A Canadian Baseball Renaissance

The Toronto Star’s Richard Griffin reported yesterday that the Toronto Blue Jays drew 110,683 paying customers to the Rogers Centre over the weekend, “only the third time since the turn of the century they’ve exceeded 100,000.” The number compares exceedingly well to the 69,098 who attended the first three games last season. Although, it should be noted that last year’s games were played Monday – Wednesday and not Friday – Sunday.

As the saying goes, wherever crowds gather, idiots will too, and as anticipated, Friday’s opener was no exception. There were fisticuffs in the 500 Level and even lower forms of life throwing beer soaked towels into the lower bowl. Aside from the obvious stupidity of supposedly civilized humans throwing things at other humans, it’s unbelievable to me that intoxicated morons would waste beer like that. It’s like a greedy person starting a fire by lighting a $100 bill.

Unlike Griffin, I’m not about to blame MTV or Jersey Shore for simple people being simply stupid. After all, Disco Demolition Night was held a couple years before Video Killed The Radio Star and a few decades before The Situation, and we all know how that turned out.

But instead of focusing on the unruly few, let’s look at the positives.

Despite a surprisingly promising 2010, the Blue Jays aren’t expected to compete this season, and yet there seems to be a buzz about baseball in this city and the rest of the country that hasn’t been present for several years. People are talking positively about baseball again, and the weekend attendance at Rogers Centre and the million plus viewers who tuned into the home opener are only the tip of the iceberg.

It’s more anecdotal than quantitative, but I’ve received several emails over the last few months from people telling me that they’re getting back into baseball after a long sabbatical. I’ve also seen evidence in the success of this blog and events like last night’s Eight Men Out screening and our Getting Booked book club meetings not only being well attended but also with a level of participation and discourse that speaks to the quality of people’s dedication to baseball.

My first instinct when it comes to local interest is to think that the Maple Leafs, Raptors and Toronto FC have all been so disappointing in recent years that what else is a sports fan to do but transfer his/her support to the local baseball team?  But as the team approaches 20 years without a playoff appearance, the Blue Jays don’t really offer the solace of recent championship banners either.

And besides, this isn’t just a local thing. Fans from across Canada are returning to not only the Blue Jays, but baseball in general. Last night I met up with Dave Kaufman, a Montreal journalist who hosts a baseball radio show on TEAM 990. He told me that Montrealers were kind of stuck in a void, refusing to link their former team with the Nationals in Washington, and also finding it distasteful to cheer for the Blue Jays in Toronto. However, since Montreal born Alex Anthopoulos has become general manager, baseball fans are beginning to find justifications for cheering on the only Canadian Major League Baseball team.

Anthopoulos has also brought fans from outside of the GTA into the fold with this offseason’s Winter Tour stopping by communities across the country with some of the team’s young stars. Dave Burrows, whose Twitter feed is a must follow for West Coast Blue Jays fans, tells me that trading for Brett Lawrie, a British Columbia native, and affiliating themselves with the Vancouver Canadians of the Single A Northwest League, has contributed to a buzz out West for the team from Toronto.

Definitely more people have come up to me to talk about the Jays. Like the rest of Canada there’s a feeling that they’re building towards something really good. Vancouver baseball fans love the Canadians. And now they can see the players that the Jays are going over slot to sign? Yes, please.

Burrows goes on to suggest that it’s more of a Blue Jays resurgence rather than an overall baseball one in B.C. but he’s also quick to point out that baseball is more culturally relevant on the West Coast than in other parts of Canada, evidenced by the impressive number of ball diamonds spread throughout the area and continuing support for a more closely located team in Seattle.

As for the Blue Jays, it’s no coincidence that the players brought along for their Winter Tour, including Ricky Romero, Jesse Litsch, J.P. Arencibia and Travis Snider, have all embraced aspects of social media including the handling of their own Twitter accounts.

Even though the team itself is horribly lacking when it comes to embracing all they could in marketing to a Web 2.0 audience, the players have stepped up to promote the team, seemingly without even knowing it. When Arencibia isn’t tweeting about going into “beast mode” for his workouts, Snider is informing his followers of the latest cut and size of steak that’s he’s scarfed back. It doesn’t take much effort on their part, but the interaction with fans goes a long way toward promoting the entire team.

