, part of the contingent that takes over Seattle’s Safeco Field when the Blue Jays are in town. Represent.

As if you or I needed another reason to love Canadian women.

It’s the glitter, the extra effort, that really makes the signs, and the proposal. (Click on the image to embiggen.) Make no mistake about it: Those ladies are gritty. Forget that get down on one knee, emotional stuff. Stand up and yell. Loud and proud.

And I’ve got to give it up to the gal on the left. On her feet, Mike’s Hard Lemonade in her left hand, sign in her right. She knows, like I do, that there’s never a good time to put down your drink. As for wanting to be Jose Bautista’s HR Queen, get in line.

Well done, ladies.

And if you — denizens of NotGraphs — need me, I’ll be out back singing O Canada, eh.

That would be a Getty Image, via the fine folks at daylife.

Written by Navin Vaswani

April 15th, 2011 at 12:45 pm

The habit of believing

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I’m reading Gary Taubes’ “Why We Get Fat.” Carbohydrates, my friends, are the devil. Have you seen Travis Snider?  The Meats Don’t Clash diet works.

Anyway, I came across a quote in the book by Umberto Eco, Italian all-around smarty-pants, which Taubes uses to help expose the flaws in the widely accepted calories-in/calories-out paradigm. It’s fantastic. Fucking fantastic. Witness:

I believe that you can reach the point where there is no longer any difference between developing the habit of pretending to believe and developing the habit of believing.”

I had to put the book down. Actually, I read the quote again, twice, and then put the book down.

That’s me. That’s my fandom. Of the Toronto Blue Jays, Toronto Maple Leafs, Buffalo Bills, Toronto FC, and Toronto Raptors. Of every awful team I support. There’s nothing really rational about supporting those teams. Then again, there’s nothing really rational about sports; rationale doesn’t factor into rooting for a specific team, or player.

I’m sure Kansas City Royals fans, and Pittsburgh Pirates fans, and even Calgary Flames fans, can relate to that quote. Why, year after year, do we go on? Why do we stick around, after all the abuse? The answer’s in the quote: we believe. It’s no longer a habit of pretending to believe, as Eco says. We actually believe. That this year, whichever year it is, is actually the year. Even though it’s probably not.

The Maple Leafs last took part in a playoff game thousands of days ago, in 2004. Literally thousands of days ago. Two-thousand-something days. I don’t remember the actual number, but the CBC was kind enough to point it out last Saturday, during the final Leafs/Habs tilt until October. I don’t even want to begin to think about how many more thousands of days it’s been for the Blue Jays. Almost two decades. Yet every April, I find myself thinking, “Wow, I haven’t been this excited about the Blue Jays since, well, last year.” I say the same thing about the Maple Leafs in October.

In years prior, I’ve still been bout it bout it for the Stanley Cup playoffs. Nothing better than the first round, and playoff overtime, I’ve always said myself. Wednesday night, as the playoffs began, and Vancouver welcomed Chicago, and the Rangers and Capitals treated folks to overtime, I watched baseball. Dodgers and Giants, from San Francisco, with Vin Scully in the booth.

I don’t know what that means, exactly, but I know something’s changed. I chose baseball. It’s definitely got something to do with listening to Scully, something I haven’t done enough of in my life. He’s absolutely brilliant in the booth, a one-man team. But another part of me simply isn’t interested in the playoffs if the Leafs aren’t involved. I don’t care anymore. I’ll be watching tonight, Montreal and Boston, but that’s only because I’ve got to live-blog the game for The Score. Pay me to watch it, and I’ll do it. Gladly, of course. But between hockey I’m not emotionally invested in, even though it’s intense and awesome hockey for the most beautiful trophy in professional sports, and Scully’s baseball poetry, I chose the legendary Dodgers broadcaster. And I’d do it again.

Back to the quote: the believing is exhausting. But I guess, in the end, the believing is also what makes it worthwhile.

Image courtesy The Best Part.

Written by Navin Vaswani

April 14th, 2011 at 1:25 pm

Blue Jays lose series to Seattle, season effectively over

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The mood in the visitor’s clubhouse at Safeco Field, after Toronto dropped a 3-2 decision to Seattle late Tuesday night, was somber, as expected. Having lost two in a row to the lowly Mariners, and more importantly the series, the writing was on the wall for the Blue Jays, their season officially over, only 11 games in. Manager John Farrell tried his best to put a positive spin on the results.

