John Chidley A blog about reading, writing, pop culture and sports.


Tempest in a tea pot: thoughts on the Joe Cowley controversy

Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen was the voice of reason in the Joe Cowley controversy? Weird.

Last Thursday the Toronto sports blogosphere was aflame with controversy over a web article written by Chicaco Sun-Times beat reporter Joe Cowley titled “No, Canada, for MLB”. In short, it was about how the Blue Jays are a moribund franchise that should be moved.

As a Torontonian - born and bred -I had a very strong, knee-jerk reaction to reading this. After all, who is this guy? I don’t know him from Adam. Doesn’t he know that we’re the centre of the universe?

Reading Cowley’s Wikipedia profile did little to mitigate my rage. I mean, who wouldn’t be inflamed when he “protests” Canada by refusing to stand during the national anthem? The two incidents make him appear ignorant and ethno-centric.

However, after a day or two of reflection I calmed down. After all, Cowley clearly didn’t know what he was talking about. He was probably just trying to get a reaction from loyal Blue Jays fans.

This morning, Cowley appeared on the Fan 590’s Big Early with Don Landry and Gord Stelleck where he defended himself admirably, pointing out that his infamous remark that Toronto was “nothing but a city in a third-world country” was taken out of context.

However, Cowley stuck to his guns and reiterated his belief that the Blue Jays should be moved. He re-stated his beliefs that Venezuela deserves a team and that, aside from political reasons, it would work in Caracas, the capital of the country.

Cowley had addressed this idea in his article, with supporting quotes from White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen and pitcher Freddy Garcia. Both Venezuelans spoke about how popular a team would be in Caracas.

That’s entirely fair comment. It would be popular. Economically viable? No. Politically possible? No. Safe? Not even a little. But boy, there would be crowds.

Ask any Winnipeg Jets supporter – drawing a crowd isn’t enough. You need the backing of a strong business community. Caracas lacks that kind of legitimate financial support.

Also, let’s consider who he asked – two proud nationalists who, as fans, would undoubtedly love to see a major league team in their country. I can entirely sympathize. As a Canadian I love having a Major League Baseball franchise in my country, and am sorry that Montreal lost the Expos.

Hell, if my heart had its way every major Canadian city would be represented in the National Hockey League and MLB. It just isn’t a realistic desire.

It’s worth noting that neither Guillen or Garcia said that the Jays should be moved there or that the Toronto franchise should be moved at all. They just said that they’d like a team in Venezuela.

Guillen did speak about how the dwindling fan support, compared to the Jays dynasty of the early 1990s, is a sad state of affairs. Again, I agree. It is sad. But the White Sox manager never explicitly said that the team should be folded or relocated. He was just commenting on the rather pathetic attendance figures.

As for Rios’ and his claim that “There's that small group of diehards, but it’s hockey, hockey, hockey. It’s gotten sad here. They just don’t really care.” It’s hard to believe that he doesn’t have some resentment toward Toronto after he was put on waivers by the Blue Jays last season.

Jays fans certainly don’t like him: he had been booed during each of his at-bats over the course of the four-game series.

At the end of the day, I think Cowley’s article reads like a combination of someone with an agenda to push and someone looking for some cheap heat, trying to get a rise out of a beleaguered fan base to generate some hits for his web presence.

In all honesty, I’m sorry to have wasted 639 words on this “news”. Cowley’s already gotten enough attention for his ill-considered article.


Major League Baseball needs to adjust its clocks

Derek Jeter taking a break between swings.

Although I’m just 26-years-old there are times when I feel old and curmudgeonly. Recently, my complaints have been directed at Major League Baseball’s handling of “event” games, whether they are the World Series, the World Baseball Classic, the All-Star Game or Opening Day.

All of these rather significant baseball games start way too late, they’re filled with time-consuming theatrics and the play itself seems to move at an incredibly slow pace. It makes me feel like an old crank shaking his walking cane at those damn kids who won’t get off my lawn.

However, reported Thursday morning that at least two MLB umpires - Joe West and Angel Hernandez – agree with me.

The two officials are members of the crew that have been calling the opening series between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.

“They’re the two clubs that don't try to pick up the pace,” said West in the article. He is the chief of the umpiring crew and was behind home plate on Sunday. “They’re two of the best teams in baseball. Why are they playing the slowest?”

“It’s pathetic and embarrassing. They take too long to play.”

Amen, Joe West. Amen.

Hernandez refused three requests for timeouts during Tuesday night’s game. New York’s Derek Jeter, Marcus Thames and Boston's David Ortiz were all denied a pause from the ‘action’.

Despite West and Hernandez’s efforts to quicken their glacial pace, the Yankees and Red Sox first two games clocked in at 3 hours and 46 minutes and 3 hours and 48 minutes.

Maybe baseball players don’t have to work the next morning, but most people do. How is baseball supposed to cultivate a new audience of young fans when any responsible parent would be sending their kids to bed hours before these games lumber to an end? How are the paying customers expected to sit through nearly four hours of slow play?

