Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Spring Is In the Air

Ok, well maybe not in Ottawa where it's currently 2 Celsius, but everywhere I look I see signs of baseball's return (again, not in Ottawa). The purpose of this post isn't to offer you my Blue Jays Season Forecast (I won't go so far as to call it a preview - calling it a forecast gives me as much leeway as a weatherman's predictions), but rather to plug a fantastic blog I've been reading the past couple weeks.

It's called Inside the Majors, and it's written by former Toronto Blue Jays Assistant General Manager Bart Given (that's a lot of CAPS). There's a tonne of great insight from a front office perspective - stuff you wouldn't see from beat reporters or other media sources.

I've added it to my Points of Interest for your to peruse, but a couple of posts that I particularly enjoyed were Second Guessing Managerial Decisions, which lifts the veil of secrecy on a Jim Fregosi "decision" from a few years ago, and You Be The GM - Travis Snider (pictured above). From the former:

After the game the media asked Fregosi about the move, and he replied with a statement along the line of “Sometimes the players make the decisions for you.”

No one presses him on it.

Well after the game, I found out the whole story.

It turns out Fregosi had no intention of hitting for Fullmer, but he never showed and none of the staff could find him in the clubhouse. I’m not sure exactly where he was, but knowing the ultra-intense Fullmer - he was likely waggling a bat somewhere working on his swing.

And from the latter:

A MLB player becomes eligible for free agency once he has amassed six full seasons of service time. If Snider breaks camp with the Blue Jays, he is on schedule to become a free agent after the 2014 season. If optioned until May 15, he wouldn’t have the ability to become a free agent until after the 2015 season. Isn’t six weeks of not having Snider in 2009 worth having him for six months in 2015?

It's rare to get such candor from a front-office type. As a fan, it's refreshing to get a look inside the nuts and bolts. Now that I've distracted you, I need to get to work on my "forecast".

Monday, March 30, 2009

Tiger Saves Golf

I am not a fan of golf. In fact, there are many aspects of golf that I find repulsive. If forced to play 18 holes I usually want to go home by the eighth hole and watching it on TV is literally like watching grass grow. That doesn't mean I can't appreciate greatness when I see it.

I didn't do much this weekend as I was still recovering from my nasty cold, and by Sunday morning I was pretty bored with playing video games. I felt like being more passive in my couch potato-ism. The F1 did the trick in the morning, but the afternoon's television slate was filled with a triumvirate of things I don't care for: golf, basketball and NASCAR.

There was something about knowing that Tiger Woods being five shots back of the leader at the Arnold Palmer Invitational that appealed to me, however. Much like I could stand to watch basketball when Michael Jordan's Bulls were playing, Tiger is a compelling story. There's something about watching greatness at work that is attractive. Throw in the fact that he was in only his third tournament coming back from reconstructive knee surgery and you had a ready-made Hollywood script. And, of course, he delivered.

The prey on which Tiger set his sights was Shawn O'Hair, a young kid with an already impressive three PGA wins. Poor guy looked like a deer in the headlights most of Sunday though, as he was paired with Tiger and had to try and calm his nerves as an 18 wheeler bore down on him. He was only able to do so on the back nine but by that time it was too late - Tiger had caught up. Nonetheless, it all came down to Tiger's last shot, a 15-foot birdie that was as much a foregone conclusion as a dozen people yelling "GET IN THE HOLE!!" as soon as his putter hit the ball (one of my pet peeves about watching golf). It was exciting - no, it was exhilarating. You'll probably never see me write those words to describe golf again. Then again, perhaps I'll tune in again next time Tiger is hunting down an opponent.

Viewing note: The NBC coverage was brilliant. For the first time I can remember I wasn't rolling my eyes every couple of minutes during the broadcasting of a golf event. The info was relevent, and the miking up of the caddies really helped the layman understand the strategy behind golf. NBC's shot tracker was also spectacular, reminding me of the video game version of the sport and highlighting the acute skill these guys possess. One last thing about the coverage that I appreciated was that the guys in the studios weren't whispering. Nothing drove me more bonkers in the past than knowing that two guys in a studio were trying to be quiet when they weren't anywhere near the action.

Pro Baseball In Ottawa Dies

The Voyageurs never got to take the field. Out of Left Field details what prompted the team to fold before it ever really took off. That's too bad, I really intended to spend a considerable chunk of free time at the ballpark this summer. I guess I'll have to mow the lawn or something.

Zoom Zoom: Australian GP

As I settled in yesterday morning to watch the Australian GP, as that beautiful sound of F1 cars buzzing about reached my ears, as the sights being beamed from Melbourne reached my screen, it dawned on me: F1 is not coming to Montreal this year. It just felt so wrong as that reality began the process of settling in. No Montreal F1. No Canadian GP. Heck, no North American race.

An incredibly bittersweet feeling sat in the pit of my stomach as I watched and listened. Excited that F1 was back, devastated as I realized there would be no trip to see Montreal transformed into a big car festival this summer.

But then, as I surfed the net and emerged from my week-long slumber, I found a ray of hope. Turns out money can't buy you time, and the track being built in the United Arab Emirates is woefully behind schedule, and rumours were flying in Melbourne that Bernie would have to crawl back to the organizing committee of the Canadian GP to see if they could replace it with a race in November. This hasn't happened yet, but how fantastic would that be? Oh, and I fully support the stance organizers in Montreal are taking, basically saying "If you want back in, you come back for the long haul". That's right. You wanted to pound us with your stick when you had the long end, Bernie? Time for some payback.

As usual, politics off the track were threatening to overshadow the action that actually matters. Other than the Montreal talk, there were also a number of teams lodging protests against Brawn GP, the team that replaced Honda in the field, and their interpretation of the rules governing the front wing of the car. As I previously posted, many new rules were being brought into effect this season with the hope of cutting costs and leveling the playing field. Word is, however, that Brawn's offence is more against the "spirit" of the rule than any type of legality, so either the other teams will adapt or the FIA will clarify its rule: no sanctions are forthcoming against Brawn GP.

