Friday, July 31, 2015

The 2022 Decision

We'll soon find out where the Olympics nobody wanted are headed.  Almaty and Beijing have both made their final presentations, and it's in the IOC voters' hands now.  We'll have a winner before we all get up in the morning.  Then the IOC can finally put the disaster that was the 2022 "race" behind them and move on to 2024.

For a while now (pretty much ever since odds-on favorite Oslo dropped out), many experts have been saying that this was Beijing's race to lose.  A lot of that had to do with the familiarity factor.  The voters aren't allowed to visit bid cities, but they all know Beijing and remember the great time they had in 2008.  Meanwhile, very few people had even heard of Almaty prior to it becoming a finalist.

I think the actual vote is going to be closer than the experts are predicting, though.  I've been on Team Almaty all the way, for a number of reasons.  And even though it looks like Beijing will probably be selected, becoming the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Games (only 14 years apart) in the process, it's not going to be the blowout many are expecting.  Almaty may even pull off the upset.  After all, the last time there were only two finalists, in 1999, everyone was certain Sion, Switzerland would get the nod, but the 2006 Games ended up going to Torino.

From the presentations, I can't really say one city has the edge over the other.  They were both good, but neither really stood out as exceptional.  They both touched on the key points and made sure they mentioned how their bid was in line with Olympic Agenda 2020.  But I felt like there were areas where they each missed the mark, as well.  I'm not sure how much the voters consider these final presentations when casting their ballots (many probably go into the session with their minds already made up), but neither did anything to sway an undecided in its favor.

Almaty went first and took some subtle shots at Beijing, which I absolutely loved!  The big thing that they made sure to mention repeatedly was that they actually have winters in Kazakhstan.  They'll have plenty of natural snow and ice, and the climate will create a true Winter Games atmosphere.  They also wisely highlighted the fact that all of the venues are within 30 kilometers of each other.  They'll have separate Olympic Villages in the mountain areas because of the elevation, but the whole thing will feel like an Olympics.  It won't feel like a bunch of World Championships scattered around a somewhat close area.  Fans will be able to go to different events in different areas on the same day, and the athletes from one sport will get to intermingle with teammates from another.  That's what makes the Olympics the Olympics.

Another thing they were very wise to point out was that there's never been an Olympics in Central Asia.  Early in their presentation, they showed a map and indicated everywhere that's hosted either a Winter or Summer Games.  Then they showed where Almaty is.  The whole point was that they've been to Beijing before.  This is their chance to spread the Olympic Movement somewhere else.

One last thing that I found impressive about Almaty's presentation was their venue plan.  They've recently hosted the Asian Winter Games and will be hosting the 2017 Winter Universiade.  As a result, pretty much all of the Olympic venues are either already built or will be in time for 2017.  They only need to construct two new venues.  That's obviously a whole lot cheaper, and Kazakhstan is a winter sports nation, so the venues will be used after the Olympics.

Beijing presented itself as the safe choice, which in many ways it is.  They were literally just in Beijing for an Olympics, so they know what to expect.  Beijing doesn't have to build many venues, either, because they're planning on reusing many of the ones that were built for 2008.  And they were sure to stress the convenience of getting to Beijing (which is a major world capital) and the abundance of hotel rooms in the city (again, it's a major world capital).

They also put quite an emphasis on China's winter sports tradition (which isn't actually a thing) and how these Winter Olympics will inspire 350 million Chinese youth to take up winter sports (what happened to the other 650 million?).  Meanwhile, the fact that there's no snow in China shouldn't be an issue.  All of the winter sports federations are OK with them making all artificial snow (which is a common practice), and they'll only use up like 1 percent of the water supply to do so.  And the fact that the venues are nowhere near each other shouldn't be a big deal, either.  They're building a high-speed train line that will connect the city and mountain venues in less than a half hour!

As you can tell, I'm a little skeptical of some of the things Beijing was selling.  China did bring out the star power, though, and the athletes did tell compelling stories.  Yao Ming talked about the experience of playing at home during the 2008 Beijing Games, while Winter Olympic gold medalists Yang Yang and Li Nina talked about the thrill of winning and what these Games would mean for winter sports in China.  Beijing also made it a point to talk about the Paralympics, which is something Almaty pretty much neglected.

However, a good portion of the Beijing presentation was in Chinese, including the President's speech, which was delivered by video because he wasn't in Kuala Lumpur.  The delegation for Almaty spoke almost exclusively in English, and the Prime Minister of Kazakhstan was there to make his appeal in person.  I'm not saying any of that should or will make a difference (the IOC lets you present in any language you want), but it's probably something that will stick with some of the voters.

Personally, I've been rooting for Almaty the entire time, and I'm sure hoping they do pull the upset.  My gut tells me the IOC will go with the safe choice, though.  I have a feeling that the 2022 Winter Olympics will end up in Beijing.  Which will be a shame.  Because they'll be missing out on quite an opportunity to expand the Olympic Movement while also giving the little guy a chance to show that he can do it, too.

With Beijing, it's been there, done that.  Take a risk.  Vote for Almaty.  After Sochi, wouldn't it be nice to have the Winter Olympics in a place that actually has winter?

