Monday, July 13, 2015

Reasons to Love the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays #2

Your starting centerfielder, Kevin Goddamn Pillar.

Again, I'm choosing to go with one of the players who doesn't exactly play a prominent role on the team. Yes, he is in the starting lineup pretty much every day and is often a topic of conversation during broadcasts, but he is not one of the "main guys" of the team in terms of media and marketing presence the way a Josh Donaldson or Jose Bautista is. To say that he doesn't contribute to the team's success the way that they do though, is completely incorrect.

The Jays just "officially" finished the first half with a tough 11-10 loss to Kansas City. They're a mediocre 45-46, but what matters is that they are only 4.5 games back of the American League East-leading New York Yankees and 4 back of the Wild Card positions held by Minnesota and Houston. If you think they're sunk for the season right now, get the fuck off of the boat. There's no time for the stupid whining bandwagonism that plagues Toronto sports. If you're too embarrassed or disgusted to call yourself a Jays fan now, you aren't allowed to be a fan when the banner goes up in October.

Diatribes aside, it has been a very up-and-down first half and Kevin Pillar has been instrumental in the "up" parts. He was drafted by the Blue Jays in 2011 amateur draft with the 18th pick in the 32nd round. That means that 978 players were picked before him. 978! He was passed over 978 times. He was passed over 31 times by the Jays alone! This is a large part of what makes Pillar so easily likable; he's a gigantic underdog. Given the sheer number of players who go through the draft every year, the expectation of even a player picked in the first round working out and providing value to a team are pretty minimal. Kevin Pillar continues to defy expectations and do more in baseball than anybody thought he would. He hit the shit out of the ball in every level of minor league baseball, rising quickly and forcing the team to take notice.

Initially Pillar struggled, plagued by his inability to take walks. He didn't provide much offense during stints with the Jays in 2013 and '14 and had generally been written off by Jays fans as a fourth outfielder and organizational depth piece (re: someone who would be used in a pinch, but more or less rode the bench otherwise). I'll admit that I was one of this camp. He looked like shit at the plate and also had blowup in the dugout after being replaced in a game that got him some pretty negative media attention. Pillar, Anthony Gose and Dalton Pompey all profiled as similar speed/glove-first outfielders and none of them performed especially well. Out of the three, Pillar was considered the least effective and as a result, spent most of those two seasons in the minor leagues.

Even this season, during Spring Training when the team was assembling roster in Florida, Pillar was generally seen as just the guy behind Bautista, Dalton Pompey and maple-boner candidate Michael Saunders on the team's outfield depth chart. Then Saunders blew up his knee by tripping over a sprinkler (actually) and Pillar was suddenly the Blue Jays opening day leftfielder. Jays fans initially cried bloody murder, but there wasn't much we could do about it. Sometimes your favourite team has a problem in their lineup that you just have to sit back and tolerate and this seemed like one of those times.

However, one of my favourite baseball writers, Drew Fairservice, wrote an interesting piece on the idea of Kevin Pillar being a starter and it made me reconsider my stance on it. With Michael Saunders being injured, there was nothing the Jays could do. Kevin Pillar was going to play and there was nothing we could do about it. We might as well get used to it, right?

Pillar started to perform pretty well in Spring Training. He also strained his oblique by sneezing too hard, which caused him to miss 10 games. The picture at the top of this post is how he came into camp the next day. This was the start of "Maybe Pillar isn't so bad after all." thoughts in my head.

Something that I've always been prone to doing is picking a lesser-known guy from the bottom of the roster and making him "my guy". I've talked about this in regards to Colby Rasmus to death. Before him it was Marco Scutaro, Reed Johnson, Orlando Hudson, etc. It's not like I don't appreciate and love Jose Bautista, but he's "the guy" on the team and is everyone's favourite (at least until Josh Donaldson came into the fold this year), so does he really need me too? I guess it's part of me being a shitty hipster and having to like things that not everyone else likes, but I've been doing this as long as I've been a fan. It's fun to root for underdogs.

This year when I was on my way to Montreal with my friend Mark to see the Jays play an exhibition game, I turned to him and said "I think Pillar might be my guy this year."

