TORONTO – The clubhouse scene before the Toronto Blue Jays wrapped up their Rogers Centre training camp and departed for a pair of exhibition games versus the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park provided an apt metaphor for the club’s current dispossession.
“We have basically a road bag and a home bag, and I don’t know where the home bag is going,” veteran infielder Joe Panik said Monday as his teammates wrapped up a session of live batting practice at the dome they can’t call home. “Basically, we have two bags packed.”
Such were the discomfiting circumstances in which the Blue Jays threw themselves into the final days of preparation for this unprecedented season of pandemic uncertainty. As final roster decisions loom before Hyun Jin Ryu takes the mound at Tropicana Field for Friday’s opener with the Tampa Bay Rays, the front office officials frantically worked through a host of issues to find themselves a temporary home for the 60-game campaign.
While GM Ross Atkins said the team had roughly five different contingencies in play, the likeliest scenarios had them turning into the unexpected houseguests of either the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park, or the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards.
The logistics of how to make it happen with both minimal disruption to their hosts and strict adherence to Major League Baseball’s COVID-19 protocols was a focal point throughout the day, with how to set up an alternate Blue Jays clubhouse at each facility among the priorities.
For that reason multi-stadium plans – the Blue Jays have looked into using both the New York parks, too, but they probably wouldn’t want to essentially give the Yankees more home games, also – were more problematic, as more temporary clubhouses means more costs incurred.
In Pittsburgh, a hotel mere steps from the ballpark offered one potential, relatively easy solution, while in Baltimore, the right-field concourse or the famed warehouse in the backdrop could both accommodate temporary set-ups with only minor intrusions.
There are minimal scheduling conflicts with both clubs, only five home dates in common with the Orioles and seven with the Pirates. All are relatively resolvable with minor tweaks, helping them emerge as the best options.
The Pirates certainly appear interested, as president Travis Williams issued a statement confirming “active” discussions with Major League Baseball and the Blue Jays, describing the endeavour as “a monumental challenge for our staff,” while adding, “leaning in to help others is what Pittsburghers do best.”
“If we are able to safely accommodate, not only will it bring additional international attention to our city,” Williams continued, “it will also bring with it jobs and revenue for local hotels, restaurants and other businesses that will support the Blue Jays organization as well as additional visiting teams.”
Still, Atkins kept things vague when it came to locations during a 32-minute Zoom call with media on Monday, eventually acknowledging the obvious that “we are focused on getting into a major-league facility.”
To that end, planning for some of the infrastructure additions needed in Buffalo – where Sahlen Field is home to the club’s triple-A team but relegated to in-case-of-emergency fail-safe – was dialled down, suggesting momentum toward their primary goal. The Blue Jays’ spring facility in Dunedin is a secondary fallback, although no one wants any part of COVID-surging Florida.
That it has come down to this, with barely a week remaining before the club’s July 29 “home” opener against the Washington Nationals, is a result of the Blue Jays needing the federal government’s rejection of their plan “to become a reality for all of the stakeholders to put it all systems go on these potential contingencies,” said Atkins.
“All we could do as an organization is paint them to the best of our ability, have discussions that were contingent with all of the stakeholders,” added Atkins. “Now it’s just a matter of finalizing those details and hitting go in a world that has changed in just two weeks, as it relates to the outbreak, as it relates to the changing information on a daily basis.”
Threading the needle now involves satisfying all the season’s health and safety protocols, and Atkins described getting teams to “open up their architectural drawings and work through them and talk about social distancing within those facilities without ever compromising theirs is the first hurdle.”
“We worked on as much as we possibly could with the information that we had, and now we’re crossing the Ts and dotting the Is as more information is shared with us,” he continued. “The second (hurdle) would be (tweaking the schedule) … and there is some open-mindedness and there are discussions being had about just shifting the venues potentially, since we don’t have fans and we will be broadcast and televised. We’ll talk about all those alternatives, and work through a way that we can create as much consistency and safety for our players and the other teams, as well.”
The July 29 is in conflict with home dates for both the Pirates and Orioles, but since the Blue Jays are already in Washington, they could stay there as the home team for a pair with the Nationals. The July 31-Aug. 2 series against the Philadelphia Phillies is in conflict with Baltimore not Pittsburgh, and could be played at Citizens Bank Park if they ended up at Camden.
The trickle-down effect of the uncertainty is that as a 38-man group departed for Boston and, afterwards, Tampa Bay, with 22 players staying behind in Toronto, awaiting the location of the team’s alternate training site to settle. Buffalo remains a candidate for that, although the home site needs to be settled first.
Meanwhile, the season creeps closer and closer and closer.
“The reason it’s not just all of (the contingencies) on a tee, is because not only do all of them involve the support and guidance from other organizations, but they’re massive investments so investing in five to eight contingency plans wouldn’t be the best business,” said Atkins. “We’re confident, however, that we will be able to execute and we have prepared to be able to hit go and have a facility up to a standard that we feel our players will not be compromised.”
Consider Panik’s preparation for Monday’s departure and multiply that by the entire roster, coaching staff and support staff.
“My personal stuff, I was basically able to condense everything down into a big suitcase and one of those smaller suitcases,” said Panik. “I’m almost … treating it as a two-month, on-the-road exploration somewhere. From years past, me and my wife always pack up a car and ship it out with all the home stuff. Now it’s clothes and telling my wife I’ll see you wherever I see you. …
“It’s not a joking matter, but we kind of laugh about it, the way 2020 has gone in so many different ways,” continued Panik. “When I played (in Toronto) last year on the road, I fell in love with the city, being able to walk around the city, go to the ballpark. It was a fun place to be. Now that we’re not going to be able to play here is disappointing. The guys in that clubhouse, that is what is going to help us get through the 60 games no matter what. We’re going to be spending most of the time with each other, we have a good group in there and that’s what is going to get us through the time.”
Living in a vagabond state leaves the Blue Jays with little other choice.