SPECIAL REPORT/BASEBALL

A NORTHERN LOVE AFFAIR

THE BLUE JAYS HAVE IGNITED A BASEBALL BOOM ACROSS CANADA

JAMES DEACON,BARRY CAME September 24 1990
SPECIAL REPORT/BASEBALL

A NORTHERN LOVE AFFAIR

THE BLUE JAYS HAVE IGNITED A BASEBALL BOOM ACROSS CANADA

JAMES DEACON,BARRY CAME September 24 1990

A NORTHERN LOVE AFFAIR

SPECIAL REPORT

BASEBALL

THE BLUE JAYS HAVE IGNITED A BASEBALL BOOM ACROSS CANADA

The Toronto Blue Jays started life as ugly ducklings. They were an expansion team of unknowns and also-rans playing in what was considered the sport's worst ball park, where, on opening day in 1977, it snowed. Those affronts to baseball respectability reinforced the view that the game did not belong north of the border. It was, after all, the great American pastime. But baseball has since become a great Canadian pastime as well—and on Monday, Sept. 17,1990, at about 7:30 p.m., the 3,608,882nd fan of the current Blue Jays season was expected to push through a SkyDome turnstile and into baseball history. That Blue Jays fan would establish major-league baseball’s all-time attendance record, a record that by the end of this season may never be broken—except, perhaps, by the Blue Jays themselves.

The stunning rise in Blue Jays fortunes has ignited a baseball boom right across Canada. Four out of the country’s eight minor-league ball clubs set all-time team attendance records this year. At the same time, the Edmonton Trappers of the Pacific Coast League were sold in August for a reported $5.8 million, reportedly the highest price ever for a minor-league franchise. Officials at Baseball Canada, the organization that administers the game at the amateur level, say that more Canadian youngsters are playing the game than ever before, and the number of Canadians who make it to the professional ranks is growing. Indeed, the country’s major-league teams have provided the only question marks: the National League Montreal Expos have been for sale all season, and the Blue Jays, preseason favorites to win the American League East, have responded to the overwhelming fan support with puzzling inconsistency. Said veteran Jays infielder Rance Mulliniks: “This ball club has more talent than anyone else in the eastern division but, unfortunately, we haven’t played consistently well all year.”

But whether the players are millionaire major-leaguers who fail to fulfil preseason expectations, or raw recruits who can barely throw a curve ball or turn a double play, Canadians are turning up to watch them perform. There are now 10 pro teams in Canada and they are competing at every level of the baseball hierarchy (page 46).

In most cases, the teams have developed large and loyal followings. The Calgary Cannons, a Triple A team whose players are one step away from the major leagues, have drawn more than 310,000 fans in each of the past two seasons. Two steps down the baseball ladder, in Ontario, the Hamilton Redbirds, who compete in the same Class A league as the St. Catharines Blue Jays and the Welland Pirates in the same province, drew 74,544 fans to their 35 home games this year, up from 60,380 in 1988. And for the final game of the season, the Redbirds packed almost 5,000 fans into their 3,200-seat stadium.

Canadians are also beginning to make an impact on major-league fields. A total of seven Canadian players are competing in the majors this year. And that number could rise sharply in the near future (page 43). There were more than 35 Canadians in the minor leagues, and nearly 100 playing for American college and university teams. Said Montreal Expos rookie outfielder Larry Walker, a native of Maple Ridge, B.C.: “American kids have an advantage over us with more games and opportunities. But if you have the determination and the heart, nobody is going to stop you.”

Heartbreak: Precisely why an American-dominated summer sport should take hold of a hockey-mad, cold-weather country like Canada is open to debate. Alison Gordon, a former Toronto Star baseball writer turned novelist, says that the answer lies in the game itself. “It’s gentle, graceful and, for me, endlessly fascinating,” she said. “Every day during the season, they’re breaking our hearts or raising our hopes.” But for those of a less poetic temperament, the baseball boom has more to do with the on-field success of the Blue Jays, the novelty of the Toronto SkyDome’s retractable roof—and the power of television. Edmonton sports columnist John Short, who also hosts one of Western Canada’s most popular radio phone-in sports shows, said that westerners can usually watch four Blue Jays games a week on TV, compared with one Expos game. Indeed, TSN, the Toronto-based all-sports network, is carrying 60 Jays games this season, while CTV is broadcasting 50, and the broadcasts rarely overlap. Said Short: “Television does a wonderful selling job. People who have [otherwise] never seen the SkyDome think it’s the eighth wonder of the world.”

