In the baseball standings, and in the hearts of Toronto fans, the Blue Jays are No. 1 these days. But, to fans elsewhere, they're No. 26.
That's 26, as in dead last in major league baseball. Attendance figures through June 5 showed that although the Blue Jays had the best record in the majors this season, they had attracted an average of only 16,997 spectators in the first third of their road schedule.
The Cleveland Indians, for instance, had the worst record in the American League, yet drew an average of 20,994 in 24 away games. The Texas Rangers, in last place in the AL West, drew an average of 20,762.
So what gives? There's a school of thought within the majors that the Blue Jays, nine years after their inception, still are a group of unrecognizable names and faces that can't generate much enthusiasm outside Canada.
"The Blue Jays haven't been discovered yet as being as formidable a club as they are," says Peter Bavasi, president of the Cleveland Indians, who formerly held the same position with Toronto. "They haven't reached the celebrity stage yet. They proved they were an outstanding club last year, but they had to live in the shadow of the (World Series champion Detroit) Tigers. I think fans have forgotten how competitive the Blue Jays are."
The Blue Jays finished 1984 with an 89-73 record, but that was mediocre compared with the Tigers', who prevailed in the American League East with a 104-57 record. Now, as the Blue Jays take early command of the division, the thought occurred to a few of their players that even fans south of the Canadian border would begin to notice their accomplishments.
Mind you, none of the Blue Jays would be naive enough to suggest they could be voted to the all-star team for the first time. Recognition as a team, catcher Ernie Whitt insisted, would provide sufficient gratification.
"The whole month of June is going to be important to us," said Whitt, who was hitting .299 with seven homers in 127 at bats. "This is when we'll show people what we're made of."
Other teams in the American League might think they already know. Through the weekend's games, the Blue Jays had five batters hitting over .290 and they led the majors with 271 runs scored.
Toronto has baseball's best record at 36-19, giving the Blue Jays a 5 1/2-game lead over the Tigers.
"What Toronto has in their favor is confidence and momentum," Detroit catcher Lance Parrish said. "They don't seem to be able to do much wrong. Sooner or later, everyone else is going to realize that you just can't beat them by playing well. You have to be exceptional against them."
The Blue Jays know it, too. They exude confidence. Some of the Indians even might describe it as arrogance. While the Blue Jays were winning handily over the Indians in a recent series, Cleveland players became more than a tad annoyed by what they perceived to be "unnecessary behavior" by Toronto players.
"They were laughing at us," Indians outfielder Brett Butler said. "They were sitting in their dugout and laughing."
Part of the reason for the Blue Jays' behavior might be their youth. Each of their starting outfielders -- George Bell, Lloyd Moseby and Jesse Barfield -- is 25, born within 16 days of each other. Their rookie shortstop, Tony Fernandez, is 22.
There's another reason for their good humor -- an effective bullpen where there once was none. Even Detroit Manager Sparky Anderson has said that the Blue Jays would have posed more of a threat in 1984 had Toronto Manager Bobby Cox had more dependable help from his relievers. Last season, the Blue Jays squandered a league-high 28 games from the seventh inning on (games in which they led or were tied).
This season, the team is 30-6 in preserving victories in games in which they led from the seventh inning on. Over the winter, the Blue Jays acquired two veteran short relievers, Gary Lavelle from the San Francisco Giants and Bill Caudill from the Oakland A's. That enabled Cox to release unreliable Roy Lee Jackson and Bryan Clark, and make Dennis Lamp a middle-inning specialist and Jim Acker a combination middle/late reliever.
"Everyone stopped believing in the bullpen," Lamp said. "We had to win them over this year, and I think we have."