TORONTO – Ontario Premier Doug Ford discussed Toronto Blue Jays home games at Rogers Centre as a done deal Thursday, even as the club remained cautiously optimistic while waiting for all the necessary written approvals from the federal government and public health to arrive.
His strong comments indicate that the province expects the federal government to issue the exemption letter necessary for a modified quarantine, allowing both the Blue Jays to repeatedly cross the border, and opposing clubs to visit and play.
Lisa MacLeod, Ontario’s Minister of Heritage, Sports, Tourism and Culture Industries, in a statement to Sportsnet, clarified that approval had been granted by Dr. David Williams, the province’s chief medical officer, and warned violations would be punished with revocation.
“We’ll continue to work with our federal counterparts and sports organizations to facilitate a safe return to play if athletes are permitted to cross the border,” she added.
A similar process – provincial OK, then federal approval – played out when the Blue Jays were granted permission to stage their training camp in Toronto earlier this month.
Still, the Blue Jays are taking nothing for granted, as planning for games in Buffalo – now their firm Plan B, although Dunedin, Fla., isn’t completely off the table – continued this week, with Bisons staff awaiting the word to get Sahlen Field ready.
Ford certainly made it sound like that won’t be necessary.
“We got approval from the municipal chief medical officer, and we made sure we discussed it with Mayor (John) Tory as well,” Ford said during his daily update from Chatham, Ont. “We discussed it with the chief medical officer of Canada, and along with the deputy prime minister, and on top of it we talked to Dr. (David) Williams and our medical team, and yes, I look forward to seeing them play, even if it’s in an empty stadium. I think we need a little bit of sports back on television and I can’t wait to watch the Blue Jays and can’t wait to watch the Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup, because they’re going to be playing here as well.
“Folks, if you’ve seen the protocol, I think Major League Baseball was 150 pages, and I don’t think the NHL was far behind,” he continued. “Talk about strict. They’re probably even stricter than our chief medical officers. But they have great protocol, great guidelines for players to follow and let’s hope we do well this year in both sports.”
Locking down a regular-season home would only be a first step, as the Blue Jays must also set up an Alternative Training Site for players not on the major league roster. While that was initially expected to be in Buffalo, the club has also been examining sites in Canada to eliminate any potential difficulties for recalled players crossing the border.
Further to that, the Blue Jays must also finalize their Code of Conduct, as required under Section 2.6 of MLB’s 2020 Operations Manual, governing their activities away from the ballpark. Given their current situation in Toronto – isolated to the dome and attached hotel – that’s not a concern, but they travel to Boston for exhibition games versus the Red Sox next Tuesday and Wednesday before their July 24 season opener at the Tampa Bay Rays.
Manager Charlie Montoyo said Thursday that earlier in the day he discussed with veteran infielder Joe Panik getting started on the code, which must be filed with the joint committee overseeing the sport’s health and safety protocols, and “should include specific rules regarding what conduct is and is not allowed while the club is on the road.”
“I’m going to be talking to other players about it, and talking to my friends Rocco (Baldelli, the Twins’ manager), and (Pirates manager Derek) Shelton and Kevin (Cash, the Rays’ manager) about what they’re using over there, too, so we can have some ideas about it,” Montoyo said. “We’re going to come up with ideas, but at the end of the day, the players have to come up with it. They have to sign it, they have to agree with it and it has more power when it comes from the players. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Road trips may become a rare respite for the Blue Jays, who are facing a summer of lockdown in Toronto due to quarantine laws, if the exemption arrives.
Third baseman Travis Shaw was caught off-guard by the possibility last week and chafed at it, but on Sunday acknowledged that, “To get through this season everybody is going to have to buy in and everybody is going to have to adhere to whatever protocols we’re set under.
“Honestly, if other teams don’t follow similar protocols – I know the rules aren’t going to be as strict in the United States as they are up here – if other teams don’t follow strict guidelines and police themselves, we’re not going to be able to get through a season anyways,” he added. “I know everybody is on board with that in the locker-room.”
The current plan is believed to be the framework for the regular season protocol, which could include a second hotel that visiting teams would be required to buy out, ensuring there’s no contact with other guests to limit the possibility of COVID-19 being spread into the community.
MacLeod, speaking of the approvals granted to the Blue Jays and NHL, said, “These plans require players and staff to follow strict quarantine and isolation protocols from the general public, and provide the public health authorities the ability to rescind the approval if protocols are not followed.”
Players were told they could face the maximum penalties of up to $750,000 and jail time if in violation of the quarantine during training camp.
James Paxton, the New York Yankees left-hander from Ladner, B.C., told Sportsnet The Fan 590 on Thursday that being limited to the hotel and ballpark as a visiting player “is not a big deal” and added, “I think that’s probably what we should be doing anyway.”