TORONTO — You could see the mixture of exhaustion, relief and excitement on Mark Shapiro’s face as he spoke.
Sixteen months after spring training shut down on a March afternoon in Florida and the world as we knew it changed forever, the 54-year-old Toronto Blue Jays president/CEO opened his email Friday night to find federal permission for his baseball operation to return to Canada on July 30.
As you can imagine, his mind wandered.
He reflected on the past year and a half, considered the adversity that his team has gone through, and imagined what the return of baseball to Rogers Centre will be like.
“I know it’s going to be special,” Shapiro said. “I’m not someone who tends to think about moments being symbolic or moments being big, I tend to think about the journey more than any individual moment.
“Yet, right after this decision was made, my thoughts did turn to what, potentially, July 30 could be and what it could mean. I’ve always kind of felt like baseball’s played a role in history, in the recovery from adversity and from challenges. Whether it’s wars, 9/11, different times, baseball seems to have been one of those symbols of continuity, of return to normalcy. I really feel like it’s going to be a celebratory moment for the country, for the city.”
With approval already granted for 15,000 fans to be inside Rogers Centre — with the roof open most nights unless the weather makes it impossible — there’s no doubt a usually nondescript late July date with the Kansas City Royals will be special.
Shapiro allowed his analytical mind to wander again.
What could his Jays club look like by then?
If emotion became involved over these next two weeks, general manager Ross Atkins and his baseball operations staff could go all-in.
While that isn’t likely to happen to the extent some wish it would, pushing more chips into the centre of the table and betting on this 2021 team in an effort to cap off trying times in a Hollywood way has at least crossed Shapiro’s mind.
“From a human nature perspective, I’m not going to lie, thinking about ending this story with an October that we all remember would be the ultimate,” Shapiro said. “How incredible would it be to think about the journey that we’ve experienced — 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 that we all believe in, care about and feel a bond and tie to, to end that with winning the last game would be maybe one of the greatest baseball stories ever written. That’s certainly a story I’d like to be a part of.”
Barring some sort of miracle on grass, that’s unlikely to happen with the current group assembled. But that’s also not to say they’re far off.
After adding some depth to the bullpen recently and being linked to more relief help, Shapiro once again used a word that he and Atkins have repeated time and time again since last October: Impact.
Then he alluded to being outside-the-box with potential trade deadline acquisitions.
“We’re looking to get better — and that’s not something I’m throwing out there casually,” Shapiro said. “You can look at areas of need and, certainly, whether it’s defence or bullpen, those are the ones that are kind of the most obvious. But sometimes the biggest impact you can make is not necessarily in those areas.”
An impact starter, anyone?
Kris Bryant, perhaps?
Maybe not the most pressing needs on the roster, but adding a No. 2 starter to wedge between lefties Robbie Ray and Hyun Jin Ryu would immediately make them a World Series contender.
Adding an impact bat and defender at third base would help in numerous ways, too, lengthening an already-lethal lineup.
Blue Jays fans will have the answer to that by the time they start streaming through the SkyDome gates for the first time since Sept. 29, 2019, as the trade deadline falls at 4 p.m. on the same day.
Without a doubt, the Jays will add.
Whether they use their best prospect capital now or this winter will depend on the opportunities that present themselves over the next two weeks.
In Shapiro’s mind, one thing is certain: The 10-game homestand they return for is a key one.
“As we were walking through the process, that was monumental,” Shapiro said. “That wasn’t small. It’s a 10-game homestand on July 30. That’s more than 25 per cent of our remaining games. That’s almost 10 per cent of our entire home schedule.
“To be able to get back in the heat of a race for playoffs for a crucial 10-game homestand — hopefully, after we’ve added to our team, as well, in the days leading up to that return — to me is about as big a competitive swing as you can possibly have.”
In the coming days, the Jays will focus on the process of the move, the logistics of finding housing for players and their families, and announce “extensive” plans for ticket sales.
There’s an incredible amount of work to do, and getting Rogers Centre ready with its new turf, new sound system — the original SkyDome sound system was still being used — and a handful of cosmetic changes to the 100 level concourse was already underway long before the National Interest Exemption was officially granted on Friday.
When it comes to the legacy the Jays will leave at Sahlen Field in Buffalo, there’s no doubt the connection between big club and the Triple-A affiliate couldn’t be stronger.
Improved facilities and a deeper relationship with baseball fans in upstate New York are just a couple of the things that will be forever left from this pandemic.
“We’re going to leave here having I think built a bond with the fans here that we’ve never had before to this level,” Shapiro said. “We’re going to leave here knowing the player development conditions here are better than they’ve ever been and knowing that the roots of a long-term relationship have been reinforced, cemented and will have greater meaning - historic meaning - than they have in the past.”
When the Jays return to Toronto, the same thing may happen.
“It’s been an incredibly challenging, at times, year-and-a-half, two years, but I think one that’s going to be an important part of who we are as a team and an organization moving forward and one that will be part of our championship foundation,” Shapiro said.
It’s a story and time that no one involved will ever forget.
All it needs is an ending.