“You know, we learned a lot over these last two weeks, and throughout Spring Training. I learned a lot. It’s been a great experience for me, personally, working with the staff, and getting to know the guys. Now we’ve got, what, 151 games to prepare for 2012. I’m excited, to tell you the truth.”

Farrell’s troops had a harder time accepting their fate. Travis Snider, enjoying his customary post-game filet mignon, was crushed to have his season end at home, in his native Washington.

“I’ll be honest with you, I was still thinking about Monday night’s collapse up there against [Michael] Pineda,” Snider said, between bites. “How the hell do we blow a 7-0 lead against the Mariners? Meats don’t clash, man.”

Snider shook his head in disgust. Hitless in the first two games of the series, and batting .147 on the season, Snider was brutally honest when it came to himself, and his teammates.

“I’ve got to be better. Period. I mean, what hope do we have if Corey Patterson’s leading the way, when it comes to driving in guys on base? Jesus. Meats don’t clash, man,” Snider lamented, once again.

At that moment, Snider, seated next to the post-game spread, was asked by Edwin Encarnacion, seated at his locker, to toss him a bread roll. Snider obliged, showing off his rocket of an arm. It couldn’t have been more than ten feet, and the roll was thrown right at the numbers, but Encarnacion couldn’t handle it.

“E5, you bastard,” Brian Butterfield muttered, as he walked through the clubhouse.

Snider managed a smile, as Encarnacion made the walk of shame to the garbage can. I was hoping Edwin would try to toss the roll into the trash from afar, but he thought better of it. Snider was right, though, I thought. About himself, and especially about his teammates. Patterson himself agreed with the young left fielder.

“What do I got, four hits and four RBIs in two games? If these guys are relying on me to drive guys in, let’s be real, we haven’t got a prayer,” Patterson said.

I asked Patterson about the play at the plate in the 8th inning, when he tried to score on a Bautista foul ball to right field, which Seattle first baseman Justin Smoak ran down. Smoak made the catch on the run, turned, and threw a strike to catcher Miguel Olivo. Patterson was DOA, and didn’t even bother to slide, or try to knock the compensatory draft pick out of Olivo.

“What’s that, Home Run King? Yeah, be right there,” Patterson said, looking back, and to his left. And then he walked away. No one was there. Most certainly not Jose Bautista, who I could see at his locker. Strange cat, that Patterson.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Not for the Blue Jays, or their fans. Not after Toronto stormed out of the gate, winning four of their first five games, and five of their first seven. But the team’s problems began on the road, in Anaheim, and followed them northwest to Seattle. And it was staff ace Ricky Romero, who pitched his tail off Tuesday night, who was taking the premature end to the season hardest.

“Losing two in a row to Seattle, and a series to Seattle, is the actual, definitive opposite of Beast Mode. I’m just really disappointed in myself and my teammates right now. Milton Bradley’s out there wearing f–king earplugs, and we’re losing one-run games to these guys? Blowing seven-run leads to these guys? How many runs did they score last year, 73? No one in this room should be happy right now,” Romero said, as he punched a wall near his locker, and screamed “BEAST MODE!!!1″

One-run losses. They’ll kill you. Five of the Blue Jays’ six losses have been by just one run. The team’s other loss was by only two runs, over the weekend, after being dominated by Los Angeles’ Jered Weaver. I asked Jose Bautista about why his team couldn’t come through in tight ball games.

“It’s tough, man,” Bautista said, Usher’s “Oh My Gosh” playing softly, on repeat, from a tiny set of speakers in his locker. “I mean, I joined this team in 2009, when Aaron Hill and Adam Lind were Silver Sluggers. Do you recognize those guys anymore? I sure as hell don’t. I want those guys back.”

Lind, batting .206/.216/.324 against right-handed pitching, didn’t have any answers for me.

“You know, I really think Indiana deserves an MLB team. Great state. Just a really, really great state.”

