(photo by james_in_to via Flickr)

Transforming Toronto: U of T experts on Blue Jays buzz

World Series fever may affect civic pride, fitness.. and the return of MLB to Montreal

As a few hibernating mammals in the Arctic might not be aware, the Toronto Blue Jays are in the playoffs. The success of the team has galvanized the city, the country – and the campus.

We asked U of T experts for their thoughts on the surge and what it might mean for Toronto, civic spirit and the potential of a victorious sports franchise to give fitness a boost.

“There is no doubt the Blue Jays season is exciting and that a lot of people – Torontonians and others – are watching,” says David Roberts, a lecturer in urban studies at Innis College. “This brings together people of different walks of life, social locations and ages to share the experience of cheering on a winning team.

“What that ultimately means for civic morale or pride or anything long term is much more difficult to measure and to predict. Part of the challenge of creating a greater impact is to figure out how to extend the feelings about the Blue Jays to the city of Toronto.

“This is no small task and likely takes some visionary civic leadership.”

Professor Michael Atkinson of the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education also sees the upswing in pride as temporary.

“There is very little evidence to suggest that these feelings would remain when the tide of emotion ebbs, or that they would have a significant effect on long-term sport participation or population health."

Nevertheless, the craze has some positive offshoots.

“Baseball is much more diverse, inclusive and boundary-spanning sport than the other major professional sports in Canada,” Atkinson observes. “And as the Jays are the only major league baseball franchise in the country, they are collectively symbolized as Canada’s team.”

Professor Richard Florida of the Rotman School of Management’s Martin Prosperity Institute accepts the Jays phenomenon as significant but situates it in a larger expansion of Toronto goodwill.

“The Jays of course are part of it,” he says. “They are a great team. But it is bigger than the Jays. It is the Jays, the Raps, Drake, the Weekend. This is a big shift for our city.

“I think the spur is Drake, actually. He is the guy who has really worked to give Toronto swag. He is the reason my 10- and 12-year-old nephews in the States know what Toronto is and tell me about ‘The 6.’”

Will the Jays give college baseball a boost?

“Interest in university and college baseball has been growing,” says Professor Emeritus Dan Lang, a former U of T assistant vice-president of planning who served as head coach of the U of T Blues for 13 seasons. “Ryerson now has a team, and the colleges have a league. 

“Every now and then a Canadian university player is scouted and signed by a major-league team. The Blue Jays host the annual OUA baseball all-star game.”

That interest, Lang speculates, could trickle down to high school and community baseball leagues. And even watching baseball can train young players in the tactics of the sport.

Could the Jays surge stimulate a general interest in fitness?

“In a general sense the value of being physically fit is unusually visible in baseball because of the gruelling schedule,” Lang notes. “Unfortunately, the way baseball is televised, the warm-up routines are rarely shown.”

Professor Bruce Kidd, the former Olympian who serves as vice-president and principal of University of Toronto Scarborough, is willing to concede the role of the Blue Jays in bringing Torontonians together. He is skeptical of any effect on fitness.

“While the success of the Blue Jays gives many Torontonians great pride, and distances the embarrassment many of us felt during the Rob Ford years, there is little evidence to suggest that it has any impact on amateur sport or personal fitness,” he says.

“In fact, the research is clear that ‘inspiration’ is not enough. New participation requires proactive outreach, knowledgeable, responsible leadership and accessible, sustainable opportunities.”

But even if the effect on civic pride is temporary and the effect on fitness negligible, the 2015 Blue Jays phenomenon will leave Toronto with a better-educated populace. All those bandwagon-jumpers have learned a little about the game.

“Whether or not the Blue Jays win, fans will have watched far more games than they otherwise would have this season,” Lang comments. “Maybe from here on, the new generation of Toronto fans will be as savvy as those in Boston, New York and St. Louis.”

And the consequences of all this baseball-watching could extend beyond Toronto.

“Here is my fearless forecast,” Lang says. “If the Blue Jays win World Series, the chances of major league baseball returning to Montreal will improve immensely. And that will be a big plus for Canada, even if it takes some of the wind from Toronto’s sails.”

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