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Steve Phillips

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The tragedy in Toronto last Monday has heaped unspeakable pain on many individuals and families. It doesn’t only impact the 10 innocent people who lost their lives or the 14 others who were injured. We all feel pain at some level. The idea that we could leave our house in the morning on a normal Monday and never return to those we love is unthinkable. 

Why someone would run people down in a van is beyond understanding. We are all in disbelief. We all need to find a way to heal the wounds caused by shocking events of that afternoon. 

We’ve seen the role sports can play in the healing and recovery process many times. There’s a bond between the fans and their team that goes beyond just the games on the field, rink or court.

The Boston Red Sox, led by David Ortiz, took on a leadership role in the healing process after the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013. The slogan “Boston Strong” rallied the recovery efforts and was posted on the Green Monster wall at Boston’s Fenway Park. The Boston Bruins displayed the slogan on their helmets at their game two days after the bombings. 

Last summer, after Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc on Houston, the Astros connected with their fans in a deeper way. The team reached out to help those suffering in the community and their success on the field offered a distraction from all that had been lost.

The Maple Leafs played a game on Monday evening just hours after the horrible events that afternoon. They played because they believed it would be wrong not to play. Everybody felt the sense of loss, but going on with life didn’t in any way minimize the losses, it honoured the victims.

I was the general manager of the New York Mets on that fateful day of Sept. 11, 2001 when terrorist crashed planes in to the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and in a field in Shanksville, PA.  I was driving over the Whitestone Bridge that morning on the way to Shea Stadium and could see the smoke billowing from the towers.

From that point on, my life changed forever. I went through an entire range of emotions over the next couple of weeks:  fear, sadness, anger, rage, anxiety, uncertainty and gratitude. I learned that the depth of the relationship between a team and its community is profound.

There is a give and take that is real and emotional. The community needed the Mets and we needed our community.

Shea Stadium served as a staging point for the first responders going in and out of the city to Ground Zero for their work shifts. There were cots set up in the bowels of the old stadium to allow the workers to rest.

The Mets fed the firemen and policemen who fearlessly and willingly went to the pile of rubble to do their part. The parking lot of the stadium was used as a collection and staging point for supplies going to Ground Zero as well. Players, coaches, executives and employees of the Mets helped load supplies on trucks.

We weren’t’ the Mets. We were just New Yorkers trying to do our part. The bond that connected the city and the Mets made us more than just honourary New Yorkers. It didn’t matter that most of the players weren’t from beleaguered city. We all shared the same blood, sweat and tears.

On Sept. 21, 10 days after the attack, the baseball season started again. The first game in New York was at Shea Stadium between the Mets and the Braves. Despite there not being any overt threats, fear existed because a major sporting event seemed like an obvious target in the aftermath of 9/11.

I know I was scared. I spent the days leading up to the game in meetings with police, FBI and other officials preparing the security details for the game. I had meetings to devise an evacuation plan for our players’ families in case of an emergency. Then there were meetings about how we could appropriately honour those lost in the attack as well as those who served their community with courage and class as members of the Police, Fire Department, Office of Emergency Management and Port Authority.

The day of the game was so emotional for everyone. That afternoon I went up to my box where I normally watch the game just to get away from the stress and anxiety of all of the security meetings. I watched Diana Ross rehearse with the young gospel group she would be singing God Bless America with that evening. She went from person to person while singing and touched their face, looking them in their eyes, reassuring all would be okay. I sat and cried while reflecting what had happened over the preceding 10 days; reliving the whole range of emotions.

When the game started, I was so proud of my team. The players all wore hats representing and honouring the first responders. I was even prouder of the fans that came out to the game.  They overcame that urge to hide inside and feel sorry for themselves. They were courageous. 

Fans experienced things they had never seen before at a stadium. The police presence was overwhelming.  There were uniformed and undercover officers. There were snipers positioned in various locations around the stadium. Bomb-sniffing dogs scoured the stadium multiple times during the day. Metal detectors were positioned at every entrance.

