Momentum finally shifting for Toronto sports teams

MLB insider Shi Davidi joins Jeff Blair to discuss why the Josh Donaldson 2-year deal to avoid arbitration sends a positive message to the younger players, and says that management wants to take care of its own.

If the very notion of Toronto sports fans being happy causes you some discomfort, then I’d suggest you look away right now. Might I suggest our fine ‘At The Letters’ podcast? Or perhaps the latest #GottaSeeIt?

For the rest of you: how sweet is this? Really. Have you been happier? Dion Phaneuf, an unfair lightning rod but a lightning rod nonetheless, has been traded; Josh Donaldson has agreed a two-year, $28.65-million contract that doesn’t come close to guaranteeing his long-term future but has sure made him happy.

And in two days, Toronto is about to play host to the NBA All-Star festivities, the only one of these things that has any type of cultural caché. True, baseball’s midsummer classic determines home-field advantage and at least resembles a normal regular-season game but it doesn’t touch as many cultural points as the NBA’s. Music and fashion doesn’t come together as much at the MLB All-Star Game; it is less of a ‘scene’ and doesn’t even really serve as a meeting place for league executives. These days, most major league general managers give the thing a pass, to the point where former commissioner Bud Selig actually considered legislating they be in attendance.

Beyond that, there is a sense that something special has happened and is continuing to happen in this city. The Raptors will make it three consecutive post-season trips this season, and with a win Wednesday night against the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Raptors can tie last season’s franchise record for wins and winning percentage at the all-star break.

The Blue Jays, meanwhile, will begin Spring Training in a couple of weeks as the defending American League East Division champions, something that hasn’t happened since the spring of 1994. Toronto FC has the best player in the league in Sebastian Giovinco and — fingers crossed — the makings of a defensive spine. The Argonauts have a new smell about them, finally whining and kicking and fussing their way into BMO Field and, one would imagine, running out of excuses to explain why people have forgotten about them. And the Leafs …

Well, when was the last time that the happiest fan-base in Canada was Leafs Nation? Phaneuf got a raw deal in the city; it is the fault of Brian Burke, Ron Wilson and Dave Nonis that he was forced on the city as a captain but, whatever, he’s gone. Same with Phil Kessel. The left-over Leafs aren’t very talented, but they work hard, don’t bother anybody to the point where they toss jerseys on the ice, have a coach who instills faith in the populace and are just lousy enough that they might have a shot at the NHL Draft lottery. Every other Canadian franchise is worried about something; in Montreal, they’re apoplectic. Here, we dream on the Marlies, and laugh at your quaint playoff angst, while we get ready for the World Cup of Hockey and part of the World Junior Championship.

As someone who can remember putting together a composition of North American cities with long playoff droughts, the change in this city has been remarkable. The Leafs made the playoffs in a lockout-shortened season but, in reality, it was the Raptors that started it; Raptors GM Masai Ujiri started it when he dumped Rudy Gay in a make-over and had some luck on his side when New York Knicks owner James Dolan nixed a trade for Kyle Lowry. Two years ago, the Raptors put together a playoff run out of nowhere and turned Maple Leaf Square into Jurassic Park and Ujiri told the Brooklyn Nets where to get off. The Blue Jays continued it last season with another playoff run out of nowhere that galvanized an entire country, let alone the city, and gave a new generation of fans its own ‘touch-em-all’ moment: Jose Bautista’s bat-flip home run.

Let’s think of how far we’ve all come together: from viewing playoffs as something everybody else did to taking the Raptors’ best-ever 52-game regular season record by sniffing and saying: ‘Yeah, whatever. Get back to us in the playoffs.’ Really: instead of simply being happy with a post-season berth, last year’s first-round exit to the Washington Wizards moved things to the point where there is a sense that Raptors head coach Dwane Casey needs a post-season series win to guarantee his job for 2016-2017, and that DeMar DeRozan might need that result to cement his status as a max player.

Then, there’s the Blue Jays. Based on trips to championship games, few sports have the parity of Major League Baseball. Yet at the same time, qualifying for its post-season is the hardest task in North American pro sports. But after coming within a couple of games of the World Series, and with a roster full of what their president and chief executive officer Mark Shapiro calls “elite but older players,” a return trip to the post-season is the bottom line for many Blue Jays fans. Shapiro, simply put, faces the toughest follow-up act in the history of Toronto sports.

Donaldson’s two-year contract is a feel-good story, although from a baseball point of view a contract that covered the player’s three remaining arbitration years as well as a couple of free-agent years would have been one of the most significant (and biggest) sports deals signed in the history of this city. This contract kicks the can down the road a bit, removing an annoyance while providing a platform for negotiations on a more substantial contract next season or the year after.

At any rate, Marcus Stroman, Lowry and DeRozan all took to Twitter to congratulate Donaldson — and that’s another aspect of the Toronto sports scene that is kind of cool: the almost-collegial nature of it. Lowry and DeRozan were regulars at Blue Jays games, while Stroman and Aaron Sanchez rocked Raptors gear during the playoffs. Jose Bautista will be one of the coaches for the Canadian team at Friday’s celebrity game, and while there are stories back in the day of the Argos and Leafs sometimes running together, there seems to be a whole new generation of Toronto athletes who are there for each other.

“Repping the 6” is a cross-sport rallying cry — as is “We The North” — and suddenly the ground has changed underneath us. Let’s enjoy it.

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