Commissioner Bud Selig must find a way to curb these seemingly interminable games. Broadcasters must be haemorrhaging viewers with these lengthy match-ups and in the long run it’s going to shrink baseball’s market share.

Selig should move the time of the game up. Both games in the New York-Boston series were slated to start at 8 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time. How about moving the opening pitch up to 7 p.m.? At least that way the game will end on the same day, barring extra innings.

That’s another thing – when I say “opening pitch”, I do mean the first throw of the game. Not a fly over by the Air Force, the unfurling of a gigantic flag in the outfield or a performance by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys. If you must have all that pageantry, start it at 6 p.m. with the game itself beginning an hour later.

I know that this would effectively cut the West Coast off, but does Selig really want to be developing Yankee and Red Sox fans in California? Shouldn’t they be cheering for the five teams they already have?

Also, the most important part of any sporting event is the final result, and the Pacific Time Zone won’t be robbed of that. A Californian baseball fan who gets off work at 5 p.m. would only be missing the first half of the game.

Major League Baseball is famous for being slow to adapt to change, but enforcing a more reasonable time frame for their games is a pressing concern that Bud Selig should address sooner rather than later. After all, the clock is ticking.


Forget robins, fantasy baseball is the real sign that spring has arrived

Spring is in the air and so sports fans everywhere are turning their minds to the Boys of Summer, to baseball.

Unfortunately, the Toronto Blue Jays appear to be on the verge of another frustrating season. So I’m focusing on fantasy baseball.

Sure, I still have a seasons pass to all the Jays’ games, but it’s more satisfying to root for teams that I have some measure of control over, teams that won’t have to shed salary or ever let go of Roy Halladay.

Come late August some of my teams should be vying for a playoff spot. I can’t say the same for Toronto.

And I’ve got a lot of opportunities for championships as well – I’m now the commissioner of three leagues, with teams in another three pools.

The breadth and depth of my 2010 fantasy baseball experience will be pretty wide too. I’m in rotisserie leagues, a keeper league, an auction-style draft, an auto-draft as well as some good old fashioned head-to-head scoring.

For anyone who has never participated in fantasy baseball, I highly recommend Sam Walker’s Fantasyland. It’s an excellent introduction to the history and characters of the non-sport.

Walker is the senior special writer and sports columnist for the Wall Street Journal. He decided to give fantasy baseball a try after getting burnt out by the constant allegations of steroid use and exponential growth of salaries in the real-life game.

Taking a sabbatical from his day job, Walker put together a small front office comprised of a NASA statician, a head scout and an astrologer, all in an attempt to best the cream of the fantasy crop in the Tout Wars – a league for the experts who write the websites, magazines and books that the average fan consults.

Spending thousands of dollars on his staff, flights to the Grapefruit League and consulting with the actual players on his team, Walker guides the reader through the world of fantasy baseball.

It’s a really humorous and informative read as Walker takes an unorthodox approach to rekindling his love for America’s pastime.

I’m not as wary of baseball as Walker was, and I’ll never put that much into my fantasy teams. However,  I am frustrated with some aspects of baseball, particularly the struggles of my local squad.

Fantasy baseball gives me a forum to follow other corners of Major League Baseball and channel some of my fandom into more fruitful avenues.

For the next two days I’ll be going over fantasy baseball kits and magazines and running mock drafts to try and get a feel for which players I should be taking and when. I’ll be putting together crib sheets and analyzing my opponent’s tendencies.

Opening Day is all about a renewed sense of hope, as all teams start on an equal footing. This year, however, I’ve got seven teams to follow, not just one.


Toronto has two strikes against it for most professional athletes

Former Toronto Raptor Tracy McGrady recently enlightened Torontonians as to why he left the Raptors.

This summer could be particularly heart-breaking for fans of the Toronto Raptors as they face the prospect of forward Chris Bosh, arguably the best player the team has ever seen, leaving the city as a free agent.

Toronto Blue Jays fans can sympathize with their basketball neighbours – this summer they lost ace Roy Halladay in a lopsided trade with the Philadelphia Phillies and Seattle Mariners.

It’s a familiar story for Torontonians. One of their teams will draft a player who becomes a star, but the franchise player eventually begins to grumble and complain about greener pastures, eventually demanding a trade or letting their contract expire and moving on via free agency.

Fortunately, NBA All-Star Tracy McGrady, a former Raptor, was in town and shed some light on the topic during a shoot-around with his teammates on the New York Knicks.

“Some guys do it for different reasons,” McGrady said. “[Bosh has] been here for quite some time now, and he's personally been successful. The team really hasn't done that much.”

And that’s the problem – teams in Toronto struggle against American competition. There are two main reasons for this:

1.       The taxes in Canada limit team’s options when it comes to free agency.

Any professional athlete in a major sport (basketball, baseball, hockey) is going to earn in the high six figures.

In the United States, that would put them in the highest tax bracket, where they’d have to pay about 4.3% of their annual income to the federal government.

Employees in Canada who earn more than $126,264 pay 29% of their annual income to the federal government.

