Lott: Inside the “Captain Canada” campaign that helped land Michael Saunders on the All-Star team

Michael Saunders
Photo Credit: John Lottt

Michelle Seniuk’s title is director of promotions and fan activation. Over the past four days, she and her staff did a resounding job of activating Blue Jays’ fans, for which Michael Saunders is grateful.

When Saunders, the Jays’ left-fielder, was picked as a candidate for the final American League roster spot in next Tuesday’s all-star game, Seniuk and her staff sprang into action. In a matter of hours this past Tuesday, they mounted an aggressive campaign that ultimately saw Saunders collect 17.7-million votes, beating out the other four finalists.

It was an unqualified Canadian victory for a Canadian player on Canada’s team. Saunders, a native of Victoria, B.C., got 98.6 percent of the votes cast in Canada.

The Blue Jays’ campaign hashtag was #VoteCaptainCanada. Eight marketing staff members brainstormed for half an hour before settling on that slogan, a variation on Captain America, the comic-book superhero.

The club’s graphics department quickly came up with the campaign art work. In short order, it appeared on the Jays’ website and email accounts, and within 24 hours, 5,000 T-shirts had been produced. When players arrived for work on Wednesday, they found the shirts in their lockers and wore them during batting practice. 

That night, the campaign accelerated. Fans in the WestJet Flight Deck above centre field in the Rogers Centre were supplied with the T-shirts, which were frequent targets of TV cameras during the Jays’ win over Kansas City. On Thursday night, more shirts appeared in the outfield seats.

“We did both the 100 level and the 200 level outfield really to create that impact so that fans saw it in their face and thought, ‘You know what, I’m wearing the shirt, I better go home and I better vote,” Seniuk said.

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Major League Baseball announced that Saunders led the balloting on Wednesday and Thursday, but did not report the size of his lead. And on Friday, the first day that every Twitter vote and retweet counted, Seniuk started to worry as the 4 p.m. deadline approached.

“They always say it’s a tight race – even at 20 to four, they were reporting it’s a tight race,” she said. “So we sent an all-staff (email) to everyone here, like, ‘Come on guys, get on your phones, get on your computer, we have 20 minutes left, they’re saying it’s a tight race, we can’t lose this thing.”

So there’s no telling how many last-minute votes came from offices within the Rogers Centre. And there’s still no telling the size of Saunders’ victory margin, but it seems a safe bet that it was substantial. Brandon Belt, the National League winner, collected 10.4-million votes while Saunders gained nearly 18-million.

Belt got a boost from Boston. His team, the Giants, teamed up with the Red Sox, whose second baseman, Dustin Pedroia, was one of the AL finalists. A vote for one resulted in a vote for the other.

Shortly after the finalists were announced, the Blue Jays contacted the Giants and Pirates to try to set up a voting alliance. They were slow to respond, and when they did, both said they had found other partners. 

“So after two teams turned us down, we thought, you know what, we’re going to go after this alone,” Seniuk said.

In 2013, the Jays partnered successfully with the Braves, which helped to send pitcher Steve Delabar to the all-star game, along with Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman. 

“We’ve seen success before with Delabar, and even last year, even though (Josh) Donaldson wasn’t a final man, we still got behind him for the big push for the Make It Rain campaign,” Seniuk said.

That helped Donaldson earn a starting spot at third base after collecting the largest total in the history of the fan vote.

Canadian fans played a big part in that achievement, and this year, the all-Canadian theme resonated across the country.

“Everyone knows that Canada takes care of their own,” Saunders said. “I’m Canadian through and through. Just to feel that support, the best way to describe it — everyone’s been asking me — is I feel loved. To see the support that (fans) gave me is very humbling.”

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Saunders lives in the Denver area now, and fans in that region also gave him a boost. Trevor Story of the Colorado Rockies was a finalist in the NL voting. All it would have taken is a few friends of Saunders and Story to launch an informal voting partnership that snowballed during the Twitter voting.

“They just sort of organically did it themselves,” Seniuk said.

Meanwhile, the Blue Jays campaign got a push from the marketing arms of the Maple Leafs, Raptors and Toronto FC, as well as the Canadian Olympic team and the Edmonton Oilers.

And it didn’t hurt that Canadian Milos Raonic defeated Roger Federer in the Wimledon semi-final on the same day, further fueling patriotic fervour, Seniuk said.

“It was a good day for Canadians,” she said.

And it has indeed been a good year – after a bad one – for Saunders. Entering Friday’s action, his slash line was .298/.372/.559. He had 16 homers and 41 RBI.

Last season, his first with the Jays, he played in only nine games after suffering a serious knee injury in spring training. Then, during spring training this year, the Jays almost traded him to Cincinnati for Jay Bruce, but the deal fell apart. When news of it leaked, Saunders was clearly troubled but ultimately relieved that he was able to stay and play for the team he had cheered for as a kid in Victoria.

Asked Friday about his reaction to news of a pending trade, he replied: “I think sometimes people forget that we are human beings … we’re not just chess pieces on a board. But at the same time, you’ve got to understand it’s a business as well. Stuff like that happens. Ultimately, I’m glad I’m still a Blue Jay. I’ve wanted to be here, especially missing all of last year. I felt like it’s kind of a redemption year for me.”

For Seniuk and her staff, it was a frenetic week that ended in victory, as it did for Saunders.

“I don’t think we’re surprised at the success, but it’s always an overwhelming feeling to see how many people actually get on board and vote for our players,” she said.