Whatever they did to that front wing, it worked! Brawn GP, using a Mercedes engine, were 1-2 in qualifying and 1-2 in the race. It was only the third time that a new entry to F1 has won the race. Jenson Button ended up beating Rubens Barrichello at the finish, and Lewis Hamilton in his McLaren Mercedes took third spot despite being denied his spot on the podium as the stewards tried to figure out how Jarno Trulli passed him under caution three laps from the finish. Ferrari were out of the points (sad, I know), and whatever wishes the FIA had for leveling the playing field, they achieved. We'll just have to see how things play out over the course of the season.

One complaint I had is despite all these rule changes promising more competition and more battles on track, the latter did not materialize. Only a few times during the race did we see true battles (and unfortunately the best one was aborted when Robert Kubica foolishly tried to run Sebastian Vettel off the track with three laps to go), and if I'm not mistaken the lead never changed hands. I don't hide my disdain for NASCAR, but they've got us beat in terms of leader changes and wondering who will come out on top.

But this day belonged to Ross Brawn, the architect of this new F1 team. He was the genius who teamed up with Michael Schumacher at Benetton and Ferrari, and moved to Honda once Schumi retired. Forced to build a team within a few months after Honda pulled out, he has assembled a winner. Such last minute was this endeavour that they only announced their title sponsor shortly before qualifying on Saturday. Richard Branson is getting into the F1 game by making Virgin the eye candy on these un-sexy cars (pictured, right). Call me brainwashed, but there's just something odd about seeing a race car that isn't plastered with sponsor liveries . Something tells me that after this weekend, sponsorship money will come rolling in. Such is the life of winners.

If Your Life Was A Movie, What Would Be Its Soundtrack?

Don't usually do these, but the randomness of it appealed to me (yes, I will mix in some music posts on here once in a while).

So here's how it works...

1. Open your library (iTunes, Winamp, Media Player, iPod, etc)
2. Put it on shuffle
3. Press play
4. For the first question, type the song that's playing
5. When you go to a new question, press the next button TWICE
6. Don't lie and try to pretend you're cool...just type it in man!

1. Opening Credits
Pretty In Pink: The Psychedelic Furs

2. Waking Up:
Hello Dave - I Mother Earth

3. First Day at School:
Safe and Sound - Hawksley Workman

4. Falling in Love:
Fool To Cry - Rolling Stones

5. Losing Virginity:
Butterflies and Hurricanes - Muse

6. Fight Song:
In You Soul - Corey Hart

7. Breaking Up:
Things We Said Today - The Beatles

8. Prom:
Action - Sweet

9. Life:
Rebel Girl - Bikini Kill

10. Mental Breakdown:
Scarlet - U2

11. Driving:
Jizzlobber - Faith No More

12. Flashback:
Vertigo - Sarah Slean

13. Getting Back Together:
Perfect - Smashing Pumpkins

14. Wedding:
Brass In Pocket - The Pretenders

15. Birth of Child:
Rebellion (Lies) - Arcade Fire

16. Final Battle:
Haushinka - Green Day

17. Death Scene:
Tom Sawyer - Rush

18. Funeral Song:
Eyesight to the Blind - The Who

19.End Credits
NIB - Black Sabbath

The Twit: Sick As A Dog Edition

Alright, considering it's been over a week since my last true post, I'll bring you up to date, Twitter style, on the subjects that caught my attention during that time, in 140 characters or less (I promise to break that last rule a few times).

  • The viewing of the 12 Hours of Sebring was a success, even though the race was surprisingly boring. Too few battles, only 3 cautions (which allowed the field to get very spread out). Father-in-law said he loved it, though, so it was a success in that sense.
  • Hats off to Curt Schilling, who retired after a remarkable career. I don't care whether or not the bloody sock was a put-on: it worked and added to a magical World Series run in 2004. Another favourite Schilling moment: draping a towel over his head every time Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams pitched in the 1993 World Series, unable to watch. His gut feeling was right, it turns out ("Touch 'em all, Joe!!").
  • Lots of back and forth about Montreal Canadiens ownership issues. I'm not convinced Gillett is serious about selling his sports assets. Just a gut feeling, but I think he might be genuine when he says it's simply an evaluation of assets and has no intention selling his stakes in Canadiens, NASCAR and Liverpool FC.
  • Great post over at Out of Left Field about the Rapidz suing the Can-Am league and the City of Ottawa. The only thing I'll say in defence of the Zipperheads is that they were hard done by the City for quadrupling stadium fees from $250,000 to $1,000,000 for the upcoming season, making the whole venture unsustainable. It's no secret as a baseball fan and player that the City of Ottawa is waging a war against the sport to squeeze it out of the landscape.
  • WBC crown stays with Japan for another four years. For some reason the magic that surrounded the original WBC failed to materialize this time around. Haven't put my finger on the cause, but expect a full WBC post-mortem on these pages in the coming weeks.
  • Toronto FC starts the season undefeated! Great win in Kansas City and a plucky effort for the draw in Columbus, where 1,500 TFC fans made the trip. When's the last time 1,500 fans of a Canadian professional sports team travelled to the rival city to cheer on their team? Probably last season, again when TFC played in Columbus. Come on soccer less-than-enthusiasts, GET ON THE BUS!
  • Dale Mitchell was fired as Canadian Men's National team head coach. Another indicator of the Canadian Soccer Association's incompetence: the man had driven the team into the ground during World Cup qualification despite our most talented team ever taking the pitch. The last game of that effort was in November. The team hasn't played since. It took them four months to determine he hadn't done a good job? Pathetic. Shameful. Ladies and gentlemen, the Canadian Soccer Association.

And there you have it. Did I miss anything (keeping in mind that I will have a full post on both Tiger's comeback and the Austalian GP)?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Life Is A Lemon

Hey, just wanted to drop in and say I haven't renounced my blogging obligations, I'm just recovering from a bout of the flu with a heavy dose of a cold. I'll be back to catch up on all the events of the past week shortly.

Friday, March 20, 2009

If You Like To Laugh...

...then make sure you watch this. I found it while reading the Sports and the City blog. This one's for you, B-Mac and Matty.

Zoom Zoom: 12 Hours To The 12 Hours

After a long, sleepy winter devoid of any racing that fills my needs (sorry NASCAR), automotive excellence returns to my radar tomorrow with the 12 Hours of Sebring. As I wrote earlier, this is the kickoff event to the 2009 American LeMans Series. ALMS is a relative newcomer to the North American sports scene, its inaugural season coming in 1999.

