Sports Worm Here Could Easily Turn

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Apr. 8th) – There is no better time than the 37th anniversary (yesterday) of the first Blue Jays game to remember that Toronto hasn’t always been a hockey-first city. Anyone attuned to sports in this region from July 1985 to October 1992 will confirm that baseball superseded hockey – and by quite a margin. A radio sports call-in show at any time of the year back then would be thoroughly dominated by Blue Jays talk.

Could it happen again?

Well, we can tell you this: The fundamental elements that contributed to the not-so-brief turnaround are very much in play. As in the rot of the Harold Ballard era (primarily, the 1980’s), Toronto Maple Leafs have been a terrible disappointment to fans for as long as most can remember. The Blue Jays – largely youthful and exuberant – are teetering on the edge of baseball relevance for the first time in a generation. Young sports fans here (25-30 years of age) have little or no recollection of the World Series championships in 1992 and ’93. For this group, a winning Blue Jays team would be entirely novel – a panacea for the hockey heartache to which they are so intimately acquainted.

Toronto Blue Jays' first game, April 7, 1977. (Tibor Kolley/Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail)

THE SCENE AT SNOWY EXHIBITION STADIUM JUST PRIOR TO THE FIRST TORONTO BLUE JAYS GAME (vs. CHICAGO WHITE SOX) 37 YEARS AGO YESTERDAY – APR. 7, 1977.

This has been established by increasing attendance at Rogers Centre. Though the pre-season hype for the Jays last year proved fraudulent and the team suffered its most disappointing season in two decades, the baseball public bought into hope. An average of 31,316 fans watched the Blue Jays in 2013 – highest figure since 1997. It re-kindled the potential of massive audiences showing up once again for baseball in this city. In 1991, ’92 and ’93, Blue Jays attracted more than 4 million fans to SkyDome (as it was originally known) – becoming the first Major League team to do so. As per the chart below (courtesy Wikipedia), Blue Jays hold three of the top nine single-season attendance marks:

TEAM                    YEAR TOTAL AVRG. BALLPARK

Colorado Rockies [9]1993  4,483,350  55,350  Mile High StadiumNew York Yankees [19]20084,298,655  53,070Yankee StadiumNew York Yankees [19]20074,271,867  52,739Yankee StadiumNew York Yankees [19]20064,248,067  52,445Yankee StadiumNew York Yankees [19]20054,090,696  50,502Yankee StadiumToronto Blue Jays [33]19934,057,947  50,098SkyDomeNew York Mets [18]20084,042,045  49,902Shea StadiumToronto Blue Jays [33]19924,028,318  49,732SkyDomeToronto Blue Jays [33]19914,001,527  49,402SkyDome

A confluence of events led to the record Toronto numbers. SkyDome was the world’s first retractable-roof ballpark and therefore a novelty in its initial half-decade. During that time, the Blue Jays were perennial World Series contenders – and champions in the final two years. By 1992, the Maple Leafs had been mostly horrible for 16 seasons, dating to the club’s last appearance (1978) in the Stanley Cup semifinals. Toronto was aching for a winning alternative, which the Blue Jays provided. Given the Jays were 14th in average attendance among 30 MLB clubs last season – ahead of playoff teams Cincinnati, Oakland, Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh; virtually tied with Atlanta – there is reason to believe a legitimate contender might again fill Rogers Centre.

TORONTO STAR AERIAL PHOTO IN 1993 SHOWS SKYDOME FILLED TO CAPACITY FOR A BLUE JAYS GAME – AS IT WAS ALL SEASON. JAYS AVERAGED A TEAM-RECORD 50,098.

The perfect storm, so to speak, appears to be at hand.

Whether it unfolds is entirely up to the Blue Jays.

In 1985, the Maple Leafs were coming off the worst season in club history with a record of 20-52-8 for 48 points and had missed the playoffs in three of four years. For context, you have to understand how difficult it was to not make the playoffs in the 21-team NHL, where 16 clubs qualified. A glaring example occurred in 1987-88, when Leafs advanced with a 21-49-10 mark for 52 points. Today, a team with such a miserable record would miss by 40 points. So, watching the Stanley Cup tournament for the third time in four years – as the Leafs did in 1985 – was quite an accomplishment and the club’s loyal fans were disgusted.

At the same time, the Blue Jays – under the architecture of Pat Gillick and managing of Bobby Cox – had a young, talented and aggressive team. The outfield of George Bell, Lloyd Moseby and Jesse Barfield was considered the best in baseball and pitcher Dave Stieb started for the American League in the 1983 and 1984 All-Star Games. What the Blue Jays initially lacked was an ability to hang onto late-game leads and that was remedied in mid-season 1985 with the arrival of Tom Henke.

