Tape-measure Job Of The Heart

You are a kid dwarfed by your teammates. You are too small for baseball, they tell you over and over. Your teammates poke fun at your small stature. Your coach benches you with the game on the line in favor of one of the big kids.

You are tormented by your detractors. You love the game but the odds are stacked high against you. Your palms are sweating, your stomach churning.

So what do you do? How do you cope? Where do you turn? Who do you draw inspiration from?

You watch the ultimate sporting role model. You watch Jose Altuve in the American League Championship Series. You watch a man who has overcome the longest odds to become the player many regard as the greatest small player to toil in the major leagues. He is a towering five-foot-six and, if they measured his heart, it would come in at about six-foot-six.

You go to school on Jose Altuve, a player never ever let the dream die, even after the team that employs him, the Houston Astros, shunned him as a 16 year old as he took the first step towards achieving the dream of his countryman and idol Omar Vizquel.

If you get cut from a tryout camp, you don’t take no for answer, don’t give up hope. Never give up hope. When Altuve was cut from a Astros’ tryout camp in his native Venezuela, he returned with a vengeance the next day anyway. When you’re the smallest player you never say never.

You don’t think about the money. With the sweetness in his swing and the fire in his eyes, Altuve eventually won over the Astros’ scouts who called him enamal (dwarf) and they offered him a pro contract.

When the Astros offered a signing bonus, Altuve told them he’d play for free. Al Pedrique, the assistant to Astros’ general manager Tim Purpura who went to bat for Altuve, talked the organization into offering him a $15,000 signing bonus.

When you’ve had to scrap for everything you’ve gotten, you play with a scowl on your face and a chip on your shoulder. You play every game like it is your last. It is this way for Altuve, who is paid US$14.5 million a year while looking like he’d play for nothing.

When you win a batting title and they call you a slap hitter, you watch more film, take more swings, pump more iron and study more pitchers to miraculously transform yourself into a bonafide power threat with 24 homers in back-to-back seasons.

When you endure a miserable batting slump in your first post-season appearance, you apologize to the manager and come back with a steely resolve to redeem yourself. Altuve, on pace to become one of the greatest second basemen in history, returned to the post-season this year with fire in his eyes against the Boston Red Sox, becoming the eighth player in history to hit three homers in a post-season game. Babe Ruth did it twice. Don’t bet against Altuve doing it again.

If you’re five-foot-nothing, you don’t need to become a jockey and spend your leisure in a hot box to make weight. You can draw inspiration by watching Altuve, a 27-year-old who shares a birthday with the great Willie Mays, as he racks up spectacular post-season offensive stats as the Astros face the Yankees.

Watch him out-muscle the game’s most celebrated power hitter, Yankees’ six-foot-seven Aaron Judge, a leading candidate for the most valuable player award. Listen to announcer Joe Buck marvel at Altuve as a “hitting machine.” Listen to the fans chant MVP when you stroke another hit and dance on your toes around the bag at first.

Never mind about your small stature. Check out the numbers of the baseball’s little big man. Altuve is batting a jaw-dropping .625 in  the post-season while the big man, Judge, is the strikeout machine with an astonishing 19 strikeouts in 27 bats and a paltry .143 batting average.

On this day, Game 2 of the series in Houston, you watch the sparkplug Altuve as he goes down swinging in the sixth with the score tied 1-1. Yankees’ pitcher Tommy Kahnle triumphantly shouts with joy as he rings up Altuve. The reigning batting champ spits through his teeth and flashes a menacing glare at Kahnle as he storms back to the dugout. You know he’s taken that license plate number – #48. Altuve’s icy stare tells you his job is not finished.

Watch Altuve in the ninth as he comes to the plate spitting mad and promptly sets the stage for victory with a first-pitch line single off Yankees’ closer Aroldis Chapman. And watch him charge around the bases from first like a man running for his life to score the walk-off game-winning run on a double by Carlos Correa.

Altuve’s hit was only a single in the scorebook but to the kids who idolize him it was much, much more. It was another shot of inspiration to the youth who face discrimination based on their small stature in baseball, or in life.

Listen to Altuve in a post-game interview saying “this is my best game ever…”

No doubt, he means it his most important game ever, putting the Astros within six wins of their first World Championship.

“We here, we battling 100 per cent,” gushes Altuve, and this time the cliche doesn’t ring hollow.

The message from Altuve is crystal clear. Don’t let the scouts write you off based on your performance under a superficial tape measure. Watch Jose Altuve, who forced their hand and left them no choice. They had to measure the size of his heart.

