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Blue Jays get the OK to go home, will end run in Buffalo on Wednesday
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Blue Jays get the OK to go home, will end run in Buffalo on Wednesday

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The Toronto Blue Jays bat against the Tampa Bay Rays during the seventh inning at Sahlen Field on Friday, July 2, 2021. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

The Toronto Blue Jays have been given the OK to come home by the Canadian federal government. And that means Major League Baseball's two-season run in Buffalo will end Wednesday night.

The Blue Jays got their long-awaited approval to return to Rogers Centre early Friday night, the team confirmed in a three-minute Twitter video entitled "No place like home" and an accompanying news release. The word came about a half-hour before their series opener against the Texas Rangers in Sahlen Field. The Blue Jays are scheduled to start the Toronto portion of their schedule with a July 30 game against the Kansas City Royals.

The Jays play Texas here Saturday at 3:07 and Sunday at 1:07. The last series in Buffalo will thus be night games Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:07 against the American League East-leading Boston Red Sox. The Toronto bureau of the Associated Press and Sportsnet were the first outlets to report the news Jays fans have long waited to hear. The club has not played in Rogers Centre since Sept. 29, 2019.

"After nearly two years away, the Toronto Blue Jays are finally coming home to Canada beginning July 30," the club said in its statement. "The club was granted a National Interest Exemption by the federal government that allows Major League Baseball games to be played at Rogers Centre, with robust health and safety protocols in place."

The Blue Jays' departure will not mean the end of baseball in Buffalo for 2021. By returning to Toronto with so much time still left in the season, the Buffalo Bisons will be making plans to return from their temporary home in Trenton, N.J.

After thanking numerous Canadian health officials in their release, the Blue Jays saluted the Bisons for being their hosts for much of the last two seasons.

"The Blue Jays are also deeply grateful to Bob and Mindy Rich and the Buffalo Bisons organization; the City of Buffalo, Erie County, and New York State officials; and Buffalo-area fans for their support in making Sahlen Field feel like a true home crowd," the team said. "The club is also thankful to the City of Dunedin, Pinellas County, and the State of Florida for welcoming the Blue Jays into the community for an extended stay earlier this season."

The Bisons also issued a statement saluting their parent club.

“The Buffalo Bisons are extremely happy for the Blue Jays organization, the City of Toronto and their great fans with the news that they’ll soon be able to reunite at the Rogers Centre in Canada," the Herd said. "We’re proud to have been able to support our Major League partner over the last two years and are especially thankful for how our amazing fans in Buffalo and throughout Western New York have welcomed the Blue Jays and cheered for them as their hometown team this summer.

"This news is also a tremendous step in our region’s return from the pandemic and we very much look forward to the ability to reconnect soon with our great fans from Southern Ontario. We’re excited to be able to support the Blue Jays for their last six games at Sahlen Field and for the return of Bisons baseball to Buffalo later this season.”

Canadian Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino gave the Blue Jays the final approval they needed, making the decision in conjunction with the Public Health Agency of Canada. Non-vaccinated players and staff will be subject to a modified quarantine, limiting them to their hotel and the ballpark.

Anuk Karunaratne, the Jays' executive vice president for business operations, phoned Rich Baseball Operations president Mike Buczkowski with the official news on the team's planned departure from Buffalo. Several members of the Blue Jays' staff who have been in Buffalo since May departed after the July 4 loss to Tampa Bay and returned home in case the team got approval. If that did not come Friday, a source said, the staffers were going to return in hopes the Jays could get home for a homestand that opens Aug. 20.

There is construction and deconstruction work to be done on Sahlen Field, but the Bisons are hopeful they can start playing Triple-A games in Buffalo on Aug. 10, when they open a six-game series against the Rochester Red Wings. Their home schedule runs through Sept. 26 as part of the Triple-A "Final Stretch" tournament announced Thursday by Major League Baseball.

"There's just a ton of logistics about getting stuff from Trenton to Buffalo, stuff from Buffalo to Toronto," Buczkowski told The News earlier this week. "Internally a lot of signage, a lot of the stuff that's up that would need to be changed back to Bisons stuff. Those are the things I think will  take up the most time."

The major project will involve retrofitting team clubhouses. The temporary structure housing MLB visiting teams and umpires in the Exchange Street parking lot would need to be removed, and the former Bisons clubhouse on the ballpark service level would need to be converted to a visiting team Triple-A clubhouse.

