Already it was clear that one of the substantial logistical hurdles for any league attempting to play its games in the midst of a pandemic — the wisdom and morality of which are questionable at best, but a topic for another day — is the variation in local laws and mandates, particularly when it comes to quarantine rules and guidelines. Until late last week, the defending champion Nationals weren’t sure they could play at Nationals Park because of a directive for those in close contact with individuals diagnosed with COVID-19 to self-quarantine for 14 days, and a similar situation with respect to the Dodgers in Los Angeles is still being untangled.
While the city of Toronto and the province of Ontario both gave the Blue Jays the green light to proceed with the regular season at the Rogers Centre, the Canadian government was unwilling to grant a separate exemption that would allow the team to travel between the two countries. Wrote Marco Mendocino, Canada’s Minister of Immigration, in a statement released on Saturday: “Based on the best-available public health advice, we have concluded the cross-border travel required for M.L.B. regular-season play would not adequately protect Canadians’ health and safety. As a result, Canada will not be issuing a National Interest Exemption for the M.L.B.’s regular season at this time.”
My statement on Major League Baseball in Canada during COVID-19 ?? pic.twitter.com/fr2j3OKiB1
— Marco Mendicino (@marcomendicino) July 18, 2020
The decision — the possibility of which had been raised weeks ago given that the border had been closed to nonessential travel since March 21 — leaves the Blue Jays and MLB evaluating Plans B, C, D, E, F and more; per general manager Ross Atkins, the team has “well over five solid contingency plans.”
The Blue Jays’ 60-game schedule calls for them to open the season with five road games, beginning with two against the Rays in St. Petersburg on July 24-25, then three against the Nationals from July 26-28. They’re supposed to host the Nationals for two more on July 29-30, and then the Phillies for three on July 31-August 2, after which they don’t have another home game scheduled until August 11, a gap that buys the team and the league a bit of time if they can clear that five-game stretch.
The most immediate options that have presented themselves are TD Ballpark in Dunedin, Florida, the Blue Jays’ spring training site and the home of their A-ball affiliate, and Sahlen Field in Buffalo, New York where the Bisons, their Triple-A affiliate, are stationed. Since it’s unlikely that fans will be allowed to attend games at any point this year due to the pandemic, their modest seating capacities (8,500 for the former, 16,600 for the latter) aren’t a hindrance, but both have their drawbacks. Per The Athletic‘s Kaitlyn McGrath, the Blue Jays recently upgraded the lighting at TD Ballpark to met major league standards, and team president/CEO Mark Shapiro said of the venue, “Dunedin is the only one that is 100 percent seamless right now and ready to go.” However, Florida is now the epicenter of the coronavirus. On Monday the state recorded its sixth consecutive day (and 13th of the month) with at least 10,000 new cases, and the seven-day moving average for positive test rates is at an alarming 18.9%, higher than all but three states.
From a public health perspective, New York is in much better shape than Florida; on Monday, the reported new case count was just 519, and the seven-day moving average for positive test rates is just 1.2%, the fifth-lowest of any state. Erie County, where Buffalo is located, reported no COVID-19 deaths on Saturday, that after four straight days with one fatality. However, Sahlen Field, which was built in 1988 and was slated to be the team’s alternate training site for its non-roster players, has what Shapiro called, “infrastructure and player-facility challenges” to meet major league standards. The clubhouse is too small for sufficient social distancing, so the team would have to set up players’ lockers in suites. Additionally, the lighting, batting cages, weight rooms, and training rooms would all need upgrades, no small challenge to pull off under a short timeframe, and the team would have to move its alternate training site to Rochester, New York, home of the Twins’ Triple-A affiliate.
The lighting would be an issue at any minor league ballpark, not in terms of safety but for the purposes of broadcasting. Wrote Baseball America‘s JJ Cooper, “We at Baseball America have verified with MiLB that no MiLB park meets the current MLB standards for stadium lighting,” though it’s unclear if that statement was meant to include the Dunedin park. Cooper mentioned Omaha’s TD Ameritrade Park, which hosts the College World Series, as having “potentially MLB-caliber lighting,” though his colleague Kyle Glaser noted that MLB’s travel limitations make sending teams from the AL and NL East divisions to Nebraska suboptimal. Likewise for Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas, the previous home of the Rangers, who will inaugurate their new ballpark, Globe Life Field on Friday; the new venue is across the street from the old one.
Because of those drawbacks, the Blue Jays are also exploring the possibility of sharing facilities with another major league team or teams. On Sunday, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the team has discussed playing select home games at the Pirates’ PNC Park in Pittsburgh, and on Monday, Pirates president Travis Williams expressed his support for that possibility, saying, “This will be a monumental challenge for our staff, but leaning in to help others is what Pittsburghers do best.”
