Jays Fever Sweeps Canada

Jays Fever Sweeps Canada

It’s good to have people talking about baseball again.

Normally at this time of year, 100% of the Canadian sports fan focus is shifted towards the debut of the new National Hockey League season. Games are underway, and it typically seems as though all other sports fall by the wayside once the puck drops each fall.

As a massive baseball fan, it is the time of year where I find the small group of people to talk ball with, with those few others that watch my favourite sport right through to the end of the World Series.

There aren’t many of us, especially in the desolate outpost of Edmonton.

But not this year.

This year, there are the Toronto Blue Jays, giving us something to cheer about once again.

bj3After their massive trade deadline deals and rise to the top of the American League East, and then a great comeback to dispatch the Texas Rangers in the first round of the playoffs, the Jays are back, and have created excitement across the country.

People are Jays fans now. And they are talking baseball once again.

Many people would argue that it is a bad thing that there are so many bandwagon jumpers at this point in the year. People who had ignored the Jays for the past 20 years are now back, glued to their TVs with every pitch, and talking about the team non-stop. But it’s not a bad thing. It is creating a buzz, an excitement for the game that has been absent in Canada for a long time. This Jays run is creating a new generation of baseball fans, who are learning the game, and loving watching our nation’s only team win. The Jays, simply put, are making new baseball fans, and while there is no chance that all of them will stick around if the team is lackluster next season, there is a good number that will enjoy the thrills of the sport, and be hooked on baseball for life.

bj4Even out here in Edmonton, thousands of kilometers away from Toronto, perhaps the most despised sporting city in Canada, people are all in on the Jays. Car flags, men dressed in blue unitards on the streets with signs asking for honks to support the team, packed bars in the afternoon to cheer on every big play, and seemingly everybody willing to talk baseball for the first time in a long time, it’s a great thing to see. The country has rallied around the team. There are even concerns that our federal election will be affected by the Blue Jays Game 3 on Tuesday. That is some powerful drawing power.

It doesn’t hurt that the 2015 Blue Jays are filled with fun players with big personalities. They are an exciting team to watch, and have provided some thrills along the way already. The cheers ringing to the rafters of the local pub I was at during that magical 7th inning in Game 5 against Texas reminded me of other nation-unifying events, like Canada’s run to Olympic gold medals.

The Jays games are being watched in schools, on in the background, or as a centerpiece to the lesson of the day. It reminds me of being a teenager in 1992 and 1993, when the Jays were winning their World Series titles, and us students being loaded into the library to watch the game on a painfully small tube television, the only place in the school where cable TV was available. It was a great time, back then, watching them win it all in epic fashion.

And it has started off being fun again.

While they are in really tough with the Kansas City Royals- the one team I feel they match up poorly against- it should be an exciting ride as they try to win the American League pennant for the first time in over two decades.

Edmonton, as well as the rest of Canada, is on board.

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42 (Film Review)

42 (Film Review)

For any fan of baseball history, there are few moments more important to the game, and to the changing views of American society, than the introduction of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to even suit up and play Major League Baseball.

To this day, the MLB still celebrates Jackie Robinson day, a day in which every single player in the league wears number 42 on their backs to celebrate the trailblazer who changed the game forever when he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

It is completely unsurprising that there is a Robinson biopic, titled 42; it is more surprising that it took this long for there to be one.

42 is an all-around solid sports movie. It gives us our central characters, Jackie and Branch Rickey, the owner of the Dodgers who was so focused on winning and making money, that he decided to be the first professional baseball owner to break the colour barrier.

424What 42 doesn’t do, however, is provide us with much of a supporting cast of characters. There are brief glimpses into the lives of the men who managed Robinson, in both Montreal (the Dodgers AAA affiliate), and Brooklyn, and there are glimpses of some of the Dodgers players. But that’s about it. We don’t get to know anything about them at all, and the moments of them finally realizing that Robinson is on their team, and that they need to stand up for him no matter what come across as fairly run-of-the-mill. There is the vitriol of some players, and coaches, and managers, and fans that exist, and Robinson needs to overcome these things.

