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Baseball North, or Too Much Space Between Friends

March 31, 2011

The following is an essay I wrote close to two years ago but has not been published. Some of the main characters are now more mature, but, as we prepare to embark on a fresh round of 162 that threatens to excite and disappoint us on a daily basis, many of the key points still remain.

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Listening to Ricky Romero make his second career start a day after watching Travis Snider drive two hanging off-speed pitches to the second deck (or almost) of the Triple H Dome, looking out my window south towards Lake Ontario, I might be tempted to fool myself about the state of the Canadian game. As appealing as this morning’s AL East standings are, the rhythms of small sample size are still beating very loudly and very erratically. Trepidation is evident not merely in the fear of the unknown response to 4th starter turned 2nd starter Jesse Litsch being sidelined for an as yet undetermined period. In fact, this tingling sensation of doom has next to nothing to do with the hometown nine. Because the Canadian game goes (in this column anyway) much deeper than the on-field stylings of the Gaston Group. Because the Canadian game (in this column anyway) spans from Vancouver Island to Cape Breton Island, not to mention the area between Toronto Island and Ellesmere Island. And many inland areas as well.

According to a recent article by Baseball Prospectus’ John Perrotto, there are currently thirteen Canadians on MLB rosters. Some need no elaboration here, names recognizable even by most red-blooded American casual baseball observers. Guys like Russell Martin, Justin Morneau, Jason Bay, Rich Harden and his rotation mate Ryan Dempster. Others, perhaps a tad less awe-inspiring, include recent World Series hero, and hometown hockey coach, Matt Stairs, 2007 Pennant winner Jeff Francis, Seattle area retro disappointment Erik Bédard and young slug Joey Votto. Fans of the draft and Kevin Goldstein’s work might recognize Phillippe Aumont, Brett Lawrie, Michael Saunders and Nick Weglarz and perhaps even Canada’s next pretender to that throne in southpaw James Paxton of Ladner, British Columbia and the University of Kentucky. Wikipedia adds Ryan Braun, but a closer look tells us that it’s the other Ryan Braun. Mark Teahen is also kind of Canadian.

Of course that’s not all. A few days after I wrote those opening paragraphs, I went down to Rogers Centre to take in my first game of the year. Friday night, the hometown nine are wearing their retro powder blues and hosting the Athletics. Not much of a game and even less of a crowd, with a recorded and official total of 18,272 paid attendance.  Considerably less in actual attendance, of course.  Our brethren in late-70’s expansion, cold weather, and as a poor team with a hot start, the Seattle Mariners, managed a Friday night crowd (again, official) of 35,824 (figures from MLB.com box scores). Why was the Toronto attendance so poor? After a respectable turnout on opening night (48,027), the Jays have since pulled in crowds of 16,790, 12,145 and 15,297 before last night’s performance. As poor as last night’s crowd was it was also the Blue Jay’s busiest since opening night.

Could it be the economy? While the global market is down, and certain areas have been hit particularly hard, with much focus on the American rust-belt, the Tigers drew over 28,000 in the second home game this year and the perennially losing Pirates pulled in over 20,000 in their second game, but have since sunk below the Mendoza line of attendance, hereby known as the Rogers line, of 15,000. North of the border, the Canadian economy, while down, has not been hit as hard as our southern cousins. Northern unemployment rates have gone up, but not by as much. As with most financial issues, we follow the American way, but always with a little lag. Not as high when times are great, with higher floors when times are tough.

Maybe it’s still too early to view this year’s attendance as anything but random elements causing random numbers. Maybe (likely?) Ken Griffey Jr.’s return to Seattle has increased their numbers and make for a poor control group for this season. Yet something in me is very insistent that I compare the Jays to the Mariners. Safeco Field has a capacity of 47,116. The rechristened Rogers Centre can seat 50,598. However, I am almost positive that the aforementioned Rogers number include most of the upper deck – those sections have been roped off and completely empty for as long as I can remember – opening game notwithstanding. In fact, when trying to buy tickets through the MLB website, most of the uppermost 500 level is not even eligible for purchase. If you want to sit up high (where I often seat myself) you can only buy seats around the infield. I think it is more than fair to say that the 3,482 nominal seat difference between the two stadia is negated by the closed off sections. If anything, Safeco probably can actively seat a little bit more than Rogers.