Our world had changed forever, yet there was an overwhelming sense of community in the stadium. It was a statement from all of New York to the terrorists that we would not be defeated. We took their best shot and were literally rising from the ashes. The singing of the National Anthem that night had never meant more or sounded better. It was truly anthem of recovery for a city and country.

We went on to win that game in dramatic fashion. Mike Piazza hit the game-deciding homer just as the script should have been written. It was a win, not just for the Mets, but for the fans and city, too. 

We had played rather lackadaisical baseball for most of the season, but the events of 9/11 and the response of the city of New York inspired the players. They felt a responsibility to win for them. Instead of motivating the fans, we were motivated by them. Players always perform trying to win the game, but their effort shifted from being about themselves to being about the fans and the community.

I have no doubt the Maple Leafs were inspired and driven to win Game 6 last Monday to take care of their community. They wanted to give back to the neighbours who have given them so much love. The Jays’ performance in the 4-3 win on Tuesday was undoubtedly impacted by a desire to help heal. The Red Sox won the World Series in 2013, fed by the connection with their fans and inspired by their resiliency. Many of the Astros have spoken of the inspiration gained by the grit shown by those impacted by Hurricane Harvey.

Fans welcome players into their community and accept them as one of their own. Moments of tragedy and adversity show that players are fans of their community and would do anything for it.

Construction at Rogers Centre?

Commissioner Rob Manfred said this week that Rogers Centre needs an update to become, among other things, more economically viable. Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro has said the same thing. A facility study has shown that the Rogers Centre, as currently constructed, doesn’t allow for tiered levels of experiences at the ballpark. If everyone’s view and experience are the same, regardless of where they sit, what is the motivation to for fans to buy more expensive tickets?

The commissioner has a responsibility to grow the game economically. It is an area where Manfred’s predecessor, Bud Selig, exceled. There were more than a dozen new stadiums built during his tenure and upgrades to others. Attendance grew substantially as well. Manfred is hoping to maintain the game’s growth.

When the Commissioner makes a statement that a facility needs an upgrade it’s usually meant to motivate some group into action. It’s a bit unclear whom Manfred is looking to motivate here, so let’s see if we can figure this out.

He could be making noise to get the fans invested, which might apply pressure for public funds to satisfy some part of the needs. But remember: The funding of the SkyDome (Rogers Centre) back in the day was a public/private partnership with the government paying the greatest percentage. That left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. Rogers Communications took advantage of the financial difficulties of previous owners and bought the stadium for about $25 million, which was a steal.

Phillips: Rogers Centre definitely needs to be upgraded

TSN Baseball analyst Steve Phillips joins Landsberg in the Morning with Matt Cauz to discuss the Blue Jays win over the Red Sox, the comments made by commissioner Rob Manfred on the state of the Rogers Centre, Game 7 between the Maple Leafs and Bruins and more.

Rogers hired Mark Shapiro as team president in part for his experience in upgrading Progressive Field in Cleveland. Since Shapiro was hired it seems like there is a desire to make improvements to the Rogers Centre to enhance the fan experience and generate more revenue.

But now that Shapiro has overseen a study of the Rogers Centre and has identified area where upgrades can be made, we have been told that ownership has to determine their willingness to invest in the stadium. One would think if they initiated a study they had some thought of moving forward with upgrades. Plus, if the enhancements would lead to additional revenues, then it should pay for itself over some period of time. But there seems to be some hesitation from ownership to move forward now. We’re hearing the company needs to consider the use of capital for the Rogers Centre versus some of the other needs of the corporation.

Certainly, Manfred could be trying to implore Rogers to invest in the facility to enhance revenues. That would be the most obvious target of his pressure. If Rogers is reluctant to upgrade the facility the reasonable conclusion is that they don’t want to own the team. Why invest hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade the stadium if they are going to sell the club? The conclusion: The more time that passes with no stadium upgrades, the more likely they are to sell the club. 

