On Friday, Mark Shapiro finally got the email he’d been waiting for.
No deal is done until it’s done, he’s learned over three decades in baseball, and the Blue Jays’ negotiations with the federal government to return to Canada have to be the most unique of his career. When the message landed on Friday, though, the Blue Jays finally had their green light to return to Rogers Centre after nearly two full seasons away, and Shapiro’s mind went to a number.
“My first thought upon getting the email last night that contained the National Letter of Exemption was, pretty simply, 670 days,” Shapiro said. “670 days. That’s how long it’s been since we’ve played a home game, a true home game. More than that, the meaning of a home game and what home is -- home is Toronto, home is Canada -- for our organization and for our players was more crystal clear than it probably ever has been. We have a greater sense of appreciation, a greater sense of meaning.”
The next two weeks will be a whirlwind. Thankfully for the Blue Jays, they have some experience in the area at this point, but the organization still needs to uproot itself from Buffalo and hit the ground running in Toronto, all while playing a Major League season. Physically moving resources across the border will be one challenge, as will getting Rogers Centre ready. The Blue Jays have gotten a head start on that, but the building hasn’t been fully used since 2019, and it’s not exactly a one-bedroom apartment.
There are logistics to sort, people to move and crates to ship, but the payoff comes on July 30, when the Blue Jays take the field. They’ll be permitted to have up to 15,000 fans in the building when they return to Toronto, and Shapiro understands what this return can represent as the city of Toronto, province of Ontario and country of Canada work their way out of what we hope are the latter stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’ve always felt like baseball has played a role in history, in the recovery from adversity and from challenges,” Shapiro said. “Whether it’s wars, 9/11, at different times baseball seems to be one of those symbols of continuity, of return to normalcy. I really feel like it will be a celebratory moment for the country, for the city. It’s one that we’re excited to share, one we’re excited for our players to feel what it means to represent a country and how incredible Toronto is as a city.”
The timing is perfect, too, and July 30 will be busy.
Not only do the Blue Jays make their grand return, but that’s also the Trade Deadline. The Blue Jays are expected to be active at the Deadline with an eye not just to a 2021 run, but to runs in 2022 and beyond. The Blue Jays have the prospect capital and financial flexibility to drive the trade market if they choose to, and Shapiro said the club is seriously looking to improve.
“That’s not something that I’m throwing out there casually,” Shapiro added. “You can look at areas of need, certainly whether it’s defense or bullpen, those are the ones that are the most obvious, but sometimes the biggest impact you can make is not necessarily in those areas.”
It’s a perfect storm if the winds blow the right way, and the Blue Jays’ 2015 season offers a perfect example of how quickly things can catch fire.
That ’15 team was drastically different, of course, leaning more towards veterans, but the Blue Jays shocked baseball by adding Troy Tulowitzki and David Price just prior to the Deadline. Rogers Centre was packed for one of the loudest, most exciting runs of baseball in the organization’s history, even if it didn’t result in a World Series championship. The NHL’s Maple Leafs will always have their fanbase in Toronto, but more recently the NBA’s Raptors showed just how fully and passionately the city of Toronto will get behind a competitive team.
The Blue Jays are a hot streak away from waking that beast again in Toronto, and given how they’ve gotten here, even Shapiro admits that human nature has to play a part here, with a “what if” entering his mind.
“How incredible would it be to think about the journey we’ve experienced,” Shapiro said, “the uncertainty of last season, playing a 60-game season in Buffalo, playing in three different homes this season and finally getting back to the place we all believe in, care about and feel a tie to … to end that with winning the last game would be maybe one of the greatest baseball stories ever written.”