Indeed, this day marked another rousing tape-measure job of the heart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Most Interesting Man In Hockey

The other day, I saw an old guy on television with dancing blue eyes, flowing locks and salt and pepper beard.

I thought perhaps this was the drummer from a touring rock band. On closer inspection, I discovered that it was in fact Jaromir Jagr.

The most interesting man in hockey.

The living legend was devilishly grinning at the cameras and the microphones and unabashedly gushing over Edmonton Oilers’ superstar Connor McDavid.

It was enough to make a grown man weep or throw up on his typewriter, which would have been a shameful waste of Victoria gin.

A Calgary Flame heaping praise upon an Oiler? During the gory glory years of the Battle of Alberta, this was unthinkable. Unpardonable puffery.

Can you imagine one-time Flames’ rabble-rouser Theoren Fleury extolling the virtues of Oilers’ abrasive chatterbox Esa Tikkanen back in the hey-day of sport’s bloodiest rivalry? Fleury is best remembered in Edmonton for his fist-pumping victory dance for the benefit of Oiler fans after a game-ending goal in the 1991 Stanley Cup playoffs.

During that ’91 edition of Alberta’s uncivil war, while the players were spilling blood on the ice in that series, off the ice Flames’ goaltending coach Glenn Hall was taking a run at a Calgary Herald writer in a corridor at the Saddledome the night after a loss in Edmonton (I still say the Flames exhibited all the grit of “a ballet company”).

In the 1980s and 1990s, mere mention of an arch rival in the Battle of Alberta would set a player’s blood boiling. I remember asking Flames’ agitator Neil Sheehy about Gretzky’s brilliance and he answered by grunting and spitting on my shoe. The grunt would have sufficed.

One of the most bizarre scenes was in the Oilers’ dressing room in Calgary where Glen Sather, the one-time Oiler coach and general manager, pointed to a shredded Oiler jersey on display for the media and quipped, “that’s Calgary class!” This was after Flames’ Doug Risebrough had shredded the jersey with his skates in the penalty box after one of the scraps.

So Jagr’s outrageous statement in his first interview after joining the Flames that Oilers’ Connor McDavid would one day break Wayne Gretzky’s single-season goal scoring record of 92 was stunning and left old school Calgary fans feeling queasy. Yet, when you think about it, it also smacks of brilliance.

“He’s a great player,” Jagr, hockey’s 45-year-old rock star. said of McDavid the day after watching the Oilers’ superstar undress the Flames with a season opening hat trick. “If he would learn how to score on breakaways a little more, I think he’d score 150 goals in a season…

“I wouldn’t be surprised if some day he scores 100 goals and breaks the record.”

As outrageous as it sounds, you had to figure there was a method to his madness. When you’ve played 1,711 games spanning eight teams and 23 years in the NHL and racked up 1,914 points, second only to Gretzky, you have earned a right to speak your mind.

The cagey Czech also knows a thing or two about gamesmanship. Hey, when you’re in the underdog role, why not butter up the best player on the favorite and turn up the pressure on the game’s most celebrated young star?

Twenty-seven years ago, Jagr was the young star under scrutiny, an 18-year-old taking the NHL by storm with those magnificent rushes, his trademark mullet flowing from his helmet.

But now, as he desperately campaigns to extend his marvelous career, Jagr looks for any edge he can possibly get. The jury is still out on whether the man from Kladno in the Czech Republic can still be an offensive force. There’s already some hand wringing in Calgary about the fact that a man known as a fitness fanatic did not dress for Saturday’s home opener, saying he has yet to reach game fitness. He may make his debut in Anaheim Monday.

When you’re in your mid-forties, Father Time could be tapping you on the shoulder could at any moment. It happened to baseball’s oldest player, 44-year-old Bartolo Colon. The popular pitcher known as “The Big Sexy” is now contemplating retirement after a horrendous 2017 season with Atlanta and Minnesota.

Jagr signed a one-year US $1 million contract, needing only 57 games to reach Gordie Howe’s NHL record for most games played.

In a league in which the game’s superstars such as McDavid and Sidney Crosby are mostly colorless men who fill notebooks with cliches, Jagr stands out as a breath of fresh air with his refreshing candor and infectious enthusiasm for the game.

Until recently, it appeared that his NHL career was finally over and that he may be talking contract with the owner of Kladno’s pro team (Jagr is the owner). Then, four days before the NHL season opener, a photo of Jagr’s Tabby cat appeared on Twitter (@68Jagr), fuelling speculation that something may be in the works.

