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Matthews breaks franchise record as Leafs earn big win over Panthers

The Canadian Press | posted Wednesday, Mar 29th, 2017

TORONTO — Wendel Clark knew his record might be in jeopardy 21 and a half minutes into Auston Matthews‘s first game with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Matthews became the first player in NHL history to score four goals in a debut that October night against Ottawa and on Tuesday finally broke Clark’s 31-year-old franchise rookie record with his 35th goal this season — the opening goal in a crucial 3-2 Leafs win.

“It’s good,” Clark said of Matthews shattering a record set during the 1985-86 season. “If we’re going to be any good we need these young guys breaking all (these records) and doing well.”

Matthews and Toronto’s high-flying crop of rookies have been shredding the record books more and more often in recent weeks as they march toward a hopeful playoff berth. Tuesday’s victory over the Florida Panthers kept the club one point up (87 points) on Boston (86) for third in the Atlantic division and now four up on the surging Tampa Bay Lightning (83).

A night that looked to be all about the Leafs uncertain crease ultimately belonged to the 19-year-old Matthews, who joined Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby as the only rookies since the 1995-96 season to score 35 goals.

Zach Hyman instigated the marker 12 minutes into the first frame, controlling the puck from behind the Florida goal before finding Matthews in front, his shot slipping between the pads of James Reimer to best Clark for the franchise mark.

“Just to be in the same sentence as a guy like Wendel Clark is obviously a big honour,” said Matthews, who became the first Leaf since Clark to be picked first overall last June.

Now a community representative of the Leafs, Clark compared the big American centre to former Toronto captain and franchise leading scorer, Mats Sundin. Just like Sundin, Clark said, Matthews could be dangerous all by himself, but also gifted in finding teammates for open looks.

He said Matthews had a “goal-scorer’s touch” and the “hands of a little guy” and aimed to score in areas of the highest percentages, such as low, between the legs or blocker-side.

Clark added of Matthews: “He’s already big and strong at 19 and two, three years from now he’s going to be bigger and stronger once he fills out.”

Matthews increased his NHL lead for game-opening goals, matching Dave Andreychuk’s team record (1993-94), according to the Elias Sports Bureau, with his 14th of the year. He pulled within four points of Peter Ihnacak’s franchise rookie mark for points (66), set during the 1982-83 season.

Rookies have been adding their names to the Leafs record book in increasing fashion.

Mitch Marner recently equalled Gus Bodnar’s franchise rookie mark for assists (40), William Nylander matching team rookie records for power-play goals (9) and power-play points (25) while also establishing a new rookie mark for the team with a point streak that was extended to 12 games on Tuesday night.

Goaltending was primary in the pre-game build-up with Curtis McElhinney starting in place of injured No. 1 Frederik Andersen, who was nursing an undisclosed injury after getting bumped in the head last weekend.

Oddly enough, it was Reimer, the former Leaf, who was forced to exit Tuesday’s game when he was bumped in similar fashion by Brian Boyle midway through the second, replaced by Reto Berra.

McElhinney held his own in Andersen’s place at the other end, yielding two goals on 26 shots while shining early in the third period as the Leafs protected a 2-1 lead. Hyman eventually increased Toronto’s lead to two shorthanded — Leo Komarov scoring the Leafs second goal — Jaromir Jagr stuffing one in late in regulation.

Hyman became the fifth Leaf rookie to score at least 10 goals this season.

An interesting night also saw Roman Polak called for high-sticking Jonathan Huberdeau and then pulled out of the box when replays showed it was a puck — and not the stick — that struck Huberdeau.

Polak said he’d never seen such a thing and thanked the referee for admitting his mistake.

The night was all about Matthews though. He took over top spot among all NHL rookies in goals and points, a favourite to become the first Leaf since Brit Selby in 1966 to win the Calder Trophy.

“It’s obviously good and nice for him, but he needs to remember he’s got many years in front of him so he just needs to keep going,” Komarov said.

Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan named starter for All-Star Game

Sportsnet | posted Friday, Jan 20th, 2017

Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan has been named a starter for the 2017 NBA All-Star Game in New Orleans on Feb. 19.

This will be DeRozan’s third All-Star Game, with his first two appearances coming in 2014 and 2016.

The 27-year-old is enjoying a tremendous year with the Raptors, averaging a career-high 28.2 points to go with 3.9 assists.

