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Analysis: Will the Blue Jays return to Buffalo? Maybe, but it's complicated

Analysis: Will the Blue Jays return to Buffalo? Maybe, but it's complicated

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Blue Jays at Sahlen Field

Cutouts fill the seats at Sahlen Field as the Toronto Blue Jays play the the Baltimore Orioles on Sept. 26. 

Will Major League Baseball return to Buffalo in 2021? That's looking almost like a certainty.

Spend the whole summer here? Less likely but still possible.

A final decision is still a few weeks away, but the Toronto Blue Jays made two major announcements about their 2021 season Thursday  they are spending the first two homestands of the regular season at their spring home in Dunedin, Fla., and they feel Sahlen Field in Buffalo is their top choice to continue their schedule if they are unable to get clearance to play in Toronto.

There are a lot of moving parts to this situation. And it is not nearly as simple as last season, when the Blue Jays played 26 games here in a 46-day stretch in August and September. This is a full 162-game season, with teams coming from the across the country. Last year, schedules were set based on region, with only teams in the American League East and National League East divisions visiting Buffalo.

"With all candor, we're kind of looking at the circumstance that the alternatives for our season lie in some combination of Dunedin, Buffalo and Toronto," Blue Jays president/CEO Mark Shapiro told reporters on a video call Thursday. "That is not without a lot of consideration of over 30 minor league facilities, former major league facilities, and consideration of being a second major league team (in another club's stadium). We had an offseason where we spent a ton of time examining every alternative from travel, climate, playing facilities and maybe most important: The ability to implement and execute Covid protocol.

"We ended up back where we were last year: Buffalo does present both the most familiar and the best alternative for us playing in the AL East with the space we need."

Here's some key questions and our sense of the answers to this rapidly developing situation.

Why can't the Blue Jays play in Toronto?

The Canadian government continues to refuse to allow professional sports teams to travel in and out of the country with the border closed. It is why the Blue Jays played here last season and why the NBA's Toronto Raptors are playing in Tampa.

The Blue Jays were hoping last fall to be in Toronto this season, but their hope dissipated when the Raptors initially went to Florida. It evaporated when the Raptors decided they would have to finish the season there.

Shapiro said Thursday that the Jays haven't even asked the government about 2021 because they know what the answer is, given the current state of the virus in Canada and the rollout of vaccines.

Shapiro said the Blue Jays' No. 1 priority remains returning to Toronto at some point  even if the government says they can only do it with no fans in the stands. It is possible the Jays could come here for a few weeks, get permission to return to Canada and depart on a homestand's notice.

Why Buffalo?

By most accounts, the Blue Jays won't stay in Dunedin past May because of the Florida heat and the area's penchant for late-afternoon downpours. They've decided their best pivot is to Buffalo, where they've been the Bisons' parent club since 2013 and the relationships between the two franchises are very deep.

Bisons president Bob Rich Jr. is a longtime friend of former Blue Jays CEO Paul Beeston. Current Toronto CEO/president Mark Shapiro was the farm director for the Cleveland Indians when they arrived as the Bisons' parent in 1995 and built Buffalo's 1997 American Association championship team. Toronto GM Ross Atkins was a former minor league pitcher in the Cleveland chain and was the Tribe's farm director from 2006-2008, Buffalo's last three years with the Indians.

The Blue Jays players and staff are familiar with the ballpark from their Triple-A days or injury rehab stints. Manager Charlie Montoyo, for instance, played or managed here in nine seasons when he was with Denver and Durham.

For all the trepidation the Blue Jays might have had last summer, they were blown away with the makeover of the facility and posted a 17-9 record at Sahlen Field. The clubhouse facilities were excellent, with Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash calling the visitors room built in a large tent in the Exchange Street parking lot the most Covid-19-compliant clubhouse in the American League. The Blue Jays and MLB installed upgraded lighting and a new infield.

Meanwhile, the Buffalo front office and local government and health officials worked hard to establish Covid-19 protocols and the Blue Jays' stay got some work for some people in the ballpark, as well as employees at the Buffalo Marriott at LECOM Harborcenter and the Westin Buffalo on Delaware Avenue. Visiting media often stayed at the Courtyard by Marriott at Washington and Scott.

What would the game schedule look like?