But it all seems a little bit too Disney. I feel that the real story is much darker, much harsher, and much more impressive an accomplishment than 42 portrays. We still get it that he overcome the longest of odds to become a legend, but the whole story seems pretty cleaned up, when it could have been absolutely brutal. At times, it seems like the writers and director of the film were wanting to make something more, that transcended more than just the game of baseball, but were wrangled into making a feel-good sports movie that would appeal to the largest possible audience.

422And there is the fault of 42. There are a thousand stories to tell about the arrival of Jackie Robinson, including what could have been much more focus on his teammates, and the rise of the Dodgers as a powerhouse team after his arrival. We are given the broad strokes of an incredible feat, and an incredible career. His time in Montreal is given a quick flyby, even though it historically was extremely important. His interactions and friendship with Hall of Fame shortstop Pee Wee Reese is glossed over to a few brief moments in the final film.

But those are superficial beefs, I suppose. Starting to watch 42, I knew that the film was not going to produce a gritty retelling of the legendary ascent of one of the game’s best players, and the revolution of the sport that happened after his arrival. I knew that it would be rife with cliches, and not offer the depth, or breadth, of the story that I would be hoping for.

Regardless, this is a strong film. It tells the story, which is the most important thing. For those who are younger, and don’t know his story, or the lasting impact that it has had, 42 is a good place to start. The film has good performances throughout, and allows us to get the general idea of what was happening in that time, and why this feat is so impressive.

423There are some really great moments in the film, those moments when you know that things are going to change, whether it is the attitude of the fans, or the owners, or the players themselves. The moment when Reese slings his arm over Robinson’s shoulders in front of a hostile crowd is one of those moments. And these moments are what make 42 so good: despite the desire to know more, and see more, we are given parts that really do justice to the story of Jackie Robinson.

At the end of the day, I liked 42 quite a bit. I don’t think it will soar to the heights of the greatest baseball movies of all-time, simply because I wanted more of the story. But it will stand as a good film about an important moment in the history of the game, and generally, it does a pretty good job of doing it.

The Battered Bastards of Baseball (Film Review)

The Battered Bastards of Baseball (Film Review)

This documentary had been sitting in my Netflix queue for quite some time, and I finally got around to watching the film made about a Class-A baseball team that started playing in Portland, Oregon, during the 1970’s.

And boy, was I glad I did finally watch it.

The Battered Bastards of Baseball is an exceptional documentary about baseball, about the minor leagues, about one man’s baseball dreams, a city embracing the ultimate underdogs, taking on the system, and having fun playing a game. It is definitely worth watching.

Bing Russell managing the Portland Mavericks in the Battered Bastards of Baseball documentaryWhen the Portland Beavers left for Spokane, the city had lost its AAA baseball team, and the sport was essentially dead in the Oregon town. But one man, actor Bing Russell (father of Kurt), decided that he wanted to bring baseball back to Oregon, in the form of an independent Single-A team, which he named the Portland Mavericks.

Russell was obsessed with baseball, and had spent his youth around the famous New York Yankee teams of Lefty Grove and Joe DiMaggio, and had spent some time playing in the minor leagues himself. He was a true student of the game, analyzing it to death, and going to far as to make baseball documentaries that would teach others how to play the game the right way. He wrote about how to play in every possible situation.

This was not some actor trying to recapture his youth, it was an actor with a baseball dream, and one that he understood incredibly well.

Buying an expansion franchise for a miniscule price, he held open tryouts for the Mavericks, which led to the team being stocked with a bunch of no-names and men whose dreams of baseball had seemingly died when they were never drafted or signed by a big-league club and allowed to play in their massive farm systems.

By being an independent team, meaning there was no affiliation with a major league club, meant that the Mavericks were going to be playing against developing major league players, and the bonus babies that the big teams had down in the minors, to learn the game. They would always play with a chip on their shoulder.

And the Mavericks made the big league teams look bad. Because they were good. Russell assembled a team that would win, playing their hearts out to prove that teams made mistakes in not drafting them at some point during their careers. They weren’t all pimply-faced college kids, as many A teams are, but a mixture of youth and veterans. But they all held one thing in common: they all loved baseball, and they just wanted to play.

