Why Toronto has flipped out over baseball

Photo from Globe and Mail

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.

Photo from ESPN

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, 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.

Photo by Tyler Anderson/National Post

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

MLB: ALDS-Texas Rangers at Toronto Blue Jays
Photo by Nick Turchiaro, USA TODAY Sports

Why the rush to change football jerseys?

Miami Dolphins.jpg

When the Miami Dolphins took to the field for Thursday Night Football, they dared to sport sherbet orange uniforms. This, as you’d expect, sent those on social media into a frenzy, mostly because the colour made the players look like giant Creamsicles, at least a few fans said. Others likened them to Cheeto Puffs and Sweet Smiles Circus Peanuts. Some called them traffic cones. Others cheese slices. More than a few were reminded of Jim Carrey’s sartorial contribution to the movie, Dumb And Dumber.

Surely, this isn’t what Dolphins brass was hoping for – popsicles, peanuts and puffs? And yet, these sorts of jerseys – and pants – are rolled out in such cavalier fashion these days, that it’s puzzling to know why and by whom it’s being done.

While the justification for departing from traditional team colours – in this case aqua – isn’t really clear, we do know that such ‘Color Rush’ designs are made by one of the world’s leading sports brands, Nike. Nike excels in sports apparel in most categories, so unless you have a masters in fine arts, the debate’s probably not worth pulling your pads on for.

Still, the idea of tweaking club colours and in Miami’s case too, its famous logo, is more disorienting than staring down a snapped ball, laces in. And I’m just a casual observer, no Ray Finkle. For Miami fans, who haven’t had much to cheer about of late, the change must be more than fishy, if not like a hook to the inner cheek. This is, after all, a club with iconic motifs – a dolphin in a single-barred helmet, chief among them. That loveable little guy is now a memory really, replaced by a more streamlined, somewhat sunnier iteration. Perhaps the older one retired to Fort Lauderdale and this is an upbeat nephew, fresh from the big smoke.

Similarly, Miami’s classic strip – brilliantly aquatic and somewhat more intimidating than the lighter shades of today – are slowly being washed out. And yet there seems no reason to do so, other than to bolster the portfolio of some up-and-coming sports designer. I assume that ‘reimagining the Miami Dolphins look and feel’ makes for a pretty impressive new bullet on the old resume. (And sure, you might sell a handful, so what?)

My question is, can’t we find something else for these people to focus on? A website, or some posters, maybe an equipment bag. The team’s branding – its very image – needn’t be turned into a brief, because, well, it’s already so wonderful. The same can be said for many of the NFL’s team brands, which unapologetically, have been revised in recent times. I’d suggest the Cleveland Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars have been among the worst perpetrated, in fact.

These are odd moves because the NFL – The Shield – is such a professional brand overall. Its clubs and their emblems are memorable, too. And colours are a vital part of this, from New York’s Big Blue Giants, to Los Angeles’ yellow and blue horned theme and the Niners’ red and gold. It’s what fans use to associate themselves with their team, and why we cling to a favourite jersey or faded t-shirt at the bottom of the hamper.

English soccer fans know this connection well, which is why, I think, you rarely see random shifts away from heritage logos and colours in the Premier League. Most adjustments, if any, are subtle and it means each generation of fans can hold onto their overly loved shirts with the same meaning as the next. Such loyalty – not constant change – is really what fandom is all about.

By JP Pelosi

Sharks snap up their chance

Cronulla Sharks.jpg

Time grinds when your favourite sports team is imploding. This can happen in any manner of ways, be it consecutive losses, player injuries and just as depressing for the fan, off field indiscretions. The latter can be the worst, in fact, because when a highly paid athlete runs amok, is arrested by the cops, or photographed in a compromising situation, there’s little to reconcile a fan’s emotions. At least an injury is out of our hands, indeed out of everybody’s hands.

But time can speed up again, and rather quickly, when negatives drop away from memory and your team starts finding – tripping almost – into success. Only two years ago, players from the Cronulla Sharks rugby league club in southern Sydney faced doping allegations, sponsors were pulling out of their commitments and it felt as though the Sharkies, as they’re called locally, might be left at sea – for good. But investigations were made, punishments were issued, and sins were forgiven. Now, as if it never happened, the Sharks are perhaps the NRL’s best club. They’re fast, tough on defence, clever with their passing and can run up the score in a moment. In an outing against the routinely tough Canterbury Bulldogs, and staring down the barrel of another close loss, the Sharks kept coming up field, pressing, never relenting and sniffing for points. Eventually they spun the ball wide where their men overlapped the Dogs, and their striding winger went into the corner. The celebration was grand, and seemed to stand for so much more than just four points. It set the team up for the win, with a conversion kick, but also propelled them to the front of the pack, an impossibility just 24 months ago.

Now, at season’s end, they’re grand finalists. And so in their example, there’s so much to be said for persistence, sometimes, even more so than sheer talent. Not that Cronulla is short on that either. It’s been quite a year, one of the best in the club’s 50 years.

Wild Things of Baseball


Baseball’s Wild Card race is a wonderful jolt after a long season. It teems with uncertainty and the sort of hope that’s often reserved for spring. I’d argue it’s one of the best aspects of the professional game, in fact, up there with an Altuve flip-to-second and the ongoing antics of the Philly Phanatic. I mean, if you’re a fan of teams like the Blue Jays, or Tigers, Cardinals or Pirates right now, then following the sport is momentarily more exciting than if you’re a Cubs or Red Sox fan. Okay, maybe that’s not entirely true, especially as Chicagoans have waited so long for the Cubs to be relevant again, and Bostonians devour everything about their Sox like it’s a lobster roll. Certainly the prospect of those teams meeting up in October is equally enticing. But you know what I mean. Backing a winner into September is one thing: Racing for one of two Wild Cards, when the competition is as tight, as it has been of late, makes you wonder why the whole season can’t be configured this way – with a sense of urgency! Every game counts. Heck, every swing matters. This hot pursuit in a contracted period of time – at least by baseball standards – makes the sport endlessly compelling, when quite often, the tail end of the American summer lumbers along until the playoffs begin.