If they decide to play in Buffalo, the Blue Jays could start here as soon as May 14 against the Philadelphia Phillies. The Jays could be here for just a few games, a few weeks or perhaps the entire season. Here is their home schedule from May 14 on: May 14-16, Phillies; May 18-20, Red Sox; May 21-24, Rays; June 1-2, Marlins; June 4-6, Astros; June 15-17, Yankees; June 24-27, Orioles; June 29-30/July 1, Mariners; July 2-4, Rays; July 16-18, Rangers; July 19-21, Red Sox; July 30-31/Aug. 1, Royals; Aug. 2-5, Indians; Aug. 6-8, Red Sox; Aug. 20-22, Tigers; Aug. 23-26, White Sox; Aug. 30-31/Sept. 1, Orioles; Sept. 3-5, Athletics; Sept. 13-15, Rays; Sept. 17-19, Twins; Sept. 28-30, Yankees; Oct. 1-3, Orioles.

What about tickets?

As per the rules for arenas and stadiums announced recently by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the Blue Jays can sell tickets up to 10% of capacity. That means about 1,700 tickets per game in Sahlen Field. Just imagine the demand for the six Yankees games.

"That is the plan, but we will certainly not just move forward with that plan without involving local health authorities, Erie County, the City of Buffalo, the state of New York," Shapiro said. "We're not going to unilaterally make that decision to sell tickets in Buffalo, but you'll be able to see what the Yankees and Mets are doing and what other minor league teams are doing and you'll get a good idea what we'll be doing in Buffalo."

There were no tickets sold for any games here last year because MLB did not have fans in any ballpark until the postseason. 

What work needs to be done in the ballpark?

The Blue Jays instructed the Bisons to keep up most signage inside and outside the ballpark through the winter. Shapiro said the visiting clubhouse tent would be put back up. It's uncertain what would happen to the small coverings in the stands that created socially distanced extensions for the dugouts, because they could block the views of fans.

The concourses last summer were used for the Blue Jays' workout facilities. With fans in the park, that would seem to be out. Discussions are ongoing.

"What we need to do to have Buffalo be playable this year is hopefully provide a more lasting and permanent solution that our Triple-A players can benefit from and the Buffalo team can benefit from moving forward," Shapiro said. "So we're beginning to work on those things now, things like moving the bullpens off the field, providing a better long-term batting facility.

"If we sell tickets there this year, we no longer can have a weight room on the concourse right by concession stands, or batting cages on the concourse. We have to find other places for that infrastructure and for those facilities."

What happens to the Bisons?

That is uncertain. The team's first schedule in the new Triple-A East league was announced Thursday, and it opens April 6 at home against Rochester. But if work is already under way at the ballpark in anticipation of the Jays' arrival, it might not be possible for the Bisons to play here.

It is clear due to protocols and mere space in the park that the Bisons and Blue Jays could not play here simultaneously. The Blue Jays say they will relocate the Triple-A club, maybe for the whole season if necessary.

The Bisons had no comment Thursday other than a prepared statement: "The Bisons were honored to host the Toronto Blue Jays during a memorable 2020 season, and while contingency plans for 2021 at Sahlen Field have been discussed, no final decision has been made. No matter where the Blue Jays play this home season, we look forward to welcoming future Blue Jays to Sahlen Field on their road to the big leagues.”

It is not the greatest solution for the Bisons to not play at home in consecutive years if it comes to that, but they would get even more upgrades on somebody else's dime in a 33-year-old ballpark at a time when MLB is putting pressure on cities to upgrade their facilities. The Bisons would be in good shape in that area come 2022.

Where could the Bisons go? Hard to say. It would have to be somewhere in their division footprint, perhaps sharing a park with a team such as Rochester or Syracuse. Maybe going to the Double-A facility in Erie, Pa. The Blue Jays and MLB would be heavily involved in the arrangements.

"The Triple-A team wouldn't barnstorm. We would find a different home, something we're already working on," Shapiro said. "We're not prepared to say what that is yet. But we're not just going to kick the Triple-A team to the street.

"We've worked with (Rich baseball president) Mike Buczkowski and the Buffalo Bisons to think very carefully. That's our Triple-A team and we certainly want them to be in the best situation possible. If we end up moving to Buffalo at some point during the season, we'll find a very good home for our Triple-A team as well."

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