Of all the places to become a baseball fan, I never considered Toronto.
Los Angeles maybe, what with those golden sunsets behind Dodger Stadium. Or New York perhaps, given the ubiquity of the Yankees brand.
But windswept, coffee swigging, patio obsessed Toronto?
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a splendid town with a wonderful sporting tradition, though locals have long favored wintry games like hockey and football over baseball.
While living in T.O., I was struck by the number of fans who’d walk to ball games down Blue Jays Way in visiting team colours. Who were these brave souls? If it was the Boston Red Sox in particular, you could bet on an even split between ‘them’ and Jays fans. And if you stopped in at the Cora diner for pancakes before a lunch-time start, as I did, you’d typically be enveloped by visiting Bostonians devouring flapjacks.
I figured this was all part of the experience and shuffled along happily, hopeful my Jays cap wouldn’t be yanked from head in an act of fanatical retribution. That was until I found my way into the Skydome — many locals still call it that and not by its corporate moniker, Rogers Centre — to be greeted by throngs of Red Sox fans lounging in the lower deck, just left of home plate. Why so many of them had such prime seats I could never understand. Where were the Jays supporters, I wondered, scrunching up my cap.
I later learned that many Torontonians head for cottage country in the middle of summer, a sort of woody oasis just north of the city, which, as you can imagine, often left the Jays to fend for themselves in early July.
So I did my best to, you know, beef up numbers, collecting friends to join me for the occasional tilt against the Orioles or Mets. A few were willing to squeeze in nine innings before their exodus north, while others, I suspected, were already leaping from a tire swing into Lake Simcoe. Their phones rang out.
During a lunch break that same summer, I saw then Jay’s catcher Gregg Zaun browsing in some downtown clothing shops. He seemed relaxed, unimpeded by the usual mob that tend to circle pro athletes in public. This was rather disconcerting. Truth is, I think Mr Zaun could have streaked naked across the Yonge and Bloor intersection wearing only his catcher’s mitt and leg guards, and nobody would have batted an eyelid.
Of course, everything has changed several years later.
The Blue Jays have become a grand attraction, rivalling other popular Canadian commodities like Cirque du Soleil and Celine Dion. And they’re not just relevant because Jays brass tossed bags of money at star players during recent offseasons (the club’s yearly payroll has ballooned to about US$160m, as per Spotrac), or because they’re suddenly capable of handling the titans of the American League like the Yankees and Red Sox, but because the new generation of supporters are downright fanatical. Tune into any postseason game and you’ll note the cheers have been supplanted by a raucous frenzy, as if Babe Ruth — who actually hit his first professional home run in Toronto while playing for Providence — trots to the plate for every at bat.
Following professional baseball in Toronto, a city forever consumed by its Maple Leafs hockey club, is no small feat, you realise. Beside the distraction of summer vacation homes, the majority of Toronto sports fans have simply been invested in their Leafs for too long to worry about baseball. Who can blame them really? Until last season’s epic postseason run, the Jays hadn’t made the playoffs for 20 years.
But the mood shifted a few seasons ago, I think.
Indeed, The New York Times described an ‘electricity’ building around the Jays back in 2013.
One story said the club had made deliberate efforts to re-engage the local fan base, especially younger people and females, using social media to connect with them (using the ‘lovethisteam’ hashtag on Twitter) and new uniforms harking back to the team’s seventies garb, perhaps appealing to a retro-outfitted generation.
More recently that hashtag has morphed into ‘OurMoment’, presumably signifying the club’s overdue return to October baseball. For the second straight season they’ll play in the American League Championship Series, this time against the Cleveland Indians. This change of fortune, and the promise of actually making it to the World Series, has had a dramatic impact on the Jay’s social standing within the city. For example, this season 78 Blue Jays TV broadcasts surpassed the one million viewer mark, according to Forbes magazine. Last season that happened just 57 times.
I recently asked a couple of friends of mine who grew up in Toronto, why they thought interest in the Jays had been soaring lately — postseason play notwithstanding. One of them suggested the Leafs endless struggles had local fans hungry for any sort of sporting success. This is also why the Raptors basketball team is growing in popularity, he said. It’s true that younger Torontonians have up grown with some decent Jays teams, while the Leafs routinely flounder.
Supporting this idea, a Toronto Star story I dug up from a few seasons ago bragged about a new type of hipster Jay fan emerging, who, as one local fan quoted in the piece said, would commonly be the person in ‘tight jean-shorts rocking an old Jays t-shirt’.
The Star writer explained:
‘Behind the bubbling optimism … there is a surging fan base that has distinguished itself from other sports fans in the city.’
The new Jays supporter is young, irreverent, smart and sarcastic, according to the article. Scenes from recent TV coverage show that it’s all true.
Put it down to passion.
Few could have predicted this new – or at least renewed – obsession, more than 20 years since the club’s peak of 1992 and ‘93 when it won the World Series twice. From the mass adoption of the retro bird logo to fervent mid-innings cheering, these fans don’t simply care — they’re breathing baseball. I can certainly attest that when the Skydome is packed to the rafters, a thunderous energy from the ground level seats rises and bounces around the domed ceiling, and the infection throttles you.
The Jays players seem to feel it, too. They might always be underdogs, you see, because they play in a hockey town, and the impossibly tight AL East, and because they’re the only Canadian club in the majors.
Those types of odds could cause bats to flip and galvanise just about any city.
By JP Pelosi