DUNEDIN — The Blue Jays are just happy to have a familiar home as they return to their spring base in Dunedin Thursday to start playing regular-season games.
And city officials could not be more thrilled to have them there.
“There are no words to describe how excited we are,” Dunedin Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski said. “There really aren’t.”
The north Pinellas County city of about 36,000 is obviously an unusual site to host a major-league team on a scheduled basis — likely the smallest ever, according to research by baseball’s Hall of Fame.
But these are extraordinary times, with pandemic protocols forbidding the Jays from returning to play in Toronto.
After a stressful search for a home at the start of the delayed 2020 season that eventually landed them at their Triple-A site in Buffalo, N.Y., the Jays proactively decided to spend at least the first two months (22 games) of this season in Dunedin. Their home schedule opens with a four-game series against the Mike Trout/Albert Pujols/Shohei Ohtani/Joe Maddon Angels.
“That’s our home, so it will be good to get back home,” said shortstop Bo Bichette, a Lakewood High product. “It’s a comfortable spot.”
The Jays have been doing extensive work to get the 8,500-seat stadium, which was renovated for the 2020 season as part of a new deal in Dunedin, up to major-league standards.
Among the biggest: supplementing the previously upgraded lighting with four trucks providing additional and higher-positioned lights to help with ball-tracking, building a tent to expand space for the visiting clubhouse, reconfiguring the home clubhouse to meet league distancing protocols, and adding signage and branding.
(The Jays discussed dressing and doing pregame work at their remodeled state-of-the-art training facility and busing over but opted — at least for now — to do everything at the stadium, working out a schedule with the visitors.)
“They’re doing a lot of work over there right now, so I’m sure we’ll be fine, just like we did in Buffalo,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “Our team did an outstanding job to make it as close to a big-league place, and I’m sure that they’re going to do a good job. … I don’t know what it’s going to look like, but I’m sure it’s going to be good enough to play big-league games.”
Twenty-three miles from the Rays’ Tropicana Field, the Jays also are selling tickets, expanding from a planned initial capacity of 1,200 (15 percent) based on a positive spring experience and league-wide practices to about 1,900 (23 percent), in distanced pod seating for one-four fans.
As of Wednesday afternoon, tickets to the historic opener were still available via bluejays.com, although at $78 and $92 each. Gates open 90 minutes before the 7:07 p.m. first pitch, with pregame ceremonies starting at 6:30, including anthems performed from Toronto by Forte, the popular gay men’s chorus. Concessions, with a limited menu, will be available, cashless purchases preferred.
“It’s going to be our home for now, so of course I’m excited to see it,” Montoyo said Wednesday from Texas. “We have spring-training games (there), so our players are used to that ballpark, so that’s good for us.”
Bujalski said the experience will be good for the whole city, especially stadium-area and downtown businesses, and a just reward for the persistence and commitment Dunedin made to sign the Jays to a 25-year extension and arrange funding for the renovations.
“We’ve had almost a 44-year relationship with the Jays, and they are one of our longest business partners,” she said. “We’re sad for Toronto, but we’re thrilled they can be here in their new facilities, and we’re just happy to host them.
“... It really is kind of a culmination, because we were in negotiations for four or five years on the stadium deal. … A lot of people told us that we couldn’t get this done and we were too small-town. And here we are. It’s done. It’s completed. And who knew a pandemic was going to come and there would be regular-season major-league games right here in Dunedin?”
The Jays likely won’t stay much into June, hoping they will have permission by then to return to Toronto but if not would likely to move to Buffalo to avoid the Florida heat and rain. Bujalski said she’d hope the team will stick around, but even if it’s just the two months (with tickets for the third homestand, which includes a May 21-24 “visit” by the Rays, going on sale April 15), it was well worth it.
What, Bujalski was asked, would be considered the next-biggest thing to happen there?
“I can’t think of a thing.”
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