Kadri and Stroman Don’t Not Need to Tone It Down

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“Why is everybody always picking on me?” from Charlie Brown by the Coasters.

You have to wonder if the Toronto media needs to manufacture a crisis just to keep them relevant. Take Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri. He has been playing great this season. Floundering under previous coaching regime, Kadri has been a key piece of a resurgent Maple Leafs team. He reinvented himself from a pure goal scorer to a grinding, more defensive player. Once again, the media narrative in Toronto are calling for the Maple Leafs forward to stop with his antics.

And then there is Blue Jays pitcher Marcus Stroman. He is one who is never shy of showing his emotions when on the mound. He still has learn how to harness it properly. But once he does, American league batters better watch out.

I had my share of criticism of Kadri. But it has always been about his game. Same with Stroman. It’s always been on baseball. If others focused more about their game than what they do outside the rink or diamond, then they may have a point. These critics are the same ones who think Don Cherry is all wet when he comes on to say stop celebrating over scoring the tenth goal of the game when your team is up 10-0.

You have heard me say I always like athletes who play with an edge. An edge is who do more than just relying on their talent to succeed. They are far more feisty, and play with more passion than others. They may be nice guys outside the game, but when the puck drops or the pitch is thrown, it is all business.

Both Kadri and Stroman are not the only ones who need to play with an edge. Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews are just two NHL players that have led their teams to Stanley Cup championships. Sure the two are known for their scoring but many seem to overlook the fact that they like to get dirty, sometimes more often than we like to think. They grind, hit, get in opponents faces, and yes, they will drop the gloves and throw some punches. I like to see if sports writers in Pittsburgh and Chicago would disavow their team’s respective championships when they learn it’s not just skills that won them the Cup.

So Kadri and Stroman don’t need to tone it down. They need to channel that emotion to win games. If those two can do that, the better their respective teams will be in the long run.

Also see:

Stroman Will be Fine
James Reimer Deserves Better
Bad Blood is Good for Sports

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Donaldson Will be on the Move… to a New Position

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I don’t foresee the Blue Jays trading Josh Donaldson as others in the media are insisting the team does. That is not to say if a team like the Yankees are willing to sell the farm, General Manager Ross Atkins should listen. But short of that, the Bringer of Rain will stay in Toronto. You can’t have a contending team, either this year or in future years, without a leader. Donaldson has proven that he is a leader. Players like him don’t grow on trees so I would think carefully before trading him away.

I expect the Blue Jays will sign Donaldson to a contract extension during off-season. Maybe 5 years, maybe 7, but the team will have the former American League Most Valuable Player under contact for a long time. That being said, in a couple of years, when prospects Vladimir Guerrero, Junior (3rd baseman) and Bo Bichette (shortstop) are expected to be ready for the big leagues, the Blue Jays will have to make a change on the left side of the infield. Troy Tulowitzki’s contract will be up after the 2018 season. So it is likely the current shortstop won’t be resigned by the Blue Jays. Donaldson will need to move and having him in the outfield would make sense.

The move would enable Donaldson to play defense without making a huge impact to his health. Donaldson is getting up in age (he’s 33 years old as of December 1st). He has battled a number of injuries that have caused him to miss some games. That hasn’t hampered his defensive prowess at third base. But you have to wonder if Donaldson can maintain his level of production if he stays there. Having Donaldson in the outfield should also prolong his career as it did for former Blue Jay slugger Jose Bautista.

There is no question keeping Donaldson is vital if the Blue Jays want to consider being a contender. Even if the next two years will be seen as somewhat of a rebuild, what better guy to have as the face of the franchise than Donaldson? He won’t be Toronto’s third baseman for long but he will be in Toronto for a long time.

Also see:

Vintage Donaldson was on Display in ALDS
Health will Determine if the Blue Jays Contend
The Maple Leafs Need Their Own Bringer of Rain

Roy Halladay: An Ace Among Aces

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I was on the news desk Tuesday afternoon when I received a news text on my phone notifying me that police in Florida found the wreckage of a small engine plane in the Gulf of Mexico. It went on to say one unidentified person was killed and that the plane belonged to former Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Roy Halladay. The worst case scenario entered my mind the next few minutes until another text confirmed the body recovered from the wreckage is that of the former Cy Young winner.

