Archive for November, 2017

The Toronto Argonauts: The Most Resilient Team in North America

November 28, 2017

They may not get the royal treatment, but they’re good at winning Grey Cup titles

by John Furgele (The Canadian 228?)

They’ve been bankrupt.  They’ve been ownerless. They don’t have tons of  fans and pretty much every year, they rank last in attendance.  They were booted out of the Rogers Centre and truth be told were never welcomed there by the Toronto Blue Jays and their ownership.  There are many in Greater Toronto that think they left town.  They didn’t have a coach or general manager until March.  They didn’t have many players either.  They have had regular season NFL games staged there while their season was still in session.

They are the Toronto Argonauts—the 2017 Grey Cup champions, and out of all of them, this probably ranks as the most surprising of their 17 titles.  They were 4-7 but rallied to finish 9-9, good enough to get them the East division title and the division final at home; a game where they squeaked by the crossover Saskatchewan Roughriders.  In the Grey Cup, they were outplayed and outgained by the Calgary Stampeders, a team that finished the season 13-4-1.  But, they were not outgunned.  They fired three bullets and all of them worked.  They got a 100 yard touchdown pass from in the first half; a half where they gained 123 total yards. Despite this, they only trailed at the half 17-8.

The second bullet was the scoop and the 109-yard touchdown scamper that tied the score at 24.  Calgary’s gun was loaded and ready to shoot the Argos out of TD Place Stadium.  But, the Argos gun was not only loaded, it fired salvos.  When you’re the underdog, you have to be opportunistic and when you get the chance to land the haymaker, you have to do so.  The Argos trailed the whole game, 6-0, 14-6, 14-8, 17-8, 17-16, 24-16, but once they drew even, they acted like the more confident team.  They got the ball back at 24-all and drove the field for what would turn out to be the game-winning field goal.  But, they still had one bullet left and that was Matt Black’s interception in the end zone with 12 seconds left.  If he doesn’t make that play, the game likely heads to overtime, but opportunistic teams make those plays and that’s what the Argonauts did.

No team has won the Grey Cup more times than the Boatmen, but no team has been as underappreciated as the Boatmen.  In the old days, the city had the Maple Leafs and them, so people cared more; they accepted the Argos even though it was a second class football league.  In 1977, the Blue Jays began and their existence bit into the Argo fan base.  They still did okay—winning the Grey Cup in 1983 before the Jays really got good.  They won another in 1991, but by then, the Jays were rolling and in 1992 and 1993, they would bring the World Series title north.

The Argos wouldn’t go away.  The Raptors came to town in the fall of 1995, but the Argos, buoyed by the arrival of Doug Flutie would win back-to-back titles in 1996 and 1997.  Despite the Cup wins, they still suffered from fragile ownership, a building much too big for them, and most importantly, fan apathy.  Just when things looked the bleakest, they captured another title in 2004, this time led by 41-year old quarterback Damon Allen.

In 2005, Toronto FC came to town, and further eroded the Argonaut fan base.  Toronto now had four professional sports teams playing in the highest level of their sport in North America.  Major League Soccer is not the Premier League or the Bundesliga, but in North America, there is no level of soccer higher.  Even so, the Argos were now competing in a deep pool and even though the CFL is exciting, unique and full of flavor, Greater TO was not buying it.

They persevered and in 2012, they won the 100th Grey Cup at home, in the Rogers Centre before a packed house.  I mentioned opportunistic previously, didn’t I?

As magical as winning the 100th Grey Cup was, it didn’t create that spark.  Soon, the Argos were homeless.  They tried to build a new stadium, but that plan failed. When Larry Tannebaum purchased them, the decision was made to have the Argos bunk with the “Reds.”  BMO Field is better than Rogers Centre, but it was built for soccer first. Like the Rogers Centre, the Argos would be the tenant.

The Toronto Argonauts appear to be survivors.  There are other CFL teams that win and win more, but they don’t win Grey Cups like the Argos do.  Hamilton, a city that really cares about CFL football hasn’t won one since 1999.  Winnipeg, a city that really cares about football, hasn’t won since 1990.  Saskatchewan, a province that really cares about football, has only won four times—1966, 1989, 2007 and 2013.  Since 1983, the Argos have won seven Grey Cups.

They are a curious study to be sure.  They win enough, but it’s the way they win that makes it curious.  If you were born in 1975, you are now 42 years old. In your lifetime, you’ve seen the Argos win in 1983 when you were eight; 1991 when you were 16; 1996 and 1997 when you were 21 and 22.  Seven years later, in 2004, as a 29 year old, they won again, then eight years later, your 37-year old self saw another and then on Sunday, at age 42, you saw the Argos win that seventh Grey Cup title.