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Kiss 2024 Goodbye

It hasn't been the best of weeks for Boston sports fans.  Golden Boy's suspension was upheld, although Bob Kraft still wants us all to believe that the Patriots are the victims in all this (despite the cell phone).  This comes on the heels of the USOC officially pulling Boston as the U.S. bid city for the 2024 Olympics.  Although, I bet there are far fewer people that are upset about that second one.  The Boston Olympic bid was doomed from the start, mainly because it never had the necessary public support.

The fact that the USOC never should've picked Boston was apparent from the start.  That was in January.  And in the ensuing six months, nothing that transpired with the Boston bid did anything to quiet the doubters.  There was the referendum, which wasn't even scheduled to happen until November 2016, more than a year after candidate names had to be in to the IOC.  Then there was Bid 2.0, which took a walkable Games centered around existing venues at the colleges in the city to one that was spread across the entire State of Massachusetts.  Boston was a hot mess the entire time, and Bid 2.0 didn't do a single thing to improve the bid.  (A temporary Olympic Stadium that would cost $2 billion, just to tear it down right after the Games?)  All it did was make it worse.

All of this left people begging the USOC to cut it losses, admit its mistake and pull the plug on Boston while there was still time to prepare a bid for another American city, likely LA.  Then the last straw fell on Monday when Boston's mayor refused to sign the standard host city contract, which would've put the city on the hook for any cost overruns, even though he had previously pledged that he would agree to do that very thing.  The USOC was left with no choice.  Boston just made the decision for them.

IOC President Thomas Bach is understandably not happy about this development.  After what happened with 2022 (more on that coming tomorrow with the vote looming early Friday morning my time), the Olympics no one wants, he knew he needed an American city in the race for 2024.  That's still the case, even if it's not the USOC's first choice.  Bach still expressed "confidence" that the USOC will get its act together and still submit a bid.  A subtle nudge to indirectly say, "If you ever want to host the Olympics again at any point, you'd better bid for the 2024 Games, even though you now have no shot at winning."

That brings us to Los Angeles.  It's not a stretch to say that LA saved the Olympic Movement in 1984.  They're more than willing to come save the day again.  This time for the USOC.  And while I don't think LA should host the Olympics a third time when there are plenty of other American cities that deserve a shot, I do agree that they're the best option on short notice.  All the venues are already in place.  It would not take much for LA to get an Olympic bid ready.  They'd certainly be able to get it done by the IOC's September 15 deadline.

Most experts thought LA should've been the USOC's choice back in January, which it probably should've been.  The other two cities the USOC was considering were San Francisco and Washington.  Both of them have seemingly moved on, which leaves Los Angeles as the only option if the USOC doesn't want to avoid the complete embarrassment of not even making it to the bid stage.

But even LA has managed to screw things up in the two days since they're suddenly back in the running.  Rumor has it they're talking with San Francisco officials about co-hosting.  Why?  Both cities are plenty capable of hosting an Olympics on their own.  And it's not like LA and San Diego would be co-hosting.  One's NorCal.  One's SoCal.  They're close to each other relative to other American cities, but not close enough to make an Olympics work.  Hopefully this is just talk and LA keeps all venues, of which there are plenty of options, within a 90-minute drive of LAX.

After the debacles of New York 2012 and Chicago 2016, the USOC sat out the 2020 race and said it would enter 2024 with a city that it thought could win.  Boston was never going to be that city.  Boston might be a big deal within the U.S., but it holds very little clout internationally.  And it's certainly not as glamorous as the other cities that have announced their intentions to bid (Paris and Rome chief among them).  Los Angeles might've had a shot if the USOC had picked them off the bat.  But after everything that's gone down, I think LA's chances are doomed, too.

Whether or not the USOC switches to an LA bid (which I think they will), the race that many experts thought was an American city's to lose is going to be an uphill battle.  Consider: The FIFA thing is going to make a lot of people leery about the U.S., the IOC voters will still have the whole Boston situation on their minds when they go to vote, Toronto's probably going to bid, and 2024 will be 12 years since the last Games held in Europe.

When the USOC first picked Boston, it looked like they didn't really want to win and they were just bidding because everybody expected/wanted them to.  If they were serious, they would've gone with LA or San Francisco off the bat.  The U.S. might've gone into that race as the favorite.  We're still two years away from the 2024 Olympic host being selected, but I think it's safe to say that Bach won't be opening up an envelope that says "Los Angeles" when that vote is conducted.

My gut tells me that the 2024 Olympics will be in Europe.  I've thought that ever since Tokyo was selected for 2020.  It'll be 12 years since London, and that's the longest we've ever gone without an Olympics in Europe.  And keep in mind, the IOC is still incredibly Euro-centric.  After three straight trips to Asia, they'll want to be close to home.  Especially since they already know they're going to have at least two beautiful world cities, which just happen to be European capitals, to choose from.

There's also a new elephant in the room.  Toronto.  Which just happens to be the most desirable North American city to the IOC right now, as well as probably the most Olympic-ready.  Everybody knows that the Pan Am Games were a dress rehearsal for an Olympics.  Toronto, of course, won't say that, but it's clear that's what it was.  (It's not a bad strategy.  Rio did the same thing.)  The Pan Am Games had their skeptics, but they were beyond successful.  Having been there, I can say first-hand that Toronto delivered and then-some.  And I have no doubt that when (not if) they eventually host the Olympics, they'll be just as incredible as the Pan Am Games were.