I persisted, asking Lind about his .133 batting average with runners in scoring position in 15 at-bats, and .143 batting average with runners in scoring position with two outs. Lind, though, deflected, pointing the finger at his lost Silver Slugging cousin, Hill.

“I don’t think Hill’s got a hit in nine at-bats versus a southpaw this season. That’s brutal,” he said, as he began to play with his iPhone, and then put on a rather large set of headphones.

Hill refused to comment, telling me, “What’s the point? The season’s over. No comment. I’ve gotta go tune my guitar.”

Eleven games in, no, it absolutely wasn’t supposed to be this way. Not for Hill and Lind. Not for Brett Cecil. Not for anybody. Not when the Blue Jays were only two games out of first place in the American League East, trailing the Baltimore Orioles, who surely won’t be there in about, oh, a week. Not when the Blue Jays were two games ahead of the dismantled-but-still-apparently-bloody-awesome Tampa Bay Rays. Not when Toronto was four — four! — games up on the 2-9 Boston Red Sox, who would probably kill to have Jo-Jo Reyes in their starting rotation.

“Maybe next year,” Kyle Drabek, Wednesday afternoon’s starter, said, as he walked past me, headed out of the clubhouse, and towards the team bus. “And, hey, have you seen David Purcey? Can’t find that dude anywhere.”

Image courtesy Mental Floss.

Written by Navin Vaswani

April 13th, 2011 at 11:20 am

The thrill of victory

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Ninety-six hours later, and the above photo still gives me chills. India, and, finally, Sachin Tendulkar: World cricket champions.

I am, first and foremost, Canadian. Raised, not born; Kuwait City, Kuwait takes that honour (tongue planted firmly in cheek). I speak Hindi, but don’t consider myself Indian, or from India. I’m not. My ancestors are. My parents are. And my folks, along with my brother, would be the first to admit that I don’t relate much — and never have — to the Motherland, though I visit her frequently, especially in recent years. Unlike most people from the subcontinent, I am the furthest from religious. I eat beef. We — Hindus — aren’t supposed to; cows are sacred. I love beef.

Now, please, don’t get me wrong. I’m proud of my roots. India is a beautiful country, with a fascinating history, and a place everyone should be lucky enough to explore. Like any country, she has her positives — world’s biggest democracy, yo — and her negatives. The poverty, especially when experienced firsthand, is indeed crippling. But enough about my identity struggles. Long story short: I’m quite certain I’ve never felt prouder of my Indian heritage than after watching India win the Cricket World Cup over the weekend.

I can’t, with only words, explain what cricket means to India and its people. I can’t stress enough the role it plays on India’s psyche. The success of the new IPL — Indian Premier League, 20/20 high-quality cricket — speaks for itself. Cricket’s their hockey. Sachin Tendulkar, the greatest cricket player to ever grace the planet, is India’s Wayne Gretzky. And Bobby Orr. And Mario Lemieux. And Patrick Roy. Combined. Times about, oh, a thousand. In such an incredibly religious country — that’s what sticks with you when you visit, the intense religiosity, especially amongst the poor — Tendulkar is truly a living deity.

For a country with over a billion people, it’s shocking, and a touch embarrassing, how unathletic Indians are. Not for lack of trying. Indian’s, at least this is how I see it, want to succeed at sport. It’s just not easy, considering, according to numbers from 2001, India’s rural population accounts for more than 70% of the entire nation. Not to mention the poverty, and a lack of sporting infrastructure. You think Canada has it bad when it comes to amateur sports?

I spent the summer of 1996 in New Delhi and watched, along with the rest of the country, Leander Paes win a bronze medal in tennis at the Atlanta Olympics. Overnight, Paes became a hero, and a celebrity. There were “poojas” — prayers — held in his honour. He returned home to a hero’s welcome, only the second Indian to ever win a medal at the Olympics, and the first since KD Jhadav at the 1952 Helsinki Games.  Sports permeates in India, it does, but nothing like cricket.