In between Joe Carter’s World Series clinching home run and Jose Bautista’s bat flip, there was Halladay. He was arguably not only the best pitcher but also the best player on a mostly terrible Blue Jays team each and every year. Halladay’s appearance every fifth day was the reason baseball fans in Toronto still kept their hopes up. He was for 11 seasons the face of the franchise. I first saw Halladay pitch on the final day of the regular season in 1998 against the Detroit Tigers. A home run by Bobby Higginson with two outs in the top of the 9th inning was the only hit Halladay would allow in a 2-1 Blue Jays victory. That was Halladay’s first of 67 complete games of his career.

In the age of sabremetrics and large bullpens, Halladay was an ace among aces. When he took the ball to start the game, he usually goes deep into the game and for the most part finishes it. No pitcher today could be as dominant as Halladay was. The innings pitched, the complete games. Not every start translated into a win but he kept the team in a position to win. Another former Cy Young winner Greg Maddux has something named after him called The Maddux. That is where a pitcher finishes a game that he started and throws no more than 100 pitches. That could easily have been called the Halladay.

It is not hard to see how respected Halladay was in Toronto, the baseball community, and the sports world in general.

RIP Roy 1977-2017

Bautista Should be Regarded as One of the Best Blue Jays Ever

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As we head into the final days of Major League Baseball’s regular season, the Toronto Blue Jays will be contemplating what might have been. Missed opportunities, injuries, and players performing well below their expectations.

This is also likely the final season of one Jose Bautista. He is set to become a free agent at the end of the year if the Blue Jays do not pick up his option for 2018.

Despite what was a lacklustre season by his standards, Bautista showed flashes of his old self in the final two months. During the final home series of the season, fans at Rogers Centre gave Bautista a standing ovation whenever he came to bat. They also gave him a rousing applause this past Sunday when was replaced defensively in the middle of the ninth inning in the team’s final home game.

Bautista is one of the best players to wear a Blue Jays uniform. To me, he is one of the Top 5 best Blue Jays of all time. Maybe even Top 3. I would put Roberto Alomar and Roy Halladay ahead of Bautista. Joe Carter and Dave Stieb are the others in my Top 5.

Perhaps the only great move made by General Manager JP Ricciardi was acquiring Bautista from the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2008. At the time he was a utility man with no regular position in the field and he was penciled in just about anywhere in the batting order whether it was leading off or batting ninth. It was during his time with the Blue Jays that Bautista went from a bench player and a floundering free-swinger to a bonafide 30-home-run-a-year slugger and one of the leaders of the team.

It is easy to see why Bautista is highly regarded as one the best baseball players in the game. He is a 6-time All-Star, twice led the American League in home runs, and is a 3-time Silver Slugger Award winner. Bautista also won back-to-back Hank Aaron awards in 2010 and 2011 as the American League’s top hitter as voted by media and fans.

The pinnacle moment for Bautista was in the 2015 American League Division Series. Bautista came to the plate in the 7th inning after the Texas Rangers took the lead on a controversial play in the top half of the inning. The Blue Jays managed to tie the game up before Bautista’s at-bat. A well-placed base hit would have given the Blue Jays the lead. But the situation screamed for the knife to be put in the heart of the Texas team. The third pitch delivered by Sam Dyson to Bautista was sent to the second deck in left-centre field for a 3-run home run. That home run brought not only the stadium, but the city and the country to its feet.

The fact that he was not able to win a World Series championship is the only blemish on his otherwise successful career. His accomplishments alone may not get him into Cooperstown. But in terms of within the franchise, Bautista is one of the best. And one day he will have his own spot on the Blue Jays Level of Excellence.

