TORONTO -- The Blue Jays will open the 2021 Major League season using TD Ballpark in Dunedin, Fla., as their home stadium, the club announced Thursday. This will be the first phase of what the club hopes is a return to Toronto this summer, but there could be another stop along the way.
Sahlen Field, which is located in Buffalo, N.Y., and where the Blue Jays called home in 2020, is on the table as a future option as the club works to piece together its plan around factors that include weather, the Minor League season and, above all else, the COVID-19 pandemic.
Whether it's two homes or three, the Blue Jays at least have some certainty for the next couple of months. This is a welcome change from 2020, when the club was denied approval by the Canadian federal government to play at Rogers Centre and were forced to work through secondary options under a time crunch.
Given the COVID-19 numbers in the province of Ontario and the continued closure of the Canada-US border to non-essential travel, the Blue Jays felt this wasn't the right time to make that request again for this season.
"We made the proactive decision to ensure that public health, particularly at the federal level could maintain focus on the most important priorities, and that circumstances and situation had not changed enough to warrant us making a formal ask for the Blue Jays to begin their season in Toronto," club president and CEO Mark Shapiro said Thursday.
The first piece to this puzzle is TD Ballpark, the club's familiar Spring Training home.
Fortunately for the Blue Jays, TD Ballpark underwent extensive renovations over the past couple of years, as did their player development complex across town in Dunedin. The field and dugouts are up to Major League standards, but like Sahlen Field in 2020, lighting is an issue. The club currently plans to add four light towers and will need to add some additional space for visiting teams, which could include additional clubhouse space to allow for physical distancing and additional room for weights and cardio equipment.
The Blue Jays are opening their Spring Training games to fans at 15 percent capacity, and while no formal announcement has been made for the regular season, that should provide the framework. At 15 percent capacity, the organization feels comfortable that it can maintain a safe environment with pods of two or four tickets being sold at distances of six feet from one another.
When Buffalo enters the equation, things really get interesting. In the simplest terms, a progression from Dunedin to Buffalo to Toronto would see the Blue Jays following the good weather north. Buffalo isn't where you want to be playing Major League Baseball outdoors on April 1, but by the time peak heat and humidity hits Florida a couple of months into the season, Buffalo will present a step in the right direction.
After 2020, the Blue Jays understand how this process works.
"We're looking at the circumstance that the alternatives for our season lie in some combination of Dunedin, Buffalo and Toronto," Shapiro said. "That is not without a lot of consideration of over 30 Minor League facilities, former Major League facilities and the consideration of being a second Major League team [in a facility]. We had an offseason where we spent a ton of time examining every alternative."
The involvement of Buffalo depends mostly on the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine and the Canada-US border. For example, if the Blue Jays reach May and feel that they're close to getting the green light from the Canadian government, it would make sense to stay in Dunedin and bypass Buffalo altogether, leaving them with just one move. If that green light is still far in the distance come May, though, then a move to Buffalo mid-summer makes sense for the organization.
In that scenario, the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons would have a temporary home of their own, something that the Blue Jays are working through now. Not only is Buffalo familiar to the Blue Jays after 2020, but it also fits well with their travel schedule in the American League East.
If the Blue Jays do return to Buffalo, though, they'd like to do it a bit differently.
In 2020, the Blue Jays added a great deal of temporary infrastructure in and around Sahlen Field and made creative use of its space, including batting cages in the concourse. If fans are in the stands, though, that concourse belongs to them. Instead, Shapiro would envision adding to Sahlen Field in a more permanent way, improving the facilities so that the club's Triple-A players can benefit from it long term.
This could include permanent changes to the field itself, including moving the bullpens out of foul territory and improving the batting facilities. There are plenty of variables at play and the Blue Jays may not even need to set foot in Buffalo. But if they do, they'd like it to have value in both the short- and long-term.
The organization's border issues don't end there, of course. The Vancouver Canadians, Toronto's High-A West affiliate, are the lone Canadian Minor League club. Shapiro acknowledged that the Canadians will need a new plan, too, which the organization is also working through.
With all of this out of the way, at least for the next couple of months, the focus can shift back to the field.
Thursday was the Blue Jays' first workout for pitchers and catchers, with the first full-squad workout set for Monday. That will be the first full look at the club since its offseason additions of George Springer and Marcus Semien, and while some needs remain, expectations are high for one of baseball's most exciting young teams.
"We don't feel it's a perfect team. We know we're going to have to continue to make additions and improve," Shapiro said. "There will be other opportunities to do that at the Trade Deadline and next offseason, but we feel like we're on course. I think that's probably the best summary. We are on course in our plan to build a sustainable championship team."