The complicated sporting rivalry between Canada and the United States – Part 1: Toronto vs. San Francisco Bay Area

2019 NBA FinalsFor the first time in the NBA history, Toronto Raptors became the first 1995 expansion team that will be playing their first NBA Finals opposed by the reigning & defending NBA Champions (and my local NBA team since I live in the San Francisco Bay Area) Golden States Warriors, and the matchup means that the San Francisco Bay Area will be facing a team from Toronto since the 1989 American League Championship Series between Oakland Athletics and Toronto Blue Jays, which Oakland won in 5 games.  While the Toronto basketball franchise have been waited for this opportunity since their inception in 1995 as an expansion franchise, in the same year that the Warriors had drafted Joe Smith as their first round pick in the 1995 NBA Draft, the Raptors had drafted former Chicago Bulls point guard B.J. Armstrong as their first pick in the 1995 NBA Expansion Draft; however, Armstrong was subsequently traded to the very same Golden State Warriors (albeit being owned by Chris Cohan at that time) for 5 players after he refused to report to Raptors.  However, this incident, along with the 1989 ALCS results, were merely part of a larger context between these two metropolitan areas, and one event, above all else, would eventually led the rivalry into the fold.

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The 30-year rivalry began innocently enough with the proposed move to the Canadian city by a man who had been vilified by the city of New York by moving the Giants baseball team from Manhattan District of the New York city proper to across the state to San Francisco in 1958, Horace Stoneham.  After initially contending for the pennant race during the entire decade of 1960s, in which had claimed 2 National League pennants and played against the York Yankees in the 1962 World Series, the Giants has fallen into hard times.  With most of the core players including the club legend Willie Mays and Willie McCovey were traded away, they were a shadow of their former selves and were overtaken by the likes of Los Angeles Dodgers, Pittsburg Pirates, and Cincinnati Reds, with the latter two went on to win the World Series around that time, including the 1976 World Series. Just months prior, with the attendance fell sharply as a result of poor performances, as well as several other factors including the recently arrived Athletics baseball club to Oakland from Kansas City in 1969 split the market, casting doubts whether the Bay Area was big enough for two MLB (Major League Baseball) teams, which is similar to Chicago and New York, and the fact that they were playing at Candlestick Park with original configuration in the form of a boomerang, have instead led to a blustery wind and cold condition that had drew ires from fans and players alike, in particular, the outfielders constantly felt the brunt of the cold from extra damped grass beneath them, making it even harder trying to catch fly balls from left center to right field ; within the first decades of play, many would-have home runs were instead become outs or fielding errors, things went worse by 1971 after installing AstroTurf  with the stadium became enclosed when the San Francisco 49ers made their move from Kezar Stadium, as winds swirling from all directions instead, Stoneham felt the financial brunt and began considering the possibility to move the team elsewhere, then he had reached an agreement with a consortium led by Belgian-owned Canadian brewing company Labatt Brewing Company with an intent to move the team to Toronto, that effort was thwarted

Lurie & Stonehamby San Francisco Mayor George Moscone (whom was later assassinated alongside Board of Supervisor Harvey Milk just three years later) won a court injunction against the sale, and convinced a hometown real estate developer by the name of Bob Lurie to purchase the team from Stoneham and kept the Giants in San Francisco.  Major League Baseball, the governing body of professional baseball in the United States, made history by expanding the league into Canada and Toronto was awarded in its own expansion team in 1977, thus the Blue Jays was born, along with Seattle awarded a new expansion franchise, replacing the Pilots when they moved to Milwaukee and renamed the Brewers.  Since the inter-league play did not exist until 1995, as well as the spring training camps for the Giants and Blue Jays were miles apart as the former trains in Arizona and the latter in Florida, they would not meet until some time in the mid-1990s, if not mid-2000s; in an ironic twist, Bob Lurie, who bought and saved the Giants in 1976 from moving, decided to move the team to, of all places, Tampa Bay – St. Petersburg, Florida, though that effort was also thwarted by MLB; in exchange, Tampa Bay was also awarded an expansion franchise, thus the Rays were born.   