Looking back at last season’s attendance figures (courtesy of ESPN.com), the 86-76 Blue Jays pulled in 2,399,786 fans in their 81 home games. The Mariners were very close in attendance with 2,329,702, but fell woefully short in the standings, finishing a very poor 61-101.

Let’s look at the trends of record to attendance going back for a few years and see what we come up with:

*The following table has been updated to include more recent figures

Year Team Record Attendance Team Record Attendance
2010 Blue Jays 85-77 1,625,555 Mariners 61-101 2,085,488
2009 Blue Jays 75-87 1,876,129 Mariners 85-77 2,196,461
2008 Blue Jays 86-76 2,399,786 Mariners 61-101 2,329,702
2007 Blue Jays 83-79 2,360,648 Mariners 88-75 2,672,485
2006 Blue Jays 87-75 2,302,212 Mariners 78-84 2,481,375
2005 Blue Jays 80-82 2,014,987 Mariners 69-93 2,725,549
2004 Blue Jays 67-94 1,900,041 Mariners 63-99 2,940,731
2003 Blue Jays 86-76 1,799,458 Mariners 93-68 3,268,509

 

It may be helpful to bear in mind that back in 2001, Seattle led all of MLB in attendance. Safeco was new and gleaming and the Mariners fielded a very competitive and very relevant (in a playoff-y sort of way) team. In Toronto, the stadium formerly known as the SkyDome (yes, one word) was already somewhat dated, and fans may have been remembering the strange events of April 11, 2001, when an early-season game was cancelled as a few sections of the roof fell to the field as members of the visiting Royals were working out. What I can deduce from these figures is that the Mariners can realistically aim for 3 million visitors if the clouds aren’t holding too much water, and that the Blue Jays are well on the path to 2.5 million fans by 2011, more if they can convince the schedulers to give them more home games against the Red Sox and the Yankees. While their distant, flag-waving past shows that Toronto fans will flock to the stadium for a real winner, the current trend will hold whether they remain in the hunt in mid-September, or have bowed out by the trade deadline.

I don’t want to overly disparage the marvel that is (now) the Rogers Centre. I fully believe the company line (taken from www.rogerscentre.com) that, “The facility was a breathtaking technological achievement when completed in 1989.” Since that time, the facility has undergone a few changes, of course. The Jays Shop is now much larger, holding record-breaking amounts merchandise. They have also added hot water to the restrooms on the field level (italics mine). Also, while the casual fan might not be able to notice, I have read reports of the powers-that-be renovating the player’s clubhouse and interior training facility.

Canadian baseball has enough problems that me harping on about the state of the last remaining major league stadium. As should be apparent, baseball is not native to most of Canada, in much the same way that ice hockey is not native to Arizona. Attendance theories are in large part predicated on the assumption that the game can hold the interest of the populace. In a region with solid interest in the sport at its highest level, a winning team should be confident in being able to achieve a good attendance, while also knowing that they will see more empty seats if they are fielding a weak line-up. Yet in Canada, kids gravitate towards the unofficial national sport of hockey (the official national sport is lacrosse, by the way). According to Little League Canada, there are around 40,000 kids playing in their local little league every year. That’s not even enough to fill up the Rogers Centre!  In contrast, there are more than 500,000 Canadian children who are registered for minor hockey. If the parallel is not yet clear, the Maple Leafs, now four years removed from NHL postseason relevance, still have a very long waiting list for season tickets.

That there is hope for baseball in Canada, I have no doubt. The response of the crowd during the recent Canada/US game at the WBC was a good hint at what could be achieved. Not so much on the play of the team, though. I have a few ideas for the growth of the game in Canada that I hope to explore with you in future columns. And if you don’t think hockey players can be moved from the rink to the diamond, just remember that Tom Glavine was originally drafted by the Los Angeles Kings as a promising young goalie.

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