“Canada’s Team” took the field in Olympic Stadium Friday, bringing Major League Baseball, for a moment, back to Montreal.
For the fourth time in as many years, baseball returned to Montreal Friday night when the Toronto Blue Jays kicked off a two game series in Olympic Stadium against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The series marks the last two games of Spring Training for the teams and serves as a final tune-up for players before the grind of the 162-game regular season begins.
These games symbolize a shift away from Spring Training. A re-adjustment to the mental and physical challenges of playing days on end, lengthy travel times, and crowds numbering above 10,000. But for the Blue Jays there’s more to it than that.
The Toronto Blue Jays bring the game back to a “Baseball Desert” created when the Expos departed Montreal for Washington DC at the end of 2004, leaving Canada with only one MLB team. It’s a role they embrace, dubbing themselves “Canada’s Team,” but also an awesome responsibility, said Toronto Blue Jays President and CEO Mark Shapiro.
Carrying the Weight of a Country
“It is a responsibility, it’s a point of pride,” he said when Jays From the Couch sat down with him Friday night. “It’s something that we take seriously. I think any player who’s played for the team for a number of years recognizes that we take that seriously.”
Shapiro, who took the reigns of the team at the end of the 2015 season, explained that the magnitude of the impact the team has throughout the country, requires you to take a roadtrip.
“It is very hard for anyone on the outside to understand and articulate,” he began. “It’s going to Seattle and looking at a stadium that’s 70-percent full of fans that are 3,000 miles away from where we play, and understanding that they’re still rabid Blue Jays fans. It takes going to Detroit, going to Cleveland, and seeing thousands of Blue Jays fans out.”
Beyond connecting with the breadth of Jays fans from coast to coast, is the responsibility resting on the team’s shoulders to represent baseball throughout the country. The pre-game ceremony on Friday honored Expos legends Tim Raines, Jeff Reardon, Dennis Martinez, Al Oliver, David Palmer, Bill Lee and Steve Rogers. And Ace, the Jays’ loveable mascot was nowhere to be seen – but in his place was the hairy orange giant Youppi! – the Expos’ beloved mascot. Washington DC might have gotten the team, but the Blue Jays inherited their history.
The Push for Expansion
With the obvious push by supporters of baseball in Montreal, is there any concern on the Jays’ part that a team coming back to Montreal could erode their fan base?
“I still feel like we’re going to have a foothold in a lot of the country,” Shapiro said. “We certainly will not in Quebec, but that’s understandable,” he added. Although, the continued presence of Montreal’s beloved Russell Martin on the team might help sway support in their favour.
Shapiro pointed out that any impact MLB expansion had in Canada would be less of a business issue and more of a pride one. “We’re not making the bulk of our revenue off of being ‘Canada’s Team,’ the bulk of our revenue is made off of tickets sold in Toronto. It more affects media,” he said.
Beyond business factors, there’s performance to consider. And the Toronto Blue Jays have certainly given fans something to cheer about recently. That, Shapiro said, makes a big difference.
“I still think there’s going to be a broad fanbase that the Blue Jays have captured over the past few seasons throughout the country,” he added.
Expansion, even if a report that surfaced this week that a group of Montreal-based investors have met preliminary conditions by MLB for bringing a team back to Quebec is true, is still years before becoming a reality. Which gives the Toronto Blue Jays even more time to put up winning seasons, bring on board talented and captivating players and recruit new fans throughout the country.
Ultimately, as far as expansion is concerned, Shapiro said, it’s important to look beyond all of the outlying factors and do what is best for baseball.
“We want what’s best for baseball in Canada and two teams is probably a good thing for Canada, for people who love baseball and for growing the sport,” he added.
*Featured Image Credit: Joy F-C – JFtC
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Joy Frank-Collins is a Communications professional who got her start writing as a journalist at a daily newspaper in southeastern Ohio. She was born in Reds country, but “found” baseball watching the 1986 Mets win the World Series. A long-time Pittsburgh Pirates fan, she added the Blue Jays as her AL team the day they picked up Russell Martin. She lives in Marietta, Ohio, with her family, who all share her passion for baseball. She loves the suicide squeeze, a crisp 6-4-3 double play and catchers. When not obsessing over baseball, Joy likes to work out, travel and drink wine.