In the photo, Jagr’s Tabby cat was lounging on a sofa in a bed of $20 U.S. bills with its right paw cradling a celebratory bottle of Jose Cuervo tequila. The caption read: ‘Look, I just tell my cat, there’s a chance to play in the NHL this year.’

Some may wonder why a five-time NHL scoring champion would continue to subject himself to the NHL grind when he could be lounging on a beautiful Lebedev Beach Kladno. Former teammates understand it perfectly and know it’s not about breaking more records for longevity.

Jagr’s former teammate Jussi Jokinen told the New York Times last year that Jagr “loves the game the way others love their kids” and he wasn’t kidding. Jagr says he would have retired long ago if he was a family man. His current family is the roomful of kids in the Flames’ dressing room, many of whom weren’t born yet when launched his career in Pittsburgh alongside Mario Lemieux.

“If I can play till I die, that’s what I will do,” Jagr told Sportsnet’s Kristina Rutherford last season, explaining his fountain of youth.

This is a man in a torrid love affair with a game. He needs to play on a free rein so one can only hope that the Flames don’t cramp his style and stifle his creativity.

This old guy with dancing blue eyes, flowing locks and salt and pepper beard needs the game even more than the game needs him. So give him ice time and a Dos Equis beer commercial and all will be well in the hockey world.

He is, after all, the most interesting man in hockey.

 

 

 

Blue Jays: Shaken, Not Stirred

“They should fire the bum!” bawls Martini.

Something’s up. Martini the Bartender is not wearing his trademark Blue Jays’ cap. He is wearing a scowl.

“Fire who?” I ask.

“John Gibbons, that’s who, Jays need a shakeup,” spouts Martini, furiously shaking a Victoria Gin martini with Toronto’s season finally on ice.

I’m going to bat for the skipper Gibby. Someone has to after this season.

“Didn’t you see Joe Biagini after the last game? He was hugging the skipper. These guys love him. Besides they only finished 17 games behind the first-place Red Sox.”

Martini’s face flushes with rage: “Yeah, I’d love to go fishing with Gibbons. But it’s high time the Blue Jays had a manager that does more than fill out the lineup card and tell ’em the wind’s blowing out. We need a fiery manager with a pulse and some guys that can run. Too bad we let Torey Lovullo (ex-first base coach) get away. I see he’s managing Arizona in the post-season.”

“Wait a minute!” I interject. “I’m sure I saw Gibby flashing a sign today with Smoak at the plate.”

“That’s the only sign he flashes,” says Martini, frothing. “That’s no hit-and-run sign. That’s the hit-and-trot sign. Home run sign. That’s all this team can do – hit home runs. And strike out. This team needs a new lease on life, a new manager with a new game plan. There’s no shame in hitting a single or stretching a single into a double. That’s baseball.”

“Don’t forget,” I say in defense of the grizzled Toronto manager. “The Jays didn’t just hit 220 home runs. They also had five triples.”

“That’s my point,” says Martini, flipping a bucket of ice for emphasis. “Five triples. Charlie Blackmon of the Rockies had 14 all by himself. Five! That’s ’cause they they don’t start running until they’re sure the ball’s not going over the fence. Then they jog into second base for crying out loud. Whatever became of rounding the bag at second. Five stinkin’ triples!”

“It’s a new game, Martini. Haven’t you noticed. Ty Cobb and Pete Rose are retired. It’s all about conserving energy. Striking out takes a lot out of a guy. Did you see Josh Donaldson the other day? He almost punctured a lung striking out on a slider. Bat almost decapitated a Yankee fielder.”

“The Jays struck out 1,309 times this season,” points out a Googling Martini. “Jose Bautista struck out 170 times. Our pitching staff’s fine but you can’t win chasing breaking balls a foot off the plate. Whiffing! It’s become the new national pastime!”

“Gibby didn’t strike out once all year,” I say, backing up the much maligned strategist. “Never mind those strikeout stats. As for Bautista, it wasn’t his fault. The umpires are to blame. But that’s beside the point. Striking out is sexy. Everybody’s doing it. Giancarlo didn’t get his 60th home run in the final game. But at least he went out in style – with a mighty cut on a third strike in his final at-bat. It was poetry in motion.”

“There was a time,” says a hand-wringing Martini behind the bar, “when a guy took pride in making contact. Joe DiMaggio struck out 13 times in 541 at-bats in ’41! That was the year he hit safely in the record 56 consecutive games. And he still hit 30 homers. Joltin’ Joe! Now that guy had his eye on the ball – at least until he met Marilyn Monroe. Thirteen strikeouts! That’s a weekend for some guys now.”

