Raptors’ Ujiri leading way as Canadian teams petition for home games

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Man, is Masai Ujiri is taking one for the teams or what? And yes, that is ‘teams.’ Plural.

There isn’t a sports executive in this country with the currency of the Toronto Raptors president, who by force of personality and inclination was already very much engaged in some of our most important dialogues, even before winning the NBA title. Now, 16 months after that title he is very much a person to be reckoned with, who has access to the highest offices in this country. It was Ujiri who hob-nobbed with the Prime Minister as part of a delegation to Africa pushing Canada’s bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council. The bid failed… but Ujiri’s status as a Canadian-based world citizen was cemented.

Whatever the national version of the ‘key to the city’ is, Ujiri has it. Rightfully so.

And now, in gentle and respectful tones, Ujiri has made a simple request of the rest of the country not just on behalf of the Raptors but also the Blue Jays and every NHL and MLS and maybe even CFL team. He is asking us to consider the possibility of the Raptors playing their home games at the Scotiabank Arena, starting in December. And for an answer this week, when the off-season business portion of the NBA calendar kicks in.

Forget for a moment the idea of doing so in front of fans, or at least let’s worry about that once the first bridge is crossed. Is it possible, at least, to have this discussion beyond the “yeah, this doesn’t look good or feel right,” notion? Can we get beyond the plugging-the-ears, “La-la-la-la-la-I can’t hear you,” stuff?

Now, I’m not going to buy into the whole notion of the Raptors “bringing people together, even when we’re apart,” as Ujiri wrote in a Toronto Star op-ed. The winter isn’t going to be any less severe and the COVID-19 numbers won’t seem better just because Kyle Lowry is draining threes at Scotiabank. Folks at places such as Moderna and Pfizer will determine how the next few months look and feel. So, too, will our discipline in adhering to best practices. Yeah… I’m not certain a Raptors-Nets game in January is going to inspire the nation. But I’m not his audience.

Look at the choices Ujiri is making in determining when and how to speak and write (bless him!) about this. It’s with the serious news media folks — the tall, furrowed, foreheads who conduct our wider national discourse. He’s going through the pundit and parlour class, to get to the book-readers and intellectuals and opinion-makers and rest assured he’s also aiming as high as you can go in this country. Remember: it was the federal government that deep-sixed the Blue Jays’ plans to play regular-season games behind closed doors at the Rogers Centre, after the team received approval from the province and city.

Ujiri knows where he needs to focus his energies at a time when the Canada-U.S. border remains closed. He realizes that that particular hurdle is more optical than logistical.

This much is clear: There will be an NBA season starting next month and an NHL season of some description beginning in January with games in Canada. Whether U.S.-based basketball or hockey teams can cross the border or whether the Raptors will need to re-locate depends on the success of Ujiri’s heavy lifting. Major League Baseball players have already said they want a 162-game schedule with spring training beginning as usual and while the Blue Jays have a lot of runway here, the Raptors could open the door.

Since this pandemic hit we have seen the NHL decide a Stanley Cup champion playing in ‘bubble’ cities in Edmonton and Toronto and the NBA crowned LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers in a bubble in Orlando. MLS is in the process of having teams travel to decide its title and even the most dysfunctional group of all — MLB — overcame labour issues and a shocking lack of personal responsibility on the parts of at least three teams to determine a World Series champion, even if Justin Turner’s ham-handed COVID-19 test and super-spreading post-game celebration reinforced the delicate nature of a process that saw teams live and travel outside of a closely-monitored bubble. And fans are slowly being allowed to return in some jurisdictions.

Ujiri has also opined that a successful return to play can be an example, and on this, I’ll agree with him in part. Nobody much likes the folks who run pro sports but, on balance, they’ve done no worse than society as a whole in dealing with this pandemic. If epidemiologists can show that public health has been stretched or strained in areas where games have been played or there has been some sort of negative impact the debate is over. Done. And I get that there will be some out there who view allowing the Raptors to play their games in Toronto as some sort of thin edge of the wedge, that it means governments will shortly thereafter be pressured to allow fans back in the game. And know what? We’ll need to have that debate some time.

But I’m sorry, just because there are limitations on bars and restaurants, it doesn’t mean we can’t entertain the notion of properly regulated pro sports events being staged in this or any other city. In fact, a skeptic — hey you in the back, sit down! — might say the folks who run pro sports have on balance done a better job than our governments of communicating and administering to their stakeholders.

To be honest, I see no reason not to let Masai Ujiri or Larry Tanenbaum or Mark Shapiro or anybody else make their case, unless you can show me the commonweal is somehow diminished.

HIT AND RUN

• Now, if you want an example of ruining a good thing: friends, may I present to you European soccer?

Two months into a new season after what most took to be a critically successful return from an across-the-continent COVID-19 shutdown, the folks who run UEFA are playing international matches — European qualifiers, Nations League matches and, believe it or not, friendlies. That’s right: They’re having national bodies collect players from all over the place and then crossing time zones for exhibition matches in largely empty stadiums while virus numbers are spiking.

