TORONTO — Rebuffed by government authorities on both sides of the border and with home dates fast approaching, the Toronto Blue Jays finally locked down a ballpark to call their own on Friday.
Sahlen Field in Buffalo, N.Y., will serve as a temporary home for Canada’s only Major League Baseball team, which was forced to look beyond Rogers Centre due to restrictions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Blue Jays announced the decision Friday, hours before the team’s season opener at Tampa Bay.
“We’re extremely happy to be where we are and feel like it’s going to be a good solution,” said team president Mark Shapiro.
The Blue Jays were displaced after Ottawa rejected a proposal for teams to stay in the hotel at Rogers Centre and not leave the facility footprint during series in Toronto. The club would have needed an exception to the traditional 14-day quarantine from the federal government for the plan to work.
Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Hartford, Conn., and Dunedin, Fla., were among the many major- and minor-league options that were considered. The Pirates’ home field, PNC Park, appeared to be a done deal earlier this week but state health officials shut down the plan.
With the clock ticking, the Blue Jays turned to their triple-A affiliate about a two-hour drive down the Queen Elizabeth Way highway.
“We obviously had to make a decision,” Shapiro said on a conference call. “Knowing that we had a very good alternative, albeit not a major-league one, but one we felt could get close to a major-league (level), we made that decision.”
The popularity of the move among Toronto’s 30-man roster was unclear. A number of Blue Jays recently voiced their desire to play in a major-league facility.
Blue Jays slugger Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., who played at Sahlen Field with the Bisons before making the jump to the major leagues last year, said he felt good about the plan.
“I’ve seen everyone like normal and I haven’t heard anything negative, so I guess everyone is good with it,” he said via translator Hector Lebron on a video conference. “But we don’t really think about that. We’re ready for tonight.”
Now the work begins on getting the stadium ready so that it meets MLB playing standards and COVID-19 safety requirements.
Lighting quality is one of the top priorities for players and the television broadcast. Proper clubhouse space is a must while training facilities, batting cages and weight rooms will need to be upgraded to a big-league level.
Toronto’s first game in Buffalo will be either July 31 against the Philadelphia Phillies or Aug. 11 against the Miami Marlins, depending on how preparations go.
“We’ll do that with a sense of urgency,” Shapiro said.
The Blue Jays will serve as the home team for games at Washington on Wednesday and Thursday.
The Bisons became the Blue Jays’ triple-A affiliate for the start of the 2013 season. Sahlen Field is in downtown Buffalo, minutes from the Peace Bridge connecting the city to Fort Erie, Ont.
Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown said the Blue Jays’ arrival will help the city’s hotels and restaurants and have a positive impact overall.
“It will attract more national and international attention to the city of Buffalo,” he told reporters Friday. “So I think it’s an absolutely great thing that the Toronto Blue Jays will be playing their home games at Sahlen Field.”
The NFL’s Buffalo Bills, who have played in the Ontario capital on occasion in the past, offered a friendly post on Twitter.
“Welcome to Buffalo, @BlueJays. Wings on us while you’re in town,” the tweet said, complete with a fist-bump emoji.
Sahlen Park, which opened in 1988, has a capacity of 16,600 but no fans will be in attendance this season. Minor-league baseball has been cancelled this year, creating an opening in Buffalo.
The Blue Jays’ spring-training facility in Dunedin was all but ruled out as an option when Florida became a COVID-19 hotspot. Several Blue Jays players and staff members reportedly tested positive for the virus last month while in the state.
In addition to Guerrero, several of the top young Blue Jays have spent time with the Bisons including Cavan Biggio, Bo Bichette and Nate Pearson. Toronto’s alternate training site will be in nearby Rochester, N.Y.
“I’m excited that we finally have a place to go play,” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “We’re done with that (story). Let’s focus on the Rays today and let’s focus on the schedule. That’s how everybody feels in (the clubhouse). We’re excited. Now we know.”
The Canadian government agreed to a modified quarantine at the Rogers Centre hotel for the Blue Jays’ summer training camp, but said concerns about regular cross-border travel along with road games in hard-hit American states made the regular-season plan a no-go.
New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, the U.S. Senate Democratic leader, said he called MLB commissioner Rob Manfred on Thursday to make the pitch for Buffalo.
“I told my friend, commissioner Manfred, that not only is the city ready to welcome the team with wide-open arms, the partnership between Buffalo and the Blue Jays would be a home run for the city, the team, MLB and the local economy,” Schumer said in a release.
It won’t be the first time a Canadian MLB team will play an extended stretch of home games outside the country.
The Montreal Expos, owned by the league at the time, played 22 home games a season in Puerto Rico in 2003 and 2004 before relocating to Washington.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 24, 2020.
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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press