It was with great interest that Blue Jays president Paul Godfrey watched Sunday as his tenants at the Rogers Centre, the CFL Argonauts, announced the signing of high-stepping former Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams.
The huge ovation by a Jays crowd for the suspended NFL running back demonstrated the feelings of the city's sports fans.
"I'm a great believer that the better the Leafs, the Raptors and the Argos do, the better the Jays will do at drawing fans," the former Toronto Metro Chairman said. "I've always talked publicly that professional sports teams in cities create economic growth, create jobs, create tourism, but most of all and perhaps most importantly, create community pride."
The Teflon-lined Leafs do not qualify in any way under Godfrey's broad outline of mutual success. But the Argos have created a definite buzz with the Williams signing and their ebullient coach Michael Clemons. The Raptors have a new and respected GM in Bryan Colangelo and the No.1 pick overall in the upcoming NBA draft.
"If the other teams are doing well, the Blue Jays will do well," Godfrey offered. "Some people would say,
I guess you're hoping the Leafs and the Raptors get knocked out.' I say, No, and I can't understand why you would say that.' I basically cheer for them.
"The better they do, it creates an interest in sports fans, especially in young kids. When young kids start getting interested in sports, they get interested in all sports."
That's an area where baseball in general and the Jays in particular have been perceived to be lagging. Baseball has been pigeonholed as an old man's game. People cite the need for speed among youngsters, with short attention spans and a society of trance-inducing video games, violence and speed.
"I went to a school last week with Reed Johnson and these are kids up to Grade 6," Godfrey said. "There was great enthusiasm. I was surprised how many players these kids knew. I bring a lot of kids down to the field. I find the players, you don't even have to ask and they come over. They understand."
Godfrey is right. There has been a noticeable increase in young fans, in their 20s and younger. But, then again, there should be. The attendance is up some 75,000 in 29 home dates over a year ago, with a team that is hanging in in the AL East race.
What is more noticeable and encouraging is that when the Jays announce a crowd, most of that number actually appear to be in the park, instead of no-shows, as in the recent past.
"We're substantially ahead in ticket sales," Godfrey said. "Groups, packs, internet sales, in every area. It's an indication that the public buys into the potential of the team. We'll surpass our budget numbers, but it's too hard (to predict a final total).
"It's the first year since '99 we've passed 10,000 in season ticket equivalents. There's a buzz around town, wherever I go. I haven't seen that for the last few years."
Godfrey is happy with the city's response but believes the glory days of attendance at the building formerly known as SkyDome will never return.
"I believe that although 4 million people came out in '92, '93, they came out for a variety of reasons — the new stadium and everything else," Godfrey said, referring to two World Series titles. "I believe that, ultimately, getting between 2.7 and 2.9 (million fans) on a regular basis is great. If we get a playoff contender, then we can get to 3 and 3.1. I don't think you can get to the 4s any more. We're being very realistic in this."
There is a caveat with the Jays. One-third of the way in, they have been expending max effort to keep up with the loping Red Sox and Yankees. If everything falls right and they contend to the end, Godfrey's attendance predictions will come true.
If the Jays fall out of the race and fans fall off the bandwagon, well, they'll always have Ricky and the Boatmen for those hazy days of summer.