The only Canadian team in Major League Baseball can’t play in Canada.
For the second straight season, the Toronto Blue Jays are barred from their home province of Ontario because of strict precautions against the spread of the lethal Covid-19 infection. With a population of 15 million but 4,000 cases as of Friday, the province remains under a state-at-home order.
For the Blue Jays, that means stay on the road.
During the virus-shortened, 60-game season of 2020, the Jays played most of their home games at Sahlen Field, home of their top Triple-A affiliate in Buffalo, NY. But what was easy then is not so simple now.
Minor League Baseball was cancelled last year but reactivated for 2021, albeit with a delay from April to May out of an abundance of caution.
Because winter lingers longer in Buffalo, the Jays wisely opted to open their regular season at their spring training site, TD Ballpark in Dunedin, FL. The team plans to play its first three home-stands there, through May 24, but then move to Buffalo.
Should Canadian health protocols change, the Jays even harbor hopes of returning to Rogers Centre sometime this season. If that happens, they would become the first team of the post-war era to host regular home games in three different locations during the same season.
Thanks to a rainout in Dunedin Sunday, the Jays could actually play home games in four different locations. The rained-out game against the Angels has been rescheduled as part of a split doubleheader August 10, with Los Angeles serving as home team in the opener but Toronto batting last in the nightcap.
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Long before then, the Blue Jays anticipate playing home games in Buffalo. It won’t be easy, though, because the minor-league Bisons will be back in action.
The Jays have arranged for the Bisons to start the season in Trenton, NJ, a city that lost its Double-A franchise during an off-season reshuffling of the minors by Major League Baseball.
With neither snowstorms nor Bisons blocking their way, the Jays will have plenty of time to prepare Sahlen Field for big-league action again. The team went 17-9 in “home games” there last year.
Among improvements in Buffalo, lighting will be upgraded with new LED bulbs and two new light poles, bullpens will from foul territory to behind outfield walls, and both clubhouses and weight rooms will be upgraded. The Jays will also add batting cages behind the right-field wall.
The Bisons will also benefit from those upgrades to Sahlen Field, one of the oldest ballparks at the Triple-A level. Opposing teams who played the Jays last year criticized lighting in Buffalo as below major-league standards.
“After a nearly decade-long partnership with the Toronto Blue Jays, the Sahlen Field upgrades are a natural progression of our successful partnership,” said Mike Buczkowski, president of Rich Baseball Operations, which owns the team.
“These upgrades are essential for the long-term success of having high-quality baseball in Buffalo for many years to come. We thank the Trenton Thunder organization for opening their doors and welcoming the Bisons so our renovations can be completed.”
Trenton was the Double-A affiliate of the Yankees last year but had been switched to the new MLB Draft League after the Somerset Patriots became the parent club’s new AA team.
Jeff Manto, a former big-leaguer who starred for Buffalo on his way up, had been expected to manage in Trenton but the transfer of the Bisons is squeezing him out of town, as his team suddenly needs a new place to play. Another former big-league infielder, Casey Candaele, is set to manage the transplanted Bisons.
So a city upset at losing its Double-A team is winding up with a Triple-A team instead – at least temporarily.
For the Jays, who have already opened their home schedule in Florida, TD Ballpark holds 8,500 fans but is only permitting 15% occupancy because of health protocols. Rogers Centre, by contrast, has a capacity of 49,000. It last hosted a game on Sept. 29, 2019.
Staying in Dunedin, their spring training headquarters, is a wise choice for the Jays, whose player development site is also in the area. TD Ballpark, like Sahlen Field, has undergone recent upgrades. The Jays will play their first three home-stands there, weather permitting. During the first 10 days of the season, they already had two rainouts.
Toronto plans to shift to Buffalo, where snow in April is not uncommon, on Memorial Day weekend. After that, it’s anyone’s guess when they can return to Rogers Centre. The border between the United States and Canada has been closed to non-essential travel because of the Covid-19 epidemic, which shut down all sports on March 12, 2020.
In the interim, Sahlen Field should suffice this season, as it did a year ago. Called Pilot Field when it opened in 1988, its 17,000 seating capacity is the biggest in the minors.
In a statement regarding the upgrades, Bisons general manager Anthony Sprague said, “Sahlen Field will once again become one of the premier locations for player training and performance amenities in Minor League Baseball, ensuring high-quality baseball in Western New York for many seasons to come.”
He said both the Jays and their top farm team will benefit.
“The good news about these ballpark renovations is that the upgrades the Blue Jays and Bisons are making will also have a long-lasting effect on baseball in Buffalo,” said the executive, noting that the changes “far exceed” Major League Baseball Player Development League facility standards.
When the Jays played their first game at Sahlen Field with a 5-4 win over the Miami Marlins on Aug. 11, 2020, it marked the first big-league game in Buffalo since the Buffalo Blues won a doubleheader from the Baltimore Terrapins at Federal League Park on Sept. 8, 1915.
Another Buffalo-based ballpark, War Memorial Stadium, was featured in the 1984 Robert Redford film The Natural.
Although Buffalo is a long-standing member of the National Football League, the city has been unsuccessful in several bids for a permanent franchise, either through expansion or relocation of an existing team.
Perhaps the publicity generated by the Jays will rekindle those efforts.