Given the starting job in left to start the season, Pillar immediately made waves by making absolutely stunning plays in the outfield. They started to occur with such frequency that the entire league began to take notice.

For example:

And, the pièce de resistance, in my opinion the hardest and finest catch made this season:

That is my most-watched highlight of this season by a landslide. It is such a phenomenal play. For reference, the walls at the Skydome are 10 feet high, which is much higher than most stadiums and makes "home run robbing" catches extremely rare in Toronto. Notice how he has to jump onto then off of the wall in order to get up to it, all while timing it perfectly. Utterly amazing.

Also, all four of those catches are within the first month of the season and he hasn't stopped since then. It is amazing to behold.

Dalton Pompey began the season in a slump and was demoted to first AAA then AA, which meant that Pillar took over his starting centerfield job. He's run with it since then and has established himself as a reliable and competent outfield not just as defender but also as an offensive player, leading the Jays in hits in June and also being the team leader in stolen bases.

If you are hip to Sabermetrics, Pillar currently has a 2.4 WAR (Wins Above Replacement), which is sort of an overall value of a player, factoring in offense, defense and baserunning. If you had told me that Pillar would give the Jays even a 1.0 WAR for the entire season, I would have done something like this:

On this pace, Pillar might be able to put up one of the best seasons EVER for a Blue Jays outfielder.

Pillar represents what is truly joyous about being a sports fan and specifically a baseball fan. He is not the supreme natural talent that Mike Trout is. He doesn't have the bulletproof batting approach of Jose Bautista. He doesn't have the freak strength of Edwin Encarnacion that allows him to pull ball into the second deck. WARNING, THIS WILL SOUND CLICHÉ. Instead, Pillar works hard and makes the most of every opportunity. If you are a sports fan, hell if you are a human being, and you can't identify with someone who was passed over 978 times and and still managed to fight his way into his dream occupation and not just make it there, but succeed, despite all odds, I'm sorry but you are helpless. Being able to see somebody like Kevin Pillar find success at the Major League level is the reason I watch baseball. It is the belief that even when it seems like you have no chance and nobody wants to give you a shot, if you keep believing and work hard, you can make it happen. This type of situation is what allows for a fan to create a truly special and emotional tie to a player. That is why you watch and care about and follow your favourite sports team. That is what keeps you coming back every season. I care about Kevin Pillar's career and I mean that in the most gushy and emotional sense possible.

In many ways, Kevin Pillar is the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays. The team's path and season pretty much mirror Pillar's own.

In 2002, Disney made a movie about Jim Morris, a guy who was forced out of the minor leagues due to injuries in the 80's before trying out for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays as a 35 year-old. He sucked though. Give me a movie about Kevin fucking Pillar.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

I Wanna See Everything

Over the past 6 months a habit that I've picked up is carrying a small notebook around with me most times I leave the house. I use it as a diary mostly, but also jot down song ideas and occasionally dabble in short fiction writing. That kind of makes it sound pretentious and that the writing therein is serious in any way, which it really isn't. But sometimes I write a little story and I feel the need to say that here, I guess? Anyways, having that notebook has affected the output of this blog, for better or for worse. Ideas that used to be turned into posts now stay in the notebook. I sometimes think that some things I put into the notebook could be a primer for a longer blog post, but that has not happened once yet, so there goes that. Maybe that's a sign that they aren't good enough ideas. Maybe I'm just really lazy. Only God knows.

So there are some things and some ideas that are exclusive to the notebook. In general, these are more private and confessional things, which made me think "Why are those exclusive to the notebook?" I guess an easy answer would be that I am too scared to put my innermost thoughts on this blog. I mean, everybody has somethings that they keep to themselves, right? But I also thought, don't most people's innermost and private and weirdest thoughts make up their best ideas? Isn't that why Tropic of Cancer and On the Road are good? Would the quality of my writing be vastly improved by complete transparency in my thoughts and saying everything I think? Would anyone even care? The only two readers I know for sure I have on this blog are my girlfriend and my tru homie and IMU supporter since day 1 Matt. I don't think I'm in any danger of alienating them with anything I say.