Toronto should have the USOC scared.  Because a successful Toronto bid delays an Olympics on U.S. soil for at least eight, probably 12, additional years.  And right now, it looks like the IOC would much prefer going to Toronto.  If the Olympics do return to North America in 2024, it'll be North of the Border.  The USOC indirectly made sure of that.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Back From Toronto (Part III)

Don't think the whole USOC dropping Boston thing escaped me.  But first, I want to finish recapping my visit to the city that's likely going to replace Boston as the North American candidate in the 2024 race--Toronto.  (And, unlike Boston, Toronto actually has a chance of winning.)

July 22-Cycling, Track & Field
Going into the trip, I knew there would probably be one event that left me somewhat disappointed.  That turned out to be cycling.  The men's and women's individual time trials were free to attend, so I thought that would make it worth the trip out to Milton, almost two hours outside of Toronto, worth it.  As it turns out, that experience could've been better.  I don't blame cycling, though.  I think the problem was that it wasn't organized very well.  Fans could position themselves anywhere along the course, but you'd only see the riders twice--once at the start and once at the finish.  Meanwhile, there was no way to follow the race unless you had an app on your phone.  No scoreboard.  No announcements.  No streaming of the video.  Nothing.  An American woman ended up winning, but you couldn't see the medals ceremony either.  It was held underneath the finish line facing away from the crowd.  At least after the men's race, which was won by a Canadian, they moved the gates and let people onto the road to watch the medals ceremony.

Fortunately, after things were done in Milton, I headed back to York for another session of track & field.  And this time it was the men's and women's 100-meter finals.  I was on the backstretch this time, which gave me a perfect view of the men's long jump and men's hammer.  Americans went 1-2 in the long jump, with world leader Jeff Henderson getting the win and Buffalo Bills wide receiver Marquise Goodwin taking the silver.  Meanwhile, in the hammer throw, Kibwe Johnson had a monster throw in the fourth round to move up from fourth place and take the gold.  The real highlight of the night was the 100s, though.  And the crowd went nuts when Andre DeGrasse, the Canadian who starred at the NCAA Championships for USC, won the men's race.  Melissa Bishop also won the women's 800 and Sarah Wells finished second in the 400 hurdles behind NCAA and U.S. National Champion Shamier Little.  The only thing that prevented it from being the perfect night of track & field was the setting sun, which was directly in my face for about an hour and a half and prevented me from seeing like three medals ceremonies.

July 23-Table Tennis, Women's Volleyball Semifinals
Another one of those sports I bought tickets for because I wanted to experience it for myself was table tennis.  I'd been warned by people who attended table tennis sessions earlier in the week that seats would be hard to come by because of the large Asian community in Markham, where the event was held, but I ended up with a pretty good spot.  There were four tables at once, and it wasn't as easy to watch all of them as it was at fencing, so I ended up focusing on one match at a time.  And there were plenty of matches to choose from.  There were five scheduled on each table.  There were plenty of exciting matches, a couple Canadian wins, and a 15-year-old American.  All in all, very cool.

Next up was a trip back to Pan Am Park for some volleyball.  Before heading in, I partook in the Park festivities one more time.  There was a concert going on, and they had a massive viewing screen that was showing the track & field night session.  I even ran into a family from Bolivia that was there to check out the racquetball and checked another country off my list.  Then it was time to go inside the Exhibition Centre, except I couldn't actually go in.  The previous session ran long, so everyone had to wait outside while they cleaned the arena and set up for the night session.  Handball and racquetball were also going on at the venue, so the volunteers in the concourse were plenty busy.

I finally made it in just as they were getting ready to start the first semifinal between Brazil and Puerto Rico.  Going into the match, I knew Brazil was the better team, so I was incredibly surprised when Puerto Rico won the first set fairly easily.  The Brazilians finally woke up in the middle of the second set, but not quickly enough to prevent Puerto Rico from taking a 2-0 lead.  Brazil did end up winning the match in five sets after two and a half hours.  Because that match was so long, a lot of people left before the match I really wanted to see--the USA vs. the Dominican Republic.  The match was scheduled for 9, but didn't start until after 10.  I left happy, though.  The Americans won in four.

July 24-Track & Field, Softball Semifinals
My final day in Toronto started with one last trip out to the track.  This time I got the good seats.  There weren't many events, mainly the men's 110 hurdles and the heptathlon, as well as the opening heats of the 4x400 meter relays, but they were all right in front of me.  And because I had the best seats this time, I actually had a good view of the men's triple jump and women's hammer throw, too.  As an added treat, they had a couple medals ceremonies for events that ended late the previous night, including Canadian Damian Warner in the decathlon and an American 1-2 in the women's 400.  The 110 hurdles final was supposed to end the session at 1:10, but they screwed up something with the timing system, so they had to re-run the race at 1:55.  That led to some unexpected downtime that actually helped in my every country project, bringing my final number to 33 of the 40 teams (not including the United States).  I'm not 100 percent sure they had to re-run the hurdles, though.  American David Oliver, the World Champion in the event, won it the first time, then he won it again.

The extra 45 minutes I spent at track had me a little worried.  I had to get out to softball by 4:30 and that was going to make me tight on time.  No worries, I got there just before the Puerto Rico-Brazil semifinal started.  The way they set it up, 1 plays 2 for a berth in the gold medal game, while 3 plays 4 with the winner playing the loser of the other game and the 3-4 loser out.  Brazil took an early 2-0 lead in the elimination game, but Puerto Rico put up a 10-spot in the third and ended up winning 12-2 on the mercy rule.