Let’s think about this.  The Argos do not dominate and they’re not a dynasty, but they do a good job of spreading their titles out.  In 1983, they broke a 31-year drought when they beat the BC Lions in Vancouver in a thriller, 18-17.  They got to another title game in 1987, but lost in the final minute, 38-36, to the Edmonton Eskimos.  But, since then, they haven’t lost another Grey Cup game.  In 34 years (1983-2017), Toronto has won seven titles, an average of one every five years.  What sports fan wouldn’t sign for that?

The Argos are funny because they follow a pattern.  They win and then they go dormant for a while.  They won in 1983, then took eight years off, but re-emerged in 1991.  After hibernating from 1992-1995, Flutie rescued the team and perhaps the franchise with those back-to-back titles.  Per custom, the Argos took a six-year nap and then won again in 2004.  That was followed by another nap (2005-2011) before winning one at home in 2012.  Five years later, in 2017, they are champions again.

On paper, they certainly do enough to keep the Toronto fan interested.  They aren’t the Buffalo Bills, a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 1999—17 seasons.  They aren’t the Toronto Maple Leafs, a team that hasn’t even reached the Stanley Cup since 1967, the year they last won it.  The Toronto Blue Jays won in 1993, but then, didn’t reach the playoffs until the 2015 season, a 22-year drought.  They are still waiting for the Raptors to make an NBA final and there is hope that Toronto FC can win the MLS Cup this year (they are in the Eastern Conference finals at the time of this writing).

We know it’s easier to make the playoffs in the CFL because there are only nine teams in the entire league, but it remains hard to win titles and win them at Toronto’s 7-1 rate in the championship game.  The Argos may be unloved, but they are not undeterred.

When they win the Grey Cup, the journalists write the obligatory “Can this victory win the fans over.”  The answer is probably not and maybe that’s the right formula for the Boatmen.  Maybe they’re better off flying under the radar because at least on the field, this formula seems to be working.  They averaged 14,000 and change this year, last in the league.  When the team needed the fans, over 24,400 showed up for the Eastern Final.  For Toronto citizens, the CFL is there when they need it, and apparently, the Argos go unnoticed for several years, make a Grey Cup game, gain the fans’ attention, win it and then poof, the fans go away.  Five to eight years later, the pattern repeats—the team gets hot, gets fan attention and wins another chalice.

How much longer can this go on?  Are the Argos underappreciated by Greater TO?  Are they overlooked?  Are they respected?  Are they forgotten?  Are they forlorn?  Are they angry?  Has their self-esteem suffered irreparable harm?  Are the Argos indifferent?  Are they depressed or are they comfortable in their own skin?

The one thing I like about the Argos (and I am referring to the Argos as a person) is that they don’t seem to care.  They go about their business.  They would like more fans to come to the games–is 20,000 per asking too much–but they don’t complain when you don’t show up.  When you do, they appreciate the support and they hope that you will get hooked and come back for more.  But, the Argos never beg.  That is just not their style.  They keep coming, they keep trying.  They struggle at times, but they rise up and bag that title every five to eight years.  They are a resilient group aren’t they?

And, for the 17th time, they are Grey Cup champions.

 

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For Buffalo Sports, It’s Real Bad

November 20, 2017

The Sabres and Bills keep flailing

by John Furgele (The Measured 228)

How can this be possible?  The Buffalo Bills have been members of the NFL since 1970.  The Buffalo Sabres joined the NHL in 1970.  I don’t need to do that math, but that’s a lot of seasons.  There’s one common thread:  neither the Bills nor the Sabres have won an NFL or NHL title.  There are those who will point to the Bills back-to-back AFL titles in 1964 and 1965, but I’m letting those go as they were won back when there were two football leagues and the consensus was that the Bills played in the weaker of the two.

How can it be?  How can one city with two professional sports teams be so title-starved?  Sure, you can point to other cities, but the Buffalo sports teams are not only bad, they’re really bad.  Both are owned by Terry Pegula and both continue to struggle.  One would think that by dumb luck one of these teams would have bagged a title by now.

