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Are the 2014 Raptors the new 1985 Blue Jays?

Mike Gallay (@memachine) Apr. 8, 2014 1:28 PM
T-Ross - BarDown Pinned Photo: T-Ross - BarDown Pinned


"Everything old is new again." - Peter Allen

Earlier this week, the mastermind of Bardown — My Man DK — came to me with a question: "How do you think the current Raptors stack up against the '85 Jays?"

A warm rush of childlike joyousness swept across my addled mind, and I mercifully seized a moment of peace.

In 1985, perhaps you weren't alive or interested or you spent the year mesmerized by theTake On Me video, but that season's collection of Toronto Blue Jays proved to be an exceptional bunch. They were the winningest group of professional athletes in Toronto since the 1960s, and I would argue the most beloved (with the Doug Gilmour, 1993-era Maple Leafs a VERY close second). Torontonians watched a rag-tag group gel into something the city had never known: a baseball champion.



What made the '85 Jays extra special was the relative dearth of mercenaries. The eventual 1992/1993 championship squads will always have a place in our memories and civic pride, but the teams were filled with free agent assassins. Those 1980s powder blue warriors claim a place a little deeper, a little less diminished by time, because we were emotionally invested in each player's trajectory. A Toronto team hasn't been built that way in a long time.

(*Author's Note: Before I cue the obvious comparison, let me state plainly for the record: I am a fan of the Toronto Basketball Club but I HATE THE NAME "RAPTORS". I will suppress my urge to call them by their eventual, rightful name — the Toronto Towers — just to avoid confusion. But understand, every time I type "Raptors", I die a little.)

Even in the face of this linguistic predicament, these Raptors have won me over. They are thriving in a delightfully familiar manner, with a buoyant, tough-minded, youthful sense of potential. Like a devoted dog, thought lost for days, scratching at our doorstep impossibly, exhausted, muddied...could it be? Could these upstart Raptors be the generational descendants of the 1985 Jays?

Let's ask the pertinent questions, get out the red pen, and assign the grades.

Where in the team's history does the season fall?

'85 BLUE JAYS: A ripe scenario coupled a weary, winner-less town with a franchise still relatively fresh in its ninth season. Mired in expansion doldrums for its first half decade, in 1982, the Blue Jays began an ascent from seventh to sixth place (of a seven-team division). In 1983, it moved into 4th place, winning 89 games, a feat replicated in 1984. 1985 was something new. The club won 99 games (a .615 winning percentage) — more victories than the future World Series teams — and it would stand until today as the greatest record in team history. No Blue Jays, Raptors or Maple Leafs team has had a better winning percentage since the 1934/35 Leafs (30 wins in a 48-game season).

'14 RAPTORS: This particular comparison would have lined up better for the Wince (not a typo) Carter-era team, had it made good on its promise in 2001, during the team's sixth season. Now 19 years old, the Raptors aren't so green. Still, Toronto's weariness from being mired in a decades-long losing streak across all major team sports, engulfs the city as it did back then. Further compelling the argument for similarity, is the Raptors current 45-32 record (a .584 winning percentage), which is the best in franchise history.

COMPARISON GRADE: C+

How skilled and well-loved are the players, and how do they compare with the talent in the league?

'85 BLUE JAYS: No surprise the best regular season team in Blue Jays history was arguably the most talented. Stacked with classic Jays in their primes, which included starters Dave Stieb and Jimmy Key, emerging closer Tom Henke, the best young outfield in baseball in Lloyd Moseby, George Bell and Jesse Barfield, and eventually-iconic infielders Tony Fernandez and Ernie Whitt, each one was either raised through the system or had their first taste of big league success in Toronto. The city got to watch the talent grow. To that end, not a single player made a million dollars in 1985. All Star Jimmy Key made $131,000. Tom Henke would get votes for MVP...on a $60,000 stipend. The league competition was also first-rate — peep the opposing lineups — as the American League was on the upswing, with Kansas City poised to claim the AL's third consecutive title (the AL would win 8 of 11 going forward).

'14 RAPTORS: The competition is, uh, less fierce. Beyond the general talent deficit in today's NBA (a column I'll be publishing soon), the Raptors' Eastern Conference is particularly woeful. Despite Miami's recent prosperity, the East has won only 5 of the past 15 titles, and will be sending at least one sub-.500 team to the big dance this year (and possibly two). In the West, Memphis could finish 50-32 and still miss the postseason.

Putting aside the lesser competition, a different story emerges. Like those early Jays, the Raptors have players worth rallying around. Homegrown DeMar DeRozan, Terrence Ross and Jonas "Wasaga" Valanciunas are legit NBA starters capturing the imaginations of wide-eyed fans. Kyle Lowry and Amir Johnson play the game hard and are easy to root for, as is the surprisingly deep bench. The team's burgeoning continuity is the key ingredient as it was with the Jays: fans getting to root as their local talent grows and matures and succeeds (Gallay derisively glares towards south Florida). Even with the team headed towards their greatest season yet, not a single Raptor is even making a modest ten million dollars a year. (A tumbleweed blows across the screen.)