That created an hour-long break before the start of the night's main event, USA-Canada, which ended up being needed.  The food lines were crazy long.  Fortunately, I put my bag down to save my seat, since the place filled up pretty well for the Border War.  I was just hoping to finally see a USA win after two Canadian head-to-head victories in baseball and women's basketball.  Well, Sierra Romero took care of that with a three-run homer in the first inning.  Canada made it 3-2, but the USA added some insurance in the sixth and won 5-2.  (The fact that they met again two days later for the gold and Canada won, which I predicted would happen, is irrelevant to me.  I saw the USA win, which is all that matters.)  It ended at the same time as the USA's win over Canada in women's baseball on another field in the same complex, creating a good night for me and a crowded ride back to Toronto.

So there you have it.  That was my voyage up north for the Pan Am Games.  I feel like I hardly did the trip justice here.  Such a worthwhile experience.  One for which Toronto should be proud.  And a smashing success that will undoubtedly lead to a Toronto Olympic bid (which I think was the whole point in the first place).  And having been there for this, I have no doubt that the Toronto Olympics, whether they be in 2024, 2028 or another point in the future, will be just as big a success.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Back From Toronto (Part II)

Days 1-3 in Toronto featured a pair of baseball games, one involving the Blue Jays and the other including both the U.S. and Canada.  There was another USA-Canada showdown on the docket for Day 4, in the women's basketball final.  Monday also featured a trip way above Toronto in the CN Tower, then I had a busy Tuesday with three events, two of which were the beach volleyball finals.

July 20-Fencing, CN Tower, Women's Basketball Gold Medal Game
Fencing is one of those sports where TV doesn't do it justice.  That's why I wanted to go see it live.  And it was awesome!  I saw the first rounds of men's and women's sabre, which is the sword that bends and you can hit your opponent anywhere from head to torso.  They started with pool play, an hour of rapid-fire bouts.  Then they started the elimination bracket on four strips at once.  Very cool to watch.  I also learned that fencers are some of the most down-to-earth athletes out there.  Prime example, Mariel Zagunis.  I saw the two-time Olympic gold medalist (and U.S. flag bearer at the Opening Ceremony in London) during the break before the start of the men's session and she was incredibly gracious, taking a picture with me and talking for a few minutes.  That's when I learned she might not hang it up after Rio.  She told me she wants to keep fencing as long as possible, and she's never been to Tokyo.
One of us has two Olympic fencing gold medals.  The other
does not.

After fencing, I had a long break before the start of the basketball game, so I took advantage of the time to head up to the top of Toronto's signature landmark--the CN Tower.  The wait to get to the top was an hour, but it was well worth it.  The elevator that brings you 1,100 feet up takes less than a minute.  And the views of Toronto from the top are breathtaking.  They said that on a clear day, you can see as far as Rochester, which is almost 100 miles away.  There's also a separate observation deck called the SkyPod (1,500 feet) that's slightly higher up and gives you an uninterrupted 360-degree panorama that's totally spectacular.  Oh, and there's also a glass floor that gives you a look straight down, letting you know exactly how high you really are.

My final stop on Monday was the women's basketball final between the United States and Canada.  The basketball games were played at the old Maple Leaf Gardens, which has been converted into Ryerson University's Athletic Center.  They still have plenty of pictures and other artifacts reminding you of what the venue used to be, though.  As for the game, the U.S. was expected to dominate and had an eight-point lead after the first quarter.  But UConn's Kia Nurse took over and Canada, buoyed by the home crowd, ended up pulling off the upset.  Fellow UConn Huskies Breana Stewart and Moriah Jefferson were on the American team, and they were NOT feeling the silver.  After baseball and basketball, I was also over the U.S. losing to Canada in gold medal games.

July 21-Track & Field, Beach Volleyball Finals
On Tuesday, track & field started.  I planned the timing of my trip around the track & field schedule, so I was obviously excited for the start.  Tuesday morning's heats were actually the first of three track & field sessions I attended.  The main event was the prelims in the 100 meters, but they also had a couple finals.  I was right behind the 100-meter start line, so I had a pretty good view for all of it.  I also had a pretty good view for the men's pole vault, which was right in front of me.  Shawn Barber, who won the NCAA title a couple years ago at Akron, won the gold medal.  And he's Canadian, which the crowd obviously liked.

I had a short turnaround after track finished, though.  I had to get to Pan Am Park for beach volleyball.  Canada played in the women's bronze medal match, which meant I had the same problem finding a seat that I had at baseball.  The fact that they played Brazil didn't help matters.  It was packed and it was HOT!  But being at a beach volleyball match was just as cool as it looks on TV.  The Canadians lost, but Melissa Humana-Parades of the Canadian team came out after the match and thanked the crowd for all their support during the week.  Very cool.  Up next was the gold medal match between Argentina and Cuba, which ended up being a really good matchup that the Argentines eventually won.

