Turning Canada blue: Nation of hockey fans embraces baseball's bold, brash, bat-flipping Blue Jays

The tough-as-nails Toronto Blue Jays have captured not only the imagination of one of North America's most cosmopolitan cities, but of an entire country. Finn O'Hara for ESPN

TORONTO -- The first thing you notice is all the blue.

It runs deeper than denim, richer than the label on a bottle of LaBatt's. And it's everywhere. It's on the jerseys and the T-shirts, which might as well be standard issue for everyone who walks through the gates. It's on the hats and sneakers, too. It's even in the hair.

Wait, the hair?

"I do this quite a bit," said Malcolm DeYoung, a middle-aged man whose closely cropped locks are dyed sapphire, like a blueberry on top of his head-to-toe Toronto Blue Jays outfit. "A lot of people are coming up asking me where we're from and getting pictures. It's a lot of fun."

DeYoung is from Halifax, Nova Scotia, and he is roaming the 100-level concourse at Rogers Centre an hour before Sunday's game between his beloved Blue Jays and the rival Boston Red Sox. The city is jam-packed on Sunday, with Leonardo DiCaprio, Reese Witherspoon, Matthew McConaughey and other celebrity A-listers taking over King Street for the annual Toronto International Film Festival. And the best hockey players on the planet will soon come to town for the World Cup of Hockey.

"All of Canada is watching us. This is nuts."
Russell Martin, Blue Jays catcher -- and Canadian

But the locals are most consumed by the outcome of a four-team fight for the American League East crown. The Blue Jays sold 46,953 tickets for Friday night's game against the Red Sox. On Saturday and Sunday, the announced attendance was 47,829 and 47,816, respectively. This season, the Jays have topped the 3 million mark for the first time since 1993, when they won the second of back-to-back World Series titles.

It's all about baseball again in Toronto, eh?

Indeed, the Blue Jays and Canada are going together like poutine and gravy. Fans here have fallen hard for bat-flipping slugger Jose Bautista, reigning AL MVP Josh Donaldson, native son Russell Martin and the rest of a star-studded team that has recaptured the full attention of one of North America's most cosmopolitan cities -- and an entire nation.

"If you notice the signs at the ballgame, they're from Cape Breton and they're from Alberta. They're from all over Canada," said Don Cherry, the 82-year-old former NHL coach and co-host of the popular Coach's Corner segment of "Hockey Night in Canada" on CBC. "It's not just Toronto's team. We've got the whole country to call from, and believe me, it is sure enthusiastic here. When you can bump the Maple Leafs to the third, fourth page, that's pretty good."

National treasure

It wasn't always like this.

Canada has had a major league team since 1969, the Montreal Expos' inaugural season. The expansion Blue Jays came along eight years later, and at the peak of their popularity, from 1991 to 1993, they made three playoff appearances, won two World Series and sold an average of 4,029,264 tickets per year at SkyDome, the first stadium with a fully retractable roof, to say nothing of a 348-room hotel.

But the players' strike of 1994 killed the buzz. Over the next 20 years, the Jays had 10 losing seasons and didn't reach the postseason. Attendance plummeted. From 1995 through 2014, the team sold an average of 2,141,538 tickets per year, bottoming out at 1.495 million in 2010.

What is it, then, about these Blue Jays that has sparked a renewed love affair between country and team? Why are fans suddenly turning out en masse, singing "OK, Blue Jays" in unison during the seventh-inning stretch, even flinging their blue caps onto the field after Donaldson's recent three-homer game, the baseball equivalent of hockey's hat trick?

"I think they really represent our country," said Wes Coleman, a volunteer firefighter from Kingston, Ontario. "They always try to appeal to the Canadian people by various measures, like [playing at home] on Canada Day and stuff like that. Because it's our only national team now, it's something that we can all gather around as a country to really root for."

Longtime former Blue Jays president Paul Beeston tapped into that national pride when he rejoined the organization in 2008. Beeston restored Canada's red maple leaf to the team's logo, which had changed so much that it became unrecognizable. He expanded the Blue Jays' winter caravan -- a promotional tour the team takes in the offseason -- to make stops from coast to coast and moved the club's short-season Single-A affiliate to Vancouver. It helped, too, that Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar and fellow ex-Blue Jays stars Duane Ward, Lloyd Moseby and Devon White started youth baseball clinics across the country.

"I did the caravan last year and we were in Vancouver, and that was one of those times where I was like, 'Man, there are fans everywhere in Canada,'" said Martin, the veteran catcher who grew up in Montreal and speaks fluent French. "We're all the way across the country and people are lining up to take pictures with us. That's what made me realize, yeah, it's true, all of Canada is watching us. This is nuts."

But it wasn't until last summer that Canada really got hooked. The Jays' record was 50-51 and seemingly headed for another third-place finish on July 28, 2015, when then-general manager Alex Anthopoulos, a Montreal native, pulled off a blockbuster trade for shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. Two days later, another stunner: Anthopoulos acquired ace lefty David Price.

"The Americans have been trying to take our hockey. We're going to take their baseball."
Malcolm DeYoung, Blue Jays fan

The Blue Jays were for real. Finally.

