Blue Jays' Shapiro: Border closure still preventing return to Toronto

Mark Shapiro sat down in the Interview Room to discuss his thoughts on the Blue Jays team as a playoff contender, whether he’s optimistic about a return to Toronto, and the future of the Rogers Centre.

TORONTO – Tired of fielding hypothetical scenarios about how and when the Toronto Blue Jays could find their way back to Rogers Centre, team president and CEO Mark Shapiro offered a concise breakdown of the situation.

“Simplify it for yourself – just focus on the border, recognizing anything around that's going to be a challenge. Not impossible, but a challenge,” he said. “The only clarity exists around the border being open.”

Zero-sum stuff, and there’s significance in the way Shapiro so explicitly linked the Blue Jays’ path to Toronto with the easing of restrictions on non-essential travel between Canada and the United States, which have been in place since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Remember that last summer the Blue Jays tried to thread the needle on an accommodation that balanced public health measures and the frequent travel requirements of professional sports. They proposed a strict modified-cohort quarantine that would have had limited them and visiting clubs to a footprint covering the Rogers Centre and the attached hotel, a plan approved at the municipal and provincial levels but rejected by the federal government.

Now Shapiro, speaking hours before the Blue Jays christened their return to Buffalo’s freshly renovated Sahlen Field with a 5-1 victory Tuesday night over the Miami Marlins, didn’t sound like someone who saw much point in pursuing a similar strategy.

“What I've come to recognize is until the border is open, any proposal would have to deal with that and create a set of circumstances that allowed cross-border travel for players, families and visiting teams,” Shapiro said during a conversation with media. “That is not an easy thing to do. It's not impossible, but it's not an easy thing to do. I guess what I would suggest to you is that until the border is open, there are significant challenges with us returning to Toronto to play.”

So, barring some unexpected developments, it very much sounds like border open or bust for the Blue Jays’ hopes of finishing out the summer in Toronto.

As things stand, non-essential travel between Canada and the United States will remain restricted through at least June 21. On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a news conference that Canada is “on the right path,” and rebutted growing calls to reopen the border by saying “we'll make our decisions based on the interests of Canadians and not based on what other countries want.”

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security tweeted recently that it was “working closely with Canada and Mexico to safely ease restrictions as conditions improve.”

A vaccination threshold of 75 per cent and a continued decline in daily cases across the country are prerequisites for restrictions to be eased, Trudeau suggested.

Provincially, Ontario is set to lift a stay-at-home order Wednesday, an important step in the government’s Roadmap to Reopen plan. Shapiro said he’s studied that staging carefully and based on additional conversations with Toronto Public Health, “it feels optimistic that if we could get back, that there would be a chance to have some fans there.”

The possibility is enticing, although whether the border opens with enough runway for the Blue Jays to play a substantial portion of their season in Toronto remains the question.

For now, the Blue Jays are committed to games in Buffalo through July 4, although Shapiro cautioned not to “tie our on-sale dates to our expectations of how long will be here.” The Blue Jays would need at least 3-4 weeks advanced notice just to execute the physical part of another move, which suggests the July 16-21 homestand versus Texas and Boston will soon be added to the Sahlen Field docket.

After that, there’s a July 30-Aug. 8 homestand against Kansas City, Cleveland and Boston that the clock is ticking on, with 25 home dates beyond that, stretching to the Sept. 28-Oct. 3 finales against the Yankees and Orioles.

That’s far enough down the road to convince some around the Blue Jays to believe the team has a good chance of finishing the year at Rogers Centre, even if it means the disruption of a second in-season move.

“We’d gladly endure hardship and burden to get home,” said Shapiro, who added any decision would be a collective one involving players, coaches, the front office and ownership.

The Blue Jays have tried to mitigate the inconvenience and upheaval to players by helping them find accommodation in Buffalo and improving the facilities at Sahlen Field, which Shapiro said left the venue among the top minor-league stadiums and akin to a major-league park.

Still, the Blue Jays have had to deal with more than any other major-league club from a logistical standpoint for a second straight season.

“We did it last year,” said catcher Danny Jansen. “We are one of 30, but we just put our heads down and we can't control everything else. Take what we're given and we're getting a pretty sweet deal this year in Buffalo with all the improvements they made for us. Just going to carry on with that, man.”

Shapiro praised that mindset in Blue Jays players, saying they could easily have used their circumstances as a crutch, with “objective reasons to make excuses,” but haven’t.

“I think that character, that toughness, that resilience, that ensuring that we're not making excuses is going to be something that is a trademark of this team and hopefully this organization moving forward, not just this season, but in the years to come,” Shapiro said. “When we finally get back to Toronto, you're going to have a team that any adversity or any tough times we experience are going to pale in comparison to what we're having to go through over the past two seasons.”

That’s a silver-lining outlook for a team desperate to get home, unsure if it will get stuck at its Buffalo detour along the way.

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