The twenty-teens of Toronto sports

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Growing up as a Toronto sports fan, there wasn’t very much to praise. Having been born in the mid-90’s myself, the most impressionable stage of childhood sports fandom provided bleak expectations and poor results from teams across the board. Over the course of this decade, it’s shocking to look back at how different things were back then in comparison to now. There hasn’t been any championships over this time period but there has been some noteworthy shifts in expectations. There’s an optimism that has been drum up this decade that wasn’t present in my previous memories. In many ways, Toronto sports were a symbol of mediocrity and an afterthought in the North American major sports landscape. It was fun to put together this article simply due to endless nostalgia; so here’s a deeper look at each major franchise and their journey over the course of this decade that has led them to the state they find themselves in today.

Toronto Blue Jays:

Back in 2009, they may as well have been known as the “Black Jays” because what were those uniforms? The all-black jersey with silver trim was an odd phase in the franchise’s history, but the 2009 season, in hindsight, was massive in shaping the course of the decade. it was a time where Cito Gaston was managing a club comprised of “up-and-coming” rookie Ricky Romero and the last few months of Roy Halladay’s tenure as a Blue Jay. It was also the first full season with the Blue Jays from a fairly unknown utility infielder by the name of Jose Bautista and troubled third baseman Edwin Encarnacion who was acquired midseason from the Cincinnati Reds for Scott Rolen. 2010 saw Brock sport management alumni Andrew Tinnish promoted to scouting director of the club under new general manager, Alex Anthopoulos. The playoff drought that had drawn on since 1993 continued through this year, but Bautista came out of nowhere as a captivating story. A leg-kick and tweak of his swing timing resulted in a whopping 54 home runs to lead the majors and set a new franchise record. John Farrell became the new manager in 2011 and 2012 saw the return of the classic blue uniforms we see today. During the offseason prior to 2013, however, is when the biggest change of all occurred: the Blue Jays were finally “going for it”. It was a refreshing change for the club, as Anthopoulos got aggressive, more than any GM had in recent memory. He acquired Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, R.A. Dickey and others in two majors trades, while also adding Melky Cabrera and Sergio Santos in free agency. All of a sudden, the Blue Jays were World Series favourites. Unfortunately, that buzz came to an abrupt halt as the team fell well short of expectations. Typical.

Now, 2015. Easily one of the most special years in this team’s history, and by far the most special in the lifetime of fans born after the World Series championships of 1992 and 1993. Anthopoulos remained aggressive, acquiring an eventual MVP in Josh Donaldson in trade and signing Russell Martin. He doubled down on those moves by acquiring Troy Tulowitzki and David Price at the trade deadline. The Jays were just 53-51 prior to the deadline but went all-in anyways, showing the desire to finally snap their playoff drought and that they did.

They stormed into the playoffs, winning the American League East and setting up for a series against the Texas Rangers. This point in time was unbelievable on Brock’s campus. To date, I have never seen so much blue or collective support for a non-Brock team here. It was fun, and this matchup against Texas led to an iconic moment in Toronto sports history: the dramatic seventh inning and Bautista’s bat-flip home run celebration. A loss in the ALCS to Kansas City was deflating, but they were back again in 2016 with many of the same players. Ultimately their fate proved the same, falling to Cleveland in another ALCS battle.

In the years since, the Blue Jays have been mediocre, old and frustrating. It’s just this year where there has been a transition to a new beginning. All of the “major” pieces from the playoff lineup is gone — save for Justin Smoak and Kevin Pillar — while the pitching staff is nearly unrecognizable. 2019 is a season that may be difficult, but it’s clear there is a vision for young players and the future. The impact of Anthopoulos is still felt, especially with the anticipation for Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to finally get the call up to the Blue Jays. Vladimir Sr. was still playing 10 years ago, so it just goes to show how much can change in that period of time. The Jays are no exception this; the peaks and valleys were clear but what else is clear is that there are more peaks on the horizon. As a fan, that’s all you can hope for.