That’s why Saturday, and the World Cup in general, was so important. It’s not just that India won the tournament for the first time since 1983. It’s how they won the tournament, and the circumstances surrounding their victory. It was, and I say this with certainty, Sachin Tendulkar’s final World Cup appearance. And his sixth. Tendulkar — The Little Master, only 5’5″ — has re-written cricket’s history books. But the World Cup title eluded him. It was the only trophy he hadn’t won. And in the final vs. Sri Lanka, looking to record his record 100th One-Day International century (100 runs in a one-day, 50 overs per side match), Tendulkar was caught out after only 18 runs. I can’t imagine India has ever been so silent.

But Tendulkar’s teammates weren’t going to let him down. They picked him up, led by their captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Gautam Gambhir, and Yuvraj Singh. India didn’t just win the Cricket World Cup on Saturday. No, they won it in style. They walked it off. Dhoni, in the final over, needing four runs to win the game, and deliver the trophy to Tendulkar, and his cricket-mad country, sent a towering six into the crowd. A no-doubter. It sailed into the seats, far above the boundary line, and set off literal fireworks in the sky, mayhem in the stands, and euphoria in the smallest, and most remote, Indian villages. The camera panned to Dhoni’s face as he watched the ball disappear into the Mumbai crowd. As Yuvraj, his batting partner, ran towards him, along with the rest of his Indian teammates, Dhoni collapsed to his knees. India had become the first country to ever win the Cricket World Cup on home soil. Tendulkar had finally won everything there was to be won as a cricketer, coming full circle in the city of his birth, where his unbelievable journey began, his first century coming as a 15-year-old in what was then Bombay.

In the immediate post-game interviews, Virat Kholi, 22-years old, one of India’s youngest players, and representing the next generation of Indian cricketers, spoke words I will never, ever forget:

[Sachin Tendulkar] has carried the burden of the nation for 21 years. It was time we carried him on our shoulders.”

It’s Kohli’s shoulders whom Tendulkar is on in the picture above.

I think, if my memory serves me correctly, I let out a huge sigh after hearing listening to Kohli’s words. He watched Tendulkar play growing up. He played road cricket — I’m assuming that’s what they call it, just like we call it “road hockey” — growing up, surely pretending to be Tendulkar. So young. So poetic. So goddamn on the money. Tendulkar, 38, had done it all. All. And it was the next generation, the Dhonis, the Yuvrajs, the Gautam Gambhirs, and the Kohlis, who made sure he left the game the ultimate champion.

Could a better script have been written? Other than Tendulkar walking the match off himself with a massive six, I don’t think so. At the same time, it was so fitting the way it went down. In a country where family ties are valued like nothing else, where joint families are as common as a pick-up cricket game on the streets, it was the youth who lifted the elder statesman Tendulkar, literally after the game, parading him around the stadium, and figuratively in the match, in order to get him the title. To a man, they all said it: We did it for Sachin. We played for Sachin.

I couldn’t help but think of the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. I’m haunted by the sight of Wayne Gretzky sitting alone on the Canadian bench, Canada having lost the semi-final to the Czech Republic in the shootout. Ninety-nine was only the greatest goal scorer ever, but Gretzky didn’t get the tap on his shoulder. He knew, like we all did, that as a player, he’d never win Olympic gold. It wasn’t right. Watching Tendulkar hoist the Cricket World Cup trophy, I was overjoyed with emotion that he’d avoided a similar fate.

Along the way, India dispatched Australia, the defending champions. They defeated Pakistan, their biggest rival, their nemesis. In the semi-final, no less. Playing at home, under what was surely incredible pressure, India put their poor 2007 World Cup finish behind them. They regrouped. There was never any panic. Not even after Tendulkar was retired for 18 runs in the final. Champions. “Windia.” I trust India’s still celebrating. I am.

One of my fondest memories from my jaunt through parts of India last year was joining a game of pick-up cricket on the beach in Palolem, South Goa. I was fielding, my feet in the water. The youngish batter, on a ball inside, close to his legs, opened up and smacked it my way. I dove, half-heartedly, and missed. As I got up and went to grab the tennis ball, I heard the batter’s friend say to him: “Sachin jaise, yaar.”

“Just like Sachin, friend.”

Congratulations, India. From an ocean away. Or, as they say back home, “Chak De India!”

Image, such a damn fine one, courtesy of Reuters, via daylife.