That space is currently an office complex for Blue Jays coaches. The Bisons will be moving into the new third-base clubhouse that was constructed earlier this year for use by the Blue Jays.

The Blue Jays have not played in Rogers Centre since an 8-3 win over the Tampa Bay Rays in their 2019 season finale. The game was played before a crowd of 25,738 and only five of the 17 players who appeared that day are still on their roster. There was no immediate word Friday night what capacity will be for the games when the club returns to its 49,000-seat home.

The Blue Jays held their Summer Camp in Toronto last July and were hopeful of getting approval to play the 2020 regular season there, but the closing of the Canadian border due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the fear of the spreading of the virus prompted officials to reject the club's application.

Forced to quickly pivot to find a home as the 60-game schedule was already under way, the Blue Jays inquired about staging games in both Baltimore and Pittsburgh before ultimately settling on some quick renovation work in Buffalo, where they've had their Triple-A team since 2013.

On Aug. 11, 2020, the Blue Jays earned a 5-4, 10-inning win over the Miami Marlins in Buffalo's return to the major leagues for the first time since the Federal League was here in 1915. Playing in front of no fans, with most seats on Sahlen Field's 100 level covered in tarps and artificial crowd noise being pumped through the ballpark's sound system, the Jays made good on a bad situation.

Toronto posted a 17-9 record in Buffalo last season and earned a wild-card playoff berth to make its first trip to the postseason since 2016. September highlights included a 5-2 record in games against the New York Yankees, who played in Buffalo for the first time since a 1963 exhibition against the International League All-Stars in War Memorial Stadium. On Sept. 24, the Blue Jays clinched their playoff spot with a 4-1 victory over the Yankees in Buffalo.

With the pandemic still ongoing and vaccination rates lagging in Canada, the Blue Jays announced in February that their season would be a mixture of sites likely to include their spring home in Dunedin, Fla., and Buffalo.

They stayed in Dunedin for the season's first two months before transitioning here after combining with Major League Baseball to fund a multimillion renovation of the ballpark that provided permanent solutions for the Bisons, who needed the work done as part of MLB's new requirements for Triple-A ballparks.

The work was also needed because tickets were sold and fans were allowed in to watch the games. The club had temporary weight training and batting cage areas on the 100 level concourse last year, not feasible in 2021 with fans in the house.

For 2021, the entire outfield was replaced after work on the infield was done last summer. The bullpens were moved off the field and a new complex for them was built in right-center field. A new batting cage and pitching building was erected behind the stadium loading docks down the ramp from Washington Street, and more work was done on the home clubhouse. In addition, all of the lighting of the stadium was completely converted to high-powered LED fixtures.

While both Toronto and visiting players have raved about the facilities, the Blue Jays have not been as successful in the standings here this year. The first game this season was a 5-1 win over the Marlins on June 1, but the Jays are only 9-9 in Buffalo, notably enduring a three-game sweep last month against the New York Yankees when nearly all of the 23,000 fans who filled the capacity-controlled ballpark for the three games were rooting for the visiting team.

Much of Toronto's core talent has lots of experience playing in Buffalo from their time in Triple-A. But many of the players have limited or no experience at all playing for the Jays in the retractable-roof Rogers Centre, which has been a dominant part of the Toronto skyline since it opened in 1989. 

Pitcher Hyun Jin Ryu, signed to a four-year, $80 million free agent contract on Dec. 27, 2019, has yet to pitch a single game for the Blue Jays in Toronto. Outfielder George Springer and All-Star infielder Marcus Semien, the marquee free-agent additions from last winter, have also not played for the Jays in their actual home. Shortstop Bo Bichette has played only 21 career games in Toronto, compared to 30 in Buffalo. 

All-Star Game MVP Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has just five of his 54 career home runs in Toronto while playing just 62 games there and batting only .239. Guerrero entered the weekend as a career .327 hitter in Buffalo with 11 home runs in 44 games here the last two years and belted two more home runs in Friday night's 10-2 win over Texas.

In Tuesday night's game in Denver, Guerrero became the first ex-Bison to win an All-Star MVP and was the first former Buffalo player to homer in an All-Star Game since catcher Victor Martinez of the Cleveland Indians connected in 2007 at San Francisco.

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