I've gotten pretty into the band Self Defense Family lately. They have a tumblr on which the band, but especially the singer, answer questions almost constantly and the replies they give are always 100% completely honest. They give their real opinion, not caring about the public opinion about this band or that author or this social practice or that common belief or this attitude. As a result, me, as well as many other people, are very drawn to them and the ethos of their music. Their complete honesty and truthfulness makes them extremely interesting and I'm starting to think that if everybody acted that way and never lied about things to soften blows or avoided an issue to not hurt feelings, that everyone would be a lot more interesting. If everyone didn't have varying levels shame about the things they like and think, than everyone would be more interesting.

Obviously, that is much easier said than done.

It's like that episode of Community where Britta's boyfriend is a carny with irreparable brain damage that erases him being able to feel shame. Okay Abed, in order to fully embrace the metaness, make an IMU joke next season. Maybe that will make me start to watch again.

While listening to Self Defense Family today, I thought to myself "I really enjoy the lyrical and ideological themes of this band? Why have I never been able to write songs like this?" The obvious answer is that I am lazy person and that I haven't written a song in a long time. It's something that you need to constantly be doing in order to get better at. Once you stop, you start to deteriorate skill-wise.

A metaphor for song writing (in German!):

But even when I was writing songs all the time, the themes never really got beyond "I love you/I used to love you/We're not in love anymore/I hate you". There was one song written from the point of view of my skateboard, but that was really just a rip-off of "Plea From a Cat Named Virtute" and was sonically almost identical to "Civil Twilight". Why did I write songs like that? Was I that narrow in my interests and thoughts?

Here's my most honest stab at it: I was terrified of being single and had a hard time dealing with it. I was not very good at dealing with the ways that all of my university relationships ended, so I tried to express that by writing bad lyrics. I also was heavily listening to mostly pop-punk bands that all had mainly heartbreak-focused songs, so listening to that music clearly had an influence on what I created.

That's not to say that I don't enjoy a good jammer about being in or out love. I sure as hell still do. You know what? I probably still enjoy them more than non-love or anti-love songs. But there's more to me than that. A lot more.

After thinking about what I wrote songs about the things that I wrote them about, I came to the conclusion that most of my "serious" ideas went into this blog as opposed to the dumb pop-punk songs I used to write. But are the things I write about on here even that serious? At times I might touch on some real, at least to me, shit, but in general I don't even think I do that. There are things I never write about. For example, sex. Sex is like a top 5 most popular thing in life, yet I have never written about it here. Why? I have sex. Everyone I know has sex. Everyone has sex. The logical answer would be that I am scared to write about it. Should I be? Fuck no.

(Don't worry,, the website you are currently frequenting, is not going to turn into a raunchy sex blog. That just ain't us.)

All this did, more or less, was make me reconsider what I write about, whether it be here, at school, in my notebook or in my song notebook, and if that matters at all. And that's good! Self-criticality is very important. But just because what I write about (Danny Valencia) isn't the most important, that doesn't mean it isn't important. It still is. There are varying degrees of importance.

Plus, this is my blog, so I'm the fuckin; boss here. What I say goes and that's the way it will always be. Unless somehow becomes a huge money-making entity and I eventually decide to take a deal from a corporation and they take over the writing of the blog. Because let's be honest, that is extremely likely.

Anyways, here's something for you Timmy:

"Write what you want to and what you feel you should. Don't be scared of what the hang-ups are surrounding that. Stick to your guns."


Monday, July 6, 2015

Reasons to Love the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays: #1

Since "The Trade" in 2012, the Toronto Blue Jays have been on an upswing in terms of team performance and popularity. Sure, the team didn't make it to the World Series, as Las Vegas' official betting line predicted them to, but the Jose Reyes/Jose Bautista/Edwin Encarnacion/R.A. Dickey/Mark Buehrle anchored lineup sure looked a lot different than the one from the year before that gave 20 starts to fuckin' Jo-Jo Reyes. Did they immediately turn into the AL East juggernaut everyone thought they would? No. Did that mark a transition in terms of the team's roster, philosophy and image? Undoubtedly.