Written by Navin Vaswani

April 6th, 2011 at 12:51 pm

Welcome back …

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Below is a post I published at NotGraphs, celebrating the return of Major League Baseball, while also serving as a quasi-Blue Jays preview. Yes, that is a picture of the Cincinnati Reds, above, but it’ll all make sense. Just read. They’re home. They’re finally home.

I went through a boatload of photographs last night from Opening Day. The above, courtesy of the fine folks at The Associated Press, is definitely my favorite. Is there anything better than a walk-off home run on Opening Day, in front of your home crowd? No, there isn’t. I dare you to argue otherwise.

Look at the Reds’ faces. Go, look. The picture is a reminder of why I love baseball. And a reminder of how much I missed baseball over the winter. Nothing brings out the inner child in a Major League Baseball player, or a fan at the game, more than a walk-off home run, and the customary wait at home plate for the man’s man who saved the day.

I draw your attention above to #43, Miguel Cairo. The ageless Miguel Cairo, now in his sixteenth Major League season, with his tenth team. He’s not even looking at Ramon Hernandez. He’s got his eyes on the prize, home plate, for when Hernandez leaps on it. And he’s also making sure Jonny Gomes doesn’t get too close. You see, that’s why Miguel Cairo’s lasted so long in this beautiful game of baseball. He gets it. And, years under his belt, having surely gone through the drill before, the look on Cairo’s face suggests he’s enjoying the walk-off experience for only the first time.

That’s the beauty of Opening Day. Year after year, it feels like the first time. This evening, I’m heading down to the Rogers Centre Skydome to get my Blue Jays on. Opening Night, a tradition like no other. Two years ago, Roy Halladay was on the mound for the good guys. Last April, Shaun Marcum. Tonight, Ricky Romero is the chosen one. And I’m going to sit back in my seat in Section 204, Row 3, Seat 102, and welcome back baseball. With the most open of open arms.

I’m not going to worry that this year’s version of the Toronto Blue Jays are, to these eyes at least, one giant question mark. For one night, I’m not going to worry about Adam Lind’s new position, first base, or whether he might regain his 2009 form at the plate. I’m not going to stress over which Aaron Hill is going to show up; 2009 Hill, good, lovable, 3.9 WAR Hill, or 2010, awful, .291 wOBA Hill. I’m surely not going to wonder whether Edwin Encarnacion, a few days ago Toronto’s 1B/DH, losing a few pounds — he’s in the best shape of his life! — means he’ll now be able to make the throw across the diamond, from third to first. (Miss you, Scott Rolen.) I’m most definitely not going to worry about Brett Cecil’s fastball, or that Brandon Morrow is on the disabled list to start the season, and, who knows, could miss more than the one start he’s scheduled to.

There’s more: I’m not going to wonder if this is the year Travis Snider puts it together; he’s still only 23-years-old. I’m not going to spend tonight wondering if J.P. Arencibia, the Catcher of the Future, is actually the Catcher of the Future. And I’m not going to put any added pressure on Kyle Drabek. He was traded for Roy Halladay. Harry Leroy Halladay III! And, hell no, I’m not going to fret over Jose Bautista, now otherworldly rich, and whether he can do it again.

Nope. Not going to do any of that. Instead, I’m going to sit back with 20 of my friends, play Loonies!, and ring in the John Farrell, and Rajai Davis, era with a tall, smooth, and extremely refreshing can of Bud Light Lime*. Probably two or three of them.

Game one isn’t for worrying. That’s what the other 161 are for. They’re home. Welcome back, Blue Jays. Welcome back, baseball.

* Don’t be a hater.

Written by Navin Vaswani

April 1st, 2011 at 12:08 pm

Road Trip: Hockeytown

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Playoff dreams often go to Detroit to die.

The Toronto Maple Leafs’ likely did just that this past weekend, as after landing in Motown on Friday afternoon only three points from the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and optimistic they could claw closer, Toronto is an overwhelming seven points back with six games to play.

- James Mirtle (The one and only.)

Fitting, no, that I, along with my fellow “Kadris,” were at Joe Louis Arena when, for all intents and purposes, the dream — 8th place — died its most recent death. No playoffs.

