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Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Sergio Santos pitches at Jays Spring Training in Dunedin, Fla. on Wednesday February 29, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn (Frank Gunn/CP)
Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Sergio Santos pitches at Jays Spring Training in Dunedin, Fla. on Wednesday February 29, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn (Frank Gunn/CP)

The Usual Suspects

TV viewers give rebuilding Jays a chance Add to ...

It’s a few minutes till show time at Rogers Centre, and Toronto Blue Jays analyst Gregg Zaun is talking baseball on the set of Baseball Central, the Rogers Sportsnet show he shares with host Jamie Campbell. “The problem with young pitchers today,” says Zaun, tautly squeezed into his pinstripe suit, “They have no fastball command.” Zaun’s meaty hands, garnished with a gaudy World Series ring, carve the air in the stillness of the pregame. Take Toronto’s new closer Sergio Santos, Zaun says. No command of the fastball. Instead, he’s throwing sliders to get outs. “You can only throw so many sliders before your arm explodes,” the former major-league catcher says.

Sure enough, Santos gets the save against the Royals in Kansas City a few nights later using a slider on the final batter. Sunday, Santos’ name appears on the 15-day disabled list for the Jays. Were sliders the cause? The Blue Jays don’t say, but Zaun’s admonition about their diabolical toll remains.

Insight is the meat of any TV sports production, and with Zaun, the TV team of Buck Martinez and Pat Tabler, plus radio analyst Alan Ashby, Sportsnet possesses a roster of experienced, opinionated voices. Clearly, the combination of the young and vexing Blue Jays – plus the Sportsnet announce stable – is working out this spring. Through mid-April, Sportsnet’s Jays audience was up by 54 per cent over the previous year. Opening day’s TV audience shattered Sportsnet’s previous record by 36 per cent.

How to explain it in the heart of a compelling NHL playoff first round? The absence of the Toronto Maple Leafs hasn’t hurt (although the Leafs are traditionally AWOL this time of year). The portable people metres now used to express TV ratings tend to be generous to televised sports. The Sportsnet on-air team has been in place for several years and fans are content with them.

Principally the cause of the ratings boost is the promising Jays team that finished well in 2011 and ransacked the Grapefruit League this spring with the best record of any team. Fans starved for a winner, any winner, in Toronto are intrigued by the team which so far looks great against weak sisters but struggles against the American League’s best. Sports fans in the rest of the country (many without a dog in the Stanley Cup fight) are giving the team a look.

But the window to convert that promise is not infinite. Fans are still buying the Jays’ frugal payroll-development model – even though it’s the third time they’ve been sold this formula in a decade. Fans love the potential of Brett Lawrie, J.P. Arencibia, Colby Rasmus and Ricky Romero. Even though the Jays are in a large market finessing a small-market payroll, fans are giving the Jays a shot.

To the credit of the Sportsnet crew, they’re not sugarcoating the issues. On the night Zaun made his comments, Brandon Morrow and his mates were dismembered by the Tampa Bay Rays, another low-payroll team trying to make the frugal formula work. There was understanding but no free ride from the Sportsnet crew.

It won’t last forever if the season lapses into another .500 dance with mediocrity The owners at Rogers know that should they have any shot at the expanded playoffs they’ve got to spend the money later this season to acquire a bat or an arm to make a difference. Failure to do so will result in a backlash.

After you, Don If there were any doubt about the hierarchy at Hockey Night in Canada, the 25-game suspension for Raffi Torres cleared it up. Torres was hot news just a few hours old as Hockey Night broadcast the Boston Bruins-Washington Capitals game on Saturday afternoon. What did Hockey Night’s stable of pundits think of the stunning punishment? Um, we were just going to have to wait till around 8 p.m. (Eastern) or so when Don Cherry had first crack at the story.

So even though viewers could catch Kelly Hrudey and Co. opining on CBC News, there was a moratorium on their thoughts on Hockey Night. Pity. As for Cherry, he backed the NHL’s suspension of Torres, labelling the Phoenix Coyotes forward as a head hunter who has long been out to hurt fellow players. Take that.

Carrier pigeons By the way, NHL chief operating officer John Collins is not happy that hockey fans who pay for NHL Centre Ice package in Canada but are not able to access it on their portable device unless they subscribe to a specific carrier. “That’s got to stop,” he said this week. Despite the league’s progressive philosophy on new media, Collins also says don’t expect the NHL to place any of its next Canadian TV contract with anyone but a conventional carrier. “Hockey in Canada is too important to take a flier on a new technology,” he says.

Lost in translation Play-by-play guys are always looking for the memorable victory call. Dave Strader of NBC Sports had an unforgettable description of the Nashville Predators’ win over the Detroit Red Wings in the first round of the NHL playoffs. Searching for a catchy moniker to capture Music City’s reputation, Strader blurted out, “Honkytown has taken down Hockeytown as Nashville wins the series four games to one!” Man, the NHL will put expansion teams almost anywhere.

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