The Sabres are an absolute train wreck.  Through 20 games, they’re  5-15 for 14 points.  They are boring to watch, they show very little skill and as a result, very little life.  They tanked—deliberately held back—so they could be in position to draft either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel.  Eichel is a very good player, but McDavid is special.  Naturally, the Sabres ended up with Eichel.  The Sabres do everything wrong.  When they score, they get shoddy goaltending and when they get good goaltending, they don’t score.  They seem to lack professional pride.  On Friday, they lost 3-1 in a half-empty arena in Detroit.  The next night, at home, they lost to Carolina, a team that with the win, improved to 8-10.

Many think the Sabres are two or three years away from contending.  Who really believes that?  They will have to likely blow this team up and start anew and are probably five to eight years away from being good, provided they can actually draft, find and develop players.  The Sabres made the playoffs for years in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, but making the playoffs was never that hard.  There were years when 16 of 21 teams qualified.  When the Sabres played in the old Adams Division, four of the five teams made the playoffs—usually it was 80 games to eliminate the Hartford Whalers.  Those teams never made deep runs despite having talented players.  Since 1970, the Sabres have played in the Stanley Cup Finals twice—1975 and 1999.  That says very little.

The Bills might be worse off, although on paper, it says otherwise.  They are 5-5 and that .500 record has them tied with Baltimore for the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC with the Baltimore Ravens.  But, this is a team that has to play New England twice and has lost three straight after starting 5-2.  In the past two games, they have surrendered 101 points!  That’s hard to do in the dink and dunk NFL that loves field goal battles.

I have watched a lot of football but I don’t ever remember a 5-4 team that was holding down a playoff spot benching their starting quarterback for a rookie that was drafted in the 5th round.  We all know Tyrod Taylor is not the answer long-term for the Bills, but the move to Nathan Peterman was more than a head-scratcher.  Now, coach Sean McDermott fears losing his team.  The players said all the right things when Taylor was benched, but deep down, there couldn’t have been a player on the team that wasn’t stunned by what transpired.  Now, he has to go back to Taylor for this Sunday’s game at Kansas City and who knows which Taylor will show up?  Will it be the, “I’m out to prove you made a mistake,” Taylor or the “They don’t care about me, why should I care,” Taylor.  In one word—ugh!

The Bills had one glorious run from 1988-1999.  In that span, they played in five AFC Championship Games, winning four.  They played in four Super Bowls, and as we all know, lost them all.  They made the playoffs in 9 of those 12 years.  Not bad.

Since 1999, they have been drier than Las Vegas on a July night, not only dry, but inept.  The NFL builds itself on parity, yet the Bills can’t even sneak into the playoffs.  A broken clock is right twice a day, but the Bills clock is missing its big hand.  In the meantime, the fans suffer.  Every city claims they have the best fans, but Bills fans (and Sabres fans) are loyal.  When the Bills are on TV, ratings hover in the 40s.  When the Sabres played in the 1999 Stanley Cup, billboards were full of good wishes and most vehicles had something Sabres attached to it.  They have passion and they are desperate to see their teams win.

I have never believed that fans or cities deserve a championship; that’s just not how things go in the real world, but it is hard to fathom just how bad the Buffalo Sabres and Buffalo Bills are.  They are owned by billionaire Pegula, who is finding out that running sports teams might be harder than running a fracking company.  Once viewed as the savior, there is now egg on his face.  Successful businesspeople aren’t used to losing. Most have won all their life and when they buy a sports team, their ego tells them that they will leave their mark and prove that what they did in the real world will carry over to the sports world, but more often than not, it doesn’t happen.

Buffalo fans can say that they don’t care, but they do.  They’ll keep watching, they’ll keep listening and they’ll keep reading.  Professional sports have always been the outlet for the people of Buffalo and Western New York.  It gets them through the short falls and the long winters.  They aren’t going anywhere, but sadly, it appears that they will continue to suffer.

 

 

These Two Are Like Clockwork

November 16, 2017

Quicksilvercandy A and Pannochio just keep churning, burning and winning.  

by John Furgele (Is there a better 228?)

They will never run in the Meadowlands Pace. They will never run in the Gerrity Memorial or any “big”race for that matter.  But, run they do.  Not only do they run, but they win, too.  We’re talking about two stalwarts of what I refer to as modern day harness racing.  Bettors love them and I’m sure those who attend and follow the respective tracks love them too.

Exhibit A is Quicksilvercandy A.  Last Saturday, she raced at Batavia Downs.  She usually hangs out at Buffalo Raceway during the winter and then heads east on the “I-90,” taking Exit 48 to Batavia Downs where she takes up residence from July-December.