“It is what it is,” I say, stealing Gibby’s quote. “Okay, Martini, please tell me, who would you like to see at the helm next year?”

“Gregg Zaun is my man!” Martini says, brightening. “The ‘Manalyst’ (the fiery analyst on Jays’ broadcasts) will give this team a wakeup call. Shoot, you might even see a bunt sign now and then.”

And now he is sporting his trademark Blue Jays cap.

“Will that be two olives or three?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As for Josh Donaldson, I’m with Gregg Zaun, analyst on the Jays’ pre-game show.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flip The Damn Bat, Jose!

You are Jose Bautista, mired in the misery of the longest season and today is likely your last hurrah as a Blue Jay at Rogers Centre. So relax, Jose.  Wipe that scowl off your face. Smile at the ump. Sit on the fastball. Take one final sweet swing at Rogers Centre and flip the bat.

Yes, flip the damn bat!

This season of misery has no doubt taken its toll on you mentally. You appear to have worn down. Physically, you seem to have something left at 36. But the burning question is whether you can recharge mentally and rejuvenate your career.

The twilight has been unkind to you, the fall from grace too sudden for such a fierce competitor. So savor the final act. Never mind about the .201 batting average. Forget that you’ve just broken the all-time club record with 161 strikeouts while mustering only 22 homers. It’s time to give your fans one more electrifying blast and take a well deserved bow.

And flip the damn bat!

You have walloped 332 home runs as a Jay but only one will be forever etched in the memories of your fans. That was the one delivered with an exclamation point that ignited the Rogers Centre faithful two years ago with your flair for the dramatic and showmanship. After cranking that three-run walk-off homer off Texas Rangers pitcher Sam Dyson to propel the Jays to the 2015 division series title, you flipped the damn bat.

This was no ordinary bat flip. It was not the smooth and subtle David Ortiz bat flip. This one was forceful and decisive. and laced with venom. A stick-it-in-your-ear bat flip. It had all the dramatic effects of Robert Redford’s blast in The Natural.

As cruel as it seems, the “Joey Bats” bat flip seemed to signal the rapid decline of Canada’s most celebrated baseball hero. For some, it was perceived as a beautiful thing. But this is the staid league that is strangled by tradition and unwritten rules such as the one that says you don’t show up the opposition, the flipping of the bat being the cardinal sin.

Baseball’s dinosaurs were horrified by your flair for theatrics. Party poopers like Hall of Famer Goose Gossage were aghast. Gossage ranted that you are “a f—ing disgrace.”

Get a life, Goose.

You always had a reputation as a scrappy product of the Dominican Republic but at least you never forgot that you were in the entertainment business.

Baseball is a nasty grind for those who forget that it’s a game and that may explain your anguish over this lost season for the team and it’s longtime superstar. Baseball players are the most stressed athletes in professional team sports. The batters’ box is a cauldron of emotions. So what better way to blow off steam that to flip the damn bat.

The batters box is a sort of solitary confinement. You are bogged down by analytics and countless scouting reports while entertaining thoughts of 100-mile-per-hour chin music. To exacerbate the scene, there’s your estranged relationship with the umpires and their moving strike zones. So you flip the damn bat and your picture winds up on wanted posters throughout the league.

In the two seasons since the infamous bat flip, your batting average has plummeted near the .200 mark while your power numbers have plummeted. You have hit more homers in the majors than any other player in the past decade and as many as 54 in a single season. And now it’s almost certain the Jay won’t exercise their option for one more year on the US$18 million annual contract you signed for this season after being shunned on the free-agent market.

When you’re one of the most controversial personalities in the league with waning numbers and approaching your 37th birthday, the prospects of attracting interest from other teams do not appear great.

But there is a league that would welcome you with open arms and a cheerleaders’ reception. The Korean Baseball Organization (KBO), the top Korean pro league, may be tailor made for you, particularly one with a penchant for bat flipping.

Here’s a league that knows how to party. Korean baseball is a bat flipping paradise. It’s cool to flip bats in Korea (where it is known as ppa dun). Opposing pitchers do not view it as a sign of disrespect. They only get mad when bat flippers endanger the lives of their cheerleaders. While youthful Koreans dance in the aisles, players artfully flip bats, spiralling them skyward a la Joey Bats, even on routine grounders or foul balls!

While major league baseball struggles to attract younger fans, Korean baseball popularity is in an uptrend. The toast of the KBO is ex-major league pitcher Dustin Nippert. Unheralded in his native Ohio, Nippert is worshipped in Korea and paid a KBO record salary of US$2.1 million by the Doosan Bears for his trouble in tolerating the merry bat flippers. For the record, that’s 2,380,140,000 Korean won.

