Who Says Baseball is America’s Game: Reflections on the 2013 Toronto Blue Jays

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The Blue Jays Cap: As Canadian as “Canadian”, “BlackBerry, and “Arcade Fire”

If you’re not familiar with the name “Stephen Brunt”, you’re likely not a major sports fan—but as a Canadian you’ve probably been impacted by some of his video essays, including and most importantly, his essay on the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. Before you continue reading, I suggest you watch this video, followed closely by this one about the promise of the 2013 Blue Jays Season—a season that is coming to a close a far cry from what Brunt describes.

Canadian team sport by-and-large seems like an afterthought hastily grafted onto the North American sporting realm. In the NHL, despite the dominance of Canadian players, the league is headquartered in New York City. 23 of the 30 teams are American teams, and so, while the Stanley Cup makes plenty of personal appearances on our side of the border, it hasn’t truly been “home” since 1993-94.  The Toronto Raptors have experienced dismal results in their 18 year history making the playoffs just 5 times and winning a series only once. As far as “American” football is concerned there is a serious stigma regarding the CFL with respect to the NFL, and while we Canadians can watch with pride, the league has never expanded beyond 9 teams, and the audience has remained relatively stagnant over the last 5 years.

Toronto Blue Jays logo (1997–2002)

Toronto Blue Jays logo (1997–2002) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I won’t even touch the MLS, but instead direct our attention to the “Bigs”, a.k.a. Major League Baseball. 20 years ago the Blue Jays won their last championship; one year prior they won their first, but not since that historic title defense (and then the final cup victory by the Montreal Canadiens) have Canadian team sports experienced any real success. In ’92 and ’93 the Blue Jays Stadium was a roaring sea of blue, but always with the charming (semi-ironic) glimmer of red and white intermingled. Between ’89 and their final championship in ’93, the Blue Jays rivaled the best teams in the league. They finished first in their division four times and second in their division once. Attendance ballooned and they lead the league in attendance for 6 straight years. The streets of Toronto were fervent rivers; blue veins imbued with all the raucous energy of the first Beatles concert in North America. The entire city pulsed with the cheers (and beers) and the excited conversation of a team on the verge.

And then darkness fell. The Blue Jays posted losing records for the next four seasons and attendance fell from a staggering 50,098 per game to a miniscule 30,000 in ’98, eventually hitting rock bottom in 2010 with only 19,000 attendees averaged.

Canadian baseball fans, and really all sports fanatics had lost their glimmer. The Canadian sporting world lulled. As Brunt points out in his essay, the Calgary Flames, the Edmonton Oilers, the Ottawa Senators and most recently the Canucks, all left us feeling cheated and starved. A professional sports championship in Canada is legitimately still a dream for myself and my colleagues aged 20-22 who were either yet-to-be conceived or too young to remember the last time Canada celebrated such an occasion.

You may wonder why I focus on Canada when the Blue Jays, after all, are a Torontonian club; and within the virulent microcosm of the NHL, most fans of the Leafs don’t remember Montreal’s final victory so fondly. For that answer I look to 2010—Vancouver—the shining example of Canadian perseverance, pride and of course our hospitality, that was cultivated by our record setting sporting performance. Like Toronto during the ’92 and ’93 seasons, the country swelled with pride in February of twenty-ten. Our massive territory was alive, coursing with Red and White vigour. We cheered together, we cried together and our athletes cried in joy and in sorrow together with us. (I couldn’t find a high quality video of Bilodeau celebrating with his brother but it is featured briefly in the Brunt essay–my apologies–the photo of Bilodeau on the podium is a powerful one, however). And before Crosby scored the goal to bring us that 14th medal, the entire country froze in silence and then exhaled and heaved in uproarious celebration.

We celebrated together—our victories at the Olympics produced tangibility, that shimmering emblem of success that we could point to as an example of Canadian triumph. Sure, we have a great health care system, civil liberties, and gay marriages but sport gives us those memories we can seize with vehemence. Nostalgia soothes the wounds that our health care system cannot: the ’72 Summit series; the ’92 and ’93 World Series; Vancouver 2010 become prolific proverbial ‘band-aids’.