Of course, she does more than just hang out.  For the most part, she runs the weekly open paces at both Buffalo and Batavia that have purses ranging from $8,000 to $10,000, but on Saturday, “The Downs” put together a special night of racing for claimers.  The Quick one was one of six entered in the $20,000 claiming championship series.  She took the lead, then let stable mate Kaitlyn Rae take over as they set fractions of 27.3, 57.1 and 1:27.1.  She then made her move to win going away in 1:57.0.  The time is never going to blow anyone away, but does it really matter?  Why is the race being singled out?  Because the win was her 20th, this season—that’s right 20 wins in 2017 and the year is not over yet.  No horse in the USA has won more this year than Quicksilvercandy A.

Those wins have only earned her a little more than $106,000 this year, which some horses can make in one start, but that takes nothing away from her.  Every week, she gets the work done and when the car moves away, she is all business

Perhaps even more remarkable is that the 12-year old mare “only” has 61 career wins.  Think about that.  For ten years, she won 41 races, an average of four per year, which is not terrible by any stretch.  But, like a fine wine, she is aging gracefully, with 20 wins as a 12-year old.  One would think that she would be back at it in 2018, staring in January at Buffalo Raceway.  And, why not 2019 before mandatory retirement age kicks in?  It’s not easy to keep a horse healthy, happy and more importantly eager and motivated to run and keep running.  Clearly, the aptly named Quicksilvercandy A is four-for-four here.

Exhibit B is the legendary Panocchio.  For starters he has the dream existence; a life that I, and most, would envy.  He spends his winters resting, training and racing at Pompano Park in Florida and then heads north to Saratoga for his summer season.  To say he trains might be understated.  He is legendary for his lack thereof, often doing training miles in 2:20 or even 2:30.  But, racing is a different story for the 7-year old gelding. When the pace car speeds off, Panocchio takes his game to a different level.  On Sunday, November 12, he won the $11,000 open pace in 1:51.4 and he did it by starting in the 9-hole on the 5/8 mile Pompano track.

There’s the old saying, “horses for courses,” and that fits Panocchio to a tee. He runs well at Saratoga, but he is the king of Pompano Park.  Of his 57 career wins, 35 have come there.  His career record is 57 wins, 27 seconds and 12 thirds in 136 career starts, an astonishing 71 percent in the money.  Like Quicksilvercandy, he isn’t reliable, he’s more so.

Some may argue that these horses should venture out and take on better horses in better races at different tracks, but why?  This is what harness racing is all about, the grinders, the workers and the horses that like to go to the post and run as often as they can.  And, why tinker with what’s working.  The “Quick One,” is 12 years old, the last thing anybody should do is alter her routine.  At 12, she could balk and decide she no longer wants a part of the race and training action, and at that advanced age, she has earned the right to be cranky, ornery and everything else in between.  Simply, there is no reason to mess with her success.

Panocchio, on the other hand, seems to like his north-south routine, especially the southern part.  I was able to see him win this summer at Saratoga and his races follow the same pattern.  He gets out, engages and tries to win.  That is something not every horse does.  Some lollygag, some are content just being in a race, while others don’t have the courage to go for it and try to win.  Drivers know this too; they know when to push the horse and they know when to try to collect an envelope with a third, fourth or fifth place finish.

People get in the game for a variety of reasons.  Some want to win the biggest races like the Hambo, the Jug, the North America Cup and the Breeders Crown.  Others just want to be part of the lucrative sire stakes programs in each state.  But, most want to own a horse that runs and a horse that they can see run.  Those horses run in all kinds of races—the opens, the preferred handicaps, the non-winners of $7,500 over their last five.  These are the horses that keep the sport alive and give back as well.  When bettors see these horses entered, it affects how and what they wager week in and week out.

We hear of horse shortages and tracks requesting fewer days to run, and this is why horses like Panocchio and Quciksilvercandy A are very important to the sport.  These horses bring a level of consistency and excellence to their respective tracks.  When I look at entries for both Batavia Downs and Pompano, when I see “open” I’m looking for Quicksilvercandy and Panocchio and truth be told, dozens of other horses, too.  I know who they are and I know when they run and I want to follow their races.

When we hear of tracks running fewer days, it hurts the industry in many ways because it could take away from horses like Panocchio, Quicksilvercandy A and hundreds of others.  Every track has horses like this; there’s Twisted Pretzel at Saratoga and Steve Said, who this week, will make his 41st start of 2017 at Monticello (he has 12 wins).  The big races are nice; they draw the crowds and help drive handle, but the sport should always pay homage to true warriors like Panocchio and Quicksilvercandy A.