TORONTO – The debate over whether there should be an asterisk beside any professional sports championship won amid these pandemic-altered times is totally stupid. Regardless of season length or playoff format, simply returning to the field will be an accomplishment, and actually getting to the finish line in good health a monumental achievement.
Winning a title, under these surreal circumstances? Those props are definitely earned.
Everything about life, let alone back to play, is hard, and in Major League Baseball, at least for now, no team will have it tougher than the Toronto Blue Jays.
Consider that to hold training camp at their Rogers Centre home, they had to agree to an extra PCR test prior to crossing the border, additional testing for a week once here, relegation to what’s essentially a bubble for quarantine, the inability to stray beyond the dome and attached hotel, and separation from family for the duration of training camp.
All that, and more, is beyond the already robust 2020 MLB operations manual, including meeting sensible federal, provincial and municipal health requirements, and receiving a letter of exemption from the Canadian government, which came in Thursday.
Yet even as one pivotal element of limbo came to a resolution – the club is expected to charter north over the weekend once the majority of its players and staff are through the intake process in Dunedin, Fla., – others remain glaring.
Front-and-centre in that regard were four changes to the 60-man player pool that followed the unannounced and unexplained Injury List additions of Brandon Drury, Jonathan Davis, Elvis Luciano and Hector Perez, hinting at COVID-19 related absences, although privacy laws prevented the club from commenting.
In case it was needed, that offered a reminder that there’s real risk in this for everyone, and that the Canadian government must remain justly cautious in its handling of the border.
Then there’s the continuing uncertainty over where the Blue Jays will play their 30 regular-season home games.
The exemption letter, which allows the Blue Jays to modify terms of the Quarantine Act for returning travellers, covers only training camp, meaning the mad push over the last week and a half is due to be repeated in the coming days.
There’s more time to work with on that front, but once again the clock is ticking.
“The regular season is a different circumstance, a different scenario and a different situation,” Blue Jays president and CEO Mark Shapiro said during a conference call. “We have to deal with not just our team coming in and out of the country, but the visiting team as well.
“We do have a plan for that we began working through at the same time we began working through the training plan. We have made significant progress on the public health areas of that plan, but we still do have some areas to address. I’d say we’re 80 per cent of the way there on pure public health issues, but then there are a host of travel-related and logistical issues that create complexities that we still need to work through to satisfy, particularly with the Public Health Agency of Canada.”
For obvious reasons, Shapiro added that “it’s probably pretty important that we get some clarity on where we’re going to be playing our games in the next seven to 10 days,” and that extends beyond ensuring that the draft schedule circulating among clubs makes sense.
Blue Jays players and staff, quite understandably, are eager to know where they need to set up for the season, and whether they’ll be facing the same restrictive rules that will be in place during camp throughout the 60-game campaign.
The surge of COVID-19 cases in Florida makes the club’s “most likely scenario” of TD Ballpark in Dunedin if Toronto is unavailable an increasingly uncomfortable fallback option. Shapiro added that the club will explore other locales this week – they’ve looked at other Canadian venues for their alternative training site but not as a home base – indicating the Rogers Centre is the clear preferred option for the organization and players, who agreed to all the extra conditions.
“I think they felt better about the facility here, they felt better about being here, they felt better about the transition into the season, and better about our competitive chances to remain healthy if we were able to train here,” said Shapiro. “It was collaborative and co-operative from the start.”
That was necessary since everything depends on compliance, as any violations of quarantine would potentially put the wider community at risk, an obvious red line.
Shapiro said players had “been educated,” on that front, adding that, “there are clear penalties in place beyond anything we would do for violation of a quarantine, which has been communicated to them but I don’t expect those to be an issue because we’ve been talking to them from Day 1 and they understand the responsibility and the expectations coming in.”
The protocol – developed with and signed off by the Public Health Agency of Canada, the province’s chief medical officer of Health and Toronto Public Health – is designed to limit public risk:
• Under MLB’s protocol, every player is required to undergo a diagnostic/PCR and serology/antibody testing, a process currently underway. Blue Jays players and staff will undergo a second PCR test, and only those who have had two negative results will be allowed to travel north;
• Once here, the Blue Jays will have additional PCR testing beyond the every-other-day checks mandated by MLB, and anyone who tests positive will remain in isolated quarantine until he produces two negative tests;
• Essential Toronto-based staff allowed to interact with players and staff will undergo the same testing and quarantine process;
• Their security screening before flying to Toronto via private charter will take place either at TD Ballpark in Dunedin or planeside to limit contact with the general public;
• Private buses conforming to physical distancing and cleaning standards set by the Public Health Agency of Canada will be used for transport from Pearson International Airport;
• To minimize contact with hotel staff and the general public, the Blue Jays will have contactless check-ins and food delivery, as well as private dining;
• The team will create a quarantine zone with a dedicated room block at the hotel that is isolated from the general public;
• Access to Rogers Centre will be limited and the building will be divided into tiered areas to further isolate players and staff, while physical distancing will be promoted through staggered outbreaks, with high-touch areas disinfected hourly.
The regular season plan is expected to work similarly, with the visiting club operating under similar limitations and isolated in its own block of the hotel.
There’s no guarantee that the Blue Jays’ plan functions locally, or that the MLB plan succeeds nationally, and Shapiro noted that the entire endeavour “is not one that would be without any risk.”
“We all understood that coming in,” he continued. “It’s obviously something that has changed in the past three to four weeks. But at the same time, I’m still optimistic. I’m still hopeful. I still feel like the upside of being able to bring the game back, provide both the potential lift and distraction and enjoyment, and for me, just selfishly, being able to see baseball again and see the joy in our players being able to play it again, even in a very different environment with some very different guidelines and parameters, I don’t think we could do it any more safely than we’re doing it. I feel like our players will be at less risk than much of the general population, the majority of the general population.”
Take a moment to think about what he said, and about the real-life stakes in sports, in everyday life. Any team that manages to stay healthy enough to win a championship this year deserves extra credit, not an asterisk.