During the latter portion of the ’85 schedule – with Blue Jays and New York Yankees battling for the American League East title – all of Canada had “pennant fever.” I can tell you that, first-hand, as I was in western-Canada working on a Canadian Football League project. During a game at Taylor Field in Regina on the last Friday of the baseball season, the entire press box was huddled around a TV watching the Jays blow a chance to lock up the AL East crown – Henke yielding a ninth-inning home-run to Yankees catcher Butch Wynegar. Whenever the Blue Jays got a hit or scored a run, the crowd at Taylor Field – transistor radios in hand – let out a thunderous cheer… the football game an intrusion.

The following afternoon I was in Winnipeg, watching on TV in my hotel room as Doyle Alexander pitched the Blue Jays to victory over the Yankees at euphoric Exhibition Stadium, clinching the club’s first-ever playoff appearance. For hours afterward – and late into the night – people gathered at the hub-intersection of Portage and Main, dancing in the street and waving Blue Jay pennants. I shouldn’t have to tell you that our nation stopped cold while the Blue Jays were battling Kansas City Royals for the American League pennant – a series Toronto would lose (thanks mostly to the bat of George Brett) in the full seven games.

FRONT OF THE SUNDAY TORONTO SUN – OCT. 6, 1985 – THE DAY AFTER TORONTO BLUE JAYS BEAT THE NEW YORK YANKEES TO WIN THE AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST.

What reaction would a similar baseball drive produce today here in Toronto? As mentioned, a full generation of baseball fans has evolved since the Blue Jays won their consecutive World Series titles. The club hasn’t made the playoffs since 1993, even with the advent of the wild-card system (in ’92 and ’93, only four teams – winners of the American and National League East and West Divisions – qualified for the post-season; today, with three Divisions in each League, ten teams make the playoffs). As well, our country had two clubs in the 90’s with Montreal Expos in the National League. So, it isn’t difficult to imagine another dose of nation-wide vigilance were the Blue Jays to become a World Series contender. Multiply that ten-fold for the reaction here at home.

This isn’t to suggest that the Maple Leafs would be usurped in a mutually-competitive environment. Hockey is still a religion in these parts. As a result, however, the same generation of new baseball fans in Toronto has been turned off by the Leafs’ ineptitude (likely an eighth playoff absence in nine seasons). A seismic shift toward a winning Blue Jays team is hardly inconceivable. Fans around here long for a contending team in hockey and/or baseball; point being that the Major League Soccer Toronto FC – even if vying for a championship – would still attract a niche audience. The NBA Toronto Raptors have had a marvelous season and will garner huge TV audiences in the playoffs. But, they, too, do not resonate like the Jays can (and already have).

Baseball, as I’ve pointed out, filled an enormous void in this city and region for more than seven years – from the Blue Jays surge to the AL East title in 1985 to their first World Series triumph in ’92. Only when the Maple Leafs became competitive after Harold Ballard’s death – with Doug Gilmour and Co. in the winter of 1992-93 – did hockey catch up. At that point, the Maple Leafs had been a joke for more than a decade-and-a-half. Fans were yearning for something different.

I suspect they are once again, with the Leafs having routinely broken their hearts and the Jays threatening to become a new dance partner.

The sports worm here could indeed turn.

Trust me. I’ve seen it happen.

42 YEARS AGO TONIGHT

Next in my on-going series of hockey pages-from-the-past is a Maple Leaf Gardens program from Apr. 8, 1972 – Game 3 of the Stanley Cup quarterfinal between the Leafs and Boston Bruins. The program cover is autographed by Canadian folk-western singer Ian Tyson, now 80 years of age, who I ran into at the game. It was a difficult period in Toronto hockey annals, as No. 1 goalie Bernie Parent had signed a lucrative contract for the following season with Miami of the new World Hockey Association. Thanks to Ballard’s poor judgment, Parent would be joined in the WHA by defensemen Rick Ley and Brad Selwood; forwards Jim Harrison and Guy Trottier. As a result, the 1972-73 Maple Leafs suffered through the worst season to that point in franchise history.

Boston – led by Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito – blanked the Leafs, 2-0, in the playoff game 42 years ago tonight; eliminated Toronto in five games and went on to beat New York Rangers in the 1972 Stanley Cup final. 

                                           

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