This is a less-than-ideal outcome for the Blue Jays, whose players had quite reasonably hoped to have access to a major league park given the larger spaces and better amenities than most minor league parks have; outfielder Randal Grichuk described Buffalo as a “worst-case” scenario. On the other hand, key youngsters such as Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. have played at Sahlen in recent years. Biggio had positive things to say:
Cavan Biggio just said on @FAN590 that the infield in BUF is one of the best minor league fields he’s played on and he hopes #jays can turn this into a home field advantage because visiting teams won’t be thrilled about going to a minor league park.
— Dan Shulman (@DShulman_ESPN) July 24, 2020
While the Blue Jays were granted a National Interest Exemption to host their Summer Camp at the Rogers Centre, playing their regular season games in Toronto was ruled out when Marco Mendocino, Canada’s Minister of Immigration, announced last Saturday that the Canadian government had “concluded the cross-border travel required for M.L.B. regular-season play would not adequately protect Canadians’ health and safety,” mainly given the inability of players to follow the 14-day post-travel self-quarantining guidelines while keeping to the schedule of games. The Blue Jays’ spring training facility in Dunedin, Florida — the only option “that is 100 percent seamless right now,” according to team president and CEO Mark Shapiro — was ruled out because Florida is now the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, with an average exceeding 10,000 new cases per day.
When I checked into the situation as of Tuesday, it appeared that the Blue Jays would most likely share quarters with the Pirates, but on Wednesday, the Pennsylvania Department of Health denied them permission, with the state’s health secretary, Dr. Rachel Levine, saying in a statement, “In recent weeks, we have seen a significant increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in southwestern Pennsylvania. To add travelers to this region for any reason, including for professional sports events, risks residents, visitors and members of both teams. We know that this virus does not discriminate and can even make professional athletes very sick. We are committed to protecting the health and well-being of all Pennsylvanians.”
With that rejection, the Blue Jays turned to the Orioles regarding the sharing of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, but while the Baltimore birds were amenable to sharing their nest, they apparently couldn’t get the state of Maryland on board in time. Per The Athletic‘s Kaitlyn McGrath, the Orioles “were willing to give permission to the Jays, and the Maryland government was willing to listen to a proposal. But the Orioles would not permit the Blue Jays to use the home clubhouse.”
Meanwhile, New York governor Andrew Cuomo gave his permission for the Blue Jays to come to Buffalo, and MLB signed off as well. Here’s the Blue Jays’ statement:
Blue Jays To Stage Majority Of 2020 Home Games In Buffalo. pic.twitter.com/BxlV7cgieJ
— Toronto Blue Jays (@BlueJays) July 24, 2020
Sahlen Field is a 16,600-seat park that was built in 1988 and was already in use as the Blue Jays’ alternate training site for their non-roster players, who will now move to Rochester, home of the Twins’ Triple-A affiliate. Originally known as Pilot Field, Sahlen Field was designed by HOK Sport (now Populous), which ushered in the retro-classic architecture that would soon become common among a wave of new ballparks — including Camden Yards itself, which opened in 1992 and which HOK was involved with as well. The park isn’t yet big-league ready, presenting what Shapiro called “infrastructure and player-facility challenges” to get up to major league standards. The lighting will have to be upgraded to comply with MLB standards for broadcasting purposes (it’s fine from the standpoint of player safety), while the clubhouse is too small for sufficient social distancing, so the team will have to set up players’ lockers in suites. The batting cages, bullpens, weight rooms, training rooms and other amenities will all need upgrades as well.
The Blue Jays open their season with five road games, beginning with two against the Rays in St. Petersburg on Friday and Saturday, then three against the Nationals in Washington, DC from July 26-28. They were scheduled to host the Nationals for two more on July 29-30, but will instead stay in DC and bat as the home team for that pair of games. If Sahlen Field is ready in time, they could host the Phillies in Buffalo from July 31-August 2, but it’s more likely that they play the games at Citizens Bank Park, either with the Blue Jays as the home team or by swapping out venues for the two teams’ September 18-20 series. After that, the Blue Jays don’t have another home game scheduled until August 11, a gap that buys the team and the league some time to get Sahlen up to snuff.
This is a less than ideal solution for the Blue Jays, just as any of the other choices would have been given the addition of a new city and an international border into the mix. Beyond the strain that it will put on players’ families (since traveling back and forth across the border is impractical given the quarantine rules), this will deprive them of the environmental familiarity that’s believed to play a part in home field advantage. While their odds of making the playoffs are just 29.8%%, fifth-lowest in the AL, their disadvantage translates to advantages for AL East and NL East opponents relative to those in other divisions, for the purposes of the Wild Card Series race and postseason seeding. Add it to the list of things about this season that will be far from perfect.
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