By Tyler King
I can picture you rolling your eyes... This again?
I can even hear you saying, “Toronto is a hockey city. Always has been, always will be.” Perhaps you’re right.
(Note: literally an hour after I finished writing this the Maple Leafs signed Mike Babcock and the universe basically exploded... so hey! Who knows if this is even relevant anymore. Although remember the red carpet that was unrolled for GM Brian Burke? Look how well that turned out...)
But if the Blue Jays were ever going to make a push to truly capture the attention of this city and develop a fan base that at least comes close to that of our NHL team’s, there is no better time than the present.
Flash back a year, to Friday June 6, 2014. Marcus Stroman and the Blue Jays had just defeated the St. Louis Cardinals 3-1 at home, in front of 33,528. It was the Jays’ sixth victory in a row and the win put their record at 38-24. It also gave them a six game lead on the division. I can remember exiting the ‘dome that night via Gate 5 and making my way into the boisterous throngs of Jays supporters now expelled onto Bremner street.
And that’s when I first felt it...
Fans were climbing on top of railings, singing, chanting. We were high-fiving complete strangers, waving Jays flags atop the stadium steps, belting out the chorus of “OK Blue Jays”. A few beers may have even been passed around from who knows where. It was a party... and under the haze of the city lights it hit me: Toronto had Blue Jays fever. It didn’t last long, but did it ever feel good. Sadly, I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since.
If that was the sight after a June win, just imagine what you’d see if the Jays won a meaningful game in September, or (dare I say it) October... One can only dream.
Too young to recall the glory days of the 1990s, I remember finally thinking so this is what it was like. But from the stories my parents tell me of those World Series championships, I’d likely have to multiply that feeling by ten.
Nevertheless, I worry that the Jays are about to blow their golden opportunity to recapture at least some of that immeasurable fanaticism. The chance to become the talk of the Toronto sports scene is there for the taking - but the window is rapidly closing.
The makeup and character of this Blue Jays team is ripe with all-stars, underdog stories, likable personalities, and local talent. They have a large social media presence and brilliant campaigns to target young fans, unrivaled by other Toronto teams. If you combine all that with the scuffles of the Maple Leafs you can see how Torontonians might be more willing to embrace these Blue Jays.
Now If only they could start winning some games...
Early 90’s excluded, there is no denying that Toronto pro-sports has been dominated by our beloved, and/or loathed, Maple Leafs. Of course, I’m talking about the NHL team and not the intercounty baseball squad of the same name that I watch at Christie Pitts (usually with a six-pack of Carling hidden under my sweater).
No offense to the resurgent Toronto Raptors, the Argonauts, Rock, or TFC, but you cannot argue that they have eclipsed the Leafs in terms of overall fan support. That’s why it makes more sense to compare the potential growth of the Jays using the Maple Leafs as the benchmark.
Despite a few glimmers of hope, neither the Jays nor the Leafs have been very good recently. Frankly, they’ve both tended to be downright awful. Yet the sheer anger, exasperation, outrage (etc.) that many hockey fans are now directing towards the lethargic Maple Leafs hasn’t quite manifested in the same way with the Blue Jays.
Over the past decade one could argue that the Jays have performed equally as bad as the Leafs. Are Jays fans frustrated? Of course. On the verge of rioting? I doubt it. You don’t see Jays fans chucking frozen breakfast food (more on that below) onto the astro turf, do you? We don’t put paper bags over our heads or boo the team off the field - although poor RA Dickey seems to be the butt-end of quite a few heckles.
Even as the team continues to vastly underachieve, there remains an air of good-vibes wafting amid the acrid stench of losing.
The Leafs aren’t so lucky. In 2010 it was disgruntled fans throwing frozen waffles onto the ice. In 2012 it was the “let’s go Blue Jays” chants that rang through the Air Canada Centre (mocking the traditional “go Leafs go”). Lately, it’s been the jersey throwers sacrilegiously tossing their maple leaf crested jerseys over the boards in staunch protest, an act that appalls me beyond belief.
(Note: can you imagine what will happen if the Babcock signing doesn't work out? Chaos... utter chaos....)
But perhaps the biggest statement of dispassion occurred just a few months ago. In March of 2015 the Leafs failed to draw a capacity crowd at a home game, suffering their lowest attendance since they moved to the ACC from Maple Leaf Gardens. They were also subsequently bumped from their customary primetime spot on CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada.
