I Can’t Win – Ballad Of A Suffering Jays Fan

 

You’ve seen this scene hundreds of times.  A basketball player drives into the lane and gets fouled.  Everyone on the court mills about, taking their time to get into position as the shooter steps to the free throw line.  He takes a couple of dribbles or slaps the ball with his hands or exhibits some other absolutely necessary idiosyncrasy before attempting to put some points on the board.  As all this happens, it falls upon the commentary team to fill in the blanks for the viewers at home:

“…his second trip to the line this game.  He’s shooting 85% on the season and he’s made 12 straight free throws…”

The shot goes up.

*CLANK*

The ball bounces weakly against the ground, the score unchanged.  The broadcaster’s jinx strikes again.

Forget the fact that nobody on the court can hear what the broadcaster is saying.  You ask most sports fans and they’ll tell you that no matter how successful an athlete has been recently; one presumptuous statement from the announcer will immediately cause that player to falter.  It’s ridiculous.  The universe doesn’t work that way.  Broadcasters make these kinds of proclamations all the time and they go unnoticed until the result we see on the screen is so contrary to what we’ve just been told that a “jinx” is the only logical conclusion.  The truth is that when a great athlete makes an unexpected error it is the exception that proves the rule and that’s why those moments stick in our minds.  Not because of any intangible influence.

I don’t believe in jinxes.

*****

Saturday, April 21st marked the 4th Toronto Blue Jays game I’ve attended this season.  They’ve lost all 4 of them.

I’ve seen them lose in almost every possible way.  I’ve seen them lose trailing the entire game.  I’ve seen them lose in extra innings.  I’ve seen them get absolutely slaughtered too.  I was at the 13-0 game a few weeks ago, the kind of traumatic experience that turns darkly hilarious after a few innings.  It brought to mind a scene from Community:

…when I was born I got my umbilical cord wrapped around my neck, both arms, and one of my ankles.  Mom said that there came a point when the doctor stopped delivering me and just started laughing.

On that day, the Blue Jays were Pierce trying to escape the womb.

The only thing I haven’t seen is the Jays blowing a big lead and I’m not looking to get that one crossed off the list.  I just want to see them win.

It’s gotten to the point where I just hate everything I see on the long walk back to my car.  I hate the other poor fans who suffered along with me.  I hate the staff.  I hate the theatres and restaurants around the Rogers Centre.  I hate Canada’s Walk of Fame.  I hate Roy Thomson Hall.  I hate all of these things because looking at them reminds me of the terrible Jays performances I’ve paid for and sat through this season.  I need them to win so I can love these things again.

Baseball is a game of so many variables that to agonize over every undisciplined swing and fielding mistake is futile.  If the team is good, the positives will outweigh the negatives in the long run.  I know this to be true and yet, when I’m watching the game live, these failures wound me deeply.  I take it personally.  Against the Yankees, Rajai Davis repeatedly found himself in high leverage situations and three times he created an out hacking at the first pitch.  It was borderline pathological.  We booed him lustily.  We didn’t care that the only reason he was playing was because Jose Reyes is injured.  When you’re on the field, you should act like you belong there.

I’ve had seasons where I’ve only gone to a couple of games and I guarantee you the home team won at least one of them.  To have gone to four games this early in a season that is carrying such great expectations and to witness four losses is almost unfathomable.  Not that the team is tearing the house down otherwise.  They’ve lost 12 of their first 20 games and I just happened to be at 4 of those losses.

The scary thing is that there’s no encouraging way to process this information.  Either my mere presence is causing the Blue Jays to underperform (unlikely) or this team is not as good as we predicted they would be (increasingly likely).  I choose to believe that they’re going through a bad stretch, like any team does during a season.  I choose to believe a lot of things about Toronto sports teams to help me get through the year.

Even taking into account the Reyes injury, it’s difficult to convey the depths to which this offence has plummeted.  As of April 23, the Jays are 28th in batting average, 26th in on base percentage and 18th in slugging.  They are hitting a farcical .202 with runners in scoring position.  They are tied for the 2nd worst run differential in all of baseball.  We’re reaching a point where the doctor is going to stop delivering and just start laughing.

The team is only 4 games under .500 in a year where the AL East division is going to be a bloodbath, but I don’t know how much longer I can massage my fandom.  Conventional wisdom tells us that Baltimore and New York will regress, Tampa Bay and Toronto will round into shape and Boston…who knows how far that team can go with the inspiration of a wounded city?  Still, if the Jays are 7 games out of first in the middle of May?  9 games out by the end of June?  Toronto management did everything in their power to create a contender, but even in our sabermetrics obsessed era baseball games are not won by projections.  Sports will always be decided by an amalgamation of talent, skill, motivation and luck.  For any fan, the latter factor can provide either frustration or exhilaration; even more so when you feel like you’re somehow affecting the home team’s fortunes.

