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Kawhi Life: Taking the lead in preparation for a new kind of season

The Toronto sports scene in general could learn a lot from watching how the Raptors have integrated Kawhi Leonard into their team culture and identity. It starts with doing right by the player.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Kawhi Leonard is a Toronto Raptor — for at least one year. While the team’s on-court success has its part to play, we’ve decided to do our part in selling the city to the Klaw. Each week we’re talking Toronto, and letting Kawhi know what his life could be like here.

This Week In Toronto

The Toronto Blue Jays open their 2019 season against the Detroit Tigers at the Rogers Centre today at 3:37pm. Despite the positive vibes that come with any home opener in Toronto, it was hard not feel put off by the Jays heading into this coming season. To my inexpert eye, it has just never sat right to see the team’s head honchos, Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins, hellbent on keeping their young beefy slugger Vlad Guerrero Jr. in the minors despite evidence suggesting he was ready to hit major league pitching. As recently as last month, Atkins was still talking around the issue in an increasingly dodgy voice. It continues to be a bad look for a Jays team light on competitive optimism, with the fanbase hard-pressed to care about the season as a result.

On the subject of caring, and in taking another step back, there’s a broader MLB to NBA comparison to make here that is striking in its differences. The NBA has almost never been more talent rich, with numerous teams (the Raptors among them) loading up to compete with each other in the playoffs. I know only a handful of these teams are “true” contenders, but the fact that each conference has 4-5 squads with designs on the NBA Finals is a sign of a competitive and entertaining league. It’s a good thing when more and more of the league is trying its dang hardest to win. (Hell, even the bad NBA teams are trying to do something or are at least interesting in batshit ways; only a couple of NBA teams are truly boring.)

Contrast that with the Majors, where many of the teams appear to be colluding to keep free agent costs down, while only spending enough money to field an average team. Setting aside a couple of truly massive contracts (Mike Trout and Bryce Harper’s immediately jump to mind), most teams appear content to just cruise through the season, maybe get close to 90 wins, and then ease into the post-season. No owners appear to be stressed about this situation. Look at the off-season MLB just had, for weeks nothing happened, the stove was not hot, the deals just didn’t come. Contrast that with the NBA, where come July 1, literally every team tries to go supernova — and if a franchise is not involved, it’s a clear sign they’ve been left behind. (Not to link to Deadspin three times in one article, but David Roth has been a one-man industry looking into the weird dead zone that MLB’s owners are set on creating.)

Which brings us back to the Jays. Admittedly, I’m not the most knowledgeable guy to ask about the team. I’m writing this piece today because it is indeed a noteworthy thing happening in Toronto at this very moment, and something that will continue happening for many days hence, on and on into September. While the Leafs fight their way into the playoffs, and the Raptors mount their charge on the Finals, the Jays will be out there, day after day, just plugging away. Will anyone care? Do the Blue Jays care if anyone really cares?

That’s what makes this situation with Guerrero Jr. so disappointing. The one thing everyone could agree was exciting about this year’s Blue Jays team was watching this kid — the son of legendary slugger Vlad Guerrero Sr., a veritable folk hero in Montreal — hit whopping homers while looking cool in the field. Sure the Jays would likely be an average team in all other respects (like, conveniently, many other teams), but management didn’t seem particularly bothered by that fact. It was more important for them to keep an obviously ready major league talent in the minors for 15 days (yes, that’s it; so petty!) so they could extend one more year of team control over said player. Even if the Blue Jays were boring or just straight up worse as a result.

Now, I understand the armchair managers out there would say this is a prudent bit of financial planning from the Jays. They get Guerrero locked into what amounts to the equivalent of an NBA rookie contract, and get him for six years in addition to this year, which for him will start at some point in late April — or later, since right as this was all happening, Vlad got hurt. But it still should stick in your craw. The Jays will still have to negotiate with and pay Guerrero eventually. And they still should be trying to put together a team to actually win baseball games. It feels like preparing to do that first thing in good faith would help out the second thing, creating a feedback loop of good vibes for players and team alike.

The Raptors, meanwhile, have taken the absolutely opposite approach towards one of their players. Obviously a straight-up comparison between Guerrero (a rookie) and Kawhi Leonard (an established superstar) is not exactly fair to make, but it is remarkable to consider how the Raptors are labouring to make Toronto the place for him to be. Instead of subtly antagonizing or undermining him, Raptors management has built an entire health program for Kawhi, and set about making the conditions under which he plays the best they can possibly be — for today, and for the future. As a result, the Raptors are a kick-ass team that is extremely fun to watch when they get rolling. Can they win the title? Maybe, maybe not. But it feels better than thinking about how the Jays will have Guerrero under a below-market contract in 2026 or whenever.

Should Kawhi Care?

Well, no.

(Baseball fandom really does take up a lot of time. The games are longer, and, as with today, are played at odd times. A part of me does think the extremely chill [and California-born] side of Kawhi enjoys the idea of staring at a patch of grass for three hours in the warm sun, but I also think that he really wants to be doing basketball work. Not that Kawhi always and only wants to do basketball work, mind you. It just feels like the idea of sitting outside watching two forgettable baseball teams go at it in, sorry to say, poor late-March Toronto weather may not move the needle much for him. Though, maybe I’m merely projecting.

All that being said, the Raptors and Jays should definitely figure out a way to get Kawhi to throw out the first pitch at an upcoming game. I would love to see what kind of velocity and accuracy he could put on the ball. Also, just think of the photo opportunity that comes with seeing Kawhi’s hand wrapped around a baseball. That’d be one for the ages — and just another difference worth nothing between baseball and basketball.)