Outsider Baseball: Blue Jays, Canadian Baseball and Somehow…Telecommunications

Published on August 23rd, 2011

James on the way the Blue Jays fit into the American League, how Canada fits into baseball, and how radio fits into everything.

I’m an outsider. Sorry, I don’t mean to sound so dramatic. Let me try again.

I am a baseball fan in Canada. However, as everyone knows, baseball belongs to America. I don’t think I need to explain the importance of baseball to American culture, and I don’t think I can overstate it either. It is famously known as their national pastime and holds a very special place in their collective consciousness. Baseball has a murky history, evolving continually from other bat and ball games played in Europein 18th century, so it is hard to say definitively that it was made in America, but it is widely held that baseball is essentially American. It was America that developed the top-tier pro league, created world-famous celebrities of its players and made it an integral part of their culture, as other nations have done with soccer and cricket. Interestingly, the first documented game of modern baseball may have taken place in Canada. There are records of a game being played on June 4th, 1838 in Ontario, no one is denying that, but the argument is whether the game was played with modern rules. In those days there were many variations of the game and rules would often change depending on where you’re playing. Shockingly, the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame says it was the real deal so perhaps we have equal claim to creating or popularizing the game. Indeed,Canada does have a long history with baseball and the sport remains popular to this day, with thousands playing in little leagues nation-wide and most high schools and universities having a team, much like the US. The similarities don’t end there either. Townball, one of baseball’s most recognized predecessors, became famous inSouthwest Ontario,New York andNew England around the same time. The popularity of the game spread in every direction throughoutCanada with teams popping up on both coasts and everywhere in between, similar to the American history of the game.

I’m not going to try and theorize why the game struck a cultural nerve in the US in a way that it didn’t in theCanada (although I did try that in one of our sports podcasts). While Canadians continue to view baseball as a fun game, Americans for a long time have seen it as an integral part of who they are. Going to baseball games inAmericais like going to church, but a really awesome church where you can drink beer, eat hot dogs and yell “You suck, bitch!” at players you don’t like. What I am going to try and do is point out how the 2 countries’ differing views of the sport, historical and contemporary, illustrate facets of their national identities.

While national identities are tough to sum up, many citizens feel their essential Canadianness is largely defined by their un-Americanness. This is true to a depressing degree. That “I am Canadian” rant that everyone went nuts for years ago was ostensibly about what makes Canadians who they are but was mostly a list of ways we differ from Americans. This is not a new thing. America is the louder, more famous, more popular of the 2 countries and that’s been the case for a long time. When Canadians travel internationally they get asked what part of the States they’re from, they explain they’re Canadian and everyone likes them more automatically and buys them a beer and we don’t want to be taken over and lose that. Fears of American domination of Canada are as old as the country itself and have done a lot to shape the country. It is not always a military take-over that was being feared but often a cultural one. Such fears are responsible for the media landscape of this country.

Early last century, while Canada was still a young country, radio communication was exploding in popularity. While there were radio stations in Canada, many citizens were receiving signals from across the border and listening to that instead. Sparse population spread out across such a large country and relatively minor infrastructure made for a pretty weak Canadian radio industry leaving most people consuming more American than domestic content. This worried many citizens and public officials that they could be losing their country. This was not undue paranoia. American politicians were frequently and openly talking about American Manifest Desinty, their justified and inevitable takeover of the continent through the flawless moral reasoning of “I’m the biggest dick in the room so I get everything.” However, the American military invasion that was always looming might not be necessary if this airborne American culture may just slowly turn Canadians into Americans. The solution was a public radio system, now known as the CBC, that would give citizens a Canadian source for culture through government financing. The worry was a private system of new Canadian stations with the resources for only weak signals would not be able to compete with the established American companies with more money and greater broadcasting reach. This act did a lot to give Canadians a chance to be heard by other Canadians and create a national identity, but it was reactionary and done not for its intrinsic value but as a defence against American cultural hijacking. For all the problems people have with the CBC, which are many, including taxpayer money financing season 6(!!) of Little Mosque on the Prairie, this was regarded as a good idea. (Oddly, the importance of communication technologies will remain important to Canadian baseball but I’ll get to that later.)

The width of the country and the heavy population along the border was having an effect on baseball as well. While there many leagues formed in Canada, many Canadian teams played nearby American teams so they could play more often. If a top-tier Vancouver team wanted to play a Canadian team of their calibre, they may have had to travel across multiple provinces, not an easy task 100 or more years ago. For this reason, they would often play teams from Washington. Similarly, teams from the Maritimes would play New England and teams from Quebec played against teams from New York. This lack of east-west playing for geographical reasons may have prevented a meaningful professional Canadian league from forming. Perhaps government intervention would have been valuable here, as our small population, massive size and proximity to America may have stopped an authentic piece of Canadian culture, a strictly Canadian long-lasting professional ball league, to develop.

Another element of the Canadian identity most people agree is one of inclusiveness. We like to think of ourselves as accepting of everyone for who they are. This goes from being polite to everyone, accepting them for who they are and not being racist. To quote the I Am Canadian rant: “Diversity not assimilation.” Canadians often like to pretend we never had things like segregation (we did) or that there’s no racism here today (there totally is) and this adds to our un-Americanness. We see America as a land of racism, slavery, segregation, lynch mobs and the KKK while Canada is a place of acceptance. While these are both less than 100% accurate, we can see some of this in our baseball history. We embraced Jackie Robinson in a big way before he broke the Major Leauge colour barrier in 1947. The year before, he played for the Montreal Royals of the International League. He was widely embraced by the city and adored by fans. When he and the Royals got to the Governor’s Cup, Robinson was a beloved figure in Montreal, causing Sam Maltin of the Pittsburgh Courier to say “It was probably the only day in history that a black man ran from a white mob with love instead of lynching on its mind.”