Since there was no MLB affiliation, Russell had to foot the bill for everything himself. And it took some time to build up a fan base in Portland, but when they did, they set records. The city began to truly embrace their gang of miscreants, the team that would go out on the field, play the game the right way, and have a ton of fun doing it.

battered3The Mavericks didn’t play for long in Portland, because the Pacific Coast League, the largest AAA league in baseball, eventually decided that they wanted back into Portland after seeing the massive crowds that were attending the Mav games. Due to baseball legislation, they were allowed to do this, and they simply had to buy back the territory owned by the Mavericks. This lead to a court battle based on the price they needed to pay, and here we see Russell standing up to the PCL, because he had built up something incredible for the low minors, and they just wanted to take it away from him.

The return of the PCL signaled the end of the Mavericks, but their legend can now be seen by everyone. They set attendance records for A ball, the team had winning records that were unmatched, and some of the players from the team went on to do big things (including an Oscar-nominated bat boy, and of course actor Kurt Russell, who was a player on the team, the inventor of Big League Chew, and a pitcher who made it back to the majors). The Mavericks proved that even as the only non-affiliated minor league team in the country at the time, they could make it work, and they could play the game that they loved.

The story is told through interviews with some former players, the commissioner of the league, the bat boy, and others, and they all look back fondly at their time with the Mavericks. Their individual stories are great and compelling, as are the results of some of their lives.

This is an excellent documentary, and a definite must-see for any baseball fan. It shows the possibility of the love of the game, and has a great us-versus-everyone storyline that is undeniable. The Battered Bastards of Baseball is well worth the time to check out.

Goodbye Jeter, From a Sox Fan

Goodbye Jeter, From a Sox Fan

As a fan of the Boston Red Sox, I should hate Derek Jeter. All Red Sox fans should. He was a great ballplayer, one who tormented the Sox for years and years. During the heyday of the Yankees, he always had his hand in shattering the hopes and dreams of Red Sox Nation time and again, as he led the dreaded Yankees to five World Series titles.

jeter2But looking back now, now that we have won three World Series of our own, broken the Curse, and remained one of baseball’s most well-run organizations, it is possible to look back at the career of The Captain with some respect.

Had the Sox never come back from that 3-0 deficit in 2004, and never emerged as champs again in 2007 and 2013, Jeter would probably remain one of the most hated people among Sox fans. But finally, we overcame him and his team, and are champions ourselves, so now we can give him the respect that he deserves.

I know that he is being lauded as such, but I don’t think that Jeter is a top-5 Yankee of all-time. It is impossible to crack that list, with the truly impressive list of some of the best players of all-time sporting the pinstripes during their careers. Despite his Gold Gloves, he was never really the best defensive shortstop out there, and his bat would never destroy you. But his timing would. When there was an incredible play to be made, or a clutch hit to be had, it always seemed that it was #2 doing it.

Off the field, despite having an impressive list of gorgeous A-list girlfriends, a string of beautiful women leaving his apartment, he was never embroiled in controversy, as so many athletic stars are these days. He kept his nose clean, at least to the best of our knowledge. And this allows us to like him even more, because he never became a true villain in the sense of someone like Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens.

We were only able to hate him because he was good.

I watched his final game at Yankee Stadium the other day, and when he came up in the bottom of the ninth, it was almost guaranteed that he would do something. Hitting a walk-off single to secure a victory for his team was pretty much expected. Sure, they may have tossed him a ball that was easy to hit, but he still got it done. And that is all that matters. It was a perfect sendoff for a magnificent career.

jeterI always liked that he wore #2, now the final single-digit number that a New York Yankee will ever be able to wear, as his will be retired soon. Letting him have that number was a historic move, and he honoured it throughout his career. He does stand with the likes of Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, and Mantle, and that single number on his back was always a symbol of that, of his greatness.

Even as a fan of his most hated rival, it is easy to look at Jeter with respect, and some admiration. He had a great career, and in five years, it is all but guaranteed that we will be seeing him again when he is inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

It is a place that he belongs, among all the other greats of this amazing game, and as much as I don’t want to see another Yankee cap in bronze there, he deserves it, and he belongs there. Even just being the all-time hits leader on such a hallowed team is enough to get him in to Cooperstown, in my opinion.