"It wasn't like '92 or '93. This was a whole new feeling," Beeston said. "We started to win, and all of a sudden we were climbing from fourth to third, third to second, second to first. There was a love affair with the Blue Jays that showed not only with the box office but showed in television ratings, radio ratings, merchandising, everything else."

The Jays finished on a 43-18 roll, won the AL East by six games, and packed Rogers Centre with earsplitting crowds.

"I always look back to one of my personal experiences in September against the Yankees. I struck out the side, and I mean, my heart was vibrating," said lefty reliever Brett Cecil, Toronto's first-round draft pick in 2007 and the team's longest-tenured player. "It was unbelievably loud."

The decibel level reached unprecedented heights in the epic, 53-minute seventh inning of do-or-die Game 5 in an AL Division Series showdown. Bautista punctuated a four-run rally with a three-run homer -- and heaved his bat like a javelin -- to vanquish the Texas Rangers.

"I was sitting next to Price when he hit it," Cecil said. "We both stood up and put our hands on the rail, and you could feel the vibration in the padding of our rails in front of our dugout. You're not going to find that in too many places."

Said Beeston: "That was baseball at its best. That had everything that you wanted. It was just a fun game, and I think it created a lot of new baseball fans. And it's just carried over to this year."

Hockey mentality

As fans march through the gates at Rogers Centre before Sunday's 1:07 p.m. game against the Red Sox, their T-shirts and jerseys represent a virtual roll call of the Blue Jays' roster: DONALDSON 20 ... BAUTISTA 19 ... ENCARNACION 10 ... MARTIN 55 ... TULOWITZKI 2 ... PILLAR 11 ... STROMAN 6 ... OSUNA 54 ... DICKEY 43 ... TRAVIS 29.

A favorite player? "All of 'em," DeYoung says.

Cherry made his choice clear last year when he went on television and stumped for Donaldson to be voted in as the AL's starting third baseman for the All-Star Game. Guess who led all players with more than 14 million votes?

"Donaldson, he plays like a hockey player. I love him," said Cherry, who threw a ceremonial first pitch to his hero on Canada Day last year. "When he strikes out, it's not, 'Ho-hum, another day at the office,' as he walks back. If you remember, he [recently] smashed his bat in two after he struck out and [manager John] Gibbons got on him. But that's the way he is. He's not phony."

"[Josh] Donaldson, he plays like a hockey player. I love him. When he strikes out, it's not, 'Ho-hum, another day at the office,' as he walks back. If you remember, he [recently] smashed his bat in two after he struck out and [manager John] Gibbons got on him. But that's the way he is. He's not phony."
Don Cherry, hockey commentator and former NHL coach

In the upper deck, Section 521, Maureen Konnyu greets a family of four with a cheerful "Welcome to the Blue Jays!" An usher at Rogers Centre since 2002, Konnyu shows fans to their seats with a hospitality all her own.

"You don't have to show me your ticket anymore," she says, "because now we're friends."

"The Jays bring everybody together," said William Marquis, who came all the way from Calgary to watch the game with Coleman, his fellow firefighter. "I think maybe we're a little bit more polite [than fans in the U.S.]."

Don't tell umpire Dale Scott, whose misinterpretation of a rule led to an overturned call in the aforementioned seventh-inning insanity of Game 5 last year and prompted fans to pelt the field with a hail storm of garbage and debris. Things got so "unruly," as Beeston says, at Rogers Centre that Toronto Mayor John Tory tweeted out an appeal for calm.

Red Sox manager John Farrell has also been on the receiving end of fan nastiness. After managing the Blue Jays to a 154-170 record in 2011 and '12, Farrell bolted with one season left on his contract for what he termed his "dream job" in Boston. And upon returning to Toronto in 2013, he was booed mercilessly.

"It's not an easy place to go in and play, particularly with the way [the Blue Jays] have been going," Farrell said. "The crowd, they welcome me every time I'm back. It's kind of a hostile place."

Said Beeston: "Traditionally, maybe we're a little quieter, a little more reserved, and in some respects, not as angry as some cities. On the other hand, we're getting that way."

Mostly, though, support for the Blue Jays is a matter of nationalist pride. Hockey always will be Canada's pastime, but there are seven NHL teams based in the country. The Canadian Football League has nine teams from Vancouver to Montreal.

When it comes to baseball, there is only one choice. So with two weeks left in the season and the Blue Jays vying with the Red Sox, Baltimore Orioles and upstart New York Yankees for the AL East crown, Rogers Centre is the place to be, and blue is the national color.

"How much blue can you see?" Beeston said. "I mean, when you come here for a game, you see blue wherever you go."

Fans might turn another type of blue if Bautista and Encarnacion depart via free agency after the season. That possibility has given extra meaning to a marketing slogan that is posted all around the ballpark: "History Is Now."

"They're not going to lose them both," DeYoung said. "They're going to lose one after this year, but they're not going to lose both."

And if they do?

Well, DeYoung still won't change his hair back to its natural color.

"I know the fan base will still be here. We're coming back," DeYoung said. "How many teams in the States has 30 million fans? Not one team in the States has 30 million fans.

"The Americans have been trying to take our hockey. We're going to take their baseball."