Toronto Loud: Is the Atmosphere at the Rogers Centre the Best in the Game?

Mike Leah is a professional poker player who has made millions. He is also a die-hard Toronto sports fan to the point he is forgoing the poker circuit right now so he can attend the Blue Jays’ home and away playoff games.

When Joe Carter hit his winning homer to clinch the 1993 World Series, Leah, then 19, celebrated down the street from SkyDome at Wayne Gretzky’s sports bar. Like seemingly all of Toronto and much of Canada, Leah wants to taste another title.

Toronto’s string without a championship is certainly not as long as Cleveland’s prior to LeBron James and the Cavaliers winning the NBA title in June. Cleveland had last won in 1964, a 52-year dry spell. Nor is it as lengthy as the Cubs’ 108 years or even the Dodgers’ 28 years without winning the World Series.

But for Leah and his fellow Torontonians, the 23-year slump was exacerbated by the fact the Blue Jays had failed to qualify for the postseason until last year. With the Jays down 0-2 in the ALCS, Toronto fears it might end its season in disappointment again.

“We have more teams and have more failure,” Leah, now 42, said. “Obviously, we have won back-to-back World Series in ’92 and ’93, but the Jays didn’t make the playoffs until 2014, 22 years. The Leafs haven’t won a title since ’67. It’s been so long. The city is definitely starving for a contender and a winner.”

Add to that, the Raptors have never won a title. They made the Eastern Conference finals last season but lost to James during their best finish in franchise history.

Baseball is booming in Toronto. It is hip to wear Jays gear. Toronto led the American League in home attendance, averaging nearly 42,000 per game. The atmosphere — “Toronto Loud,” as it’s now known — might be baseball’s best.

“It’s on fire right now,” Jays manager John Gibbons said.

When the roof is closed at what used to be called SkyDome and now is Rogers Centre, there might not be a more intimidating environment in the sport.

“The intensity picks up,” Russell Martin said. “You can feel it. There is like a pulse.”

Adam Krueger has felt that pulse since he was born in 1994, the year after Carter’s homer. Krueger grew up 20 minutes outside of the city in Mississauga. When he was in 10th grade in 2011, he had a “Ballpark Pass,” which gained him access to 80 home games for around $100. This level of interest hasn’t been present in his lifetime.

“Recently, it’s been just craziness,” Krueger said. “I would say the die-hards are loyal, faithful, those kind of words would definitely describe the Jays fans that have been following for a while. The more recent fans, not to use the bandwagon, but they are jumping on it because it is about the ‘Toronto pride.’ They want to see a championship here, but if they were bad, they probably wouldn’t be fans anymore.”

Krueger is a die-hard and has noticed that there is a certain type of player whom the biggest Jays fans gravitate toward. Of course, they like the Josh Donaldsons, the Jose Bautistas and the Edwin Encarnacions, but those aren’t the ones.

“[Kevin] Pillar is a great example,” Krueger said. “Everyone loves Pillar. We had a Pillar bobblehead day. Everyone came in wearing superhero stuff because his nickname is Superman. Everyone came wearing capes. There is a sign in left field that says, ‘Canada loves Pillar.’

“He plays great defense and doesn’t hit that well, but he may be more popular than Josh Donaldson, who was the MVP last year. When he makes a diving catch, they play the Superman theme song.”

Pillar says he thinks he knows why the fans like him. Ultimately, even though the Leafs haven’t been good for a while — though, things are looking up withAuston Matthews — there is a DNA that runs through Torontonians.

“It’s a hockey town,” Pillar said. “I’m a very competitive guy. I put my body on the line every day. I play hard. I probably remind these guys of some of their favorite hockey players in the day. I think that is where their love of me came from. I’m just a blue-collar guy that came out of nowhere that really enjoys what he does and goes out there and plays really hard every day. The fans really caught on to that, and it has been unbelievable, more than I ever dreamed of. To be a guy from where I came from to where I am now, to be embraced and loved by the fans at home is really special to me.”

While in the States the story of the Cubs would be an all-timer, and a Dodgers or Indians championship would be a big deal. In Canada, the Blue Jays are the main event. It is why friends Sharon Akkanen and Shaila Mehte — Blue Jays fans since the days of Joe Carter — trekked down to Cleveland for the weekend games. They could only dream of being the last team standing.

“The city would go crazy,” Akkanen said.

Article Written by Andrew Marchand of ESPN