Silence of the lamb

A controversy has rocked the Maple Leafs on the eve of what should have been the most joyous of moments – returning to the playoffs after a nine-year wait.

All of a sudden, one of the team’s top snipers, Phil Kessel, went silent and dodged the media the day before the team was set to fly out to Boston for game one.

Kessel’s surprising change of pace will no doubt leave the Leafs reeling, and couldn’t have come at a worse time, as “top” centre Tyler Bozak struggles through an upper-body injury.

“His eloquent verbiage is, without question, one of his finest attributes,” said Dion Phaneuf, the second most well-spoken player on the team.

“For Phil to abandon such magnificent vocal leadership at our greatest time of need is a treason from which we may never recover,” he continued.

* * *

Hah. Okay, back to reality.

After the hockey writers in the Centre of the Universe descended on Phil Kessel for not speaking to the media following a practice, we’re left with one nagging question:

Why?

Just what exactly did they expect?

Was what Kessel did right… or a smart thing to do? No. He just made things worse for himself in the long run.

But do we really need to drag him over the coals for it? Also no.

I suppose Toronto media has shown a certain fondness for well-spoken athletes. Mats Sundin was quite well spoken, and quite well treated as a result. R.A. Dickey has stolen the hearts of local writers – he even wrote a book himself!

But just because a guy doesn’t feel like talking doesn’t mean he should given such a hard time, even if it is part of his job (we all conveniently fake a sick day once in a while, no?)

If we really want accountability we should focus our frustrations on something more practical.

For example, why aren’t referees forced to speak with the media after games?

Or better yet, when Gary Bettman hosted an XM radio show, why were all the callers pre-screened with nothing negative to say?

Those are the cones of silence we should question. Not why some shy, distant 25-year-old hockey player is trying to avoid giving boilerplate answers to a swarm of people he doesn’t like.

Kessel’s gonna Kessel. Just leave it at that and move on.

Safe, for the moment

 

As Someone Great by LCD Soundsystem shudders through your eardrums it’s easy to get swept up in the emotion.

It’s funny though. While the lyrics are very sad, the bouncy electronic beat does something to keep that sadness from completely overwhelming you.

I never got to see the group play live. In fact, I only really started to listen to with more than a passing interest after their break-up. The great thing about music though, is that even though the band no longer performs, their creative efforts will live on forever.

The song is by no means one about a baseball pitcher. It’s probably fair to say it’s open to interpretation, but it’s about something much heavier, and darker than baseball – that’s for sure. But lately when I listen to it I picture Roy Halladay – or more specifically his career and his struggles at the start of this season.

Few things have been as hard for me to watch in sport as Halladay’s struggles early on.  He seems to have gotten back (more or less) to his old self now, but carrying a 14.73 ERA through the first two starts was unsettling to say the least.

Halladay’s decline, for me, is one that really chews at your core and makes you contemplate the end of all great things. It’s the clear signal that things you once knew and made you comfortable will not last.

For years, tuning into a Halladay start was a given. You could sit down, crack a couple beers, and settle in for a lesson in pitching. A complete game was a likelihood, and maybe even a shutout.

Even when it came time for him to move on to the Phillies – a team the Jays beat for their second World Series title – it was hard not to just sit and stare at the things he could do with sheer joy. It only seemed to get better as he left. The perfect game. The playoff no-hitter. It was always sensational.

To tell the truth I saw it coming…

But nothing can prepare you for it,

Of course there was writing on the wall. He’s 35 now, and he’s thrown over 2,700 big league innings. His spring was dreadful, and he faltered at times last year. His walk rate went up and his HR/9 crept up over 1.00 for effectively the first time in his career (meaning: since 2001).

Greatness will come to pass, and when it’s gone there will be a void. Nothing lasts forever – and it was never meant to – and while it’s easy to focus on the end, celebrating the past is just as important.

Part of the problem though, is that watching Halladay pitch for so many years in Toronto did for me what The Wire did for other TV shows. It set a standard so high, and so perfect, everything after it seems pale in comparison. It jaded me to everything else.

With someone new I could have started,

Too late, for beginnings.

And I’ve tried to find solace. Game of Thrones is a fun show. I love watching Clayton Kershaw starts. But it’s never going to be the same. Halladay and The Wire weren’t like the others, because they never missed – at least not to me.