DeRozan joins LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler and Giannis Antetokounmpo as a starter for the Eastern Conference.

Steph Curry, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis will start for the West. Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook did not make the starting five.
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Report: Blue Jays agree to one-year deal with Jose Bautista

Sportsnet | posted Tuesday, Jan 17th, 2017

The Toronto Blue Jays have agreed to re-sign Jose Bautista to a one-year contract that includes a mutual option for 2018, according to FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal.

The deal, which has not been announced by the team, would complete a reunion that seemed highly unlikely as recently as last month. It’s valued above the $17.2 million qualifying that Bautista declined at the beginning of the off-season, according to Jon Heyman.

After joining the Blue Jays in a seemingly minor 2008 trade, Bautista became one of the game’s most feared power hitters. The 36-year-old ranks second in Blue Jays history with 265 home runs behind only Carlos Delgado and ninth in games played with 1,078.

Injuries limited Bautista to just 116 games in 2016, when he hit .234 with 22 home runs and an OPS of .817. He generated 1.4 Wins Above Replacement, his lowest total as a member of the Blue Jays.

A reunion provides a local boost for the Blue Jays after the loss of Edwin Encarnacion and an off-season that to this point is highlighted by the signings of Kendrys Morales and Steve Pearce.

Bautista’s return seemed highly unlikely through most of the off-season as the Blue Jays extended him a qualifying offer and then did very little other negotiating with him.

Being tied to draft pick compensation surely impacted his market given that he’s entering his age 36 season after a pair of DL stints limited his production last year. The Blue Jays, who gained a first-round selection when Encarnacion signed with Cleveland, surrender the pick Bautista would have fetched them as they try to maximize their current window of opportunity.

Bautista was by far the best offensive player left on the free agent market and offered a significant upgrade for several teams.

That the Blue Jays seem to have slow-played him before making him a leverage add weeks before spring training is also intriguing.

Rather than come out aggressively in an attempt to re-sign him the way they did with Encarnacion and Brett Cecil, they left Bautista to linger, creating the impression they weren’t all that interested in bringing back one of the top players in franchise history.

The Blue Jays are believed to have in the area of $160 million to spend, and still need a backup catcher and left-handed reliever.

— With files from Shi Davidi

Report: Indians, Encarnacion agree to $60M, 3-year deal

The Associated Press | posted Friday, Dec 23rd, 2016

CLEVELAND — The Cleveland Indians swung for the free-agent fences and connected: Edwin Encarnacion is joining the AL champions.

Capping a year in which they came within one victory of winning the World Series for the first time since 1948, the Indians agreed to terms with the veteran slugger on a $60 million, three-year contract Thursday night.

The deal includes a club option for 2020 that, if exercised, would make it worth $80 million over four years.

The agreement is contingent upon Encarnacion passing a physical, two people familiar with the negotiations told The Associated Press. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the team had not made an announcement.

The physical is not expected to take place until after the holidays.

One of baseball’s most feared power hitters, Encarnacion had 42 home runs and 127 RBIs last season for the Toronto Blue Jays, who lost to Cleveland in the AL Championship Series. Over the past five seasons, he’s averaged 39 homers and 110 RBIs in 145 games.

Cleveland wins the Encarnacion sweepstakes

A three-time All-Star who also was pursued by Oakland this week, Encarnacion tied for the AL lead in RBIs this year and split time between designated hitter and first base.

He could have a similar role with the Indians, sharing those two spots with Carlos Santana, who can become a free agent after next season.

Encarnacion, who turns 34 next month, reportedly turned down a four-year offer from Toronto worth at least $80 million before hitting the open market. The Indians swooped in and worked out a deal to bring in a player who could help put them back in position to end their championship drought.

Cleveland knocked off Boston and Toronto in the playoffs and jumped out to a 3-1 lead in the Series before the Chicago Cubs rallied to win in seven games and capture their first title in 108 years.

The close call convinced the Indians the time was right to spend, and they’ve shelled out money for one of the biggest bats available this winter.

Encarnacion’s signing means the Indians will no longer pursue free agent first baseman Mike Napoli, who signed with Cleveland last winter and was a major part of the team’s run to its first AL Central title since 2007.

