It sometimes happens in sport that a team will come to represent a much bigger group of people than the city on its jersey. In the case of the Toronto Blue Jays, it is clear that they are currently “Canada’s team”.
The Jays have put together a magical 2015 season that has captivated much of the country (some numbers on this below). There is no denying that the blue birds have their biggest following since their back-to-back World Series championships in 1992 and ’93. Coincidentally, that is the last time a Canadian professional sports team won any major sports championship (MLB, NHL, NBA), coming a few months after the Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup that spring.
That’s right, the last Canadian professional sports team to win a championship was the ’93 Blue Jays! Let that sink in for a moment.
In the meantime, Canada has excelled on the international stage. We hosted a world-class Olympic Games (Vancouver 2010). We set Olympic records (most gold medals at a single Winter Games). We came together to cheer on national teams who rewarded us with incredible gold medal victories (men’s and women’s hockey at Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014). We witnessed Canadian athletes win 217 Pan Am Games medals and then watched as they took on the world (Andre De Grasse in particular was special this year).
You can point to Vancouver 2010 in particular, which seemed to spark a new sense of competition in Canadians. From the moment that Alex Bilodeau won our first Olympic gold on home soil, you could tell it was going to be a good Games for Canada. Since then, Canadians no longer expect to finish near the top; they now expect to win – an attitude embraced by the 2015 Blue Jays.
As someone who was only four years old when Joe Carter “touched em all” to seal the ’93 World Series, it’s hard to fathom that Canadian teams haven’t won anything since. Have I really never witnessed a Canadian professional championship team in my cognitive lifetime? Unfortunately, it’s almost like fans of pro teams don’t expect to win anymore – the opposite to how we react to our amateur athletes.
Baseball v. Hockey
Let’s talk about the NHL for a bit. The Leafs’ struggles have been very apparent the last few seasons, but the rest of the Canadian teams have been almost as disappointing. Of the seven Canadian NHL teams, the Canucks are the last to even make the Stanley Cup Final, losing to Boston in 2010-11. Before them, we have to go back to around the NHL lockout, when Canadian teams made the Final three years in a row, only to lose all three times: Calgary Flames in 2003-04, Edmonton Oilers in 2005-06, and the Ottawa Senators in 2006-07.
But while those teams fought for a championship in the past 22 years, the difference is that Canadians are so serious about hockey that we won’t all cheer for a team unless it has a big red maple leaf (not a blue one) on the front.
Baseball v. Basketball
Like the Jays, the Toronto Raptors are the only Canadian team in their league. Mired in mediocrity for years, with their only NBA playoff series win coming back in 2000-01, the last couple of seasons has seen their level of play and fan following make big increases.
When they qualified for the playoffs in 2013-14, for the first time in five seasons, Canada came together to support them as #WeTheNorth. The trend continued last season, with the area outside the Air Canada Centre labeled as “Jurassic Park” during the playoffs. Unfortunately, both years saw first round playoff losses.
Blue Jays fans and Canadian sports fans alike are hoping that 2015, designated as “The Year of Sport” by the Canadian government, will be a different story. How nice would it be for the 2015 champion of the sport known as “America’s pastime” to be a Canadian team?
This year’s Blue Jays have an even more Canadian feel to them with catcher Russell Martin (Toronto, ON), outfielder Dalton Pompey (Mississauga, ON) and currently injured outfielder Michael Saunders (Victoria, BC) all from north of the border. Martin has been a leader for the team all season, making great plays with his bat and his glove. Pompey has been up and down to the minors over the year, but his lightning speed make him a valuable asset that the Jays are using during the playoffs. Pompey was actually brought into Game 5 of the ALDS as a pinch runner for Martin, but was forced out on a play at home.
Not only do Canadians connect more with the players on the team, but they can also be more connected to the team itself. With the recent advances in modern technology, it is fairly safe to say that this Blue Jays team has more support than any that came before. In 2015, the entire country can follow along with every game on TV, online or via a smartphone app, and there are endless ways of showing their support across social media. Canadians and Jays fans have truly #ComeTogether to support the team like never before.
According to a Sportsnet release, the peak viewership for Game 5 was 8.1 million, meaning almost 25% of Canadians were watching. Game 5 also set a new record for the largest audience in network history, with an average of 4.85 million viewers. The record that it beat was set only two days earlier when an average of 4.38 million viewers tuned in to Game 4. The records should keep coming as the playoffs continue.
As happy as the Jays players were to win Wednesday’s instant classic, the crowd was just as excited. Almost too excited at times – as they pelted the field with beer cans and anything they could throw. The fans in Rogers Centre waited a long time for that Game 5 win and they shared in the postgame festivities. Several fans were showered in champagne by the players as the rest of downtown Toronto was flooded with chants of “Jose! Jose! Jose!” (a la Ole! Ole! Ole!) for hours after the game.
While the Jays are simply the most recent to be tabbed as “Canada’s team”, hopefully they can buck the recent trend and bring a championship banner back up north. It’s been a long time coming.
Go Jays Go!