TORONTO—Russell Martin remembers coming down the escalator at the mall in Vancouver and seeing the throng of fans awaiting his arrival for autographs. “I’m like, this is unbelievable,” the catcher says of his encounter in January 2015, two months after he signed a free agent contract with the Blue Jays. “That’s when it hit me.”
Michael Saunders remembers six seasons with Seattle, and how home field advantage there disappeared whenever that one team crossed the border, because an entire nation seemed to escort it. “It’s almost like a holiday,” he says. “The moment the schedule comes out, everyone starts booking [time off] work and getting tickets.”
Dalton Pompey remembers last October, when his Instgram and Twitter feeds were flooded with posts from the far reaches of the True North. He remembers Game 5 of the ALDS against the Rangers and the earsplitting reaction to Jose Bautista’s seventh-inning, moon-kissing, bat-flipping, series-clinching homer, and how soon after he promised Bautista, “You’re a hero, man. You’re on another level now.”
At some point, it seems, similar epiphanies reach everyone who plays for the Blue Jays. “I remember [pitcher David] Price saying he didn’t realize, until he got here, that he was playing for an entire country,” says Saunders, a native of British Columbia and one of three Canadians on the Jays alongside Martin (Quebec) and Pompey (Ontario). “It wasn’t just playing for a certain city in the States. He even had that wow factor. Then it settles in, and you can ask anybody in here, they know what they’re playing for now.”
In North American professional sports, only the Jays’ neighbors down Bremner Boulevard—the NBA's Raptors—can fully understand that sentiment. With the Montreal Expos having moved to Washington D.C. to become the Nationals in 2005, and the Vancouver Grizzlies having decamped for Memphis four years prior, the Blue Jays and Raptors are the only Canadian teams left in MLB and the NBA, respectively. And even with hockey season around the corner and the World Cup of Hockey having just wrapped up in the city with the host team winning, Toronto is loving the Jays. They lead the American League in total (almost 3.4 million) and average (41,880) home attendance, and Wednesday night’s game against Baltimore—a stinging 3–2 loss courtesy of a ninth-inning, pinch-hit, two-run homer by the Orioles' Hyun-soo Kim—was still Sportsnet’s most-watched game of the season, at 1.9 million viewers.
That follows last year's success, when the Blue Jays drew 2.8 million fans during the regular season and an average audience of 5.12 million, a network record, watched their season-ending loss in Game 6 of the ALCS against the Royals.
Though Toronto lost that series to the eventual World Series champions, a younger generation of the team's fans finally had the chance to experience the sort of thrills the Jays often provided while winning five AL East titles from 1987 through '93, including back-to-back World Series titles the latter two seasons. The '93 championship was capped by Joe Carter's walk-off homer against the Phillies; the Bautista home run against Texas has now taken its place alongside that as one of the signature moments in the city's sporting history.
But there was so much more to celebrate in 2015, like the first 90-win season, playoff berth and division title since Carter's homer. Midseason trades for Price, outfielder Ben Revere and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki led to a 21–6 record in August. Toronto's +221 run differential topped the majors by 99.
“It was like a slow buildup,” Martin says. “People you saw, more and more were wearing T-shirts and Blue Jays hats. Everywhere you’d go in the city, everyone was repping the Jays, and then everyone was getting excited. On the street, people would yell, LET’S GO RUSS! They were excited. It was awesome. And now, it’s a continuation.”
That is, certainly, one way of considering what’s different this season in Toronto, where magic has morphed into mania more typical of postseason hunts. On the one hand, the Jays’ pitching staff tops the AL in ERA (3.79), opposing batting average (.242) and WHIP (1.24). Josh Donaldson continues hitting at MVP levels (.962 OPS, third in the AL), and Edwin Encarnacion’s 42 homers are tied for second league-wide.
On the other hand, three times last week the Jays’ bullpen blew a top-of-the-ninth lead, and only once—Sunday against the Yankees—could the offense post bail in the bottom half. On Tuesday, separate bench-clearing brawls against New York injured second baseman Devon Travis (shoulder) and reliever Joaquin Benoit (calf); Travis returned after a one-game absence, but Benoit is expected to miss two to three weeks. “It’s been a soap opera,” says Scott Moore, the CEO of Rogers Sportsnet and a longtime Jays fan. “It’s been fun, thrilling, demoralizing, everything.”
The drama continued when the Orioles rolled into town and took two of three at Rogers Centre this week, pulling even for the AL's first wild card and leaving the Blue Jays vulnerable to the still-alive Tigers and Mariners. On Thursday, there were reports that there may be unhappiness from some Jays players toward the media, which caused Steve Buffery of the Toronto Sun to write, "You have to wonder if this team ... is coming apart at the seams."
“We are a confident group no matter what short-term results we get,” Bautista told reporters after Thursday’s finale, a 4–0 loss to Baltimore, before the team flew to Boston for its season-ending series. “If I had to bet, I’d bet on my guys. We’ve got a great group of guys, we’ve got to go out and do it.”
“It’s a little bit different this year,” says Pompey, who grew up a half hour from Toronto in Mississauga and still has used Vernon Wells cleats and Orlando Hudson batting gloves back home. “Last year we kind of ran away with the division. This year feels like we truly had to earn our playoff spot. Not that we didn’t last year, but this year we’re really fighting for it. It’s going to come down to the wire this year, as opposed to clinching it a little earlier. It’s a little bit of a different feel, but still exciting.”
The roller-coaster ride, however, has done little to dampen support. You can feel it when Rogers Centre rises to belt “O Canada” en masse, or when chants of “TU-LO” echo after exactly nine rhythmic claps. The nationwide posts still roll into Pompey’s social media feeds at a dizzying rate. Back in British Columbia, Saunders still hears from friends who always spend their lunch breaks doing nothing but talking about the Jays.
“Our entire careers, unless it’s an international stage, you never represent a country, you represent a city,” Saunders says. “So you get that city’s love. Maybe people who were born in that city but moved away, you might see a couple on your road games. You can just tell by the way we travel, especially when we go to Seattle and all the west-coast Canadians come out, they show this is truly Canada’s team.”