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!