TORONTO – The Toronto Blue Jays spent part of the weekend clearing up confusion among their players about what hosting regular season home games at Rogers Centre would entail. They spent the rest of it trying to make a summer in their city happen, while concurrently holding talks with the triple-A Buffalo Bisons, and perhaps even exploring other options.
A resolution one way or another is expected this week, bringing closure to what’s been a source of ongoing anxiety at multiple levels of the organization. The Blue Jays are alone among the 30 MLB clubs in facing this type of COVID-19-related chaos, and how it all plays out remains far from certain.
“It’s out of our control,” third baseman Travis Shaw said of the Blue Jays facing restrictions other teams in the majors do not. “We get the rules, we get the protocols and it’s our job to follow those and stay strict, police ourselves and make sure we follow those rules. I know we’ll be safer up here if we stay in Canada. The numbers up here are way better than they are in the United States. As a team, I think longevity, if we can get through these three months of the season, we should be able to stay healthier than some of these other teams and we would have a competitive advantage in that mindset.”
Good answer, and Shaw’s apology for a tweet Friday saying, “All summer isn’t gonna happen. Not an option,” in regard to facing quarantine restrictions throughout 30 home games in Toronto — a comment he called “tone-deaf” — was one of several notable developments Sunday.
The Blue Jays held discussions with both the Canadian government and staff of the Bisons, whose Sahlen Field is positioned to serve as the club’s Alternate Training Site but lacks the necessary infrastructure to meet MLB standards. Making the necessary upgrades – particularly to the lighting but to a host of other areas as well – in time for the July 29 home opener against the Washington Nationals may simply be impossible, which is why the Blue Jays may be forced to explore alternative sites, as well.
TD Ballpark in Dunedin, Fla. – described as the likeliest fallback to Toronto by club president and CEO Mark Shapiro a week and a half ago – becomes less appealing each day as the state’s COVID-19 outbreak keeps pushing to new peaks. A record 15,299 new cases were reported Sunday, and this anecdote from Tampa Bay Rays catcher Kevan Smith underlines why being there is so problematic.
#Rays catcher Kevan Smith had a lot to say today. Listen/read: pic.twitter.com/a1UXIWgz8c
— Josh Tolentino (@JCTSports) July 11, 2020
Given all that, a modified quarantine plan at Rogers Centre remains the path of least resistance for the Blue Jays, even given the hardships being locked in a hotel would cause on players.
That Shaw was caught off-guard that the team’s 14-day quarantine requirement would be reset each time the club went back-and-forth across the border is something Shapiro and general manager Ross Atkins worked through with the team in a series of group meetings Saturday, although it’s an avoidable misunderstanding that stirred the social media hornet’s nest.
A swarm of angry tweets isn’t going to tip the balance with public health officials – the Blue Jays’ protocol will either work for them, or it won’t. But the reaction underscored the public’s sensitivity to a ballplayer potentially importing the virus, as well as the stakes for players facing an ongoing quarantine throughout the season.
“Definitely I’m a little more informed now than I was, say a week ago,” Shaw said of the meetings with Shapiro and Atkins. “I kind of know what the deal is going forward, I know that they’re still working with the government to get clearance for the regular season. Coming up here I don’t think anyone thought that we could possibly be in here for three months. Everything is kind of happening on the fly right now and we’re going to have to adjust accordingly.”
That goes for everyone as it relates to everything amid the pandemic, but already things have been beyond bumpy for the Blue Jays.
Initially, their camp was locked into Dunedin until an outbreak there prompted a rethink and a move north. Players and staff believed at first that their families would be able to bubble at the hotel attached to the dome with them, but they ultimately weren’t allowed to join as part of the protocol designed to receive the first government exemption for a modified quarantine.
That the Blue Jays were facing a full summer of quarantine was the latest blow, and Shaw admitted to “a little bit of frustration” when he came to understand that more lockdown was in store if the team is in Toronto for the regular season. He had hoped to live in the rental condo a block from the ballpark that he paid for, hoped to experience some of the city, hoped to do simple things like take a walk by the lake to clear his mind.
“It doesn’t look like that’s going to be the case,” he said.
Still, his reaction Friday was “a little bit tone-deaf to the situation. I apologize for that,” Shaw said. “At no point was I saying I’m going to break the rules or we’re going to break the rules. We know as a team that’s not an option and to get through this season everybody is going to have to buy in and everybody is going to have to adhere to whatever protocols we’re set under.
“Honestly, if other teams don’t follow similar protocols – I know the rules aren’t going to be as strict in the United States as they are up here – if other teams don’t follow strict guidelines and police themselves, we’re not going to be able to get through a season anyways. I know everybody is on board with that in the locker room.”
Teammate Trent Thornton, who spent his entire rookie season living at the dome hotel, conceded that “some guys aren’t ecstatic about” doing it this summer, but added, “it’s definitely doable.”
“It does get a little boring sometimes just sitting in bed, but if that’s what we need to do to play, that’s perfectly fine with me,” he said. “I think everyone is just ready for baseball, ready to compete and get a little bit of normalcy back.”
The lingering instability is another matter. Opening day is a week and a half away and the home opener comes quick right after that. Knowing where they’ll be would be helpful.
“But at the end of the day, we don’t have any control over that, we’re not making the decision and a lot of guys are just ready to play,” Thornton added. “It would be nice to have that peace of mind knowing where we’re going to be playing at home. Obviously we’d love to play in Toronto. We’re the Toronto Blue Jays, not the Buffalo Blue Jays or the Dunedin Blue Jays. It’s weird to not know. At this point, just have to roll with the punches and be flexible.”
Mantra for the moment, to be sure, but more challenges, more frustrations and more surprises await the Blue Jays, even if things turn out for the best and they end up in Toronto — and all the more so if things turn out for the worst, and they don’t.