The Blue Jays have done a terrific job of making themselves “Canada’s team” and establishing a loyal fan base well beyond the farthest flung stations of the GO Train. TV ratings are high on the Prairies, their youth camps across the nation draw big crowds and road games in Seattle often seem like home games due to the boisterous support of thousands of fans from across the border in Vancouver. If signing Marco Estrada and JA Happ last year instead of putting all their eggs in David Price’s one basket was an example of the organization thinking “outside the box”, it occurs to me that maybe the way for the team, and Rogers, to take the fan support to the next level is to really think outside the box. To start a new league!
Now hear me out on this one. I’m not suggesting taking Toronto out of MLB or starting a rival league . No one wants that and as the WHA and XFL showed clearly, fans are smart enough to know “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” What I am suggesting is that it might be high time to start a new,junior pro league in Canada and Rogers/Toronto Blue Jays could be the driving force behind it.
I’ve been in Texas the past couple of years and something exciting is happening here along those lines. Plans for a brand-new professional league, the Southwest League of Professional Baseball have sprung up. Teams have been awarded to Waco and Royce City (an outer suburb of Dallas) and they plan to have 4 more in place by spring 2018, when they intend to play ball. The league expects a 112 game schedule. Plans for a 4000 seat stadium (suitable for music concerts and similar events when not in use for baseball) have been drawn up for a site in Bellmead, just outside Waco city limits. The league would not be affiliated with MLB but would be professional. Excitement seems quite high in usually football-obsessed Waco, which hasn’t had a pro team since the 1950s (when Pittsburgh had a minor league affiliate there.)
The blueprint for the league, it would seem, is the Can-Am league, another independant 6-team league with franchises in Ottawa, Trois Riveires and Quebec City as well as three northeastern US cities. That league runs a 100-game schedule and averages about 2200 fans per game and has had a handful of alumni make it to the bigs, including Luis Garcia of the Phillies and former Blue Jay all star Steve Delebar.
It seems to me this would be an excellent way of promoting the sport – and the Blue Jays brand- across the country. there are enough cities around the land where baseball is popular to easily start up an 8or 10 team league, perhaps split between an East and West division. London, St. Catherines, Calgary and Edmonton would be obvious candidates given their previous hosting of minor league clubs and presumably having stadiums which would be more or less suitable for games right away. Throw in Halifax, maybe Saskatoon, and a couple more southern Ontario cities (my old hometown of Oshawa comes to mind with a big baseball fan base and probably adequate facilities at Durham College / UOIT) and you’ve got yourself a league. Have each team play it’s divisional rivals 16 times and take one road trip to the other end of the country and play their rivals 4 times there (meaning 8 against each other-divisional) and you have a nice little 80 game sched, perfect for a 3 month season in the summer when kids are off and there’s no risk of snow flying, even in Edmonton.
Seems to me this league could draw heavily on Canadian college talent. Larry Walker, Joey Votto, Rich Hill, Paul Qunatrill, the Jays own Russell Martin- there’s certainly amazing baseball talent in this land. But not always enough of a venue for it to be showcased. A new league could change that. I’d see it as an “A” level league. Maybe it could be affiliated with MLB- I think Toronto could find 7 or 9 other teams willing to put in a few million dollars to have their own Canuck minor league team and a pipeline from the Great White North diamonds. Even if not, another indy pro league could be a good way to promote the game and eventually churn out a few more major leaguers ala Delebar.
The plus of this to the Toronto Blue Jays is obvious. Getting people in Calgary, St. Kitts, London, Oshawa, and so on , out to the small local park again to watch high-calibre ball would strengthen Canada’s ties to baseball . If the league was clearly branded as a Rogers’ project, so much the better for the Jays. And even if the next Joey Votto came out of Saskatoon and ended up playing for the Dodgers, there’d be collateral benefit to the team in having increased the popularity of the sport itself in Canada, which in turn would funnel down to the bottom line of the country’s only major league team.