Napoli reached career bests in homers (34) and RBIs (101), and finally gave Cleveland a much-needed power bat from the right side. He also provided clubhouse leadership, serving as a mentor to Cleveland’s young players. However, he struggled in the post-season and the Indians were not willing to give him a multiyear deal. They did not give him a one-year qualifying offer of $17.2 million, either.

Encarnacion is an upgrade.

His departure from Toronto after eight seasons is a major move for Cleveland, which overcame injuries under manager Terry Francona to get to the World Series for the first time since 1997 and doesn’t want to endure another long wait.

Already with one of baseball’s best pitching staffs, the Indians now have a much more dangerous lineup. They’ve got young stars in second baseman Jason Kipnis and shortstop Francisco Lindor, and if left fielder Michael Brantley can bounce back from a shoulder injury that sidelined him for all but 11 games last season, the top of Cleveland’s order is as good as anyone’s.

It’s a bold move by Indians owner Paul Dolan, who has been hesitant to test free-agent waters in recent years after major signings of previous veterans like Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn didn’t pan out. But the Indians felt the time was right to act, especially with a bump in revenue from the 2016 post-season and adding new minority owner John Sherman.

Cleveland’s lagging attendance — the Indians ranked 28th in the majors — will also get a big bump from Encarnacion’s signing, which is being greeted by Cleveland fans as an early Christmas present.

Kipnis, too, views Encarnacion as a gift, posting: “Thank you Santa! EE” on his Twitter account.

Because Encarnacion did not accept the Blue Jays’ $17.2 million qualifying offer, the Indians would lose a first-round draft pick, No. 25 overall, if the deal is completed. Toronto would gain an extra pick at the end of the first round.

Auston Matthews writes history in unforgettable debut

Chris Johnston | posted Thursday, Oct 13th, 2016

OTTAWA – This will go down as a “remember where you were” kind of night.

And when was the last time we could say that about anything involving theToronto Maple Leafs? At least with something positive.

Auston Matthews didn’t just make history with a four-goal performance in his NHL debut on Wednesday, he lifted the spirits of an entire organization and its massive beleaguered fanbase. Afterwards, Mike Babcock labelled it his finest moment behind the Leafs bench “by 10 miles,” – “not even close,” he added – and this was after a 5-4 overtime loss to the Ottawa Senators.

“We’re all part of history tonight because we’re here,” said Babcock. “A special player.”

Babcock: Best night I’ve had here by ten miles, not even close

“Has it ever happened?” linemate William Nylander asked reporters before walking to the bus.

Uh, no.

Matthews is the first player in NHL history to score four goals in his debut. Just five players in the modern era had previously managed a hat trick in theirs.

They came every which way – on a 2-on-1 with Nylander, from the side of the goal on nice passes from Morgan Rielly and Zach Hyman, and on a ridiculous individual play where he beat four Ottawa players, including two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Babcock.

“It’s pretty crazy,” added teammate Jake Gardiner. “I think everyone was kind of in shock.”

Watch all 4 of Auston Matthews’ goals in NHL debut

It would make big headlines if it happened at any point of any season during Matthews’ career. But for lightning to strike in his first ever game – with parents Brian and Ema choking back tears in the Canadian Tire Centre stands – ensures it will be talked about in Toronto long after he’s done playing.

And it says an awful lot about Matthews that his first comment to reporters after the game was that he let Kyle Turris break free in overtime on the winning goal.

“That last play was 100 per cent my fault,” said Matthews. “Obviously we came here to win and we didn’t get that done. So obviously just a good learning point for myself and the team. We’ll be ready come Saturday.”

You can bet even the notoriously docile crowd at Air Canada Centre will be as well.

It has been a long time since there was reason for this much hope around the Maple Leafs. And in Saturday’s home opener against Boston, the organization will kick off a centennial celebration designed to celebrate the future as much as the past.

Frankly, this is why you tank in today’s NHL.

Rebuilding on the fly is nearly impossible in a league that has been taken over by the kids. You need high draft picks to succeed, and in Matthews and Nylander and Rielly and Mitch Marner, that is what Toronto has stockpiled while spinning its wheels these last few years.

In the words of Babcock: “Now we have an opportunity.”

Thanks to Matthews, they’ve also sent a message that last year’s unwatchable 30th-place finish is already a thing of the past. Much like the Connor McDavid show in Edmonton, this is going to be must-watch viewing.

