My computer was on my lap, coffee next to me, heat breathing through the screens that enclosed the porch. It was a warm September day, sky blue, baseball dominating the headlines: the kind of day that always marks the opening of Leafs training camp. Jonathan Bernier was on the screen—MapleLeafs.com provided a live broadcast of Media Day—but Mike Babcock’s voice powered through the speakers. Technical difficulties to start camp. Or, a not so subtle reminder: like a football coach at a big southern university, the new coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs is now a bigger presence than the players.
Mike Babcock exudes confidence. His Canadian accent is seasoned, like the thinking lines on his forehead, tracing back to Saskatoon, familiar to hard nosed fans, earning their trust. His hair swoops from right to left, as if only the perfect hand gesture could get it right, one, undoubtedly perfected, as Babcock does with all of his routines, and hopes to extend the same methodical approach to his players. The new coach of the Leafs makes you believe in what he is saying, not because you know he has been successful—and he has—but because of the way he looks at you, eyes colorless, not wanting to distract from the vibrant message he delivers.
Mike Babcock is trying to make Toronto a friendlier place, pushing back at the media who shove microphones and cameras into the players’ faces, print slandering commentary. He wants the players to feel safe. His first goal as head coach is to shield the players from the thousands of fans who line up around the block to get a glimpse of practice; the hounds of reporters, pen in hand, ready to scribble a juicy quote; the history, most unforgiving of all, ready to slap 1967 across their mugs. Toronto should be a great place to play, not an impossible one like it has become.
The 2015-16 Leafs enter camp caught between two universes, the Big Bang brought on by new leadership still taking effect. While there are many familiar faces, such as Dion Phaneuf and Tyler Bozak, there are a lot of new faces, too. And the personality of the group, as a whole, seems fitting: a little old, a little new, a lot of hope for resurgence.
Many of the players who lead the Leafs into practice this year, put their skates to ice and blade to pucks hoping to translate a successful training camp into pen on paper. Devin Setoguchi, Curtis Glencross, and Brad Boyes are on PTO contracts. If they make the team, cut the lineup, mark the scoresheet, during the season, their value will be temporary, perhaps tradeable, but sure in theme, resurgent. Five years from now if Brendan Shanahan and Mike Babcock’s vision materializes, we will look back at the 2015-16 Leafs as a strange team, one that started the turn towards glory without many of the pieces that became part of the glory days.
Then there are the few players who are very important to the Leafs long-term plan: Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner, and Morgan Rielly. Whether the Leafs lose 5-1 or win 3-2, the most important job for Babcock and his new staff will be to shape three young blue chips into core pieces. It’s too early to see the likes of Marner and Nylander on the big club, their development falls into the hands of Scott Pellerin and Sheldon Keefe, so it’s two blueliners and one center who always falls back to the wing for this professional season to mature.
The Leafs will probably stink this year. If they don’t, it will be because of names like Shawn Matthias, Mark Arcobello, Nick Spalling, Roman Polak, guys who are here to fill spots until Mark Hunter empties his prospect list. It’s a season of transition in Toronto, the roster a strange mix, taking on the personality of the organization’s direction despite the names on the sweaters unlikely to be present at the final destination. Let the season begin!
The baseball season is a novel, a long narrative; the structure of at-bats, outs, innings, games forming the prose; teams, the main characters; a plot, defined by the order of the standings. The 2015 Mets are writing a story that belongs to a series titled The Amazin’s. It doesn’t happen often—the boys from Queens being any good—but when it does, it takes on a miraculous shape, the arc of the story curving from impossible to ya gotta believe! In a few days—a few more than many would like—the Mets will clinch their sixth division title, second since 1988, when I was four years old, or too young to realize it, so second in my memorable lifetime.
Fans watching a baseball season unfold are like readers in a book club or students in a terrible Freshman composition class. They want to find meaning within the story, identify key turning points, changes in the characters, points when the plot thickens and finds meaning.
On Sunday night, on national television, when Terry Collins was asked how long his star pitcher—who had surrendered an infield hit, otherwise flawless, seven strikeouts, one pointless walk—would be pulled, he swallowed, a hard motion, noticeable on camera, forcing down the credo of his player’s agent, team management, or for all we know, Harvey himself, in one violent motion, and said: one more inning—that would be the 5th.
