An inside look at the state of baseball in the Great White North.
By: Trey Huntsman
A revolution began on October 14, 2015. On that day, Jose Bautista sent Canada into a frenzy when he launched a two-out, three-run home run to put the Toronto Blue Jays ahead of the Texas Rangers by a score of 6-3 in the American League Division Series. Standing at home, Bautista admired his home run before flipping his bat into the air in celebration. Bautista’s bomb and bat flip fanned the flame in the hearts of Canadian baseball fans. From that point forward, baseball fever swept through the country at its highest level since the Blue Jays won back-to-back championships in 1992 and 1993.
Those two eras of pro baseball in Canada sparked a revolution for younger fans. While the Blue Jays were winning titles in the 1990s and bat flipping their way through the 2015 MLB Playoffs, the game of baseball was growing at the youth level in Canada. “Participation in baseball was at an all-time high in the early 90’s when the Blue Jays won back-to-back World Series titles before declining in the mid to later part of that decade,” Baseball Canada’s Adam Morisette said. “There has been a renewed interest in baseball in Canada with the Blue Jays reaching the postseason in 2015 and 2016.” According to Morrisette, Baseball Canada has seen a 10-15 percent rise in participation each year since 2015. Over 250,000 Canadians participate in baseball each year, including 150,000 people 18 and under.
Canada’s love for baseball is nothing new. The first baseball games in Canada were played in the 1860s with the first documented happening sometime during the 1880s. As time went on and baseball rose in popularity, Montreal became home to a minor league team for the Brooklyn Dodgers. During their time as an affiliate, the Montreal Royals hosted one very notable Hall of Famer. In 1946, Jackie Robinson played for Montreal before becoming the first player to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball the following year. Twenty-three years later the city of Montreal welcomed the Expos, the first MLB team outside of the United States. The Expos stayed in Montreal until 2005 when the franchise moved to Washington, leaving the Blue Jays as the lone MLB team in Canada.
While the 1940s and 1950s saw baseball grow at the professional level, kids were getting their first opportunities to play on a bigger stage as well. In 1951, Little League Baseball came to Canada and the first program outside the United States was formed. At first, teams from Canada had to play in the United States Western Regional until, in 1965, Canada was awarded its own regional.
To win the Canada Regional and advance to the Little League World Series, a team must win one of six divisions and then win the Regional Tournament. The six divisions spread from coast to coast and include British Columbia, Alberta, Prairies, Ontario, Quebec, and Atlantic. Whalley Little League took home its sixth title (27th overall for the British Columbia Division) in 2018 to advance to the LLWS, ultimately losing in the third round of the LLWS, continuing Canada’s unlucky streak of not winning a championship in Williamsport. The closest a team from Canada has come to winning the LLWS was in 1965 when Stoney Creek lost in the finals.
Canada may still searching for their first LLWS title, but they have tasted victory in the Pan American Games. The Canadian National Team won the gold medal in the 2011 and 2015 Pan American Games behind strong performances by Phillipe Aumont and Rene Tosoni. “Anytime you win gold at a major multi-sport games it enhances your sport profile in your country and reaffirms that development programs underneath your National Team programming are producing quality results,” Morisette said.
The Canadian National Team has also competed in the World Baseball Classic three times, which is no surprise considering the wealth of talent born in the Great White North. Canada has seen the likes of Freddie Freeman, Joey Votto, Russell Martin, and Justin Morneau compete for their home country in the WBC. In addition, Canadian baseball fans have no shortage of players to watch at the professional level. There were 14 Canadian players on MLB rosters in 2018, including James Paxton, Tyler O’Neill, and Nick Pivetta.
There has been growing success at the Major League and National Team ranks, but true growth must be shown at the younger levels. Canada has seen steady growth over the last 30 years, especially since 2015. In 2017, leagues in Ontario were forced to turn people away because the number of kids interested in playing baseball far outstripped the number of available fields. But even with the growing interest at the younger levels, baseball is still chasing soccer as the country’s most popular summer sport. Baseball in Canada is in a good place to continue to grow and potentially pass soccer in terms of participation.
Baseball Canada is using their “Rally Cap” program as a way to get more kids involved in the game. Rally Cap is a program for boys and girls aged four to nine where kids can begin their playing careers. Baseball Canada is working to involve people in the game of baseball across all provinces and demographics. “We are also making efforts to strengthen enrollment among female participants and are proud to have had all ten provinces represented at the 16U National Championships for the first time ever in 2018,” Morisette said.
With baseball becoming more accessible across the country, there has been a steady rise in the number of kids participating in baseball. With programs for ages across the country, maybe the next playoff hero for the Blue Jays has already taken the field in Canada.