The city of Toronto, Ontario has a population of 2.62 million maple leaf-loving Canadians. The population of its metropolitan area is 5.58 million. Both of these figures make it the fourth-most populous city in North America, behind only New York City, Los Angeles, and Mexico City.
Finally, the good folks running the Toronto Blue Jays have begun to grasp this fact.
Toronto is a big market in the truest sense of the word, but for years, the Blue Jays franchise was forced to operate under the guise of a small market team, seemingly due to the fact that they played mediocre baseball in Canada, a land where pickoff throws, mound visits, and any slight stoppage of play is met with round booing. There are, after all, very few empty moments over the course of a 60 minute hockey game. That fact, however, is not what’s been holding the Blue Jays back the past 22 years. It’s been management’s fault the entire time.
The Blue Jays have not made the playoffs since 1993, the year that Joe Carter stuck a dagger in the hearts of Philadelphia Phillies fans. That year, Toronto led the league with an average attendance of 50,098, a figure that is unheard of today. The previous four years, the Blue Jays, buoyed by the opening of the SkyDome, led the league in attendance each year. From 1991 to 1993, Toronto drew over 4,000,000 each year. Being in Canada, and its biggest city, is clearly not a hindrance, especially if a team is winning. Toronto is a city mad about its sports clubs, especially when they are winning.
After that 1993 run, however, the Blue Jays were never able to sustain momentum, and the turnstiles stopped clicking. The novelty of the Sky Dome wore off, and the team stopped spending money. There were cycles of spending followed by cycles of rebuilding, but the fans never returned to the park because the product was no good. After finishing in the top-five in attendance for 14 straight years from 1984 to 1997, the Blue Jays finished in the bottom-five nine times in the following 17 years. Even this year, armed with the best lineup in baseball, Toronto ranks just tenth in attendance in the American League. Through all those up and down years, the Blue Jays never fully committed to one approach to roster construction. Did they want to be a big spender like the New York Yankees, or would a slow rebuild be the plan?
The team’s salary dropped precipitously from $50.6 million in 1995 following a 56-88 record to just $30.6 the next year, a move that even Jeffrey Loria could appreciate. By 1998, the figure was back up to $51.4 million, climbed to $76.9 million in 2002 before nose-diving to $45.7 million in 2005. By 2008, the salary was back up at a sky-high $97.8 million before being rolled back to $62.7 million just two years later. None of the constant shuffling has yielded a consistent winner because the good folks running the Blue Jays built things up and tore them down like clockwork every three to four seasons.
With Rogers Communications (market cap in excess of $18 billion) owning and operating the team, and seeming to decide they want to do more than just use the Blue Jays for free content on their sports channels, Toronto is finally being run like a big market team. Salary has increased from the mid-$60 millions to over $125 million since 2011, with no signs of a drawback. At the deadline, the Blue Jays added Troy Tulowitzki and an extra $50 million over Jose Reyes, David Price, a rental, Mark Lowe, and Ben Revere. All of these additions increase the chances of this year’s version of the Blue Jays making the playoffs, but they also point to Toronto’s willingness to accept its position as one of the biggest market teams in the league. There will be no help waiting in the wings, especially in the starting rotation. The cupboard has been stripped as bare as it has been in New York for well over a decade. After this series of Trade Deadline moves, the Blue Jays will have no choice, but to continue spending like the big boys they are to maintain a winning baseball team.
The jury is still out on the big market approach to roster construction. It did not work in the past in Toronto because the front office would not commit to it fully, but it has worked pretty well for teams in Los Angeles and New York for years. Toronto can match these teams dollar for dollar (with a slight conversion rate, of course) if they want to. For years, the Blue Jays have been a big market power lying in hibernation. Now, it finally appears they have emerged from their slumber, grasped the full weight of their standing in the sports world as a powerhouse, and are ready to usher in a new era of baseball in Canada’s biggest city.
Now you see why Dan Duquette was so keen to jet out of Baltimore this winter, don’t you?