Even though I also had tickets to the men's final, they had to clear out the stadium between sessions, so I had a couple hours to chill.  Fortunately the beach volleyball stadium was in Pan Am Park, which has like five venues and a lot of interactive stuff for the fans to do.  I got to hold the medals (which wasn't as cool as wearing one) and take a picture holding the torch, among other things.  I also made a lot of progress on my mission to get a picture with somebody from every country, running into the beach volleyball coach from the Cayman Islands and the women's handball team from Puerto Rico.  I also bumped into Raisa and Ze, my Brazilian fans from swimming, in the food court.  I told them that the women's beach volleyball team from Brazil was actually out in the park with their bronze medals taking pictures with the fans.  We all then went inside as soon as we were able to for the men's final.

Because I went in early, I had no seating problems at the men's final.  I was right behind the court in like the fourth row.  Raisa and Ze, meanwhile, were in the front row right at center court in the Brazilian fan section.  I've gotta admit, the men's beach volleyball finals might've been my favorite event of the 14 I attended.  Beach volleyball.  At night.  Just as awesome as you'd think it is.  Two excellent matches helped, too.  Cuba beat Chile for the bronze, then Mexico knocked off Brazil for the gold.  Totally cool experience.  And on the way out, I met this crazy Cuban fan who was excited for the photo op, and the two of us even joked about the fact that we're, as I said, "allowed to be friends now."

So that's days four and five.  One last installment to come, covering the rest of the trip.  That's when I saw the 100-meter finals and a pair of wins by U.S. women's teams (including one over Canada).

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Back From Toronto (Part I)

If you've seen my Facebook page over the last week, you know what I've been up to and why I haven't been blogging.  I was in Toronto at the Pan Am Games.  Such an awesome time.  I'm so glad I decided to make the trip.  All kinds of great memories.

The pictures only tell part of the story.  There's so much that happened, I can't even begin to talk about all of it.  I'll try my best to summarize everyday into the biggest highlights, though.

July 17
My trip actually started last Friday, when I didn't go to any Pan Am events, but I did see some of the sailing competition (I think).  I flew into the Billy Bishop City Airport, which is on an island in Lake Ontario.  They ferried us over to the mainland, after which I saw some boats going by with national flags on them.  I'm not sure if there was actually a race going on or if they were just practicing, but those boats were clearly the same ones being used for the sailing events.  That night I went to the Blue Jays-Rays game.  It had been raining for most of the day, and the roof was actually closed when I got there.  And I was thinking, "it's really dark in here."  They opened it for game time, and Josh Donaldson hit a home run into the Rays bullpen right in front of where I was sitting.  That was the first of two Toronto homers in a 6-2 Blue Jays win.  The Pan Am flame is right outside SkyDome, so I got the chance to check that out after the game.  I didn't even notice until I saw it up close, but the Pan Am flame actually includes the pictograms for each of the different Pan Am and Parapan Am sports.  Very cool.

July 18-Archery, Swimming
As for my first day of Pan Am Games events, it started at the University of Toronto for archery.  I ended up sitting behind the family of American Brady Ellison, who they told me is actually ranked second in the world.  It was the individual semifinals and finals for both men and women, and it was actually pretty exciting.  American Khatuna Lorig needed a 10 on her last arrow of the semifinals in order to force a tie.  She got it, then won the tiebreaker to advance to the final, which she also ended up winning.  Ellison, meanwhile, lost the men's final.  Canadian Jay Lyon won the bronze, which obviously pumped up the crowd.

Then it was off to the pool for the final night of the swimming competition.  I met my new Brazilian friends, Raisa and Ze, on the bus on the way to the venue, and they were the inspiration for my little project to try and get a picture with somebody from every country.  The competition itself was awesome.  The U.S. didn't send most of its top swimmers, but I did get to see Natalie Coughlin and Allison Schmitt in the medley relay, as well as Caitlin Leverenz in the IM.  I ended up seeing three American wins in six gold-medal events, but the biggest cheers of the night were reserved for Canadian Ryan Cochrane.  They went nuts before he raced, then even more so when he delivered in the 1500 meter freestyle, setting a Pan Am Games record.

July 19-Hockey Hall of Fame, Baseball Gold Medal Game
Day two in Toronto on featured one event.  On purpose.  The whole plan for Sunday was to go to the Hockey Hall of Fame in the afternoon before heading out to the baseball gold medal game.  It was the second time I've been to the Hockey Hall of Fame, but it had been like 10 years since my last trip.  Just as awesome as I remembered it.  They have a lot of interactive stuff, and video now exists of my outstanding hockey skills (although I did make one save in the goalie game, and I wasn't credited with like three goals in the shooting one).  The way I went in was the complete opposite direction of the Great Hall, so I saved the Holy Grail for last.  The Blackhawks still have the actual Stanley Cup, so the replica was on display, but that made absolutely no difference.  All of the trophies and the Hall of Fame plaques were in that room, too.  If you ever go to Toronto, I highly recommend a stop at the Hockey Hall of Fame.

After the Hall of Fame, I headed out to Ajax for one of the events I was anticipating the most--the baseball gold medal game.  It was made even cooler when it ended up being Canada vs, the US.  Obviously, the game was sold out.  Seating was general admission, so, because of some travel troubles on the way there, I ended up with an obstructed view seat.  No problem, though.  At least I was in there.  Even though 95 percent of the crowd was rooting for the other team.