Of course if I hadn’t seen Halladay as a Blue Jay for so many years, would I have felt the same way? Doubtful.

I can appreciate that he maybe isn’t the best ever. Pedro Martinez could do unreal things with a baseball, and I’ve heard that Koufax guy was a bit of a pitcher in his day.

But they didn’t do it around me and their successes never shaped my fandom. Halladay was so good, and so consistent, you were surprised he was human, and that’s what makes the fall so hard to watch.

His decline may be coming more quickly these days than we’d like, and for fans like myself it’s important to accept that. But if we keep those memories close, it’ll be like he’s never gone.

 

Besides, he’s pitching just fine for now.

We’re safe, for the moment.

Saved,
For the moment.

Just drop it.

A chorus of stupidity cascaded across the golf world this weekend over a rules violation, and the whole situation couldn’t have been more perfectly ironic.

On Friday at Augusta Tiger Woods broke the rules when he took a drop not “as nearly as possible” to where he’d played his third shot on the 15th hole.

He broke the rule because he signed for a 71 instead of factoring in the drop penalty before signing. Tiger claims to have confused two rules, which lead to the mix-up.

The decision was initially cleared by the rules committee, but was later revisited, and overnight they changed their minds, and he was docked two shots as a penalty.

Everyone is up in arms over this because up until two years ago signing an incorrect scorecard would mean immediate disqualification. But a recent rule amendment (33-7) has allowed for flexibility in these cases. This has now easily become the precedent setting case.

What’s so perfect about the way this drama is unfolding is the high profile cast and setting. Tiger, Augusta, and old Nick Faldo making his case to be king of the crazies.

I like Nick Faldo. He was a great golfer in his hey day, and a well-spoken guy, but after watching him and David Feherty debate the ongoing debacle on CBS I think we can safely say he’s a guy not worth listening to.

Effectively, the Masters officials decided to employ this new rule that was designed exactly for this type of situation – where increased scrutiny lead to punishment.

Yet here was Faldo, railing against the new order of golf, frothing at the mouth over how the history of the game was being violated.

He said that Woods, like so many players before him who signed an incorrect card, should be held to account like they were, and disqualified from this year’s tournament, calling the situation “black and white” (an interesting turn of phrase).

Yet, Faldo seems oblivious to the grey areas. Back 20, 30, 40 years ago cameras didn’t hover behind players documenting their every move like today. Furthermore, the amount of scrutinizing eyes has grown as you can watch the Masters from pretty much anywhere with an internet connection now. Anyone can call in and report a violation.

Faldo’s opinion of the event immediately started losing credibility when he referred to “the world tweeting thing”. His whole episode showed a dated, out of touch viewpoint that is not good for golf.

Faldo just doesn’t get the whole “world tweeting thing”… I can’t say I blame him.

Faldo spoke of the need to be caretakers of the game, and passing along the traditions to the next generation, and it’s certainly admirable and well intentioned I’m sure. But such a staunch defense of the old guard is simply contributing to golf’s image as a staid, elitist, and inaccessible game.

That he was preaching this drivel from the confines of Butler Cabin made this all the more hilarious, and ironic.

Augusta National is one of the great bastions of conservatism. It’s a golf course that only started admitting women as members a year ago. It also once had a policy that all caddies be black. So that the rules committee at this course, of all places, chose to change their tack is a welcome breath of fresh air.

Some will argue this is a case of Tiger getting special treatment – but it doesn’t matter. The precedent is now set, whether Faldo likes it or not.

But what makes this so excruciatingly dumb is that all of this is being done above board. This is the proper way to interpret the rule, but just the first high-profile case, so a few cages were bound to be rattled.

To his credit though, later on Faldo seemed to have accepted that he was wrong and softened on his stance, which is a respectable (and difficult) thing to do.

But the whole episode showed that sentiments like his are still pervasive throughout the game, and there are no doubt others deriding this is as a violation.

I’m less inclined call it a violation, since it looks more like evolution. And watching golf evolve – in Georgia of all places – is a remarkable thing to see.

Pay dat man hees money

It must suck to be PK Subban right now – or Jamie Benn, or Ryan O’Reilly.