COMPARISON GRADE: C+

How were the Leafs, arbiters of the city's sports fortunes, doing at the same time?

'85 BLUE JAYS: As the 1985 baseball season was kicking off, the NHL season was winding down. Mercifully. The Leafs would finish 20-52-8, the worst season in franchise history (before or since). No surprise. They hadn't posted a winning record in six years. Russ Courtnall, Al Iafrate, Gary Leeman and Steve Thomas were rookies which gave the team hope, and they would make the playoffs the following year. (In 1986, the Maple Leafs qualified by winning a shameful 25 of 80 games because 16 of 21 teams made the playoffs. Not making the playoffs was the NHL equivalent of being picked last in gym.)

'14 RAPTORS: Similarly, the past several years have not been kind. After a team record seven consecutive seasons outside the playoff ranks, the blue and white made the postseason last year — defying the advanced metrics — but look to be on the outside once again in 2014. There is hope for the future despite a tumultuous plunge in the final months. But hey, let's not nitpick too much, in both eras the Leafs weren't in the playoffs, hadn't had much success in the preceding years, and no sober fan in the Big Smoke had any illusions that the Cup was changing downtown addresses soon.

COMPARISON GRADE: B

How confident are fans in the coaching staff and front office?

'85 BLUE JAYS: Bobby Cox — a Hall of Famer as of July 27, 2014 — was the manager. He took a mediocre team in 1982 and turned it into the best team in the league. He had done it before in Atlanta. He would do it again in Atlanta. He would win Manager of the Year in 1985, and though his departure upset fans, he was offered a ton of money and the GM job he coveted. The 44-year old Cox and GM Pat Gillick — who would ultimately put together the talent for back to back World Series wins — were as savvy a tandem as the city had seen. Most importantly, they had our confidence.

'14 RAPTORS: 56-year old coach Dwane Casey grew up in Kentucky, just an eight hour drive from where Bobby Cox—okay, I'm gonna stop. Direct comparisons won't work here. Casey did not arrive in Toronto with Cox's pedigree, though he also had one prior championship ring, as an assistant on the 2011 Dallas Mavericks. He's made strides each season and the team is proudly a shadow of his no-nonsense, tough-minded attitude. The city likes him, the players trust him. He has a legitimate shot to duplicate Cox's feat and take home Coach of the Year (though my vote would narrowly go to Jeff Hornacek in Phoenix, because I do not understand how the Suns are doing what they are doing). Two more words to add to this section: Rudy Gay. General Manager Masai "Gillick" Ujiri, 2013's NBA Executive of the Year in Denver, has been masterful in his first season at the helm, as demonstrated by the Sacramento overhaul. History will unfurl each man's ultimate place, but the city is rallying around both, and both are succeeding. Most importantly, they have our confidence.

COMPARISON GRADE: A-



What was going on in Toronto during the season in question?

'85 BLUE JAYS: In the spring and summer of 1985, Torontonians were preparing for a mayoral election, still several months away. A longtime incumbent, who refused to celebrate the Gay Pride Parade, would be put to the test by a variety of challengers. Ultimately, reigning Mayor Art Eggleton would win out.

'14 RAPTORS: In the spring and summer of 2014, Torontonians are preparing for a mayoral election, still several months away. A longtime incumbent, who refuses to celebrate the Gay Pride Parade, is to be put to the test by a variety of challengers, assuming a second term won't conflict with his Jimmy Kimmel-related moonlighting. Same old, same old.

COMPARISON GRADE: B+

All right, pens down.

Depending on how you weigh each category, the comparison works out to a solid "B". Not too bad, really. Going in, I didn't think the teams would match up this well.

Of course, these grades are neither objective, nor properly weighted, nor were they subject to any advanced algorithmic, Nate Silver-style analyses, but moreover is the baseline, root-level difficulty. This sort of phenomenon doesn't come down to math. It is a familial connection between team and fans. It is emotional.

With so many entertainment sources vying for our attentions, a city-wide swoon grows ever less likely. And unlike baseball, where only four teams in 1985 made the playoffs, basketball allows for 16 entrants, with more making the playoffs than getting left behind. Just making the playoffs or winning the division is not in the same stratum as the accomplishments of those '85 Jays, who were playing for a spot in the World Series. These Raptors — seriously we gotta change the name — are greyer in years, and owe us more success if they hope to be revered like Bell and Whitt and Gillick.

To capture the ardent fans, the otherwise supportive moniker-loathers, and the bandwagoners alike, a deep playoff run will be necessary. Then maybe, Terrence Ross will grab the torch from George Bell. Maybe this team, despite already having a winning record, is more a version of the rarely-considered 1982 Jays, the ones who first showed promise.

Maybe they are just something new.

GALLAY'S POLL #6

How do you think the 2013/2014 Raptors stack up to the 1985 Blue Jays?
(A) They've won me over, same as the Jays did.
(B) I like where they are headed, but that 1985 team was special, yo.
(C) Way too soon for a comparison, if ever.
(D) I'm not from Toronto. Could not care less. I have the Fireplace Channel on right now.