The flex pack I purchased has me committed to at least 11 more games this year and I plan to go to every one of them.

I don’t believe in jinxes.

The Ultimate Fighter 17: Team Jones v. Team Sonnen – Week 12 and Finale Recap

At 21 years old, Kelvin Gastelum was the youngest contestant ever on the American edition of The Ultimate Fighter (Patrick Iodice, a member of Australia’s TUF: The Smashes was 19).  He was the last pick of Team Sonnen.  His boyish admiration for Ronda Rousey made him seem more like an overachieving fan boy than a legitimate mixed martial arts prospect.  His character had a lot of negative hooks and nobody expected him to go on and win the whole thing but that’s exactly what Gastelum did.  In any other year, Gastelum would be the story.

But this was supposed to be the year of Uriah Hall.

Explosive.  Unique.  Handsome.  Complex.  Black.  Hall’s flashy kicks seemed to extend beyond the octagon and out of our television screens.  We’ve seen so many editions of TUF that we know better than to make too much out of any competitor’s success no matter how easily they dominated on the show (Mac Danzig, anyone?), but Hall was something else.  He wasn’t just knocking people out, he was doing it in new and unorthodox ways.  A spinning hook kick right on the button.  A one-shot cross while fading away.  Rapid fire strikes from bottom position.  It was like catching a hotshot rapper’s first mix tape.  Raw and undeniable.

So what happened?  Rewind to last Saturday, where two new stars were born.

*****

You won’t see me at the front of the women’s MMA bandwagon.  I fully support the legitimacy of the concept and I absolutely think that women have a place in the UFC, but I believe people need to be more realistic about their expectations.  Pat Barry recently said that the women’s fights are usually the most exciting fights on any card and while that may often be the case, it has as much to do with those fights being sloppy, undisciplined affairs as it does with top shelf martial arts acumen.

The Miesha Tate-Cat Zingano fight was a good one, worthy of the “Fight of the Night” award it would later win, but it was also an example of a contest being held to a different standard because of the gender of the competitors.  Not better or worse, but different.  One thing I’ve noticed in a lot of female fights is that the females are not as adept at maintaining dominant positions.  This negates the methodical grappling that casual fans have no interest in and leads to a lot of scrambles that translate into more action.  More action is always good, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of technique.  That is why champions like Rousey are such a valuable asset, as she steps into the cage and takes care of business even if it does come at the risk of making her opponents look overmatched (and thus, less marketable).  Women’s MMA is deservedly on the up and up, but let’s not pretend that it’s anywhere near the depth or skill level of the male ranks yet.

If I hear one more person criticize Dana White for not integrating the female’s earlier I might throw a hissy fit.  That’s right, a hissy fit.  He was quoted a couple of years ago as saying that women’s MMA just wasn’t ready for the big stage yet and now that he’s pushing it so hard some are calling him out as a hypocrite.  Isn’t it possible that a couple of years ago, women’s MMA wasn’t where it was today?  Tate, Zingano and Rousey were nowhere near the fighters they are now and they’ve undoubtedly improved every aspect of their game since then so why would White have been in any rush to start a women’s division before?  It’s especially befuddling when you consider that they were bringing in the 145 and 135 divisions around that time.  If anything, White’s timing couldn’t be better with several high profile prospects rounding into shape and, of course, the ascension of Rousey.

*****

It wasn’t the finals most were hoping for, but that’s about the only thing you could say was disappointing about this season of TUF.  With better production values, better fights, more compelling personalities, and less sophomoric hijinks, everything about this season kicked ass.  It might seem like the quality of the fights isn’t always something the show runners can control, but in the past they’ve sacrificed credentials in favour of controversy.  This season they were able to find a balance between guys who could bring it in the octagon and on the testimonial set.  There is nothing more compelling than the human drama surrounding the types of individuals who fight for a living and any other fluff only gets in the way of this basic narrative.  Sure, there comes a point where you’ve heard the same “hard times, hard man” origin one too many times, but this season the guys were able to back it up when the time came to throw down.

From Jon Jones’ initial misstep of sacrif…*ahem*…“matching up” Gilbert Smith with Luke Barnatt to Hall’s frenzy inducing annihilation of Adam Cella, you could tell early on that this was a special bunch.  They had to be to save this program from last year’s cast, the worst and most indistinguishable in TUF history.  The rest of the preliminary round was a mix of big names being exposed in front of a national audience (“Bubba” McDaniel and “King” Casey) and hard fought scraps that rendered the order of the fighter picks irrelevant.

