TORONTO – A year ago, when the Toronto Blue Jays took refuge in Buffalo, accommodating the triple-A Bisons was never a factor, as Sahlen Field was due to sit idle after the pandemic forced the minor-league season’s cancellation.
The task at hand, essentially, was to get the venue ready for big-league games.
This time around the disruption to Rich Baseball Operations, owner of the Bisons, is far more significant. To open up Sahlen Field, the triple-A club moved to Trenton, N.J., where it’s wearing Trenton Thunder jerseys for home games, all while testing the connection to its community and fans with, potentially, a second full summer away from home.
A jointly funded renovation to Sahlen Field is part of the benefit, but in uprooting themselves to create a landing spot for a Blue Jays team uprooted by circumstances, the Bisons are taking on risk to their own business, while making a spectacularly unselfish accommodation.
The Blue Jays are fortunate to have such a partner.
“When we began these discussions, there was still so much uncertainty,” said Mike Buczkwoski, Rich Baseball Operations’ president. “Bob and Mindy Rich, the owners of our team, have always prided themselves in being the best possible partner they can for our parent teams and for Major League Baseball. When you're hired here, the first thing the Rich’s tell you is you are a steward of the game. It's your job to make sure that this game flourishes for a long time in Buffalo and we need to be gatekeepers for baseball. And so, yeah, there's some short-term angst.
"But I think in the long term, this will be a great experience for fans to be able to actually see a major-league game in Buffalo and then those long-term benefits of the leave-behinds of the permanent changes that will be at our ballpark, will put us in a great position to be successful for years to come.”
Buffalo, we’re BACK!⁰⁰We’ll see you June 1stpic.twitter.com/LptYcKOAZD
— Toronto Blue Jays (@BlueJays) May 5, 2021
Those leave-behinds are a significant part of the Blue Jays’ return to Buffalo, beginning June 1 with a five-game homestand against the Miami Marlins and Houston Astros.
Among the improvements are a new, permanent home clubhouse, the transition of the old home clubhouse into a visitor’s clubhouse, the moving of the bullpens off the field and installation of new batting cages. The outfield grass has also been resodded, the light stands have been upgraded with LED replacements and two temporary light poles have been added.
The changes were needed because the same set up used in Buffalo last year couldn’t be used with fans back in the stands. Both the Bisons as a business, and Blue Jays players and staff present and future will reap the benefits for years to come.
“One of the big things for all minor-league teams throughout the country is there are now new facility standards and you have to meet these standards in the next couple of years, otherwise you will not be able to keep your licence as a minor-league team,” said Buczkwoski. “So the long-term benefit here of those permanent changes that we're making are going to put us above what those standards are. We're going to have probably the nicest minor-league clubhouse and batting cages in the nation.
"What that's going to do, it's going to ensure that we are going to have a great ballpark for the next 10 years. We're going to be compliant with the new measures and will be able to continue to run a successful triple-A team.”
The Blue Jays will handle the ticketing, announcing that they’ll follow local and state guidelines allowing for up to 24 per cent of Sahlen Field’s 16,600 capacity. But those plans were under a rethink after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced full capacity seating for vaccinated people at Yankees and Mets games and 33 per cent in non-vaccinated sections, rules applicable in Buffalo, too.
With sales not starting until May 13, there is certainly time to adapt, especially with details on pricing still to come.
A move north had been expected to avoid the oppressive heat and humidity of a Florida summer. The Blue Jays have a 10-game homestand May 14-24 against Philadelphia, Boston and Tampa Bay set for their spring training home before moving.
They’re 7-4 at TD Ballpark so far, and went 17-9 at Sahlen Field last year, winning a wild card under an eight-team, expanded-playoff format.
This year, the Blue Jays had hoped to go directly from TD Ballpark to Rogers Centre in Toronto. But with Ontario back in lockdown amid dangerously high daily COVID-19 case numbers, there was no chance of the federal government easing pandemic border rules for the Blue Jays.
The hope now is that the province’s case numbers continue their recent decline and in combination with the country’s ongoing vaccinations, a pathway opens for a later summer return home.
If not, the Bisons have done more than their part to ensure the Blue Jays have a functional home.
“Last year, I would have said that it was once in a lifetime,” said Buczkwoski. “Now I guess it's twice in a lifetime that Major League Baseball plays here.”