These guys ride out the lockout, only to have hockey come back, but their teams are then unwilling to sign them.

Don’t worry, we can all still blame Gary Bettman for this somehow, I’m sure. But that’s neither here, nor there at this point.

PK probably banked a little coin doing his Sportsnet TV spots, so I’m sure he’s not too strapped for cash yet, but at some point he’s going to need to paid, so let’s figure out just what he should earn.

Here’s PK’s last two years with the Habs (which other than two games in 09/10 is all of his NHL experience):

Games

G

A

P

PIM

+/-

2010-11

77

14

24

38

124

-8

2011-12

81

7

29

36

119

9

 

Here’s a mystery player’s numbers from last year:

Games

G

A

P

PIM

+/-

2011-12

82

12

26

38

39

-7

 

Those look an awful lot like PK’s numbers!?

But it gets better… the mystery player’s contract is seven years, with a $4.35M/yr cap hit.

The mystery player is also Jack Johnson. Aside from a bit more time in the box those two are carbon copies.

Now, it’s not Montreal’s fault that some irrational GM came along set the bar too high for average defensemen like Jack Johnson. But if there’s one thing I’ve come to understand about the business of hockey today, it’s that there are lots of idiot GMs out there running up the market value for average players.

Now, of course there are other case studies. Michael Del Zotto posted a nice year last year:

Games

G

A

P

PIM

+/-

2011-12

77

10

31

41

36

20

 

In the end, he settled for a two-year deal with a $2.5M cap hit, but he also split 2010-2011 between the AHL and NHL.

Plus, you could argue PK has a bit more pedigree than Del Zotto what with being an OHL standout, World Junior player, and an NHL All-Star. Being the face of the Canadiens’ marketing campaign doesn’t hurt either.

The other thing is PK should get paid now and get paid a lot if he can. These guy’s careers can be lost to freak injuries in an instant (see: Trent McCleary), so it’s always better to pull a DiPietro and cash in early.

So, stick to your guns PK.

Montreal, we get it. It’s a bit unfortunate for sure, you don’t have to like the market rate for top four defensemen, but at some point it looks like you are going to have to “pay dat man hees money”.

 

Or trade him, I guess.

The Vodka Diaries

Not Mikhail Grigorenko.

It’s always hilarious hearing quotes from Russian hockey players translated into English.

An article from rt.com has a great one from Mikhail Grigorenko reacting to news that a coach of a local club in Ufa called out the junior team for partying too much.

“Who is he? A coach? Of what club? Tolpar? Never heard of such!”

Classic.

Not giving the kid a hard time or anything, because Russian doesn’t exactly translate that well to English. I mean, they don’t even use articles, like ‘the’… but it’s still a funny one nonetheless.

But back to the bigger issue. Were Russian players legitimately out late partying before the gold medal game? If so, get a grip, you boozehounds. There’s plenty of time to drink your face off when you get the win.

Update:

Some sleuthing around the internet (read: Wikipedia) has led me to a discovery. Tolpar Ufa is in fact a real hockey team. They seem to be playing in an OHL-like junior league, founded in 2009 (this could explain why Grigorenko was unaware of them). They also appear to be the farm team (of sorts) for Salavat Ufa of the KHL.

Man’s gotta eat.

Well, the Earth is spinning off its axis again. Connor McDavid, the 15-year-old phenom for the OHL’s Erie Otters is set to sign an endorsement deal with Reebok.

Apparently it’s a multi-year deal, which sounds like it’ll take him through to “when and if he is in the National Hockey League.”

This is good, because I’ve been waiting for the day I could walk into Canadian Tire and buy a hockey stick named for a player who can’t drive a car.

Really, there’s so much else to say, but lyrics from my favourite songs by The Roots come to mind:

You don’t see that somethings wrong? Earth’s spinnin outta control.
Everything’s for sale, even souls. Someone get God on the phone.

Hello, hello, hello… 

Yeah that sounds about right.

Okay, maybe I’m being dramatic. Good on the kid for getting paid.

The European Solution

Interesting story today out of the soccer world. Seems UEFA has decided that Euro 2020 will be held across the entire continent, rather than limited to a specific country (or two in last year’s case).