Most people are familiar with the 24 Hours of LeMans, if only because of passing mentions in the media and Steve McQueen's classic movie "Le Mans". The European and American LeMans series are loosely affiliated in that the car classes have similar specs and that the winners of each class at the Petit LeMans, a 10-hour race in Atlanta in October, qualify for the 24-hour race in LeMans, France the following July.

The American series had been on a steady rise since its inaugural season, but some teams have pulled out this season, and the recession is probably to blame. Of note, Penske Racing and Andretti-Green racing, two giants of the racing world, will not be taking part this year. That is somewhat offset by the addition of Rahal-Letterman racing's two-car BMW entry in the GT2 class. There's no denying, though, that losing those two legends stings.

Another recent addition to the circuit, Gil de Ferran's Acura racing team (pic on the right) has claimed the overall pole position with his prototype entry (P1 is the top class in ALMS, followed by P2 and the two GT classes). It is shocking for him to beat the Audi and Peugeot's to the pole, but doesn't necessarily reflect who has the best car on the track. In a 12-hour race, having the fastest lap isn't enough - you have to be fast AND reliable.

My attention is usually focused on the GT classes. GT1 is kind of a wash - it consists exclusively of C6 Corvettes. No drama there. In GT2, however, there are 15 teams driving 8 different types of street cars: five Porsche 911's, three Ferrari 430's, the two aforementioned BMW E92 M3's, a Dodge Viper, a Panoz Esperante, a Ford GT MK7, an Aston Martin Vantage and a GT2-tuned Corvette C6. I don't really have a favourite, but I really want the BMW's to do well. In the prototype class, my French roots have my heartstrings being tugged by Peugeot.

We've made a mini-event of this in my home, with my in-laws coming over to watch it with me. A few firsts of note here; it will be the first time my in-laws spend a large chunk of time in our home, and it will be the first time my father-in-law watches this series (he prefers cars that go in circles and straight lines). So yeah, I'm a little nervous. Hopefully it's a good race. I think he'll really appreciate the strategy that goes into putting a car on track for 12 straight hours and everything that entails. Speed usually does a decent job of following the story lines and focusing on the racing. If the racing turns out to be a snoozer, I'll distract him with food. Hey, it works on me every time!

But seriously, if you find yourself twiddling your thumbs sometime tomorrow afternoon all the way to 10pm, tune in for a couple of minutes to check it out. ALMS might make a fan out of you.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Pipe Dream Lives On

A few years ago I wrote about the possibility of the Québec Nordiques coming back to the NHL. It eventually turned out that the rumours were but another tease for fans of the long-maligned franchise.

What's old is news again (French): former players Michel Goulet and Kevin Lowe are getting behind an effort to build an NHL-ready arena in Québec. So far the initiative looks a little shaky; there is no franchise available, expansion is a non-starter in this economy (aside: I've quickly grown tired of the expression "in this economy"), and NHL ticket prices are way out of reach for the old Nordiques fanbase.

So far it simply has the appearance of a couple of ex-NHLer's going out on a limb for an old buddy. I would be shocked if anything came of this particular effort. Besides, building an NHL-ready rink hasn't exactly made the Jets rush back to Winnipeg.

Soccer Pimp: Toronto FC - No Ticket To Be Had

So much for those who said Toronto FC's success would be a flash in the pan, an anomaly that would right itself in time: for the third straight season, Toronto FC has sold every ticket of every game.

There's a wonderful write-up in the Globe and Mail by Neil Davidson, which explains how the stadium had a lot to do with the franchise's success. It's caught a lot of people by surprise, including those that brought the team to Toronto:

"I get asked this question all the time. 'Did you ever expect it to be so successful out of the gate?"' says Tom Anselmi, executive vice-president and CEO for Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment. "The answer is 'No, we didn't actually.'

"We believed that soccer was going to succeed in this market, we knew there's lots of soccer fans. The question was would they buy into Major League Soccer? We didn't really know that."

I have to admit that although I thought the team could thrive in the Toronto market, I wasn't expecting this kind of over-the-top success. No one did. The Toronto Lynx had toiled in obscurity for years in the USL, a league just one notch below Major League Soccer. In this respect, Montreal was a better logical fit for an MLS team, considering they had been drawing thousands of fans per game operating in the same league as the Lynx. However, the Toronto bid had the backing of the MLSE behemoth, and a soccer-specific stadium plan to go with it. I bet there was a lot of nail-biting from the MLS and MLSE offices once the franchise was awarded to Toronto.

I was present at that first home game in 2007. It was a chilly April afternoon and I had made the trip with my buddy Daddio, the tickets being a Christmas gift from Laura. I knew the game was sold out, but I didn't quite know what to expect. If anything I expected the typical Toronto crowd from Leafs and Jays games that sit on their hands. Boy was I wrong.

MLSE made the brilliant decision of assigning a section of the stadium to the most hardcore fans, the Red Patch Boys. These fans, many also associated to The Voyageurs, took the bull by the horns and created an atmosphere I had only experienced in European football stadiums and during the NHL playoffs (actually, it was better than the NHL playoffs). Singing, drumming, chanting, throwing streamers onto the field - they made a 1-0 defeat feel like a resounding victory. They showed everyone what an organized group of supporters could create, something North America is not used to (except for college football). BMO field became the story that day, and has continued to offer the best soccer atmosphere in North America. No one even comes close.

The success of Toronto FC is what has me optimistic about soccer's chances in other non-traditional Canadian markets. I'll have more on this in the future, but the tide is turning in this country, and the old guard better be on alert because the cliché, go-to put downs are becoming moot and their worst fears - a soccer renaissance in Canada - are coming true.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Soccer Pimp: Hooray! (I think?)

And so the next frontier in Canadian soccer history has been breached: Vancouver will join MLS in 2011. They will join Toronto FC as the other Canadian entry in what is (in theory) an American soccer league (although with Montréal and Ottawa in the on deck circle, how far can we really be from a true North American league?).