What’s stood out most about Matthews, since becoming the first No. 1 overall pick selected by the Leafs in more than three decades, is how even-keeled he’s remained after being dropped into the fishbowl.

He’s less than a month beyond his 19th birthday and yet nothing seems to faze him.

“He’s a man,” said Babcock. “He’s 19 years old, but he acts like he’s 27.”

It was even apparent as he was busy rewriting the NHL record book. His first three goals came on his first three shots. Then he hardly even celebrated after beating Craig Anderson for a fourth time with three seconds left in the second period.

During the intermission, teammates joked that he might want to save a few goals for the games ahead.

“You’re kind of just speechless, honestly,” said Matthews. “As the periods kept going by, you kind of just think to yourself you can’t really believe this is going on. It’s that surreal.”

Truthfully, you wouldn’t even write this kind of story into a movie script for fear that it wouldn’t ring true. Thousands of men have made their NHL debut since 1943-44, and none had ever managed a night quite like this one.

Earlier in the day, Matthews said that he planned to treat it like any other for fear of psyching himself out. It’s a gift that all elite athletes seem to have – the ability to stay in the moment and push away any fear or anxiety – and we’re starting to learn that a teenager raised in Scottsdale, Ariz., possesses that trait.

Obviously, there needs to be a fair bit of good fortune at play to score four times in your first two NHL periods but the second goal Matthews produced was proof that this was no fluke. Karlsson, Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman andMarc Methot – veterans, one and all – each had a chance to keep that play from developing and the rookie plowed on.

“When you see that second goal he scored, not many guys do that,” said Babcock. “We’re fortunate that we have him.”

There was a giddiness about the Leafs despite failing to secure the extra point in overtime. With the infusion of skill, they believe things will be different this season.

Nylander even joked that he told Matthews to go out and get a fifth goal.

Right now, all these players see is possibility.

Before getting changed into his maroon suit and having a quick chat with his proud parents, Matthews posed for photos in the visiting dressing room holding the four pucks he scored with. You can be sure that shot will be hanging somewhere in the ACC before too long.

“I’ll be remembered for one thing, I guess, for a long, long time in Toronto,” said Anderson.

So will Matthews.

If you watched this game you’re likely never to forget it.

Legendary golfer Arnold Palmer dies at age 87

The Associated Press | posted Monday, Sep 26th, 2016

Arnold Palmer brought a country club sport to the masses with a hard-charging style, charisma and a commoner’s touch. At ease with both presidents and the golfing public, and on a first-name basis with both, “The King” died Sunday in Pittsburgh. He was 87.

Alastair Johnston, CEO of Arnold Palmer Enterprises, confirmed that Palmer died Sunday afternoon of complications from heart problems. Johnston said Palmer was admitted to the UPMC Hospital on Thursday for some cardiovascular work and weakened over the last few days.

“Today marks the passing of an era,” said Johnston, Palmer’s longtime agent at IMG. “Arnold Palmer’s influence, profile and achievements spread far beyond the game of golf. He was an iconic American who treated people with respect and warmth, and built a unique legacy through his ability to engage with fans.”

President Barack Obama tweeted about Palmer’s death, saying: “Here’s to The King who was as extraordinary on the links as he was generous to others. Thanks for the memories, Arnold.”

Palmer ranked among the most important figures in golf history , and it went well beyond his seven major championships and 62 PGA Tour wins. His good looks, devilish grin and go-for-broke manner made the elite sport appealing to one and all. And it helped that he arrived about the same time as television moved into most households, a perfect fit that sent golf to unprecedented popularity.

“If it wasn’t for Arnold, golf wouldn’t be as popular as it is now,” Tiger Woods said in 2004 when Palmer played in his last Masters. “He’s the one who basically brought it to the forefront on TV. If it wasn’t for him and his excitement, his flair, the way he played, golf probably would not have had that type of excitement.

“And that’s why he’s the king.”

Beyond his golf, Palmer was a pioneer in sports marketing, paving the way for scores of other athletes to reap in millions from endorsements. Some four decades after his last PGA Tour win, he ranked among the highest-earners in golf.

“It is not an exaggeration to say there would be no modern-day PGA Tour without Arnold Palmer. There would be no PGA Tour Champions without Arnold Palmer. There would be no Golf Channel without Arnold Palmer,” PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem said in a statement.