But winners produce losers, and baseball’s increasing success in Canada has hurt the Canadian Football League’s three Ontario franchises. They must compete for audiences with both the Expos and the Blue Jays. Toronto Argonauts general manager Michael McCarthy said that the Ottawa media frequently pay more attention to the Expos than the hometown Rough Riders. For their part, the Argos, who play once every seven to 10 days, are competing for fans against a team that plays almost every day and receives massive media exposure. Said McCarthy: “Football is a very tough sell. The Blue Jays are getting crowds of 50,000, and we’re fighting to get 32,000.” And baseball has produced fellow winners. The huge crowds flocking to the SkyDome for Jays games are pumping millions of dollars into downtown Toronto hotels and restaurants. William Duron, president of the Metro Toronto Convention and Visitors Association, said that the Jays have become a regional team, which draws fans from across southern Ontario and western New York state. He estimates that up to 20 per cent of the fans at Blue Jay home games, or close to 10,000 people, come from outside Toronto. And those who are in the city for the day spend, on average, between $100 and $150. Said Duron: “The Jays have had a significant impact on tourism in Toronto.”

Sellouts: Many baseball analysts predicted that the Jays would set a major-league attendance record this year, and for team officials it was a certainty by early July. George Holm, the team’s director of stadium and ticket operations, said that the past 58 consecutive home dates have been sellouts, and the last available tickets for this season were sold on July 7. Yet despite immense fan support, the Jays have not dominated their opponents at the SkyDome this year. Up until Sept. 13, when they started their final home stand of the season, the Jays had compiled a 37-34 win-loss record at the SkyDome. Said Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston: “The fans here are used to this club winning, but we’re going through a rebuilding process. They’re just going to have to be patient.”

After capturing the American League’s eastern division title in 1989, many baseball executives and writers picked the Jays as the preseason favorites to win again. But the players and coaches have failed to live up to those expectations. They entered September, the final full month of the 162-game major-league season, in second place, 6V2 games behind the Boston Red Sox. The Jays won eight of their next 10 games, and managed to shave Boston’s lead to as little as three games at one point. Still, after a season of inconsistent play, the Blue Jays of 1990 failed to rekindle in their fans the intense emotions that surrounded the successful divisional races of 1985 and 1989. Said novelist Gordon: “Our attitude has changed since 1985. It was like first love. We gave everything and our hearts got broken when they didn’t make it to the World Series. Now, we’re warier.”

Even though the Blue Jays have won more games than they have lost in each of the past seven seasons, they have rarely been far enough ahead of their divisional rivals to allow themselves or their fans to relax. But they have not faltered so badly that their fans have given up on them. As a perennial contender, they have drawn big crowds and kept them on the edge of their seats until well into September. And this season has been no exception. At the mid-season all-star break in early July, the Jays had a 47-38 won-lost record and were a mere half-game behind the Red Sox. In their next 60 games, played through Sept. 14, they had achieved a record of 30-30.

Almost all of the players the Jays count on to produce runs, and wins, faltered in the first 60 games after the break. Outfielder and slugger George Bell hit 17 home runs before the break, and three afterwards. Third baseman Kelly Gruber’s home-run production plummeted from 20 before the break to six after it. Outfielder Junior Felix drove in 47 runs before the all-star game, and 11 after. Shortstop Tony Fernandez, one of the team’s offensive leaders throughout the 1980s, carried a .292 career batting average into the season but had slumped to .260 by the end of last week. Many baseball analysts credit the Blue Jays pitchers with preventing a complete collapse. When the Jays lost three of four games to the Red Sox during a crucial series at the end of August, the pitching staff allowed a mere eight runs.

The Jays’ sorry second half has generated rumors and media speculation about discontent in the clubhouse. Over the past month, both Bell and Fernandez have openly expressed discontent. While Bell was sidelined with an eye problem in late August, he told reporters that some of his teammates thought he was faking. He also complained about the younger players on the team. Said Bell: “You can’t talk to the rookies. They insult you. They don’t respect the coach or the veteran players.” A week later, Fernandez publicly acknowledged that he has few, if any, friends on the team and was not enjoying the game this season because of his problems at the plate. Said Fernandez: “I can’t play the way I'm playing and have fun in baseball.”

