TORONTO – As the Toronto Blue Jays scramble to find a home for the 2020 season – and to be clear, they spent Sunday scrambling – the players’ preference on where they end up is clear.
“I personally feel like our best situation to be in is playing in a major-league ballpark,” said reliever Anthony Bass. “I think that’s where we’re going to thrive and win.”
“I would like to go to a major-league field,” said outfielder Teoscar Hernandez, before caveating that with, “but for me, I don’t care where, I just want go and play and do my job and try to do things to help the team.”
The slight crack into the players’ thinking offered up some explanation as to why the Blue Jays didn’t immediately jump to a Plan B on Saturday once the federal government rejected their plan to host regular-season games at Rogers Centre.
Buffalo’s Sahlen Field had been positioned as the club’s primary fallback ahead of the denial, but throughout the team’s search for both a training camp site and regular-season home, it’s been treated like little more than an if-else-fails option. Team president and CEO Mark Shapiro said Saturday that “putting (players) in a position to be healthy, one, and to perform at the top of their ability, two, are absolutely our driving concerns,” and stuffing them into a minor-league facility lacking sufficient lighting, clubhouse space and other amenities doesn’t meet the criteria.
That’s why he said the Blue Jays had other “alternatives that are real” beyond Buffalo and TD Ballpark in Dunedin, Fla., which nobody wants any part of given the scary COVID-19 numbers in the state. Still, given the proximity of opening day Friday and the July 29 home opener – tick, tick, tick – it was strange to hear him reply when asked what the options might be that, “I don’t feel any of those are clear enough, or we’ve done enough to provide you any more right now.”
All the uncertainty before the club and hurdles that lie ahead “definitely” put the Blue Jays “at a disadvantage compared to other teams,” said Bass, the veteran right-hander who praised Shaprio and GM Ross Atkins for “listening to everything we’re saying.”
“I got a chance to talk with Ross (on Saturday) after I was done pitching, and I just said, ‘Look, we want to play in a major-league ballpark, we feel that’s the best opportunity for us,’” said Bass. “And he agreed. He said, ‘I listen to you guys loud and clear, that’s what we’re going to do for you because that’s what the team wants.’ It’s really encouraging, and super-supportive of Mark and Ross for listening to our opinions and really taking them to heart.’”
Cross-checking the Blue Jays’ home schedule against vacancies in regional and divisional stadiums shows that it’s possible for them to use other big-league stadiums without barn-storming through an entire season.
#BlueJays and #Pirates have conflicts on July 29 (day of Jays "home" opener), Sept. 8-9 and Sept. 21-24. #Pirates GM Ben Cherington and AGM Steve Sanders came over from Jays during the off-season. https://t.co/8XVJXcESMQ
— Shi Davidi (@ShiDavidi) July 20, 2020
The most seamless set-up would be using Nationals Stadium in Washington for their games July 29-Aug. 2 and Aug 14-16, and Baltimore’s Camden Yards for the rest of the slate. If they were to base themselves in Chicago, they could ping-pong between the White Sox’s Guaranteed Rate Field the Cubs’ Wrigley Field, with only two dates – Aug. 15-16 – left in conflict. A more complicated three-field set up using Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park, plus Yankee Stadium and Citi Field in New York would work, too, with only Aug. 11-12 left unresolved.
Each situation would offer some geographic stability, allowing players to set up in one spot and bring their families in, if they want, while using major-league calibre facilities.
Being a tenant at home is far from ideal – there are signage obligations and other corporate needs to meet – but there’s no ideal at this point for the Blue Jays, only best of bad choices.
“That’s definitely going to be a disadvantage,” said Bass, who spoke with a refreshing candour. “But we know as a team that we’re willing to make some sacrifices in order to play in a big-league ballpark, to have that atmosphere, to have that energy from being in a bigger stadium versus a ballpark that might not be ready, might not have major-league lighting, their clubhouses might be small, or might not have enough batting cages for the hitters.”
Still, the logistical needs are secondary to safety concerns, and Florida’s COVID-19 surge is “definitely a big concern for myself and I feel like all the players,” said Bass, who will be separated from his family no matter how things play out because his daughter is at high-risk if she contracts the coronavirus. “We don’t want to be in a place where it’s a hot spot. We want to be where it’s safe, a place in the United States where cases are going down or are already low.”
Through that lens, losing Toronto as a home base hurts all the more.
Not only did they lose stability and fall into chaos – “For a guy like me who likes to dress kind of OK, I’ve got three pieces of luggage I’m going to take everywhere,” manager Charlie Montoyo quipped – but they lost what was essentially a competitive advantage.
“This group is healthy. I’m grateful that we were here for these two weeks because you can see other teams are having problems,” said Montoyo. “I’m glad going into the season we’re healthy. That’s the best scenario for us going into a season. Where we’re going to play? We’ll find out soon.”
Either way, things get less safe for everyone soon.
On Monday night, they head out to Boston for exhibition games Tuesday and Wednesday against the Red Sox at Fenway Park, and Montoyo said they’ve already warned players to be careful once they leave the bubble.
The team has also been working on the Code of Conduct that must be filed with the Joint Committee managing baseball’s protocols, a process driven by players but also involving the coaching staff and front office.
“Policing ourselves, staying in the hotel, not venturing out on the road,” are a few of the general guidelines, said Bass, although “a lot of it is still up in the air.”
Just like for the Blue Jays in the mad-rush to find themselves a regular-season home.