“No one has had a greater impact on those who play our great sport or who are touched by it. It has been said many times over in so many ways, but beyond his immense talent, Arnold transcended our sport with an extraordinarily appealing personality and genuineness that connected with millions, truly making him a champion of the people.”

On the golf course, Palmer was an icon not for how often he won, but the way he did it.

He would hitch up his pants, drop a cigarette and attack the flags. With powerful hands wrapped around the golf club, Palmer would slash at the ball with all of his might, then twist that muscular neck and squint to see where it went.

“When he hits the ball, the earth shakes,” Gene Littler once said.

Palmer rallied from seven shots behind to win a U.S. Open. He blew a seven-shot lead on the back nine to lose a U.S. Open.

He was never dull.

“I’m pleased that I was able to do what I did from a golfing standpoint,” Palmer said in 2008, two years after he played in his last official tournament. “I would like to think that I left them more than just that.”

He left behind a gallery known as “Arnie’s Army,” which began at Augusta National with a small group of soldiers from nearby Fort Gordon, and grew to include a legion of fans from every corner of the globe.

Palmer stopped playing the Masters in 2004 and hit the ceremonial tee shot every year until 2016, when age began to take a toll and he struggled with his balance.

Canadian golfer Mike Weir, who captured the Masters in 2003, tweeted from his verified account “Everyone knows the great champion Mr Palmer is, but having spent time with, he’s an even better human being. RIPAP.”

Fellow Canadian golfer Graham DeLaet also reacted to the news on Twitter, saying “Arnie was one of the special people in our game. Treated everyone with so much respect. So glad I was able to meet the King. RIP.”

It was Palmer who gave golf the modern version of the Grand Slam — winning all four professional majors in one year. He came up with the idea after winning the Masters and U.S. Open in 1960. Palmer was runner-up at the British Open, later calling it one of the biggest disappointments of his career. But his appearance alone invigorated the British Open, which Americans had been ignoring for years.

Palmer never won the PGA Championship, one major short of capturing a career Grand Slam.

But then, standard he set went beyond trophies. It was the way he treated people, looking everyone in the eye with a smile and a wink. He signed every autograph, making sure it was legible. He made every fan feel like an old friend.

Palmer never like being referred to as “The King,” but the name stuck.

“It was back in the early ’60s. I was playing pretty good, winning a lot of tournaments, and someone gave a speech and referred to me as ‘The King,”‘ Palmer said in a November 2011 interview with The Associated Press.

“I don’t bask in it. I don’t relish it. I tried for a long time to stop that and,” he said, pausing to shrug, “there was no point.”

Palmer played at least one PGA Tour event every season for 52 consecutive years, ending with the 2004 Masters. He spearheaded the growth of the 50-and-older Champions Tour, winning 10 times and drawing some of the biggest crowds.

He was equally successful off with golf course design, a wine collection, and apparel that included his famous logo of an umbrella. He bought the Bay Hill Club & Lodge upon making his winter home in Orlando, Florida, and in 2007 the PGA Tour changed the name of the tournament to the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

The combination of iced tea and lemonade is known as an “Arnold Palmer.” Padraig Harrington recalls eating in an Italian restaurant in Miami when he heard a customer order one.

“Think about it,” Harrington said. “You don’t go up there and order a ‘Tiger Woods’ at the bar. You can go up there and order an ‘Arnold Palmer’ in this country and the barman — he was a young man — knew what the drink was. That’s in a league of your own.”

Palmer was born Sept. 10, 1929, in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, the oldest of four children. His father, Deacon, became the greenskeeper at Latrobe Country Club in 1921 and the club pro in 1933.

He had two loves as a boy — strapping on his holster with toy guns to play “Cowboys and Indians,” and playing golf. It was on the golf course that Palmer grew to become so strong, with barrel arms and hands of iron.

“When I was 6 years old, my father put me on a steel-wheeled tractor,” he recalled in a 2011 interview with the AP. “I had to stand up to turn the wheel. That’s one thing made me strong. The other thing was I pushed mowers. In those days, there were no motors on anything except the tractor. The mowers to cut greens with, you pushed.

“And it was this,” he said, patting his arms, “that made it go.”