The days ahead come loaded with emotion, and Magic Numbers, only because of what preceded them. The same way we savour the end of summer, some of us can revel in the idea that our team’s 1,500 or so innings might actually count for something more.

By JP Pelosi

Does Man United have a plan?

Such is the pressure in the Premier League cooker for Manchester United, that any miscue ruins the mix. And so fans of the club have been serving up an earful of late because something is indeed spoiling the batch, an oddly constructed group of highly priced and inexperienced talent. Finally, it seems, United’s once impeccable reviews have soured. Some say it’s the fault of the very special head man, Jose Mourinho, criticised of being unable to make the most of his costly squad. He’s also not endearing himself to his players by hanging them out to dry. But with more sweating than usual a few of them need it. Complaints aside, this is just a game, so where’s the sense of fun? Where’s the energy?

Like so many big name clubs, be it the Cowboys in the NFL or the Yankees in baseball, inheriting any United team is fraught with risk. No matter how many stars adorn the roster or how polished the accolades they boast, expectations are grand. For all their pedigree, United players are typically filled with ambition and ego as well, and as such, the task of fitting those players together is perhaps more challenging than the average pundit might imagine. When failure is so rare, success is expected both inside the clubhouse and at its doorstep. There’s little space to breathe, anywhere. Let’s keep in mind that on previous Red Devils squads, several players came through the system together, as it was for the famed fledgling unit of Beckham, Scholes, Giggs and Butt. This helped. In more recent times, however, with truckloads more money stashed in EPL cupboards, the groupings tend to be more of a mishmash, matched by lavish salaries perhaps more than complimentary skills. There’s also the task of balancing outgoing legends like Wayne Rooney with new prospects, never a casual undertaking. It’s certainly part of the manager’s job that’s exposed to the public lynch mob, too.

Manchester divided 

All this might be harsh, but consider the handling of recent marquee signing Paul Pogba, who, after an initial flurry of good play, seems lost in this new and less intimidating iteration of United, and faces plenty of questions about his ongoing contributions – and temperament – as a result. Some commentators say the Frenchman should be asked to defend less and push forward, while others want him to help the attack find more width, the way United teams used to. He’s quite possibly stuck somewhere in between. Perhaps most lacking though, is the team’s identity. What is it? Several writers have wondered lately and rightly, what the devil is the plan? I must admit, I’ve been stunned by United’s lack of cohesion and mission, especially in the middle of the pitch where possession is crucial. Too often, midfielders are drifting aimlessly, giving the ball away, barely thinking about how to string passes together and tire the defence. It’s a confused recipe to be sure, and Mourinho, whose hair must be greying to white by the day, needs to adjust quickly. Perhaps revisit some of the classics for inspiration, Jose.

The best United teams typically bamboozle opponents by making the straightforward look sublime: knocking the leather back and forth, before sending it wide to a surging winger, asking defenders to chase – not the other way around, as it has been.

By JP Pelosi

Steph Curry, Larry and the long ball

Boston Celtics v Los Angeles Clippers
Copyright 1989 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

For me, basketball won’t ever be more thrilling than Larry Bird winning a game with an impossibly long three, over two defenders and with just seconds left. Bird’s threes were like brilliant comets, blazing through darkened arenas, before finally dropping beneath the hoop. They felt so new, probably because the three-point line was new, too (only introduced to the NBA in 1979). This has much to do with any nostalgia you or I might have for the Legend’s shooting prowess, but also any indifference – if that’s at all possible – one might have for the likes of modern three-point bombardiers, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. But the adoration for their ball club, the Warriors, is overwhelming, and largely due to Curry, who hits glorious long shots, like those flaming bombs conceived by the creators of the NBA Jam video game. As a talking point, well, few sporting moments – not even the once loved dunk – can compare. Somehow, ‘the three’, as orchestrated by Curry and Thompson, has superseded every other element of the sport. It practically is the sport, rendering most two pointers meaningless, especially amid the even exchange of goals usually tallied in a basketball game. So how do you beat it? How do you tame the Warriors? Surely, only with defence that’s so persistent and invasive, that the shooter relents. To this point, we haven’t seen it. And this might be why nobody ever talks about it.

By JP Pelosi


Dellavedova: gritty or just crafty?

Like DeNiro’s banana slip into comedy, the point guard position was redefined decades ago, well before Russell Westbrook agitated himself with Tiger Balm down his shorts, at least. And so shooting remains the first option of today’s antsy point, with passing about as familiar as Bob’s Tax Driver to today’s TV bingers. So it’s always refreshing to see it played as first intended – thoughtfully. Cleveland Cavaliers’ point Matthew Dellavedova, for example, didn’t score much in his team’s recent playoff series against Atlanta, but still found open shooters in very limited minutes. In Games 1 and 2, for instance, he had four and six assists respectively, in just 13 minutes each game. That’s hard to do, especially in the heat of the playoffs and in the face of fans wearing the exact same t-shirt. The media often describes “Delly” as gritty, which is the default term for any Aussie really, unfairly overshadowing traits like craftiness and guile. Most players get just one adjective, you see, unless they’re LeBron James or Steph Curry.