The Pirates are going to try and help accommodate the Blue Jays: pic.twitter.com/LDA61d46MJ
— Jason Mackey (@JMackeyPG) July 20, 2020
Given the way that this year’s abbreviated schedule confines teams to playing within their own geographic regions, the Blue Jays and Pirates don’t have any head-to-head matchups, and as the Post-Gazette‘s Jason Mackey reported, the two teams have surprisingly few scheduling conflicts: “Of the Blue Jays’ 30 home games in 2020, the Pirates have a home game the same day just seven times. Six of those come Sept. 8 or later, too.” Per Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi, those conflicting dates are July 29, September 8-9, and September 21-24.
According to Sportsnet’s Ben Nicholson-Smith, Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore is another possibility. As the schedule stands, the Blue Jays and Orioles are never home at the same time in September, and while scheduling conflicts exist in July and August, Nationals Park could help them accommodate. Davidi tucked into that possibility as well, writing, “The most seamless set-up would be using Nationals Stadium in Washington for their games July 29-Aug. 2 and Aug. 14-16, and Baltimore’s Camden Yards for the rest of the slate.” After playing the Nationals as the road team on July 27-28, the Blue Jays would then play them again as the “home” team for the next two days, then host the Phillies for a three-game set from July 31-August 2. The only other series that would need to be moved from Baltimore to Washington would be that three-game mid-August set hosting the Rays.
Davidi also offered scenarios involving the two Chicago ballparks, with only August 15-16 as conflicts, as well as a three-site solution involving the two New York ballparks plus Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park.
As for the public health angle, Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, reported 172 new cases of coronavirus on Monday. Pennsylvania’s 5.5% positive test rate (the seven-day moving average) is well below the national average of 8.5%. Baltimore County reported 105 new cases on Monday, and Maryland’s positive test rate is at 5.3%
Particularly given the social distancing requirements, shoehorning the Blue Jays into another major league venue would present some challenges, since ballparks generally aren’t built with a third clubhouse. The history of two teams sharing a major league park for more than a game or two to accommodate ballpark repairs — or as has been the case a few times recently, hurricanes — is a rather dusty one aside from the most famous example, when the Yankees played their home games at the Mets’ Shea Stadium in 1974 and ’75 while Yankee Stadium was being renovated. Via Retrosheet, other examples of two teams sharing ballparks for more than a couple of games include longer-term repairs and overflow accommodations, all of which predate World War II and involve cities with multiple teams. The Phillies played 16 home games at the Philadelphia Athletics’ Columbia Park several times in late 1903 after a balcony collapsed at the Baker Bowl, then called upon the A’s Shibe Park for a dozen games in 1927 after a section of the Baker Bowl’s stands collapsed (detecting a theme here?). The New York Giants played 28 games at the Yankees’ Hilltop Park in 1911 after a fire destroyed part of the Polo Grounds. The Boston Braves played at Fenway Park occasionally in 1913 and ’14 to accommodate larger crowds, then spent more than half of the ’15 season calling Fenway home while the opening of Braves Field was delayed. The favor was eventually returned, as from 1929 to ’32, the Red Sox would use Braves Field on Sundays and holidays to host larger crowds.
The situation appears likely to put the Blue Jays at a competitive disadvantage. In the abstract, the absence of fans from games in 2020 will provide an extended test case when it comes to home field advantage, some of which may owe to more favorable ball and strike calls for the home team. As Baseball Prospectus’ Jonathan Judge told The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh recently, “On average, home field made a called strike 1.7 percent more likely last year, all other things being equal.” While that would be less pertinent to any team, some portion of the home field advantage may owe to reduced travel and familiarity with the environment, something that Matt Swartz studied at Baseball Prospectus in 2009. It’s there that the Jays might be most affected. While their odds of making the playoffs are just 8.4%, fifth-lowest in the AL, their disadvantage would translate to advantages for AL East and NL East teams relative to those in other divisions, for the purposes of Wild Card races and postseason seeding — though already, the limited schedule creates inequities that won’t come out in the wash over the course of 60 games.
Beyond that, and unquantifiable, is the human cost. Already, even the shortened season will present a strain on players’ families; some are minimizing the risk of transmitting the coronavirus with the players living apart from their spouses and children, others will ride it out alongside them, albeit in relative isolation. Either one would be difficult enough to do even under the best of circumstances. Throw a new city and an international border into the mix along with the pandemic, and things become even more complicated, to say the least. On and off the field, the Blue Jays’ situation is just one more major reminder that there’s nothing normal about attempting to launch a season amid a pandemic.
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