Part of me is thrilled that Canada gets another top level professional soccer club to cheer on, but I can't help but feel that this was Montréal's time to get a franchise. The Impact have already built a soccer-specific stadium and fill it regularly for a team in a lower division than MLS. They recently filled Olympic Stadium with over 55,000 fans for a CONCACAF Champions League match (and would have done it again had the Impact not choked spectacularly down in Mexico!). They have strong ownership in the Saputo brand and are deeply involved in the community. Plus let's get real: Canadian or not, Vancouver is 5,000 kilometers away, making it cheaper for me to see a match in Columbus, or New York, or Boston.

It will potentially mean more MLS soccer on television and increased media coverage, and that's always a good thing. It will heighten the rivalry with Toronto FC, and make the Voyageurs Cup more competitive (now the Impact will have to defeat two MLS teams to represent Canada in the Champions League, not just one). It will pave the way to more Canadian teams joining the league. These are the positives. But I can't shake this feeling that Montreal got jobbed.

Montreal seemed well on it's way to be the next MLS team just a short year ago. It made the shortlist of potential expansion cities and all logic pointed to the awarding of a franchise in La Belle Province. So what happened?

The sequence of events is troubling. At first, all the right things on both sides were being said. "Great city, no brainer, foregone conclusion", etc, etc. Then at a press conference, MLS commissioner Don Garber announced that Montreal had withdrawn its expansion bid. This caught everyone by surprise, including Impact owner Joey Saputo, who denied anything of the sort! A few days went by and the right things were being said again: "Next round of expansion, tickets prices were an issue,"etc. The pricing thing made sense, since the Impact have prided themselves on low ticket prices that make the Impact an ideal family outing, and MLS have minimum ticket prices that could be difficult for Impact fans to stomach. That's fine. But was this the real reason, or was the veil being dropped over our eyes?

It's difficult to tell, but remember that George Gillett (pictured, right), owner of the Montreal Canadiens and Liverpool FC, has made it known he'd love an MLS franchise. It's not out of the realm of possibility that Don Garber is much less comfortable with a French-Italo-Canadian-cheese and Jos Louis maker than with a WASP Texas businessman with much deeper pockets that would immediately link his MLS club to the storied Liverpool FC.

If I'm right, and this is what truly happened, it would be quite unfair to the Saputo family. They have nurtured the soccer culture in Montreal from its embryonic stage to the solid franchise it is today. To have the rug swept from under them by a swaggering cowboy would be sad indeed.

But hey, today is day of celebration for Vancouver and its Whitecaps. Canadian soccer is a winner today. Let's keep this momentum going and hope Vancouver can be as wild about their soccer team as Toronto ended up being.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Zoom Zoom: Another Day, Another Blunder

Fresh off yesterday's post announcing my tepid enthusiasm regarding the upcoming Formula 1 season, Bernie Ecclestone dropped another bomb on racing fans.

It appears Bernie thought that a points system didn't work. It appears he somehow thought that of all the things ailing F1, the way a champion is determined is what deserved his attention. Now, whichever driver wins the most races wins the Championship.

I wonder if it's just a coincidence that a Ferrari driver would have won the Championship had this rule been in effect last year? Having failed in all his attempts to foil Lewis Hamilton and McLaren last season, he will try to re-write the record books going forward. Of note: 13 past champions would not have won the championship if these rules had been in effect.

How are we to measure their accomplishments now? Have we empowered revisionists to claim: "Oh, he wasn't really a Champion, that's from the old era's rules"? Bernie has essentially opened the door to a "win at all costs" mentality that could lead to erratic teams and drivers winning the Championship in a best case scenario. Worst-case scenario? Drivers become dangerous to protect their place at the front of the pack.

Since there are 17 races this season, it is now a first past the poll system where 9 wins guarantees the Championship. And so if we get to round 13, the Italian GP, with a driver winning his 9th race - the season is over. No need to get up on Sunday morning anymore. And do you think teams will compete as hard as they can once a Champion is crowned in mid-season? Fat chance. Teams, including the Champion's team, will protect their assets, save on costs and start preparing for the following season.

One thing sports fans demand is consistency. Consistency in rules is the bedrock on which we can evaluate our current heroes against the annals of history. Is Lewis Hamilton as good as Ayrton Senna? Michael Schumacher or Jackie Stewart? It just got tougher to tell. You can change the rules governing the size of your rear wing and substitute slicks for grooved tires, but once you start messing with the barometer with which we crown our Champions, that's where we get ourselves in trouble.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Zoom Zoom: I Suck at Boycotts

Here I was, all set to boycott F1 this year after Bernie Ecclestone yanked the series out of North America completely, choosing some oil-rich country with lots of money-filled envelopes over the 30-year loyalty of the Canadian GP. That, and the continuing bias towards Ferrari that the organizers have clearly demonstrated over recent years had me completely set on turning my back on this sport, which I love.

To quote Michael Corleone from the Godfather, Part 3: "Just when I thought I was out...they pull me back in." My brother Mathieu was the culprit this time around, courtesy of this informative video from Red Bull Racing:

The changes coming into play this season, which become mandatory in 2010, are very intriguing. This article about BMW is an indicator that we're in for an interesting season.

Zoom Zoom: ...and we're back!

I had to curb my sports viewing over the past couple of days as our family welcomed its newest furry member, a puppy named Maya. It's my first puppy and as much as people warn you of the work that goes into training a dog, it is still overwhelming. Less sleep, less down time, always having to be alert as to what she's up to - it's very draining and doesn't allow for much sports viewing (but don't get me wrong - oh so worth it!).

Thankfully the early days of dog-rearing are out of the way and a semblance of my pre-Maya days can return. I'm happy to note that it doesn't appear that I've missed much over the past few days. March Madness began last night and I couldn't care less. The World Baseball Classic is falling flat to my great dismay. Sens are out of the playoff race. All in all, there's a lot of looking ahead going on, and not much living in the now.

One event beeping frantically on my radar is the 12 Hours of Sebring endurance race this coming Saturday. I became a fan of this automotive racing series, the American LeMans Series, three years ago when I watched Sebring for the first time. It turned out to be the most amazing race I've ever watched. Twelve hours of racing came down to a final lap showdown between a Porsche and Ferrari. Check it out below:

What I love about the ALMS is that there are 4 classes of cars on the track at once: two prototype classes and two GT classes, so there's a lot of traffic all the time. You really get to see top class drivers (there are former F1 and IndyCar drivers) having to negotiate a track that always has surprises up its sleeve. Not only that, but here's a world-class racing event that actually comes to Canada (fuck you Bernie!), gracing us with their presence at Mosport in August.

