Maybe you can pinpoint the moment that it tipped. For a very long time Toronto was just a lousy sports town, and when this decade began things were bad, heading to worse, as things often do. But that doesn’t mean they can’t get better.
Honestly, though, it was comically bad. The Leafs hadn’t made the playoffs in the post-lockout era, and as 2010 began the three worst teams in the NHL were being coached by the previous three Leafs coaches: Carolina and Paul Maurice, Edmonton and Pat Quinn, and Toronto and Ron Wilson. The Raptors had never won a best-of-seven series, hadn’t made the playoffs since 2008, and Hedo Turkoglu was a Raptor. Not coincidentally, Chris Bosh was about to leave.
If you liked football, David Braley was forced to buy the bankrupt Argos as his side CFL team, where he would barely keep the lights on. And the Buffalo Bills had just played another Toronto game that nobody enjoyed, even after Jays season-ticket holders got free seats, on their way to killing the NFL-in-Toronto dream.
And the Blue Jays and new general manager Alex Anthopoulos had just traded Roy Halladay to Philadelphia. By 2014, the Jays would have the longest playoff drought in baseball; they moved Halladay, quite understandably, so he could win.
ESPN had ranked Toronto as the worst sports city in North America in 2011, and people began to wonder aloud if anyone could win here, in the city of inept over-corporate ownership, with too much pressure on hockey, and basketball and baseball in a backwater state.
But worse was hiring the wrong people, or people for whom things went wrong. Brian Burke was loud and impatient; Bryan Colangelo was sensitive and impatient, too. Someone once said of sports in Toronto, and the Leafs above all, that when a few things went right people realized how good it could be here, and their eyes got a little too wide.
So when did it turn? The Argonauts had won the 100th Grey Cup in 2012, but people forgot pretty fast, as they always do with the CFL in this town. By early 2015, Toronto FC had bought some big-time talent, but hadn’t won yet. And like the Argos, they couldn’t capture anything close to the whole city. What could?
Yes, the Raptors had reached the playoffs in 2014, under new general manager Masai Ujiri. Oh, and the Leafs made the playoffs in 2013, and played the Boston Bruins. Remember that? No team had ever blown a three-goal lead in the third period of a Game 7 before.
So after that MLSE president and CEO Tim Leiweke, the definition of a big thinker, hired Brendan Shanahan to run the Leafs, after getting Ujiri to the Raptors. Both hires looked good, but nothing was assured. It never is, really. But Leiweke’s impact in this town was truly seismic, before he left.
But when did it turn? Well, you could do worse than July 2015. The Raptors had recently been humiliated by Washington in a first-round sweep, and the nascent Kyle Lowry-DeMar DeRozan era felt bruised, if not broken. On July 1, the Leafs traded Phil Kessel to the Pittsburgh Penguins, because they figured his laissez-faire style wouldn’t last one practice with new coach Mike Babcock, and the rebuilding pain. And the Jays were looking for new leadership. In fact, in November of 2014, Rogers had begun calling around to replace team president Paul Beeston. Hilariously, they called the Chicago White Sox and Jerry Reinsdorf. Reinsdorf was one of Beeston’s best friends, and that’s how Beeston found out he was on the outs.
And the Jays were bumbling along with a great run differential and another middling record — and a quiet free-agent signing of a kid named Vladimir Guerrero Jr. — and Anthopoulos decided to go big. He traded for Troy Tulowitzki on July 28 and David Price on July 30, and with the Price deal they didn’t even tell ownership. The money was in the budget. Anthopoulos and Beeston decided to go for it.
And it culminated in the moment in a 53-minute seventh inning that nearly included a riot at the Rogers Centre. The Texas Rangers had taken a 3-2 lead in the deciding Game 5 on a weird call, and beers had rocketed onto the field in protest, and the cops were looking worried.
And then the Rangers made three errors to load the bases, and Josh Donaldson drove one run home and there were two outs, and … well, as R.A. Dickey said afterwards, “Like a novel that you don’t want to put down, you know?”
And with the fever at a peak, Jose Bautista crushed an absolute bomb, and he threw the bat away with an unforgettable, righteous fury. The season ended in Game 6 in Kansas City, in a blizzard of questionable strike calls, two wins from a World Series. But the bat flip was the moment.
Of course, Rogers had hired Mark Shapiro to replace Beeston on the day the Jays won their 24th game out of 29, so Anthopoulos was gone by the end of October, even after a panicked Rogers board offered him full control of baseball operations to keep him from leaving.
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The Jays had one more year of contention in them, with the city and country glued to every game: another ALCS, this time in Cleveland. Then it fell apart. But those teams were a phenomenon: a million watching on TV every night, four million and more in the playoffs. It was a shame Anthopoulos didn’t stay. He had big plans.
Things began to change. TFC reached the MLS Cup final in 2016, and finally won in 2017, with a dominant team that rewarded the fan base that had for so long been the beating heart of a franchise trying to grow. The Argos won another Grey Cup in 2017, a stirring win that changed absolutely nothing.
The Leafs executed the tank perfectly in 2015, other than having the highest odds to draft Connor McDavid with one lottery ball to go and missing out. But the next year they got Auston Matthews No. 1, and already had Mitch Marner and William Nylander in the system, and eventually added John Tavares in free agency. The Leafs have lost three straight playoff series, all close, including a couple more Game 7s in Boston, and they are at five complete decades without a Stanley Cup. Maybe this year will be different. It could happen.
But the apex was clear, and the decade saved it to the end. Ujiri knew Kawhi Leonard didn’t want to play here, knew he didn’t plan to stay, and traded for him anyway. The Raptors traded DeRozan and fired longtime coach Dwane Casey, and went for it. Nick Nurse turned out to be one hell of a bench boss.
There were so many moments in the Raptors’ run that people will remember, but the moment after Kawhi released the ball in Game 7 against Philadelphia really should be made into a statue: that moment where everyone was watching the ball in the sudden silence of the arena, because it just began to bounce.
And when they won it all — they really did, and it still feels unreal — this whole city got to celebrate the kind of championship that people had sworn would never come again.
The parade was so poorly organized that Ujiri’s wife had to jump out of the convertible car to grab burgers for their young children, six hours into a three-hour parade. Ujiri estimates he took 10,000 selfies. He might be low. The celebration was marred by a non-fatal shooting.
But in this city of rich and poor, of immigrants from everywhere, of shared solitudes and common differences, it was one of the few times that it felt like the whole city just might be united.
Kawhi left, of course. But it was closer than it looked.
There was more. This city can claim Bianca Andreescu, and McDavid, and Joey Votto, and Penny Oleksiak, and Andre De Grasse, and so many more. In addition to being a hockey factory, Toronto has become a basketball factory, and maybe a tennis factory of sorts, too.
And now the decade ends with the Leafs hoping again and Babcock gone, and the Raptors and Lowry — the greatest Raptor ever, no question, and nearly traded in 2014 — are defending their title like champions, with so much heart. The Jays have Guerrero and Bo Bichette and now Hyun-Jin Ryu, but they haven’t turned yet. TFC keeps growing, and the Argos seem hopeless.
A decade is a long time. Really, in this town, you just hope enough public transit and housing gets built. It would matter more than another title. But of all the things that can bind this city together, sports might rank first.
It’s been a long 10 years, and if Toronto learned anything it’s that any team can win here if the leadership is fearless and smart and just lucky enough. And it learned that winning lights up a city like nothing else. It can happen in Toronto, as it turns out. And it did.