Exhibition_Stadium_before_the_Toronto_Blue_Jays_faced_the_Chicago_White_Sox_on_May_27,_1988_1 (1)Same could not be said about the Oakland Athletics, as both Seattle and Toronto were both enlisted as American League Teams, more matchups would be played during the season. In the case of the Blue Jays, they were not playing in a typical baseball stadium, instead they were playing at the Exhibition Stadium since the inception, where it also served as home field for Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts, and the configuration for baseball presented quite a challenge for the fans who were attending those games in the earlier days.  From 1977 to June 1989, the team reached post-season just once in the 1985 season with Bobby Cox at the helm, the rest were either playing respectable records and were eliminated from playoffs from 1982 to 1984 with 1986-89 under Jimmy Williams, or missing the post-season altogether. However, their fortune changed when they moved into then-called SkyDome after the firing of Williams and appointed their hitting coach Cito Gaston in May 1989.  When they reached the above-mentioned ALCS, the Athletics defeated them in 5 games (Oakland won 4-1), who went on to win the infamous 1989 World Series against the very Giants that would have gone to Toronto in 1976, had it not been Giants had won the court injunction against the Canadian city.  After missing the postseason in 1990, they returned to the American League Championship Series in 1991, only to suffer defeat at the hands of eventual World Champion Minnesota Twins in 5 games (Minnesota won 4-1); however, they returned with a vengeance and won their third American League East pennant in 4 years, and they returned to the 1992 ALCS facing Oakland in a rematch from above-mentioned 1989 series.  Unlike 1989, however, Blue Jays won 3 straight after Athletics took the first game; and though Oakland took one back in Game 5, Toronto tore them down with the final out made by Ruben Sierra via a pop fly into left field, and went on to face the back-to-back National League Champion Atlanta Braves, whom had beaten the Pittsburg Pirates with Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, Andy Van Slyke, and Doug Drabek.  Though it seems like a side note in this article, one must noted that after losing the Braves in 7 games with the last throw made by Bonds weren’t caught in time to tag Sid Bream to keep the game into extra inning, resulting Bond’s decision to join the very Giants who were threatening to move to Tampa Bay, before former Safeway CEO Peter Magowan/Walter Sorenstein/Sue Burns consortium bought out Bob Lurie and kept the team in San Francisco.   Meanwhile, Rickey Henderson was traded to the Jays mid-season to help the Jays beating the Chicago White Sox in the 1993 ALCS, beating them in 6 games, and defeated the Philadelphia in 6 games that feature the series-winning home rum hit by Joe Carter, who was acquired from the San Diego Padres in a blockbuster trade involved with Carter’s teammate Roberto Alomar, who was later involved in a spitting incident with umpire John Hirschbeck when Alomar joined the Baltimore Orioles in 1995, in exchange for Tony Fernandez and Fred McGriff, who eventually won the World Series as a member of the 1995 Atlanta Braves, off Mitch Williams, who made a similar mistake during the 1989 National League Championship Series, against … the Giants with Will Clark drove in a game winning run in the bottom of the 8th inning.  However, the Jays have never soared in such height again as they had only played in back-to-back postseasons during 2015 & 2016 when they lost in 6 games in 2015 and 5 games in 2016, both losses came into the ALCS.

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After all that talk about baseball connections, now comes to what this means for Toronto in basketball term, also known as the elephant in the room, the Raptors began their  inaugural season at the very SkyDome (now Rogers Centre) that the Blue Jays are playing in, albeit with smaller capacity in conversion to basketball arena and two more seasons afterwards, then they moved to what is now Scotbank Arena (then known as Air Canada Centre).  The Warriors have since been largely been dominated the series with the exceptions of during the Vince Carter era, when the Raptors had essentially dominated for a 4-year period, though Chris Bosh era had also brought some sort of dominant, if not split the series, as well as earlier in the 2018-19 season when they swept the Warriors in 3-week span.  With all that said, though, they came rather close in making into the NBA Finals, only to have the Philadelphia 76ers (2001 Conference Semifinals), Cleveland Cavaliers, a team who had won against 3 of the 4  Finals matchups with LeBron James was promptly featured during his return to his originally drafted team (2016 Conference Finals, 2017 & 2018 Conference Semifinals), before finally debuted in the NBA finals for the first time in franchise history.  As for the Warriors, recent 3-time NBA Champions had only won 7 first round series and one Conference semi-finals against the Detroit Pistons in 1976; in fact, they have changed more coaches than the Raptors throughout their existences, Don Nelson and Al Attles (who was the last head coach to won the last NBA titles prior to Steve Kerr) served 2 stints, Rick Adelman, who took the Portland Trailblazers to 2 NBA finals during the early 1990s, and his successor P.J. Carlesimo, who took that team to 3 straight NBA playoffs only to lose in the first rounds each time, had the misfortune of coaching Golden State and was choked by former shooting guard Latrell Sprewell during practice and the latter was traded to the New York Knicks during the first post-Don Nelson era, even their replacements from former Sacramento Kings general manager Garry St. Jean to former Knicks and Indiana Pacers point guard Mark Jackson couldn’t really take the team any further than the Conference Semifinals, though Attles, Nelson & Jackson came very close to do so, nor had former Stanford Cardinals & California Golden Bears head coach Mike Montgomery.  

Regardless of whichever teams you have supported and/or still supports to this day through good times and bad alike, the importance between the sports rivalry between the San Francisco Bay Area and Toronto have made 2019 NBA Finals to be a historic moment in more ways than one.  If Toronto Raptors manage to defeat the current era of dynasty team, they would be the sole surviving 1995 NBA expansion team who wins the NBA championship due to the demise and relocation of the Vancouver Grizzlies to Memphis.  If the Warriors win their 4th championship in 5 years, it will be marked as the first three-peat  team since the Los Angeles Lakers had done in the early 2000s.

Editor’s notes: Despite not promising on whether I want to split this far too important topic into multiple sections, I may want to add on with much wider scope by discussing other Toronto sports team (or perhaps expanding on a certain points I made in this article), as well as other teams in Canadian team sports and the national team counterparts, on how they have fared against the United States counterparts, although I am relatively certain that there’ll be a lot of “dumpster fires” pour on me with comments, after all, I live in the San Francisco Bay Area for the last 30 years and have rooted for the local teams – even though I have a backup option in the New England regions in case of failures from any and all local teams.  At least, I’m trying to be as neutral and informative as possible.  We’ll see you in the next article.