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As Blue Jays put back Sahlen Field the way it was, Bisons ponder 2021

As Blue Jays put back Sahlen Field the way it was, Bisons ponder 2021

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Sahlen Field

The cardboard cutouts that filled the seats are gone as Sahlen Field, which played home for the Toronto Blue Jays is cleaned up after the season on Monday, Sept. 28, 2020. 

The activity continued at Sahlen Field on Monday, even as the Toronto Blue Jays are gone to St. Petersburg, Fla., to open baseball's expanded 2020 playoffs on Tuesday in Tropicana Field against the Tampa Bay Rays.

And the 26-game summer-in-residence by their parent club has given the Buffalo Bisons plenty of food for thought, even as the Herd returns to uncertainty about what the minor-league season might look like in 2021.

"You walk around the ballpark and look at different areas like the service level downstairs and you think, 'Boy, some of what was done here was a pretty good idea,' " Rich Baseball Operations president Mike Buczkowski said Monday. "'Is there a way to keep some of that for next year?' We have a little bit of time to do that, but that's kind of how we're looking at things."

The Blue Jays' baseball operations staff has all left town, either to return home to Toronto or travel with the team through the postseason. A handful of staffers remains to help the Bisons with the deconstruction of the park.

The Blue Jays and Major League Baseball undertook a multimillion upgrade of Sahlen Field in less than three weeks so the Jays could play their home games here after Ontario provincial regulations relating to the Covid-19 pandemic did not permit the team to play in Rogers Centre.

The Jays compiled a 17-9 record in Buffalo – including a 5-2 mark against the New York Yankees – and their home record was a major reason they earned their first postseason berth since 2016.

The upgrades were vast and the Bisons will derive long-term impact from items such as the installation of new grass in the infield and its foul territories, and brighter stadium lighting.

Temporary structures that are outdoors will be the first items removed from the stadium and environs this week. Those include lighting trucks that added additional power in each corner, canopies behind the dugouts and bullpens so players could sit socially distanced and the large tent in the Exchange Street parking lot that served as clubhouse quarters for visiting teams and umpires.

Sahlen Field

Training equipment is removed from auxiliary locker rooms at Sahlen Field on Monday Sept. 28, 2020, after the end of the Toronto Blue Jays' home season.

All of the Blue Jays' weightlifting and training equipment was brought from Toronto and that will be removed from the park as well and driven back to Rogers Centre. The black fencing that surrounded the park and prevented peeks inside also will be gone.

On Monday, workers were dismantling the temporary media areas in the sections behind home plate and removing the thousands of cardboard cutouts that filled the seats. The grounds crew was aerating the field to being the process of winterizing it.

The cutouts are being shipped by the Blue Jays to the fans who ordered them. The Bisons made sure to procure the cutouts of owners Bob and Mindy Rich, Buster Bison and Mayor Jimmy Griffin that got a lot of air time on television broadcasts when visiting players in the on-deck circle were warming up in front of them.

The team also has the likenesses of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and longtime superfan Mark Aichinger, which were placed directly behind home plate. The Blue Jays made sure to keep the cutout of Rush frontman Geddy Lee, a longtime season ticket holder in Rogers Centre who was adjacent to Cuomo.

"We don't have Geddy Lee," said a laughing Buczkowski. "People keep asking."

With that issue settled, Buczkowski and the Bisons' staff are making a checklist of things they'd like to keep and things they need the Blue Jays to return to their prior state.

The Blue Jays logos above the scoreboard and on the dugout roofs are obvious examples of things that will be returned to Bisons branding. But some of the Blue Jays banners along Washington Street could be retained and the Bisons have to decide if they're going to keep the blue padding around the field the parent club installed, or return to the green that's been in the ballpark since 1988 and matches the seats the club has been installing on the lower level in recent years.

"There's some pretty obvious things but how might we keep some other things in place to further brand our affiliation with the Blue Jays?" Buczkowski said. "Those are exactly the things we're discussing."

The club might continue to display the retired numbers of Blue Jays Hall of Famers Roberto Alomar (12) and Roy Halladay (32) as well as Jackie Robinson (42). They were affixed to the front of the control booths on the club level for these games. There might also be some sort of banner raised to commemorate Toronto's playoff berth.

"Our overall idea will be, 'How do we memorialize what happened here so it becomes a regular part of our ballpark in the future?' " Buczkowski said. "I think about our Hall of Fame room for that. How do you we capture this so that when fans are allowed to come back in, they're able to see some really cool things about the history of what happened here this summer?"

Fans keep asking but don't expect the Jays to play a "Thank you, Buffalo" series here next year, assuming their games are back in Toronto. Remember, much of the lower concourse was converted to training and workout facilities to accommodate major-league teams. Fans would be in those areas if the park was opened.

"The challenges would be huge to be able to make that happen," Buczkowski said. "There are serious financial considerations. Scheduling, players union issues, the border. So many things. I have not had any discussions with the Blue Jays about that even being a possibility."

There was universal praise of the ballpark on out-of-town broadcasts and by visiting media. Reporters from the New York Daily News, New York Post, Newsday, the Bergen (N.J.) Record and Boston Globe all attended games. So did Marly Rivera of ESPN.com

Tweeted Rivera after opening night on Aug. 11: "Been to 5 MLB ballparks so far in this most unusual of seasons. I will fight anyone who tells me this isn’t a big league ballpark. By far the best setup I’ve seen! Incredible work by the Blue Jays, Buffalo Bisons and Buffalo setting up Sahlen Field for the 'home opener' tonight!"

The Bisons have no idea what their plans are for 2021. The Professional Baseball Agreement between the majors and minors expires Wednesday and a new one continues to be negotiated. The entire structure of the minor leagues could change, so the Herd doesn't have a schedule and has no idea what the International League will even look like going forward. The team generally starts marketing the following season around Oct. 1 but has no schedule to market and many employees have been furloughed.

And with no Covid-19 vaccine widely available, it's uncertain how many fans will be allowed back to the ballpark once a season begins. If any are.

"It feels like we're right back to June 1 when we knew the minor-league season was probably going to be canceled," Buczkowski said. "You're wondering what do we do and what does the future hold? I was thinking hopefully this all will become clear so we can have a somewhat normal 2021 season. Without a vaccine and positive numbers not great in a lot of areas, there's so many questions for 2021."

For the next couple of weeks, Buczkowski will be heavily involved in the deconstruction of the ballpark – and rooting for the Jays in the postseason.

"Any time you have your parent club in the postseason and you have that connection to maybe a few players that you know and knew them when, you're always paying close attention," he said. "Now there's a lot players with that connection and they qualified for the postseason largely because of the success they had at Sahlen Field. We'll definitely be watching every pitch."

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