Endure: The Montreal Expos have also endured a difficult year. The major problems afflicting Canada’s National League club, however, have not occurred on the field but rather in the stands and in the front office. The team has performed far beyond preseason expectations, managing to remain in contention for the eastern division title for most of the year. Going into the last weeks of the season, the Expos had achieved a winning record close to the Blue Jays’. But they were mired in third place, 7lh games behind the division-leading Pittsburgh Pirates, and had only a mathematical but unrealistic chance of capturing the division.

Off the field, the situation was more grim. The Expos continued to suffer a puzzling lack of fan support, rarely able to fill even half of the 58,000 available seats at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. Expo officials predicted that season attendance for the year would hover around the 1.5-million mark, which is less than the 1.7 million the club drew last year, when it ranked fourth from the bottom in terms of attendance among the 26 major-league teams. The stadium itself appears to be part of the problem. “The Big O is probably a little too big, probably a little too serious,” said the Expos majority owner, Charles Bronfman. But the main reason may lie in the simple fact that Montrealers have grown weary of a club that has usually been close but has never managed to scale the ultimate pinnacle. Said team president Claude Brochu: “Nothing will succeed more than the day we bring a baseball championship to Montreal.”

Brochu says that he is confident that the Expos will remain in Montreal, which has been the other prime off-field problem to plague the team all year long. The former marketing executive, installed as Expos president in 1986, has been trying to find a buyer since last fall. At that time, Bronfman and his two minority partners, Montreal businessmen Lome Webster and Hugh Hallward, announced that the club was for sale for $100 million, preferably—but not necessarily—to local interests who would keep the Expos in Quebec.

It has been a difficult task, largely because of the frank nature of a franchise prospectus that the team circulated privately to about 30 potential investors. Prepared by the investment brokers Bums Fry Ltd., the document reveals that the Expos had accumulated losses of about $42 million during the 21 years that Bronfman and his partners have owned the team.

In an effort to lure new owners, Brochu has taken steps to make the business more attractive. Early in September, the Expos signed a five-year, $27-million sponsorship agreement with Labatt Breweries Ltd. and a similar fouryear, $16-million deal with Petro-Canada. Two other sponsorship agreements, with a soft drink company and an automotive concern, are

under negotiation. Additional revenues are also expected from television: about $25 million as the Expos’ share from the U.S. networks CBS and ESPN, as well as the team’s national Canadian TV contracts. As a result of the new arrangements, the Bums Fry prospectus projected profits of $4.48 million this year, rising to $6.6 million in 1991, $6.93 million in 1992 and $6.75 million in 1993.

Sweetened: Bronfman and his partners have further sweetened the pot for local Quebec investors by agreeing to designate the $ 100million asking price in Canadian currency. That effectively lowered the price to about $86 million (U.S.), which is significantly less than the $95 million (U.S.) that the National League is asking for expansion franchises. As well, expansion franchises do not already have established minor-league systems, as the Expos do.

The combined effect of all of those measures appears to have whetted the interest of Quebec’s business community. A regional division of the Confédération des caisses populaires et d’economie Desjardins du Québec, a group of associated Quebec credit unions, announced earlier this month that it was offering to acquire a $5-million stake in the team. Jocelyn Proteau, president of the Montreal and western Quebec division of the federation, said that his organization was making the move “because we believe it’s time to do something concrete and prove to Mr. Bronfman that there are people here who will commit.”

Proteau predicted that about 15 other business groups and individuals would soon join the effort, providing around $75 million. In fact, the Quebec government has announced that it will lend up to $30 million, through a Crown agency called the Société de développement industriel du Québec, to local investors in order to keep the team in Montreal. Said Bronfman: “The truth is, we’re pretty darned encouraged now that the club will stay in Montreal and be sold locally.” Officials in the Blue Jays organization say that despite the huge crowds at their games they are avoiding complacency. “The pressure now is to repeat as divisional champions,” said Jays executive president Paul Beeston. “We won’t rest on our laurels because we don’t think that’s good enough.” But for now, the fans keep coming clearly because they believe that the Jays still have a chance—and that 3.6 million fans can’t be wrong.

JAMES DEACON and BARRY CAME with NORA UNDERWOOD and DIANE BRADY

JAMES DEACON

BARRY CAME

NORA UNDERWOOD

DIANE BRADY