I won't bog you down with details, but if you like car racing check it out this Saturday from 10am on Speed (to watch the race from the point where there are no interruptions for NASCAR qualifying, tune in from 2pm to 10pm). I'll post my views on this year's edition of Sebring on Monday, and will continue to comment on it throughout the season. Of particular interest is the return of BMW to the series, and Audi returning but without a factory car.

One last note about Sebring: I'll be watching the race with my father-in-law, a die-hard NASCAR fan. This should be an interesting experiment. I hope it rains in Florida on Saturday so he can see what real drivers do when it starts raining (Mouah hahaha!). I kid, I kid. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Dank U Wel

Head? Consider yourself turned. Eyebrow? Inquisitively raised .

The Dutch have done it again. In an 11-inning thriller the Dutch National Baseball team upset the mighty Dominican Republic at the World Baseball Classic.

Despite Colorado Rockies pitcher Jubaldo Jimenez striking out 10 Dutch hitters in 4 innings (WOW!), the Nederlanders were also able to keep anyone from scoring until the top of of the 11th when Jose Reyes scored on an outfield error.

The game appeared to be lost for the plucky Dutchmen, but they managed to tie the game and score the game-winner, also on an fielding error.

So far this has been a tournament of upsets; the Dutch beating the DR twice, Australia thumping Mexico, Korea sinking Japan and Canada losing to Italy. Can the Cinderella stories continue?

No reason to think it won't. Go Oranje!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Montreal Media Strike Again

I generally don't touch on hockey too much around these parts because the last thing we need is another hockey blog from a half-wit Canadian. I watch hockey and follow the Senators rather closely, but I am by no means an expert.

Having said that, I think most who are outside the Montreal media's direct range will probably agree with me that Guy Carbonneau had no business getting fired. Sure they've struggled a bit over the past couple months, but they're still in great shape to make the playoffs and actually make a run for the cup because they are well coached.

Guy has a 124-83 coaching record (I've taken overtime losses out of the equation because most coaches will gladly take a point out of most games). Show me a team that would thumb its nose at that record and I'll eat Taco Bell for a week. Oh wait, that record is not good enough for bloated Montreal media-types that sell papers and advertising revenue based on a culture that skewers coaches and management in an unending blood sport.

Television program likes "110%" and newspapers like "Le Journal de Montréal" would be out of business if they weren't second-guessing Canadiens management every single day in the paper. I swear that if the Canadiens beat the Red Wings 4-2 in a Stanley Cup Final series, these buffoons would ask for the coach's head on platter because the series was not wrapped up in five games. Such a result would be an affront to "Les Glorieux", the mythical pre-cursor to the modern-day Canadiens reality, where the Montreal Canadiens had a monopoly on players originating from Quebec. Hint: it hasn't been that way since the '70's and will never return. Today I guarantee you these parasites are cooking up the newest excuses to get rid of the replacement coach, Canadiens GM Bob Gainey. It's a never-ending cycle in that city.

I don't feel too bad for Carbonneau, though. If he chooses he'll simply become the latest former Montreal Canadiens head coach to have success elsewhere, in the line of Scotty Bowman, Jacques Lemaire, Alain Vigneault and Claude Julien.

People asked me why I switched allegiances from the Habs to the Sens in the mid-90's. Although there were plenty of factors, one of them was the unhealthy relationship that exists between the team, their fans and especially the media. Sure we have our issues in Ottawa with some media (*cough* Bruce Garrioch *cough*), but nothing even comes close to the toxic Montreal environment.

Note: I love the city of Montreal and its people, and Les Habitants still occupy a place in my heart, but I call it like I see it.

Loser's Lament: Canada Breaks Hearts (reprise)

Someone will have to explain to me someday why I have a knack for picking losers in sporting events. I don't mean the throwaway selections one makes when your team is eliminated, like how I supported the Steelers in this year's Super Bowl, but rather those teams in which I invest emotionally. In my lifetime, I've been on the winning side of 5 Champions: 1986 Canadiens, 1992 and 1993 Blue Jays, 1993 Canadiens and France in the 1998 World Cup. The total goes up a bit if you include Donovan Bailey and also the 2002 Salt Lake City Men's hockey team (but really, cheering for Canada at a hockey tournament is a little redundant).

Granted, cheering for your country is not really an option (although let me assure you that my colleagues of Italian-descent don't make any bones about turning their back on the country in which they were born and raised in favour of the romanticized country they hear tales about from their grandparents). When Canada enters a tournament like the World Baseball Classic or World Cup Qualifying, I certainly have no other option of who to cheer for. It is ingrained in my DNA. The problem is the sports I care most about happen to be one we didn't invent. I think it's great that Canada dominates in hockey and curling in international tournaments but like I alluded to earlier, it doesn't give me any deep satisfaction.

Canada did it again to me last night. They did it to me 3 years ago as well when they barely beat South Africa and got thumped by Mexico, so much so that the "runs against" rule is what bounced them from the tourney (they were tied with the USA and Mexico with a 2-1 round robin record). This one stings a little more. Having played an excellent game against the USA before falling to them 6-5, everyone was feeling good about our chances to face Venezuela tonight. Problem was that too many people looked beyond Italy, including manager Ernie Whitt who chose to go with an unknown and untested starter instead of the "ace" of the staff Scott Richmond.

The logic was solid, and really I can't argue with it except in hindsight. Our hitting would power us over the Italians even if the pitching allowed a few runs here and there. Honestly, I would have made the same call, preserving Richmond against a powerhouse Venezuela team. And so on this night Canada was pinning its hopes on Vince Perkins, some dude who's bounced around the minors since 2000 and has never gotten beyond "AA" (that being double "A" baseball, not Alcoholics Anonymous, although last night's outing might lead him to the drink). He was full of gusto in pre-game interviews, boasting about how his arm hadn't felt this good since he was 18, and how he hoped to raise some major league eyebrows with his performance.

