TORONTO – The Toronto Blue Jays have expressed growing optimism to their players about staging training camp at Rogers Centre, according to four sources, as they awaited a final decision from Canadian public health officials on Major League Baseball’s restart plan.
During a group call Thursday night, players were told be ready to come north but not to make travel arrangements yet as nothing is finalized. Underlining the fluidity of the situation, the club earlier Thursday began exploring contingencies for hosting their camp and regular-season home games at Buffalo’s Sahlen Field.
Their triple-A affiliate’s home park is likely to serve as the Blue Jays’ Alternative Training Site for players who don’t break with the club.
It’s unclear when the federal government will make its final decision, although given that the province must also approve a plan that includes basing players at the hotel attached to the dome, and the July 1 report date for players looms, the clock is ticking louder and louder.
In an email reply Thursday afternoon, the Public Health Agency of Canada said it is "currently assessing" baseball’s plan, and noted that "the MLB requires the formal support of provincial public health authorities in which the MLB intends to operate."
Assuming health conditions can be satisfied, the plan appears to have the support of Lisa MacLeod, Ontario’s Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries.
"As we continue the safe and gradual reopening of our economy, our government is working closely with professional sport teams and organizations, as well as local and federal levels of government and our public health experts on what a safe return to play looks like," she said in a statement sent to Sportsnet.
"If provided the opportunity by the federal government and Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer, I’m committed to working with the Toronto Blue Jays and other major league teams to play baseball here at home and abroad."
The primary hurdle is convincing health officials that there’s minimal risk of importing COVID-19 across the border, and that any potential outbreak while here can be contained, with MLB’s thorough 101-page Operations Manual sure to play a pivotal role in the process.
Underlining Ontario’s sensitivity to community spread was the reaction of Premier Doug Ford during his daily briefing, when asked about calls from the tourism industry to consider loosening border restrictions, currently in place through July 21.
Ford pointed to the sharp rise of new COVID-19 cases in Florida, Arizona, Texas and California and said, "That’s what happens when you’re reckless, you’re careless and you let your guard down."
"I don’t want to be those states," the premier added later. "I want to protect the people here in Ontario and I just think we’re opening it up too early if the decision is made on July 21. I just don’t think we’re ready for people south of the border. Believe me, I love the Americans. Make no mistake about it. But not when their COVID cases are spiking right now. I’ve got to protect the people of Ontario. Business is still going back-and-forth, the goods are going back-and-forth. That’s most important."
The Blue Jays and visiting MLB teams, of course, are businesses, ones seeking an exemption letter similar to the one granted to the NHL, allowing it to host hub cities in the country and circumvent the 14-day quarantine period for arriving travellers.
Using the hotel attached to Rogers Centre as a base would allow players to go directly from the airport to their rooms and remain in a relatively isolated bubble. There would be significant restrictions on player movement once here.
"Like other countries, Canada is working on plans for a measured resumption of international professional sports," the PHAC said in its email. "The resumption of activities in Canada must be undertaken in adherence to Canada’s plan to mitigate the importation and spread of COVID-19."
The increased optimism may soon ease the limbo for Blue Jays players, who have been unsure where they’re going next week and where they need to set up shop during a regular season slated to begin July 23/24.
As of Thursday morning, players were under the impression that there were three scenarios in play for camp and the season: Toronto/Toronto; Dunedin/Toronto; and Dunedin/Dunedin.
At some point Thursday, the Blue Jays suddenly began looking into whether Sahlen Field in Buffalo could be an option for more, too. That isn’t as simple as it sounds since the Bisons have essentially been in shutdown mode and it will take time to ready the field for play, and make the facility compliant with the MLB Operations Manual.
Regardless, there’s good reason for the Blue Jays to seek alternatives to Dunedin as COVID-19 continues to spread in Florida, with 5,004 news cases reported in the state Wednesday, 282 of them in Pinellas County, home to TD Ballpark.
Multiple Blue Jays players and staff in Dunedin tested positive for the coronavirus after the facility was shut down late last week, adding to the urgency of their search for a new locale, although the team could still end up in Florida.