All throughout the season, the theme stayed the same: who truly wants to win?  The focus was on the mental game, with Chael Sonnen seeming to have the magic touch when it came to pushing his team through various psychological obstacles.  Not to say that Jones was a bad coach, but his aloof persona and relative inexperience made it difficult for him to connect with his team on any meaningful level (the closest relationship on Team Jones was between Dylan Andrews and the older, wiser Stonehorse Goeman).  Jones is still in the “doing” phase of his career; the teaching will come to him eventually.

Hall was a fan and betting favourite every time he performed, but there were doubts swirling around Gastelum.  The experience of Bubba, the grinding attack of Collin Hart, the confidence of Josh Samman…all of it was supposed to be too much for the kid from Yuma.  He didn’t just survive these tests, he passed with flying colours.  Bubba and Samman got choked out, Hart suffered a sudden knockout and through it all Gastelum stayed humble and absorbed everything he could in his time in the house.  The show is designed for ratings and to push new faces for the UFC, but can you imagine how lucky these guys are to be worry about nothing but staying in shape and training with high level instructors for six weeks?  It might not be much fun, but Gastelum made the most of it.

Andrews fell to Hall as expected (though Andrews did not embarrass himself by any means), but Gastelum forgot to read the part where he was supposed to lose so that Hall and Samman could have their grudge match.  The two finalists ended up following a similar path to the finale, a decision win to get into the house followed by three straight finishes.  That fact didn’t do much to change the perception that Hall was the most unstoppable force ever to emerge from the TUF house.  Gastelum was pegged as a 3 to 1 underdog.

Not to take anything away from Gastelum, but Hall’s performance on Saturday was obnoxious.  It was as if all of our worst fears and assumptions about him were true.  He came out tentative, not looking to own the moment and then he started dancing around like Anderson Silva.  His gyrations made him look cocky and stupid.  He dropped his hands and backed himself up against the cage as Gastelum pressed onward.  Hall would later say that he was using the cage strategically, but all it did was give him less room to maneuver as Gastelum shot in and brought him down time and time again.  When the fight was standing, Hall had some nice stretches where the hype seemed warranted, but none of his trademark stuff landed and he just couldn’t sustain any offence.  Hall fought hard, but not smartly, making it easy for armchair corner men like myself to pick him apart.  He’ll be back and his name still has considerable buzz, but he needs to grow up and show what he can really do.

As for Gastelum, he did what he had done all season: attack, attack, attack.  It’s to his credit that he probably would have beaten even the best version of Hall.  The prevailing story going into the fight was Gastelum’s heart vs. Hall’s talent, but Gastelum showed that he’s got plenty of talent too.  He’s confident with his wrestling and he’s got power in his hands, a combination of attributes that has worked out well for many UFC stars.  He’s likely to drop down to welterweight, where he should fit right in with what is largely considered a wrestler’s division.  Gastelum might still not be the most talked about name, but I’m sure he’ll settle for a Harley, a fat contract and a tournament trophy from the best TUF season in ages.

*****

Other TUF 17 Finale thoughts:

  • Cole Miller saved his job with a submission win over Bart Palaszewski.  It seems like only yesterday that “Bartimus” was a top 10 featherweight, but the division got deep quickly and he will be looking for work elsewhere.
  • Okay, I think I should probably lower my expectations for Jimmy Quinlan at this point.
  • I’d lower my expectations for King and Gilbert Smith too, but I didn’t have any to begin with.
  • After having watched it a bunch of times, there’s no doubt that the last two elbows Travis Browne threw against Gabriel Gonzaga were illegal shots to the back of the head.  You could argue that they were inadvertent as Gonzaga had the misfortune of crumbling into their path, but they were illegal nonetheless.  As a Browne fan, I’d like to see the result stand but a change to a no-contest is more than reasonable.
  • I can’t be the only one who still looks forward to Urijah Faber fights.  We’re talking about a guy who has been the best or second best in whatever division he’s fought in for the better part of the last decade.  He has a high finishing rate and is nearly impossible to put away himself.  The only fights he’s lost are title fights and while one could argue he gets too many of those, who else should have them?  Faber is an all-time great and people should appreciate that while he’s around.

The Ultimate Fighter 17: Team Jones v. Team Sonnen – Week 11 Recap

I apologize for taking so long to post this.  I attended several Blue Jays games that threw my schedule off, so there’s my excuse for this week as opposed to every other week where these recaps are late for no good reason.

Team Colours:

Team Jones
Team Sonnen (actually black on the show, but blue for the purposes of this article)

The opening of the show reminds us that Dylan Andrews and Kevin Gastelum were the last picks from their respective teams, something that slipped my mind.  That oversight makes their quarterfinal wins even more remarkable.  It goes to show you just how high the level of competition was this year.