Also see:

Rooting Against Someone is Gutless… and the Bat Flip Heard Around the World
Bautista’s Fate with Blue Jays in His Hands
Everyone Loves an Outcast

 

What If Making Trades Was That Easy

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This Blue Jays season has been so disappointing that even the recent (and some would say expected) trades of Francisco Liriano and Joe Smith to contending teams were met with frowns by media and the like. Not so much that these players were dealt away, more like what we got in return. Pouting at Ross Atkins for making the trades is one thing, actually pulling the trigger on one is more difficult than people like to believe. Some folks blindly believe the Blue Jays can pick players up at a drop of the hat. And many of them work in sports media. If only it were that easy.

I have listened to sports talk radio for years and too many times I hear callers ask the host the same question: “why can’t (insert team here) get (insert player here)?” or “they should trade (insert player here) for (insert player here), that would be a great trade.” I remember hearing one caller insisting the Blue Jays should trade Kevin Pillar to the Dodgers for Clayton Kershaw, straight up. First off, you have to convince me the Dodgers would be willing to part with their ace for then Toronto’s young unproven outfielder. Secondly, the idea immediately comes off as a pipe dream. There is no logical basis to make the trade other than to promote phony outrage and anger that someone would not take such a trade proposal seriously. It makes you wonder the kind of people who listen to sports talk radio shows and whether that is the kind of people advertisers want to be associated with.

But let’s just say (for the sake of argument) acquiring the players we wanted was that easy. For starters (and I’m speaking from the Toronto sports fan’s perspective), the Blue Jays would surpass the Yankees as the franchise leader in World Series championships. Maple Leafs fans would be bragging about a Stanley Cup dynasty, not lamenting about not winning the Cup since 1967. If making a trade was that easy, no one would be talking about consequences such as the lack of parity it would cause or how the trade will impact the other team.

Another thing to think about is if trades were that easy, why would teams need general managers? If you believe the armchair GMs, all you need to do is pick up the phone, announce your demands and bingo, you get the player you want. Anybody can do that. In fact, why not just walk into a store and take whatever you want on the shelf? That kind of act would land you in jail but it seems some people feel it’s the way to do business in professional sports.

It probably took Alex Anthopoulos weeks if not days to negotiate the trade that brought Josh Donaldson to Toronto. There were those who didn’t want the team to part with Brett Lawrie, the Blue Jays’ third baseman at the time, who ended being one of the players the Blue Jays sent to Oakland for Donaldson. That was one of the challenges Anthopoulos had to face. Perhaps it is all Pat Glillick’s fault. Glillick made things pretty easy during his tenure as Blue Jays GM. His blockbuster trade in 1991 that brought Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter from San Diego led to two World Series Championships and now everyone thinks they can be a general manager in sports. But all kidding aside, if only making trades were that easy. What should the Blue Jays do about Jose Bautista? Why not ask Justin Bieber?

Also see:

Even if Bautista and Encarnacion Return, the Blue Jays Still Have Areas to Address
Firing Exposes Incompetence… Among Fans and Media
Get the Right Player First, then Spend the Money

We Should Have Seen This Coming

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The Blue Jays are off to their worst start in franchise history. A lot of people are not only disappointed by the 2 and 10 record but are also surprised by the poor start to the season. I’m not. Not to toot my own horn but if you’ve been reading this blog over the last couple of years, I have mentioned some of the problems the Blue Jays are experiencing. The slow start should come as a surprise to no one. In fact, we should have seen this coming.

The problems began well before the start of the season, before spring training, before free agency. I would say even before the start of last year’s postseason. One of the reasons the Blue Jays are struggling is because they have been unable to gets hits with runners in scoring position. This is largely due the hitters showing a lack of patience at the plate. They didn’t show much that last September when they fell out of first place in the American League East and had to settle for a wild card berth. That same approach carried into the American League Division Series, the American League Championship Series, and the first two weeks of the 2017 season.

Secondly, Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins was not able to attract any quality left-handed hitters to the Blue Jays in the off-season save for switch-hitter Kendrys Morales. Not to say the Blue Jays should have gone after a guy like Kyle Schwarber or Bryce Harper. But adding one or two players of that calibre from the left side would have easily balanced out what was and still is a right heavy line up. I can bet you no one would have been shedding a tear about Edwin Encarnacion, and perhaps Jose Bautista, leaving.