And it was a pretty good game.  Tied 4-4 into the 10th, when they utilized the ridiculous international tiebreaker rule.  Runners on first and second to start the inning, and, here's the stupid part, you can start anywhere in the lineup you want.  The U.S., inevitably, scored two in the top of the 10th, and Canada screwed up its bunt for the first out in the bottom of the 10th.  The next batter singled to make it 6-5.  That's when former Yankee David Huff comes in and U.S. manager Jim Tracy decided it would be a good idea to try and pick off the runner at first.  It wasn't.  Huff threw it away, allowing the tying run to score.  First baseman Casey Kotchmann, another former Major Leaguer, panicked, tried to get the other guy going to third and threw that away.  Amazingly, the U.S. blew the game on a walk-off double error.  I've never seen anything like that before.

Definitely the coolest part of the night happened on the train back, though.  As I was waiting for the train, Jake Barrett, one of the American players, and his family came down to also wait.  He shook my hand and thanked me for coming to the game, after which we began talking.  It turns out all the guys had to fly out first thing the next morning to return to their Minor League teams.  Jake was headed to Mobile, Ala., where he plays for the Bay Bears, the Diamondbacks' Double-A affiliate.  Such a great guy.  Very humble.  We talked for pretty much the entire 45-minute train ride.  He told me how the team was selected and asked me why I made the trip, etc.  The coolest part?  He didn't just let me see his silver medal.  He let me try it on, and his mom even took a picture of me wearing it.  It was obviously disappointing to lose that game, especially that way, and I'm sure the last thing he wanted to do was talk all about it.  But he did.  And he gained a fan in the process.

Coming up tomorrow will be a review of days 4-6 North of the Border, which included another USA-Canada gold medal tilt, the beach volleyball finals and a trip up to the top of the impressive CN Tower, the most distinctive piece of the Toronto skyline.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Potential Movers on Deadline Day

One of the problems with the second wild card is that everybody thinks they're a contender at midseason.  That means everybody's trying to buy and there are no sellers.  All of the teams looking for that missing piece are trying to get it from the same five teams.  The next two weeks are going to be very important in creating separation, which will make things a lot clearer.  In fact, whoever pulls the trigger first could go a long way in deciding some of these pennant races.

With that in mind, there are some guys that you know without a doubt are going to be moved.  Cole Hamels is the first name that comes to mind.  There are a bunch of others that may or may not be on the block, but could definitely help a contender in the pennant race and maybe even beyond.  Starting wtih Hamels, here are 10 players I think will be traded at the deadline, along with some possible landing spots.

Cole Hamels: The question isn't will Hamels be traded?  The question is where?  A lot of people are saying Boston, but the Red Sox are in an interesting spot.  They're in last place, but still not out of it.  They also know that in order to jump into the AL East race, they need a No. 1 starter.  They also have the prospects to trade the Phillies.  But other teams that need a starter do, too.  Kansas City's not getting back to the World Series without a No. 1, and they know it.  Do they jump on Hamels early so someone else doesn't get him?  Then there's Houston.  Everyone knows the Astros have a ton of prospects.  And just imagine a Keuchel-Hamels 1-2 punch in the postseason.

Justin Upton: San Diego's big offseason splash has turned out to be a dud.  The Padres aren't in it and aren't going to be, so you figure their guys are likely to move.  Justin Upton being the most likely.  Because he's the one you can actually get something for.  The two Uptons on one team thing clearly doesn't work, either, so maybe cutting Justin loose will make B.J. (sorry, Melvin Jr.) not suck for the first time since he was on the Rays.  As for Justin, I can see one of the NL wild card protagonists going after him.  The Pirates and Cubs both have the prospects to make it happen.  Upton's an NL guy, so I don't see him going to an AL team.

Ben Zobrist: It's been quite a long time (I don't even know how many years) that I've been envisioning Ben Zobrist in Pinstripes.  Last year, I finally got my wish with Chase Headley.  Will I get the Zobrist wish this year?  I've been wanting the Yankees to fire Stephen Drew basically since the Red Sox said "if you're stupid enough to want him, go ahead and take him."  Drew finally appears to be on his way out with Rob Refsnyder's arrival in the Bronx, but there's still two weeks to make the move for Zobrist.  He makes a lot of sense.  He's a utility guy, so he can spell basically everybody except Teixeira, A-Rod or McCann.  More importantly, he's a switch-hitter, which is something that lefty-heavy lineup could use.

David Price?: This is the biggest question mark, which is why I put one next to his name.  Price is a free agent at the end of the year, and it's going to cost quite a lot of money to keep him.  The next two weeks are critical time for the Tigers.  If they can tread water with Miguel Cabrera out, they might be buyers.  If they start to fall out of the race, Price could be on the move.  If he is, there'll be plenty of suitors.  Houston being the main one.

Jonathan Papelbon: I've heard Toronto and Jonathan Papelbon linked for a while.  The Blue Jays have a ridiculous lineup.  Their glaring weakness is the pitching staff, and they can't expect to win games 9-7 in the playoffs.  They're OK in the rotation, which can probably hold its own, but they definitely need some help in the bullpen.  Specifically, they need a closer.  Which is where Jonathan Papelbon comes in.  Seems to make perfect sense.