The top leagues have lived a charmed existence so far; big names such as Cristiano Ronaldo and now Mo Salah have contacted the coronavirus yet appropriate isolation and testing and tracing seems to have had a mitigating effect. But the sport is seeing a run on soft tissue injuries after a shortened off-season and an aggressive international schedule seems ludicrous.

• Here’s the thing with Derek Jeter: Spend as much time living and playing the way he did, overstay your welcome a bit, and people want to knock you off your perch. So it was no surprise that when he became CEO of the Marlins and mishandled the Giancarlo Stanton trade, tied the can to much-beloved club ambassadors such as Andre Dawson, and saw his club founder on the field, there were knowing smiles. Same thing when the Marlins were hit by a COVID-19 outbreak that hinted at a lack of clubhouse discipline. Amateur-hour stuff, they sniffed.

Yet Jeter’s Marlins not only went to the playoffs after cobbling together a roster of all-comers, but he has also now helped shatter baseball’s glass ceiling with the hiring of Kim Ng as his general manager. Jeter already hired Caroline O’Connor as his COO and that’s a helluva masthead. When he was with the Yankees, Jeter also enjoyed a strong relationship with Jean Afterman, who for 20 years has been Brian Cashman’s most trusted lieutenant and has been instrumental in the Yankees’ scouting success in Asia. He’s doing good work.

• Happy birthday Francisco Lindor, who turned 27 on Sunday and is on every Blue Jays fans’ wish-list. Hey: I hear you. But here’s the thing: before I make that deal I need to get an idea of what Lindor wants to re-sign for because, I’m sorry, I’m not interested in trading prospects for a one-shot thing, not when next winter’s shortstop free-agent class could include Javier Baez — Buster Olney of ESPN says the Cubs are listening to offers already — Corey Seager, Trevor Story and, possibly, an unsigned Lindor — and not when I’m unsure about my starting pitching.

Go-time for the Blue Jays, in my mind, is when Nate Pearson is ready to take the ball every five days. Go-time is when he’s ready to become a cost-efficient contributor. That won’t be 2021. Now, if somehow President and CEO Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins can parlay their friendship and connections with the Indians front office into a frank exchange based on an ability to talk to Lindor and his agents ahead of time and get him signed? Go for it.

Otherwise, I’d be happy adding an impact bat elsewhere, bringing in another arm and going after James McCann to be my catcher and having Bo Bichette at shortstop.

• COVID-19 robbed all of us of getting a sense of what the Blue Jays clubhouse was this season. I’m told, however, that some of the logistics in Buffalo in terms of accommodations were challenging at times. So to me, it says a great deal about this organization, manager Charlie Montoyo and his coaching staff that Robbie Ray re-signed here for $8 million and that another pitcher acquired at the deadline, Taijuan Walker, also wants to return despite the uncertainty.

THE ENDGAME

It’s been all quiet on the labour front after all that fuss surrounding baseball’s re-start out of the pandemic shut down but there are still plenty of smouldering embers underneath a collective bargaining agreement that is set to expire after 2021.

Some of those embers will, of course, burn in baseball’s Hot Stove this winter which will of course lead to bickering. Because baseball is gonna baseball. While every other major sport found a degree of unity in the midst of lockdown and shutdown, baseball — a few radical owners in particular, we’re told — saw it as an opportunity to further competing agendas. So at this time I have one small request: Considering how baseball managed to fly by the seat of its pants in 2020, with all manner of in-season compromise, can all of us just take a step back and realize how well-positioned the game?

The Stanley Cup was awarded in September. So, too, was the NBA title. The CFL never did get off the ground but baseball… well, the Majors crowned a World Series winner on Oct. 27, the earliest ending date since the 2008 series between the Philadelphia Phillies and Tampa Bay Rays ended on the same date and three days earlier than the 2019 Series.

Baseball, in other words, is back on its biorhythmic clock and scheduled to start on time.

The goal for 2021 is to get fans back in the stands, to re-open a revenue valve all but shut off by COVID-19. Luckily for Major League Baseball, its network TV deals are done through 2028 and, for a sport that is supposedly dying, it’s remarkable those deals will pay out an average of $2 billion per year compared to $1.5 billion in the previous set of contracts. Nice death.

Almost as remarkable is the $2.5 billion price for the New York Mets paid by Steve Cohen to buy the second-biggest team in his market. It’s something both sides ought to remember as they figure out how to divvy up whatever’s left of the spoils. Baseball learned during the 1994 players strike and the long, slog back that one of its strengths was its ability to offer every fan a game involving his or her team every day. Woe to anybody who tries to seize this off-season as an opportunity to forward an agenda, at a time when reliability and regularity are highly-prized.

Jeff Blair hosts Writers Bloc with Stephen Brunt and Richard Deitsch from 3-5 p,m, ET on Sportsnet 590/The Fan and co-hosts Canada’s only national radio soccer show, A Kick In The Grass with Dan Riccio on Monday nights across the Sportsnet Radio Network.