Staying with social media, it’s almost funny that despite doing absolutely nothing to help support bloggers, the Jays organization has benefited immensely from a community of team specific blogs that rival any franchise in baseball for quality and quantity of insight. If the Blue Jays had any sense whatsoever, they’d be giving out Toronto Star Passes to the operators of these blogs and ensuring that there was wireless internet access to at least one section of the 500 Level. They could also stand to take a page out of the Mets handbook (I understand the irony here) and toss the bloggers a bone from time to time with a conference call or even inviting them once or twice a season to observe how journalists cover the game. Unfortunately, despite all of their free promotion, Blue Jays bloggers are treated more like John Travolta’s autistic son rather than a promotional tool.

Outside of the Blue Jays, I believe baseball bloggers have wrested the sport’s reputation in this country out of the control of archaic organizations like Baseball Canada and brought a coolness factor where it was otherwise lacking. Writing about baseball in this country has moved away from “Larry Walker: The Greatest? Or One Of The Greatest?” and into a far more realistic viewpoint. In recent years, we’ve seen Canadians take important positions in influential baseball blogs like MLB Trade Rumors and FanGraphs. And we’ve also seen The Score recently bring three Blue Jays bloggers into the fold, and start the very blog that you’re reading. There’s very clearly an audience here for this type of stuff.

Which brings us to the mainstream media and the way in which Rogers Sportsnet seems to finally be embracing baseball as content. The Canadian sports television station will air over 500 games this season across all of its regional networks, as well as a select few on its national network Sp0rtsnet One. It’s a far cry from finally bringing the MLB Network or Baseball Television to Canadian households, but with so many hours of content to fill across all of their networks, the relatively cheap live programming is a start, and it’s contributing to the baseball buzz around the country.

Of course, now that there is this groundswell of support for baseball in Canada, a baseball renaissance if you will, the Blue Jays are setting themselves in a position where they bring it back to the “glory years” of the early nineties by doing the important thing and winning baseball games. And as Griffin suggests, “It’s also the toughest thing.”

Go baseball, go!

Comments (31)

  1. I’m so glad I’m a baseball fan first and foremost. No other sport comes close.

    Go baseball, go!

  2. Go baseball, go!

    Really good, positive piece.

  3. I would say a few things are working in the Jays favour:

    1) People like what Anthopoulos is doing with the team and the average fan is willing to except it takes time to build a winner. In the meantime, the Jays have an exciting young core of players who also happened to win 85 games last year.

    2) The Jays, Rogers and Sportsnet actually seem to be putting some marketing dollars into the team. 2010 was an embarrassing low for the team who couldn’t even get a few giveaways or discounts for children at the ballpark. Billboard ads, tv commercials, and online banner ads are a nice basic start. But I have also noticed they are doing great things that they should have done years ago. For instance, the set they build in the Rogers Centre for pregame makes sense and essentially costs nothing to build buzz around the team and get additional programming. The winter tour was also something that should have been done every year but they had discontinued it quite a few years ago. It is a tonne of free publicity and also costs very little to run. 50% off children’s tickets on Saturday also makes a lot of sense.

    3) Maybe some fans are FINALLY getting over the baseball strike. It blows my mind how many people were turned off by the strike and still hold a grudge about it after 17 years. These are the same fans who instantly embraced hockey after a whole season was lost.

    4) You raise excellent points about how much more they could do, especially embracing bloggers and adding the Vancouver Candians – one hopes that a team in Ottawa or Montreal could be added to the minor league system. Free wi-fi in the stadium owned by Rogers should be a given. Though sitting in the 500 Level you can’t even get cell phone reception this past weekend.

  4. Go Baseball Go indeed.

    I’d suggest Fantasy baseball is a positive factor as well.

    I have several friends playing for the first time this year. The ease which you can create and join baseball leagues online really helps. As does gambling on said leagues.

  5. Thaaaat’s why the fans were chanting “nananana, goodbye.” I could hear it on the broadcast. Nice piece Dustin. I agree that the team really needs to embrace the online community. There are so many great Blue Jays’ blogs that stoke interest in the team all-year-round. The great Jays’ blogers should be kinda ticked about promoting the team for free, haha.