In a season that served as a year-long sendoff for #2, it has become tiresome reading all of the articles about him. Seeing all of the strange, and somewhat cheesy gifts that teams presented him with over the course of his farewell tour. But now that it is over, with only two games left on his career (being played in Boston, no less), we can really look at him and appreciate what he has done for the game of baseball.

He played, he won, and he did it with class.

Congratulations to Derek Jeter on a great career. I won’t miss seeing you rip the hearts out of Red Sox fans, but I will miss having you be a part of baseball.

Because that’s where a true ballplayer belongs. A part of the game, forever.

Retooling the Red Sox

Retooling the Red Sox

The non-waiver trade deadline day was a bittersweet one for me, as a Red Sox fan.

It is time to admit that there will not be playoffs in Boston this season, but I can accept this “do poorly one year, make some smart moves, and compete every other year” concept that seems to be happening there over the past couple of seasons. There is no question that moves needed to be made this year, that the team assembled just wasn’t working out. There are significant gaps in that lineup, and some changes needed to be made.

The Red Sox ended up making the most moves on deadline day of any of the teams, getting back some good major league talent in exchange for some pretty central pieces of their championship team of a year ago.

And this is where the bittersweet feelings come in.

When the rumours surfaced that Jon Lester was on the trading block, I didn’t want it to be true. I know the way the Sox operate, that they don’t want to dole out massive contracts for aging players, but I wanted them to break their own rule for Lester. He is my favorite pitcher, and I have followed his career since he first started with the Sox and threw his improbably no-hitter right at the start of his career. I always figured that he would rack up a couple of Cy Youngs over his career, and while we still may be waiting for the awards, he has had some outstanding seasons and shown himself to be a great playoff pitcher in the Series wins in 2007 and 2013.

Oakland Athletics v Boston Red SoxFor me, Lester was the Red Sox, as much as Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz are. He was the core, and despite him coming up on 30 years old, I wanted him to remain with the organization for his whole career. Sure, there is talk that he could re-sign with the Sox in the off-season, but let’s be honest. That almost never happens, and there will be plenty of teams that will offer him the term that the Red Sox won’t, given his age. I just pray that he won’t end up on the Angels or Yankees.

If he had to be traded, I wanted him to be traded to the Pirates or the A’s, teams that I like, and that do still have playoff aspirations this year. In the case of the A’s, he now can join the best team in baseball, in hopes of leading them to a championship that has eluded them for 25 years.

It was surprising that the Red Sox managed to get back an All-Star player for Lester, given that teams are often looking for top prospects when the big names are traded. Instead, we are treated to a big player-for-player trade, that rarely happens in the MLB anymore. It made for exciting discussions, and while the loss of one of the best left-handed pitchers is crushing for the Sox and their fans, it was no secret that their outfield needed a lot of help.

I will miss Jon Lester, and while I will still cheer feverishly for the Red Sox, I know that they are done for the year. I will cheer along the A’s as they try to make their way through the postseason, hopefully making it back to the World Series.

Some thoughts on the other moves the Sox made:

  • Despite my sadness in losing Lester, I was happy for the return. Cespedes will fit nicely in the outfield, and he should be able to mash in the small confines of Fenway.
  • Surprised they traded John Lackey as well as Lester, but content that they got a couple of big leaguers back in Kelly and Craig. They are both having down seasons, but are “needed a change of scenery” candidates.
  • Glad they traded Jake Peavey. I never liked the deal that got him in the first place, and never felt like he fit with the Sox. Sure, he contributed to the World Series last year, but it was frustrating to watch him this year, because you knew he was going to give up at least one home run every time. He will do much better with the Giants, and being back in the NL.
  • Good return on Andrew Miller, getting a quality prospect.
  • I like the whole idea that they were not gutting the team and rebuilding. They are more doing a retooling, changing things on the fly.
  • They are going to have to go after some pitchers in free agency this winter. They need to try and sign Lester back, and should probably make a play for someone like Max Scherzer. They will need a top of the rotation starter at least, to give the kids coming up some breathing room and some lowered expectations.

I understand that the Red Sox needed to make some moves, and despite so many quality pieces being sent out the door, I understand what they needed, and so I would definitely qualify them as winners on this trade deadline day.