That is a jarring disparity. An athlete who earns $10 million per year on the Blue Jays or the Raptors would have to pay $2.9 million to the taxman. In the United States that same athlete would have to pay $430,000.

It’s tough to compete with other teams for prized free agents when they player will be losing 29% on the dollar just for signing on the dotted line.

2.       Teams in Toronto offer less media exposure, making it a less attractive option for players.

Toronto is the biggest media centre in Canada, and actually stacks up pretty well against other North American cities in terms of population (fifth largest city, eighth largest metropolitan area).

However, sports teams based in Toronto get the short end of the stick when it comes to being televised on American networks.

Without a high profile in the United States an athlete can’t capitalize on their secondary source of income – endorsements and sponsorships. For example, Chris Bosh was drafted in 2003, the same year as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony. However, Bosh doesn’t even rank in the top 15 for jersey sales, and neither does Toronto for team sales. By comparison, all of Bosh’s draftmates rate highly on the list, even though they play for teams in smaller markets.

It all boils down to money. Professional athletes lose significant amounts of income from both of their main revenue sources, which makes Toronto a tough sell.

Some of you may be wondering why I haven’t mentioned hockey, a sport that has six teams in Canada? Simple, really.

Most hockey players are Canadian, and so they’re used to heavy taxation. The second largest group of players in the National Hockey League are European, who are also used to high taxes.

Beyond Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, most players don’t expect, hockey players aren’t expecting much revenue from endorsements and sponsorship.

Also, the fact that there are six Canadian teams mitigates the lack of coverage in the United States - ESPN can ignore the Raptors and Blue Jays because they’re the only Canadian teams in the league, but when there’s at least one Canadian team playing every night and every franchise prominently features athletes from Canada, they’ve got no choice but to acknowledge non-American teams.

As an aside, all this adds to the fact that the Buffalo Bills, or any other team NFL team, would not work in Toronto.

All this is to say that in leagues where there is only one Canadian team (NBA, MLB and the MLS) there is a nearly unique set of challenges that face franchises based in Toronto.  When the Raptors, Blue Jays and TFC struggle in the standings and begin to lose marquee players, it’s probably because they’re not grappling with the reality of the market.

Sure, a team can draft a young prospect, but it’s tremendously difficult to put together a team that can contend for the championship when so many players see Toronto as an undesirable city to play in.


Graphic Novel Review – Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow by James Sturm and Rich Tommaso

I was wandering through my local library when I saw the name “Satchel Paige” on the spine of a graphic novel and was immediately intrigued. The legendary pitcher has always interested me and I wanted to learn more. Even though it was written for young adults I borrowed it, figuring it was worth a look.

It turns out that I’d picked a fantastic piece of work by independent comic stars James Sturm and Rich Tommaso. In their hands the plight of African American sharecroppers in the Jim Crow south and the magic of Satchel Paige comes to life.

If you’re not familiar with Paige, then you’re missing out on a nearly mythical figure in American history.

Argued by some as the greatest pitcher of all time, Paige claimed that he had pitched in 2,500 games and won 80% of them. Of course, his claims can’t be verified since, as an African American, he couldn’t play in the major leagues until Jackie Robinson had broken the colour barriers, and Paige was in his 40s. Baseball historians have since confirmed that he won at least 291 games between various leagues across the United States and Carribbean.

Tomasso uses sepia tones picked out with heavy black ink to render the tale of Emmet Wilson, his son Emmet Jr. and, of course, the legendary Paige. His style is reminiscent of children’s illustrators of the 40s and 50s like H.A. Rey of Curious George fame or Ezra Jack Keats’ Snowy Day.

Relying on a straight forward six panel frame for most of his pages, Tomasso’s art is well-paced. In particular, the baseball games are very exciting and are a nice mix of extreme close-ups, expansive double-wide panels and reaction shots. (Click here to read the first ten pages online)

At first, Tommaso’s plain, two-toned artwork seems too simple for the subject matter. However, he handles graphic images like the lynching of a sharecropper with great sensitivity. Tomasso deservedly won an Eisner Award in 2008 for his work on the book.

Sturm’s script draws the reader in and creates a real sense of tension, particularly surrounding the menacing Jennings twins who seem capable of anything.

He also does a good job of differentiating between the latent racism of Southern society represented by segregated baseball fields or the paternalistic Mr. Jennings and the blatant hatred of his twin boys who engage in violent hate crimes.

Most impressively, Sturm handles the enigmatic Paige with a rare touch that maintains his mystique while making him into an early champion of racial toleration. The penultimate scene where Paige faces down the bigotry of the Jennings brothers is a slow, simmering burn that the reader can savour.

The Center for Cartoon Studies commissioned this book, and they deserve full credit for putting together a wonderful package that includes online resources like samples of Tomasso’s draft work and other tools for teachers. Of course, they also put the Sturm-Tomasso tandem together which is what makes the book great.

Although geared towards adolescents, Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow is an enjoyable, light read that doesn’t shy away from some tough subjects. Sturm and Tommaso are deft storytellers that express a myriad of emotions with minimal words and art.