I both love and fear this decision all at once – if it’s at all possible to do such a thing.

At this point, the details are a bit hazy on this story, but it’s initially been suggested that up to 12 countries could host the tournament. This is not at all what I fear. In fact, a pan-European tournament is an idea I can get onboard with. Who gets to host the party is the concern…

It’s no secret the Eurozone is struggling right now.  The potential for fiscal tensions to develop between countries that pull their economic weight (ie. Germany) and countries that don’t (ie. Greece, Italy, Spain) could potentially get worse into the next decade. So, a future celebration of the game and European integration could do wonders for the continent.

Plus, given how well connected Europe is (both by rail and air) logistical problems seem like they won’t be an issue. If it’s truly and completely “across” Europe, there may be some time zone issues as the stages progress. But, even then the effects wouldn’t be dramatic.

Besides, the US hosted World Cup ’94 across a massive continent and it went off fairly smoothly.

 * Sidebar – Bonus points for anyone who remembered Bulgaria finished fourth in that tournament. Who knew?

The real concern will be which countries end up getting the nod to host games. Hosting an event like Euro or the Olympics, or whatever, represents a massive opportunity for development in the country.

When Poland and the Ukraine hosted Euro 2012 massive infrastructure upgrades were needed to accommodate the huge influx of tourists. I know this because I was travelling in Poland in 2011 and every single train station I happened across was getting massive renovations.

Everyone I talked to basically said it was because of the Euro tournament. Even cities like Katowice, which didn’t actually host games, were able to get in on the action:

(Click to enlarge)

 

Plus, Warsaw got a pretty ballin’ looking stadium on the river out of it:

(Click to enlarge)

Would there have been improvements to these facilities without the Euro tourney? Probably. Especially considering the European Union funds development projects for new members all the time. But, hosting the tournament gave the perfect excuse to get the ball rolling and do an expansive job.

It’s a similar idea to Brazil hosting the next World Cup and Summer Games. It’s a logical decision that gives them a good reason to do lots of practical things.

So, when the 2020 tournament rolls around, picking the right locales will be an opportunity not to be wasted.

For example, England has said they want to host the final. Possibly at Wembley… Thanks, England. We weren’t sure you’d be interested. I guess their economy is in the toilet as much as a lot of places, but having just hosted a wildly successful Olympics, maybe its better to gracefully step aside in this case.

Instead, hosting it across countries like Romania, Turkey, and Estonia, as it’s been suggested, would be an excellent chance for them to improve their infrastructure, soak up some tourism dollars, and just generally enjoy some exposure.

Europe as a whole will be better off for it.

The Ghost of Alpe d’Huez

Lance Armstrong is many things. He is a Texan. He is brash. He is a cancer survivor. He is a doper. But one thing he will never be is forgotten.

Of course, the president of the UCI, Pat McQuaid would like us to all develop a little case of selective Alzheimer’s and forget that Lance and the last decade of pro cycling ever existed: “Lance Armstrong has no place in cycling, and he deserves to be forgotten in cycling.”

The records, now stripped, leave a gaping chasm between the years 1999 and 2005 where the world’s greatest cyclist once reigned supreme.

But it’s a troubling idea to forget such a remarkable era of a sport’s history. Our memories are the foundation for everything in our life. We remember how to put our pants on in the morning, remember where to go to work, and we remember who we are and the people we love. Without these memories we are lost.

So where will cycling be if everyone just quietly goes about their business and pretends the “lost era” simply didn’t exist?

With Lance Armstrong being named and shamed by what seems like every rider of his era – both friend and foe – cycling is trying to move on, but in the process they are forgetting a piece of who they are – and what made the sport great.

Like it or not, Armstrong’s day was an absolutely incredible time to watch cycling. He put an entire sport on the radar in North America, and provided some of the sport’s greatest moments in the process:

– The frantic dash through a field when Beloki went down mere feet in front of him.

– Crashing when his handlebars caught an errant flag on a climb at Luz Ardiden, then recovering to win the stage.

– And then “The Look”. How could anyone forget? It was one of the great moments in sport when Armstrong glanced back, stared down a labouring Jan Ullrich, and said something to the effect of, “You will always live in my shadow,” before hammering to the top of Alpe d’Huez.