Palmer joined the PGA Tour in 1955 and won the Canadian Open for the first of his 62 titles. He went on to win four green jackets at Augusta National, along with the British Open in 1961 and 1962 and the U.S. Open in 1960, perhaps the most memorable of his seven majors.

Nothing defined Palmer like that 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills. He was seven shots behind going into the final round when he ran into Bob Drum, a Pittsburgh sports writer. Palmer asked if he could still win by shooting 65, which would give him a four-day total of 280. Drum told him that 280 “won’t do you a damn bit of good.”

Incensed, Palmer headed to the first tee and drove the green on the par-4 opening hole to make birdie. He birdied the next three holes, shot 65 and outlasted Ben Hogan and 20-year-old amateur Jack Nicklaus.

Palmer went head to head with Nicklaus two years later in a U.S. Open, the start of one of golf’s most famous rivalries. It was one-sided. Nicklaus went on to win 18 majors and was regarded as golf’s greatest champion. Palmer won two more majors after that loss, and his last PGA Tour win came in 1973 at the Bob Hope Classic.

Tom Callahan once described the difference between Nicklaus and Palmer this way: It’s as though God said to Nicklaus, “You will have skills like no other,” then whispered to Palmer, “But they will love you more.”

“I think he brought a lot more to the game than his game,” Nicklaus said in 2009. “What I mean by that is, there’s no question about his record and his ability to play the game. He was very, very good at that. But he obviously brought a lot more. He brought the hitch of his pants, the flair that he brought to the game, the fans that he brought into the game.”

Palmer combined power with charm, reckless abandon with graceful elegance. Golf no longer was a country club game for old men who were out of shape. He was a man’s man, and he brought that spirit to the sport.

It made him a beloved figure, and brought riches long after he stopped competing.

That started with a handshake agreement with IMG founder Mark McCormack to represent Palmer in contract negotiations. Palmer’s image was everywhere, from motor oil to ketchup to financial services companies. Even as late as 2011, nearly 40 years after his last PGA Tour win, Palmer was No. 3 on Golf Digest’s list of top earners at $36 million a year. He trailed only Woods and Phil Mickelson.

Palmer’s other love was aviation. He piloted his first aircraft in 1956, and 10 years later had a license to fly jets that now are the standard mode of transportation for so many top players, even though the majority of them are merely passengers. Palmer flew planes the way he played golf. He set a record in 1976 when he circumnavigated the globe in 57 hours, 25 minutes and 42 seconds in a Lear 36. He continued flying his Cessna Citation 10 until he failed to renew his license at age 81, just short of 20,000 hours in the cockpit.

Through it all, he touched more people than he could possibly remember, though he sure tried. When asked about the fans he attracted at Augusta National, Palmer once said, “Hell, I know most of them by name.”

Only four other players won more PGA Tour events than Palmer — Sam Snead, Nicklaus, Woods and Hogan.

Palmer’s first wife, Winnie, died in 1999. They had two daughters, and grandson Sam Saunders plays on the PGA Tour. Palmer married Kathleen (Kit) Gawthrop in 2005.

Details on a memorial service and burial will be announced later.

Palmer was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997, which was caught early. He returned to golf a few months later, winking at fans as he waded through the gallery, always a smile and a signature for them.

“I’m not interested in being a hero,” Palmer said, implying that too much was made about his return from cancer. “I just want to play some golf.”

That, perhaps, is his true epitaph. Palmer lived to play.

Blue Jays draw 3 million in attendance for first time since 1993

Shi Davidi | posted Wednesday, Sep 14th, 2016

TORONTO – The Toronto Blue Jays crossed the 3 million mark in attendance Tuesday night, a threshold they last reached in 1993. By the time all is said and done in 2016, they will have at least the sixth-best total gate in franchise history, with a shot at the fifth spot.

Getting there is no surprise – club president and CEO Mark Shapiro said they’re already at 3.3 million sold – but given the questions raised during some of the team’s lean years, lowlighted by the 1,495,482 drawn in 2010, there were doubts the numbers would ever be so high again.

“It’s a reflection of the intensity of the fan base,” Shapiro says of breaking three million. “For me, being here every night, it’s almost hard to appreciate it. You get a night like [Monday], where we’re under 40,000, and you almost note that more. But there’s also a constant reminder of how important it is to maintain that covenant, that it’s a two-way relationship, it’s not just the fans’ undying support, it’s for a team that plays the game a certain way, competes and contends at a certain level as well.