More importantly though, something strange and exciting began in this country in 2010—a coming out party of sorts, where we could assume culpability for our losses, because we were now contenders. Despite our Olympic approach–much less funding oriented than the US or China–we built grassroots programs that began to bear fruit and to sow new seeds on our prairies, mountains and flat-lands.

Fast forward to 2013 and basketball star Andrew Wiggins became the first ever Canadian to be drafted to the NBA first overall. Of course Raptors fans were hoping to see him on their squad, but social media was nevertheless alight with congratulations not only to Andrew, but also to Basketball Canada, to Steve Nash, and to each other.

Even my least sports-oriented cohorts are aware of Wiggins’ monumental significance: Canadian Basketball is growing; despite Steve Nash’s inglorious spot on the “legendary players who’ve never won a championship” list, and despite the Raptors current futility, the program is growing. Canadians are finding that they can be proud—they can play, and compete, and their country will rally behind them with unprecedented and unparalleled pride.

Blue Jays Lose 5-3

Blue Jays Lose 5-3 (Photo credit: Geoffery Kehrig)

Now, the Blue Jays this season were, for all intents and purposes, a massive disappointment on the field. Sitting at a meagre 67-78 record with only 17 games left in the season, it’s safe to say their hopes, and the hopes of fans have been dashed—at least for this season. But being a statistical disappointment doesn’t mean that this year’s Blue Jays team didn’t achieve something. The Blue Jays rejuvenated a movement, one that coalesces with the 2010 Olympics and Andrew Wiggins’ draft day into a movement of national unity.

This summer the Blue Jays cap became commonplace; so much so that it was almost unnatural to go anywhere and not see one. As far south as Windsor I found new baseball friends in the clowder of orange and black Tiger’s gear, all with the same two words on the tips of their tongues: “World Series”. In the backs of their minds, perhaps tempered by the word “doubt” was that ineffable concept: “hope”. Hope is a word that stands against reason—it made the Boston Bruins history makers this past NHL post-season. Hope made Alexandre Bilodeau’s belated breakthrough that much more special.

Season Opener, Rogers Centre, Toronto. View of...

Season Opener, Rogers Centre, Toronto. View of the 500s (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And that’s what this article is about—it’s not about the failure of the Blue Jays on the scoreboard, but about what went right. It’s about the vigour with which Canadians latch onto their iconography as a testament of unified pride and desire. While the Jays payroll and the Leafs playoff run didn’t provide the results we expected, they proved something more important, acting as conduits to express what we’ve all been secretly harbouring since the 2010 Olympic buzz dissipated—Passion.

Like the Vancouver games, where fans watched with bated breath as the opening ceremonies stalled, and a life was lost in tragic fashion on our soil (see Brunt essay); this baseball season–forgettable with a supposed unforgettable cast–rallied Canadian fans and peripheral observers together. In Vancouver we recovered, and our games were a triumph. While the Jays won’t recover statistically, the communal growth this country has seen as a result is a meaningful consolation prize.

Though my team won’t be playing this fall, I was there this summer. We were playing the game this summer: old ball fans dusted off their tanned leather, and new ball fans tanned their own gloves in the dust-swirls that engulfed a nation in motion. Fans flocked to the ballpark in droves, especially after a season-high 11 game winning-streak that instilled new hope in a fan base still giddy with re-invigoration. Despite a falling off of late, average attendance this year jumped above 32,000, a far cry from the 19,000 fans that sauntered into Rogers Centre three years ago. And with 17 games remaining the Blue Jays have already exceeded their attendance total from last year by over 100,000 and their 2011 total by 400,000. You can see why Brunt was right to draw parallels to the ’93 Blue Jays.

In legendary fashion this summer Canadians became a David of 30,000,000 against 29 Goliaths. And while we’ve lost that battle—an American team will again win the pennant—the bonds formed, the memories we made, the ones some us of reformed and relived on our local diamonds, have injected us with patriotic adrenaline, and I assure you that come October our blood will be running hot. Canadians will soon be dreaming once again of translating passion into tangibility: a Stanley cup, a World Series, a Larry O’Brien trophy. We’ll dream of attaining that symbol that will expose our Canadian pride. We’ll be waiting for something to celebrate—together. But we’ve already found it…

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Who says Baseball is America’s Game?

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