Baseball is a sport that leaves most Canadians cold, but patriots should shake off their cold shoulder and let baseball into the heart of Canadian sport. A game that so clearly fits into the lifestyle of the good-natured north is often brushed off with adjectives that critics rarely change: boring to watch, unnecessarily long seasons and overpaid players. For some, baseball provides highlight reel fodder, with nightly editions of the same diving catches, double plays and grand slams. But sitting down to watch a game is a foreign experience for many Canadians.
Forty games into a season, an underperforming team can realistically count themselves out of contention for the playoffs. This does not exclude them from having to parade across the country for upwards of 120 games in a sort of sick humiliating road show. With wealthy teams bettering their record on the labour of the poor teams, baseball can seem one part sport and one part feudalism. So why should Canadians bother?
Many critics argue that Canada has no vested interest in a sport played mostly in America, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Japan and basically anywhere that March is included in the practical definition of spring. TSN and other broadcasters have attempted to reach out using Canadian content in the MLB as a carrot to focus attention on baseball. This explains why sometimes as a child I can remember seeing footage of an obscure single hit by Corey Koskie and feeling a sense of pride, as if Canada were being served with each base hit.
The fact is that Canada has produced hundreds and hundreds of MLB players, some pedestrian and some prolific. Larry Walker used to be in a class of his own among Canadian ball players, with batting titles in ‘98, ‘99 and ‘01. A new generation have become franchise players, making exceptional contributions to the entire league and garnering salaries that would make Sidney Crosby blush. Canada has, and will continue to produce, elite level talent in the major leagues satisfying those who like their sports like they like their CBC: full of Canadian content.
The Toronto Blue Jays are not simply a genuflection to a shared border and a ripe television market in southern Ontario. The Jays have left an indelible mark on the history of America’s game with back-to-back World Series championships in ‘92 and ‘93. After the Montreal Expos departed from MLB in 2004, the Jays became the only major league club north of the 49th. Making the post-season in baseball is unquestionably the hardest task in any sport — only eight playoff teams are allowed total.
Canada’s team has the intolerably cruel fortune of being placed in a division that includes the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays. This means that the Blue Jays would have to be better than two of these teams, a task hard enough when Tampa Bay was a pitiful expansion franchise and wore uniforms so bright and hideous they would give the 1983 Vancouver Canucks something to snicker at. To give an idea of the disparity among teams in the AL east, the Yankee’s, who are valued at $1.3 billion as a franchise, could buy the entire Calgary Flames franchise almost nine times over.
Baseball’s appeal derives from the atmosphere of seeing a game in person. It’s a sport that is full of drama yet taken at a leisurely pace. There is no need to fret about a loss because for the most part, there will always be another game. You can converse freely during the game without risking laryngitis or damaging a friend’s eardrum. You can consistently fail seven times out of 10 and have a statue made in honour of your successes. Do the Jays sell out Skydome every night? Absolutely not, but they are an affordable and reliable source of entertainment for Torontonians, the same way that baseball is for any city with a team regardless of the level of professionalism.
Baseball might not be able to routinely induce the adrenaline of double OT or gambling on third and long in the red zone, but the welcome respite of a warm evening at a ballpark is something that no other sport can offer. Baseball thrives off those who see it in person.