TORONTO – Overly sentimental public reflection isn’t really Mark Shapiro’s jam. The Toronto Blue Jays president and CEO is analytically moored, and process driven, working systematically to keep untrustworthy feelings from getting in the way of rational decision-making. Eliminating all madness from method is embedded in his management ethos.
Hence, the emotional tinge in his comments about the Blue Jays’ looming July 30 return to Rogers Centre opened a window into the toll a year and a half of dispossession has taken on the franchise. He spoke of how the meaning of home was “more crystal clear” than ever before, of an increased appreciation for Toronto and Canada, of the greater sense of importance attached to having a place truly of their own. Poetic waxing, perhaps, but the vagabond existence forced on the club by pandemic border restrictions has inarguably inflicted trauma organization-wide, with the healing to begin with the first game at the dome since Sept. 29, 2019.
“I'm not someone who tends to think about moments being symbolic or moments being big,” Shapiro said during a Zoom discussion with media Saturday after his team’s contest with the Texas Rangers was postponed by rain. “I tend to think about the journey more than I do any individual moment. Yet right after this decision was made, my thoughts did turn to what potentially July 30 could be and what it could mean. …
“I really feel like it's going to be a celebratory moment for the country, for the city, one that we're excited to share. We're excited for our players to feel what it means to represent a country and how incredible Toronto is as a city. It is one of those moments, one of those days, that's going to actually hold up to the expectations.”
A two-week scramble is already underway to make it happen.
Shapiro confirmed that Ontario regards the convertible Rogers Centre as an outdoor venue, allowing for a capacity of 15,000 under Stage 3 of the province’s recovery plan, even if inclement weather forces the roof to be closed. The ability to keep some flaps open and increase air circulation is part of the plan to alleviate risk.
Information on tickets, with season subscribers a priority, is due early next week, along with details on health regulations and protocols in the stands. The dome has been deep cleaned after going largely unused for nearly two years, new turf installed and a sound system upgraded from the building’s original last year has been readied for use.
Equipment at Buffalo’s Sahlen Field must be shipped north once the current homestand ends with Wednesday’s series finale against the Boston Red Sox, while players need to close out leases and pack up homes in one city and start anew in another eight days later.
A lot of people will be doing a lot of hustle in a compressed time period.
The payoff comes in players getting to play before the team’s fans at Rogers Centre for the first time – like Hyun-Jin Ryu, George Springer and Marcus Semien – and staffers getting home after extended periods away from loved ones on the road.
There will be a financial benefit, too, as the Blue Jays are currently last in the majors in attendance at 161,313. The 21 games at Dunedin, where they drew only 30,936 for an average of 1,473, were largely responsible for that. They’ve averaged 6,861 fans through 19 dates at Buffalo, a pace better than the Miami Marlins (6,464) and Oakland Athletics (6,394) and just short of the Tampa Bay Rays (7,083).
Demand is expected to be strong in Toronto, although Shapiro said he had only for the first time asked the club’s ticket-modelling staff what the fiscal impact will look like.
“They're still working on that, which I guess is the best answer to the question, financial considerations weren't even a thought. They weren't even part of this,” he said. “We will certainly do a little better moving back. We have done well in Buffalo. Better in Buffalo than we did in Dunedin. It won't begin to eclipse the magnitude of losses that we've incurred over the last two seasons. This is about getting home. This is about being where we should be. This is about reuniting with our fans. Finances are a tiny to nonexistent part of the equation.”
Benefits from the restoration of normalcy are expected everywhere from on-field performance to trying to lure free agents in the off-season.
During all-star week right-hander Kevin Gausman, who turned down what he called “a very competitive offer” from the Blue Jays to take an $18.9-million qualifying offer from the San Francisco Giants, said “it's hard to want to sign somewhere for multiple years when you don't know what to expect, even more so adding in all the COVID (uncertainty).”
“The fact that they're in Buffalo didn't have anything to do with my decision, but after the fact you think about those things and it's like, maybe we made the right decision,” he added during an interview. “I love Toronto, it's one of my favorite cities. I've always loved playing there. It has a special place in my heart because I made my debut in Toronto.”
Assuming the pandemic’s downward trajectory continues in the country and the Blue Jays continue playing in Toronto uninterrupted next year, those doubts all go out the window and a raucous Rogers Centre crowd, even if limited to 15,000, becomes a marketing tool.
"Listen, the uncertainty was a challenge, but I still feel like we as confidently, as aggressively sold Toronto and sold our circumstance and situation,” said Shapiro. “Part of what we were selling was the environment, the culture, the atmosphere, the leadership, the teammates and the competitiveness of our team. Those things never changed, nor did how the people in this organization that worked so hard to make a positive environment for our players change. If anything, they went above and beyond during this time to ensure our players were as comfortable as they could be.
"But the bond that a player feels with the fans is important to be felt in person,” he added. “Not through messages and not through watching in any medium or listening in any medium. We were lacking that. We were missing that bond, that tie, that connection with our fan base. Ending that uncertainty, creating that understanding, letting the players who made the decision to come here see what an incredible city it is, having them feel what it means to represent more than a city and having them feel the love and adulation of our fans, that's going to certainly make our jobs easier next off-season.”
It also makes it easier to remember what life used to be like, and to imagine what it could be once again.
The Blue Jays’ return is symbolic of a city, a province and a country emerging from months of intermittent lockdown and cautiously wading toward normalcy. Possibility is back, too, and with the trade deadline arriving hours before the Blue Jays hit the field, even Shapiro is engaging in some whim.
“From a human nature aspect perspective, I'm not going to lie that thinking about ending this story with an October that we all remember would be the ultimate,” he said. “How incredible would it be to think about the journey that we've experienced, the uncertainty of last season, playing a 60-game season in Buffalo, playing in three different homes for this season, and finally getting back to the place that we all believe in, care about and feel a bond and tied to.
"To end that with wining the last game would be maybe one of the greatest baseball stories ever written. That's certainly the story I'd like to be a part of.”
Shapiro and Blue Jays fans alike.