  6. How typically Toronto to get the rose coloured goggles out after a weekend. Didn’t the Leafs open 4-0 this season too? Sure, the Jays may see an overall uptick in attendance, but they’re only a year removed from repeatedly setting record lows too, so let’s not kid ourselves and think that strong attendance through the weekend first guarantees anything.

    Wait til their 14 games out in August and a Seattle or KC roll in and then we’ll see about attendance.

  7. Parkes broke intangible buzz into pieces and completely over analyzed it. Typical baseball nerd.

    But seriously, this post captures everything I’ve been feeling. I had so much fun getting people excited about the Jays in the off season. It was easy because all I had to do was talk about Travis Snider. By March, I had friends educating each other about him. “That’s Travis Snider. He loves Sneaky Dee’s nachos, says his mustache is a lifestyle, dropped a bunch of weight in the offseason even though he eats like a tyrannosaurus and oh yeah, he’s 23 and really f*cking fun to watch.” They’re sold. I’m excited. Go Jays.

  8. i always throw my rally towel and i never soak it in beer first. im saddened to hear people were sullying a homegorwn tradition AND wasting some of the most expensive beer in the mlb. shame. glad they only come on opening night.

    good to know im not alone if having been obsessed with baseball when i was a kid and then returned to it after a long hiatus. it really does feel as if toronto is in a bit of a golden age with some of the biggest bloggers and rumour mongers (drunk jays/getting blanked, those mlbtr dudes) centred here – though im also elated to hear its not just confined to the city itself in terms of excitement and interest.

    also whats the deal with no wi-fi in the stadium?

    also i gotta talk to aramark about those new icee cups. shame again.

  9. The buzz is awesome. Next week’s road trip to Seattle is perfect, too – they always fill the place with West Coast Jays fans, so the love-in for this year’s team should just keep on rolling. And it’s a nice chance for the players to see first-hand that they’re playing for the whole country, not just Toronto.

  10. The lack of a mobile connection was a HUGE problem on Opening Day, and one that will potentially keep fans from coming to games if they can’t be hooked into their devices.

  11. The lack of a mobile connection was a HUGE problem on Opening Day, and one that will potentially keep fans from coming to games if they can’t be hooked into their devices.

    It’s probably annoying, but that sounds like a pretty big exaggeration.

  12. No WiFi in the stadium sounds like a reason to attend to me. You’re there for a game, not to surf your iPhone or whatever.

  13. It should also be noted that CKAC (French sports radio in Montreal) broadcasted the opening series and will also do 12 more games this season, after broadcasting 10 games last season. It might not seem like a lot, but it’s the first time baseball games in French since the Expos left. Also, the two baseball guys at CKAC (Agostino and Filosa) regularly have Anthopoulos (who speaks French) on to interview him, and all that could go a long way to create at little bit of baseball buzz in this Habs-obsessed town.

    Go baseball indeed.

  14. @Ty: It may not keep people who were already coming at home, but if they made it more accessbile to that sort of thing, I guarantee more people would come.

  15. *we’ve had* baseball games in French, sorry.

  16. @Travis: I still disagree. It’d be a nice convenience but I can’t imagine anyone anywhere who would use free WIFI as a deciding factor in whether or not to attend a baseball game. Keep in mind that Rogers Centre gets perfectly adequate 3G service, so unless you’re bringing a laptop and/or trying to watch a crapload of Youtube videos during the game for some reason, it wouldn’t even really make a difference.

  17. I’ve never gone to Starbucks for the WiFi, much less a baseball game. Can’t imagine that’s a deciding factor in anything.

  18. Great piece, Parkes!

    As for mobile devices, I was on the 200 level and had no trouble at all with my blackberry. That’s unfortunate if people weren’t getting reception in the 500s though. Hopefully Rogers figures that one out sooner rather than later because it would suck if it’s still a problem if and when the Jays start playing meaningful baseball in some future September.

  19. goin to the home opener is like going to church on christmas day. All the fairweather idiots show up and you end up having a shit time.

  20. By me in section 510..the drunkest and most decked out people in (new) Jays gear either left by the 4th inning or weren’t looking towards the field, but looking up the section trying to get the wave going.