Shocker of shockers: Bubba McDaniel is complaining!  The editing on this show has not been kind to him as they always seem to show him doing nothing but sitting around instead of training.  It doesn’t help that he made it obvious how unhappy he was with the prospect of having to fight Uriah Hall.  In his defence, he has fought three times in a short period and he must be legitimately banged up.  Still, seeing him cry conspiracy (why would Dana White give a crap about him?) is just sad.  Bubba goes to get some blood work done to make sure there’s nothing seriously wrong with him and to nobody’s surprise, he’s only suffering from basic aches and pains.  There’s no ducking Hall.

There isn’t much hype for the Josh Samman/Jimmy Quinlan fight as Quinlan is one of the most well-liked housemates.  Samman says that it will be all business in the cage and he couldn’t sound more disinterested; for once, I agree with him.

As soon as the bell rings, Quinlan pushes forward and gets a high crotch.

Or as Kenny Florian calls it: a “high-C”.

The hold allows Quinlan to power Samman up into the air and down to the mat.  It looks like Quinlan was caught in the opening flurry as his nose is dripping blood.  An early arm bar attempt by Samman ends with him eating an elbow and a hammer fist, but he’s active from his back and I wonder if he’s taking the round like Luke Barnatt did last week.  Another showy slam helps Quinlan on the scorecards, but Samman is still doing most of the work.  Samman stays patient and explodes up before connecting with a couple of knees to the head.  He ends up on Quinlan’s back and…God help us Quinlan actually taps out to Samman’s stupid double fists.  Ugh.  I just hate him so much.

The first person to ever tap out to…*sigh*…”double fisting”.

I’m not sure whether it makes it better or worse that Quinlan admits to “quitting” in his post-match interview.  Honesty is the best policy?

In hyping the Bubba/Hall fight, an unfortunate sound bite sees Hall comparing his own mystique to that of Anderson Silva’s.  Luckily for all of us, Chael Sonnen swoops in later to save the day with another classic pep talk:

What they need is for you to beat you and athletes do it all the time.  They do it all the time…but it’s your choice.  You will choose to be confident or you will choose to concede and you know it, ‘cause you’ve done both.  So have I.

Gilbert Smith throws Bubba under the bus predicting that his teammate will get knocked out in 10 seconds!

For the third straight episode, the weigh-ins prove eventful as Sonnen again jokes about dropping the towel after his guy steps off the scale.  There’s an uncomfortable running gag.  The ensuing faceoff provides another significant moment:

Not in the face!

I, for one, thought that this was hilarious and a good sign that Bubba wasn’t too tense.  Plus, how else does one defend oneself from a Hadouken?  If anyone has any better ideas I’d love to hear them.  Jon Jones is bothered by the comical pose.  He thinks that Bubba is showing weakness.  Lighten up, coach.  It’s not like Bubba is actually going to get knocked out in 10 seconds.

Bubba gets knocked out in 9 seconds.  As soon as Bubba goes forward he’s hit with a hard knee to the chest (that may have also caught his chin) and a short right that puts him right down.  It’s amazing how much power Hall generated both backing up and with such little space to execute.  Carlos Condit is sitting with White and he looks genuinely disturbed.

When you can rattle a guy who goes by the nickname “The Natural Born Killer”, you know you’ve done something bad.

In a truly frightening scene, Bubba is lying on the floor asking “What’s wrong?” and “Why does my eye hurt?” while blood falls from his face (which turns out to just be a nosebleed).  He’s in good spirits the whole time, which is a relief.  Hall goes to apologize and Bubba laughs saying, “I would’ve done it to you.”  Of course, we all know there’s no way he would ever be able to do that to Hall.  White puts it best:

The way that this guy knocks people out, you don’t even want to clap.  You feel bad clapping.  It’s just vicious.  It’s quick.  It’s nasty.  This guy is the nastiest guy in “Ultimate Fighter” history.

A quick recap of the semi-final callouts:

  • Samman: Gastelum
    • he wants the biggest finale in TUF history and he knows that means facing Hall.  As much as I hate his assumption that he’ll win his next fight, he’s right about that
  • Andrews: don’t care
    • I’ve had too much s**t happen to me to worry about 15 minutes of fighting with these guys.
  • Hall: Samman
    • everyone is already aware that this is what Hall has wanted all season
  • Gastelum: Andrews
    • I think I can beat him.  Fair enough.

Both coaches decide they want to see Samman v. Hall and Andrews v. Gastelum, but White hilariously ignores them.  He sees where the money is and goes against the coaches’ preferences, betting on Samman and Hall being good enough set up what should be the most watched finale in ages.

Final note: the Hall meeting ended with the best, most inexplicable exchange of the season.

White: Hey…stay black.
Hall: I ain’t got no choice.

Alright fine, Uriah, we love you again.

Next week: The semi-finals are underway and as much as I like the underdogs, I bet most of us are hoping for Samman and Hall to come through, right?  I’m sad to see this season end.  It’s been a good one.