Jose, Korea could be the fountain of youth where you could rediscover the joy of baseball, a place where you could go out in style as Korea’s marquee player and a ‘won’ trillionaire to boot.

Teams like the Samsung Lions seem to lack star power between the chalklines.  The only the team picture on the home page of the Lions’ website is that of the team’s cheerleading squad!

It would be bat flipping heaven. But a cautionary note, Jose. In Korea, you must also bow to the umpire.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ala

 

 

John Daly: One-Man Parade

No, you did not win that golf tournament on Bear Mountain. You didn’t have to. All you had to do was show up in those crazy polka-dotted pants, blow smoke into the camera lens and remind us that it’s a game.

Because you’re John Daly in screaming Loudmouth pants. And there is only one John Daly.

You were the one-man ticker-tape parade that brought sleepy Bear Mountain to life, roused Victoria from its slumber and scared the deer off the fairway with your pants.

You even managed to cause a ruckus at the newspaper. A photographer with the Victoria Times-Colonist captured you in all your glory – modeling the sponsor’s Loudmouth pants you’ve made famous, sucking out your pot belly, furiously puffing on a cigarette while practising your putting for the PGA Tour Champions Pacific Links tournament.

Victoria’s stuffed shirts were horrified when the splendid color photo of you leaped off the front page the next morning.

The last time the Times-Colonist was under assault from hand-wringing readers it was Bambi under assault for terrorizing the residents of Oak Bay. You have never been confused with Bambi. A caller to the Times-Colonist complained that the decision to trumpet you on the front page was “a disgusting, offensive insult to your readers.” One can only imagine the riots on Government Street if the photographer had shot a photo of you carrying your caddy across the threshold of the bunker (caddy Anna Cladakis, a former Hooters restaurant employee, is also Daly’s fiancee and agent).

Editor-in-chief Dave Obee penned a column on the editorial page defending his decision to run the photo.

“I don’t believe we should filter images to avoid offending anyone,” Obee concluded in the column, alleging that filter-tipped cigarette smoke, pot bellies and loud pants would not be banned from future front pages.

Controversy has been the one constant in your life. Since being thrust into golf’s spotlight three decades ago when you started to unleash those cannonading drives on the patented diet of popcorn and Jack Daniels, you’ve learned to roll with the punches and shrug off insults about your weight (presumably, the PGA also wants you to slim down, officially listing you at 5’11” and 210 pounds).

A study in contradictions, you are loved or hated, but mostly loved when sporting golf spikes. On Bear Mountain, Eun Key Yoon, Pacific Links International Korean ambassador, said it was a dream come true to be partnered with one of golf’s legendary characters in the Pro-Am round of the tournament.

Those who questioned your fitness and image, including a Canadian Professional Golf Association official, were promptly silenced as you fashioned a six-under-par 65 in the opening round of the over-50 seniors tour event. If they had walked in your shoes through battles with multiple addictions, including alcoholism and gambling, your critics would be rooting for you.

Your scores ballooned to 79 on each of the last two days but at least you went the distance and gave your fans a show. In May, you won your first pro tournament in 13 years at the Insperity Invitation. You are a respectable 21st on the tour this year with $633,000 in earnings. Not bad for a chain smoker with a paunch.

On the mountain course at Bear Mountain, there were no reports of the old John Daly. No reports of you driving balls in the opposite direction off the tee, or refusing to sign a scorecard, or walking off the course to the 19th hole at the nine-hole turn or disqualifying yourself by angrily picking up your ball after a missed putt without completing the hole.

Those were actual incidents during your PGA Tour career that led to you’re being banished from the tour. In those times, you could even manage to rankle a man so gracious as the legendary Arnold Palmer, who once quipped after you angrily fired a ball in the opposite direction off the tee, “he could have killed somebody…”

When you’re a battle-scarred John Daly at 51, staying alive and staying in the game is a victory in itself and the boyish grin tells that tale. You need the game more more than the game needs you.

And it seems there will always be battles in your life. Even the great sports writer Rick Reilly has sparred with you in recent years, including a Twitter exchange over your visit with President Trump at the White House in July in which Reilly scolded you for spelling great ‘grt’.

Reilly: A) nice shirt. B) nice spelling.

You: A) at least I got invited to the White House. B) You will never. C) As for the spelling..who cares. D) The shirt is one of my sponsors, Loudmouth.

You’re John Daly, in screaming Loudmouth pants, still sporting spiked shoes, still kicking, still fighting, still getting the last word and it’s a beautiful thing.  Life is ‘grt’!