Blue Jays aim to eventually provide normalcy amid COVID-19 fallout

Ben Nicholson-Smith outlines some of the problems with a late-start to the MLB season, such as preparing players for opening day, but notes that a shortened MLB season could lead to excitement for fans of teams in the playoff fringe.

TORONTO – The only certainty any of us have right now is indefinite uncertainty, which makes the frames of reference and assumptions we used to hold about the world largely irrelevant. Two weeks ago, you could go to the store without fear, have confidence about your next paycheque, live your life as you always had. Now? Who knows about anything, really.

Baseball, like other sports, is small through that prism, although it can also be reflective of what we are, what we aspire to be, and where we’re going. In that vein, an industry that’s relentlessly profit-driven shifting from trying to make all the money to providing supports akin to those of a social-welfare state demonstrates how much COVID-19 has upended things.

Still, as a public institution that often serves to bring people together, baseball’s actions matter, both in the example it sets – and right now flattening the curve on coronavirus’ infection rate is all that matters for everyone – and in the welcomed distraction it offers. So even as a business that grapples with the grim realities of corporate demands, it must be more than that, too.

“I was just finishing up a blog to send out to all 500 of our staff (Monday) morning and I talked about the things that we can control,” Toronto Blue Jays president and CEO Mark Shapiro said on a conference call Sunday. “Obviously, the bulk of what’s going on now, we can’t control. We can control our reaction, we can control our thoughts and I think regardless of the magnitude of gloom and bad news we’re faced with on a daily basis, there’s a need to remain optimistic.

“For me, that question precisely points to the ability to think about the horizon and the role that baseball has played historically in North America, our country of Canada, and the United States as we have overcome tragedy like 9/11, we’ve overcome wars, the Depression. Baseball has played a role in the healing and return to normalcy. Particularly, obviously, for fans, but also for the broader community, it’s brought people together and its helped them return to a sense of normalcy and a sense of comfort … There will be a time that baseball plays that role.”

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Thinking about that is good, because the realities of the present are not.

The ramifications of shutting down spring training, ensuring the safety of everyone in the organization, recalibrating operations under ever-changing circumstances and dealing with the constantly emerging fallout struck the Blue Jays, and the industry, like a tsunami. At first, the team operated in 12-hour cycles — as leagues went from high alert after NBA star Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus, to shutting down; from keeping operations running, to scrambling to get everyone home as travel restrictions increased and the spread spiked.

Everything had to be made up on the fly because there was no playbook for any of this. Convincing Type A dudes conditioned to feel invincible that they need to hide out because of COVID-19 was no simple task. Players understandably were worried about the financial implications of leaving. Then there were the minor-leaguers, the hundreds of staffers and the nearly one thousand game-day workers all left exposed and vulnerable by the shutdown.

Lurking ominously in the background is “that we have no revenue coming in as a business,” but also “a responsibility to the thousands of people who are impacted by us not playing, beyond our fans,” said Shapiro. The fade of the Canadian dollar will need to be reckoned with at some point, too, although there are still more pressing matters.

“The immediate priority was making sure we shut the operation down, leave some sort of transitional state operationally, which largely for Toronto is work-from-home other than just a few essential workers that are keeping the lights on and the stadium clean,” said Shapiro. “In Florida, very different, getting players back and then we’re doing our best to deal with the groups of people who are potentially suffering financially. So thinking about stadium workers, thinking about game-day workers, thinking about minor-league players, and doing our best to ensure that we are not just emotionally supporting them, but financially supporting them.

“… After that, the secondary priorities become scenario planning, thinking about where we may go as things continue to evolve and settle and the reality certainly looks like we are not dealing with days and likely not weeks, but closer to months.”

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

The Blue Jays’ complex in Florida is essentially closed because of current risks in large congregations, with all but three of the club’s major-league players having gone home. Only Hyun-Jin Ryu – whose wife is seven-months pregnant – Shun Yamaguchi and Rafael Dolis remain because travel restrictions could complicate their re-entry down the road. They are being tended to by staffers who are only letting them in and out.

Minor-leaguers were sent home two Fridays ago but 30 remain in a Clearwater, Fla., hotel – 18 of them Venezuelans who can’t go home, and 12 others with no place to go. They’re being supplied with three meals a day and workouts they can do in their rooms.

Most of the club’s front office left Wednesday on a charter flight out of St. Petersburg, Fla., once things had been sufficiently wound down, and are all in 14-day self-isolation. To this point, “we have not had anyone reach a point on the player-personnel side or staff side where their symptoms warranted testing (for COVID-19),” Shapiro said.

For stadium workers and game-day staff, the Blue Jays’ ownership at Rogers Communications Inc. is going “well beyond” the $1 million each team committed as part of a Major League Baseball announcement earlier last week, “to ensure that they are as close to whole as possible in pay at least through the month of April,” said Shapiro.

Those workers were also placed on temporary layoff to allow them to access Employment Insurance benefits, and the club is now developing plans “to see what we can do after (April ends) depending on what the situation and circumstance is.”

Shapiro is also part of the separate Team Toronto Fund that includes the other four sports team presidents in the city, each making personal contributions “that will also be an additional assistance fund for game-day and part-time staff.” Details there remain in the works.

As for minor-league players, all 30 teams are uniformly paying each $400 a week through April 8, an amount equal to the allowance paid during spring training for housing and meals. Beyond that, “we’re working on a daily basis to ensure that once the allowance runs out, we’ve got another plan in place to continue to support them,” Shapiro said.

The secondary track of priorities holds all the questions everyone wants answered that are all unanswerable right now.

It’s hard to imagine being ready to start a season “faster than four weeks,” said Shapiro, and trying to determine how long a season would need to be given “medical realities and math realities that change every 24 hours, or 12 hours.”

“When the curve starts to flatten, you can start to project weeks out that we could begin to play games,” he added. “Until then, we’ll just think about what the math looks like, what the projections look like and scenario-plan off of that.”

For the time being, that’s all any of us can really do – work through the moment, plan for the future and await the normalcy of life the baseball schedule represents.

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