The Blue Jays closed up shop in Toronto on Monday to begin a most unusual road trip: a 60-game regular season that won’t include a single visit to Rogers Centre.
Players are packing heavy. When Canada’s lone Major League Baseball team might return north of the border is anyone’s guess.
It definitely won’t be this season after the federal government recently denied the team’s request for permission to play home games this summer in Toronto, saying it’s not safe for players to regularly travel over the Canada-U.S. border during the COVID-19 pandemic.
That decision meant a brief summer training camp would be the lone taste of home for the Blue Jays, who were to depart Monday night for two pre-season games in Boston ahead of Friday’s opener at Tampa Bay.
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It also forced team brass to shift into high gear on backup plans. Playing in a major-league facility is the team’s preference but minor-league options are also being explored along with potential hybrid setups at both levels.
“Obviously it’s evolving and a moving target,” said Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins. “That goes without saying. We want to make sure we have health and safety as a priority. The players’ feedback and their perspective is exceptionally important to us.
Atkins did not reveal which stadiums might be in the mix, but reports indicated Baltimore’s Camden Yards, Washington’s Nationals Park and Pittsburgh’s PNC Park were among the possibilities. In a statement, Pirates president Travis Williams confirmed his team is discussing the PNC Park option with MLB and the Blue Jays.
During a half-hour video conference call with reporters, Atkins said the Blue Jays were exploring “several scenarios,” some of which could require some minor schedule adjustments.
“We will obviously have a much more extensive update for you when we have a better picture of what’s the most realistic,” he said.
The team’s first so-called home game is July 29 against Washington. There was no word on when a final decision about a home venue has to be made.
“Yesterday would be great, right?” Atkins said with a smile. “We would all like to have direction and clarity … we’re all aligned. Our players are aligned, we’re aligned, Major League Baseball is aligned, the union is aligned and we’re solution focused.
“We’ll do it as quick as we humanly can, making sure that we’re not leaving something on the table as we consider all of those alternatives.”
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If Sahlen Field in Buffalo gets the nod, Atkins said the rest of the team’s 60-man player pool would train in nearby Rochester, N.Y. The downside with Buffalo, normally home to the triple-A Bisons, is that several adjustments would need to be made to get the facility to a big-league level.
A major-league ballpark is more appealing since it would have the required clubhouse size, proper lighting, workout facilities, bullpen setups and training areas. However, that option can come with snafus given the regular host team’s schedule.
“Whatever it’s going to be, just treat it as a two-month, on-the-road exploration somewhere,” said infielder Joe Panik.
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While the front office works on the issue, players are trying to focus on the upcoming season. The Blue Jays have spent the last two weeks preparing at Rogers Centre and living at the stadium’s hotel.
“The time spent here in Toronto has been phenomenal,” Atkins said. “Our players are really jelling. I think for a lot of reasons, this was a very special opportunity for the group to be together for extended periods of time.
Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said 38 players would make the trip to Boston. Stud prospect Nate Pearson will get the start Tuesday night at Fenway Park in Toronto’s first pre-season game since the Grapefruit League shut down in March.
After the two-game warmup set, the Blue Jays will hold an optional workout at Tropicana Field on Thursday.
Ace Hyun-Jin Ryu will start the season opener on Friday evening and Montoyo confirmed that Matt Shoemaker will be on the mound Saturday.