TORONTO – The federal government’s denial of the Toronto Blue Jays’ request to host regular-season games at Rogers Centre is more a rejection of Major League Baseball’s plan for the summer, than it is about the thorough protocol put together by the club.
Consider that for the better part of two months, president and CEO Mark Shapiro, occasionally with deputy commissioner Dan Halem, had been keeping the Public Health Agency of Canada updated on the protocols the sport has put in place for playing amid the pandemic. MLB has an 113-page Operations Manual for 2020. The Blue Jays added 54 more pages in their pitch to play in the city. They had Bo Bichette, Travis Shaw and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., address health officials this week, helping earn the support from governments in Toronto and Ontario for a modified cohort quarantine.
But the absurdly divergent, often negligent approach to COVID-19 in the United States — where containment efforts are an abject failure rooted in stubborn, intentional ignorance — stands in sharp contrast to the calculated caution employed by the federal government here.
The Blue Jays’ schedule includes three trips to the outbreak epicenter of Florida, including next week to open the season in St. Petersburg against the Tampa Bay Rays, as well as one to the hotspot of Georgia for a series against the Atlanta Braves. The Rays and Miami Marlins each make one visit to Toronto, while the other teams they’d be hosting will have also visited places where cases are spiking.
So even with Major League Baseball’s protocol featuring tests every other day, even with an additional test for everyone in Toronto – nasal swab instead of the less intrusive saliva to increase accuracy – the frequent border crossings were an impossible risk variable to resolve.
Hence, the travel element avoided by the NHL and NBA with their bubble-protocols — but that MLB chose to forge ahead with — ultimately sunk the Blue Jays’ endeavour. Marco Mendicino, the Minister of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship, said in a statement Saturday that “based on the best-available public health advice, we have concluded the cross-border travel required for MLB regular season play would not adequately protect Canadians’ health and safety.”
“Of particular concern,” he added, is that “the Toronto Blue Jays would be required to play in locations where the risk of virus transmission remains high.”
In saying as much, Mendicino not only highlighted the dissonant paths taken by Canada and the United States in regards to the coronavirus, but also implied that the MLB plan isn’t foolproof enough to avoid the players acting as vectors for the disease.
The 2020 season, which starts Thursday despite a continuing spike in cases in the United States, will in due course determine that. Either way, the Canadian government wanted no part of having the experiment play out here.
“The list of concerns obviously changed as conditions in the U.S. changed. That’s just a reality,” Shapiro said of the asks from Canadian health officials, who drove the process, not vice-versa. “In the end, I’m confident that we satisfied every one of those concerns except for the one we could not control, and that is that the MLB model involves cross-border travel and in-and-out flights.
“We could not change that even though I feel confident that our plan mitigated the risk there, to the level that obviously the municipality and the province were comfortable with. Certainly respect and understand that we couldn’t ultimately satisfy that at the federal level.”
And so the Blue Jays, caught somewhat off-guard by the decision after Ontario Premier Doug Ford talked about the approval as if it was a done deal , are back in limbo.
The July 29 home opener against the Washington Nationals looms and while the Blue Jays have spent the bulk of their time planning on Buffalo’s Sahlen Field in recent days, Shapiro cautioned that “it’s not a done deal,” even though he’s “confident that Buffalo is a viable alternative.”
TD Ballpark in Dunedin, Fla., is “100 per cent seamless right now and ready to go” from a baseball perspective, “but from a player-health standpoint has some challenges,” said Shapiro.
“And then we have other alternatives that are real, that we continue to work through that may be better for us,” Shapiro added, but that he wouldn’t specify because “I don’t feel any of those are clear enough or we’ve done enough to provide you any more right now.”
“But I’m 100 per cent confident we’ll have some clarity on those in the next couple of days,” Shapiro continued, “and I’m 100 per cent confident we’ll be in the best possible situation that satisfies player health and competitiveness when we start our season.”
Time is, without a doubt, of the essence, particularly if the Blue Jays land on Buffalo, which needs significant infrastructure upgrades — particularly in terms of clubhouse spacing to meet MLB protocols and lighting. There are already club staff in the city doing the necessary legwork and the city’s mayor stumped for their arrival on Twitter, again underlining the disparity in outlooks between the two countries.
As Mayor of Buffalo, I would love to see the @BlueJays play at Sahlen Field.
— Byron W. Brown (@MayorByronBrown) July 18, 2020
Nashville is one alternative that’s churned among the chattering classes but at this point, but there’s so little time remaining to lock this down it’s hard to envision it being anywhere other than Buffalo or Dunedin.
The final decision will belong to the Blue Jays “but Major League Baseball is playing an integral role,” said Shapiro. “The commissioner has been extremely helpful in providing guidance and in helping us understand what alternatives exist.”
The union is being kept informed of the situation, with player-rep Matt Shoemaker doing some heavy lifting there, and a Blue Jays clubhouse that’s lived with more uncertainty than any other in the majors must overcome yet another hurdle.
Remember, they went from not knowing where their camp would be held, to spending it in lockdown at the stadium and attached hotel, to being surprised that a similar fate loomed for the season, to facing what in some ways will be a 60-game road trip, with home games potentially in a minor-league stadium.
The upheaval led the Blue Jays to plan for hardship compensation for their players, as first reported by ESPN’s Jeff Passan, that Shapiro said “took into consideration some of the logistical challenges they were dealing with.”
The club’s Alternative Training Site — set to house nearly 30 players who don’t make the big-league roster — is also up in the air, likely to be “at a U.S. minor-league facility closest to wherever our site is,” said Shapiro.
So, there’s a lot for players to wrap their minds around, although ace lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu offered some sound perspective.
“First of all, COVID-19 still exists, and there are hard-working people on the frontlines trying to battle the virus,” Ryu said in comments interpreted by Bryan Lee. “So, you have to respect the Canadian government’s decision to keep the nation safe.
“… Obviously, you play half of the season at home, so, there is definitely some sort of comfort level you develop over time,” he added later. “But, honestly, right now the situation itself, we just have to deal with it as players. And one of our jobs is to adapt to new types of situations. And I think we just have to rally around — not just myself, but my teammates as well — we just have to get used to a new environment. Wherever we end up, we have to get used to that place.”
Improvisation and adaptation are inherent parts of life amid the pandemic, and all the more so for the Blue Jays in comparison to the other 29 big-league clubs. If American governments had treated the coronavirus as seriously as their Canadian counterparts, maybe that wouldn’t need to be the case.