Saturday night, though, wasn’t depressing. Perhaps it was the alcohol, but our visit down to Detroit on a weekend in late March felt more like a celebration. For starters, the game mattered. It wasn’t supposed to. The youngest Toronto Maple Leafs team I’ve ever seen assembled had put together quite a second half run, clawing themselves back into the race, and ruining — well, hopefully, still –Boston’s hopes of winning the lottery. They may have lost 4-2, but Saturday night was the celebration of a rebuild, and a fete in James Reimer’s honour.

(It was probably the alcohol.)

Nemo’s

Nemo’s, on Michigan Avenue, in beautiful downtown Detroit, is where the evening began. The joint opened its doors back in the mid-60s, and is still going strong today.

Upon walking into the bar, five brown-skinned men and one Asian, we were greeted warmly by the Detroit faithful.

“Hey, look, the Kadris are here.”

From that moment on, we were indeed The Kadris. It’s no coincidence young Nazem scored the second goal of his career a couple of hours later. His supporters section went wild.

I’ll pass on the recommendation we received from a Red Wings fan who’d made the trip across the river from Windsor: A Ground Round burger with American cheese, fries, and a beer. After a meal like that, in a place like Nemo’s, you can’t help but want to chant: “USA! USA! USA!”

Once you’ve done your patriotic duty, hop on Nemo’s shuttle bus for $3, and be whisked away to Joe Louis Arena.

The Business

We found ourselves seated next to and around some of the most polite Red Wings fans ever. They were Canadian, obviously. Let’s be honest: If I was from Windsor, I’d root for the Red Wings, too.

Other than some good natured razzing at the rink, and by one buffoon at Lafayette Coney Island after the game, a good time was had by all. The highlight of the night might have been my boy Dee explaining to a fellow Leafs fan in the concourse that we were, in fact, related to Nazem Kadri. His emphatic response: “I KNEW IT!!!1″

You’ve heard it before: It’s a shame the Leafs and Red Wings don’t play each other more often. Well, it’s true. I can now corroborate this fact. The building’s paying audience is split down the middle in its fandom, and there isn’t much better than yelling “Go Leafs Go!” at the top of your lungs in between chants of “Let’s Go Red Wings!” She’s an older rink, the Joe, but she’s got character, and charm.

I’ve been to Maple Leafs games in Philadelphia, New Jersey, New York City, Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and now Detroit. The tilts in Philly and New Jersey were playoff games; we truly were the enemy, and were treated as such. Philly, to no one’s surprise, was the worst. It got racial, and there was some mild shoving. Fun!

I’d lump Detroit in with Pittsburgh, and Buffalo. It’s as Canadian a hockey experience you can get without actually being in Canada. The folks at the Joe know their hockey, they enjoy their beer, and they’ve been blessed for years with a fantastic, #winning team on the ice.

Needless to say, I’d recommend a visit down to Detroit. Stop by Caesar’s Windsor on the way. Spend the night. Don’t think of it as losing money at the Blackjack table. I don’t. I think of it as contributing to Windsor’s, and Detroit’s, battered economies.

Good Times

The older I get, the more I realize weekends like the one that just passed will only become fewer and further in between. Good friends, good times, incredible music, copious amounts of alcohol, along with healthy debates about religion, why I personally think all Hindus should eat beef, politics, and democracy. Cheers, fellow Kadris.

Looking back, there’s only one way the weekend could have been better. In a perfect world, the Leafs would have killed off the only two penalties they took.

Maybe next year.

Written by Navin Vaswani

March 28th, 2011 at 1:52 pm

March Sadness

with 12 comments

I won’t lie: I’m a NCAA hater. Basketball and football. I’ve never quite understood the incredible popularity of American college sports in Canada. Especially in Canada. Which means that every March, I abstain from the Madness. No bracket. I think I filled one out, years ago, and, in my hating, predicted zero upsets. I had all four number one seeds meeting in the Final Four. I hate fun.

A few days ago, during the second round of games, a friend of mine asked me why the hell everyone on Twitter was talking about brackets. More specifically: broken brackets. So I gave her the March Madness primer and, after detailing the tournament’s minutiae, I said: “On the surface, this tournament sounds amazing.” So, why, all these years, haven’t I been filling out a bracket? After much deep introspection, I haven’t come up with a good answer. Haters, as the saying so famously goes, gonna hate.

