Blue Jays settle on Sahlen Field after clock runs out on Baltimore bid

The Toronto Blue Jays are Buffalo-bound, calling Sahlen Field home for the majority of the team's home games in 2020. Sportsnet's Arden Zwelling joins Faizal Khamisa to break down how this decision will impact the Blue Jays.

TORONTO – Mere hours from opening day, with no more runway to spare, the Toronto Blue Jays settled on Buffalo’s Sahlen Field as their 2020 home Friday, moving into their triple-A affiliate’s park without a clear path to games at Baltimore’s Camden Yards.

While the Maryland government didn’t deny plans for them to tenant at the Baltimore Orioles’ gem of a stadium, there was enough reason to think officials there would follow the lead of the federal government in Canada and Pennsylvania officials in rejecting their presence.

Meanwhile, between U.S. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, the Blue Jays had “enthusiastic and strong support” to land in Buffalo, said Blue Jays president and CEO Mark Shapiro.

With his team in St. Petersburg, Fla., for opening day against the Tampa Bay Rays, a sad, week-long saga that started last Saturday when the Blue Jays were told they couldn’t host games at Rogers Centre came to a close.

“Knowing that the season was about to start, examining all the variables and the risks and the benefits of each situation, but Baltimore in particular, we had to make a decision,” Shapiro explained during a conference call. “In order to execute and ensure that we were ready as soon as possible, at some point continuing to explore and look at an option like Baltimore was not going to be a risk we could take.

“That risk of being turned down certainly existed so we obviously had to make a decision, and knowing that we had a very good alternative, albeit not a major-league one, but one we felt could get close to major-league, we made that decision.”

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And so, as the Blue Jays took off in one short race on the field against the Rays, they started out on another in Buffalo. They hope to have Sahlen Field ready for major-league games and compliant with MLB’s thorough COVID-19 protocols as early as next Friday, when they’re due to host the Philadelphia Phillies.

If they need more time, the Blue Jays can flip that series to Citizens Bank Park, much as they have with their first two home games of the season, July 27-28, which the Washington Nationals will now host on the back-end of what was supposed to be a home-and-home set.

The Blue Jays should be set in Buffalo for a five-game homestand that starts Aug. 11 against the Miami Marlins, at the latest.

“It’s pretty normal for me,” Vladimir Guerrero Jr., said of returning to Sahlen Field. “Go over there and do what we do, play hard and try to win some games there.”

Shapiro said the Blue Jays “are incurring, if not all, the majority of the expenses,” in bringing Sahlen Field up to par, activating plan that has been in the works for weeks, with additional people on the ground there this week. A higher grade of bulbs had already been purchased and were awaiting installation, one of several projects now kicking off.

“Most significant is the lighting, to get to the point that it’s both major-league quality lighting as well as suitable for a major-league broadcast. That’s one thing,” Shapiro said in listing off some of what needs to happen. “Beyond that, the clubhouse spaces as they’re currently configured would not allow for a full team because of the virus protocol. Also, we want to get them to the point that they’re going to support our players and make them feel like they’re in a major-league environment. (Batting) cages, all those kinds of things. Ensuring the field’s ready to go.

“It hasn’t been played on in a long time and we’re going to be playing major-league games on it. All the other little things, training spaces, weight rooms, training rooms. They’re all good spaces there. But good spaces from major-league spaces, home-and-away spaces, there are standards and expectations at the major-league level that are very different from the minor-league level.”

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That they’re in this spot at all is confluence of poor fortune, gross mismanagement of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, public sensitivity to external risks and a fair bit of politics, as well.

In Toronto, at least, a case can be made that the public health risk of allowing the Blue Jays to play at Rogers Centre was minimal, especially with a stringent modified cohort quarantine in place that would have kept players separated from the community.

From an optics standpoint, though, making an exception for baseball players to criss-cross the border while others are restricted would be troubling for politicians. There are also ethical and moral questions about the allocation of resources and preferential treatments, but whether players will vector the disease and cause a significant outbreak is debatable.

Regardless, the state government in Pennsylvania didn’t want the risk and shot down a plan the Blue Jays put together with the Pittsburgh Pirates to share PNC Park. That’s when the Blue Jays shifted gears to Baltimore but coronavirus cases in Maryland are on the rise and the premise of them holing up at Camden Yards, while problematic logistically, was met with hesitancy.

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So, Buffalo, after a mad six-day scramble set off when the Blue Jays met the health criteria at the city and provincial levels, but got stuffed by the federal government.

“More time certainly would have allowed us a lot more ability to plan and a lot more ability to understand alternatives,” said Shapiro. “However, I would say one thing, which is things have changed very close to decisions, both within Canada and then obviously in Pittsburgh and elsewhere.

“So, yes, more time certainly would have been helpful in planning, more time would have been helpful in having and understanding alternatives and having conversations. Usually that leads to better decisions, that leads to more opportunities. In this case, I think that would have been the case. The only caveat I’d say, is things have changed at the last minute, multiple times, not just in Canada, but in the U.S., as well.”

Underlining that point is the Blue Jays had planned on using TD Ballpark in Dunedin as their fallback – even upgrading the lights – before Florida turned into the COVID-19 epicenter.

At the time, “Florida was OK and New York was the hot spot,” said Shapiro. “Now, Florida is the hot spot and New York’s not. That’s all a reflection of the world that we’re living in.”

So, too, is the need for a major-league to call a triple-A ballpark in another country home for a 60-game season to be played at empty stadiums. In these times, perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of good, and, in this case, better couldn’t be the enemy of possible.


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