Well, he never got off the ground and the only facial expressions he inspired likely won't win him a promotion. He got the first batter he faced to hit a squibbler to the foot of the mound, but he bungled the ball and never got a throw off to first. Was that shaking hands I saw from Perkins as he fielded that ball? It might have been, and it jives with the rest of his outing, in which he couldn't find the strike zone and allowed 3 hits and 4 walks in 2+ innings. When he was mercifully pulled in the top of the third, Canada was down 3-0.

Not to take away anything from a plucky Italian team that played out of their minds. They were just as spectacular on defence as when they played Venezuela Saturday only this time they pushed runs across the plate, something Canada could not do, leaving 10 runners on base throughout the game. Time and again Votto, Morneau and Bay would be left on base by hitters who couldn't come close to making meaningful contact.

In the end, Canada's pitching was not sufficient to make any kind of dent in this tournament. They were let down by Ryan Dempster, Erik Bedard and Rich Harden, arguably Canada's best pitchers, who chose to decline an invitation to join the team for no good reason. They were also done in by a hitting lineup that was appallingly weak once you got past 2 through 6. Pete Orr, I'm looking right at you (not to mention Matt Stairs' golf swing).

And here I am left to dissect yet another stumble by a Canadian national team, much like I do whenever Canada's soccer team loses to the likes of Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. As always, we killed them on paper. Perhaps it's time for our teams to enter the digital age.

Monday, March 09, 2009

"Allez-up, Cascade!" Part Two

Our stomachs rumbling, leaving the stadium in search of sustenance was our first order of business following the game. Clearing out 42,000 fans is no quick endeavor however, and it took a good 15 minutes from the time we left our seats to making it outside, where a light rain was complicating the exodus. We had a couple of yahoos behind us yelling for people to move faster, which grated on our nerves. The Waffle should have arranged for a police escort for us, but in this he fell way short of expectations (during the game Daddio suggested he grab the cute cop's hat and run around the field with it, but not enough drinks had been consumed - we might have gotten out of the stadium faster had he listened to that advice!).

We knew and accepted that getting a table at a restaurant close to Rogers Centre might be difficult; there were 42,000 of us from baseball and the Leafs were playing next door on Hockey Night in Canada. That's a lot of people looking for food. We had 3 hours to spare until the Italy v. Venezuela game, so we weren't too worried. Nothing prepared us for the level incompetence we were about to encounter, mind you.

We poked our noses into a couple prospective restaurants but were met with massive lineups, so we decided to move along each time. Finally we spotted Philthy McNasty's and the lineup didn't look to bad. Upon inquiring at the door, we were told that a 10 minute wait for a table was expected. This seemed reasonable to us and, in fact, were seated within five. Awesome. Perusing the menu, discussing our drink choices, turning on the television at our table, this distracted us for a bit. No waitress came during this time. Upon further observation, we saw that there were about 3 waitresses working for about 200 patrons. We also saw that people at other tables looked pretty pissed off repeatedly trying to attract their server's attention, only to be being waved off every time. It's about at this point that Moonturk said: "If the decision is to leave here and go elsewhere, I'll support it 100%". I checked my watch and we still had 2 1/2 hours left to game time. "Other than being hungry, we're in no rush and besides, we'll have to wait elsewhere anyway". We all agreed to wait it out.

Another 10 minutes went by before I caught the hostess and asked her over. "Nobody's been to see you yet, huh? Well, I'll try and see if someone can serve you." Ahem..."Try?" Yikes. We then noticed people going to the bar to get their own drinks and pitchers, because the waitresses were too overwhelmed. After another 10 minutes (by this time we had spent at least half an hour in the place), the hostess was able to grab the "manager" to come serve us. A stern, "no-bullshit" look was accompanied with "What do you guys want?", pencil to paper. The Waffle, in an attempt to change the tone, attempted a friendly "Busy night, huh?". No eye contact in the response "It's getting there. Listen, you guys should know that it'll be an hour for food." Thanks, but we were out of there. Farewell to "Philthy McNasty's: Our name describes our commitment to service".

Here's a question for the manager of the establishment: How is it that a restaurant, located in the tourist district of Toronto, within shouting distance of both the Rogers Centre and Air Canada Centre, on a night with two baseball and one hockey games is not prepared for a crowd? You would think that a place like that, on a night like this, would staff itself properly. But hey, I'm no MBA.

We ended up eating at Dunn's next door, who provided us with excellent food (Daddio said it was the best steak sandwich he'd ever eaten and my smoked meat sandwich was just a notch below Nate's Deli), excellent service and a much better atmosphere. They got us out of there in time to make the second game with time to spare. A tip of the hat to a fine establishment.

As soon as we entered the concourse to the stadium, we heard it: fans singing in unison. Oh yeah. Venezuela in the house and bringing a soccer atmosphere. Too bad there were only a few thousand of them, but it was a testament to how a few well-organized and dedicated fans can make a stadium sound full. Many jokes were being made pre-game about Italy's baseball prowess. Perusing the starting lineup did nothing to stem the flow of these jokes, since only Nick Punto, Frank Catalonotto, Mark Defelice and Jason Grilli had any kind of pedigree.

Turns out the Italians had a little sumthin' sumthin' in the tank after all. Our first wow moment came in the bottom of the first when Bobby Abreu lined a ball to the right/centre gap. What looked to be a sure hit was snagged by an incredible diving catch by "Super" Mario Chiarini. It would appear diving is an Italian specialty (sorry DeRosa, I couldn't resist:

Italian Soccer Diving

All kidding aside, the Italians were fairly impressive against a team loaded with MLB superstars, spreading a good bunch of hard hit balls into green spaces. They got to the 5th inning still scoreless until Italy made a strange decision in changing pitchers (the starter, Mark DeFelice was nowhere near the tournament-imposed 70 pitch limit). The skipper went to Jason Grilli who promptly gave up 3 runs while recording only one out, to the endless enjoyment of the Detroit Tigers fan behind us who was thrilled that the pitcher who was formerly on his team was now ruining another ball club).

The Venezuelans ran away for the rest of the game, eventually winning 7-0 in what turned out to be something of a boring game. I guess we started losing interest when the blowout began to materialize, but keep in mind we were somewhere near our 6th hour of baseball for the day. A few more drinks and a few more wings at a pub across from our hotel sealed the night, and we retired to our beds. At least that's the story we're sticking with.