I’ve never found the basketball all that appealing. Yes, the intensity’s unmatched, but the quality, at least to a casual ball fan like myself, hasn’t stood out. The games are either a blowout, or 35 minutes of rampant chucking, followed by, if you’re lucky, five minutes of, well, madness. And, in between those final five glorious minutes, timeouts. A maddening, pun definitely intended, number of timeouts. During March Madness, no timeout is left behind.

At the end of the day, I love gambling losing money. And March Madness is every gambler’s dream. So: I’m in. I’m going to continue not giving a shit about this year’s tournament, while quietly supporting underdogs Richmond and Marquette, but next year, I’m letting the Madness, and fun, in. If President Obama’s all over the Madness, so too should I be. Sign me up. Come March 2012, I’m filling out a bracket. I might even fill out two brackets. Maybe even three. Madness, indeed. Or, because it is a one-and-done tournament: Madness!!!1

Image courtesy Neil Wadhwa.

Written by Navin Vaswani

March 21st, 2011 at 11:54 pm

Time goes by so slowly

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It’s amazing how much I’ve come to neglect this space — this corner – of late. My excuse: I’ve devoted myself to the Adventures of Joe West. If you haven’t noticed, Joe West’s silhouette has replaced that of a batter in the NotGraphs logo. Since Joe West’s first adventure just over two weeks ago, that’s how far we’ve come.

Time, and Toronto, rolls on. Postseasons are about to officially be missed, and new seasons are about to begin. Death, and rebirth. The cycle of life, yo.

1. Opening Day is less than two weeks away. That is insane.

2. Back in the day, learning about the happenings of Spring Training meant waiting for highlights — awful looking highlights, camera angle wise, too — found in the depths of SportsCenter. Today, I know when Edwin Encarnacion hits a fly ball to the warning track immediately after he’s sent said fly ball to the warning track.

3. The coverage has increased at least a billion-fold, but I still don’t really care about Spring Training.

4. If Rajai Davis hits home runs, Rajai Davis can’t steal bases. The legend of Dwayne Murphy grows.

5. This time of year reminds me of one word, and one word only: Thaw. It’s a fantastic word. Say it out loud: thaw.

6. Ron Wilson starting J.S. Giguere in Miami was straight disrespectful to me as a Toronto Maple Leafs supporter. I’m stupid, but I’m not that stupid.

7. I like to think I’ve made peace with the Phil Kessel deal. That I support it fully, and am glad Kessel’s a Leaf. He’s 23. Kessel won’t be 24 until October. He’s a child! But every now and then, I suffer through fits of doubt. And I’ll be honest: defending Kessel, and the deal, is bloody exhausting.

8. You know who else is only 23? Carey Price. Thanks to The Score, I’ve watched a ton of Montreal Canadiens games this year. Price is for real. And he’s only 23.

9. Michael Cammalleri looks nothing like the Michael Cammalleri of 2009/2010, let alone the Cammalleri of 2008/2009. His struggles, injuries included, are what’s known as sweet justice for not signing with the Leafs.

10. I desperately — very, very desperately — want Nazem Kadri to succeed in the NHL. It would make my life easier.

11. Tomas Kaberle will play in Toronto as a member of the Boston Bruins Saturday night. Awkward. The Bruins are 7-2-3 since the trade, Toronto 6-4-4. Kabba’s got three assists in those 12 games as a Bruin, and he’s +5. But I’ve no doubt: Tomas misses home. If you’re at the game, I hope you remember that Kaberle is love. Give it up.

12. Brian Burke’s got to sign one of Tomas Vokoun or Ilya Bryzgalov. As much as I can’t really stand Ron Wilson, Burke owes it to his BFF to hook him up with at least one year of NHL-calibre goaltending. Imagine the freedom.

13. That being said, thank you, James Reimer. You’ve been the most pleasant of surprises.

14. My brother tells me I’m way too hard on Mike Komisarek. I say I can’t be hard enough. Worst.

15. I’m headed to Detroit next week to watch the Leafs take on the Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena. If you’ve got any Motor City recommendations, I’d love to read them.