You could argue that the foundations of this were laid much earlier in 2009 when then-new General Manager Alex Anthopoulos began the team's rebuilding phase by trading Roy Halladay for prospects, but I'm not here to give you a history of Blue Jays player transactions, I'm here to talk about the team right now.

So, the Blue Jays are getting more popular. People are wearing Jays caps way more. There's more people at the games. The atmosphere, while still maddening, is inching towards "baseball atmosphere". Being a Blue Jays is fun. In fact, I find it one of the most fun things about my day-to-day life. Not just fretting over a player's performance and wins or losses and the team's place in the standings, but loving the team. Loving the interactions between players. The more you watch, the more you get exposed to the team as a collection of individuals and you start to experience this weird ethereal attraction to the players, some more than others, but everyone in some way.

This is when being a fan truly starts to give back to you. For all of the time, effort and money you put into being a fan of a team, this is what you get back. Sports fans know what I'm talking about. If this sounds weird to you and seems like a shitty deal for the fans, then you just don't get it. The only way I can convince you is by having you sit down and watch a month of baseball with me and that ain't gonna happen, is it?

The Jays might have a chance to contend this year. They're right on the brink of contention right now, so if you're planning on being a bandwagon fa when they surge to win the division and he comes back to pitch, now would be a good time to get in.

I thought it would be fun for me to try to explain why I like the players on the team and why should like them too. To do this all in one post would be impossible, so this will come in small increments.

Reasons to Love the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays:

#1: Danny Valencia

Valencia was picked up on waivers from Kansas City last year as a depth move that didn't really shock or awe most Jays fans when it happened. He's a reserve infielder, which for the unwashed means that he only plays when one of the regular players needs a day off. The club kept him around this past winter as a depth piece and most Jays fans' reactions were "Mmm, yeah. Probably the right move." Nothing too revolutionary.

Now for some background, this past off-season a lot was made of the Toronto Blue Jays "team chemistry" with the manager and some players saying that the team was lacking this always incalculable and intangible quality. This was one of the elements that management wanted to change most this off-season. Teams play better as a team (derrrr), but making that happen is always a lot harder than it sounds. Bringing in Russell Martin and sending away Adam Lind and Brett Lawrie was apparently going to help all of this

Fast-forward to this season and it appears that this experiment worked. The team is play okay, 2 games above .500 and two back of the Wild Card (if you do not know what this means, they are "pretty close!"), but they definitely pass the eye-test on the field in terms of playing well as a team and enjoying being on the team and it seems that Danny Valencia is instrumental in all of this.

On every World Series-winning team, there seems to always be one bench player who boosts everyone's morale, is everyone's favourite guy and fills in in big spots when he has to. During the Blue Jays' early 90's heyday there was a group called "The Trenches" who filled this role. I would argue that Danny fills this role for the current Blue Jays team.

Example 1: God damn I love it!

First Jose Bautista got a pitch thrown behind him. That's an insult. Then he hit a pitch over the fence. That's awesome. Want to know what Danny Valencia thought about it?


He seems to be the first guy out of the dugout whenever anything awesome happens and is always the main guy doing something on the bench when ever anything happens.

Earlier this year the Jays adopted the "stirring" celebration that James Harden had been using this season. Whenever a player would get a timely hit or start a rally, he would stir at his teammates on the bench to get them pumped, show them that he's pumped, get the crowd pumped, etc. Guess who the guy to start it was?

Him trying to get Mark Buehrle to do it after the pitcher picked up a rare hit? Fucking amazing:

Who even cares what they're doing?

In terms of hard, tangible evidence of what he adds to the team, he can play at three positions, 3B, 1B and corner OF, and mashes left-handed pitching like few other players in the league. A .357 batting average! Or, if you're of the SABR nerd variety, a 152 wRC+, which is "I spend too much time analyzing baseball statistics" for "really good!".

And hey, he has an adorable french bulldog pupy that he constantly instagrams to boot!

Ever since Colby Rasmus left the team this past year, I've wondered who is going to be my new "guy", by which I mean a favourite player who isn't everybody else's favourite.