2014 MLB Second Half Predictions

2014 MLB Second Half Predictions

With the season half over, I went back over my preseason picks for the order of finish in each of the divisions. Sometimes with deep regret (sorry for picking the Rays to win the AL East), and some with some satisfaction (dead on in the AL Central). Of course, it is impossible to know what will happen at the outset of a season, but there are always strong indicators.

If you want to check out my original article, the 2014 MLB Predictions, find it here: https://gatsbyfuneral.wordpress.com/2014/03/22/2014-mlb-predictions/

There is some wisdom in there, and some foolishness. Here are a few thoughts on what I had guessed, and ideas for the second half in each division.

mlb2

AL East

Preseason Prediction: Rays, Red Sox, Orioles, Blue Jays, Yankees

  • I stated that I had considered picking the Orioles to win the division. Looks like I should have done that.
  • I still believe the Yankees could finish last here. Injuries are going to catch up to them, as are the underperformances of some of their big names. Sad to see Jeter go, however. As much as I despise the Yankees, he has been nothing but class for his entire career. Nothing bad to say about him, he is one hell of a competitor, and a great baseball player.
  • Do the Red Sox have it in them to turn around a terrible first half of the season? Yes and no. They will be able to make up some room, but I don’t see them getting back into it, even for the wildcard at this point. They are perhaps a third place team this year.
  • As usual, injuries are going to derail a Blue Jays season. So much promise, so little delivery. That’s what happens when you have a roster full of Band-Aids. Too bad, they can be a really fun team to watch when they are mashing like they can.

AL Central

Preseason Prediction: Tigers, Royals, Indians, White Sox, Twins

  • So far, I have this division picked exactly right.
  • I don’t see much changing here for the rest of the season. The main question is if the Royals can push for one of the wild card spots and end a playoff drought that has lasted since 1985.
  • The Indians are a solid ball team, but they are just the picture of mediocrity. At .500 thus far, they will probably continue that pace until the end of the year.
  • I think everybody and their dog picked the Tigers to win this division again. The talent there compared to the rest of the division is miles ahead.

AL West

a'sPreseason Prediction: A’s, Rangers, Mariners, Angels, Astros

  • Fairly surprised the Rangers are this bad. Sure, they are riddled with injuries, and that is impossible to predict. But they are just bad. Do they become sellers now?
  • The A’s are just a very good baseball team. Difficult to name a bunch of their players, but they make it all work.
  • A lot more competition from the Angels than I suspected. Trout is an absolute beast, and he is dragging the old guys along with him. Improved pitching has helped them out a ton. Who knew.
  • The Astros are going to be very good in a few years. They are a pretty exciting team, and there is an absolute ton of young talent there. Watch out for the 2018 Astros!
  • I think the A’s hang on to the division, and the Angels will now grab that wild card berth.
  • I love seeing the Mariners doing so well. It has been a long time since they have been a decent club. They will probably stay in the fight for the wild card until the end.

NL East

Preseason Prediction: Nationals, Braves, Mets, Phillies, Marlins

  • Well, my top two seem about right. I think the Nationals hang on and take the division. They are too good, there is too much talent there. I think the Braves will fade a little bit.
  • My order for the rest was messed up. I mentioned that the young Marlins had the potential of being really good, and I should have gone with that feeling.
  • It is impressive how inconsistent the Mets can be. They are definitely a third place team.
  • The Phillies are really bad at baseball at this point. So old. If I was their GM, I would be trading everything that wasn’t bolted down and loading up on prospects to build for the future. The Nats and Braves are going to be good for a long time, and Philadelphia needs to get on board with the youth movement.

NL Central

cardsPreseason Prediction: Cardinals, Pirates, Reds, Brewers, Cubs

  • I still think I could be right about this when it is all said and done. The Brewers were a huge surprise out of the gate, but I don’t think they can sustain that, and they will continue to fade as the year progresses.
  • The Pirates have started surging, and it is nice to see that they are now a team that won’t completely fold up when they have tough stretches.
  • This is definitely the toughest division, with the top four teams all within 3.5 games of one another. It will be tight right down to the end. There are massive benefits to winning the division instead of being faced with the one game playoff, but I don’t think the depth of the Cardinals will be beaten here.

