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Blue Jays uncertain of 2021 home after COVID-19 forced them to play 2020 season in Buffalo

·MLB columnist
·8 min read
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The routine wasn’t so bad once Chase Anderson got used to it. In fact, it was kind of nice. Kind of normal. What passed for normal.

He brought his wife and two kids and even the dog from Texas to Buffalo, New York. They had an apartment in town. Before home games he’d fix something to eat, say goodbye to the family, mount his scooter and ride a block to the ballpark, which had been dressed up to feel major league in the miniature.

As quiet is quiet and baseball is baseball whether there are two decks or three, and as the summer of 2020 required the former in order to get the latter, the Toronto Blue Jays had jammed as much as they could into a few trucks, lugged it a hundred miles, skittered between a couple big lakes on the way and played 26 games at a place called Sahlen Field — capacity 16,600, attendance 0.

“I was disappointed not to be able to play in Toronto,” Anderson, the pitcher, said this week. “I’d heard so many great things about the city. But, you know, my family loved Buffalo. We took the kids to nature preserves. We went to Niagara Falls, which we’d have never done otherwise. We made the best of it and it became pretty cool. I got used to it.”

Of the many layers of complexities that came with baseball in a pandemic, the Blue Jays, by virtue of being from those 100 miles past Buffalo, had another all their own, that being big-league ball in a Triple-A stadium on this side of the international border.

It would be temporary, of course. And while we’ve done a fairly poor job of coming to terms with temporary as it relates to the pandemic, humans can buck up under lots of types of temporary. It’s why they invented ice cream, sweatpants and stadium lights on wheels.

The Blue Jays survived it and even (briefly) made the playoffs, in part because they won 17 of 26 games a short scooter ride from Chase Anderson’s apartment. They had every reason to be proud, from ownership down, for managing a difficult (and temporary) situation resourcefully and professionally. They won baseball games. Charlie Montoyo was third in the AL Manager of the Year vote. They got through it.

As a reward, a young group of players perhaps forged a closer bond, and the older players perhaps were reminded of where they’d come from, that the game could be just the game no matter how many seats or what kind of skyline surrounded it. They’d all perhaps be better for the experience.

Which is good.

Because they’ll probably have to do something like it again. Temporarily.

What started 10 months ago with orders to try not to touch your face, then a clearing out of Dunedin, Florida, then a refusal by the Canadian government to exclude the Blue Jays from travel restrictions, then 11th-hour negotiations with Pittsburgh and Baltimore to share those stadiums, then finally a solution in Buffalo, is now nearing 400,000 deaths in the U.S. and 18,000 in Canada. The border restricts nonessential travel in both directions and then, in Ontario, requires a 14-day quarantine. The NBA’s Toronto Raptors are playing their season in Tampa. The NHL has lumped its seven Canadian teams into one division, where they will play all of their games.

The Toronto Blue Jays celebrated a 2020 postseason berth at their makeshift home in Buffalo after Canada declined to grant them an exception to the country's COVID-19 rules.
The Toronto Blue Jays celebrated a 2020 postseason berth at their makeshift home in Buffalo after Canada declined to grant them an exception to the country's COVID-19 rules. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)

It is a test to stand and fight a pandemic with the rest of the world, another to do it as a continental partner with Trump’s America, the last pick on the coronavirus playground.

“Just like in anything competitive all you can do is focus on what you can control,” Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins said. “And the complexity of a border is what it is. Everyone has unique challenges. We also have unique opportunities. There’s so much positivity ahead of us and so now how can we embrace it?”

Like everyone else, the Blue Jays are a month from spring training report dates and are, for the moment, assuming they’ll be there and wearing spikes on that day. After that, their immediate future depends on the whims of the virus, the implementation of vaccines, whether baseball clubhouses remain safe and if the owners and players come to terms on what the season will look like if it’s not what’s already on the pocket schedules. The Blue Jays — who Tuesday night reportedly agreed to a $150 million deal with George Springer, one of the offseason’s premier free agents — open the regular season on April 1 in New York and their home schedule on April 8 against the Los Angeles Angels, nearly three months from now, and no one knows for sure where that game will be played.

The options, today, seem to be Toronto, Dunedin and Buffalo.

The preference is Toronto, because that’s where the big-league stadium is, where the fans are and also, if Toronto, then the virus has been tamped at least enough to allow for travel, and also not as many folks on both sides of the border are getting sick. A lot will have to happen between now and then in the areas of vaccine distribution and curve flattening and hospital-bed availability, both in the U.S., where the Blue Jays and other teams will be going to and coming from, and Canada. In the event the Blue Jays are unable to start their season in Toronto, they could finish there if conditions improve in the summer.

Buffalo worked. It’s close to Toronto. There’s also, however, a minor-league team there — the Triple-A Bisons. And while Major League Baseball has delayed the Single-A and Double-A seasons in order to avoid spring training overlaps in February and March, the league has not yet determined what any of the minor-league seasons will look like. A majority of minor leaguers lost most or all of a year of development in 2020. A second summer of inactivity is untenable. Last year each team kept 30 players at an alternate site, which operated primarily as a minor-league affiliate, which meant as many as 200 other players went home and watched baseball.

With proper health and safety measures, the league presumably would like to conduct seasons at every minor-league level. The virus will not diminish equally in every area of the country, however, and the league will be held to state-by-state policies and restrictions. The Triple-A International League, for example, has teams in nine states.

The Blue Jays have a new, massive player development facility and complex in Dunedin. It is beautiful and state of the art and about 1 ½ miles from TD Ballpark, where the Blue Jays play their spring games and their Florida State League team plays its regular season games. The stadium also has been renovated. As far as feeling Blue Jays-ish goes, it’s as close as they’re going to get to Toronto, though it’s about 1,250 miles farther than Buffalo. The advantages of Dunedin are comfort and familiarity and, come the start of the regular season, the Blue Jays will already be there. Still, come game time, it’s still a Class-A ballpark, no matter how polished up and freshly lovely.

The Blue Jays could look into sharing a major-league facility with another club — Tropicana Field, home to the Tampa Bay Rays, was an early rumor — though that creates more challenges, the types of which Pennsylvania’s state government was unwilling to overlook when the idea came up last summer.

So the plan, today, is to gas up the trucks, adapt to whatever is coming, assume it won’t be wholly convenient and then believe they can win a few games anyway.

“We’re just continuing that process, more of an extension of what we experienced last year,” Atkins said. “You know, it was grounding for me in some ways. This goes across all teams, I’m sure. We felt a unique bond across the organization. We’re not asking for that again, but we’ll be prepared.”

Anderson said he’d love to return to the Blue Jays, wherever they play, in part because of what they experienced together last summer.

“I think guys are looking to get back to more normalcy this year and I don’t believe this is the new normal,” he said.

But, he added, “We’re still lucky to be playing Major League Baseball. And we could make whatever it is work, for sure. I could do that.”

He may have to. They all may have to.

“Everyone knows this is temporary,” Atkins said, then laughed softly. “Albeit longer than anyone expected.”

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