Another thing I have mentioned before is the Blue Jays have to stay healthy for the entire season if they expect to contend. Right now we have two starters (Aaron Sanchez and JA Happ) and a former MVP (Josh Donaldson) on the shelf. That’s not good. The closer, Roberto Osuna, was also injured but his stay on the disabled list was minimal.

As a result, the Blue Jays went from early season favourites to win the division to wondering if they will be sellers at the July 31st non-waiver trade deadline. Perhaps it is too soon to suggest the Blue Jays should trade away the veterans and go with youth. They should not approach this like the Maple Leafs did two years ago where the intention was to tank the regular season in order to draft your next superstar. Baseball is different in that aspect. But if things don’t turn around quickly, we are going to be in for a long season even before summer officially begins.

Also see:

There is No Substitute for Patience
Is the Media Cheering for a Blue Jays Demise?
Blue Jays Need Players… Ones That Don’t Get Hurt Easily

 

 

Stability Key to a Successful Team?

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stability-key-to-successDoes one guy make a franchise? A better question would be does one guy (or two or three), in one position, who has held that position for a long time, make a championship calibre team? When you look at Bill Belichick and how he along with Tom Brady have help make the New England Patriots the NFL team every other NFL team wants to be, the answer would be yes.

Another team that fit the mould was the Toronto Blue Jays between 1983 and 1993. They either made the playoffs or were battling for a playoff spot each and every year. That despite the large percentage of player turnover due to trades or free agency. Players come and go but the one constant is the personnel in charge, that being Club President Paul Beeston, General Manager Pat Gillick, and Manager Cito Gaston.

That same line of thinking applies to the college and junior ranks. Say what you want about the London Knights, but Dale Hunter and company have been able to maintain their stronghold in the OHL because they have had the same coach, management, and ownership the last 20 years. Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim, Nick Saban have been able to lead successful programs at their respective schools because they have been given room to develop and grow. Mike Babcock and Jim Harbaugh are early in their coaching tenures with their current teams. It is only a matter of time before they find success.

There is, however, another side to this argument. No question when there is little change to the team structure whether it is management, coaching, or players, you will succeed. But while some moves are done for the sake of change, sometimes teams tend to hang on to certain people a little too long. Take Jeff Fisher for example. He was fired in December after 5 years with the St Louis/LA Rams. When you combine his last ten years in Tennessee, Fisher had only five winning seasons. You can make that same comparison with Lindy Ruff. He has been behind the bench of an underachieving Buffalo Sabres team for 15 seasons (save for one in 1998-1999). We’ve seen former Coach of the Year winners get the axe the following season, however these two did absolutely nothing for their teams and yet they managed to avoid execution.

But for the most part, having people in place who know what they are doing and not having to decide whether to go look for a new coach/manager/general manager/president means putting a focus on what really matters, and that is winning championships. These people are where they are because they know how to win. They have a plan and stick to it. They don’t care that others don’t like what they do.

I believe management owes it to the people who got you there by giving them long-term contracts or other perks. Everyone does have a shelf life. There will be a time where Belichick will put away the headset and Brady will hang up the cleats for good. But that’s a fork on the road that will be eventually be reached when the time comes. Otherwise, why be in a hurry to get there?

Also see:

The Leafs Got Babcock… Now What?
It’s About Time John Gibbons Gets His Due
Winners Blaze Their Own Trail

 

2016 Saw the Return of Toronto as a Sports Town

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Getty Images

Getty Images

In 2016, Toronto showed the world why it is a sports town. For the record, I never thought for a moment that Toronto lost its place in the sports world. But over the last number of years it became dull, predictable, and snobbish. Nothing could have lit a fire under a Toronto sports fan. Then came the recent playoff runs of the Blue Jays, Raptors, and Toronto FC. The Blue Jays went 22 years without a post-season berth before making back-to-back playoff appearances the last two years. People would point out that Blue Jays games rarely sold out or that there are those still burned by the player’s strike in 1994. These folks must have bad knees because they like to use crutches. The fact there are at least 20,000 coming to every game means those who are there are not only Blue Jays fans but also true baseball fans.