Even further back in our history, our nation seemed to be the kinder, more accepting of the two. As I stated above, early baseball had regional rules, with gameplay varying greatly depending on location. One version played in Ontario known as “The Canadian Game” was the most popular. It was different in that it featured five bases, cricket-like bats, and eleven players per team but the most Canadian thing about it was that all eleven players went to bat each inning, which would not end until they were all retired. Everybody got to bat each inning because that’s the fair thing to do, right? Of course, Canada.

The Montreal Expos were the first Canadian team to join the majors but they were almost beat out by the London Tecumsehs by nearly 100 years. That team was going to join the National Leauge in 1877 but refused to stop playing exhibition games against Canadian teams. I guess no one will no how different the history of the majors would be if London played by the NL’s rules, but that would involve taking away some other team’s chance to play them, and such things are unacceptable in the Great White North.

So what about baseball in Canada today? Well it’s still around, being played recreationally and competitively, by amateurs, professional and student athletes. Most of the best Canadian student baseball players inevitably end up in the US playing at colleges that scouts watch. Once again, our proximity to the US has affected the level of skill in our country. This time, I must note, it’s largely our fault. Canadian post-secondary institutions can’t offer athletic scholarships to draw players to their schools. Students ballplayers choosing American colleges aren’t being unpatriotic, they are simply doing what they need to do to reach their potential. Our fascination with inclusiveness translates into teams being formed naturally by whichever students attend that institution rather than scouting the best players and making them students.

On a professional level, the 2004 loss of the Montreal Expos means we’re down to one team: the Toronto Blue Jays. The Jays, however, are decidedly past their glory days. They started in 1977 and won a World Series in an American League expansion record of 16 years. To prove that it wasn’t a fluke, they did it again the next year. The Jays became the first team to have over 4 million people walk through the gates in one season and their tickets were some of the hardest to get in the sport. These accomplishments argued for Canada’s status as a baseball country, both in its ability to win the game and care about the game.

In 2011 things don’t look quite as sunny as far as fans are concerned. Out of 30 teams they are 24th place in total attendance at home. In percentage of home seats sold, they’re second last. Many wonder why they’re in the league. If you go to Google and type in “Are the Blue Jays” one of the suggestions ends your question with “legit.” I tried this for several basement-dwelling teams and none of them offered the same question. Not even the Houston Astros! Maybe I’m taking one Google recommendation too seriously but there is a general feeling that the Jays just don’t belong in the MLB. On Norm Macdonald’s short-lived Sports Show, he once asked “Jose Bautista: Best hitter in baseball or some name I just made up?” It’s a good joke but it speaks to the fact the Jays are just off the radar for most people (including Torontonians.) Last season Bautista hit 54 home runs when no one else cracked 40 but people barely noticed. Former Jays General Manager J.P. Ricciardi told ESPN, “If he was playing in New York or Boston, forget it. They’d be erecting statues of him.” Despite having the 4th biggest population of any MLB city, Toronto is seen by many as a small market team. The Jays seem destined for mediocrity even when we play well.  Their theme song is even called OK Blue Jays.

Most Jays fans offer the same reason why the rest of the league barely notices the team exists: divisions. Toronto is in the AL East with the Yankees and the Red Sox, arguably 2 of the best franchises in the history of baseball. (Also the Rays decided to be good now so there’s that.) Fans do have a point with this. The team doesn’t have a terrible record, they just don’t have a great record relative to who they will be compared to for playoff contention. The Jays are 7th in the entire American Leauge but 4th in the AL East. (Not only do they have be behind the Yanks and Bo-Sox but they have to play them several more times a year.) Interestingly, it seems like geography may be what’s doing in the Jays chances, and perhaps the popularity of the sport in Canada. Once again we see Canadian culture suffering from their proximity to America as the division is too talented. Of course, whichever division the Jays were in, they’d be up against American teams, but what’s particularly interesting is they are always stuck behind the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox; the teams are consistent powerhouses and the cities are the very ones that we were worried about receiving radio signals from, as they are major cities near the border.

My background in media tends to make me see communications metaphors where there aren’t really any but the Jays provide me some solid ones. Just as many people credit those decisions to make a public radio system, to limit how much American media we consume and put Canadian content laws in place for giving Canadians a voice and a chance at their own identity, communications technologies are remaining important to state of Canadian baseball. Rogers, the massive communications corporation, now owns the Jays and has renamed their home stadium (the once futuristic, now ugly and lame Skydome) the Rogers Centre. Their virtually bottomless piggy bank has financed the team and through synergy has been able to promote the team more than it would normally be publicized. They Jays are one of 3 corporate controlled teams in the league and who knows how well they would do or how many more people would forget about them if it wasn’t for their very rich publicity machine of an owner. Regulating radio technologies may have saved Canadafrom becoming the 51st state and maybe this communications technology giant is saving Canada from losing pro baseball for good.

OK, I liked that ending but one more metaphor because it’s too good to ignore. Where does this rumour of the Jays stealing signals in the Rogers Centre fit into the polite Canadian image? Well I guess no American signals are going to be transmitted on Canadian soil without us doing something about it.

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