Over the course of two successful seasons, and especially during the last three weeks, the Jays captivated the hearts of Torontonians and Canadians nationwide. Despite the best attempts by Toronto Maple Leafs rookies Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner to draw the national spotlight to bear on the beginning of the Leafs’ centennial season, fans remained loyal to the Jays. They remained passionate until the end, even at the lowest of points, three games down and the odds stacked strongly in favour of the Cleveland Indians.
The Toronto Blue Jays almost accomplished the improbable: they were only three wins away from a World Series berth. The Jays’ playoff hopes were dashed in the five-game American League Championship Series (ALCS) against the Indians. After barely clinging to their Wild Card spot on the second to last day of the regular season, they weren’t expected to be anywhere near reaching the World Series.
Many experts predicted that the Jays would fall to the Baltimore Orioles in the American League Wild Card game. The experts were proven wrong when Edwin Encarnacion blasted a Ubaldo Jimenez fastball into the second deck of the Rogers Centre, with a Joe Carter-esque walk-off homer in the eleventh inning.
The Jays weren’t expected to beat the Texas Rangers either, who were far and away the best team in the American League with a 95–67 record. But the Jays didn’t even blink against the Rangers, smashing a ridiculous nine homers, culminating in a series sweep and a classic Josh Donaldson moment, when he slid head-first across home to send the Jays to the ALCS.
Along the way, millions of Canadians joined the Jays bandwagon, celebrating the nation’s team and even getting the chance to cheer on Canadians Russell Martin and Michael Saunders.
U of T Kinesiology Professor John Cairney, author of Immaculate: A History of Perfect Innings in Baseball, has several ideas behind what’s made the team so popular. He says, “The simple answer is they are winning. But I actually believe the popularity of the Blue Jays (and the Raptors for that matter) reflects the growing diversity of interest in sport in our society right now.”
The Jays now head into the offseason after having reached a record high in popularity, the likes of which have not been seen since their title years in the mid 1990s. The popularity is especially impressive considering that the average age of baseball viewers is 55. Cairney believes that Canada is defying baseball’s average age of viewership because of an increase in youth participation, adding that the Jays’ success also serves as a “contributing factor.”
The increase in youth participation has many factors independent of the Jays recent success. Cairney mentions a few: “I think parents are also concerned about injuries [in other sports]. And the cost of sports like hockey make it prohibitive for some families to participate. If you [have] a ball, a bat and glove, you can play ball. Playing the game helps build interest in it.”
The current popularity of the Jays may signify a cultural change for professional sports in Toronto. “I believe that as the demographics of our populations continue to change, coupled with so many more options for sport participation and for spectatorship available, we may indeed see a time in the not distant future where the Maple Leafs and hockey in general, is not the only ‘national’ sport. One has only to look at the TV numbers to see this already beginning to happen,” says Cairney.
After a long winter frost, baseball will return again to Toronto in April. While the team may look different — it is uncertain whether Jose Bautista or Encarnacion will return — the Jays’ place as Canada’s team is likely to remain the same. The Jays will retain their starting pitching staff, and they are in a position to afford one of the highest payrolls in the league, so it is likely that they will compete again for a trip to the World Series and their third championship.
The immediate future of Toronto’s professional sports teams may be uncertain, but one thing seems for sure: Toronto is no longer just a hockey town.