I think Danny Valencia might be that guy.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

*Audio Title* The bassline to "White Riot" by The Clash

This is going to be a simple one. I've had a lot of time to myself this summer and as a result, a lot of time to consume. Here are my favourite things I've been consuming:

Pet Symmetry- Pet Hounds
Catchy emoish pop-punk with tons of hooks and riffs.

Jeff Rosenstock- We Cool?

Mac McCaughan- Non-Believers
Great songs, great guitar, great vibe.

The Cars- Heartbeat City
The Cars at their poppiest, corniest and 80'sest. Perfect for weather above 22 degrees.

We Are the Best!
A coming of age story about three girls in Sweden. If you play in a band (specifically a punk band) and don't think "Playing in a band is the best thing in the entire world." after watching this, I do not know what is wrong with you. It hit me square in the chest and is one of my favourite things I've seen in a while.

About Alex
One of my mom's favourite movies is The Big Chill. When I watched it I thought it was good, but definitely felt a generational disconnect that I felt prevented me from truly loving it. This movie is basically The Big Chill, so much so that you pretty much have to mention that, but it presents problems and relationships that are at once specific to Generation Y and also timeless. Absolutely loved it.

The Jinx
Want to see a deranged serial killer accidentally confess and get caught during the filming of a documentary. You're in luck.

Rick and Morty- Season 1
Sometime I'm late to this shit, okay? This is so wonderfully funny and smart and dark and crass.

Mordecai Richler- Barney's Version
The last year and a half or so I've been working through a giant pile of classic Can-Lit. This has been one of my favourites. It's simultaneously tragic and hilarious while also managing to pin down a corner of Canadian culture perfectly.

It Seems so Simple, You and Me

Something that I seem to talk about when I remember to write in this blog is how I change over time and how I seem to stay the same in the midst of all that change, if that makes any sense.

You ever notice that "change" and "stay the same" are used in tandem WAY TOO OFTEN? I apologize for my use of them above.

But it's true, for every day I spend discovering a new artist or new type of music or new thing about myself, I probably spend two reveling in past interests that had slipped my mind until recently or an old forum I used to post. But even though I would like to convince myself that I am the same shy ska fan I was in 10th grade, the truth is I'm not and I am becoming a new person all the time. Of course I'm always going to retain some (most) of my interests but in reality I'm a lot like my skin in that small dead parts of it are falling off and being replaced by new parts constantly, but when I look at it, it's still the same old epidermis, for all intents and purposes.

What triggered these thoughts for me is the band Rehasher releasing a 7" this year called Clock Smasher. For a few years, Rehasher was one of the bands I listened to most, and not just because they're a Less Than Jake side project. They put out two albums that were in high rotation for me and I pretty much thought they were flawless. In fact, when High Speed Access to my Brain, their second full-length, came out I named it my favourite album of that year. If you would like to read a completely misinformed account of 2009's music, you can read that here (to be honest, I would just swap Rehasher and Shook Ones and remove NoFX). I'll still throw them on every once in a while and I'll still stand by my appreciation for those two albums, but I'm a little older and the tiniest possible amount wiser now and realize that they're just a catchy, fast, melodic punk band.

And hey, that's alright! I like all those things.

Anyways, like I said, they put out a 7" this year and in times past I probably would have said something along the lines of "WATCH OUT WORLD, REHASHER'S GOT SOME NEW FUCKIN' TUNES OUT!" into the faceless void that is, but now I meet it with indifference. Part of that is that the two songs are undeniably worse than the rest of the songs they've put out, but part of that is also that I'm now 26 years old and stressed about my thesis and as a result don't really give a shit about two skate punk songs by a band who only exist when Less Than Jake isn't touring or recording.

I would quote the most famous line from Ferris Bueller's Day Off, but I think if I included that AND the opening line of this post I would be on the fast track to this:

Clock Smasher (God, that's a dumb title) kind of serves as a barometer for my personal change. It's something I can take a look at think "Okay, this is different now." and I like that. I'm clearly still the same dude, because my number one album will most likely be a pop-punk release, but at the same time a synthy pop album is right behind it.

Cool, I guess?

Time to go give the new Self Defense Family a few more spins because I am "deep" and "emotional" and I "think about things and themes and ideas".