NL West

Preseason Prediction: Dodgers, Diamondbacks, Giants, Padres, Rockies

  • Shame on me for picking Arizona to finish second in the division. They are terrible, and their manager is going to be the first one fired this season. The team is a mess.
  • I still think the Dodgers will prevail over the Giants in the division. They have a ton of depth, and they will probably do something ridiculous at the trade deadline to get another highly paid superstar. Maybe another pitcher. Would make them very scary in the playoffs.
  • Holy hot and cold, Giants. No way that they are as bad as they have been over the past month, but I don’t think they are as good as they were earlier, either. They will fight for the wild card.
  • This is a two team race. The Padres, Rockies, and D-Backs are out of this one.

Overall, I’d say I did alright with my choices. Could have been better, could have been worse. There were some serious blunders, but that happens to everyone, doesn’t it?

Playoff Predictions

nats
AL Wild Cards
: Red Sox and Royals. Nope and maybe? I’ll stick with the Royals grabbing one of them, with the other going to the Angels.

NL Wild Cards: Braves and Pirates. Hmm. I’ll stick with the Pirates, and go with the Giants getting the other one.

AL Champion: A’s. I’ll stick with the team with the best record in baseball right now. They do have questions, but they are just solid all around, and this could be their year. They will have serious competition from the Tigers and Angels, however.

NL Champion: Nationals. Hard to argue against the might of the Dodgers. But I will stick with the Nats.

World Series Champion: Nationals. Sure, why not?

Red Sox Lose 8 in a Row

Red Sox Lose 8 in a Row

What’s wrong with my beloved Boston Red Sox?

Coming off an improbably World Series victory last year, even the most feverish of fan had a tough time believing this group would be able to pull off the feat again. Because one of the key things about last season’s win was that it was improbable. Going from worst-to-first and erasing the stink of the Bobby Valentine era was something incredible, and they were a scrappy team that managed to get the big hits and clutch pitching exactly when they needed it.

Boston_Red_SoxThis season, after falling to 20-27 on the year, and last place in tough AL East, they are not getting the big hits when they need them most, and they seem to be falling behind early in games frequently. Not a good way to play the game. Despite some pretty bad numbers over the past month, I don’t think that the pitching is the real issue here. Sure, there are major question marks in their rotation: why can’t the team score runs when Jon Lester is pitching, or who knows what you are going to get when Jake Peavy is on the mound (answer: at least one home run against and a bunch of walks, it seems), what is wrong with Clay Buchholz this year (he is healthy, but not good), is John Lackey actually their best pitcher (nope, but sometimes he looks that way), and is Felix Doubrount actually good enough to be a No. 5 in the rotation?

This group is good on paper, but has been doing things that they didn’t last year. They are giving up early leads, walking too many batters, and giving up too many dingers. It is tough to play from behind all the time, especially when the hitting is struggling to push runs across the plate, as the Sox are this year. Being behind 2-0 is not a big deal. Being behind 2-0 seemingly every game is much more of a struggle.

Too many times this year, I will watch the Sox get runners on base, and then completely flounder. There are inning-ending double plays, weak fly balls, poor strikeouts, and they are all coming at the wrong time. There is nobody in the lineup at this point that is mashing, and nobody is there to get that key hit that can keep them in these games.

The 2014 Red Sox do not have a stellar offensive lineup, and the loss of Jacoby Ellsbury looks to be more stinging with every loss. But they aren’t getting him back, so they need to adapt. The Sox need to go back to being a patient team, working the pitchers, being patient at the plate, and taking their bases in any way that they can get them. Also, they are not a speedy team, which hurts, because with a stagnant offense like they have now, they need to try and manufacture some runs. Somehow, some way.

One of the many beautiful things about baseball is that the season is a marathon, and an 8 game losing streak does not eliminate them from the playoff chase. In fact, despite their recent slide, they are still only 6 games behind Toronto in the division.

But the time is now to get things going. Hoping for a miracle run will leave them with nothing but that empty hope. The Sox need to play with some urgency. 2013 is over. It was amazing, but it’s over, and they need to realize that to even have a sniff of a chance to play for the title again, they need to start making moves up the standings.

This team needs to start playing its heart out. And soon.