Toronto Maple Leafs

The Maple Leafs hadn’t made the playoffs since the season prior to the 2004-05 lockout and that continued well into this decade. Brian Burke was at the helm and by 2010 he had shaped the team to be focused around the likes of Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf. Mats Sundin was gone but Tomas Kaberle remained as a representative of the previous era until he was traded at the deadline in 2011. The vision based upon “pugnacity” and “truculence” reached embarrassing levels of disappointment on the ice. The team was simply awful and it didn’t help anything that they lacked top picks due to the Kessel trade. Randy Carlyle was eventually hired to coach the team, but Burke was soon out the door midway through the 2012-13 season. Ironically enough, they managed to squeak into the playoffs that same year. We don’t have to talk about what transpired in too much detail, but their playoff collapse in game seven against Boston has haunted them (and all Leafs fans) for years since.

It wasn’t until 2014 when the light started to be seen at the end of the tunnel. For years, the Leafs were stuck in the cycle of mediocrity. Applying patchwork to aging rosters that lacked the talent to contend. There was never a true rebuild until Brendan Shanahan and the “Shanaplan” came into effect. Carlyle was fired, they traded Kessel, and Phaneuf and then hired Mike Babcock as coach. In Babcock’s first season, they dropped into last place, but the thing is, that’s exactly what they wanted. It got them the first overall pick and the player that was to lead the charge out of the darkness: Auston Matthews. From there, the Leafs have compiled an impressive glut of young, skilled, quick forwards, a solid starting goaltender in Frederik Andersen and top defenceman, Morgan Rielly. The team has made strides to get back to the playoffs but have come up short in the first round in consecutive years. However, it’s clear the culture has changed within the organization as they are now geared towards winning. This was made clear when John Tavares signed a record free-agent deal in the summer of 2018, made possible with the work done by General Manager and Brock alumni, Kyle Dubas.

The Leafs have reached a point where playoffs are not the goal but now the expectation. It’s incredible to think back to how vastly different the outlook for this team was but it’s as exciting as ever for a fan to have something positive to support after years of supporting poor Maple Leafs teams.

Toronto Raptors

The narrative surrounding the Toronto Raptors had always been that they could never retain their star players. The start of this decade went right along with that trend as after the 2009-10 season, Chris Bosh left in free agency. However, that season also marked the rookie year for ninth overall pick DeMar DeRozan who would eventually develop into a star himself and be there for a complete overhaul in Toronto basketball culture. The rebuild began around DeRozan with the hiring of Dwane Casey as head coach. Although a few whiffs on aggressive attempts by general manager Bryan Colangelo are visible throughout his tenure in Toronto (Andrea Bargnani, Hedo Turkoglu, Rudy Gay etc.), he left a lasting impact in his selection of DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas as well as his acquisition of Kyle Lowry. During the summer of 2013, Masai Ujiri was hired to replace Colangelo and it was this move that symbolized when the Raptors era of success began. Ujiri cleared out old pieces after a sluggish start to the season and the rejuvenated Raptors turned things around to qualify for the playoffs in 2014. This would start a streak of six consecutive playoff appearances that remains active to date. Expectation and excitement rose around the team. The buzz around the Raptors brand skyrocketed, Drake became a Global Ambassador of the team and All-Stars Lowry and DeRozan re-signed with the team. However, the nucleus led by DeRozan and Lowry could never seem to get over the LeBron James sized hump that awaited them in the playoffs. In the 2015-16 season, they made it as far as the Eastern Conference Finals but they wouldn’t get any further. After losing in the second round at the conclusion of the 2017-18 season, Ujiri once again wanted to shake things up and he did so by trading DeMar DeRozan and other pieces for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. This was a decision met very contentiously due to the fact the team was fresh off of a franchise best 59-win season and DeRozan was a loyal fan-favourite but what it represented was the desire Ujiri and the Raptors had to push for limits they had never reached before: reaching the finals and winning an NBA championship. Like the Leafs, playoffs are now an expectation for this team. They’ve have turned themselves into a perennial power in the Eastern Conference and are a far cry from the afterthought they were at the start of this decade.

 

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