    These people won’t come back until next April.

  21. I left during that fight, and I wasn’t even near it. Nobody was watching the game at that point and I was beer-soaked from the ditz behind me, who had the temerity to ask why I would boo Rob Ford when he filled up the Jumbotron.
    It went downhill from there.

  22. I love the word “temerity.”

  23. Is that Buddy Ebsen in the front row.

    MMMM doggy!

  24. JToronto, I would just argue your premise that the people upset about the strike embraced hockey after theirs. For me, and a lot of the people I know who were turned off by the strike, we could care less about hockey.For me, the baseball strike felt like a betrayal to the fans when they cancelled the series over an issue that neither side looked good over. I suspect it didn’t feel the same with the NHL because they stopped pretending they cared about the fans ages ago.

  25. Hey- I’m pretty sure that Bell is broadcasting SNET-ONE now. I was ready to bitch about not having the game tonight, but I apparently have had Sportsnet One added to my package unbeknownst to me. Woo!
    Great piece, and I really hope that there is some interest in the Jays and baseball ’round these parts again. Without a doubt it was the blogs that sealed the deal for my interest in the game. I’m in Ottawa and started going to Lynx games during the 2nd last season. It’s a shame what happened to the Rapids (A can-am league club that might have worked if the terrible ownership didn’t take over, cheapen the whole think and walk away after a year of lost $$$- after telling fans that they FULL WELL EXPECT TO LOSE $$ FOR A FEW YEARS.) Now it looks like the city will bulldoze the stadium and build a parking lot. There’s a intercounty team there now (Fat Cats) but that’s a tough sell.
    Anyways, positivity, right?! If the jays stay exciting, more canadian kids will start to pay attention and just maybe we can enjoy a groundswell of support for the game.

  26. @chris – really? I hope so. I’ve got Bell but I just assumed that I wouldn’t be watching tonight.

  27. @Spitballer – I was there sunday. There was a group of douchebags in my section trying to start a wave in the bottom of the 7th when we had men on 2nd and 3rd with 2 out and a full count. They were ignored for the most part, and after shouting obnoxiously they were finally shut up when Rivera hit a liner down the RF line that just went foul.

  28. Great read. Thanks for that.

    Of note, over on the baseball forums I vist, there has been a bit of buzz about this team.

    Thats the best part about the internet. People from every corner of the world get a chance to look over the team, and talk out loud about what they love or not. The Jays are in a great place to capture this attention as they build up a solid roster of talent.

    It doesn’t have to be just in Canada where “fans” can talk good things about our Jays.

    Also, as much as we all loved the idea of the Winter Tour visiting all of Canada, they missed the Maritimes. A place where they should have come. It’s populated with lots of baseball fans that are becoming misplaced “Massholes” and jumping on the Red Sox band wagon.

  29. Not to inflate anybody’s ego, but the blogs definitely help. I’ve watched the Jays religiously through thick and thin, but I’ve never been as ‘excited’ as I have been this year, and feeling the sense of fan community. It helped finding DJF last year – and through it, all the other blogs to stalk. And now, occasionally commenting on. Articles by Griffin et al are one thing, but hardly the same. A strong internet presence is allowing more people not based right out of Toronto to, well, give a shit and not feel alone in it. Which hasn’t happened since the early 90s when everybody did still care.

    Of course none of that would work as well if it wasn’t for the on field product. Or the potential of the on field product. AA may annoy me yet, but the turn of the tide really began with the Vernon Wells trade. I like the guy, but getting rid of the albatross of a contract without getting screwed (a novel feeling for a Canadian sports fan) was part of showing promise for the future.

    …anyways, good piece. You’ve hit on what I’ve been feeling coming into this season. Now if I could just manage to see a game this year not on my television, it would be ideal.

    (and despite the new things they are doing right, I won’t be able to completely support Rogers SN until they abolish games on sportsnet one unless there is a directly conflicting popular event on the main channels. Last year was the first time I have ever actually sent feedback to a network; they seemed determined to do everything they could to try and drive away a good portion of the fan base they had managed to hang on to)

  30. Update- I did watch the game on Sportsnet One, on my Bell TV package. Somebody get the word out!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *