Toronto Blue Jays to play first two homestands at spring training facility in Florida

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The Toronto Blue Jays are once again planning to play some home games south of the border.

When — or if — they can return to Rogers Centre this season remains up in the air.

The team confirmed Thursday that it will begin the 2021 regular season at its spring-training complex in Dunedin, Fla. The 8,500-seat TD Ballpark will serve as the Blue Jays' stadium for at least two homestands.

Canada's lone big-league club played most of its home games in Buffalo, N.Y., last year. With border restrictions still in place and the pandemic in full swing, the team decided that starting its home schedule in Florida made the most sense.

"I think we'll all be watching the same things," Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro said on a video call. "It's going to be clear to all of us whether the circumstances present a meaningful and healthy case for us to get back home.

"That's where we want to be. We hope to get there and I think we'll all be able to gauge whether or not that's a possibility."

The Blue Jays will open their 162-game regular season on April 1 in New York against the Yankees. Toronto's home opener is April 8 versus the Los Angeles Angels.

The finale of the Blue Jays' second homestand is May 2 against Atlanta. The team will then head out on a 10-game road trip before a May 14 home game against Philadelphia.

With the Florida heat and weather more of a factor as the season progresses, Shapiro said a return to Buffalo's Sahlen Field at some point was also a possibility.

"Some combination of Dunedin, Buffalo and Toronto is likely how we're approaching the season," Shapiro said. "With flexibility, certainly factoring in public health and what's best for competitiveness and our players, as being the main drivers of those decisions."

The Canadian government didn’t allow the Blue Jays to play at home last season because of the risk of spreading COVID-19, citing frequent travel required in the U.S. during a baseball season.

Shapiro said he didn't ask the federal government to start the season in Toronto because public health has not yet improved sufficiently.

It remains unlikely the team would gain approval to play May games in Toronto. A return home in the second half of the season may be more realistic, after players and large segments of the population in the U.S. and Canada are potentially vaccinated.

The Blue Jays were 17-9 at Sahlen Field last season and 32-28 overall. Toronto returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2016, but was swept by Tampa Bay in the wild-card series.

The minor-league baseball season was cancelled last year and the 2021 schedule was unveiled Thursday. Shapiro said discussions are underway on potential infrastructure changes at Sahlen Field and what that might mean for the Bisons.

"That's our triple-A team so we certainly want them to be in the best situation possible," he said. "If we end up moving to Buffalo at some point during the season, we'll find a very good home for our triple-A team as well."

Dunedin has been the Blue Jays' spring-training home since the team's inception in 1977.

The team has full training facilities there and its players are used to the area. Similar to spring training, the Blue Jays will host fans in a limited 15 per cent capacity at TD Ballpark.

Blue Jays ace Hyun-Jin Ryu signed with the team before the 2020 season and has yet to pitch a game in Toronto.

“Last season we had a new park and adjustments that we had to make,” Ryu said through a translator in Dunedin. "All these struggles we need to overcome."

TD Ballpark was renovated in 2019 but more work will be done over the coming weeks to get it ready for major-league games.

Shapiro said four extra light towers will be used to supplement existing lights and improvements will be made to the visiting locker room and weight room/training facilities.

He tabbed early June as an optimal date for a potential move from Dunedin but noted there is flexibility if it means the team can avoid moving twice.

"Next to the health and safety of our fans, players, and staff, the Blue Jays’ top priority is returning home to play on Canadian soil as soon as it is safe to do so," the club said in a statement. "The club has been actively working through plans for what a safe return to Rogers Centre could look like, while also scenario-planning alternatives.

"The Blue Jays will re-evaluate the situation and those circumstances will dictate next steps following the first two homestands.

"We want to thank all Canadians for everything they have done to slow the spread of COVID-19 in our communities. It is through these efforts that we can hope for warm summer nights under the open Rogers Centre roof, as your Toronto Blue Jays push for the post-season."

The Blue Jays were one of the more active teams on the free-agent front this off-season. The biggest splash was Toronto's six-year, US$150-million deal with outfielder George Springer.

The Blue Jays will join the Toronto Raptors in the Tampa area. The Raptors are playing their home games at Amalie Arena, about 40 kilometres west of TD Ballpark, this season.

Along with hosting Blue Jays and Raptors home games, the Tampa area also has seen the NHL's Lightning and NFL's Buccaneers win their respective titles and MLB's Rays advance to the World Series in the past year.

Major League Soccer's Toronto FC (East Hartford, Conn.), CF Montreal (Harrison, N.J.) and Vancouver Whitecaps (Portland) also had to relocate to the U.S. for part of the 2020 season. Major League Rugby's Toronto Arrows are slated to start the 2021 season in Marietta, Ga.

The NHL has avoided border restrictions by placing all seven Canadian teams in the North Division this season. All games are played against division opponents.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 18, 2021.

With files from The Associated Press. Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press