The looming question: How long will the Blue Jays’ popularity revival last?
Steve Pearce of the Toronto Blue Jays is congratulated as he rounds the bases after hitting a game-winning grand slam home run against the Oakland Athletics at Rogers Centre on July 27, 2017. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
Can Jays revival survive another sluggish season?
As this lost season of the Blue Jays enters its last dismal months, with the importance of wins and losses rendered irrelevant, the drama will be limited to the kind of stuff that happened late in Tuesday night’s game against the White Sox.
Marcus Stroman took offence to the mutterings of Tim Anderson of the White Sox, words were exchanged, the benches cleared. It should give the media cycle a good 48 hours to debate whether Stroman has an attitude problem. (Since we’re here, I’ll note that taking offence is just what Stroman does. An undersized pitcher who set out years ago to prove everyone wrong, he still positions himself as at war with a world of doubters, even when hardly anyone actually does. It seems to have worked for him.)
And, to be fair to those who will spend much time talking about the controversy, such as it is, there is not much else to talk about. With the non-waiver trade deadline passing this week, the question that has loomed over the Blue Jays since their disastrous April has been, finally, settled. The Toronto front office kept saying that it wanted to be competitive in the short term, that there was no appetite for a fire sale that would guarantee multiple seasons of irrelevance. But until the deadline passed with players such as J.A. Happ and Josh Donaldson still on the team, there was still room for Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins to pivot.
They could yet change their minds in the off-season, but that is unlikely. The whole idea of making a run at a playoff spot in 2018 hinges on the belief that the team wasn’t as bad as its results indicate so far in 2017. If they believed that today, why would they decide in three months that the belief is mistaken?
Much has already been said and written about whether they are right. Without aggressive and expensive winter upgrades in Toronto, few non-Jays fans will expect them to be competitive next season. (At least they will have Stroman to provide workshops on how to use doubt as motivation.)
All of the preceding leads to the new question that looms over the franchise: How long will the Blue Jays’ popularity revival last?
The resurgence of support for the baseball team in this town remains at least a bit of a mystery. The return to the playoffs, obviously, changes a lot, but the scale of the Blue Jays boom is still remarkable. The league-leading attendance in 2016 for an 89-win team was more than double the amount of fans who came to see an 85-win team in 2010. They are still leading the American League in attendance this year, even though they fell flat on their face in April. Television ratings have set record after record since their return to relevance and there are all the other signs of baseball’s renewed prominence here: Huge jumps in enrolment in local little leagues and merchandise sales that can make it look as though the city passed a bylaw that requires at least one family member to wear a Blue Jays hat at all times. Again, that there is an interest spike in a fun, competitive team is not a surprise, but it’s the size of the latent Blue Jays fan base that has proven unexpected.
My theory on this: There is a generation of fans now between the ages of, say, 35 and 45 who grew up during the years when the Jays were always good and the ball park was always sold out. That group fell away as it aged and the team slid into decades of fourth-place finishes, but when Toronto was suddenly good again, the former die-hards rushed back, and now they brought their kids with them. Many other fans don’t fit that demographic, but it does help explain the sudden surge in support.
So, is it a flirtation, or has the hook been set? Are the new fans devoted enough to keep coming back even if following the team becomes markedly less fun? It’s fair to assume that management is not certain, which could partially explain the reluctance to put up the fire sale signs as this season fell apart, especially as it was deciding to increase ticket prices. There is no lack of examples of teams that saw support dry up over a period of lean years. Philadelphia led the National League in attendance in 2011, the last of five straight playoff seasons. The Phillies led the NL again in 2012, as the playoff streak ended. Then they slid to fourth, then 10th. This season, they are 12th.
The simplest way for the Blue Jays to avoid such a fate would be to bounce back next season. That is, to defy expectations. They wouldn’t be the first team to do that, either. And if they can’t, we will see if two good seasons, and a couple of wildly entertaining playoff runs, bought the team the kind of goodwill that is more meaningful than spending $30 on a hat.