There is no more crowd-thrilling player in baseball, arguably, than Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Jose Reyes.
And it goes both ways. Reyes is thrilled by the roar of the crowd.
“It gets you pumped,” he was saying before the Blue Jays four-game split at Rogers Centre against the visiting Kansas City Royals. “I love to play in front of a big crowd.”
The question will be if Blue Jays fans will give him the chance. The Blue Jays are off to their best start in more than 20 years but attendance is down 18 per cent, year-over-year, or about 5,400 fans a game, leaving as many empty seats at Rogers Centre most games than those occupied.
A big part of Toronto’s identity as a baseball market is derived from setting MLB attendance records during the glory years when the Blue Jays became the first franchise to draw four million fans (an average of 49,000 per game) in a single season. They did it at what was then SkyDome from 1991-93, years that included their two World Series titles.
But that reputation -- indeed the Blue Jays fan’s self-perception -- will be on the line if the club keeps winning and crowds don’t follow.
The club entered June alone in first place in the American League East for the first time since 1992 and has been the hottest team in baseball for a month, winning games with the electrifying speed of Reyes and the thumping power of record-setting Edwin Encarnacion at the plate, while Mark Buehrle earned his MLB leading 10th win on Sunday. But for all of that the Blue Jays average attendance for their just finished 10-game home stand was 25,456, with the only sellout coming a week ago Sunday.
Twenty years of mediocre-to-bad baseball has given fans in Toronto a pass. Failing to fill the Rogers Centre on a regular basis over the years was easy to explain away: the 1994 strike alienated fans in the first place and the team has never been quite good enough to bring them back.
Now the test comes, and it comes with a catch: Is Toronto a baseball town or not? And will passing that test dictate the shape of the roster as the season moves along?
Yes and no, says Blue Jays president Paul Beeston:
"Absolutely demand is picking up. I’m disappointed where we’re at but we’re better off now than we were two weeks ago and we’re better off than now than we were two years ago."
Beeston also said that the club’s attendance figures won’t be the arbiter of any roster improvements that general manager Alex Anthopoulos may contemplate going forward.
"There’s no magic number for attendance," Beeston said. "If there’s a deal it’s not going to be money that determines if it’s going to be done, it’s going to be wins. If we’re winning we’ll do it. I hope we have that opportunity."
This time a year ago the Blue Jays were a miserable 23-30 and 8.5 games behind division leading Boston. The one area the team was performing well was at the box office. Buoyed by months of build-up in the off-season after the acquisitions of Reyes and Mark Buehrle from the Florida Marlins and a trade for Cy Young-winning R.A. Dickey, Jays fans were coming out at a rate not seen for 15 years.
Through 31 home games in 2013 the Jays were drawing an average of 29,645 to the Rogers Centre, a far cry from the 49,000 a night that was routine in the glory years, but an improvement over the 25,921 that came in 2012. Through 31 home games this season Toronto is drawing just 24,266, which ranks 22nd out of 30 teams in MLB.
The interest in the team is certainly there as they have been carving their way through the American League. The television ratings continue to be strong. Last season the Blue Jays averaged 510,000 viewers a game -- impressive considering the club started so poorly and was officially a crushing disappointment by mid-July.
There were 630,000 watching the finale of the Jays series sweep against the Oakland A’s on a sunny Sunday afternoon and an impressive 839,000 watched their thrilling 10th inning walk-off sweep of the Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday night.
But getting people out to games has been a challenge. Perhaps it’s the hangover from last season – fans are curious enough to watch but don’t trust the product enough to spend time and money to come down in person. Not helping either is that the Jays are in the middle of a run of 16 home dates in 19 games, reducing the urgency: there is always another game to go to.
It can’t help also that downtown Toronto seems to have become exponentially congested of late. On May 25th the Rogers Centre was sold out with the first 20,000 fans who arrived getting a free replica jersey, but the Gardiner Expressway that runs south of the stadium and has been reduced by two lanes for summer construction, was backed up like rush hour by 11 a.m. Traffic was also a challenge Sunday with the Gardiner closed for the annual Becel Ride for Heart.
But the real test will come in July, August and September when schools are out and the pennant races heat up. The image of Toronto as a baseball town has grown almost mythical in the retelling. Everyone has heard the stories about Yonge Street over-flowing and people meeting their wives or husbands the night of Joe Carter’s big home run and a shiny new baseball park filled night after night.
But until it happens again, they’re just stories.
Reyes, for one, can’t wait. He got a taste of it at times last season and again on May 25 when the sun was shining, the roof was open and the seats were full.
"It was like a playoff atmosphere," said Reyes. "It’s different when you have 40,000 and when you have 25,000. When you have 40,000 it’s extra exciting, extra energizing. For me as a player, I love to play in front of big crowds, I want to do good for them.
"Hopefully if we continue to play good baseball people are going to come here to watch us play," he added. "But we’re going to continue to play good baseball, there’s no doubt."
The only question is who will be watching.