Francisco Rodriguez: So many teams are going to be making offers for K-Rod that the Brewers will have to listen.  After all, that's how they got him.  When he first went to Milwaukee, it was as a setup guy.  I wonder if that same thing will happen with him again.  He's obviously got value as a closer, but any team needing bullpen help would love to have him.  For instance, I can see the Dodgers making him a setup man for Kenley Janssen.  But I can also see a team like the Tigers being in the Francisco Rodriguez market, too.

Johnny Cueto: For some reason, I think Cueto's going to end up in Kansas City.  It just seems way to obvious that Hamels is going to end up in Boston, and Cueto's the next-best starter who's likely going to be on the block.  And, again, the Royals know they need a frontline starting pitcher.  Cueto won't require as big of a yield as Hamels, so he might be the Royals' No. 1 choice anyway.

Brandon Phillips: If Cueto goes, he probably won't be the only one.  Cincinnati's likely going to enter full rebuilding mode, which means unloading some position players, too.  You know Todd Frazier and Billy Hamilton aren't going anywhere.  Joey Votto is the face of the franchise (although Frazier's giving him a run for his money), and Jay Bruce makes too much money.  That leaves That Dude.  He's still got some years and some dollars on his contract, so moving him might be tough, but I can see a market for him if he is made available.  A market in Washington, for example.

Dan Haren: While I can easily see the Marlins standing pat and trying to win next year with the team they have and, presumably, an actual manager.  One guy I can see them moving either way, though, is Dan Haren.  He made no secret of the fact that he wasn't happy he was traded to the Marlins during the offseason.  He even threatened retirement.  So a return to the West Coast seems like something that would be agreeable to this California boy.  A reunion with the Angels perhaps?

Jonathan Niese: Niese is on here for a completely different reason than all the others.  The Mets have the pitching to be very dangerous in the postseason.  But they're not going to get there with the current state of their lineup.  And seeing as the Mets have 85 starting pitchers, swapping one for a bat makes the most sense.  Harvey, de Grom, Syndergaard and Matz are untouchable, and Wheeler's hurt, so that leaves Bartolo Colon and Jon Niese.  Colon's a free agent at the end of the season, so he might get moved because of that, but Niese is the one they can get more value for.  To me, the most logical thing to do is send Niese to Milwaukee for Aramis Ramirez, giving them a third baseman to rent so that David Wright doesn't have to rush back.

Like I said, the two weeks before we actually get to the trade deadline will be very interesting.  I also have a feeling we might see one of those trademark Boston Red Sox blockbusters.  Just like they did when they shipped everybody to the Dodgers and won the World Series the next year or last year when they ended up getting Yoenis Cespedes for Jon Lester, who ended up losing the Wild Card Game with Oakland.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

MLB First Half Awards

So...the All-Star Game has come and gone, and we saw yet another American League victory.  Once upon a time the National League completely dominated the All-Star Game (from 1963-85, the AL's only wins came in 1971 and 1983).  Or so I've heard.  I wouldn't know.  Since 1988, which is about as far back as I can actually remember (and, coincidentally, the last time the All-Star Game was in Cincinnati), the AL is 21-6-1 in the Midsummer Classic.

As for the All-Star festivities, the Franchise Fours had some dubious selections, the All-Star hats have really got to go, and the new format for the Home Run Derby is awesome.  I love the clock and the head-to-head element.  It wasn't really fair that Prince Fielder hit the second-most homers in the first round and was eliminated, but that can be tweaked.  Most importantly, even though it really didn't go much quicker than previous Derbys (it still took two and a half hours, when the average time until last year was generally around 2:45), it sure felt like it.  The pace was so much better.

And now that we've moved on from the All-Star Game, it's time to look forward to the second half.  Who's going to move at the trade deadline, and who's going to strike the first blow?  We'll soon find out.  But first, let's look back at the first half.  Time to choose midseason winners for each of the five major awards in each league.

MVP: Mike Trout-Stop me if this sounds familiar.  MLB's favorite player, he's putting up MVP-type numbers again.  An AL-leading 26 home runs, a .312 average, .405 on base percentage and a league-best .614 slugging percentage.  Oh yeah, he also leads the American League with 68 runs scored.  And, of course, he's playing a Gold Glove center field.  Josh Donaldson is Canada's choice, and he's having a great year in Toronto, but the Blue Jays are a fourth-place team.  The Angels are in first.  Everyone knows that Anaheim goes as Trout and Pujols go.  With the two of them tied for the league lead in homers, is it a surprise that the Angels are in first place?  It's Trout's fourth year in the Majors.  He finished second to Miguel Cabrera twice, then won the MVP last year, after winning MVP of the All-Star Game.  That second straight All-Star MVP is already down.  If he keeps up his first half pace, the second straight AL MVP won't be far behind.

Cy Young: Dallas Keuchel-You want a reason why the Houston Astros have been baseball's surprise contender thru three months?  I've give you one.  Dallas Keuchel.  This guy's a legitimate ace, and he's outperforming every other starter in the American League.  He was a no-brainer choice to start the All-Star Game.  Keuchel's tied for the AL lead in wins (11), is second in ERA (2.23), third in WHIP (1.00), fourth in batting average against (.208), and seventh in strikeouts (114).  Oh, and he's thrown a league-high 137.1 innings and given up just seven home runs.  Just like Astros Franchise Four pick Nolan Ryan, Keuchel goes out there and finishes what he starts.  Not a single bad outing all year (five runs in six innings at Seattle is the worst) for a team that's been in first place all season.