At the very least it would be worth considering a natural grass playing surface. The biggest complaint from players is the wear and tear of the artificial turf on their legs and backs. This would keep the best players on the field more and increase the value of the club – whether ownership keeps or sells the team.

Spitting Seeds

- I’m very impressed by Teoscar Hernandez improvements as a hitter. It showed in Thursday’s game against Chris Sale and the Red Sox. Hernandez walked twice versus Sale, including a 10-pitch battle. He spoiled tough pitches and took some close pitches. His awareness of the strike zone is much improved. He recognizes ball from strike, fastball from off-speed. I also love that he ripped a double down the right-field line in an at bat against righty-reliever Carson Smith.  The best hitters hit use the whole field. Hernandez is proving himself as part of the long-term solution. Sure, he struck out on three pitches in one at-bat, but sometimes you have to credit the pitcher.

- Marcus Stroman’s (0-2 8.55 ERA) start on Friday is a huge one for him. His command and control have been awful so far this year. He has given up 19 earned runs in 20 innings and walked 14 batters. Stroman needs to work ahead in the count in order to be his best. He must command his fastball over the plate so he can get hitters to chase his slider off the plate. Don’t be surprised if the Jays put Stroman on the disabled list if he has another bad outing. He says he’s healthy but if he has a fifth bad start they’re going to have to come up with some explanation. The 10-day DL may be just what the doctor ordered to allow him to clear his mind and let whatever is affecting his release point to settle down. If his arm isn’t the problem it may be his mind. He may not be thinking clearly or with confidence. Taking a break may be what he needs to get back on track.

- Atlanta Braves prospect Ronald Acuna Jr. is now in the major leagues and he has already made an impression. The 20-year-old is had a hit in his first game and scored the game-winning run.  In his second game, he had three hits and scored two runs, while driving in two as well. Couple his fast start with the growth and development of shortstop Dansby Swanson (.316/.363/.484) and second baseman Ozzie Albies (.288/.333/.685) and the future in Atlanta looks very bright.

- The Arizona Diamondbacks have not lost back-to-back games this year and they have now won eight straight series to open the season. That’s the most series wins to open a season by a National League team since the 1977 Dodgers won eight. The all-time record is held by the 1907 Cubs, who won their first 11 series. The most surprising thing about this great run is that they’ve won despite a slow start by star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and without injured third baseman Jake Lamb and outfielder Steven Souza Jr. I guess the loss of J.D. Martinez to free agency didn’t cripple them like many people thought it would. The key has been great pitching, especially the re-emergence of Patrick Corbin (4-0, 1.89 ERA, 48 K in 33.1 IP) whose improved slider has made him almost unhittable (.140 opponents’ batting average) so far. The Diamondbacks are as analytical a franchise as there is in baseball and we are seeing the results in the standings. So far, they are beating the defending National League champions, the Los Angeles Dodgers, at their own game.

- The Astros are sitting atop the AL West with a 17-9 record this year but things feel different than last season. A year ago they led the AL in runs scored and had the fewest strikeouts. This year they are sixth in runs scored and have the second most strikeouts in the AL. So why are they still winning?  Because their pitching was fifth best in baseball last year with a 4.12 ERA and so far this year they have the best pitching (2.43 ERA) in the game. This new formula works for them too.  And their offence will get better.

- With all of the hoopla around the Yankees big right-handed sluggers Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Gary Sanchez, there has been talk of a combined 150 homers from the trio this season. Little did anyone know, the best hitter in the lineup might be Didi Gregorius (.354/.452/.793). He leads the league in batting average, and has nine home runs and 29 RBI in the first 24 games of the season. It’s the best start to a season ever for a shortstop. People wondered whether Gregorius could replace Derek Jeter.  He is showing people there is life after Jeter by doing things Jeter never did.

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Steve Phillips was general manager of the New York Mets from 1997 through 2003, helping lead the club to a National League championship in 2000 and its first World Series appearance since 1986. His analysis appears each week on TSN.ca, TSN Radio and SportsCentre. Follow Steve on Twitter at @StevePhillipsGM.