A year before Josh Donaldson’s dash home, Jose Bautista brought fans to their feet:

If you watched the NBA playoffs, you would have witnessed Jurassic Park, an area outside the Air Canada Centre where Raptors fans gather and watch their team play whether the team was at home or on the road. Thousands of people braved the elements to watch their team play. LeBron James noticed it moments after he and the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Raptors in the NBA Eastern Conference Final. So did actor and comedian Jamie Foxx when he made an appearance on ESPN after the game. People do pay attention.

Then you have fans of Toronto FC who are in a league of their own. 20 years ago, no one would even think about watching an outdoor sporting event by the lake in the middle of December. But there it was, BMO Field, filled to capacity for the MLS Cup Final. A number of spectators probably wore the same attire at that game as they did to one on a hot, sticky summer day. The loud noise may have caused residents living in Liberty Village across the railway tracks to lose some sleep that night. Passionate? Dedicated? Vocal? Did Donald Trump become President of the United States?

USA TODAY Sports

USA TODAY Sports

Part of the resurgence is due to rapper Drake. Yes, we’ve had other Toronto-born celebrities showing off their hometown pride (i.e. Mike Myers, Will Arnett) but no one has made an impact quite like Mr. Graham. He is also the reason Hogtown is now known as The Six.

The CFL’s Argonauts missed the boat (no pun intended) when they failed to make the playoffs in the year where BMO Field hosted the 104th Grey Cup. The Maple Leafs have missed the playoffs in 11 of their last 12 seasons. But the foundation is now in place after the Brendan Shanahan regime took over in 2014. It will only be a matter of time before they join the likes of the Blue Jays, Raptors, and TFC.

Toronto is often ridiculed (and sometimes rightfully so) for being a fairweather sports town. They sit on their hands, offer a polite applause, wondering why can’t they let us win? Not anymore. Things have changed. There are new people living in the city have they have brought their own approach to watching sports. Some we are not used to seeing: large gatherings outside stadiums to watch games on big screen TVs, wearing the team colours with pride, and screaming so loud it would blow out ear drums. This is not your father’s Toronto sports fans. I can only imagine what 2017 will be for Toronto sports fans.

Also see:

People Don’t Watch Sports, Fans Do
Habs Fans Becoming Snobs
Leafs Nation Needs a Housecleaning

 

Even if Bautista and Encarnacion Return, the Blue Jays Still Have Areas to Address

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We are less than 2 weeks away from Christmas and two of the Blue Jays’ prized free agents remain unsigned. Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion were two of the team’s best hitters over the last four seasons.

Under normal circumstances, losing these two to another team without a player compensation would be devastating. But even if Bautista and Encarnacion did return to the Blue Jays, it would not address the most important need of the team, and that is balance in the line up. The Blue Jays still lack a lead-off hitter and some left-handed bats to level what is a right heavy line up. Yes, this is coming from a guy who likes to lean to the right. It is not enough to have the core group back for next season, they need to shake things up.

The top five hitters last season were Josh Donaldson, Bautista, Encarnacion, Troy Tulowitizki, and Russell Martin. Add Kevin Pillar and Devon Travis and that’s 7 of 9 hitters in the starting line up batting from the right side of the plate. The best left-handed hitter the Blue Jays had last year was Michael Saunders. He had his best offensive output of his career but struggled down the stretch and wasn’t much of a factor in the postseason. Saunders is also a free agent but appears to be down on the Blue Jays’ priority list behind Bautista and Encarnacion. Assuming Saunders does not re-sign with the Blue Jays, that leaves them with Ryan Goins and Ezequiel Carrera, two lefty bats that don’t necessarily put fear into opposing pitchers. They did retain Justin Smoak and newly acquired Kendrys Morales, two switch-hitters who can provided serious pop from the left side against right-handed pitchers.

There are three positions where Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins can fill with a left-handed hitter: left field, right field and first base, the latter two were occupied by Bautista and Encarnacion respectively. Replacing them with quality left-handed bats would put the issue about whether or not to re-sign the pair to bed.