Rookie: Carlos Correa-Yes, he's only been in the Majors a month.  But in an uninspiring AL rookie class, he's head-and-shoulders above the rest.  Jacob de Grom wasn't called up until June last year, and he won the NL award, so there's a precedent for Correa being the winner here.  And in lieu of anyone who's played all year really standing out, I've got to give Correa the nod.  If you're not comfortable with that and prefer someone who's been around all season, I submit Oakland's Billy Burns, but he's no Carlos Correa.  Correa's played just 32 games and has 37 hits, 17 of which were either a double or homer.  He's slugging .507, which is higher than any American League rookie, and his 19 RBIs are right up there with everyone that's been playing since April.  Oh, and did I mention he's the best defensive shortstop in the AL?  That's why people wanted him on the All-Star team after just three weeks.

Comeback Player: Alex Rodriguez-This is really down to three guys.  But I give A-Rod the slight edge over All-Stars Mark Teixeira and Prince Fielder because his success is the most unexpected.  Teixeira and Prince were both injured (you could even throw Albert Pujols into this conversation if you want), so you figured that if they were healthy, they'd put up the numbers you know they're capable of.  Coming off hip surgery and a year-long suspension (at almost 40!), you had no idea what A-Rod was going to do.  What you got was a return to the form that made him one of the best offensive players of his generation.  A-Rod's a big reason why the Yankees are in first place at the break.

Manager: A.J. Hinch-Easy call here.  Everyone knew the Astros were on the verge of not sucking anymore, but most people thought they were at least another year or two away from contending.  Wrong!  Houston had the best record in the AL for a good portion of April and May, and the Astros were holding down first place in the AL West pretty much all season until the Angels caught them over the weekend.  Whether or not they stick around all season and contend for a playoff spot remains to be seen, but after the first half, this is the one award that is most clear.

MVP: Bryce Harper-If they actually did vote for NL MVP right now, this one would be unanimous.  At least it better be.  Because Bryce Harper has been far and away the best player in not just the National League, but all of baseball, over the first three months of the 2015 season.  Keep in mind, he's only 22.  All the Bryce Harper haters (I don't understand why there are so many) need to realize that he was just 17 when the Nationals took him No. 1 overall and all of 19 when he was called up to the Majors.  And this is the first time he's fully healthy.  So now we're finally seeing the player that Bryce Harper really is.  Is that enough to make people stop saying he's overrated?

Cy Young: Zack Greinke-Originally, I was thinking Gerrit Cole here.  Until I compared their numbers and saw it's not really that close.  Greinke started the All-Star Game over Cole for a reason. It's not just that scoreless inning streak (it's a good thing Mike Trout's leadoff homer on Tuesday doesn't count).  Greinke's ERA is 1.39 (it hasn't hit 2.00 all season), he's held opponents to a .191 average and his WHIP is a ridiculous 0.84 (only Max Scherzer's is lower among ERA qualifiers).  He's only 8-2, but has eight no decisions, and the Dodgers are 12-6 in his starts.  Oh yeah, and Greinke's shortest start this season was six innings (and he was probably lifted for a pinch hitter the couple times he did only go six).  I wouldn't begrudge you a Cole vote.  Pittsburgh's 14-4 in his starts, and he's a legitimate ace on a team that's making a run in the NL Central.  But I give the edge, ever so slightly, to the Drysdale to Clayton Kershaw's Koufax.

Rookie: Joc Pederson-Remember at the end of Spring Training when everyone was up in arms that Kris Bryant wasn't breaking camp with the Cubs?  Yeah, me neither.  He had to wait three weeks to get called up, but is still one of the principal contenders in the closest midseason race of them all.  But it's because of those three weeks that I give the slight edge to Pederson.  He put on a show in the Home Run Derby, didn't he?  The Dodgers traded Matt Kemp because they though Joc was ready for the Majors, and boy were they right.  Not only does he hit a home run in seemingly every at-bat, he plays a great center field, which has really shored up that Dodger defense.  Looks like the team with more Rookies of the Year than anybody will get another one.

Comeback Player: A.J. Burnett-I'm sure there are plenty of candidates for this one, but I doubt there's a story that's better than A.J. Burnett's.  He had three excellent years in Pittsburgh after the thing with the Yankees didn't work out, then signed with the Phillies as a free agent and had a miserable 2014 season.  This year he returned to Pittsburgh and made the All-Star team in what he's said will be his final season.  For all the crap he's gotten during his career (mainly from Yankees fans), it's nice to see a good guy like A.J. Burnett get that honor in his last year.  In 2013, Mariano Rivera won Comeback Player of the Year and retired.  I wouldn't be surprised if the same thing happens a fellow 2009 World Champion this year.

Manager: Mike Matheny-You'd be perfectly justified if you said Joe Maddon or Terry Collins or even Don Mattingly would be your choice for NL Midseason Manager of the Year.  But I've gotta go with Mike Matheny.  Yes, it's the Cardinals' turn in the rotation to win the NL pennant, but I don't think anyone expected them to be this good right now.  St. Louis got off to that ridiculous start, is unbeatable at home, and got to 50 wins quicker than any team in the last like 10 years.  All this in the NL Central, which currently has three teams in playoff position.  The Cardinals end up in the playoffs pretty much every year, but they haven't been this good (let alone dominant) in the regular season since 2004.