'DIFFICULT DECISION': Blue Jays will stay in Florida to start regular season

The team expressed "hope for warm summer nights under the open Rogers Centre roof"

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Though the Blue Jays have finally made official their plans for an extended stay in Florida this spring, the team remains hopeful it will play games in Toronto this summer.

Eventually, even if at this point in the COVID-19 crisis it seems a long shot.

While that scenario may skew to overly optimistic, the front office of Major League Baseball’s nomads at least provided some early stability for its players on Thursday morning by confirming what has long been expected — that the team will begin its regular-season home dates at TD Ballpark, where it plays its spring training games.

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The announcement — on the day Jays pitchers and catchers began official workouts for the season — didn’t come as a surprise, though some of the details may have raised a few eyebrows. For starters, the team won’t commit to Dunedin beyond the first two homestands, or the first week of May, perpetually keeping open the option to return to Toronto should federal government restrictions related to COVID-19 ease.

The Blues Jays work out during training camp on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021. SUPPLIED/TORONTO BLUE JAYS
The Blues Jays work out during training camp on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021. SUPPLIED/TORONTO BLUE JAYS

“Some combination of Dunedin, Buffalo and Toronto is how we are approaching the season, with flexibility and factoring public health and what’s best for competitiveness for our players,” team president Mark Shapiro said on a Zoom call from Dunedin.

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“What I can say with complete certainty is (Toronto is) where we want to be. We’re not going to push the issue if we don’t think it can be done safely with a combination of (adhering to) very stringent MLB protocols.”

When the Jays decided against even approaching the federal government for permission to be back in Toronto for the team’s April 8 home opener, Dunedin was the obvious and only choice. There was some noise that Buffalo would be a possibility, but anyone who has spent time in that fine city in April and May, knew otherwise.

That doesn’t mean Buffalo’s Sahlen Field, the Jays’ home away from dome last summer, isn’t in the mix for part of 2021, however. In fact, there’s a good chance the Jays will return to the home of their triple-A affiliate at some point in 2021 as a transition.

If you go with the assumption that even Canada Day might be an optimistic time for the Jays to return north then Buffalo has a good chance of being in the mix. The issue is the weather in Florida during the summer months with excruciating heat and humidity and thunder showers more nights than not.

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“What is an optimal date for us to consider a move? I think early June at some point we probably want to think about it,” Shapiro said. “Without climate control in a major league setting, (Dunedin) is not optimal. That doesn’t mean we will stay longer if we think there is an opportunity to get back to Toronto without a second move.”

The first two homestands for the Jays include series against the Angels and Yankees (April 8-14) and vs. The Nationals and Braves (April 27-May 2.) The team will evaluate the COVID-19 situation in Canada regularly, though Shapiro all but acknowledged that at least one more series would be played in Dunedin.

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To that end, the team plans to sell tickets for games at TD Ballpark at 15 per cent capacity, or about 1,800 fans. Shapiro said the revenue from those sales is far less significant than helping create an atmosphere for Jays players.

More importantly, however, is the peace of mind players will get from at least knowing where they will be to start the campaign, unlike last year’s debacle when a summer camp was held in Toronto and the team had no clue where it would begin play.

“I think it does help. I think it does clear up that uncertainty,” said catcher Danny Jansen, one of several Jays players who have homes not far from the team’s Dunedin base. “We know where we’re going to be and we don’t have to focus on that, don’t have to worry about living situations. You get that out of the way early and then it’s just baseball.

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“It’s nice knowing that we’re going to be here and have some nicer weather than it is in Buffalo.”

In an ideal world, the Jays find a way to go directly from Dunedin to Toronto at some point, although the virus may have other thoughts on how that unfolds. If there is a stint in Buffalo, Shapiro said the Bisons will be moved to another location.

First things first, though. The team still has some work to do in Dunedin to get it up to acceptable standards for MLB games. Among the concerns are the fact that light standards are too short, raising the possibility of high fall balls getting lost. Shapiro said four new towers will be brought in to address that situation.

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Though the dugouts were upgraded in recent renovations, there are concerns about facilities for the visiting team in terms of clubhouse and weight rooms. And Shapiro said the Jays will consider doing all of their prep work at the team’s training complex six kilometres away.

If the Canadian government ever offers the green light for Toronto – from a competitive standpoint in time for a late-summer playoff push – Shapiro said the Jays would be ready for a swift move.

“We could mobilize pretty quickly,” Shapiro said. “It’s a matter of looking from one homestand to the next. Moving to Toronto is the easiest move for us. The work that has to be done to consider a second move to Buffalo is much more intensive and a bigger infrastructure challenge.

“The move to Toronto, logistically, is an easy one.”

rlongley@postmedia.com

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