The trip back was mainly uneventful save for the texting maniac on the 401 who almost ran herself into a barrier before realizing that driving might be a better option as her first priority. We also fooled Daddio's better half into believing we had taken a detour through Watertown, N.Y., when in fact he was only 15 minutes away from arriving home. She was very diplomatic, but I suspect it's only because she knew we were all listening to her through the OnStar system in Daddio's van. Still waiting to find out how that story concluded when he got home.

It was a very fun trip spent with close friends, with a good mix of baseball and decent food thrown into the pot. Can't wait for our next road trip.

Soccer Pimp: Celebrate in style

I thought this was just too good to pass up.

"Allez-up, Cascade!"

Not many things in life beat getting into a van with three close friends and hitting the road, the destination being a packed sports stadium. This is what The Waffle, Daddio, Moonturk and I set out to do on Saturday starting at 5:45. The World Baseball Classic at Rogers Centre beckoned. We answered the call.

Canada v. USA was tops on the agenda, with the added bonus of Italy v. Venezuela later. We weren't sure how well Canada would fare against the mighty American imperial superpower, but I'd say our hopes were cautiously optimistic. After all, we did beat them in the 2006 WBC.

After a four-hour commute that included Laura's cupcakes and Tim Horton's coffee, we checked into our hotel and sat down to lunch at Hoops on Yonge Street. We were waited on by the lovely Geneviève from Répentigny, who was thrilled to be serving "son peuple" in downtown Anglo-Saxonia. As we ate some decent pub fare, we watched The Netherlands take an early 3-0 lead against the Dominican Republic. That score couldn't possibly stand up over nine innings, right?

We cabbed it to the stadium in time to catch the Canadians taking batting practice. For all the hype about Canada's hitting prowess, we didn't see many BP homeruns. We then settled into our seats, which were four rows up in section 113. A bunch of USA players warmed up in front of the section, allowing us to hone our heckling skills. We got off a few good ones that elicited reactions from the players. To Adam Dunn, who was warming up with Ryan Braun and Jimmy Rollins: "Hey Adam, J.P. was right about you!". His fellow players immediately laughed and started poking fun at him. Here's why I said that:

"Let me ask you something. What do you know about Adam Dunn?" Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi said to the caller. "He's a lifetime .230, .240 hitter that strikes out a ton and hits home runs.

"Do you know that the guy really doesn't like baseball all that much?" Ricciardi continued. "Do you know the guy doesn't have a passion to play the game that much? How much do you know about the player? There's a reason why you're attracted to some players and there's a reason why you're not attracted to some players. I don't think you'd be very happy if we brought Adam Dunn here. ...

"We've done our homework on guys like Adam Dunn and there's a reason why we don't want Adam Dunn. I don't want to get into specifics."

Then, as Derek Jeter was close enough to reach out and touch him, The Waffle chimed in with: "Hey Jeter, you miss A-Roid yet?". That brought a grin to the Yankees shortstop. Yes, heckling is childish and impolite - but as long as it doesn't cross the bounds of good taste it can be funny, too.

In fact, Dunn was a good sport. He played right field for USA and the entire section behind him were chanting heckles at him throughout game. A few times he turned around and feigned a yawn. Good stuff. He got the last laugh, as well, as he had the game-winning RBI off a two-run homerun.

Speaking of which - there was a game! And what a game it was, kids. Canada took an early lead by roughing up a shaky Jake Peavy. The teams then traded runs and the Americans took a 6-3 lead. Canada showed a lot of grit to come back and make it an exciting finale. Trailing 6-4, Joey Votto, the best Canadian on the day, hit a double in the top of the ninth with 1 out that brought in a run. With Justin Morneau and Jason Bay coming up, things were looking good. With 42,000 of my closest friends standing and cheering as if in Game 7 of the World Series, J.J. Putz overcame the Canadian momentum to get the last 2 outs he needed for the save. Can't complain, though. We saw a great game and had a great time.

One of the highlights for me was seeing top Mariners prospect and Gatineau native Phillipe Aumont pitch the sixth inning. He gotten himself in trouble early, loading the bases with nobody out. At that point catcher Russell Martin and pitching coach Denis Boucher had a little chat with the youngster. Whatever they said worked wonders, as he retired the next three hitters, two of them via the strikeout. In fact, that was an ongoing theme for Canadian pitching staff. They would often get themselves in trouble, only to strike out the final out. It made for great theatre.

We exited the stadium and chased after dinner. More to come in Part Two...

Friday, March 06, 2009

"Yankee Go Home!"...ummm, I Mean "GO CANADA!!"

The North American leg of the World Baseball Classic kicks off tomorrow and I'll be there, first base side, 4 rows in. The first match features Canada v. USA at 2pm (Sportsnet), followed by Venezuela v. Italy.

Canada sends Mike Johnson to the mound, a pitcher who left his Korean League team to play for Canada (how do you feel now, Rich Harden, Ryan Dempster, Eric Gagné et al.?). Can't say I know much about him. As far as I can tell, he was once a product of the Los Angeles Dodgers of Los Angeles. In 2001. Never played in The Show. I wonder how well he'll fare against Derek Jeters, Dustin Pedroias and David Wrights of the world? Maybe I'll close my eyes when Canada is not hitting.

Jake Peavy gets the nod for the Americans.

Venezuela is expected to start Felix "THE KING" Hernandez against Italy, who doesn't have any recognizable names except Frank "The Cat" Catalonotto and Nick "Punta" Punto. This will likely be a blowout, but we'll get to see many MLB stars from Venezuela like Magglio Ordonez, Bobby Abreu and Carlos Guillen.

No matter what I'm just excited to see competitive baseball again, with an international flavour to boot.

I'm making the trek from Ottawa with three close friends, one of which is the author of The Waffle (any Toronto restaurants you feel should be covered by this sublime food critic? Let us know in the comments section!).

Soccer Pimp: Loser's Lament

The first smile to cross my face this morning happened when I thought of myself sitting at Skydome tomorrow, watching the World Baseball Classic. The second smile appeared when the shuffle on my iPod offered me Hawksley Workman's Piano Blink. The rest of the commute was spent with a frown as I replayed the second half of the Impact-Santos Laguna match from last night in my head.