Matt Harvey taking an early exit from a fragile 1-0 Mets lead, on a day the Nationals had already won, meaning the division lead could shrink to six, is the turning point Mets fans will highlight, underscore, and raise their hands to exclaim as the reason the team will eventually collapse.
The problem is the fans are wrong.
The wasted speech of fans walking out of the stadium and sitting on their couches at home, the wasted key punches on Twitter and in text messages, the wasted dial tones of angry callers to WFAN, all for nothing. The Mets didn’t lose on Sunday night because Matt Harvey was pulled after the 5th inning. They lost because the team committed four errors. The five runs allowed by Hansel Robles in the 6th, only one of them was earned. And regardless of the pitcher last standing on the mound, the offense stalled; the Mets are 7-39 in games they score two or fewer runs, they scored two on Sunday.
And are we so certain that taking Harvey out of the game before he faced the top of the Yankees’ lineup in the sixth, meaning the third time through the order, is a bad thing?
It’s called the time through the order penalty (TTOP). Pitchers are generally less effective the more times opposing hitters see them in a game. For Harvey, the sixth inning, particularly, has proven rude: he has allowed 12 earned runs in 24.1 innings of work, his worst inning by far. The last time Terry Collins let Harvey jog out for the sixth, he surrendered four runs, to make a total of seven, in a game the Mets needed (and eventually came from behind to win). As dominant as Harvey can be when facing hitters the first two turns, he is less so the third time, which makes a bullpen replacement more justifiable.
There is no guarantee that the Mets will win when Harvey hops up on the hill. He obviously gives them a better chance, still not a sure thing. With the luxury of hindsight, we can see, good decision or not, the outcome of treating the New London-born pitcher with kid’s gloves. The Mets skipped two Harvey starts, and came away with wins. They took him out an inning early on Sunday, maybe it changed the game, maybe it didn’t; let’s pretend for a second that it did. At worst, the team is 2-1 as a result of pitching Harvey different because of inning limitations. His other three starts in his last six have been bad—eleven runs over 11.2 innings—or brilliant and at least six innings long. Strangely enough, the Mets can’t win when Harvey refuses to give up a run.
Of course, the ire of Mets fans for the Harvey situation is stoked by an irrational worry of losing the division lead. Two weeks ago, the lead was four; today, the lead is six. The divisional gap on the Nationals has grown with time, but that’s not the point. Four losses in the past five games has created panic. Nobody forgets 2007 when a seven game lead vanished in 17 days. Forget the fact that the lead had already dwindled to 2.5 by game 149 in that season, or where we are in this season now; fans still carry the baggage. Until the Mets clinch, nobody will believe it.
Belief doesn’t change the story line. Before 2007, then 2008, the Mets were known for overcoming impossible obstacles, not being crippled by them. Remember 1969? Remember Game 6, 1986? The Amazin’s have overcome every obstacle in 2015. Nobody picked them to win the division, so as the final few pages of the final chapter is read, losing a few believers along the way adds to the narrative.
Adam Vinatieri hit the upright, from 29 yards, the first time he had missed a kick from that distance in eight years. Andrew Luck, the franchise quarterback the Jets don’t have, seemingly will never find again, forever indebted to Joe Namath’s Super Bowl guarantee, sailed passes over his receivers’ heads into the hands of an opportunistic Jets secondary, led by Revis, who was most opportunistic of all, picking loose footballs off the turf, adding fumble recoveries to the pile of turnovers his Todd Bowles-inspired defense has collected in the first two weeks. Frank Gore dropped the football, cutting left, his fantasy football owners be damned, a few steps short of the end zone, without anyone touching him, giving the Jets yet another fortunate break.
The New York Jets are 2-0. They have beaten the hapless Browns, and from their play over the first two weeks, the clueless Colts. The schedule has been kind, and so, too, the results.
When was the last time the Mets and Jets, those pesky Shea originators, were both competitive at the same time?! Stay tuned this Fall.
That does it for this week!