TORONTO — Michael Saunders was born in Victoria, British Columbia — about as close to Seattle as you can get without being in the United States.
Yet when it came to his baseball allegiance growing up, nationality mattered at least as much as geography.
“Proximity-wise, I guess everyone felt like Seattle would be my hometown team, but it was really the Jays,” Saunders said. “My whole family was Jays fans growing up.”
Now an outfielder for those Toronto Blue Jays, Saunders is uniquely qualified to explain how Canada’s lone major league team has cultivated a following among baseball fans all across the country. When the Blue Jays try to avoid elimination Tuesday in Game 4 of the AL Championship Series against Cleveland, they’ll have support in provinces near and far.
Just ask the Mariners how much Canadians love their Blue Jays. Seattle is three time zones from Toronto, but since it’s close to Canada, Blue Jays fans show up in droves when the Mariners host Toronto. They also make their presence felt in Detroit, which is just across the river from southern Ontario.
“It is a very unique situation when you have a whole country as opposed to 29 teams that are localized to a state,” Blue Jays reliever Jason Grilli said. “The United States is where baseball thrives, of course, but there is one team in Canada that everyone here supports. It’s truly incredible. People don’t know what it’s like until they experience a game here and see the support.”
A winning team always helps, of course, and Toronto is in the postseason for a second consecutive year after a dry spell that stretched back to the team’s most recent World Series title in 1993. Sportsnet reported that Game 3 of this month’s AL Division Series between the Blue Jays and Texas Rangers drew an average audience of 4.73 million, making it Sportsnet’s most-watched program of the year to that point.
Canada’s obsession, of course, is with hockey, but that’s largely divided among the country’s NHL teams. Toronto has been Canada’s only big league team since the Montreal Expos left after the 2004 season, and the support the Blue Jays receive from far-flung Canadian areas wouldn’t necessarily be there for, say, the more polarizing Toronto Maple Leafs.
“It would be the exact opposite, actually,” said 31-year-old Stephen Safinuk, a Blue Jays fan from Saskatchewan. “They’d be wishing them a quick exit from the playoffs, if they ever make it.”
Safinuk was in Toronto for the ALCS, and he was visiting the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday — while wearing a shirt with Blue Jays slugger Josh Donaldson’s name on the back. He said he’s seen the Blue Jays play on the road against the Los Angeles Angels, and he’d like to be among the throngs of Toronto fans in Seattle sometime soon.
“Seattle next year is my goal,” he said. “It’s a must-do trip, absolutely.”
Saunders spent his first six seasons with the Mariners before playing these past two for the Blue Jays.
“We’re not just representing Toronto, we’re representing all of Canada,” he said. “It’s a really neat experience to see that kind of fan support, and you really see it when you go to Seattle and play the Mariners. I spent my entire career with the Mariners, so I saw kind of the other end of the spectrum. It was a different experience for me to be wearing a Jays uniform this time around.”
A couple offseasons ago, the Blue Jays made stops in Alberta (Calgary and Banff) and Vancouver, British Columbia, on their winter tour itinerary, the equivalent of the Reds trying to reach out to fans in, say, San Diego. As long as the Blue Jays are Canada’s only team, they’ll continue to have substantial territory to claim as their own.
“It’ll never overtake hockey here, but the passion is very similar,” Safinuk said. “You don’t see this kind of singular team support for anything other than — you see it for the Raptors, too, when they were doing good the last couple years, but that’s because in Canada, we only have the Raptors and the Blue Jays in NBA and MLB. You don’t get that anywhere else.”
Follow Noah Trister at www.Twitter.com/noahtrister