As I wrote yesterday, all the Impact had to do to progress to the semi-final round of the CONCACAF Champions League was not lose by 3 or more. This turned out to be a bridge too far for John Limniadis' valiant squad.

The Mexican champions got off to a quick start, netting a goal within 15 minutes. I lost a bit of hope at this point as it seemed that Santos were far superior to the Impact, a much different team than the one we saw at Olympic Stadium. My St. Thomas moment was fleeting, however, as the Impact quickly put together two goals and carried that lead into the half. As that second goal went in, I lifted my arms in victory but also in shock. It would not be the last shocking moment of the evening.

For those not familiar with the aggregate system in soccer, this basically meant that because of Montréal's 2-0 win back home last week, Santos had to score 4 goals in the second half to win the quarterfinal. Here's what I wrote on my Facebook page: "Ottawa Sports Guy is watching in disbelief as it seems the Impact are on their way!". What happened next will go down as one of the worst collapses in sports that I've ever witnessed.

When you're essentially up by four goals in soccer, it is perfectly natural to assume a defensive posture and let the action come to you, breaking up any attempt to score. Eleven men committed to this last night. Eleven others committed themselves to the opposite endeavour. Unfortunately, when a northern team travels to Central America in what becomes a battle of endurance, the weathered latin team's legs usually win out. It was no different on this night.

Wave after wave of attack beat down on the Impact's 18 yard box as Santos laid siege to the Montreal goal. For a while, the Impact were resolute in destroying whatever creativity was flung upon them. Right place, Right time, that kinda thing. Then the goals came. By the 90th minute, the score was 3-2 Santos and it looked like an Impact victory as we waited for the fourth official to signal the amount of stoppage time. The electronic board was raised above his head and flashed "4". Where he found four minutes, I'll never know. More on this later.

By this time, there were 11 white Impact jerseys jammed into the tight space of the 18-yard box. Their legs were visibly tired, and it seemed as though they hoped to build some sort of impenetrable wall to keep the ball out for four long, arduous minutes. The first goal went in, and the Santos players rushed back across the halfway line to get the game started again. It was too much for the tired Impact defenders. The last goal went in as the crowd went absolutely bonkers. If I wasn't cheering for the Impact I would have allowed myself a smile. Instead I sat in my La-z-boy in complete shock, my heart sinking into the pit of my stomach. How in the world had this turned into a Bill Simmons "gut-punch" game?

At a certain point in the second half, the referee lost the plot. A Santos player merited a red card on two incidents in the same sequence, for lifting his spikes at an incoming challenge and then raising his hands to the face of the defender when he called him on his intent to injure. All he got was a yellow, yet the rulebook is black and white about striking an opposing player's face with your hand. Then referee failed to call a penalty on the Santos keeper after he brought down the Impact striker in the box. Should have been a penalty shot, and Santos went straight back down the field and scored. And then there was the four minutes of stoppage time. Another dubious CONCACAF officiating decision that favours a Central Amercian team. Shameful, that. Now you know why I titled this thread "Loser's Lament".

All in all, we'll all have to take a deep breath and forget this unforgettable evening, instead remembering the year the Impact went on their improbable run to the quarterfinal of this prestigious competition and made Canada proud.

The first 2009 Voyageurs Cup match in Montreal takes place May 20th against Vancouver Whitecaps. Road trip, Waffle-Man?

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Soccer Pimp: Journey to Torreon

Last week I undertook a daring mid-week there and back again adventure to Montréal, in order to take in a historic moment in Canadian soccer history. The Impact were playing the first leg of a home-and-home quarterfinal match against Santos Laguna, the champions of last season's Mexican domestic league.

History was being made on the pitch, as Montréal was representing Canada's first entry in the CONCACAF Champions League, and doing so with aplomb. After securing the right to represent Canada by winning the Voyageurs Cup (a mini-tournament that took place over the length of the summer with Canada's other two notable professional teams, Vancouver Whitecaps and Toronto FC), they bowled over most of their opposition originating from clubs in Mexico, Guatemala and Trinidad & Tobago to reach the present quarterfinal stage.

History was also being made off the pitch with Olympic Stadium being reincarnated as a soccer mecca, attracting 55,571 of my closest friends. That ranked as the third highest attendance for a soccer match in the country, all-time.

Having arrived near the stadium in plenty of time before kickoff, we were nonetheless delayed from entering the venue due to a catastrophic lack of planning by organizers. It was no secret that the house was going to be rocking with a 50,000+ crowd, but organizers did nothing to facilitate the flow of humanity trying to get into the stadium. No police directing traffic at major intersections, no parking attendants to direct us to the nearest available parking. The end result is that we stood still in traffic for an hour, missing 30 minutes of the first half and the first goal 5 minutes in, and that only because our lovely companions urged us to hand over parking duties to them so we could go ahead. Our eternal thanks, ladies.

Despite the inconvenience and frustration of the arrival, all those feelings melted away as we found our section (and removing some fairly large Mexican supporters who were squatting in our seats - good thing my buddy Karl is so intimidating!). Being part of such a large crowd, a SOCCER crowd no less, tends to make you forget your worries other than the peaks and valleys of the action unfolding before you.

The match was already 1-0 to the Impact when we arrived, and within a few moments we could tell that the Impact had a fantastic game plan and were executing it to perfection. The skill level of the opposing team was superior, but Montréal's defend-and-counter strategy was too much for Santos Laguna to overcome. It almost seemed like the Mexican champions thought that by simply showing up the match was already won.

Adding a second half goal to make it 2-0, as well as having a keeper in Matt Jordan that dominated his area, was all the Impact needed to seal the first leg victory. The atmosphere was typical of a Montreal crowd: enthusiastic, passionate and in love with the big moment.

The return match is tonight in Torreon, Mexico in front of a hostile crowd and you can watch it at 10pm on CBC Bold or stream it at CBC.ca. Montréal will advance if the following happens:

  • Impact wins
  • Impact ties
  • Impact loses by 1
  • Impact loses by 2 but scores a goal
They've got one foot in the door already. Is it too early to dream of March 18th sold out semi-final match at the Big "O"?