ST. PETERSBURG — This season will be strange for every major-league team, but no club will have a more unconventional 2020 than the Blue Jays.
Kicked out of Canada because the country’s health officials had concerns that frequent travel in and out of the United States could provoke a spike in coronavirus cases, the Jays’ 11th-hour attempts to become secondary tenants at major-league parks in Pittsburgh and Baltimore failed.
Toronto had even considered becoming the barnstorming Blue Jays, playing an all-road schedule. It wasn’t until hours before their season opener Friday against the Rays= at Tropicana Field that the Jays announced they would play their home games at Sahlen Field in Buffalo, the organization’s Triple-A affiliate.
“This whole year has been crazy, but it’s been especially crazy for our team just being able to find a home,” second baseman Cavan Biggio said. “I think our team’s playing with a little bit of a chip on our shoulder. I think we were just kind of tired of all of it and ready to play. So, you know what, even if it’s in a Triple-A ballpark, we’re still going to play with a chip on our shoulder.”
The Jays playing home games at their training facility in Dunedin, TD Ballpark, was a possibility. As recently as last week, it was one of the leading options. The facility had just been upgraded and new stadium lightning to meet major-league standards had been installed since spring training was halted because of the pandemic.
But as COVID-19 cases rose in Florida, the likelihood of playing in Pinellas County became more remote, especially when comparing it to Buffalo, where New York state — once the epicenter of cases — had flattened the curve.
On Saturday, Florida passed New York for the second-most coronavirus cases in the country, trailing only California.
“Florida was okay, and New York was the hot spot,” Jays team president and CEO Mark Shapiro said Friday. “Now, Florida is the hot spot, and New York’s not. That’s all a reflection of the world we’re living in.”
Players said they would have preferred a major-league facility because they know the difference in standards where a Triple-A stadium is concerned.
“It’s going to be different,” outfielder Randal Grichuk said. “It’s going to be a messed up year all around. Do I think that’s going to go into the mix of making it tougher? I do. But it’s something we’re going to have to roll with this year.”
Shapiro said the team will have to “reimagine” how to best utilize the 32-year-old facility in Buffalo. Better lighting to suit high-definition TV broadcasts must be installed, video replay rooms have to be built, and clubhouses must be redesigned to adhere to social distancing. The ballpark has club suites, so the Jays could duplicate the Red Sox, who placed lockers in suites at Fenway Park to space players out.
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Still, the team will need time to get the facility ready, meaning their first two scheduled home series against Washington and Philadelphia likely will be played on the road.
For many Jays players, Sahlen Field is familiar. Their top young players — Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Biggio — all spent time in Buffalo at some point last season. Guerrero said the ballpark is pitcher friendly, much more than the Rogers Centre in Toronto, where balls fly when the roof is closed.
“I like the fact that it’s going to be our homefield,” said manager Charlie Montoyo, the longtime former Rays coach who made countless trips to Buffalo while managing Tampa Bay’s Triple-A team in Durham, N.C. “We’re going to get out there and we know where we’re going. That’s the big thing. When other teams come in, we’re going to be playing more games there than the other team. That’s what I like. We have a home (city) and that’s Buffalo. Our people are going to do a great job to make it look as close to a big-league stadium as we can.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.