Not only are the Blue Jays lacking lefties in the line up, their bullpen is also thin on southpaws. With the departure of Brett Cecil to St. Louis as a free agent, that leaves the Blue Jays with just Aaron Loup coming out of the pen from the left side. He alone won’t be enough to neutralize the likes of Chris Davis and Robinson Cano for the entire season.

Then there’s the lead-off position. Travis had been there for much of last season. He is a great hitter but he is often injured and is not patient enough to take pitches and draw walks. If Bautista does come back, I sure don’t want him in the lead off spot like he did for parts of last season. His bat would be better served to drive in runners instead of trying to get on base. One would hope Mississauga’s Dalton Pompey can fill that role next season after spending the past two seasons in AAA Buffalo. There is plenty of speed in the line up but it is kind of useless if they can’t get on base.

We are a little more than two months away until pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training so the Blue Jays still have time to address those needs. The starting rotation and the back end of the bullpen are probably the only areas that are stable. If they want to make a serious run at the World Series and not just settling for a third straight postseason appearance, it would be wise for Atkins to cross off those items on his off-season to-do list.

Also see:

Is the Media Cheering for a Blue Jays Demise?
Blue Jays Need Players… Ones That Don’t Get Hurt Easily
The Blue Jays are Doing Well, So Why All the Panic?

 

There is No Substitute for Patience

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there-is-no-substitute-for-patienceAnother year, another disappointing ending to the baseball season for the Toronto Blue Jays. A 3-0 loss to the Cleveland Indians in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series sent the Blue Jays packing and the Indians to the World Series.

People will point out Jose Bautista’s statement after the Blue Jays’ Game 4 win suggesting Indians Game 5 starter, rookie Ryan Merritt, is probably shaking in his boots as the reason Cleveland were able to shut down the Blue Jays. They say that provided motivation for the Indians players but that’s a cop out. It’s another gutless, empty reaction by some petty people who call themselves fans. It also doesn’t help that critics of the Blue Jays continue to look the other way and be an enabler for the bad officiating in the series.

But the real reason the Blue Jays lost the series was the lack of patience hitters showed at the plate. In fact, Blue Jays hitters showed very little of it since the start of September. That led to them going from being a division leader to having to battle for a wild card spot. They would go on to win the wild card game against the Baltimore Orioles and sweep the Texas Rangers in the division series but we didn’t see much of a change in their approach. It was tough watching guys like Bautista, Josh Donaldson, and Edwin Encarnacion going after bad pitches especially the first and second pitches of their at-bat. I know they are better than that. Blue Jay hitters made things easy for Cleveland pitchers and I don’t think their staff should get the credit that the media are giving them.

Let’s get serious for a moment. ALCS MVP Andrew Miller did not throw a strike in any of his four relief appearances in the series. A number of the called strikes were actually out of the zone. The umpires simply had no clue what the strike zone was. But we also saw Blue Jay hitters getting riled up as a result. They continued to swing at everything that was being thrown to them, regardless of who was pitching and where the pitch was located. Sometimes keeping the bat on the shoulders when the pitch crosses the plate, even if it is a legitimate strike, pays off.

Some would say a team stacked with home run hitters like the Blue Jays don’t show a lot of patience at the plate. While that maybe true, I would argue that some of baseball’s best bashers zero-in on one area when they look to take a big cut. If the ball doesn’t come into their sights, they let it go. That to me is patience and, again, the Blue Jays hitters showed very little of it during the last 4 weeks of the regular season and in the postseason.

A lot of changes are expected in the off-season. Bautista and Encarnacion are free agents once the final out of the World Series is recorded. Perhaps Ross Atkins and Mark Shapiro will get players who aren’t trigger happy at the plate. That and adding a left-handed bat or two could turn the Blue Jays’ fortunes around in 2017.

Patience is a virtue and we will have all winter to practice that.

Also see:

Bautista’s Fate with Blue Jays in His Hands
Blue Jays Need Players… Ones That Don’t Get Hurt Easily
Two Views on the Valencia Move and the Importance of Role Players in Sport