Blue Jays' return to the playoffs has Toronto buzzing and businesses booming

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Tex Thomas opened Pro League Sports in Toronto's east end the same year the Blue Jays won their second American League East pennant.
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“Just like the old days,” says Tex Thomas with a big smile as he slips a Toronto Blue Jays baseball hat into a red bag and hands it to the middle-aged man. A return to the playoffs as the American League East Division champions has the city buzzing and businesses like Pro League Sports booming.

"It's been unbelievable,” Thomas said a couple of days after the Blue Jays clinched their first division title in 22 years. “The phone hasn't stopped ringing since they clinched the division title. People are looking for just about everything.

"On Thursday morning, I picked up 28 AL East Champs T-shirts, the exact ones they were wearing in the clubhouse after they won, and 18 were gone about an hour after I opened the store."

To quote the late Yogi Berra, it’s déjà vu all over again for Thomas, who opened Pro League Sports – an apparel and memorabilia store in The Beach on Toronto’s east side – in 1991. That was the year the Blue Jays went to the American League Championship Series but were ousted by the eventual World Series champs, the Minnesota Twins, in five games.

But, things would get better for the Jays. And, for Thomas, too.

Joe Carter will forever be remembered for his game-ending HR in the 1993 World Series. (Getty)
Joe Carter will forever be remembered for his game-ending HR in the 1993 World Series. (Getty)

One year after the loss to that talented Twins team, the Jays reeled off consecutive World Series victories in 1992 and 1993, the latter highlighted by Joe Carter’s famous Game 6 walk-off blast in front of a delirious sellout crowd at the then-SkyDome.

“I remember going to a concert at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1993 and when we came out onto the street, it was lined with Jays fans,” recalled Thomas. “We found out that Game 4 of the final was still going on, so we went to a sports bar that used to be right across from the Gardens. I can still remember watching (Toronto pitcher) Todd Stottlemyre sliding into third base in Philadelphia and cutting his chin. We ended up seeing the end of the game, a 15-14 Jays win.”

Leading up to both championships, business was brisk at Pro League Sports. Fast forward to the present, and it’s another Blue Jays bonanza for Thomas. On a fall Sunday afternoon in late September, the store is humming as it did two decades ago when baseball fans in the city raved about Carter, Roberto Alomar, John Olerud and other Blue Jays heroes.

“Licenced apparel just started taking off back when the Jays won their back-to-back titles,” Thomas said. “We did well with all the typical stuff. It was great for the business, but it was also a great time to be a fan. These days, people are going crazy for everything Jays.”

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Step inside the door of Out of the Park Sports, an indoor baseball complex in the east end of the city, and one of the first things you notice is a massive banner of Jose Bautista on the back wall. Extending almost to the ceiling, the image of Bautista faces the aspiring major leaguers who step up to the plate during hitting sessions.

“The owner of the facility is a big Jays fan and he wanted it up there because of the team’s ties to the city and community, “said Darryl Reid, facility manager of Out of the Park Sports and head coach of the Toronto Mets 16U Blue squad. “It also gives the kids who come through here something to think about when they are practising.

”It definitely catches your eye when you walk in here.”

Just in front of the fence, a few steps back and to the right, there sits a rustic-looking lounge with a TV mounted on the wall. f the Jays happen to be playing that night, a crowd of parents and siblings can be found, eyes glued to the game.

The sounds of baseball’s smacking off bats, coaches organizing drills, and the banter between teammates are hardly distractions to those in front of the TV.

“As the MLB season went on, you saw more and more people gathered around, watching the games and talking baseball,” said Reid.

While it appears as though the Blue Jays are primed for a lengthy postseason stay, some of their fans are also sporting the look of one of the team’s most popular players. Jerseys, T-shirts and hats aren’t the only fashion statements being made by supporters throughout The 6ix these days.

TORONTO, CANADA - SEPTEMBER 5: Josh Donaldson #20 of the Toronto Blue Jays ties his hair into a bun in the dugout during MLB game action against the Baltimore Orioles on September 5, 2015 at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
TORONTO, CANADA - SEPTEMBER 5: Josh Donaldson #20 of the Toronto Blue Jays ties his hair into a bun in the dugout during MLB game action against the Baltimore Orioles on September 5, 2015 at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

Yes, the Donaldson is trending in barbershops across the city.

Salon Piaff, located in Yorkville, handles 2-3 requests weekly for the hairstyle worn by Josh Donaldson, the Blue Jays’ standout third baseman and AL MVP candidate. The look, described by Israel Fehr of Big League Stew as, “part mohawk, part samurai tail, with shaved sides trimmed into a V-shape at the back,” is indeed a popular one.

“It’s mostly adults that come in asking for it,” said Lidia Brkic, who has worked at Salon Piaff for nearly 10 years. “Typically, they are men in their 20s and 30-somethings that we see ask for it. But, I have two nephews, 14 and 16, who also have it.

“The people who request it do a pretty good job describing it,” she continued. “You definitely see it all around the city.”

There’s no denying Blue Jays fever has heated up.

“It’s great to see,” said Thomas, as he stands in the doorway of his store. “We recently had a family from Alberta come into the store and they bought a whole bunch of stuff because they can’t get what they are looking for back home. The one thing that I’ve noticed this time around is that more parents are coming in to buy things for their kids.

“Everything I get in, it sells pretty quickly. It’s just really nice to see everyone so engaged and supportive of the team. You can see how proud everybody is and how much the Jays mean to them.”

Just like the old days.

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