16. I still can’t believe George Packer doesn’t have a Twitter account.

17. I can’t point out the date on a calendar, but I checked out on the Raptors season a long, long time ago.

18. However, this — DeMar DeRozan’s spin move, posterization of two members of the Utah Jazz — might be the play of the year. As always, the reaction from the bench is almost as great as the dunk itself.

19. Re-sign Bryan Colangelo already.

20. What’s up with Gaddafi and the tents?

21. If you’re ever in the Phoenix area during Spring Training, make sure you visit Salt River Fields at Talking Sticks. Incredible facility. I’ll have a post about the place up at NotGraphs in the coming days. And, yes, hanging out with the FanGraphs staff, the best and brightest baseball nerds, in the desert was just as fun as I imagined it would be.

22. Tell me that Toronto FC, led by locals Dwayne De Rosario and Julian de Guzman, will make the playoffs.

Image courtesy Ronnie Yip. Davisville Village stand up.

Written by Navin Vaswani

March 19th, 2011 at 5:40 am

Delusions of grandeur

with 6 comments

Over the past couple of weeks, as the Maple Leafs have rocketed up the standings, I’ve heard it on radio call-in shows, have read it in emails and text messages, and have even had it said to my face: “Don’t bother. They do this every year.”

“This,” of course, being Toronto’s late season sprint towards eighth place — the promised land — in the Eastern Conference, after the rest of the field got off to a head start.

“Don’t bother”? Really? Would you rather the Leafs didn’t, and continued to, you know, stink?

Personally, I can’t see how anyone, if they’re out there, isn’t over the moon about James Reimer, finally annointed Toronto’s number one goalie. The “deeply religious” and unassuming 22-year-old, who looks so goddamn comfortable between the pipes, as if he feels no pressure at all, has me thinking I need to find God. While Alex Ovechkin’s busy posting photos of Phil Kessel on Twitter, Nikolai Kulemin’s out-scoring his Russian comrade. Kulemin continues to improve, year over year. He’ll pot 30 this season, and I see no reason why he can’t be a 40-goal man in the years to come. Speaking of Kessel, chosen last by his peers in the all-star draft, only 13 players in the NHL have scored more goals than #81. Five of those 13 players have 28 goals to Kessel’s 27. It rings true about the all-star game, too: Draft Schmaft.

The list, headed by career years from Clarke MacArthur and Mikhail Grabovski, goes on. This isn’t a Leafs squad riddled with underachieving veterans and the Andrew Raycrofts and Vesa Toskalas of the world. This is the youngest Maple Leafs team I can recall, attempting to claw back into a race they were told they were out of months ago. This is fun, goddamnit, and I will enjoy every second of it.

In years past, when the Leafs did “this” before, the killjoys of the world complained that all it did was set Toronto back when it came to the draft. A valid point, sure, even though it wrongly assumes the Maple Leafs can draft decent talent outside of a top-10 pick. Considering Boston’s got Toronto’s first-round pick, I’m having a difficult time wondering why there would be any hesitation to step aboard the bandwagon.

The Maple Leafs are rebuilding. They always have been. Trading two firsts, and one second-round pick, for a proven first-round pick, didn’t make it not a rebuild. Nor did signing a couple of veteran defencemen in free agency, even though Mike Komisarek has turned out to be nothing short of the worst. But: Assets have been recouped. First-round draft picks, and prospects drafted in the first round. All of a sudden, Ron Wilson’s not so bad behind the bench. And Brian Burke’s work in the weeks leading up to the trade deadline was top-notch, or anti-Joe Nieuwendyk. Keith Aulie’s playing 20 minutes a night. Carl Gunnarsson’s playing between 23 and 24 minutes a night. Kessel’s leading the way. Don’t bother, my ass.

The way I see it, the Leafs could be playing out the stretch. In a perfect world, they’d be fighting for home-ice advantage in the playoffs, but the world is far from, and never will be, perfect. Meaningful Leafs games, that’s what these — tonight! — are. Or, as I like to call them, playoffs before the playoffs.

Update:

Leafs 3, Flyers 2. Playoffs!!!1

Image via this isn’t happiness.

Written by Navin Vaswani

March 3rd, 2011 at 3:58 pm