“When you have the opportunity, you strike,” – Rod Laver
It is often said that opportunity seldom knocks twice. When you get the chance to do something great, take it – that chance might never come again.
In sports, one of the most famous examples of this took place on June 2, 1925, when a struggling New York Yankees team sat slumping first baseman Wally Pipp in favour of Lou Gehrig. Recognizing his chance may have finally come, Gehrig went on to play 2,129 more games consecutively on his way to the Hall of Fame.
There are also two big examples in recent Toronto sporting history that apply. In 1992, Felix Potvin replaced struggling future Hall of Famer Grant Fuhr between the Leafs pipes, and ended up leading Toronto to back-to-back Conference Finals. In September of 2009, a career underachiever who had bounced around several teams was finally given a chance to be an everyday regular. Two and a half years later, Jose Bautista is the back-to-back Home Run King and one of the most feared hitters in baseball.
So how does this apply to the Blue Jays in 2012?
The answer is easy. When it comes to professional sports, Toronto is a wasteland, a desolate, grey graveyard of past success and little hope for the future.
The Maple Leafs have now missed the NHL Playoffs for seven consecutive seasons, by far the longest stretch in the history of the franchise. This past year was arguably the worst yet, a season that offered a glimmer of hope punctuated by one of the worst collapses the team has ever seen: a 7-18-4 finish to drop from 6th to 13th in the conference. What’s more, for the first time that I can remember, fans are turning on the Leafs. They are no longer a guaranteed sellout that carry a certain “all will be forgiven” stigma with fans. Chants of “Let’s go Blue Jays” at the ACC, along with a cavalcade of boo’s aimed at Joffrey Lupul on Wednesday when he made an appearance at the dome prove that.
The NBA playoffs are just around the corner, but the Raptors will be nowhere near the postseason, a 20-39 record burying them in 13th place in the East. The team is still somehow averaging just under 17,000 per game, but on most nights the fans are there to see the opposition, not the Raptors. Even looking around the streets, how often do you see a Raptors hat / jersey / t-shirt? Not very often. Four straight years out of the playoffs, three playoff wins in the past 10 years, and only one series win in franchise history will do that.
The third jewel in the MLSE crown, Toronto FC, have turned from a novelty to an embarrassment. Don’t get me wrong – I love soccer, and I love the FC, but come on. The team has never made the playoffs in its existence, and is currently sitting dead last in the entire league at 0-4, the only team without a point (and with a -7 goal difference to boot). Perhaps the most telling thing about fan interest in TFC is this: I can now buy a ticket. After several years of full sellouts, that is a bad sign.
Toronto has two other teams, but the Argos have been going backwards for years, and while the Rock are a good team, lacrosse has not yet become a mainstream sport.
So where does that leave us?
In my mind, that leaves a huge city, the biggest city in Canada with over 2.5 million people (and almost 6 million in the GTA) without a sports identity. That leaves a city that loves to win, with a hunger for championships, with a collection of losing teams to root for. That leaves a lot of disillusioned and jaded fans looking for something new.
And that, my friends, is the opportunity that the Blue Jays need.
There was a time when the Jays didn’t need others to fail in order to succeed. They were the toast of the town from the mid-80’s to the mid-90’s, but a series of lean years and an 18 year playoff drought have eroded the fanbase. Past management have tried to increase interest by bringing in big names (Jose Canseco, Roger Clemens, Frank Thomas), big contracts (B.J. Ryan, A.J. Burnett), and big wastes (John Thomson, Tomo Ohka, Josh Towers). But it took a young GM to realize what his predecessors didn’t. Toronto fans want to win, yes, but they also want to identify with their team. When players spend their free time injecting each other with steroids, or demanding trades, or wishing they were elsewhere, fans won’t embrace them.
What Alex Anthopoulos has assembled is more than just a team that has a chance to succeed this year. It is also more than just a team that has a chance to succeed next year and the year after that. The 2012 Toronto Blue Jays is a young team that a) is excited to play baseball, b) is excited to play baseball with each other, and c) is excited to play baseball in Toronto. Players walk around town like anybody else, hitting up local restaurants like normal people, talking to fans instead of hiding. Social media sites like Twitter have played a huge part in connecting fans to players, and kudos for Toronto’s front office for not banning players from Twitter like some others might.
The Jays have seen an enormous opportunity and have jumped right into it. The new logo and uniforms was beautifully timed, and has been a huge success. I see hundreds and hundreds of Jays caps around the city each and every day, and probably 75% of the fans at Tuesday night’s game wore something with the new logo.
So far, things look like they are paying off. A sold out home opener. Over 26,000 in attendance on a cold, rainy Tuesday night, and over 25,000 at a 12:30 game on a Wednesday afternoon. Yes the Red Sox were in town, which normally inflates attendance stats a bit, but I swear that the number of Jays fans FAR outnumbered the Bostonians on Tuesday.
Times are changing. Whether or not the Blue Jays can keep up the pace and challenge for a division title and a World Series this year remains to be seen.
But by the end of the year Toronto might no longer be Leafs-Town.
It might be a Blue Jays City.