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The Blue Jays and the ballot box: did Stroman send you to the polls?

U of T experts on the connection between politics and sports

(photo by recreation via flickr)

Monday is the day of decision across the country. Will Canadians flock to the polling stations or watch the Toronto Blue Jays battle back from a 2-0 deficit against the Kansas City Royals in the American League Championship Series?

These are not mutually exclusive options. Could there be a link between exercising your democratic rights and cheering on the team?

“The question of whether the good feelings and community spirit generated by sports victories spill over into the political arena has long been speculated on,” notes Professor Bruce Kidd, vice-president and principal of University of Toronto Scarborough.

The Progressive Conservatives had hoped the combination of Team Canada’s victory in the 1987 Canada Cup hockey tournament and worldwide approval of the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary would give Canadians confidence that Canada had nothing to fear from international competition, says Kidd. It was a feeling with relevance to the federal election of November 1988, fought substantially on the issue of free trade, which the Tories won with a majority.

In 1971, Kidd adds, the Liberal government of Pierre Elliott Trudeau created Sport Canada as a mechanism to boost support for high-performance athletes. The belief was that victories in international competition give Canadians a better sense of themselves.

“But of course, how do you measure such a effect?” he asks. “It's almost impossible. So I'm reluctant to say anything about the spillover effect of the Jays.”

David Roberts, a lecturer in urban studies at Innis College, is likewise open to the possibility of a Blue Jays election boost but doubtful that any means exist to subject the phenomenon to scientific analysis.

“There are lots of things that drive voter turnout,” he says. “I have read that there have been record numbers of people voting in early polls, even while these polls were on days when the Jays faced elimination.”

It was natural, he adds, for political leaders to embrace the Blue Jays – while paradoxically avoiding games to prevent the perception of having jinxed the team in the event of a loss. This alone establishes a connection.

It also makes clear that the Blue Jays have become Canada’s team, and not just a phenomenon of interest to Torontonians. Fans from all over western Canada descended on Seattle late in the regular season.

Has the animosity often alleged to exist between Toronto and Canadians from other parts of the country been suspended?

“These tensions have roots and manifestations that go beyond a shared hope for the success of the Blue Jays,” Roberts says. “Even though the Jays are intimately connected to the city of Toronto, fans from other parts of the country find it easy to disconnect the two.”

If there has been one downer in the pennant drive, it was surely the episode in the series with the Texas Rangers in which fans threw beer cans on the field of the Rogers Centre after a controversial decision. An image of a mother and infant in distress was widely disseminated.

“Of course this behaviour cannot be condoned,” Roberts says. “But I hope we can place these acts beside the crowds that gathered to celebrate at the intersection of Yonge and Dundas. They took over the streets, but only during red lights, dispersing when traffic needed to pass.

“There are lots of ways in which people chose to celebrate victory after what was a bizarre and at times quite tense game. Most did not involve throwing beer. Hopefully those are more formative of the city’s image.”

Kidd, an Olympian and gold medalist in the 1962 Commonwealth Games, is philosophical about the beer-throwing outburst (which led the Blue Jays organization to announce a review of the policy of selling beer in cans).

“The beer-throwing incident did not reflect well upon the image of Toronto,” he said. “But such incidents are more characteristic of the atmosphere of professional sport than the cities where they occur. I do not think it will do much damage.”