By: Brendan Kennedy Sports Reporter
Toronto Blue Jays Fans
While the Blue Jays kicked off their season at Progressive Field in Cleveland on Thursday, 300 kilometres away, a tiny pub on Dundas Street West was packed to its wood-panelled brim with supercharged fans and a playoff-like atmosphere.
Despite the weekday game’s 3:05 p.m. start time, the last table at Opera Bob’s Public House — the downtown Toronto’s de-facto baseball bar — was swiped more than an hour before the first pitch as popular baseball bloggers, Drunk Jays Fans, live-steamed a pre-game podcast.
With the pub crammed to capacity, a line of eager fans snaked out the front door and onto the sidewalk.
Later, when the Jays mounted a ninth-inning rally and Edwin Encarnacion lined a game-tying double off the wall, the room of soused twenty and thirty-somethings erupted into chants of “Ed-die! Ed-die! Ed-die!”
“It was electric,” says Meredith Rogers, a 26-year-old public relations consultant and diehard Jays fan. “Everybody just screaming at each other about the Blue Jays.”
There’s something different about this Jays team, and there’s something different about these Jays fans.
Behind the bubbling optimism for the 2012 season, there is a surging fan base that has distinguished itself from other sports fans in the city.
They’re young and irreverent, smart and sarcastic. They’ll dissect a player’s heat map in one breath, and his facial hair in the next. They favour blogs and Twitter over radio call-in shows, hold baseball book clubs and trivia nights, and seem to root as much for the team’s progressive general manager — who at 34 is part of their demographic — as the players on the field. They take an intense interest not only in the advanced statistical metrics of the players, but also understanding the economics of how their team is run. They also like to party, mostly at Opera Bob’s.
The friendly local for thirsty denizens of the trendy Dundas and Ossington neighbourhood isn’t even a sports bar, which makes it the perfect headquarters for today’s Jays fan, who’s arguably more geek than jock.
“I know hipster is kind of a dirty word now, but it’s kind of true,” says Rogers, who tweets and blogs as much about pop culture and current events as she does about baseball. “Not only do you have this cool baseball team, but you’ve got this method of understanding sports and speaking about sports that is a completely different language that a lot of people just can’t grasp, which sort of parallels the whole hipster culture: not everybody can do it, not everybody can understand it.”
The explosion of stats available to the common spectator — the mainstreaming of Moneyball, in other words — has changed how fans think about their team, says Andrew Stoeten, the Drunk Jays Fans blogger who now works for The Score.
“Before there was not the same amount of thought put into fandom as there is today,” he says.
Stoeten and his co-blogger Dustin Parkes, the foul-mouthed baseball wits behind Drunk Jays, are in some ways the flag-bearers for these new breed of fans, who may be more nostalgic about baseball video games than baseball tradition.
Stoeten, who also plays in garage-rock band, always thought of indie music and baseball as separate spheres of his life. Today, he says, his worlds are colliding.
“People playing in psychedelic rock bands are talking to me about the Jays’ fifth starter,” he says. “It’s bizarre.”
“I feel like lately there is this hip element to being a Jays’ fan,” says Conor Wilson, 27, who helps organize Opera Bob’s “Jays Days” events, including Thursday’s season-opener. “I feel like it’s not uncommon to see the person with the tight jean-shorts rocking an old Jays t-shirt.”
Buoyed by a young, exciting team and a fashionable retro-inspired new logo, the core fans are quite happy to welcome anyone who wishes to hop aboard the bandwagon.
Because above all, today’s Jays fans are optimistic.
“We have hope,” says Rogers, when asked what separates them from other Toronto sports fans. “Leafs’ fans and Raptors’ fans seem to hate their teams and hate each other — it’s so bleak.”
So while the Maple Leafs and Raptors stumble to the end of disappointing seasons, the city’s baseball fans are bonding over the Blue Jays.
The million-dollar question — at least for the team’s front office — is whether this renewed excitement translates into ticket sales. Last year the Jays were sixth-worst in league attendance, but the home opener’s record one-hour sellout may be a harbinger of this renewed interest.
The real test will be what happens to the positive vibes when the team falters.
Wilson just hopes the current optimism doesn’t curdle into “typical Toronto sports cynicism” if the team fails to make the playoffs this season.
He already noticed resentment growing in some camps following the team’s failure to make a big off-season splash.
But he’s not worried about that now, not with the new season just begun, not when there’s so much hope. “At this point, how can you not be optimistic?”
Maybe it’s just the hat
How much of the resurgent fan interest in the Blue Jays can be attributed to the popular new-old logo?
New Era Caps won’t share their sales figures, but managing director of Canadian operations Rick Baetz, said while the Jays’ early-90s, white-front vintage cap has always been a big seller, when the new logo was launched last fall there was a “significant” sales spike.
“It exceeded our expectations by 30 or 40 per cent,” Baetz said. “We expect a spike whenever there’s a logo change, but this was exceptional for sure, no two ways about it.”
Don’t belittle the resurgence, says Opera Bob’s co-owner Will Kopplin, 39.
“The hats are cool, but there’s definitely more to it than that,” he said. “I think there’s a strong underlying foundation to the Jays fan, which may make it easier for the hipster crowd or the trendy crowd to cling on to. But the fact that there’s an exciting product on the field now is strengthened the undersoil of that fan base.”