Circumstances point to Dunedin as best fit for Blue Jays' home in 2021

Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins discusses where they're at right now with playing in Toronto for the 2021 season, says they'll do whatever they can to keep that window open, but also feels good about their contingency plans.

TORONTO – Pitchers and catchers are tentatively due in Dunedin, Fla., on Feb. 17, position players are set to join them four days later with the first full-squad workout Feb. 22, Grapefruit League begins Feb. 27, and an April 1 opening day at the New York Yankees is within sight.

So, general manager Ross Atkins, what are you telling the Toronto Blue Jays about where to set up themselves and their families for spring training and the start of the regular season?

"We're ready to go and we have a number of players already in Florida, and the remaining group that already has plans to arrive here shortly," Atkins said during a Zoom call Thursday. "We're prepared to start spring training on time and prepared and excited to start the season on time. Right now, the plan is for them to come to spring training. We'll take that a day at a time and every day is huge for us. That's where things are today."

Not a lot of clarity, at least for public consumption, in regard to where the Blue Jays will play their home games this season, which is somewhat understandable given the increasingly stringent regulations arriving travellers now face to enter Canada.

Playing in Toronto, quite obviously, "is the absolute best place to be," said Atkins, and "if there's anything we can do to ensure that door is open, we're going to do it."

"We have contingency plans that we've worked on and we will have timelines that we communicate with our players and feel good about our alternatives, feel good about the contingencies," Atkins added. "But can't wait for that day that we're playing in Toronto again."

No doubt on that last part, especially when stress-free trips to the grocery store remain out of reach because of the pandemic.

But amid ongoing local lockdown measures to curb COVID-19 spread, regulations requiring negative PCR tests before boarding a plane, upon arrival and 10 days into the mandatory two-week quarantine, plus looming forced hotel stays while awaiting the results of the test after landing, an April 8 home opener in Toronto is fantastical.

The 2021 protocols currently being discussed by Major League Baseball and the players union will be sure to cover the testing requirements, and much can change between now and then. But with vaccinations in Canada shamefully slow and not expected to ramp up until the spring, and quarantine remaining a seemingly impossible hurdle, health officials aren’t going to suddenly open the border.

Keeping the door open, then, is well and good, but on-the-ground reality should be making the contingencies mentioned by Atkins the club’s primary plan. While there wasn’t an opportunity to press the GM about those contingencies during a time-limited Zoom call, the club’s recent actions indicate that playing out of TD Ballpark in Dunedin is currently their focus.

The Blue Jays recently met with city officials there to discuss the possibility, as Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times first reported, and some around the team have started planning for an extended stay in the area.

While nothing is off the table just yet, including Buffalo, if the triple-A season gets off the ground as expected Sahlen Field will be occupied. Navigating schedule conflicts over an extended and normal 162-game season would likely make sharing a big-league facility far too complicated, which further points to Dunedin as the most sensible landing spot.

A significant renovation was completed at TD Ballpark in time for last spring, and the Blue Jays subsequently invested an additional $600,000 to improve the lighting and make other upgrades so it could be used for the 2020 season.

Wisely, the Blue Jays backed off that plan last July due to the state’s surge in COVID cases, but much of the groundwork is already in place. It’s about as turnkey a situation as the Blue Jays are going to find under the circumstances, and would reunite them in the Tampa Bay area with the NBA’s Toronto Raptors.

Another consideration is that state’s permissive approach to containment measures opens the possibility of some ticket sales at TD Ballpark, which has a capacity of 8,500.

Already the Pittsburgh Pirates (25 per cent capacity) and Minnesota Twins (28 per cent capacity) have announced plans to host fans during spring training, although it’s unclear if the Blue Jays intend to follow suit.

They have less urgency to make a decision than other clubs since many of their ticket buyers tend to be Canadians visiting in the area. But they’re hosting the Boston Red Sox on March 1 and welcoming back fans is an opportunity at a stadium they control and have already made investments in.

Last year, the Blue Jays waited until the morning of opening day to settle on Buffalo, a decision made after a panicked scramble that followed the federal government’s unexpected rejection of their modified-cohort quarantine plan.

This time, there’s no reason for a similarly chaotic start to the season.

Clinging to hopes of a return to Toronto for the April 8 home opener against the Los Angeles Angels is understandable. At this point, however, it makes no sense to consider it a realistic possibility.

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