As though only so many positive things can happen simultaneously for Toronto sports teams, it has been 24 years since the Blue Jays and the Maple Leafs have both reached the playoffs in the same season.
Without getting too far ahead of ourselves, that trend seems likely to hold for another year.
As those trend lines for the two franchises converge and perhaps begin to diverge, the question arises as to whether the success of one of the teams can either assuage the anxieties around the struggles of the other, or whether there is any way that fans of both teams can have their experience with one franchise influence their feelings towards the other.
Put more bluntly, is the relative success of the Leafs good or bad for the Jays?
It could be tempting to think that the hockey team’s recent, deliberate turnaround phase could prepare fans for what could be in the offing if the baseball team’s early season funk becomes something more lasting.
Without question, the Leafs appear as measured and wise as they have at any point in the memory of most fans, and their current success looks as though it could be sustainable in the near future. Moreover, Leafs fans have been rewarded for their recent patience, and may be more amenable to a situation where the Blue Jays need to regroup over several years.
It’s a neat and tidy theory, and it might even be relevant to some, but there are some fundamental problems with it.
Firstly, the assumption that Leafs fans and Jays fans are essentially the same group is dubious at best. There is certainly significant overlap, but the Jays’ national footprint means that the baseball fanbase includes fans of the Canucks, Oilers, Flames, Jets, Senators and Canadiens, and even a few oddball Bruins fans in the Maritimes. Not to mention the number of fans who are baseball and Blue Jays-focused with little interest in games played on frozen ponds.
There are also fundamental differences in how a team can rebuild in baseball versus hockey. While tanking for the sake of high draft picks can produce immediate dividends in hockey, with teenagers moving directly into impact roles, the path to the big-leagues in baseball is far more deliberate. Very few players make an impact in their initial years after being drafted or signed, and the degree to which a team needs to project talent means that there are fewer sure things in the early picks of the draft.
Winning the draft lottery unquestionably turned around the Leafs’ fortunes, but the first overall picks in baseball from 2013 and 2014 have yet to play a game at the MLB level, and recent drafts are littered with players who did little to transform their franchises. The MLB draft does reward teams at the bottom of the standings with added money in their draft pools, but by and large, successful scouting and player development in baseball does not need to be aligned with failure on the field of play.
If the Blue Jays were to attempt some sort of rebuild in the coming years, it might well be less about hitting the jackpot in the draft, and more about trading beloved veterans for players who have already established their professional legitimacy through several seasons in the minor-leagues. Such a process could be just as painful as simply stinking out the joint for a few years.
To some extent, the success of the Maple Leafs might even be bad for the Blue Jays, as renewed belief and vigorous support for the hockey team could result in fewer bums in seats or eyeballs on screens for baseball, or perhaps even a shift of sponsorship dollars from one team to the other. The Blue Jays re-emerged in the ratings and at the box office as the Leafs’ on-ice fortunes sagged, though the latter’s ratings and attendance seem to scarcely be affected by their place in the standings.
Of course, all of this likely seems more relevant in this moment, and may seem far less so within weeks. And given the distinct nature of the development process in each sport, the Blue Jays are far less likely to strip their roster down to remake the next iteration of the franchise.
Then again, not all tumbles to the basement of the league are deliberate and strategic.