There was a time in the Blue Jays’ not-so-distant past when it wasn’t clear what the franchise could be. There were empty seats, bad teams and faded glory.
Everyone could remember what it had been. There was no choice. For much of two decades it seemed the team’s only marketing strategy was to celebrate some anniversary or milestone related to the World Series years — “Hey, it’s another Devon White bobblehead!” The plan was to disguise the present.
It was a depressing time. The American League East was in ascendance, the Canadian dollar was (for many of those years) in decline and even though the Blue Jays fielded some not-terrible teams they could never make a dent in the pennant race or score a wild-card spot back when there was only one to be had.
Through it all the Blue Jays never spent to compete and when they did try to forge an alternate path — remember J.P. Ricciardi’s push to draft low-ceiling college players? — it never caught on. Blue Jays fans, raised on Pat Gillick’s judicious franchise building, knew what constructing a winner looked like, and that wasn’t it.
The Rogers Centre, which once hosted four million fans a season, turned ghostly. Between the 1994 strike and the decades of mediocrity, the Blue Jays slipped out of fashion. They routinely were in the bottom quarter of MLB in attendance. Rock bottom came in 2010 when attendance dipped to 20,068 per game, figures not seen since the bleakest years at old Exhibition Stadium.
Against that backdrop, what has happened the past three years looks like a miracle, though it hasn’t been a complete shock to those who believed it was a fan base that was simply dormant, not dead.
A 50-51 team 24 months ago made its way to the ALCS twice and is drawing an average of 40,000 fans to a rocking Rogers Centre, a crowd that is louder and — anecdotally — younger than almost all parks across MLB. The Blue Jays tribe travels, making their presence felt all over baseball and dominating the atmosphere every time the team visits Minnesota or Seattle.
No wonder still-new-on-the-job president Mark Shapiro is hesitant to mess with such a good thing.
“You get feedback all the time,” he told me during a recent interview on Prime Time Sports as he was making the rounds and setting expectations prior to next week’s MLB trade deadline. “And the bottom line is, we’re in the business to give fans a reason to cheer and celebrate. So when you disappoint fans, that impacts you emotionally.”
Normally this would be welcome news: An executive taking a strong cue from his team’s fans and looking to reward their loyalty with a push back into contention.
Selling off the team’s worthwhile pieces to jumpstart a rebuild — tanking, in other words? He doesn’t want to risk damaging the still-fresh bond the Jays have built with their fans.
“The violent disruption of competitiveness… If you’re trading all your best major league players now, what that would represent to this fan base, I just think our fans deserve more than that,” he said. “I just feel the passion with this city and this country and this fan base that has not been [around] that long — it’s just been a couple of years — that we need to do everything humanly possible to extend the window of competitiveness.”
But Shapiro, still being relatively new around here, is looking at this all wrong.
The fans’ engagement isn’t new and vulnerable. It’s proof that the connection the franchise has with its fans is unbreakable, even by nearly 20 years of neglect.
When since-retired Blue Jays boss Paul Beeston was running the club — the person who could vouch for the depth of attachment for the Blue Jays more than any other — there was always only the hope that the fans would rebound after two decades in the wilderness.
It was never a sure thing. Hence all the talk about payroll parameters under former general manager Alex Anthopoulos, and attendance and payroll being linked.
But in addition to the jolt of cash provided to the franchise since 2015 — one source says the last two years have been the club’s only profitable ones of the Rogers ownership — the last two seasons have offered the clearest kind of proof both of how rich a baseball market Toronto can be and how tightly the Blue Jays are woven into the national sports fabric, no small factor when it comes to the club’s glistening television ratings.
But here’s the key point: Even Beeston was guessing those things to be true.
Shapiro and Blue Jays ownership now have the benefit of a rolling, two-year consumer survey that is accurate to a hundredth of one per cent, 99 times out of 100: The Blue Jays fan base is a gold mine.
Knowing this, the proper course of action in the coming days before the trade deadline and in the months ahead should be very evident: Figure out what needs to be done to develop a truly sustainable winner at Rogers Centre and get on with the job as quickly as possible. Every day delayed is a day wasted.
Exactly how to do that is the duty of Shapiro and general manager Ross Atkins, but common sense suggests it would look something like this:
1. Take the risks necessary to invest – even over-invest – in building the best farm system in baseball.
2. As that prospect pipeline produces both elite major leaguers and depth pieces, spend early and often to retain them through most of their primes.
3. When and where necessary, spend aggressively to compliment that homegrown core with missing pieces on the free-agent market.
The beauty of all this is now that ownership knows exactly how Blue Jays fans will respond, it’s a low-risk strategy.
Exactly how not to do it? That’s obvious, too – keep doing what they’re doing.
Keep trying to argue the second-oldest roster in baseball, one that is 13th in the American League in hitting (ahead of only the Chicago White Sox and Oakland A’s, who aren’t trying) and 10th in pitching, is something worthy of preserving. That with some tweaks and better luck the hunt for the second wild-card spot can be revived in 2018. That three elite pieces — Roberto Osuna, Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez, should that blister ever finally heal — under the age of 27 represent a foundation for anything that can last. That Josh Donaldson, who turns 32 in the off-season, can be part of the future. That you can hang on to your best players and still find a way to plug all your holes.
The reality is this: In 2009, when Anthopoulos traded Roy Halladay, the Blue Jays set out to rebuild. There were hiccups along the way, but the 2015–16 Blue Jays largely proved that it worked, minus a World Series.
That window is now closed, however, and it’s time to start over.
Shapiro’s sense of obligation to Blue Jays’ fans is laudable, but misguided. The roots of their passion took hold neither in 2015 nor even in the explosion of glory around the World Series years. They run far deeper. They stem from watching a homegrown team, built patiently and with care, make the incremental steps from bumbling expansion franchise to perennial contender to champions.
Blue Jays fans know what it takes to build something sustainable, something lasting. They stayed away in the late ’90s and early 2000s when there was no obvious progress being made toward those goals, and came back in droves when just such a strategy began bearing fruit again.
The path ahead is obvious. The sooner Shapiro and the Blue Jays get started on it the better. Forty years of Blue Jays history have proven exactly what works, and what doesn’t.