“So to me, I look at those things as fuel for our side of the covenant.”


The corresponding piece to the club side of the covenant is its payroll, and this off-season presents an important litmus test for the organization with longtime icons likeJose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion headed to free agency.

Fans will want to see the team spend money and bring both players back, especially given that last month the Blue Jays announced an average price increase of nine per cent on early-bird season-ticket renewals. On Tuesday, they announced a restructuring of their popular flex-pack packages in line with their move toward increase use of dynamic pricing.

As prices rise, people tend to expect a reciprocal investment in the roster.

“[Attendance] is a positive indicator on where we’ll be next year but that off-season planning process is not a simple process,” says Shapiro. “It’s a multi-pronged process that initially just involves internal meetings, meetings with player development, amateur and pro scouts, meeting with our major-league staff and then meeting with our front office to lay out a plan. And that plan, to me, would have a set of alternative payrolls and the implications involved with the types of teams those payrolls would support. Then it’s going and making a presentation to the ownership group here on what the implications are of different payroll levels, the projected revenue and collectively coming up with where we end up.”

Their payroll this year is believed to be creeping toward the $150 million range.


Known as the SkyDome back then, the Rogers Centre hosted its first baseball game on June 5, 1989, a marvel of its time with a first-of-its-kind retractable roof. Leaving dumpy and utilitarian Exhibition Stadium for the gleaming dome was like moving from a soiled refrigerator box to a mansion.

Now, however, Rogers Centre is the seventh oldest stadium in the majors and all the others – save for the decrepit Oakland Coliseum – have undergone substantial renovations. The Rogers Centre looks reasonably good for its age, though as a multipurpose facility it’s a relic of a bygone era, the ballpark game forever changed by the 1992 opening of retro-styled Camden Yards in Baltimore, a true gem to this day.

Either way, the dome needs an update, one that will “re-envision the building for the next 30 years,” according to Shapiro.

To that end, the Blue Jays have already “gone through initial presentations from a design firm to come up with concepts of where the greatest opportunities lie,” says Shapiro. They’ve done an “intensive” study of their fans, examined the dome’s infrastructure and the lifespan of its various systems and will eventually pick a design firm to work with.

At that point, explains Shapiro, “there will be a six-month process to go and look at trends, look at opportunities, understand how that fits into our marketplace and understand the building and where the greatest opportunities lie here.”

The infrastructure in place is relatively sound, Shapiro says, more so than one might think give the building’s age. Priorities include updating scoreboards and sound systems.

“Those are definitely things that’ll be addressed,” he says. “To me, the most important piece is looking at it comprehensively. What kind of views of the field do people have when they’re on the concourses? How wide are the concourses? Where are the opportunities to create spaces? There are a lot of spaces in the ballpark. How can we orient the stands to best take advantage of a baseball experience? Those are all questions that we have to ask and experts have to guide us through.”


Paul Beeston, Shapiro’s predecessor, often floated the idea of a natural grass field in time for the 2018 season. He approved the commissioning of a study by experts at the University of Guelph to determine what it would take to retrofit the dome so it could sustain a grass field.

The results so far?

“It’s an ongoing study and continues to be on the table,” says Shapiro.

What are the early indications?

“Just that we need to study it more to understand the precise implications of cost and building design.”

The departure of the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts to a refurbished BMO Field allowed the Blue Jays to install a dirt infield around the FieldTurf artificial playing surface in time for this year.

Given the bigger-picture possibilities in play, the current field may be what the stadium rolls with for years to come.


In 1991, the Blue Jays became the first big-league franchise to break the 4 million mark in attendance, drawing 4,001,526, then attracting 4,028,318 in 1992 and a team high 4,057,947 in ’93. That year, the expansion Colorado Rockies, playing at Mile High Stadium, attracted a big-league record 4,483,350 fans. The New York Yankees (four times, most recently in 2008) and New York Mets (once) are the only other franchises to break 4 million.

The Blue Jays entered Tuesday with their attendance at 2,988,267 and their gate of 38,338 against the Tampa Bay Rays pushed them to 3,026,605, the sixth-best total in team history. Depending on the final numbers for their final eight home games of the year go – Wednesday’s finale against the Rays and then four games with the Yankees and three against the Orioles to close out the home schedule – they may surpass the 3,375,883 drawn in 1989 for the franchise’s fifth-best total.