Interestingly, the Jays’ similar struggle to win has not resulted in the same trend. Quite the opposite actually. In recent years they’ve seen attendance spike.
I can understand if this seems hard to believe, partly because a crowd of 25,000 still looks barren amidst the vast concrete of the Rogers Centre, but from 2012 to 2013 the Toronto Blue Jays had the highest increase in attendance per game among all MLB teams.
That 2013 season they averaged over 30,000 fans per game, marking the first time since 1998 that the Jays were above the American League average in total attendance - a feat they also accomplished in 2014. And was it their winning record that attracted all these new fans? Umm... in 2013 their record was 74-and-88... so I’d say that’s probably a firm “no”. They were also 23 games back of the division that year, which helps to further dispel the old “winning is everything” adage.
Ok, ok, I’m not that naive. Winning is obviously something. A really big something at that. It’s definitely the fastest and easiest way to grow a fan base; but if you can’t win championships simply staying competitive can go a long way.
The fun-factor of any sport plummets pretty quickly, along with attendance, when your team is out of contention by the all-star break... it really doesn’t matter how many bobbleheads they give away or 10 dollar Budweisers you suffer through.
But, as the Blue Jays are beginning to prove, you can still grow a fan base when you aren’t winning ballgames. There are many other aspects of a team (with the help of solid marketing) that can draw in new, and hopefully lifelong, fans. They are qualities that I believe the current incarnation of the Blue Jays possesses.
Take effort, for example. A little effort can do wonders for boosting fan enjoyment. A lack of effort, real or perceived, can also destroy it - just ask Phil Kessel and the Leafs. There is nothing more blood-boiling for fans than when their team loses and it looks as if the players don’t care.
With the current Jays, I don’t foresee that issue ever coming up.
Team leader and perennial all-star Jose Bautista may not show effort in the most traditional sense of running out routine grounders, but you’d be hard-pressed to deny his passion and sheer desire to win. Whether it’s his public displeasure of poor management decisions, vocal altercations with members of the opposing team, tutoring rookies, or bat breaking tantrums after a strikeout - you can tell he HATES losing. And, as a fan, I LOVE that.
Then you have real work-horses like Josh Donaldson, Russell Martin, Devon Travis, and Kevin Pillar. Take a stroll around the ‘dome and you’ll likely see more Bautista jerseys than any other player. But it’s these other guys - some of them role players - who have stolen the show in the early going. They’re also the same guys that the fans are beginning to rally behind.
When Kevin Pillar scaled the left-field wall and made that impossible home run robbing catch against the Tampa Bay Rays, it was an instant social media sensation and repeated on every sports highlight package. You don’t have to be a baseball fan to watch that play and mutter, “Holy...”
(I contemplated placing an order for a Pillar jersey after that catch. It’s now looking like I’ll have to grab a Donaldson one too.)
Even though the Blue Jays have blown games at a disgusting rate, you can’t say they ever back down. There was Donaldson exchanging words with Los Angeles Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher; Bautista taking Baltimore Orioles reliever Darren O’Day D-E-E-P after O’day threw behind him; and Bautista, again, getting into it with all-star outfielder Adam Jones (and subsequently blowing out his shoulder - alright, we may have lost that one). This creates rivalries, story lines, and gets fans fired up - which, in-turn, encourages them to tune in.
As mentioned, the Jays also have an unprecedented contingent of Canadian talent, which is a trait that can tap into a more deep-routed, powerful emotional connection for fans: patriotism. Although injuries and demotions have limited the Canadian presence of late, the Blue Jays need to do more to better market the team’s Canadian flare.
So even as the losses pile up, you can’t deny that the Jays are still finding ways to keep things exciting. They pile on runs, mash homers, and make unbelievable defensive plays. They are doing everything right, really - except winning.
Prior to Wednesday’s game against the Angels, the Blue Jays’ record was a mere 18-and-23. Hardly a reason to jump for joy. But if the team can get healthy and find a way to get back into this thing, you can’t help but think they have all the necessary components to take the city of Toronto by storm.
And if they do, I hope you’ll join the impromptu parties on Bremner Street.
Lord knows I’ll be there.
Follow Tyler and #section108 on twitter: @tylerjoseph108