TORONTO - THERE was a time when Toronto sports fans would still be talking hockey this time of year. Not anymore.
"Everywhere you go people are talking Blue Jays, Blue Jays," said Wayne Gretzky, a local boy who at 17 passed up an opportunity to try out for the team in order to do something else.
Part of the reason for the enthusiasm is that Toronto's pro hockey club, the Maple Leafs, was the worst in the National Hockey League last season. But the bigger explanation is Blue Jay Fever: Toronto, at 45-27 after a victory Friday night, currently has the best record in the majors. This staid, clean city is politely going wild.
Tomorrow night, the Yankees come here for a three-game series with capacity crowds expected. Indeed, the talk of the town is now whether folks would prefer to appropriate America's national pastime totally by playing the World Series in Canada against the division-leading Montreal Expos, or humiliate a south-of-the-border team directly.
"I want to stick it to the Yanks and see the whole thing in Canada," growled a graying golf caddy the other night in the Wheatsheaf, which claims to be Toronto's oldest watering hole.
"We'd much rather stick it to an American team, thank you very much," said Allison Gordon, who covered the Blue Jays for five years for The Toronto Star and is author of a recent book about the Jays called "Foul Ball."
Regardless, Blue Jay fans think their club - which like the Expos has no Canadian players - is underappreciated, eagerly producing evidence they think proves it. The Jays this season have been the worst draw on the road of any team in the majors, are trailing nearly everybody in All-Star Game nominations and seldom have home games broadcast by American television.
According to the most recent major-league statistics, the Jays drew an average of only 16,997 people for their first 25 road dates. That was 1,649 fewer than the Milwaukee Brewers and 1,394 fewer than the Philadelphia Phillies, both of whom are next to last in their division standings and last in road attendance.
"To American League fans outside of Toronto, the Jays are perceived as the Boys of Slumber," wrote Marty York, a sports columnist for The Globe and Mail, a Toronto newspaper. "When they visit a city, ticket sales sag."
Bernie Finkelstein, a music impresario who said he gave the folk-singer Joni Mitchell her first job as a dishwasher at his nightclub and now manages some of Canada's top acts, despairs for the team to which he has become addicted. "Toronto seems to be somewhere below Des Moines, Iowa, as a drawing place," he complained.
Three weeks ago, Phil Rizzuto, the Yankee announcer whom Torontonians hear via cable television from western New York State called the Jays "the Brewers" three times in one game. Earlier, this season the Cable News Network repeatedly called the first baseman Willie Upshaw, one of the team's stars, an outfielder.
At its worst, the lack of respect Torontonians believe their beloved Jays are accorded amounts to a national insult. In particular, they resent repeated American suggestions that a Canadian series would be played on skis and snowshoes, with relievers being ferried from the bullpen on dogsleds. In fact, last October here was downright balmy.
Further, Canadians suspect the media moguls in New York and Los Angeles are rooting against them, preferring those two cities as pennant winners.
"I'd like to see ABC squirm," said Murray Eldon, sports director of CKFM radio and the Blue Jays' public-address announcer.
Howard Starkman, the team's public-relations director, absolutely discounts statistics showing his team to be a bad road draw. He points out that last year the Jays ended up the season ranked sixth among the 14 American League teams in road attendance, and that so far the team has been visiting mainly the weaker teams in the West Division. He predicted the Jays will draw 150,000 fans in this weekend's three-game series in Detroit.
But he concedes the club lacks the glitter of the sort that an owner like George Steinbrenner or a player like Reggie Jackson brings to the party. "I don't think anybody on our team should be voted to the all-star team," Starkman said.
What Toronto has, says Pat Gillick, the team's general manager, is "pretty good players at all positions." This has been particularly apparent this year when two of the better ones, Upshaw and Lloyd Moseby, have been mired in hitting slumps, and the Jays have still won.
Indeed, the whole appears greater than the sum of its parts. "The Jays are the best overall team in baseball - in the American or National League," Don Drysdale, the former Dodger pitcher who now announces for the White Sox, said recently. The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and a number of other sports publications picked the Jays to win the pennant before the start of the season.
Toronto fans agree. Thursday night, the team passed a million in home attendance, four games ahead of last season's pace. The front office is predicting this season's gate may reach 2.4 million, up from the record 2.1 million of last season.
It is more than a little clear that it is love for the Blue Jays rather than their park that draws fans. Exhibition Stadium was not built for baseball, but for football. Worse, it was built for Canadian football, which uses a bigger field in both length and breadth, putting some fans far from the baseball action.
Although the stadium holds 44,000 people, fans only consider about 20,000 seats any good. Moreover, it is the only big-league park without an upper deck.
The food is generally deemed mediocre, "the worst in the major leagues," according to John Maxwell, a local restaurateur. The wait for the women's restroom is quite often a half hour. The beer - available for only the last three seasons - is not hawked in the stands and is limited to two per person if one fetches it personally.
Despite the facts that Babe Ruth hit his first professional home run here as a minor leaguer for Providence and that Toronto had a minor-league club until 1967, fans are still more courteous than, say, those in Philadelphia. They seem not to have learned the art of booing, and a reason the Blue Jays have done so poorly in All-Star balloting appears to be that Torontonians actually vote for people on other teams that they consider better qualified than the Blue Jays' candidates.
Sparky Anderson, the Detroit manager, likes to tell the story of coming out of the dugout and turning to a group of uncharacteristically noisy fans, and telling them to be quiet. They obeyed immediately, he says. And if winning is not sweet enough revenge, the Blue Jays still have their bird stories. In 1983, Dave Winfield was arrested for killing a seagull with a thrown ball. This season, club officials toyed with the idea of releasing falcons before game time to dispatch the hundreds of gulls who appear not to have learned their lesson, but rejected the move as too expensive.
The latest controversy concerns the mascot, Kevin Shanahan, who dons a bird suit and has lately been charged with shouting insults at fans.
"No more Mr. Nice Bird," he told a local newspaper.
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