“I thought we crossed the threshold of how incredible the support and the fan base is earlier in the season, in contrast to what I’ve experienced [in Cleveland],” says Shapiro. “When you pull back and take a moment to reflect, the numbers are staggering. The support is overwhelming. Again, I would just reinforce that to me, it just fuels the desire and the need to continue to fulfil our end of the covenant.”

Blue Jays’ slow start to September continues with loss to Rays

The Canadian Press | posted Wednesday, Sep 14th, 2016

TORONTO — Russell Martin couldn’t complain about Marcus Stroman‘s pitches on Tuesday night.

There was one he would have liked to have back, though.

With runners on first and second in the fifth inning, Stroman threw a 93 mile-per-hour two-seam fastball to Alexei Ramirez that the Tampa Bay shortstop hit over the wall to give the Rays a 3-0 lead. They never looked back en route to a 6-2 victory over the struggling Toronto Blue Jays.

“That’s really the story of the day, that one pitch,” Martin said.

“Just a two-seamer, maybe overthrown a little bit. … You could throw that pitch 9-out-of-10 times and maybe get more sink on it, get a ground ball and we’re out of the inning. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case right there.”

Steven Souza Jr., also homered for the Rays (61-83), Logan Forsythe had an RBI andDrew Smyly (7-11) went 5 2/3 innings, allowing two runs on five hits with one walk and four strikeouts to hand Toronto it’s eighth loss in 11 games.

The Blue Jays opened their September schedule by losing three consecutive series for the first time this season, slipping down the AL East standings in the process. They could lose a fourth straight series with a defeat in Wednesday afternoon’s finale.

Toronto and Baltimore are tied for the first AL wild card after the Orioles beat Boston 6-3 on Tuesday. Both clubs are two games back of the Red Sox for top spot in the division.

Stroman knows things need to change if the Blue Jays want to make the post-season for a second straight year.

“My stuff feels great, but we’re in September and we’re at the point where we need to be getting wins so it’s frustrating,” he said. “We need to start winning games here.

“The whole morale of the team is confident, we just have to go out there and do it.”

Stroman (9-8) allowed three runs on four hits with four strikeouts and four walks over six innings. The outing snapped his streak of 12 consecutive starts with two walks or less.

“I didn’t really think it was an issue,” Martin said of the Stroman’s four free passes. “I thought he threw the ball well. I don’t really care what the stats say. The ball’s coming out good. Sinker was good, four-seamer was good, cutter was good. He’s throwing the ball well. I’m not going to try and find a reason.”

Martin hit a two-run homer for the Blue Jays (79-65), his 18th of the season, in the sixth inning, and Devon Travis had a single in the seventh to extend his hit streak to a season-high 10 games.

Tampa responded to Martin’s homer with Souza Jr.’s in the top of the seventh. His 17th homer of the season — a solo shot to left-centre field — came off reliever Joe Biagini, who hadn’t allowed a home run in his first 49 appearances. He has given up three in his last four.

The Rays added two more runs in the ninth. Forsythe scored Dickerson from third with a force out off Scott Feldman and Souza Jr., scored on a wild pitch from Aaron Loup.

Tampa, at 10-8, clinched its eighth winning season versus Toronto in the last nine years.

“We sit back and wonder. I mean, that’s one of the best ball clubs in the league and we always play them tough,” Souza Jr., said. “If we could harness that and play the rest of the league like that, we’d be a pretty god ball club.”

The Blue Jays left seven men on base, including a bases-loaded situation in the seventh that ended with an Edwin Encarnacion strikeout by Danny Farquhar.

All-star third baseman Josh Donaldson sat out a second straight game with a hip injury. Manager John Gibbons said Donaldson jarred his right hip while running to first base in Sunday’s loss to Boston.

The Rogers Centre, which hosted 38,338 for Tuesday’s game, surpassed 3 million fans on the season for the first time since 1993 when Toronto last won a World Series and the stadium was still called SkyDome.

NOTES: Damian Warner of London, Ont., the Olympic bronze medallist in decathlon in Rio, threw out the ceremonial first pitch to Canadian outfielder Dalton Pompey. … Smyly hasn’t lost a game since July 18 at Colorado, his first start after the all-star break.

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