(Or perhaps enjoy this montage with an incredibly fitting – and ironic – Coldplay soundtrack:)

These are the very moments that enchanted an indifferent North American audience. They were exactly what were needed to captivate us and keep us coming back the next year.

Now we know they were all accomplished through the use of drugs. But were we not entertained? How many new cycling fans were born along with Armstrong’s wins? Then of course the countless others who took from his success a message of hope and optimism. Maybe it’s better to forgive than forget in this case.

Besides, how were the USADA and the UCI’s drug testing methods not more effective through these past two decades? Surely they, just like the MLB, could have done a better job cleaning their sport up. Or maybe they were just as happy to remain blissfully ignorant to the misdeeds while the sport made headlines and broke new ground in a lucrative market?

Regardless of who was in the wrong, the whole Armstrong debacle encapsulates the bizarre nature of drug culture in our society. It has a very strange existence, especially when it comes to sport, and the area of right and wrong is becoming increasingly grey.

For cycling, it’s EPO and blood boosting that live on the front lines of the war. For baseball it was “The Clear” and human growth hormone. Meanwhile cortisone shots and Red Bull are perfectly legal, socially accepted, not without adverse side effects – and certainly performance enhancing.

Of course, blood-boosting can be dangerous. There was a rash of deaths in the 80’s 90’s when the doping methods were new and not as well understood. But the stigmatization of drug use took a toll as well – Marco Pantani battled depression after doping allegations marred his career. He eventually died of a cocaine overdose.

Lance and company obviously just had it down to a science. The use of drugs enabled him to do amazing things, inspired millions and gave us something to cheer for. Now it should all be gone despite the positivity it brought?

It’s not to condone the actions, but why Armstrong is the only fall guy one can only guess. Sure, he lied many, many, many times. He is pig-headed as they come. But he wasn’t the first guy to do it and he’s certainly not going to be the last. He was just the best when doping was at its zenith, and he made the sport what it is today.

Really, the shadow will be cast very long and very dark over the lost era. Ullrich, Pantani, Basso, Contador, Hincapie and of course, Armstrong – all would-be legends now left with legacies in tatters.

But for what? The validation of an embarrassed UCI? We all embarrass ourselves through our mistakes. It’s how we reconcile them that shows our true colours. And frankly, the UCI is coming out a bit “yellow” on this one (pun intended). Pass the buck, blame Armstrong to save face. Perhaps a look in the mirror about how they handled the last two decades would be more fitting.

Next year’s Tour will be a moment to watch – if for nothing more than to see if some form of contrition come from above.

There are signs cycling is cleaning up its act. Ryder Hesjedal recently won the Giro d’Italia and his Garmin team is known for their strict drug-free approach to the sport.

But a jaded feeling has hung over this sport for so long, who even knows when it will lift. When the possibility of an advantage exists in a competitive setting, there will always be the whispers of transgressions.

So one can only wonder, next year, when a group of riders are hammering their way up Alpe d’Huez with their lungs on fire, will they remember the legends who rode before them, or will they choose to forget? One can only hope they don’t because it’s very much a part of who they are and where the sport goes from here.

Crazy ol’ Gene

So, a while back we learned a bit more about how Travis Snider’s career was more or less derailed by poor communication from Jays’ former manager Cito Gaston, and hitting coach Gene Tenace.

In a Sportsnet article by Shi Davidi, Snider reflected on what he was told on his first day in the bigs:

“Have you always finished your swing with two hands?’” Snider remembers (Tenace) asking. “I said, ‘Yes I have, my whole life.’

“He said, ‘You might want to change that if you want to stay at this level.’”

Funny that. Tenace seems to be a bit of a hypocrite (jump to 1:58 for the action):

Looks an awful lot like a two-handed finish to me.

Now, granted Tenace’s year with Oakland in ’72 he wound up hitting .225  with a .339 slugging percentage and an OPS of .646 in 82 games. Not the best numbers. So maybe he was telling Snider what NOT to do based on his experience. Who knows?

And to be fair, in Davidi’s piece Tenace does say he doesn’t remember what he told Snider. But, man… if Snider remembers correctly? Well, me thinks Tenace has got some explaining to do.

Just drinkin' some beers and talkin' some sports