The Rays are no longer the only major-league game in town.
The Toronto Blue Jays made official Thursday what had seemed obvious, that they will start the 2021 regular season playing “home” games at their spring training base in Dunedin.
The Jays announced initial plans to play their first two homestands at TD Ballpark, with the first game April 8. The length of their stay is uncertain, though very unlikely to last the entire season.
They hope to return to Toronto at some point during the season if Canadian travel restrictions related to the pandemic are relaxed. But if not, they also have plans to relocate to another interim home in Buffalo, N.Y., once the Florida summer weather becomes a factor, with a likely early June cutoff. The Jays played “home” games during the 2020 season in Buffalo, the base for their Triple-A team.
The Jays plan to host fans for the games in Dunedin, roughly 1,000 in a pod-seating arrangement of about 15-percent capacity. Details are expected soon.
Jays team president Mark Shapiro said Dunedin, Pinellas County and Florida state officials “have been incredibly supportive” in facilitating hosting big-league games in a city of about 36,000.
“I think it’s going to be historic and maybe fun for the city of Dunedin to have Major League Baseball played there, something no one ever considered happening,” Shapiro said.
The Jays also got cooperation from the Rays, who had to grant permission since they control the territory, with the stadiums just 20 miles apart. Major League Baseball and the players union also had to give approval. Jays games are not expected to be broadcast on radio or TV in the Tampa Bay area.
“The Rays were one of our first phone calls,” Shapiro said. “We wanted to ensure that we were respectful, that it is clearly their territory, that we didn’t plan on having a long-term presence. ... They’ve been incredibly supportive. We’ve tried to be respectful, as well, understand that we’re not trying to take their fans and we’re not trying to stake a claim to this territory and this area beyond it being our spring and our training home, and that’s what we hope it continues to be.”
The Jays’ first homestands are April 8-14 (against the Angels and Yankees) and April 27-May 2 (Nationals, Braves). The next two start May 14 and June 1. Shapiro said they hope to make decisions about a month ahead of time.
How long the Jays stay is tied to how soon they think they can get back to Toronto. If they get to May and expect the Canadian restrictions could be lifted soon, Shapiro said they would be willing to navigate some of the Dunedin summer heat and rain to avoid the logistical challenges of an interim move to Buffalo. If a return date is not certain, they would most likely shift their base to Buffalo in early June and relocate their Triple-A team.
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A major reason to make the decision now was to avoid the uncertainty that hung over the team for the July re-start of the 2020 season, Shapiro said, “to provide our players with some peace of mind and certainty at least as to how we’ll start our season.’' He said Dunedin was their choice over Buffalo and 30 other minor-league sites, plus former and current big-league stadiums that would be shared.
The Jays will have to make some changes and improvements to the stadium, which reopened last spring after an extensive renovation. The primary concern is reaching major-league standards with the lighting, even after last year’s reported $600,000 upgrade in preparation to potentially host games.
“The height of the lightstands is still an issue,” Shapiro said. “Balls can be lost above that. It is certainly not a typical major-league lighting scenario, so we’re going to bring in four extra light towers to supplement that and hope that gets it up to par.”
The Jays also will have to expand clubhouse and workout facilities, especially for the visiting teams, to meet league distancing requirements, as well as adding brand signage. They haven’t decided whether to do pregame work at the stadium, or at their nearby training facility and bus over for the games. TD Stadium will be hitter-friendly, especially to lefties. Conflicts with the minor-league Dunedin Blue Jays, who open play in May, also will have to be resolved, though they could play at the training complex.
Dunedin officials are excited to have the Jays, who compete with the Rays in the American League East.
“I think it’s wonderful,” said parks and recreation director Vince Gizzi. “We’re a huge baseball city. We’re huge Toronto Blue Jays fans. ... To have their home opener and their team playing their regular-season games in Dunedin, I can’t tell you how excited our community is going to be.”
Said city manager Jennifer Bramley, “We’re happy to have our partners and friends here for a little bit longer. All of the footwork was done by the Blue Jays. They had a safety plan, it’s a really good safety plan. It meets all of the CDC requirements. Of course, they always knew our arms are wide open for an extended season or the start of their regular season here.
“... We’re certainly hoping (they stay longer into the summer). We’re hoping some of that title town, good luck will rub off on them, too.”
The Jays will be the second Toronto-based team to make an interim home in Tampa. The NBA Raptors committed to the move for the first half of their season, then said last week they would stay for the full season, which ends in May, with playoffs extending potentially into July. The Tampa Bay Times reported the Toronto and Montreal MLS teams have talked to Tampa officials about a temporary relocation.
Staff writer Mari Faiello contributed to this report.