Blue Jays no closer to clarity on potential Rogers Centre return this summer

Sportsnet's Arash Madani takes a look at when it could be possible for the Toronto Blue Jays to play at home as discussions with the Canadian government are on going.

As the Toronto Blue Jays open a new season Thursday afternoon at Yankee Stadium, they’re no closer to knowing if they’ll be able to eventually play at their actual home this summer.

While preliminary, and mainly informal, conversations had taken place over the winter between the Blue Jays and the federal government, the definitive decision from Ottawa is still weeks – if not months – away on whether or not the ball club can eventually play home games at Rogers Centre later this season.

Conversations with multiple sources on Parliament Hill this week made it clear that the Canada/US border remaining closed plays a significant factor in keeping the Blue Jays in America to open their season. But more than that, no health official now has the ability to forecast what the virus will look like by summer, and so the federal government is in no position to make a decision soon on whether or not the team can play games in their home stadium.

An informed source on Parliament Hill presented it this way Wednesday: “Is there a scenario where the Blue Jays playing in Toronto can work later this summer? Possibly. Is there a variant escaping vaccine efficacy? Who knows.”

And the latter is cause for extra level of caution in Ottawa. Variants have hit our shores and are spreading, so when making decisions regarding cross-border travel for the warmer months, the government will have to determine whether those variants are under control in Canada and the U.S.

As the Public Health Agency of Canada said in a statement to Sportsnet last week: “Repeated cross-border travel of Canadian and opponent teams and spectator gatherings remain some of the key areas of Federal/Provincial/Territorial concern for a full return-to-play of professional sports. Selected other concerns include the resumption of play in locations where the risk of virus transmission remains high, athlete living arrangements and community transmission.

It’s expected that all players, coaches and locker room staff in Major League Baseball will have the opportunity to receive vaccines by the end of April, a significant development. Unknown is whether those vaccinated can still transmit the virus to others. While recent research by the CDC in the United States suggested that infections in real-world conditions were rare, and that transmissions were also rare, a source on The Hill suggested caution will continue to be Ottawa’s playbook.

The message being shared from the federal government to organizations like the Blue Jays has been this: Continue working on a comprehensive plan of how you’d rollout your procedures with travel and games, and stay in touch.

“It’s just too early for us to sign off on anything right now,” said one source on Parliament Hill.

The Blue Jays have followed that advice, keeping the government in the loop on their plan to open their 2021 season in Florida, and have felt it makes no sense to re-engage in official talks quite yet. In the meantime, the baseball team is scenario-planning and keeping all options open.

The first three homestands, of course, will be in Dunedin, which takes the Blue Jays until late May. In an ideal situation, they would make only one move after their time in Florida is completed. Meanwhile, construction at Sahlen Field is underway for further upgrades to the Triple-A ballpark in Buffalo.

While some renovations were done last summer to get the facility upgraded for big league games, many of the player amenities then were spread across the concourse for physical distancing purposes. That’s changing in 2021.

Just two weeks ago, the New York State Department of Health announced fans would be permitted to attend stadiums, up to 20 percent capacity.

As a result, the Blue Jays are investing in a new, permanent weight room in Buffalo, along with a set of batting cages. A renovated home clubhouse is also being built that will last long-term.

The bullpens that had been on the first and third baselines last year will now be moved off the field; and LED bulb replacements will be installed to a pair of light poles to have the stadium major-league ready.

Effectively, the Blue Jays want to be prepared when it comes time to leave Florida because of the heat. The perspective from the organization is this: Should it become evident to them at some point in May that Toronto won’t be an option by July, they could just decide then to pull the trigger to go to Sahlen Field after that third homestand of the season.

“We want to keep all of our options open and comfortably be able to move as seamlessly as possible when we have to,” said a team official.

The Blue Jays plan to consult with their players after each series in Dunedin to gauge how the experience is going – get a sense of how the ballpark is playing, how the rain and heat may affect proceedings. The club wants those suiting up in uniform to have a say on whether or not to remain in Florida a while longer, consider their input to determine comfort levels and what they feel may put them in the best situation to win.

Should the Blue Jays be able to play games in Toronto at some point this season, it would require sign-off at the municipal, provincial and federal levels. In 2020, the city and province gave the go-ahead, but the Government of Canada did not issue a national interest exemption for Major League Baseball. The rationale given by the Public Health Agency of Canada at the time was that “the cross-border travel required for the regular season would not adequately protect Canadians’ health and safety.” International borders remain federal jurisdiction.

It’s unknown where Ontario’s health stance may be for 2021, although the announcement of yet another lockdown beginning this holiday weekend is expected later today.

A federal government source this week couldn’t even handicap the chances of the Blue Jays returning to Toronto at any point this season.

“We have no idea what things will be like with the virus in June,” the source said.

— With files from Shi Davidi

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